Interview with Carl Ernst

by Jawid Mojaddedi

Hosayn ebn Mansur al-Hallaj (d. 922), most familiar simply by the name “Hallaj,” is probably still today the most widely discussed Sufi from his generation. Celebrated by later Sufis for the theopathic outburst “I am The Truth/God” (ana l-Haqq) and for legends about his lack of fear and indeed total embrace of his own execution at the gallows in Baghdad, he was the most important inspiration for prominent Sufis of later times, such as Ebn Khafif, Ruzbehan Baqli and Farid al-Din Attar, and has been celebrated by countless others, including Rumi.
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Hallaj was also the source of controversy for, not only the above events, but for taking Sufism to a mass audience at a very early stage and, among other things, encouraging them to make replicas of the Kaaba in Mecca to use for worship at home (the most likely reason for his execution). What is less well-known about Hallaj is that he was the most prolific Sufi poet of his time, but this is now changing thanks to the publication of some 120 of his poems in English translation directly from the original Arabic by Carl Ernst, Distinguished Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr (Northwestern University Press, 2018) is a special treat for readers of Sufi literature in English who have lacked up till now any substantial writings related to Hallaj. This collection of poems is fully annotated and expertly contextualized by the most qualified scholar for this task, Carl Ernst, who has not only written the only monograph on theopathic outbursts, such as ‘ana l-Haqq’, but has also worked extensively on Ruzbehan Baqli, among a wide range of Sufi research areas so far in his career. Ernst’s academic expertise enriches this volume without spoiling the beauty of the material that he is presenting, as one might fear when so much erudition is applied to it – rather he has highlighted the beauty of Hallaj’s poetic oeuvre with his elegant and sensitive translations that catch the finest nuances in the original Arabic of Hallaj and have been selected on the basis of an extensive and in-depth familiarity with the subject.

Universities across the world have adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic through remote teaching via video conferencing, and the same format has been used for this discussion with Carl Ernst about his book Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr and related topics in Sufism. Interviewing Ernst, Jawid Mojaddedi is particularly interested to know his views about the challenges of working on contested writings attributed to someone so legendary and controversial, as well as the degree to which the poems represent familiar teachings associated with Hallaj, such as the glorification of Satan as lover of God, and the elimination of barriers and distinctions in the human-divine mystical encounter, for which Hallaj was accused of incarnationism (holul) by Muslim theologians.



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Archives 98 – Winter Issue


That is the purpose of reaching beyond what we know to encounter the unknown? Whether it be through travel or an encounter with someone with very different perspectives to our own, going beyond our comfort and subjective perception is what brings us opportunities to understand ourselves and the nature of reality more deeply, to truly wrestle with the ego’s limits, and develop our capacity for divine love and selfless compassion.. READ MORE



by Alireza Nurbakhsh


Two South Asian Pilgrimages
by John L. Caughey

by Igor Kufayev

Woman as Lover in Sufi Discourse
by Safoura Nourbakhsh

A Spiritually Rich Education
by Acharya Shunya

The Christian Mystical Tradition
in Dialogue with Sufism
by Dorothy C. Buck

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Interview with
Trachung Kunchok Palsang
by Tracy Burnett & Tsering Dorje


by John Backman

by Grace Harwood


Interview with Alejandro Jodorowsky
by Reid Pierce

In Conversation with Yahia Lababidi
by Sholeh Johnston

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by Alireza Nurbakhsh

by Wally Swist

by A. G. Parker

by Roger Loff

by Eve Powers


© Peter Pharoah

© John Paul Caponigro






98 Beyond US vs THEM

Beyond US vs THEM


Tribalism is on the rise. Across the United States and Europe, people are becoming more divided along party lines.  Humane immigration policies, democratic values and the future of the planet (due to the threat of climate change) are all at stake, and there sometimes seems to be no prospect of people becoming receptive to opposing views or making any compromise. Tribalism operates at several levels: at the level of the nation, promoting nationalistic ideology; at the level of political party, promoting either right, left or center ideology; at the level of race, promoting one race or ethnic group over the other; and at the level of religion, promoting one religion as “truer” and morally superior to others.

