In many spiritual traditions, such as some schools of of Buddhism, vedanta and yoga, seekers are advised to consider the world to be like a dream: ephemeral, transient and illusory. But is the world really an illusion, or is this merely a teaching method?
Many well-versed pandits and scholars have debated this very issue over the centuries, but for those that have glimpsed the reality that lies beyond mere verbal assertions, such debates are missing the essential point.
Here are two powerful quotes from Ramana Maharshi explaining how the teachings work:
Question: “Brahman (the Supreme Spirit) is real. The world is illusion” is the stock phrase of Sri Sankaracharya. Yet others say, “The world is reality.” Which is true?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Both statements are true. They refer to different stages of development and are spoken from different points of view. The (spiritual) aspirant starts with the definition, that which is real exists always. Then he eliminates the world as unreal because it is changing.
The seeker ultimately reaches the Self and there finds unity as the prevailing note. Then, that which was originally rejected as being unreal is found to be a part of the unity. Being absorbed in the reality, the world also is real. There is only being in Self-realisation, and nothing but being.
From Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 33
We can clearly see Ramana says the teaching that the world is an illusion is itself a ‘thorn used to remove a thorn’. The teaching is a concept, and it is used to remove another concept, before they are both thrown away.
Here is another instructive quote:
Sri Ramana Maharshi: At the level of the spiritual seeker you have got to say that the world is an illusion. There is no other way. When a man forgets that he is Brahman, who is real, permanent and omnipresent, and deludes himself into thinking that he is a body in the universe which is filled with bodies that are transitory, and labours under that delusion, you have got to remind him that the world is unreal and a delusion.
Why? Because his vision which has forgotten its own Self is dwelling in the external, material universe. It will not turn inwards into introspection unless you impress on him that all this external material universe is unreal.
When once he realises his own Self he will know that there is nothing other than his own Self and he will come to look upon the whole universe as Brahman.
There is no universe without the Self. So long as a man does not see the Self which is the origin of all, but looks only at the external world as real and permanent, you have to tell him that all this external universe is an illusion. You cannot help it.
Take a paper. We see only the script, and nobody notices the paper on which the script is written. The paper is there whether the script on it is there or not. To those who look upon the script as real, you have to say that it is unreal, an illusion, since it rests upon the paper. The wise man looks upon both the paper and script as one. So also with Brahman and the universe.
From letters from Sri Ramanasramam
Here in the next excerpt Ramana is asked directly if the world is perceived after realisation:
A visitor: Is the jagat (world) perceived even after Self-Realization?
M.: From whom is this question? Is it from a Jnani or from an ajnani?
D.: From an ajnani.
M.: Realise to whom the question arises. It can be answered if it arises after knowing the doubter. Can the jagat or the body say that it is?
Or does the seer say that the jagat or the body is? The seer must be there to see the objects. Find out the seer first. Why worry yourself now with what will be in the hereafter?
[Tom – Ramana is telling the questioner not to worry about this question and rather attend to himself ie. to do self-enquiry]
Sri Bhagavan continued: What does it matter if the jagat is perceived or not perceived? Have you lost anything by your perception of jagat now? Or do you gain anything where there is no such perception in your deep sleep? It is immaterial whether the world is perceived or not perceived.
[Tom: Now Ramana answers the question directly:]