Series | Decoding Indian Belief Systems: Is this world just a dream?

Dreams can sometimes be very powerful. They can send you into a state of deep introspection eliciting the deepest of questions from you once you are awake. It was one such vivid dream that made me question: What I had just experienced felt so real; was it a mere concoction of my mind? Over time, I figured that I was not the only one with this question. In many a philosophical conversations, I was amazed to see that so many other people had discovered this same deep philosophical question within them, and were moved by it. It was only eventually that I discovered Ashtavakra Gita, an entire Upanishad (philosophical scripture), had been triggered by one such dream and the question that followed: Is the dream world real, or is this ‘real’ world real?

Not just dreams, but even our so-called real world is pregnant with similar philosophical questions. One of the most famous ones is: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Does observing something make it real, and hence the truth isn’t objective (or same for everybody) but dependent on the observer (subjective reality)? Similar questions around the nature of reality and truth occupy a large space in Indian philosophical discourses.

What is then the nature of reality? This question takes us back to our previous article and the idea of how Indian philosophers have viewed life. In Indian thought, the nature of life is like a circle, where you die to be born again, and the circular process is an infinitely repetitive one. For a moment I would recommend you, the reader, to suspend your beliefs about life for a moment. Maybe you believe in a linear life maybe you don’t, maybe you believe in God or maybe you don’t, maybe you believe in objective reality maybe you don’t – but to understand how Indian thought has evolved, let us just forget our philosophical identity for a moment. And then let us understand this question from the Indian philosopher’s perspective – the one who thought life was like a circle.

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What if life really was a circle? What if the point of dying was to just be born again? What if the same rut of life had to repeat itself over and over and over again? What would then be the purpose of this life? And the next one? And the next? It certainly wouldn’t be achieving great material outcomes in this lifetime, as you would again begin a new life from square one. Great money, fame, or power in any one lifetime then become worth nothing in the (infinitely) long run. In fact, nothing is worth anything in this worldview. What would life really mean then if it was a circular phenomenon?

An equally deep and closely linked question that arises from the circular worldview is around the nature of our identity itself. If I would be reborn into another body, then am I not this body? Is this body just a vehicle for who I really am? Who am I really then? What is my truth?

In their quest for these answers, Indian philosophers spent a lot of time in observation of their own mind, and introspection of the world around them. If I will be born again and again into newer bodies, then this body is not my truth. Also, the world will keep continuously changing itself then this world is not my truth. Anything that will change can just be my temporary form of existence but it cannot be my real truth – something which is true forever. It could just be my temporary form of existence. Who am I, and what is my purpose in life thus closely became connected to other fundamental questions: What is my eternal truth? Is there an eternal truth or is everything falsehood?

But, to be able to say something is false, one should also intuitively know what truth is. One needs to have a frame of reference which can distinguish the two. To observe the change and call it untrue, there needs to be an unchanging observer who is observing the change. But if this observer is unchanging, then wouldn’t this observer himself be eternally true? It is this observer then who would change bodies, and see the false world unfolding around him.  This observer is not something outside of us then, but something unchanging at the very core of our existence. Who is this observer/entity which is constantly unchanging in its essence? Does such an entity even exist? Where is this entity located? The answer to this question has been explored differently by different philosophers leading to multiple viewpoints emerging. These viewpoints have led to the development of various strands of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.

While we will delve into each of these philosophies in detail in a later post, we can explore one key similarity here. The purpose of the lives of the Indian philosophers was the exploration of the eternal truth. And the eternal truth was not to be found in the world outside, but the world within. The eternal truth could only be discovered by understanding the observer who was witnessing the falsehood of everything outside of him. The eternal truth could only be understood by understanding who we ourselves are. The path to the eternal truth, if such a truth exists, was only through self-realization. In a circular worldview, that became the goal of all human existence.

For many an Indian philosopher the real world lay within and the world outside was just an illusion. This is the understanding of the oft-repeated and even abused term ‘Maya’. The world is Maya or Mithya (untruth), and this illusion can only be unraveled by knowing the real truth – by knowing our own selves.

Such an understanding then immediately leads to a flurry of many more questions: How can we know ourselves fully and become self-realized? If the world is Maya and untrue, does it mean one should stop interacting with the world outside? What is the nature of the relationship between truth and Maya? If this bodily self is Maya, how should one interact with his own body?

While I leave you in the hope that you start exploring these questions on your own, and also in the anticipation for some of these answers in upcoming posts, I would like to close this post with one piece of advice from an Indian philosopher’s perspective: If anything is bothering you and taking away your mental peace while you can’t do anything about it, just think about whether whatever issue is bugging you will be significant enough to remember 20 years from now?  Everything changes and so will this. And in this constantly changing circle of life, the only unmoving thing is your very own inner centre. Knowing this, become totally centered in your own being. Peace.

@shreyansmehta

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. OpIndia.com is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information on this article. All information is provided on an as-is basis. OpIndia.com does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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