At the heart of tribalism is the idea that the set of values and beliefs to which one adheres is “better” or “truer” than any other set of values and therefore one must not only stay loyal to those views but also one must do so to the detriment of one’s adversaries. Only the tribe I belong to is the right one. Therefore, I must advance the views and values of my tribe while destroying the beliefs and values of the other tribe.

In his recent book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert Sapolsky explores the biological roots of tribalism; he uses the term “Us Versus THEM” to refer to this way of thinking. What’s fascinating about Sapolsky’s approach is that it shows that our biological system is attuned to seeing the world in tribalistic terms of Us Versus THEM, and that we have to make a constant effort if we want to override our biological tendencies towards tribalism.

From the day we are born we learn to group and categorize our sensory data to perceive something as either similar to us or different from us, hence agreeable or repugnant. This is especially true about our ability to recognize and group people in terms of the color of their skin, race and gender. We perceive the race of a person in less than one tenth of a second and the gender of a face within 150 milliseconds. By the age of three to four, children already group people by race and gender and have a “more negative view of those who differ from them in these categories and perceive other faces as angrier than same race faces” (2017, 391).

Interestingly, and perhaps disappointingly, the perception of dichotomy between Us Versus THEM is usually automatic and happens at the unconscious level. But even if we have no control over categorizing someone as being one of Us or as one of THEM initially, control can eventually happen at the cognitive and conscious stage. When presented with information that tells us another person is different from us because of our perception of his/her race, for example, we may either accept the difference as essential or override the difference as being superficial. We can use a higher-level analysis of context to determine if a perceived difference is a real threat or not.

However, there is still further processing at the unconscious level before our conscious mind can decide what to do with the information. Once we recognize someone as THEM due to their skin colour, race or religion, the amygdala (the part of the brain which sits under the cortex in the temporal lobe of the brain) is activated. The activation of the amygdala is usually associated with feelings of anger, fear or aggression. So we already feel fear or anger towards THEM before deciding what to think. In other words, our mental capacity is already rigged or biased about THEM by the time we are presented with information about others at the conscious level. Moreover, hormones such as testosterone or oxytocin may help to support a barrier between Us and THEM. For example, the hormone oxytocin, which is abundant in mothers and promotes trust, generosity and cooperation, can also exaggerate tribalism and encourage aggressive behaviour towards THEM.

The seat of our rational thinking and cognition is the frontal cortex which sits on top of the amygdala. Oftentimes, when our amygdala is activated and we feel anger or fear, we are able to override these feelings and put them aside by using conscious thinking. After examining the situation, we may come to realize that there is no reason for experiencing fear and anger and consequently we can ignore the instinctual fear and anger we feel when we encounter one of THEM. But sometimes our cognitive thinking can be influenced by subliminal messages or alternative realities that our culture may present in order to take advantage of and affirm the bias presented by the stimulation in the amygdala. These false messages serve to discourage us from overriding the biological response, and instead reinforce our basic instincts. We are all too familiar with the role of propaganda and misinformation by political parties to propagate untruths and promote a negative view of the other side. In such circumstances, the amygdala goes into overdrive; once it subjugates our rational cognition, we become a full-fledged member of the Us Versus THEM tribe.

I hope it is obvious that tribalism is detrimental to humanity. If not controlled and defeated, it usually ends in conflict and war with disastrous consequences. In fact, human history is filled with wars and conflicts caused by race, ideology, irrational beliefs and outright false opinions about others. We need a worldview which is inclusive of others if we are to survive as a species. It doesn’t take much to realize that distinctions based on race, cultural norms, ideology and religion are superficial. Distinctions dissolve when we can connect to THEM by listening to them and expressing kindness. Interaction and dialogue lead to understanding and reduce the perceived sense of threat.

