Science and Spirituality – Analysing illusions

Vedas, the oldest documented literature of human race, define the grand human illusion as maya. Can science help us understand this core concept spanning across faiths? Pawan Dhar elucidates.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2012.105 Published online 23 July 2012

The core meaning of the term 'maya' has morphed over time. Some of the earliest descriptions talk about maya as an extraordinary power of Gods, the force that sustains the universe. The latter descriptions seem to have evolved towards defining maya as the 'grand cosmic delusion'.

From the scriptures

Analysing the classic descriptions of maya in the scriptures provide interesting perspectives.

The Rig Veda describes the universe as the divine creative art. The Yajur Veda says that the face of truth is covered by a golden lid. The Upanishad describes Brahma, the creator of universe as the illusion maker and 'prakriti' (or Nature) as maya that misrepresents reality. According to this description, once the illusory effect vanishes, one becomes Brahma, the supremely enlightened one. Yoga is recommended as a way to remove the veil of maya.

We also find the resonance of the maya concept in Buddhism and Sikhism where the illusory nature of our perception is well documented.

Real vs. unreal

© Pawan Dhar

Given that the concept of maya is deeply integrated with our sensory experience, it would be interesting to examine this term and look for crossovers between evidence–based science and faith-driven religion. The fundamental question to be asked here is: Is maya (our sensory experience) real or unreal?

Maya describes an experience that could be considered both real and unreal. The implied meaning seems to be 'completeness' of experience. Thus, unreal does not mean untrue. It just means that the experience is partial, at a certain level of abstraction that our sensory devices allow. To make it complete, many more layers of abstractions exist beyond our direct sensory perceptions. Simply put, it would be like understanding the ocean as a function of waves as against studying the dynamics of the water body in its entirety.

Thus the question evolves to: what can be done to expand our sensory space and make it all-inclusive?

Given that our experience is directly proportional to the resolution and state of the senses, it would be prudent to examine the anatomy of senses in a little more detail.

The five senses

We are born with a default set of five senses that give us the experience of taste, touch, sight, sound and smell. It is important to note that all these senses are outbound in nature meaning they report only the data that exists outside the body.

Our senses do not have high resolution features that would allow hearing of the heartbeat, pulse, blood flow, the churning of food, molecular interactions, transcription, translation, replication processes and so on. We neither experience the pain of DNA breaks nor the disintegration of proteins. We may sense something outside but we do not feel the speed of nervous impulse that travels upto 300 kms an hour to help us experience that sensation.

Given that we have no sensory perception of the inner world — to increase the resolution of the maya space — it would be useful to have connectivity with the life operating system and get closer to reality, in its purest form. In a sense, the total lack of observation and direct control over what's happening within, is a great boon because handling massively parallel and massively interacting processes would have been just impossible. Imagine, what would happen if we forgot to breathe during sleep!

The next question is: how about the space that surrounds us? Are we sensitive to all the data out there?

Adding more features

Even if we consider outbound senses, it turns out that they do not perceive all types of data. For example, our senses do not consciously perceive gravity, magnetic field, strong and weak electric forces. Thus, sensing complete data-space outside requires us to bring all kinds of inputs into our conscious experience.

However, there is a downside to this approach. If we had sensory awareness to perceive gravity, magnetic and radio waves, the environment around us would appear completely opaque!

The question is: can one study infinite space, timelessness, subtle creation and destruction processes in the normal state of human existence itself?

Dream – the ultimate virtual reality machine

Dream is a highly sophisticated and a personalized 'virtual reality technology' available to us all the time. However, what looks real during sleep turns out to be unreal when awake. Given that the space of maya extends way beyond our conscious experience, let us examine the structure and dynamics of dreams to navigate the maya space in a little more detail.

As a first step, it seems that the key pre-requisite of a successful dream experience is the total elimination of external sensory input. Once the canvas of the mind is still with zero background noise, our life energies compute thought processes and present their results in the form of emotional visuals in both monochrome and color.

Events in the dream always unfold in a serial fashion. We do not see two dream events in the mind-space at the same time. Further, we lose the sensitivity of space and time during sleep. Thus, in theory, if we completely eliminate noise input during wakefulness, we should be able to dream without the need to sleep!

The question is: given that both wakeful and dream states are direct experiences – which one of the two is maya and which one is beyond maya. Meditation is a time-tested traditional way to answer this question. Continuous and deep silence if practiced for long hours shuts down sensory inputs into the system leading to what we call spiritual experiences. These are nothing but subtle processes of our own system that suddenly show up. Both meditation and dream experiences demonstrate that if we add our outside experiences to all the inner experiences, the sum total is a state of all-inclusiveness that exists beyond maya.

Moving beyond maya

Prayer and meditation are time tested protocols to move beyond the maya experience. Prayer can be described as a combination of 'text and emotions'. While the text remains same, the emotional energy budget could increase over time.

Scientifically speaking, when practiced recursively, prayer and meditation lead to highly reduced thought-diversity that result in far more 'energy units per thought-type'. Once the 'no-thought-state' is reached, the entire life energy budget is available at our command.

Indian yogis call this beyond-thought and beyond-maya state as Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Science doesn't have an equivalent term for this but would probably describe life at her highest resolution.

This article is the third in a series entitled 'Science and spirituality'.