Māyā's Many Faces

Watts explores the different meanings of the Sanskrit word māyā and explains them to the Western audience.


Now, the Hindu doctrine of the creation of the universe is, if I may put it in extremely naïve terms, that the lord God (who, in Hinduism, doesn’t have a beard and things like that, as he does in the West, but is something unimaginable—however, he is represented often in human form with many arms and so on) but the lord God is playing that he’s not himself. And in the Western version, the first thing that the lord God said in creating the universe was, “Let there be light.” But the Hindus would have said: the first thing he said was, “You must draw the line somewhere.” That is this action of cutting; of māyā, see? And that’s the whole of life: you must draw the line somewhere. See? If we’re going to draw a line at all, you see, there’s going to be a difference between this and that, between good and evil, between the pleasant and the painful, between the modest and the immodest. Whatever you will, you see? You’ve got to draw the line somewhere. So the whole of life is the game of where are we going to draw the line, see? And how far can you go? And you can be way in or you can be way out, but still you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.


And then that was māyā. And then he decided, you see—the second thing he said to himself was: “Get lost!” Because he was bored with being God. And he thought, “Everything is possible. There is no obstacle in any direction. Nothing is happening. So… let’s get lost. Let’s pretend we are not God.” And so he’s pretended that he’s all of us. And every one of us is the Lord in disguise making a big scene that you’re just little me. And it’s very embarrassing when a good, skillful guru calls your bluff on this and says, “Listen, Shiva, stop kidding me! I know who you are perfectly well, and all this come-on that you’re just you, and that you have these problems, and so on and so on—that’s a lot of bullshit! Come off it!”


So the person is very embarrassed by this and makes out that they really don’t know what the teacher’s talking about. But just like the audience in the skillfully acted play knows in the back of its mind that it is a play, so every individual in the back of his mind—hardly and barely conscious—knows who he is. And he may insist on “little me” just like, you know, when—have you ever enjoyed being in a state of grief? Or hating someone? You know, there’s a fundamental zest in really hating someone. And you know you don’t really hate them: somehow, you wouldn’t want to give it up. Even though it’s an unpleasant feeling to hate someone, you see? And so they have a sort of attitude of, “Oh, come off it!” You can sometimes penetrate through these negative emotional states.


So then, you see, in the green room—behind the stage—this corresponds to the back of the actor’s mind. Because it’s in the green room that he doffs his mask and changes his costume and drops his role, see? So it’s interesting, isn’t it, that the word “person” is a dramatic word, because the persona was the mask worn in classical drama. It is shaped with a mouthpiece, like a megaphone, so that in the open air stage the sound will travel. So “that through which the sound comes:” per sona. The masks. So the dramatis personae in the beginning of a play is a list of the masks which are going to be worn by the actors. And by a very, very curious and significant subversion of the meaning of this word: how to be a real person. Think of that! How to be a genuine mask. A really successful fraud! That’s māyā! Magic.


The next meaning of māyā is “art.” “Art” or, indeed, “skill.” I wonder—there’s an old Greek tale that there was a competition in painting. And two very great painters were the final runners up in the competition, and they had to do paintings that were going to be judged at a great affair. And the first one painted a vine with grapes on it. And it was so convincing that birds kept banging into it trying to pick at the grapes. And the bees were coming around, and, you know, wasps, and so on. And everybody thought, “My! Isn’t that fantastic! How clever this man is.” Well, they said, “We’d better have a look at the other painting.” And they said to the artist, “Unveil it. Draw the curtain and let’s see it!” He said, “What curtain?” His painting was the curtain. So he was awarded the prize because it was considered more remarkable to deceive human beings than to deceive the birds.


So that story lies at the beginning of a world of art, a philosophy of art, which has prevailed—certainly in the West—for many thousands of years, really. The sense that the skill of an artist is to make art look like nature. And so the highest reach of Western technique comes with people like the great Flemish masters—Pieter de Hooch and van Dyck and van Eyck, so on—who represent what you might call the peak of photographic realism, which eventually deteriorated into the sentimental painting of the 19th century with all its luscious nudes and historical mythological scenes done like colored photographs. And for most people living today, the vast majority of Westerners, that is art and anything else doesn’t look like a picture.