Of course, at the political level, one way to resist tribalism is to promote policies that are based on equality and fairness. Such policies, when implemented, can encourage us to question our base instincts. When we feel threatened by THEM and there is no real rational justification for our fear and anger, the existing cultural norms and values can help us to overcome these feelings and override the messages we receive from the amygdala. Humane policies must be able to withstand challenges such as the recent mass migrations from poor to rich countries caused by global warming, poverty and wars. These circumstances have put Western egalitarian views under severe pressure, and have contributed to the rise of populism and nationalism around the globe.

In fact, our moral and spiritual growth is only possible when we go out of our safe community and reach out to others who think differently from us.

Religion can be proposed as a way to reduce or override unconscious or biological tribalism by promoting compassion and tolerance towards others. However, it can also be used as a sword to eliminate others and to promote our basic negative instincts and prejudices. During the Crusades tens of thousands of people were killed. Catholics and Protestants have been killing each other in Europe for 500 years and Shiites and Sunnis for almost 1300 years in the Middle East. We still see the conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India; Buddhist monks led the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (previously known as Burma). Jews have been subject to persecution, expulsion, pogroms and genocide throughout Europe, and the Middle East for millennia.

At the personal level, there are of course various techniques available to an individual confronted with tribalism so as to resist being swept away by feelings of anger and fear when experiencing others as THEM. One is mindfulness: the practice of being aware of our fear and anger and trying to understand why we feel this way towards others. We can try to acknowledge the reasons for it and make explicit to ourselves our automatic biases in order to understand ourselves better and to control such biases. We should pay attention to our shared attributes with others and ignore our superficial differences. We can also actively engage in perspective-taking: when confronted with one of THEM, try to take his/her perspective. Thinking from and imagining the reasons behind another person’s point of view have been shown to reduce our bias towards others.

Where does Sufism fit in all this? For starters, the practice of Sufism is not about having the right sort of belief; it is about having the right sort of attitude in the world. It is the attitude that it is possible to strive to be a better human being, to discover our divine nature and in doing so to bring joy and happiness to others. It is to fight against our base instincts and transform ourselves to kinder and friendlier individuals. The underlying metaphysical premise is designed to help one to achieve this goal. One starts with the principle that there is only one being in the universe and whatever exists is a manifestation of that one being. Oneness is the basis of Sufism. When one accepts Oneness, all dichotomies disappear and with them the distinction between Us Versus THEM. We all share the same divine essence though in appearance we are different. Of course, one does not know the truth of this premise until and unless one experiences it. That is the reason a proper attitude is required in Sufism instead of having the right sort of belief: the attitude that changing oneself is possible. Sufism is an experiential mode of existence. For the one who experiences unity of being, all distinctions disappear—there is only one reality. There is no Us, there is no THEM, but only the One.

It is important to note that Sufism works at the individual level, not at the level of a uniform community. This is because any transformation requires that the individual make an effort while living and working in a normal community. One can only see his/her base instincts while living and working solely with others who are different and who believe and behave differently. The practice of Sufism does not happen in isolation, nor does it work while living and working with people who believe and feel the same way about the world. A muscle can only be developed when it meets resistance; likewise, our strength to overcome our instinctual aggression can only be developed when there is something present that triggers those base feelings.

This is, of course, not to deny the valuable role of community in one’s moral and spiritual development. Human beings are, by their very nature, social, and we form communities based on our shared values and beliefs. We all have a sense of wanting to belong to a group where others share our views. The numerous online communities which have emerged across the internet are evidence of our deep desire to engage with similar-minded people. The role of a healthy community is to provide a safe environment for individuals to thrive morally and spiritually and to actualize their potential in every field of knowledge. But to belong to a community should not mean to deny that there are other communities with different beliefs and values. In fact, our moral and spiritual growth is only possible when we go out of our safe community and reach out to others who think differently from us.

To tackle the problem of tribalism we need a combination of individual efforts such as practicing mindfulness, embarking on a spiritual journey, and employing rational thinking, as well as support from our cultural norms and political systems. If the social fabric of society is not based on fairness and truth, we will be overwhelmed and alone in our struggle to transform ourselves, and we will be susceptible to our inherent biases being reinforced by negative societal influences. Conversely, if we do not struggle to transform ourselves and tackle our biases earnestly at the individual level, no amount of help from society will help us to overcome our basic and biological tendencies towards tribalism.

