Q. Madame Blavatsky frequently said that the universe and everything in it is just illusion. Did she mean this in the same sense in which it is meant by the modern day illusionists such as the followers of “A Course in Miracles” who are always saying that “it’s all illusion”?
A. No, she meant it in a very different sense to what many of the ACIM and other similar people mean by it. The reason the teachings of Theosophy describe the universe and everything in it as being “maya” – illusion – is because of the impermanence, the finite nature, the changeability and ultimate temporariness of the universe and everything in it. It is undeniable that everything around us currently objectively exists but it is equally undeniable that everything around us, everything manifested, is but finite and impermanent.
Theosophy says that it is only that which is infinite, permanent, changeless, unchangeable, and eternal, which can be considered as being TRULY Real. And that is the Brahman which the Hindu scriptures speak of. The manifested universe has a definite life cycle…it had a beginning and it will have an ending…the dawn of Time and the end of Time. Then later it will appear again, exist again, and disappear again. The cyclic appearance and disappearance of the universe is an ever-ongoing process. But although the universe and the physical, material world does currently exist, we must always remember its utterly transient and evanescent nature and keep in mind the true Reality (with a capital “R”), the Infinite Brahman, and know that this is Who and What we are in the essential nature of our own Real Self.
To recap: According to the Theosophical teachings, the universe and everything in it is illusion not in the sense of being non-existent but in the sense of it all being so temporary, impermanent, finite, and ever-changing – a passing appearance – when compared with the changeless, eternal, immutable Divine Principle.
“In Hindu philosophy that alone which is changeless and eternal is called reality; all that which is subject to change through decay and differentiation and which has therefore a beginning and an end is regarded as maya – illusion.” – H.P. Blavatsky, “The Theosophical Glossary,” entry for “Maya”
To put it another way, everything that is differentiated is Maya. That is what Maya is. Differentiation is Maya; Maya is differentiation. Anything and everything that is differentiated is Maya, anything and everything that is manifested is Maya, anything and everything that is conditioned is Maya. Brahman alone is REAL – all else is Maya, all else is illusion. In “The Secret Doctrine Dialogues” it is called “the illusion of manifestation” and it’s said that “everything is illusion on this plane of existence.”
One of the Buddha’s most central teachings was that “All compounded phenomena are impermanent.” As a result of this undeniable truth, even Jagat, Jiva, and Ishvara (the Universe, the individual soul, and the Logos) are considered in Advaita Vedanta to be mayavic and illusionary.
So this is what HPB means when she talks of everything being illusion and maya. It makes perfect sense and is both logical and reasonable. Yet, from what can be gathered from conversations with ACIM students, they insist that the universe does not even currently objectively exist and that it is all an illusion created by our ignorant minds! They say that as soon as one person will fully grasp and understand the illusory nature of everything then the universe will instantly disappear because it is just the illusory projection of our own ignorance. “When one understands it, all will understand it,” they claim. The ACIM teachings are hyperidealistic, unphilosophical, and utterly contrary to Theosophy and all Ancient Wisdom in almost every sense.
* Some related articles include The Existence of Evil, 12 Things Theosophy Teaches, The Impersonal Divine, The One Eternal Thing, Theosophy: The Ancient Wisdom, An Invitation to The Secret Doctrine, and “My Law” – Theosophy in a Poem.