Make Believe and Reality

One of London’s popular tourist attractions is 221a Baker Street, the home of Sherlock Holmes. The blue circular plaque fixed to the facade tells us that the consultant detective lived there from 1881 to 1904. Scores of tourists patiently wait their turn to cross the historic threshold and view the furnishings and relics of the great man.

None is troubled by the fact that Holmes was a fictional character invented by his author, Arthur Conan Doyle. Many believe he was a real person, and all are happy to fall in with this belief while touring the premises.

Only a churlish killjoy would relish announcing to that hopeful throng: ‘You are living in a world of make-believe. All that you see has no more reality than a theatrical stage set. The one who claims your homage never existed.’ Such an announcement would be unsettling, and, although intellectual maturity demands that all must eventually face this truth, now is not the time.

Besides, Holmes, in the context of the stories, is ‘true’: for the criminals he pursues, he is as real as they are. On that fictional level he certainly existed, and his unique personality is the basis of the paraphernalia that celebrate his memory.

In the history of religious thought, similar distinctions between provisional and ultimate reality are noticeable. At first the human mind needs concrete pictures and ideas of God that are taken to be as real as we believe ourselves to be. Hence God is worshipped as the all-knowing creator and father in charge of this world, the supreme intelligence inspiring the laws of nature. This is a crucial and helpful explanation for us at a certain stage of development. Even the apostle Philip bade Jesus: ‘Show us the father’, but no such demonstration is possible, because God is the absolute reality underlying and transcending all appearances, who can only be known in spirit and truth, and not through our usual channels of knowledge, the senses and the mind.

The Upanishads indicate that as our understanding evolves, so do the ideas of reality suitable to that understanding. In these ancient revelations, God or Brahman, the Absolute, is first presented in relation to the world of plurality as its creator or projector, unfolding the great elements. The narratives differ, but their point is that the universe has a divine source and cohesion that sustains it even now.

Such an explanation helps the human mind up to a point. The more advanced conception, given, for example, in the Taittiriya Upanishad, signifies the supreme reality as existence-consciousness-infinity. Though abstractions, the first two have an affinity with our own direct experience of ourselves, for we only know consciousness and existence with reference to our own consciousness and being, and so we can contemplate the reality in ourselves as one with the whole.

Even this is not the ultimate pointer to the supreme truth, which transcends all qualities. It is ‘neither this nor that’. All we can do is to clear our mind of all that we think about God—of all make-believe—and realise that when all these limitations are negated, what remains is the limitless, imperishable reality underlying everything.

Our initial conceptions of the supreme being have an important training role while our mind can only handle qualities. But all such descriptions are supports for the time being, to be discarded in favour of deeper insights. Ultimate reality is to be detected by approaching That in us which can never be negated, and the solving of this mystery is far more significant than any case resolved by Sherlock Holmes.

This article is from the Winter 2017 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.