Concerning the concept of illusion of the world of common experience, as found in many systems of Indian philosophy, I am under the impression that it always comes as a "made-up" solution to life's problems, e.g. suffering, impermanence, difficulty in satisfying one's desires.
So is there a system in which illusion follows from more fundamental concepts, as a necessary aspect of the world and not as an "a posteriori" solution to life's problems?
The question is of course meaningless if its answer can be given only in terms of individual experience not involving logical reasoning.

  • The idea of maya comes as a consequence of the metaphysical thesis of non-dualism derived from Advaita Vedanta, the "transcending" of the subject/object distinction. Advaita is rather cerebral, and its classical defense by Shankara, for example, does not draw on ethical considerations traditionally encountered in Buddhism. It is somewhat similar to metaphysical arguments of Western thinkers like Parmenides and Spinoza, who are also very cerebral, see Spinoza and Shankara
    – Conifold
    Sep 17, 2020 at 12:24
  • The use of the word illusion is a misnomer when describing the concept of Maya. A better word is superimposition. There is a good explanation of it from the Advaita non-dualistic position here, under the section titled 'Adhyasa or Superimposition' - wisdomlib.org/hinduism/book/brahma-sutras Sep 18, 2020 at 3:59
  • @Swami Vishwananda After reading the suggested text I think that removing ignorance is like doing mathematics, where it's impossible to "see a rope in a snake" i.e. prove false results. Theorems are true forever, embedded in larger truths,as finite numbers are embedded in infinity. And if I understand a proof then the book is useless, I can naturally re-do it myself. Unclear, self-contradictory desires are transformed into well-defined problems seeking answers along luminous ways. But the objection is that life becomes dryly squared down and much of its emotional richness is lost that way.
    – exp8j
    Sep 19, 2020 at 8:13
  • The name of Book is: Six Meanings Other Than Illusion, Donald A. Braue books.google.at/books/about/…
    – user47436
    Sep 19, 2020 at 9:00
  • Sometimes the concept of maya is taken to mean the world is an illusion, but that’s not exactly what Krishna says. According to Him, the material world is very real, but, like a house of mirrors, its purpose is to delude us. In a house of mirrors, the house and the observer are real, but because the mirrors distort reality within the house, the images perceived within it are illusory. We’re continuously in illusion, or maya. .krishna.com/escaping-reality-illusion
    – user47436
    Sep 19, 2020 at 14:17

2 Answers 2


In Western critical theory (the current evolute of the post-modernist/post-structuralist type thinking), they often harp on the idea of a 'language world': a superimposition of human language and human concepts on the 'natural' world. Their point is that it is this 'language world' that we live in, not the 'natural' world. For example, if I pick up a hammer, no one really doubts that the hammer has all sorts of natural properties — mass, structural composition, electromagnetic reactance, etc — but as I rule I am neither interested in nor aware of those properties. I picked this object up because I wanted a 'hammer': a tool that is linguistically defined to have certain uses and functions in human terms. We know this because we know that I can substitute a wide range of different objects for this particular hammer, so long as they have the same functional use in the moment. A hammer is a hammer is a hammer, even if the three hammers are entirely different in terms of their essential, 'natural' composition and properties.

If we expand this thought, we end up at an understanding of maya. There is the 'human' world, which is filled with goals, uses, values, purposes, desires, and the like, all constructed with language; we draw material out of the 'natural' world in order to fulfill those human intentions. Only a human can see the human world — a deer cannot see the difference between concrete and rock; a bear does not distinguish between a house and a cave — and to this extent the human world is entirely illusory.

This isn't merely a matter of culture, though encountering a different culture can sometimes make the illusory aspect of the linguistic mind more obvious. We are embedded in this human world of language to such an extent that it is almost invisible to us. If we walk into a store we will see rows of objects all carefully constructed for particular tasks and purposes, neatly organized and labeled, but we won't necessarily recognize how much that construction, organization, and labeling are mediated and determined by language. A store catering to a different culture can disrupt that: objects will be labelled in a different language, and organized in different ways; some may have no discernible purpose to us at all. We are forced back towards that 'natural' state of seeing without the mediation of language.

The point here is that we live within a carefully cultivated illusion of sense, meaning, order, and purpose; we thrive when things around us have labels and values and obvious intents. In fact, it is extremely difficult to live outside of this carefully cultivated illusion, but the fact that this illusion is an essential part of human life does not make it any less of an illusion. We can exist as animals do in the 'natural' world, but part of being human entails entering into and participating in the collective illusion of the human world.

