I was walking down an avenue in Birmingham, Alabama, with one of my daughters not long ago. We were discussing the concept of “reality.” And what constitutes truth.
We tried this experiment: I asked her to silently observe what she was seeing on our stroll for a minute and I would remember what I saw. At the end of the minute we would compare observations.
Well, you guessed it, neither of us looked at the view the same way. We remembered seeing completely different things. Of course, there was some crossover, we both noticed the park. But one of us noticed a bench in the park; the other noticed a playground. I recalled a truck on an overpass and she remembered a tree in front of a store.
The exercise with my daughter suggested that trying to identify “the real” is no easy feat. It brought to mind one of the first Hindu mantras from the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad:
Om asato ma sad gamaya
Tamaso ma jyotir gamaya
Mrtyor ma amrtam gamaya
Translated, this is generally taken to mean:
Lead us from the unreal to the real
Lead us from darkness to the light
Lead us from the fear of death,
To knowledge of immortality.
There are two tales of Krishna that illustrate this really well. The first: One day Krishna is playing with his friends and eats mouthfuls of mud. His mother spies him with mud all over his face. Krishna suggests that his mother, Yasoda, look in his mouth to see what is there. He opens wide and Yasoda sees “the universe of moving and non-moving things; space; the cardinal directions; the sphere of the earth with its oceans, islands and mountains; air and fire; and the moon and the stars. She saw the circle of the constellations, water, light, the wind, the sky, the evolved senses, the mind, the elements, and the three guna qualities.” She sees the nature of space, time, and karma as well as herself in Krishna’s mouth.
Yasoda is overcome, perceiving all of reality. Once she comprehends the omnipotence of her son, he closes his mouth and her memory is erased. All that remains is intense love and wonder for her son.*
The second story comes from the Bhagavad Gita. In chapter XI Krishna reveals his entirety to Arjuna. Arjuna is amazed. His hair stands on end and he is overcome with piety. He sees Lord Krishna everywhere. “With infinite power, without beginning, middle, or end.” Arjuna loses all sense of self and direction. He becomes a true believer in Krishna’s complete supremacy and asks for forgiveness. He also requests that Krishna return to his original and smaller form so that his mind, his reality, can envelope the Lord’s totality. Krishna accedes to this wish and says “by undistracted devotion alone can I be known, and be truly seen in this form, and be entered into, Arjuna.”**
These stories suggest that reality is too big for one ordinary person to perceive so we are laden with our smaller realities. These individual realities are merely cloud-covered versions of truth.
Our yoga practice becomes a process of slowly comprehending the immensity of reality and understanding that the differences in the way we see things—in our truths—are artificial. Reality is infinite and therefore undefinable. It’s just too damn big for mere mortals to get their heads around.
But, if I can share my smaller reality with my daughter and she can share hers with me, our understanding of truth is twice as big as it would be without each other and that’s a good place to begin a thoughtful inquiry of tattva.