The Snake and the Rope

Apr 17, 2024

Maya and the True Nature of Reality

Is the world you perceive truly real?

Not many people ask this question but I have been obsessed with it most of my life. A powerful way of looking at this is offered by the Indian tradition of Advaita Vedanta.

We mostly take the body and the world to be reality. Yet many spiritual traditions tell us this isn’t actually the final truth. They suggest that the world we perceive with our mind and senses is illusory (this includes the body) and is often referred to as Maya (which means illusion).

Beyond this illusory reality lies a true reality which is what everything actually is.

There are many ways this is illustrated in the teachings but one of my favorites is the metaphor of the Snake and the Rope. This story is used to show how the mind can create an illusory experience which it takes to be real while obscuring the true reality.

Basically the story goes like this:

A man is walking home at night and sees a coiled rope near the road. In the darkness he mistakes the rope to be a snake. Convinced of this, he reacts with fear trying to avoid the snake and fearing that it might attack him. He has a complete fear response as if the snake were actually real and his mind is engaged with trying to deal with the situation. The next day walking back in the daylight he sees that it was really a rope and not a snake at which point the fear of the snake vanishes along with all the thoughts and feelings associated with it.

This story was first popularized by the Indian Sage Adi Shankara in the 8th century to illustrate the concept of Maya. Since then it has been used widely by many Indian Sages including Sri Ramana Maharshi and other teachers.

This simple story contains the entire teaching on the way the mind creates illusion or Maya and how this obscures our understanding of reality and produces suffering.

It can be broken down into three stages that represent a process of discovering the truth.

Lets break it down –

Stage 1 — The Snake

If we don’t question or examine our reality we tend to take things at face value. This is like the man seeing the snake at night and believing it to be real.

Even though there really is no snake and the man is not in any danger, the fact that he believes there is a snake is enough to cause him fear and stimulate frantic thinking about how to avoid the snake or kill it.

All of which is completely unnecessary since there is no snake!

The snake is a metaphor for the objective world of the mind and senses. We take our bodies, our thoughts and feelings, and the world around us to be the true reality. Life is taken very seriously causing us to react to the things of the world intensely.

This is also called suffering. It is suffering because it is based on a false assumption or perception. In this stage, there is a mental projection onto reality and that mental projection, like the snake, is considered real.

This stage includes the vast majority of people.

Stage 2 — A Foot in Two Worlds

When one begins to question their reality, it sometimes leads to the pursuit of a spiritual path and can bring one into contact with a Sage or spiritual teacher.

A Sage has had a direct experience of reality and from that direct understanding explains to the student that they are not what they appear to be. The Sage suggests that the student is really something called consciousness (many words are used for this) which is an eternal unchanging force that constitutes reality (the rope).

There is a deeper truth than what we perceive and it is possible to realize that using spiritual practices. Realizing it has profound life changing effects.

However the habit of perceiving the world of form as true is deep and just hearing or intellectually knowing this is not enough to break the habit. So the Sage gives the student practices such as meditation and self inquiry which they can use to discover this truth for themselves.

This path isn’t about beliefs. It is about direct understanding within one’s own experience.

The practices take time and while the student understands the truth as presented by the Sage, they have not yet fully integrated the teaching. This is a transition period and is not an easy place to be.

The student can no longer believe the objective world to be real but cannot fully let go of the habit so they have a foot in two worlds so to speak until they can experientially understand reality.

One still sees the snake but now doubts its reality and tries to see the rope.

Stage 3 — The Rope

In the story, as soon as the man realizes the snake is actually a rope his fear and thoughts about the snake vanish instantly. The snake represents the darkness of ignorance and when the rope is seen it is like turning on a light.

The light, representing understanding, instantly dispels the darkness and illuminates the truth.

When one sees the rope, the perception of the snake ceases. The rope can no longer be mistaken for a snake. Similarly when we realize what we and everything else really is, the illusion of Maya can no longer deceive us.

We KNOW the truth and we ARE that truth. We have not just understood it with the mind, we have seen beyond the mind to its source.

This Knowing allows us to take life much less seriously. When you don’t take life so seriously it is much easier to be playful and genuinely happy. Your happiness comes from within and cannot be disturbed by mind created illusions or changing conditions.

Life becomes a joyful experience as you have become a living Sage and a true blessing to humanity.

Thanks for reading! I write about life from the heart and topics involving peace, mindfulness, freedom and spirituality. I hold a masters degree in psycholgy and have worked as a mindfulness based counselor.


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