Sapolsky, Robert, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Bodley Head Press, 2017.


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98 I am drunk from head to toe



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I am drunk from head to toe

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Love for my Beloved’s beauty has rendered me drunk
from head to toe.
I have abandoned my self. I am bewildered.
I am drunk from head to toe.

I keep drinking the bitter wine of pining for Him.
I have lost all reason,
I have nowhere to settle or rest.
I am drunk from head to toe.

Don’t preach moderation to me, I worship wine!
I will drink even more than before;
I am drunk from head to toe.

I know the way of wisdom,
But I am trapped in the Beloved’s love,
and I am drunk from head to toe.

I will rise up and whirl, I will stamp my feet
and holler drunkenly,
for I am drunk from head to toe.

Yesterday is gone, tomorrow has not come;
this moment, among the Rendan,
I am drunk from head to toe.

I swear by the Bestower of Light and my Master’s grace,
that I am happy among these drunks,
and I am drunk from head to toe.

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98 The Bees of the Invisible


Photo © Bert Hoferichter/Alamy.COM

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The Bees of the Invisible

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We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly gather the honey of the invisible in order to store it in the great golden hive of the Invisible.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Poet’s Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke, Translated by Ulrich Baer

I recognize a sacredness
in the kousa dogwood this morning
as I have no other
morning, noticing its red fruit
ripening among the branches
that the barnyard squirrel
will gorge on when it is at its peak,

which marks the end of summer
and autumn’s incipience.
How difficult it is to give up
August’s lushness,
in all of its wildness,
to the glorious diminishment
of September, with its flashy golden

days, the mornings drenched
with heavy dew, each one surprising
as purple asters appearing
amid the cool shadows of the grass.
In winter, when the snow accrues
the rabbits that burrow
in the juniper hedge emerge

to nibble the bark of the dogwood
since they are unable to browse,
and they strip a few inches from
the base of the tree; but now
I am drawn to the counterpoint
of the catbird’s cry
and the throbbing pulse of cicadas.

In making things whole,
the bees of the invisible hover
above deep blue stands of chicory
lingering amid the flat tops
of Queen Anne’s lace that flourish
among the leaning swaths
of timothy’s newly gilt inflorescence.

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98 The World Is As You See It

The World
Is As You See It


When one sees from the Heart,
one’s vision is said to be adjusted…

When the Earth shakes, the tremor is being felt right at the heart, before any cognition has taken place. At that very instant, before any sensory experience kicks in, we feel the gripping sensation at the very core of our being… A split second after, the immediacy of the event is being “assessed” by the cognitive responses, and we act in accord with the inborn reflexes, or the way we’ve mastered the instincts.

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These kinds of experiences strip us bare of all coverings, and we stand naked at the presence of pure Being, even if for a split moment. In the aftermath, we often feel serene and elated from being shaken to the roots of our existence. These moments have the capacity to reveal that awareness is prior to any sensory or mental interpretation. The reason why it’s not obvious, is because cognition takes over in a flash, perhaps to reassure the continuity of sensory perception. This is the key to the mystery of perception, that which keeps the treasure of direct experiencing locked into relationship between the seer and the seen.

The Kashmir Shaiva Tantras speak of dramatic experiences that give us an immediate sense of our essential nature beyond any coverings or conceptual understanding. These experiences don’t have to be terrifying or frightening. The receptiveness to beauty could be just as powerful, for it opens the windows onto a transcendental view of reality.1 Creating or being in the presence of a profoundly moving work of art, in whatever form, could trigger an aesthetic response which prompts us to lose our identity for a moment, and merge with the work. This transcendental experience of becoming one with what is being perceiveds could be said to be the very noble purpose of all arts. Most of us have had these experiences, albeit they are too short and pass unacknowledged. Still, these are casual confirmations of the Self uncoated by Its own power of perception, immediate and self-evident, even if it falls short of a true spiritual revelation.

