“Suppose a net has been cast into a lake to catch fish. Some fish are so clever that they are never caught in the net. They are like the ever-free [souls]. But most of the fish are entangled in the net. Some of them try to free themselves from it, and they are like those who seek liberation. But not all the fish that struggle succeed. A very few do jump out of the net, making a big splash in the water. Then the fishermen shout, ’Look! There goes a big one!’ But most of the fish caught in the net cannot escape, nor do they make any effort to get out. On the contrary, they burrow into the mud with the net in their mouths and lie there quietly, thinking, ‘We need not fear any more; we are quite safe here.’ But the poor things do not know that the fishermen will drag them out with the net. These are like the men bound to the world.” – Sri Ramakrishna [1]

We are bound by the bonds of our desires. We spend our life in vanities, chasing after the wind. We are caught in the net spread by maya – the power of illusion.

We think of ourselves as human beings who are free, but the truth is that we are bound head and foot. We do not make independent decisions. We do not even choose what it is that we want. We are caught in the net or web of illusion on so many different levels. We have no idea who we truly are.

The list of the desires that form this net of illusion is endless. We begin developing new desires from the moment that we are born. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov believes that the name of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, should be changed to koach hamedameh, the power of imagination or illusion, for it is the power of illusion that creates all the desires that entangle us in their net.

Swami Premananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, once asked his devotees: “Do you know of what this net of maya is comprised?” Then he, himself, proceeded to answer, “Sense objects, lust, gold, name, fame, ego, vanity, selfishness, and so on. With all these, maya binds the mind of man.” [2]

According to Rebbe Nachman, every world or spiritual level has its power of illusion, a klipah  (shell or husk) which covers the fruit. To pass into each higher state of holiness, we need to break through this klipah of illusion. We need to strip away the layer of illusion which blinds our thinking and see the world and ourselves as we truly are.

We are trapped in the life situations that the actions of our past lives have created for us. We are bound by the fetters of the inborn tendencies with which we come into the world. We are held in the grasp of an inflexible mindset which is very difficult for us to change.

We are caught in a web of behavioral patterns that have built up since our childhood through daily interaction with family, community and friends. We are blinded by the glamor of the material society in which we have ben raised, the desire for wealth and material objects, the desire for name and fame. We are deceived by the mistaken belief that we are the body, the physical consciousness into which humanity has been plunged as a result of the fall from Eden.

How do we break out of this elaborate net of illusion? How do break free of the fetters by which we have bound ourselves?

Rebbe Nachman calls our illusory desires, the “stubbornness of the heart.” He quotes a passage from the Torah (Deut. 29:18) to support this thought:

“…and it come to pass, when he hears the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying, I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart, to add drunkenness to thirst.”

We become caught in the net of illusion, Rebbe Nachman says, because we ignore what we know to be true and follow after the imaginings of our heart. We tell ourselves stories; we make excuses and rationales to fool ourselves into believing our own lies. We do not want to confront the truth of our own imperfection. We do not want to face the responsibility of our strength. We build a world of fantasy to inhabit, and then pretend that it is real.

We can gain release from our illusions, Rebbe Nachman declares, by opening up our heart of stone, by smashing through our fixed desires and expanding into the broader vision of the mind.

The unique attribute of the mind is its capacity to rise above our limitations in perception and expand out into new realms of awareness.  The mind provides us with the ability to analyze and form new mental constructs to aid us in gaining fresh understanding and in seeing through the illusions in our lives.

Rebbe Nachman explains that we counter the influence of the lower imagination by building a higher purified imagination, a mental world based on holiness in which we can dwell. God can then enter in this sacred thoughtform and fill it with His Living Presence.

There are two directions that we can follow in our attempt to get out of the web of illusion in which we dwell. These two directions are encapsulated in a saying of G.C. Ghosh, one of the great devotees of Sri Ramakrishna:

“Maya tried to bind Nag Mahasaya [a devotee of Ramakrishna known for his humility] and Vivekananda in her net, but Nag Mahasaya became smaller than the smallest, so that maya’s net could not hold him, and Vivekananda grew bigger and bigger; he became one with the infinite, and the net was too small to bind him.” [3]

The power of illusion entraps us by throwing a veil of deception over our eyes. This veil causes us to believe that what is unreal is real, and what is real is not. Rebbe Nachman calls this effect of maya the power to make us forget. The Midrash tells us that when a child is born, an angel taps him just under the nose, which causes him to forget everything that he has learned, everything that he has ever known. The power of illusion makes us forget the reality of the higher worlds. It makes us forget where we come from and who we really are.

This was what happened in Egypt. Pharaoh’s decree was to kill the males – the zekharim. This is the same root as the Hebrew word for memory – zikharon. The strength of Pharaoh was the power to make us forget God, to make us believe that our life of slavery is the only reality that there is.

In his famous speech at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, Swami Vivekananda told the large crowd gathered to hear him: “Come up, O lions, and shake off the delusion that you are sheep; you are souls immortal, spirits free, blest and eternal.”

The power of illusion erases the memory of our Divine nature. It hides from us the truth that the might of the Infinite and Eternal is inside us all. If we become aware of the Divine spark within us, if we can tap into the image of God in which we were made, then we will become too big for the power of illusion to bind us. This is the first path by which we can escape from maya’s snare.

On the one hand, maya enslaves us by making us forget our Divine nature. On the other hand, it uses the folly of human arrogance to bind us to this world. Swami Brahmananda once remarked to his devotees:

“Everybody think that he is infallible. Deluded by egoism, man regards himself as very important. He does not even want to believe in the existence of God. He never seriously considers how little he can understand with his intellect. Mahamaya (the Divine Mother) alone knows in how many ways she has kept man deluded.” [4]

If we truly comprehend the depth of our own ignorance and the enormity of God’s omniscience, then we will walk humbly with our Lord. If we realize that all the strengths and talents that we have come from God, then we will look to Him for help in everything that we do. If we can approach our lives with this reverential consciousness, then we will become so small that we will slip through the holes in the net of maya. This, then, is a second path by which we can liberate ourselves from illusion’s grasp.

A person who breaks free of the net of maya, of the koach hamedameh, is a great spiritual force. Sri Ramakrishna compare such an individual to a steamship that can carry many others across the “ocean of samsara”, the unceasing round of births and deaths. A liberated soul is not an aloof master that remains far removed from the lives of ordinary people, he or she is a source of profound inspiration, a mighty refuge for all those who are struggling in this world of deception and confusion.

When Swami Ashokananda, of the Vedanta Society of San Francisco, was asked a question about the effect of spiritual detachment on the heart of a human being, he responded:

“People think that if one becomes detached, one becomes hard-hearted. Actually, one becomes extremely kind-hearted. But there is a different feeling than before; there is a different meaning in it. One sees that man is Spirit, but one also sees that he is caught in maya. One feels a great tenderness. The suffering of others has a different meaning altogether.” [5]

Most of us, it is true, are not great steamships; but we can all strive to wake up to the painful truth that we are caught in the net of maya. We can all throw our heart, mind and soul into the battle to try and break free. We can all aspire to build a spiritual life raft to keep us afloat in the turbulent waters of this worldly sea.


Copyright © 2010, by Yoel Glick

first published 29/1/2010


Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. ‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda, p. 86-7
  2. Swami Prabhavananda, The Eternal Companion, p. 151
  3. The Eternal Companion, p. 150-1
  4. The Eternal Companion, p. 127
  5. Sister Gargi, A Disciple’s Journal, p. 187