February 17, 2007

Second Life and the Maya of Vedanta

Advaita Vedanta is the school of thought that lies at the heart of the perennial philosophy – the Sanatan Dharma – of India and it has been elegantly articulated by seers like Sankara and Vivekananda. Second Life is a popular software application that has evolved in the 21st century out of the seemingly trivial genre of computer games that are collectively referred to as Massively Multiuser Online Role Playing Games. Is there a connection between the sublime and the apparently ridiculous ? Perhaps there is … That is what we explore here.

Advaita Vedanta is a profound discipline that has been researched and commented upon by numerous learned persons and it would be futile to try and explain it in a few paragraphs here. Nevertheless, for the purpose of this article, it is necessary to look at some of the important concepts around which it is based.

An important idea that Advaitins believe very strongly in is the concept of : Brahma Satya, Jagat Mithya – the World is an Illusion, Consciousness is the Only Reality. This idea rests on three other concepts namely that of the Atman – the Self, the Brahman – the Supreme Consciousness and the elusive concept of Maya – the Illusion. These three crucial concepts can be summarized as follows1 :

Atman - the Self : The entire phenomenal world is bound by time, space and causation and as long as one is confined by these concepts, the experience is limited. Beyond the realms of time and space, there is an absolute and unconditional Reality that has no beginning and no end. That is Atman, the Self. The Self cannot be experienced by the senses. This Self is both within and outside the body. Unlike the body it is beyond death and decay. The Self is the fountainhead of the life force that animates and motivates the mind-body complex. According to Sankara, this Self is the all-pervading, self-illumined Consciousness.

Brahman - the Supreme Consciousness : Brahman is the ultimate Truth within and without. Brahman is also all-pervading and self-illumined Consciousness and the relationship of the Brahman to the Self is that of the forest to the tree. The entire universe emanates from Brahman, exists in Brahman and at the time of dissolution returns into Brahman. Stepping beyond the primitive monotheism of the Judeo-Christian philosophy/theology, Sankara asserts that the individual Atman and the universal Brahman are one and the same and the concept of a creator that is distinct from the creation is a cosmic illusion.

Maya - the Illusion : The phenomenal universe that can be perceived by the senses is actually an illusion called Maya. This Maya is what causes human beings to perceive worldly phenomena and respond to the environment. Vedanta states that Maya shields the Truth or Brahman from the Self or Atman. The concepts of time and space that veil the face of Truth are aspects of Maya. Because Maya veils the Truth, the individual Atman misconstrues both the world and itself as different from the Truth or Brahman.

For the modern scientist, the concept of Maya or illusion is unacceptable. How can the world us be unreal ? I can feel it, touch it and it has an existence even beyond the life span of any individual.

Adepts and enlightened seers have of course understood the nature of Maya and have managed to overcome the illusions with which she shrouds the ultimate Reality but for those of us who have not yet achieved the right karma to break through the veil, the only option left is to believe those who have been there. However the emergence of Second Life as a popular software product can help many of us to understand the nature of this Maya a little better. SecondLife has its origins in the class of software known as Massively Multiuser Online Role Playing Games but is now more than a game.

Wikipedia describes2Second Life as an Internet-based virtual world which came to international attention via mainstream news media in late 2006 and early 2007. Developed by Linden Lab, a downloadable client program enables users to interact with each other through motional avatars, providing an advanced level of a social network service combined with general aspects of a metaverse”.

According to Wired Magazine3 The vision of former RealNetworks CTO Philip Rosedale, Second Life emerged from beta just three years ago. Rosedale was convinced that the increasing adoption of broadband and powerful processors made it possible to create a 3 D virtual world similar to the metaverse Neal Stephenson described in his sci-fi novel Snow Crash. Rosedale and his team at Linden Lab govern Second Life and rent property to the steady stream of fresh immigrants, but beyond establishing a few basic protocols, they pretty much stay out of the way. Almost everything you'll see has been built by the locals, from the swaying palm trees at the Welcome Area to the pole-dancer's dress at the XXX Playground.

Second Life is a fairly standard client-server application that runs on the Internet but the analogies which it offers are truly staggering. You use the SL client software, running on your computer, to “enter” the virtual world that resides on the server machines, with a userid and password and immediately an “avatar” – a graphical representation of the user – appears in the virtual world and become visible to other avatars, who are connected to other users who have similarly entered the world from their machines.

Avatars interact with each other in a virtual landscape populated by persistent objects like houses, trees, lakes, cars, shops, merchants, animals, aircraft – you name it, it is there. Each of these objects has been created by other users through their own avatars inside Second Life. This an eerie, but enjoyable world, filled with almost all ingredients of real life – there is a thriving economy, based on a convertible currency, almost as large as the GDP of a small country, there are relationships between avatars, there is law and politics and inevitably crime – committed by avatars and appropriate punishment. A key ingredient of Second Life is the concept of property rights. What you build is what you own and what you own, is what you can sell or rent !! And this is why Second Life is no more a game but an all new world to explore and profit from.

If you are immersed in this world – an at the time of writing, there are more than 3 million users of whom nearly 15-20,000 are concurrently in-world – it occasionally becomes impossible to the borders of what is real and what is virtual. Is this Maya ? Obviously not but if you consider the following … the analogy could be very compelling indeed.

The author has his own personal property in SL where he has built the Mahamaya Kali temple and it all began with a simple desire, to know who was visiting this temple. As the first step was very simple he created a phantom, nearly-invisible, trip-wire around the teleport point and sent out an email to his blog whenever someone passed through it and this helped track who all were visiting the Temple. But then he got ambitious and decided to see if he could create an in-world camera that would take a snap of the individual instead of just sending the email. Unfortunately this proved to be impossible .. and here is why.

Objects in SL are represented as pieces of data and it is the SL client software that assembles this data and gives it a visual representation. So to create an in-world camera, one would have to use a full fledged SL client, that runs recursively within the SL client itself … and this is orders of magnitude more difficult than writing code to do a host of normal things like driving a vehicle or creating a flying bee.

This leads us to the larger philosophical question .. does the existence of reality depend on the existence of a consciousness to perceive the reality ?

This is where we can invoke the analogy and state that the SL client is the equivalent of Maya ( or illusion) that assembles the view or perception. Without this Maya ( or the SL client) there is no Reality or at least the no perception of Reality. Is it that the act of seeing or perceiving is the cause for the existence of the object of perception ? Is it that I perceive, therefore the world exists.

Of course it may be argued that even if the SL client was not around to perceive the artifact in SL, the artifact would still exist in the SL asset server. But the representation of the asset in the server is a series of digital bits in a database which is far removed from the tables, chairs, houses and trees that are perceived when they are viewed through the SL client.

So in Real Life, the Reality could be in a form that is significantly different from the way we see it ... and we see it the way we do because of a Viewer that is placed between that Reality and us .. and that is what the Advaitin would say is Maya. When this Maya is removed, what remains is something quite different. In SecondLife, if we equate the SecondLife client to Maya and if the Maya is removed, then there are no artifacts, only a stream of digital bits. In Real Life the big challenge is to know the equivalent of the digital bits. Is that Brahman ? The supreme consciousness ... Perhaps it is.


1 This brief introduction to Vedanta is based on the book "Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy" by Pandit Rajamani Tigunait, Ph.D. ISBN 0-89389-076-6 © 1983 by The Himalayan International Institute

2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_life

3 http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.10/sloverview.html

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