According to popular definition, reality is the state or quality of having existence or substance. It also refers to events that have actually happened and those which are being perceived as happening at the moment. Therefore, reality is a state which can be perceived by the five fundamental senses, namely, sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. It is a mental construction of the inputs provided by our senses. Anything, which cannot be perceived, is usually called imaginary or unreal.
However, reality is not as simple as it seems. The more we explore, the more baffled we are at its complexity and true nature. As humans, we have all experienced the state of dreaming. Dreams are nothing but a series of events, images, ideas, emotions and sensations that flash across our mind when we are asleep. They occur involuntarily and are usually reflections of our memories and/or aspirations. However, to the observer in a state of sleep, these dreams appear as real and believable as they would to an observer who, in his state of awakened awareness, would experience the events had they actually taken place. The visual projection created by our mind may be pleasant or unpleasant but the fact is that the observer interprets the mental projection as “real” during the period of the dream. The observer experiences interaction with animate and inanimate entities during this time-frame. He may experience speaking with someone, holding hands, having food or driving his car. In his state of sleep, the observer cannot distinguish between that which is real and that which is not.
Sometimes, the emotions and sensations experienced in a dream have repercussions in the physical world as well. For example: if the observer, in his dreams, visualizes that he is falling from a roof-top or down a flight of stairs, he may experience a feeling of fright or a sense of loss of gravity. When the sensation peaks, the subject wakes up but he may find himself sweating profusely out of fright. He may also experience temporary nervousness and elevated pulse rates in this state. The question that remains is: If the dream was unreal, why did the observer experience nervousness and elevated pulse rates in his awakened state of reality? A scientific explanation would suggest that the dream influenced his mind or, rather, the brain; and the brain triggered hormonal reactions in his physical body resulting in the knee-jerk reaction. Thus, what we perceive as reality, is essentially what our brain or mind wants us to believe. If this hypothesis is true, then is it not possible that what we perceive as reality in this universe, is actually part of an elaborate dream; a dream, which our mind wants us to believe? Is it not possible that whatever we think exists, actually does not? Is it not possible that our lives are also part of an on-going dream? Is it not possible that one day, we might wake up from this elaborate dream and discover our true nature?
Ancient wisdom and spiritual thought suggests the concept of Maya or illusion to explore this possibility. The Upanishads describe the universe, and the human experience, as an interplay of Purusha (the eternal, unchanging principles, consciousness) and Prakrti (the temporary, changing material world, nature). The former manifests itself as Atman (Soul, Self), and the latter as Maya. Maya is the divine ability to create dimensional reality out of nothing. It is referred to as a wondrous and mysterious power which can turn an idea into a physical reality. When we say illusion, it does not mean that the world is not real and simply a figment of the human imagination. Maya means that the world is not as it seems; the world that one experiences is misleading as far as its true nature is concerned. The world is both real and unreal because it exists but is not what it appears to be. It is something that is constantly being made. Maya not only deceives people about the things they think they know; more basically, it limits their knowledge.