The World as Shapeshifter: A Hindu Parable

Generalizations are dangerous, and here comes a big one:  western cosmologies posit a substantial world because God made it.  Eastern traditions declare the world to be illusory because God dreams it.  This naturally shapes traditional tales of the east, where the emphasis is not on sorting out truth and illusion, but waking up altogether.  As one online Zen teacher quipped, “Strictly speaking, the phrase, ‘true thought,’ is an oxymoron.”

Vishnu Dreams the Universe

Quips aside, the Hindu tradition asserts that nothing is more difficult or more important than waking up to the illusory nature of ordinary appearances, which makes true seem false and false seem true. The name for this cosmic illusion is Maya, beautifully illustrated in the following story, in which Krishna, an incarnation of God, gives his disciple, Narada, an experience of Maya.  The one thing worth noting at the outset is that Narada was already a fully enlightened being; the webs of illusion can even snare a sage.


One day as they were out walking, Narada asked Krishna to explain the nature of Maya.  Krisha replied, “Narada, Maya cannot be explained, it can only be experienced.  Come with me.”

Krishna led them to a desert.  Narada asked what a desert had to do with anything, and Krishna said, “Just wait.”

They walked on until Krishna collapsed and said, “Narada, my friend, I can’t go any farther.  Will you get me some water?”

Narada walked on until he came to a village.  At the well, a beautiful young woman drew him some water.  Narada was so taken with her, he followed her home, and was welcomed by her father, the headman of the village.  Before long, Narada asked for her hand in marriage.  Her father agreed, on the condition that Narada stay in the village and live in the family home.

Shortly after the wedding, the girl’s father died, and Narada became headman of the village.  He prospered, and in time, four children were born, but just at the height of his success, a devastating cyclone blew through the land.  Narada put his family in a boat but it capsized in the flood, and his wife and children were lost.

The poor man crawled onto shore and collapsed in the mud, lamenting.  “My wife is gone, my children are dead!  How can I live without them?”

Just then he found himself at the feet of Krishna who said, “Narada, did you remember my water.”


It just seems wrong to add anything to a story like this, so I won’t.

2 thoughts on “The World as Shapeshifter: A Hindu Parable

  1. Never thought of this this way before I knew god dreamt the word and the only purpose of life was life was to get out of the life and death cycle and achieve Moksha but I never saw it together this makes much more sense now!!!


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