  • Was with you up until the, 'When a feature ...' paragraph. I think from that point on it became 'non-sequitor' . You are making an interesting and relevant to the question, point; the tail end might need a little revision. Regards,
    – user37981
    Sep 19, 2020 at 3:48
  • @CharlesMSaunders: Meh, yeah; not my best work. I was a bit distracted when I wrote it. I'll clean it up tomorrow. Sep 19, 2020 at 4:29
  • It seems to me that the question of illusion is not as to freedom from specific cultural fixations, but as to why any variability of perception should exist at all.
    – exp8j
    Sep 19, 2020 at 8:23
  • @CharlesMSaunders: edited: does that work better? Sep 19, 2020 at 17:34
  • @exp8j: I've edited the answer to downplay the cultural aspect. tell me if this makes more sense to you. Sep 19, 2020 at 17:35

Though Indian philosophy is a made-up solution to life's problems like suffering, impermanence, difficulty in satisfying one's desires etc., this does not mean this is possible just by studying Indian philosophy.

When we reach higher classes we understand higher levels of truth. Though many of the ideas we studied in lower classes may be insignificant in higher classes, we never mock at the children in lower classes. Similarly you can treat dvaita, vishistadvaita and advaita .

The Upanishads invoke to awake and arise to get out of the hypnotized state of mind ; never to take rest and read Indian philosophy believing this world is an illusion. If we place illusion at the topmost, we need not expect that it would be a made-up solution to what you called life's problems. If it were so, you had better discard this philosophy. Again,

The following characteristics might be reason for the acceptability of that Indian philosophy.

  1. It does not keep off other philosophies.

  2. It is based on robust thought (including reasoning) rather than eminent personality. So it never needs any propagation.

  3. Different paths are designed for people of different temperaments.

  4. Though it aims purification of mind, it is not concerned with mere mental exercise. Truth Realization (sathya darshan) is possible while living. So it does not wait for a posthumous life.

If you could find any of the above mentioned characteristics as defied, my personal opinion is that you could better seek similar or better philosophies than Indian philosophy according to your temperaments. “Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti” (The details in the link given by Swami Vishwananda would help you to ponder on superimposition.)

Collective illusion is occurring in our daily life. The blue sky we see high above the earth is not there. Even though we all know very well that it is only an illusion, we always live under this collective illusion. I am saying so just to mention that an illusion can also be collective and it can be something that does not leave even a trace of illusion to the human world.

When questioning further, a true brilliant-seeker/aspirant would understand what we considered as fundamental is not fundamental; we can go behind it to discover something more fundamental. Just ask yourself: When atom was first discovered, as its name indicates, it was treated as the fundamental particle. Is it so now? Did the modern science get the fundamental so far? So, we can say what we 'experience' as more fundamental concepts or experiences, are founded on superimposition. I don't think the reverse statement is rational. If 'illusion' in Indian philosophy is founded on more fundamental concepts or experiences, we must be compelled to say that the more fundamental concepts or experiences we say are more fundamental in all aspects. This is not true from another viewpoint. Again, see the plurality (duality) in the usage -- 'founded on more fundamental concepts or experiences'. If you are asking the question in this order it can deny non-duality itself. But if it were in the reverse order as I mentioned, no problem would arise.

So, to be practical (darshan), the revere statement must be true. That is, More fundamental concepts or experiences are founded on 'illusion'(superimposition) as viewed in Indian philosophy.

I believe the aforesaid link would help you to understand the apt meaning of 'founded on superimposition'.

The great astonishment in a person while Truth realization is because of the waking up from the superimposition which we all believed as more fundamental experience till then.

  • From the text suggested by Swami Vishwananda and other sources, it seems that all we can say about the "foundations of illusion" is that "ignorance is beginingless". To my mind, this means that we can say nothing about its origin; only accept that ignorance exists. If you please, what is your understanding of this phrase?
    – exp8j
    Sep 19, 2020 at 21:36
  • @SonOfThought - Thank for this very straightforward depiction of the status and purpose of the concept of 'illuaion' in the Indian philosophy. The piece on the 'atom' was most helpful. Regards,
    – user37981
    Sep 20, 2020 at 4:06
  • @exp8j: "see a rope in a snake"--this is a wrong usage. When you see the rope you can't see the snake. When there is ignorance there is only ignorance. But when you realize the truth you can't see the snake (ignorance) there. I have made a few edits in my answer. Please read it. Sep 20, 2020 at 6:30
  • You seem to accept that total illusion exists without any need for further discussion. And that there is either total illusion or total truth resulting from a sudden waking up.I respect that view, but I am more into seeing gradations in our understanding. A "sudden waking up" is the result of gradual previous efforts.
    – exp8j
    Sep 20, 2020 at 7:08
  • @exp8j:Just think about watching a movie on the screen. We are aware of the screen only when the movie ends. Can we find any gradations in our understanding here in this daily life (up to the time when we are aware that it is only a screen)? How could be the gradual previous effort? Sep 20, 2020 at 8:20

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