In chapter 30 of “The Autobiography of a Yogi” (see a key excerpt below), Paramahansa Yogananda says that the world is an illusion (Maya) and suggests that the universe is like a motion picture that is projected onto the screen of man's consciousness. In addition, he says that just as a cinema audience can see that all screen images are appearing through one imageless beam of light, the colorful universal drama is similarly issuing from the single white light of a Cosmic Source.
In Hindu philosophy, the term Maya is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “illusion” or “deception.” However, the concept of Maya is not limited to Hinduism. Similar ideas can be found in other philosophical and spiritual traditions, such as Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism, although the interpretations and explanations vary.
Regarding the reason for suffering, Yogananda says that the good and evil of Maya must both exist because without suffering humans would not be motivated to seek a higher reality beyond the physical world.
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At the end of the chapter, Yogananda shares several powerful personal experiences that demonstrate the illusionary nature of reality, including an experience where he saw his body as a cosmic beam of light and realized that the essence of all “physical” objects is light.
Overall, Yogananda's exploration of the nature of reality in this chapter is a thought-provoking reflection on the illusory nature of the physical world and the importance of spiritual wisdom in understanding the true nature of existence.
Excerpt from “Autobiography of a Yogi”, Ch. 30: The Law of Miracles
The ancient Vedic scriptures declare that the physical world operates under one fundamental law of Maya, the principle of relativity and duality. God, the Sole Life, is an Absolute Unity; He cannot appear as the separate and diverse manifestations of a creation except under a false or unreal veil. That cosmic illusion is Maya. Every great scientific discovery of modern times has served as a confirmation of this simple pronouncement of the rishis…
To surmount Maya was the task assigned to the human race by the millennial prophets. To rise above the duality of creation and perceive the unity of the Creator was conceived of as man’s highest goal…
The lifelike images of the motion picture illustrate many truths concerning creation. The Cosmic Director has written His own plays and assembled tremendous casts for the pageant of the centuries. From the dark booth of eternity, He pours His creative beam through the films of successive ages, and the pictures are thrown on the screen of space.
Just as the motion-picture images appear to be real, but are only combinations of light and shade, so is the universal variety a delusive seeming. The planetary spheres, with their countless forms of life, are naught but figures in a cosmic motion picture, temporarily true to five sense perceptions as the scenes are cast on the screen of man’s consciousness by the infinite creative beam.
A cinema audience can look up and see that all screen images are appearing through the instrumentality of one imageless beam of light. The colorful universal drama is similarly issuing from the single white light of a Cosmic Source. With inconceivable ingenuity God is staging entertainment for His human children, making them actors as well as audiences in His planetary theater.
One day I entered a motion picture house to view a newsreel of the European battlefields. World War I was still being waged in the West; the newsreel recorded the carnage with such realism that I left the theater with a troubled heart.
“Lord,” I prayed, “why dost Thou permit such suffering?”
To my intense surprise, an instant answer came in the form of a vision of the actual European battlefields. The horror of the struggle, filled with the dead and dying, far surpassed in ferocity any representation of the newsreel.
“Look intently!” A gentle voice spoke to my inner consciousness. “You will see that these scenes now being enacted in France are nothing but a play of chiaroscuro. They are the cosmic motion picture, as real and as unreal as the theater newsreel you have just seen—a play within a play.”
My heart was still not comforted. The divine voice went on: “Creation is light and shadow both, else no picture is possible. The good and evil of Maya must ever alternate in supremacy. If joy were ceaseless here in this world, would man ever seek another? Without suffering he scarcely cares to recall that he has forsaken his eternal home. Pain is a prod to remembrance. The way of escape is through wisdom! The tragedy of death is unreal; those who shudder at it are like an ignorant actor who dies of fright on the stage when nothing more is fired at him than a blank cartridge. My sons are the children of light; they will not sleep forever in delusion.”
Although I had read scriptural accounts of Maya, they had not given me the deep insight that came with the personal visions and their accompanying words of consolation. One’s values are profoundly changed when he is finally convinced that creation is only a vast motion picture, and that not in it, but beyond it, lies his own reality.
As I finished writing this chapter, I sat on my bed in the lotus posture. My room was dimly lit by two shaded lamps. Lifting my gaze, I noticed that the ceiling was dotted with small mustard-colored lights, scintillating and quivering with a radium-like luster. Myriads of penciled rays, like sheets of rain, gathered into a transparent shaft and poured silently upon me.
At once my physical body lost its grossness and became metamorphosed into astral texture. I felt a floating sensation as, barely touching the bed, the weightless body shifted slightly and alternately to left and right. I looked around the room; the furniture and walls were as usual, but the little mass of light had so multiplied that the ceiling was invisible. I was wonder-struck.
“This is the cosmic motion picture mechanism.” A voice spoke as though from within the light. “Shedding its beam on the white screen of your bed sheets, it is producing the picture of your body. Behold, your form is nothing but light!”
I gazed at my arms and moved them back and forth, yet could not feel their weight. An ecstatic joy overwhelmed me. This cosmic stem of light, blossoming as my body, seemed a divine replica of the light beams streaming out of the projection booth in a cinema house and manifesting as pictures on the screen.
For a long time, I experienced this motion picture of my body in the dimly lighted theater of my own bedroom. Despite the many visions I have had, none was ever more singular. As my illusion of a solid body was completely dissipated, and my realization deepened that the essence of all objects is light, I looked up to the throbbing stream of lifetrons and spoke entreatingly.
“Divine Light, please withdraw this, my humble bodily picture, into Thyself, even as Elijah was drawn up to heaven by a flame.”
This prayer was evidently startling; the beam disappeared. My body resumed its normal weight and sank on the bed; the swarm of dazzling ceiling lights flickered and vanished. My time to leave this earth had apparently not arrived.
“Besides,” I thought philosophically, “the prophet Elijah might well be displeased at my presumption!”