Krishna has just told Arjuna that birth and death are simple illusions–that the unborn and undying spirit (Atma) is the sole reality of our being. That is not so hard to accept if we have intuition or actual recall of the fact of our having previously dreamed the dream of birth and death many times. But the real trouble is our identification with the experiences that occur between the two poles of birth and death. It is like a joke I heard a very long time ago. In a small town where metaphysical speculation was completely absent, the postmaster was a Christian Scientist. One day he asked a little boy, “How are you?” And the boy replied: “I have an awful stomach ache!” “Oh, you just imagine that,” chided the postmaster. “You only imagine you even have a stomach!” The next day the boy came in the post office and was asked the same question by the postmaster. He stood for a while, thinking, and then came out with: “I have an imaginary pain in my imaginary stomach that I don’t really have. And it HURTS!”
It is just the same with us. Simply saying: “It is all an illusion,” really does very little. Consider how we attend a play or a motion picture and become completely engrossed in the spectacle, responding with various emotions. All the time we know it is just pretend, but that does not keep us from responding as though it were real. How is this? It is the nature–yes, the purpose–of the mind!
I will never forget the first time I saw Hamlet. The next day I could not attend any of my classes at the university. I felt that I had seen an inexpressibly great person die right before my eyes. The words “Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” had utterly overwhelmed me with chagrin. For a few days I went around in an aura of shock. I knew that I had only witnessed light and shadow patterns on a blank screen, that the people I had watched were actors playing a part–a part that my reading on the subject revealed was not even historically accurate. It made no difference. I was stunned by what I had seen. This is just the nature of the delusive mind. Unless that nature is transcended, we will experience that “the play’s the thing” rather than an illusion. With this in mind, Swami Vivekananda subtitled his book Raja Yoga: “Conquering the Internal Nature.” And part of its subjugation is the realization that the “inner” nature is also outside us.
Externals meet externals
Wherefore Sri Krishna next tells Arjuna:
Truly, material sensations produce cold, heat, pleasure and pain. Impermanent, they come and go; you must endeavor to endure them (2:14).
Matrasparshas, “material sensations,” literally means “sensations of matter” or “the touching of matter.” Cold, heat, pleasure, and pain are brought about through contact with materiality, whether we think of it as contact of the sense organs with matter, or of contact of the mind with the internal senses that translate the contact of those sense organs into mental perceptions that we label as cold, heat, pleasure, and pain. Even the person who knows he is not the body, senses, or mind, yet does experience these things. He, however, understands what they really are and can, as Krishna urges, learn to endure them.
Both the senses and the objects are vibrating energy, merely differing waves in the vast ocean of power known as Prakriti or Pradhana. Prakriti is spoken of as illusion because it is constantly shifting like the sea with its ever-rising and ever-subsiding waves. Although Prakriti exists as Primordial Energy, the forms it takes are momentary modifications only with no lasting reality.
In the philosophical writings of India we often encounter the snake-in-the-rope simile. Even though the “snake” we see in a dim light is a projection of our mind, and when we perceive that it is only a rope the “snake” will disappear, the rope will remain. In the same way, Prakriti is the actually-existent substratum of which all things are its temporary mutations. They are mere appearances, yet their substance is real. It is this understanding that gave rise to the Buddhist concept of Emptiness–that there are no things in their own right, but only temporary appearances. When we see truly, things are seen to be no things at all. The truth is, Prakriti and the Great Void (Mahashunyata) are the same thing. It is only those who misunderstand them that think they are different.
In essence, we must come to realize that all our experiences, inner and outer, are really external to us and are simply shifting waves of differing vibrations. “Impermanent, they come and go,” Krishna points out to Arjuna–and to us.
In the ancient world, including that of original Christianity, only that which remained perpetually constant was considered to be real. That which could change or cease to be was considered unreal. For this reason we find an exposition of the unreality of both the world and evil in the writings of Saint Athanasius the Great of Alexandria, even though that is in complete variance with contemporary Christian theology.
The thing is, we exist forever and unchanging. It is only our mistaken identity with our experiences–our identification of the screen with the temporary movie–that causes us to forget this truth and become immersed in the untruth of Unreality/Prakriti. It is no easy matter to genuinely see the truth of things in relation to our sense experiences. Consequently Krishna said: “This divine illusion of mine… is difficult to go beyond” (7:14). What shall we do about these illusions until we have broken through them? Krishna tells us: “You must endeavor to endure them.” That does not mean that we must like them or want them. But we must accept them as inevitable until we truly do pass from the unreal to the Real. Later in this very chapter Krishna will describe how an illumined person functions in relation to sensory experience. For now we need only understand that the man of wisdom, the jnani, experiences them but accepts them and is unmoved by them.
Truly, the man whom these sensations do not afflict, the same in pain and pleasure, that wise one is fit for immortality (2:15).
What he does by nature we must do by will and reasoning until we, too, are enlightened.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: The Unreal and the Real