But, however, what is not appreciated about this (except by painters and people who understand the techniques involved) is that the camera has a prejudiced point of view. The camera does not see things as they are, it sees things as it is constructed to see them. The camera has been bewitched. And the lens is made the way it is made in order to conform with a certain philosophy of how things are supposed to look. For example, if you show a so-called primitive person a photograph of himself or of a friend, he will not recognize it. He will turn the picture over and look at the back and wonder what happened to the back of the person’s head. He will not understand why it’s flat. He will not understand perspective. Why are the trees in the distance smaller? They’re all the same size. When an American G.I. in Paris—during the war or just after the war—met Picasso, they got into a discussion about modern painting and Picasso’s painting, and the G.I. said he simply couldn’t make head or tail of it. He said the world doesn’t look like that; women don’t look like that. Picasso said, “Do you have a girlfriend?” And he said, “Yes.” He said, “Well, let me see her picture.” And he pulled out his wallet, and he had a little photograph in the thing, and showed the picture. Picasso stared at it and said, “Is she so small as that?”


So, you see, it’s a very instructive exercise to look really carefully at the surrounding world and not jump to conclusions about the colors of things. You see, a person might walk into this room and be asked, “What color is it?” and he would jump to the conclusion, “Oh, it’s a sort of off-white.” Now, it’s nothing of the kind! Watch this wall carefully and you will see that it’s myriads of colors. Pearly grays, golds, blues, purples—all kinds of shadows play along it. But these shadows are not gray things, they’re all colors. And luminous. So just to say it’s off-white color is to have an idea in one’s head and not to be using one’s eyes at all. And to have an idea in one’s head and not to be using one’s eyes is, in a way, to be a victim of māyā


But then, you see, art and māyā have a kind of curious relationship. Because one is not merely a victim of māyā. There’s good māyā and bad māyā, as it were. There’s a way of creating a world. And in this sense an artist or a poet is a great creator. The word “poet,” from the Greek poiesis, means “to make” or “to do.” The poets, then, are those who give us an imagination—that is, the power of building images—and so also painters teach us to see things that we never saw before. They evoke them. They see creatively. Because we can see this Rorschach blot of the universe in many different ways just as the ordinary Rorschach blot is seen in many different ways by different people. And if I can convince you to see this Rorschach blot my way, I’ve not necessarily pulled the wool over your eyes, but I have given you a new possibility of imagination.


There’s a place in a national park called Inspiration Point, and everybody goes there and they say, “Oh, ain’t it just like a picture!” That is because they have seen the kind of landscapes that are reproduced on the tops of candy boxes and so on, and they know that this is supposed to be beautiful. Now, ask the question: of what is a landscape itself a picture? Are the clouds like anything? You know, do they reproduce something? Do the trees mean something? Are they symbols? Are they figures? Are they about something? No! So when an artist paints a landscape in a kind of chocolate-box style, he’s actually painting a painting of an abstraction, of a non-objective dance—which is the tree or the cloud. See? Or the foam on the waves. It’s just become a little corny, that’s all. It’s been done so often.


So instead, painters thought, “Let’s not do that. Instead of copying the dances that nature is doing, let’s just make dances directly on the canvas.” And so Jackson Pollock and everybody starts leaping around all over the place doing different things. But then, in a few years to come, people walk down a street, and there’s an old board which has been splattered, and they’ll say, “Oh, ain’t it just like a Pollock!” See? “Ain’t it just like a picture?” Because they’ll have been taught to see the marvel of these particular colors and forms. So again, some artist has done māyā, and so made a new universe to see.


