The Matrix, released in the year 1999, is a watershed movie because it creates a construct to represent Maya as far as possible on screen. The concept and understanding of Maya is so deep and complex that even illustrious Indian seers and thinkers have had difficulty coming to terms with it. The usual tendency to equate Maya with ‘illusion’ is perhaps indicative of the supreme difficulty in comprehending and articulating its profound and unsettling import. And saying that Maya means illusion is simply another way of shoving the issue out of discussion with facile explanation or denotation. But the issue does not go away. If not the term Maya, we need another to explain how the formless is able to take form, or the timeless becomes measurable in time. Or how the Truth hides itself in a world that may appear to contradict and oppose it in manifestation and movement, dynamis and appearance.
Matrix brings it home. And makes the whole story a Vedantic experience for those who can see the significances of each symbol, motif, sub-plot or visual metaphor. So not only is the entire frame of reference or the setting of the story an artifact that symbolizes Maya, the story is Indic to the core in its depiction of the spiritual journey of a seeker. At every turn or sub-plot in the story, the stages of yoga in its psycho-spritual elements are depicted externally as physical or physiological events or changes.
Thus, the desperate seeking of Neo who wants to know what the Matrix is an entirely Indian obsession. Then, his transformation, once he chooses to take the pill, with nodes or openings planted along the spine and his body is a depiction of the chakras or centers of concentration of the yogi’s psychological and spiritual corpus. And then, the drop through the tunnel and immersion in water, the helplessness as a newborn in faces of forces unleashed that are entirely outside his control. And the realization that the world is not what he deems it to be but a projection of his false understanding.
And then the final resolution, which is as spiritual as can be when Neo experiences death at the end, and is re-born with the power of love. Once he breaks through the veil or control of life, he is free of all controls that the Matrix has over him and he is able to influence its structure and shape it with his own will. For it is only when the yogi dies to the world and himself is he truly liberated. And once liberated, Maya loses its hold over him, with its limitations of space, time and causation.
I happened to see the movie again after several years and what was most striking to me was that its treatment of the central question of the movie was demonstrably based on the Indian approach to dharma. There are echoes of Christian theology in the portrayal of the messiah, or the chosen one and resurrection at the end. But the central motif is still the Matrix which recurs continuously and freedom from it the overriding theme of every scene and mise-en-scene. And the Matrix cannot be fully understood without invoking the aid of the concept of Maya.
Similarly, there are parallels with Plato’s man-in-a-cave parable or Descartes’ evil demon or the brain-in-a-vat experiment but the solutions are profoundly Indian in inspiration, scope and eventual fulfilment. There are remarkable scenes which raise intricate questions and yet they are treated simply and directly, with clarity and rigor. For example, when Morpheus answers the question ‘What is the Matrix’ with a response that seems vague and dodgy initially, “No one can be told what the Matrix is,” but holds a profound truth. And when he says, without any flourish, “All I am offering is the truth,” it may appear over-reaching perhaps but that was the Indian narrative and realization. That the truth can be realized and lived by every human being.
Or, when the Oracle warns Neo about the vase, and the warning itself makes him tip the vase from its position and fall on the ground to break into pieces. “What will bake your noodle is if you would have broken the vase if I had not warned you about it,” she says and unfurls the entire complex equation of fate, free will, human consciousness, probability and the final outcome of all possibilities in the present.
Or when Morpheus says, “I know. I do not have to hope.” The inner knowing, free of calculation or emotion or thought, is again emphasized when the oracle asks Neo what he feels about being the savior and that one has to know it “balls to bones. As when you are in love.”
There is no better way to present the knowing that each one of us has, which we yet neglect due to the modern tendency to be cynical or reduce everything to dry pessimism or ordinariness. It is by listening to our own ears and watching our own seeing and reflecting on our thoughts that we begin to ignore the static that comes with present-day education. Rather, to know oneself, to know what one knows is true wisdom. This is the Vigyanamaya in us, the true knowledge that is free of the limitations of the mind or any other external way of logic or proof.
And when Morpheus questions Neo about what is real and what is a dream, he again brings home our fixed notions of reality and consciousness. And when he tells Neo that the world is a mental projection of his digital self or his perception of himself as a residual self-image, he is as close to Indian Darshana as possible.
The Matrix, the word originally means the womb, is ‘the world pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. That you are a slave,” says one character. This same description can be used for Maya, the word originates from the Sanskrit root ‘maa’ which means mother. And the final collapse of the Matrix, which in principle, liberates Neo and with him all mankind, is the goal of all adhyatma and its glory.
The Matrix is more than a cyber-punk movie. It is not just sci-fi. It is a profoundly philosophic movie that re-creates the central paradigms and questions of reality, their possible solutions and means of exploration with a dramatic denouement. It is the true story of each human being’s search for meaning shown in the fascinating construct of a computer program and artificial intelligence. But the concerns of the characters and their challenges remain valid for all of us. And their Vedantic resolution represents a discovery that is as valid for us as it was 6000 or more years ago to an ancient civilization in the lap of the Himalayas and the bosom of Ganges.
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