Yoga Vasishtha and the Philosophy of the film Inception

The Concise Version is easy reading.

The world is a dream, says the ancient Indian philosophy of Vedanta. Is this the inspiration behind the film Inception?

There are mixed views on the film Inception. Some could not quite keep up with the multiple levels of dreams within dreams story and were left baffled by the inconclusive ending. The rest are philosophizing about the deeper meaning of the movie and are busy finding similarities between the movie and esoteric philosophies.
No prizes for guessing: I belong to the second category.

Inception Summarized

For those of you who haven't seen the movie (or are still trying to figure out the story) a quick recap.

Set in the future, protagonist Cobb is a criminal engaged in industrial spying. The methods used are unique. In this unspecified future, it is possible to enter the dreams of a person using a special devise and construct dream locations with the help of a dream architect. These specially staged dream events would be used to obtain sensitive information from high level managers of the competition. The corporations are not to be outdone by this advancement in industrial spying. They train their managers to prevent the extraction of valuable information. This psychological warfare is taking place in dreams and to circumvent this situation Cobb must create complex situations such as dreams within dreams in the mind of the manager to extract the information his own client requires.

On the run from the law, not for his criminal activities in industrial spying, but for causing the death his wife Mal, Cobb finally receives a contract he cannot refuse. If he could successfully put an idea in the mind of the heir of a financial empire, his influential client would arrange for all charges to be dropped and he would be free to return home. Extraction of information from subjects seems easy, but inception seems to be close to impossible. But Cobb knows that it is possible. After all it was he who put the idea in Mal's head that the dream world was real, causing her to commit suicide. Cobb, who wants to return home to his children, takes up the challenge. To fulfill his assignment Cobb must create five levels of dreams within dreams.

Assignment accomplished Cobb returns home to his children. Or does he? Was it all just a dream?

Yoga Vasishtha and Mandukya Upanishad: The world is unreal

The Yoga Vasishtha (date unknown, around 200 B.C.) is really a great work of spiritual literature, a story told of dreams within dreams interwoven with the idealistic Vedantic philosophy that this world is an illusion. The sage Vasishtha tells stories that are mind boggling and perplexing. He asks, "Which is reality, this waking state or the dream state?" and finally arrives at the rather disconcerting conclusion that this entire world is an illusion! The Supreme Yoga by Swami Venkatesananda is an excellent translation of the Yoga Vasishtha in two volumes.

The nature of reality has been the subject of the eastern philosophies particularly Yoga and Vedanta since millennia. The ancient text the Mandukya Upanishad (dated around 800 B.C.) examines the waking and dreaming state, in considerable detail. The Mandukya Upanishad was revived and popularized by the great Yogi, philosopher and poet Shankara.

Are you awake in your dreams and dreaming while awake?

No doubt any self observant person would have noticed that the differences and similarities between waking reality and the dream state. In the dream state transitions are sudden and abrupt and there is no logical flow of events. This was illustrated in Inception as well. Our concept of time in the dreaming state is different too. This was one of the main points in the film and it clearly leads to the conclusion that time is a creation of the mind.

Apart from these few differences, there is little else to distinguish between these two states of reality, since in the dream everything appears extremely real to the dreamer. We see, hear, smell, feel, taste as we do in the waking reality and we have the same emotions and fears. While dreaming we firmly believe in the reality of the dream. The dreamer notices neither the dilation of time nor the abrupt changes in sequence. The temporal and causal logic is replaced by symbolic expression. Thus, the laws of time, space and causation are lifted and the dreamer is free!

Yet we do not experience this feeling of freedom and the satisfaction that goes with it, because we are not aware while dreaming.

Ideas and the world illusion

Ideas are a like a virus, says Cobb in the movie Inception. According to the Yogis ideas are the virus that have created the "sickness" called the world-illusion. The Yogis and Sages of India have been saying that we are all hypnotized in to believing that this world-illusion exists. The way out of this world-illusion is death!
When you die in a dream you generally wake up out of the dream. You would call such a dream a nightmare. So what happens when we really die? Following this trend of thought: Do we wake up?

Yes, this has been the contention of the Yogic texts such as the Yoga Vasishtha and that of Yoga Masters and Sages who have mastered the secrets of death. Death is not necessarily to be grieved about; it is an opportunity to be enlightened.

Mal and the Mantra

Mal begins to believe that the dream state is reality and that the reality that Cobb believed to be real was in fact only a dream. Was she really crazy or was she right?
A mantra is a unique sound or syllable that you do not share with any one else. You also keep the mantra with you and it reminds you that both waking and dreaming states are merely different aspects of reality, like two sides of the coin. By using a mantra, a meditator realizes that the waking and dreaming realities are both part of the world-illusion and the reality must necessarily be apart from this.

In the film Inception Mal designed a unique object that looks like a top. When the top continued to spin without falling down, it meant she was dreaming (since it did not follow the physical laws). This way she always knew when she was awake and when she was dreaming. Mal had re-invented the mantra as a visual object. Was Mal right in saying that this reality was a dream and in that she became fearless? If Mal wanted to die because she was convinced that she would wake up then her approach to life is no different from that of the Yogis and Sages who have mastered the secrets of death.

A Contemplative Ending

The end of the movie leaves the viewer with many big questions. Was Cobb dreaming? Would he wake up on the beach and find his children building a sandcastle and his wife Mal is still alive? Is life or waking reality a dream? Are we living in a dream world? What is reality?

If the purpose of this creative effort was to take the viewer out of his comfort zone and get him to contemplate upon his life situation then this film certainly seems to have achieved its objective.

I do not know what the makers of this film were thinking about when they wrote and created the movie Inception. The above is my own understanding of the movie from the point of view of the eastern philosophy of Yoga and Vedanta. May be they have never heard of the Yoga Vasishtha or the Vedanta philosophy of Shankar. May be I am thinking too much. Who cares, this is all an illusion anyway!

Book Recommendations:

The Supreme Yoga


Concise Yoga Vasishtha

Share | |


Saurabh from India:
Nice one!

Simple and crisp... keep it up!

Nishant from India:
The ending was that Cobb was actually awake, because the top wasnt his totem (mantra), it was Mal's. Rather he was married when he was dreaming, so in the last scene he should be wearing a ring in order to be married, but he wasn't. Hence the last scene shows he wasn't dreaming.

sonam from Pune:
very impressive

Write a Comment:

  • *
  • *
  • *
  • *