Now, however, here comes the interesting point. Is it all a projection; māyā? That’s to say—look, when we look at someone who’s tested on a Rorschach blot, we assume that the story he tells about it is a projection. That is to say, it is only in his mind. And because it’s only in his mind, the story he tells you about the Rorschach blot is symptomatic of his particular psychological condition. Are we then going to say that the external world has no order and no sense in it intrinsically, but that is something purely projected into it by human beings? And since human beings might differ from each other—as, say, one artist differs from another, or as one might have different kinds of brains or different sense organs—does that mean that according to the differentiations in the individual the external world is changed?


Let’s say this: when astronomers use their telescopes and they discover that the stars are not angels, or they’re not lights being carried in crystal spheres, but they discover these galaxies—when they discovered the galaxies, did they invent them? Were there galaxies there before anybody looked at them through telescopes? That’s the same question as: when there is a noise, is it noisy if there’s not anybody around to hear it? And, of course, we know from a physical point of view of that old problem about the tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it is very simple. It’s a problem of relativity. In other words, the vibrations in the air do not become noise until they hit an eardrum. Just as light going through space is not manifested as light until it falls upon a reflecting object. Just as a thing is not moving unless it can be shown to be moving in relation to something comparably still. So, you see, in a way there are no galaxies until they arise as a situation responsive to them. Nothing exists by itself, but only in relation to other things.


This is a rough point. But remember this, though: this isn’t pure projection. Because the ability of the human being to have these sensory responses—to hear sounds, to see lights, and to know about galaxies and stars—the ability, the brain which makes that possible, is in itself a member of the external world. The brain is a member of the same world it’s looking at. It has something in common with the universe that surrounds it. See, that was the thing that (in the beginning) we screened out: nobody realizes that he’s in the external world. Everybody else is, but I’m in the internal world. Oh no, I’m not! I’m just as much in the external world as you. And my consciousness, my thoughts, my so on, can be regarded as something in the external world. So I go with it. The external world, as I pointed out in the beginning, does me. Therefore, there are correspondences, there are transactions, there are relations between what I call “me” and “everything else” in the external world. Only: I’m under the illusion that we don’t go together. I’ve forgotten that I create the galaxies in the same moment that I’ve forgotten that the galaxies create me. It’s mutual. Like two sides of a coin: they go together. You can’t separate them. Otherwise you have no coin.


So then, in sum, let’s go back. These are the principal meanings of māyā: “measurement” through cutting, “play,” “magic,” “drama,” and “creative art.” All fundamentally resting on the idea that the universe is not finally serious. And so the man who has penetrated māyā is a man who doesn’t take life quite seriously, you see? Now, there’s something unnerving about that, isn’t there? Because we use the word “serious” in two senses. When somebody says, “I love you,” and the other person says, “Are you serious?” the answer is, “No, I’m sincere.” Heavens, you don’t want to be loved seriously, do you? I mean, do you want a Sturm und Drang, a kind of Tristan and Isolde relationship? Surely not. I mean, if you go in for that kind of thing, maybe that’s your dish.


But do we really want the world to be serious, you see? Is God serious? Now, in Christianity it seems that God is serious because nobody ever imagines that the one who sits on the throne of grace is sort of laughing. He may be a very sad expression, a very kind expression, a very severe expression, but it wouldn’t be laughing. No. Because we feel, you see, that anything that’s in play and that isn’t serious is in some way trivial. But that’s not the case. You see, we have to get over that idea and realize that the Lord—or whatever It is that all this is about, that’s doing all this—is having a ball; is playing. Even though the play sometimes involves scaring itself out of its wits. The universe creeps up behind itself and says, “Boo!” And it jumps and all sorts of catastrophes happen, but ultimately they all change and disappear, and it all starts over again, see? This constant flowing in and out. And if things come they must go. See? Going and coming are the same sides of one coin, see? If they live, they must die. It’s all one. And after all, here we are, thinking we are living, but going around chewing up animals and vegetables and creating death in every direction, see? And we say this disappearance of those forms into this form, we think it’s a good show. But imagine what a pretty girl’s pearly teeth look like to an oyster!

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