One could argue that these are only fleeting moments and have little significance when it comes to deep spiritual insights. Fleeting as they are, these moments give us a distinctive flavor of Being beyond any sensory or mental interpretation, well before the Self has fully cognized Itself on the level of human existence. That is, shaken to the core, we fall into Awareness which puts us firmly on the ground of conscious living.

No matter how knowledgeable or intelligent we are, our perception is subjected to the limitations imposed by the relationship between knower and known. It is because the knowledge itself is based on information provided by the senses, and interpreted by the dichotomized nature of the mind. While subject and object remain a predominant experience, direct perception of Reality is hidden from the view. The purpose of spiritual practice is to free our awareness from the duality born of the perceiver and the perceived. Another meaning of liberation, is freedom from the known— not so much from memory, which holds experiences stored as information, but freedom from the identification with the knower and the known above all else!

That liberation cannot be achieved on the level of mind. No matter how clear the grasp of Ultimate Reality is on the intellectual level, it is still a concept. Mind is inseparable from the dual nature of a thought, where subject and object are its chief components. It is for that reason that Perennial traditions speak of merging into the Heart, for it reconciles the seer (subject) and the seen (object) into Oneness—as natural a state as Being itself.

Beatific or terrifying, all experiences arise from and merge into that sphere where perception is in the molten state of pure potentiality. This is of special significance, for our perception is at its utmost refinement when the creative tension between our awareness and pure potentiality is in perfect alignment. That alignment is represented by the union of Shiva and Shakti, and spontaneously takes place at the Heart.

The heart region is associated with many functions, and often serves as a metaphor for feeling, emotion and intuition. However, the Spiritual Heart is not the physical heart, nor is it the energetic wheel known as the Anahata Chakra, but the abode of Consciousness Itself.2 The Spiritual Heart transcends Time and Space, yet it has a precise location in the human body, and experience places it in the chest, two digits to the right of the central line, almost mirroring the physical heart.

Entering the Heart—as most explicitly spoken in the traditions of Sufism and Tantra—is paramount to direct realization of one’s essential nature. For it allows seeing through the Heart. Here perception reaches its spiritual maturity, undisturbed by fluctuations of the mind, and refined to the point of Oneness.

The Heart is the seat of prana (vital force) contained in perfect equilibrium; direct apprehension of the Supreme Essence is fully cognized here. From here, it emanates as Universal Love and finds its expression on all planes. The Heart is the eye of Non-Dual Awareness, which beholds all creation with an equal vision. From here, all perceptions ebb and flow as waves on the sea of infinity.

Everyone familiar with the ancient Advaita Vedanta text3 would recognize that the line­—“The world is as you see it”— serves as a leitmotif of the entire scripture, and points to the core of experience itself. Yet the phrase is not as obvious as it may seem.

At its face value, the line conveys the very nature of seeing, for the quality of perception is based on the cognitive responses. Empowered by the dichotomized and synthesizing nature of the brain, the senses complete the picture by giving us the three-dimensional view of what we call manifested reality. That process, electrical in essence, is conducted by the vital force or prana, as it is known in the Indian tradition.

Prana is the chief property of Shakti,4 the dynamic aspect of Awareness which illumines all processes. Shakti is responsible for expansion and contraction of Awareness on the level of human experience.5

Perception is far from a passive act, and the information supplied by the senses is not an autonomous event taking place in a human body. It is a process where the inseparable relationship between the observer and the observed is in a state of creative tension. Moreover, that relationship is influenced by the quality of perceiving, the quality of observing. When I behold something—anything—I am bringing it forth into existence by the sheer act of seeing. Seen from that perspective, perception is a dynamic process, where perceiver, perceiving and perceived are mutually interdependent modalities of Consciousness, without which there is no experience. Our perception is colored by the modality which dominates awareness at any particular moment. For instance, when the object dominates our experience, perception is said to be reduced to the gross experience of physical reality. When our attention moves to the subject, there is a qualitative shift in awareness.

Entering the Heart—as most explicitly spoken in the traditions of Sufism and Tantra—is paramount to direct realization of one’s essential nature.

