Dream and Reality
from Back To Godhead Magazine #18-10, 1983
by Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
I had a dream. I was traveling, trying to reach some distant destination, but I kept being delayed. My airplane arrived at the first stop on time, but when I tried to connect with a further flight I was unable to go on.
I found myself in an airport terminal with thousands of travelers, all experiencing similar delays and anxieties. Some began to despair of immediately catching onward flights, so they checked into hotels. Everyone tried to be cheerful, and yet everyone was anxious to travel on. Then I found myself even more seriously detained when I contracted a serious disease; even if a flight were available, I would not be allowed to travel ahead with the others.
But suddenly there was hope, and my chances for travel were being renewed. But first I would have to pass a series of tests … Here my dream ended.
As a devotee of Krishna, I was able to immediately interpret my dream from the viewpoint of Vedic knowledge. My anxious attempts to travel on to my destination were symbolic of the soul’s transferring from one body to another at death. As spirit souls, we are seeking the destination of eternal, blissful life in the spiritual world, but because of our karma, or the reactions to our past deeds, we have to take birth in this world again and again. Thus we’re all frustrated travelers.
My disease and the other strong detainments in my dream were symbolic of the powerful, alluring material nature, which holds us within the cycle of birth and death. The hope of getting another chance to travel, yet facing the challenge of new tests before reaching the ultimate goal, represent the experiences shared by all conditioned souls as they evolve life after life—getting renewed opportunity especially at the stage of human life, wherein self-realization and liberation are possible.
While interpreting one’s dreams may be interesting, the characters and situations in the dream should not be accepted as literal. In fact, most of us dismiss our night’s dreaming as vague and mythical. We may dream we are seriously ill and in an airport, but when we awaken we find ourselves resting comfortably in bed. Our first concern, therefore, is with the waking world. As William Carlos Williams put it, “The particulars of morning are more to be desired/ than night’s vague images.”
With the aid of Vedic knowledge, however, we can go beyond both dreaming and waking, having understood that both conditions are illusion. When we understand that the real self is eternal, we will know that all material designations, whether dreamed or “real,” are temporary and therefore untrue. At night we may dream we have grown wings and are flying over a golden mountain, and when we wake we may dismiss this as a myth. But who are we really when we are awake? Is our real identity Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so who has just woken up? Are we actually a man or a woman just because our body has a particular sex? Are we Americans just because we were born in a particular land?
According to the science of self-realization, all the designations we accept as the realities of our waking life are but temporary coverings of the permanent self. Since time immemorial we have been transmigrating life after life, taking birth in various species. Forgetful of our true, eternal identity as the servant of Krishna, we assume one temporary identity after another according to our present material body.
We may wonder why we can’t remember our past identities, but the reason is not very hard to understand when we consider our experiences in this present life. In our dreams we assume various temporary identities, forgetting our identity as Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so sleeping in bed. And even in the waking world we experience so many changes of bodily identity, from infancy to childhood to youth to adulthood to old age … And death means a completely new change of identity. But through all our changes of temporary identities, we retain our permanent identity as spiritual souls.
If we accept the temporary designations as the reality, we are dreaming, just as if we were in our beds asleep. Shakespeare was not describing the world of dream but the human existential condition when he wrote: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more.”
The Vedic knowledge implores us, “Wake up! Wake up, sleeping soul!” A human being who has not realized his eternal nature is actually no better than a sleepwalker, a person who appears to be alive and active but who is actually in an almost unconscious state. Life in the plant and animal species is of this low level of consciousness, but the human being has the potential to break from his slumbering forgetfulness of his real identity and life’s real purpose. But if he continues his sleepwalker life and does not awaken, he will meet with great danger. The “sleepwalker” will fall into the abyss of repeated birth and death.
As the Vedic sage Rishabhadeva states in the Srimad- Bhagavatam, “As long as one does not inquire about the spiritual values of life, one is defeated and subjected to miseries arising from ignorance. He does not know that due to his past misdeeds he has already received a body that, although temporary, is the cause of his misery. Therefore I think it is not befitting an intelligent man to involve himself again in the activities of sense gratification, by which he perpetually gets material bodies one after another.”
My symbolic dream may be offered, therefore, as a metaphor to describe the condition of every living being. We are meant to travel, within this lifetime, beyond mere animal satisfactions for the temporary body. We do not have to be continuously detained from reaching our heart’s desire, nor do we have to be plunged into the repeated miseries of birth, old age, disease, and death. But our freedom can be attained only when we begin awaking from the sleep of material illusion. The transcendental literature, institutions, and devotional practices (bhakti-yoga) of the Krishna consciousness movement are intended for just this purpose.