Illusion, Reality, and the Validity of Western Science
Question: If experienced reality is just an illusion, is western science then futile, or pointless?
Answer: An illusion can be a useful illusion. We need to understand this. An illusion is not an unreal thing. An illusion is simply an appearance. For example, a movie is an illusion. But we do not say that the movie is unreal, we do not say that the movie does not exist. It does exist, but it does not exist in the form that we see it. For example, when you see a person on the screen, there is no person on the screen. But you cannot say there is nothing there on the screen. There is an appearance on the screen. There is a movie on the screen. There is no person on the screen. See? So, what is an illusion? If I look at the rope and think that it is a snake, I do not say that there is nothing there – of course there is something there. But I do not see that something as it is, I see it as something else. This is called an illusion.
Now can illusions be useful? Of course they can be useful. As I said, a movie can be useful, and it is an illusion. My reflection in the mirror is an illusion. There is no person there in the mirror, but it is useful. There are many illusions that are useful. For example, I see the sunrise and I write a beautiful poem about the sunrise. Now the sunrise is an illusion, but the poem is useful. The beauty of the sunrise, which is actually not there, is useful. It uplifts my spirits.
Therefore it is not correct to say “illusions do not exist.” Illusions exist as illusions, and illusions can be useful. There are, of course, illusions that are not helpful, that are harmful. We simply need to know that an illusion is an illusion, and that is all. We should not take the illusion to be something real. We should recognize, “Yes, this is an illusion.” Then we can continue to enjoy the illusion. It is simple. We do not say that the world is unreal. We only say that the world is an appearance. We never say that there is no world — we only say that it is an appearance. It is not as we perceive it, but it is very helpful, very useful.
So no, Western science is not futile and not pointless. If Western science is futile and pointless, then yoga is also futile and pointless. For example, the physical body is as much an illusion as the rest of the world. Our mind is as much an illusion as the rest of the world. In yoga we are utilizing an appearance, which is the physical body, in order to attain Self-Realization. We are utilizing another appearance, which is the mind in order to attain Self-Realization. We use methodologies that are all appearances and they come under the same category. Western science is not futile, it makes a great contribution to mankind. And yoga makes a great contribution to mankind.
Is eating an illusion? Yes, it is an illusion, of course. Are we going to stop eating because eating is an illusion? No, we are not. Is the cook futile? No, the cook is not futile. Is the baker futile? No, the baker is not futile. Is the baker an illusion? Of course the baker is an illusion, but the baker is not futile. Is science an illusion? Of course science is an illusion, but science is not futile. Is yoga an illusion — by yoga, I mean the practice — yes, the practice of yoga is an illusion, but the practice of yoga is not futile. The practice of yoga is very helpful. Therefore, we say, illusions can be helpful. We use a lot of illusions and they are very helpful. The only thing is we need is to recognize them as what they are. We need to recognize that they are illusions. Afterwards, we can continue to use them if we like.
Therefore, to answer your question directly, science is not futile, science is good.
Swami Swaroopananda is a senior disciple of Swami Vishnudevananda. A practicing yogi from a very young age, Swami Swaroopananda has dedicated his life to the practice and teaching of yoga. He taught in Yoga Teacher Training Courses around the world and is currently teaching advanced yoga philosophy courses and lectures internationally. He is Director of the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat and acharya (spiritual director) for the Sivananda centers and ashrams in the Bahamas and the Middle East. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres.