The View from Adyar: What Is Real?

Originally printed in the September - October 2002 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Burnier, Radha. "What Is Real?" Quest  90.5 (SEPTEMBER - OCTOBER 2002): 184-185.

Radha Burnier

Radha_BurnierA young woman in our neighborhood every evening relates to her child of about six a story from the Panchatantra, an ancient collection of stories about animals said to be the precursor of Aesop’s Fables. The child does not accept any part of a tale that says an animal has died. No animal, from his point of view, should die; he therefore corrects the narration, and says, “No mother, he did not die, he ran away into the forest.” Every time an animal is in danger in the story, especially young animals, he repeats, “He went away, he did not die.”

There are other responses of children that touch the heart, if one does not dismiss them as mere childishness. A recent newspaper report about a three-year-old relates that his mother, while driving above a cliff during bad weather, went off the road, and the car and its occupants fell down ninety feet into the sea. She was drowned, and the child was thrown into freezing water in his seat. He was there for about twelve hours with no more than a little frostbite. Two winged angels robed in white watched over him, he said, and so he did not feel afraid or unprotected. He repeated this story to everyone who talked with him.

Many young children cry when their mother cries or when they see someone else crying. Perhaps the innocent consciousness in the young body, not having had experiences of material life, instinctively senses that unhappiness is not right. A young child responds naturally and therefore feels something is wrong when anyone is unhappy. Most young children are attracted by other innocents—other infants and animals, particularly young ones.

This state of innocence is usually lost as the child grows into adulthood, and the modern way of life does not help the young to preserve it. Much harm is done by encouraging children to be conscious of sex distinctions and to begin sex life at an early age; repeatedly watching violence on television helps to destroy the instinctive sense of oneness they have. The human infant, as is well known, needs protection and care for a much longer period than animals or birds. This may be part of Nature’s plan to develop sensitivity in humans. The young animal left to itself is forced to struggle for survival, which includes learning mistrust, fear, aggressiveness, and other traits, all of which conspire to introduce craftiness and competitive behavior into its life. When there is insecurity and fear, aggression develops, and fear compels the mind to contrive ways of self-defence, of overcoming others. Thus a hardness sets in, and the consciousness loses its innate delicacy of response.

In most of us, there are hard attitudes, and if we are honest, we discover how and when they occur—how the innocence of infancy and the quality of being in unison with other living creatures is lost. We all have the possibility of experiencing the more subtle aspects of life, even of being aware of angelic presences, and the value of all life forms. Such sensitivity is a means to distinguish instinctively between right and wrong. Bursting into tears on seeing unhappiness elsewhere, which psychologists may dismiss as childishness, or feeling that animals are not commodities whose lives can be ended quickly, are responses of inner purity and innocence, not mere childishness.

“Is the world real?” is a question among serious students and thinkers. When it is asked, do we mean to ask whether mountains, rivers, stars, trees, and birds—that is, the world of Nature—is real? Probably it is real, being part of the one Life, the one Reality, other than which nothing exists. On the other hand, since the natural world is only a part of the total reality, it may be relatively real, not absolutely so. In the Hindu texts, it is suggested that the rivers and mountains and all of Nature are as much of the divine splendor as the Supreme chooses to reveal, for our eyes are incapable of seeing more. A fragment only of Reality is manifested as the universes, the unmanifest being the greater part of it. So the world of Nature is not unreal, being part of that Supreme existence, but neither is it real because it is only a part, not the whole. It is a means, so to speak, through which something else much vaster or greater can be glimpsed. But what sort of mind and heart can see the splendor beyond the outer forms? Not consciousness deprived of innocence. The child who shrinks from hearing that animals die is probably much nearer the truth of life than the adult who perceives everything in relation to personal survival, comfort, and advantage.

Human beings are, of course, part of the world of Nature, they are her creation; but for the present we have made ourselves aliens. Losing innocence, we have exiled ourselves from Paradise and chosen to live in a false world of machines, wars, ambition, possessions, and other attractions. This world of wickedness, which is the product of human thought, is unreal because it is based on distorted perceptions and false values. Where does mãyã inhere? Not in the trees, animals, and earth, but in the eye of the perceiver who views all as objects to possess and exploit. Those who saw the river Gangã or Kailãsa mountain as divine presences saw the same water and heap of earth with their outer eyes as we do, who reduce the river and the mountain to nothing more than inert matter.

Hence, the importance of clear perception cannot be overestimated, which means that toughening of the mind must end. If this has already taken place, at least now we must pay attention to the quality of our responses and to the development of sensitivity, which is not sentimentality. People who gush over things may imagine they are more sensitive than others, but the great seers did not indulge in emotionalism; they saw the Reality.


Radha Burnier is the international President of the Theosophical Society as well as the head of three international centers: in Ojai, California; Sydney, Australia; and Naarden, the Netherlands. She is an international lecturer who regularly speaks in countries around the world; the editor of The Theosophist, a monthly journal; and the author of several books, including Human Regeneration; No Other Path to Go; and Truth, Beauty and Goodness.


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