“What is an illusion?” asked Rahul when he caught up with me during my stroll on the campus after dinner. I was used to a lot of such questions from Rahul, one of my favourite students.
“Look at the sky,” I said. A few stars were visible notwithstanding Delhi’s polluted skies. “Do you think all those are real stars?”
“Aren’t they?” Rahul was confused. “We are seeing them.”
“Yes, we are seeing them. Do you know how many years it takes for the light of a star to reach us here on the earth?”
“The light from the nearest star takes more than 4 light years,” said Rahul.
“Good,” I said. “It takes many more years for the light from the other stars to reach us. Many of the stars die by the time their light is seen by us here on the earth. So how many of those stars are real?”
“Sir,” Rahul appeared slightly confused. “Are you suggesting that what is not real is an illusion.”
“Well, almost,” said I. “But the light is real, isn’t it, even if the star is no more now?”
“Imagine some human being who begins to trace the source of that light whose star is already dead. Imagine he has some way of tracing the source. And he finds that there really is no source. Then he begins to interpret the light in his own way. He thinks that it is a special light, a revelation from some divine entity, a revelation directed at him. He begins to see himself as some God’s Messenger...”
“A godman?” asked Rahul.
“OK, let’s call him that. Our Godman assumes that he is a prophet of god, a messiah of the people, or something like that. He begins to hear god speaking to him. He writes them down and calls it scriptures. People come to listen to the new scriptures. A religion or a cult is born. It creates its own truths. Thousands, if not millions, of people believe in those truths. These truths create new rules like how we should wear our dress, which part of the body can be revealed and which to be covered, which are the places where people can kiss each other, whom to love and whom to hate, who can learn what and how much...”
“Sir, I’ve understood what illusions are,” said Rahul. “Why do people accept the illusions so willingly and easily?”
“Illusions bring comfort in times of distress,” I said. “It is easier to bear some loss in life or some misfortune if we believe that there is a divine entity sitting up somewhere there in the skies watching us and looking after us whatever misfortunes may befall us.”
“Is that the only use of illusions?”
“Not at all,” I said. “You can use illusions for gaining political power, higher positions in society, to become a godman or man-god, to seize other people’s land and other possessions...”
As Rahul walked away having thanked me and wished me good night, I looked at the stars once again. “Tamaso ma jyotirgamaya.” Did I hear them say that? I smiled to myself. Even if I did hear it, I wouldn’t be able to claim any new revelation. Somebody had revealed that already long ago, some 3000 years ago. 3000 years of longing to be led from darkness to light. A long longing, I mused.
PS. Rahul is an illusion.