The richness of our environment is based on the level of our awareness. The world “out there” is the way we perceive it “in here,” and that’s not a static affair, for our reality changes with our perception of it. It is for that reason that refinement of perception is seen as an indispensable part of any spiritual progress. From gross to subtle, to celestial and beyond, with every change in awareness, there is a corresponding change in perception, and, as a result, in our environment. Consciousness is self-referral and perception is its inherent quality. It is said that the creative vision of an artist is based on the perceptual ability to see the world beyond the obvious. Likewise, the mystical vision is a transparent perception of reality stripped of coverings from the sensory to the extra-sensory, to the divine vision of the Self beholding Itself. Moreover, every change in perception is accompanied by subtle changes in what is being perceived. We are literally molding our reality by the way we perceive it. The true seeing unfolds in being able to appreciate the subtlest aspect of creation in all its beauty and splendor; it’s “To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower…” to borrow William Blake’s line, as a poetic vision of Oneness in motion.

There is a certain view prevalent in Neo-Advaita suggesting that names and forms are creations of the mind, which means that as long as the mind exists, so does the world of forms and phenomena. That view makes sense when the world is seen as an illusion or a reflection of Pure Awareness.

However, when the world is perceived in terms of one’s own Self, what seemed unreal—at the initial or intermediate stages of Self-realization—is now being experienced as one’s own reality, permeated with Bliss. This is a very intimate affair, where such terms as ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ completely lose their meaning. So, the intimacy between name and form goes beyond formation of the mind. To have a better view on that, let us consider the following.

Any form in its essence is sound condensed as matter. Sound creates patterns; these patterns correspond to anything born into the manifested, audible plane of existence. Thus, Kashmir Shaivism speaks of the vocalized patterns of Energy (Shakti) as an expression of Pure Awareness (Shiva), where the matrix6 of name and form is the Womb of all that is born into existence. These vocal sounds emanate from the Heart, and assume an identity of their own by veiling Pure Awareness with the power of Its own limitation. Yet, in essence, all names and forms are expressions of Oneness humming Its own name to Itself.

Shakti (Pure Potentiality) is the dynamic expression of Shiva (Pure Awareness). Shakti is Shiva. Pure Awareness and Pure Potentiality are in a state of constant creative tension, without which there is no experience at all. When it comes to perception, there is nothing that has no Shakti behind its movement. We could suggest that the unfathomable mystery of perception is perfectly reflected through the complex network of cognitive responses on the level of human physiology, where sensory experiences are divine attributes and Grace Itself is the transmitter.

To sum it up without any attempts to pin it down, there is no Awareness without Movement within its own Stillness. Consciousness is conscious of Itself because of Its inherent movement within. What is real or unreal here is indeed a matter of perception. Hence, the world is as you see it. Whatever you perceive, behold it tenderly; it is alive and throbbing with infinite possibilities of which you are but an expression of Love in Its pure potentiality.

1 According to the Tantras, there are five faces of Shiva (Awareness, Absolute), each reflecting a certain attitude and associated with the particular subtle element which has its counterpart in the manifested plane of existence.
2 It is an important distinction that the physical heart is the most refined replica on the material plane, while the Heart Chakra is the energetic wheel which balances the elementary realm with that of pure tattvas (forms of energy).
3 Yoga Vasistha – one of the most important scriptures of the Vedantic Philosophy.
4 According to the Tantric view, Shakti is the primordial power which gives rise to all Energy. It is the power of Shiva (Pure Awareness) manifesting Itself as Shakti (Pure Potentiality).
5 The very term Kundalini, ‘the coiled one’ conveys the contracted state of Awareness on the psychophysiological plane. When that [Energy] is stirred, awakened and undergoes the process of expansion, it is known, from there on, as Prana Shakti.
6 Matrika (Sanskrit), from the root “ma”—Mother of all that exists. Hence the world is seen not as an Illusion, but pulsating with infinite possibilities—Reality Itself. This is an alternative view of maya, distinctively different from the dreamlike illusion largely accepted in Advaita Vedanta.


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