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Is Life an Illusion? The Spiritual Meaning of ‘The Matrix’

Zarrín Caldwell | Updated Jun 1, 2021

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Zarrín Caldwell | Dec 15, 2018

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

I’ve been reading the bestselling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari—but I find myself questioning some of the author’s key premises.

This well-written book is teaching me a lot about different periods in human history, although it has a fairly dim view of the spiritual underpinnings of that history.

RELATED: Our Universe Has a Spiritual Dimension

Harari posits, for example, that all the stories told by humankind–including about God and Christianity–are just fictions. He further distinguishes between the “objective reality of rivers, trees, and lions” and the “imagined reality of gods, nations, and corporations.” I understand where the author is going with his emphasis on the myths and stories that have shaped human civilizations, but I give more credence to a divine plan and its influence in human affairs.

At any rate, the book got me thinking about the reality of “fictions” vs. “objective realities,” and what the Baha’i Faith has to say about these topics. The Baha’i writings define this entire physical world as the grand fiction in many respects:  

O thou handmaid aflame with the fire of God’s love! Grieve thou not over the troubles and hardships of this nether world, nor be thou glad in times of ease and comfort, for both shall pass away. This present life is even as a swelling wave, or a mirage, or drifting shadows. Could ever a distorted image on the desert serve as refreshing waters? No, by the Lord of Lords! Never can reality and the mere semblance of reality be one, and wide is the difference between fancy and fact, between truth and the phantom thereof. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 177-178.

The excerpt goes on to say:

Know thou that the Kingdom is the real world, and this nether place is only its shadow stretching out. A shadow hath no life of its own; its existence is only a fantasy, and nothing more; it is but images reflected in water, and seeming as pictures to the eye. – Ibid.

The Spiritual Meaning of ‘The Matrix’

These passages remind me a little of the science fiction movie, The Matrix, (1999) where the reality perceived by most humans is really a simulated reality controlled by sentient machines. The movie itself is very dystopian, but it does encourage audiences to think along some philosophical lines about the nature of existence. Are we, in other words, living in some kind of a hologram?

The above quotes from the Baha’i writings are more hopeful to me, but also imply that this physical world is largely the illusion—essentially a mirror of the spiritual world, where the true reality exists, and not the other way around.

RELATED: The Bridge between the Material and Spiritual Worlds

If we considered our spiritual reality as the more definitive one, how would it change our world views and our behaviors? The Baha’i teachings offer some insights:

O ye loved ones of God! Know ye that the world is even as a mirage rising over the sands that the thirsty mistaketh for water. The wine of this world is but a vapour in the desert, its pity and compassion but toil and trouble, the repose it proffereth only weariness and sorrow. Abandon it to those who belong to it, and turn your faces unto the Kingdom of your Lord the All-Merciful, that His grace and bounty may cast their dawning splendours over you … – Ibid., p. 186.

Our spiritual reality, Abdul’-Baha further clarified, is:

… an eternal reality, an indestructible reality, a reality belonging to the divine, supernatural kingdom; a reality whereby the world is illumined, a reality which grants unto man eternal life. – The Baha’i World, Volume 4, p. 121.

Of course, most of us can’t see and touch the spiritual dimension in the same way that we can see and touch tangible things in this plane of existence. Thus, some would claim that only physical things exist.

Then there are those ancient philosophers, religious leaders, artists, and even some modern physicists who have disputed that line of thinking. According to quantum physics, for example, subatomic matter exists as a probability. What we see in the material world is not as real as we once assumed. Fascinating new discoveries like the Higgs Field–an invisible energy field—are now thought to exist in every region of the universe, although the source is unknown. Would it be so farfetch’d, then, to claim that a spiritual field exists which holds all things together?

Along these lines, Baha’u’llah wrote:

There can be no doubt whatever that if for one moment the tide of His [God’s] mercy and grace were to be withheld from the world, it would completely perish. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 68.

This statement brings me back to the concept of a matrix, which is defined as a surrounding medium or structure. We all live in an encompassing reality that our time/space framework doesn’t allow us to perceive, but that, nonetheless, remains the glue that binds all things together. If we thought of our existence in these ways, perhaps we would spend less time feeling lost in the land of the shadows and not be quite so dismayed by the “troubles and hardships of this nether world.”

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  • Sheila Guttman
    Jan 9, 2019
    I agree that if AbdulBaha said love holds the entire universe together than i believe it! It makes perfect sense..Since God loves His creation.
  • Robert Green
    Jan 3, 2019
    did I mention I googled "the matrix" in the writings for some reason... I had read it before. Shoghi Effendi uses the phrase :) then hahahaha I started looking for other movies :)
  • Robert Green
    Jan 3, 2019
    I feel like NEO after the awakening but stronger. bullets come out of the gun and I stop them in the air with my mind. and laugh at the shooter. and the machines hahhahhaa I eat them for breakfast and me and trinity fly off into the sunset. :)
  • Zarrín Caldwell
    Dec 26, 2018
    Thanks everyone. I'm glad this post was well received. Just to add that I really don't remember a lot of the details about the film the Matrix. I was simply using it as an example of how it led to a larger questioning of what reality is ... and reflecting on what the Baha'i writings have to say about our spiritual reality vis-a-vis the physical.
    • Geo Golden
      Feb 21, 2019
      A very good article. The Bahai's certainly perceive a great deal of Truth, and, God is Truth. A reason why I haven't joined is because they seem not to believe in miracles, particularly regarding the return of Jesus. Believing that He will appear in a normal sense, involving "reincarnation", instead of what He Himself described. In this, it seems to me that when the "man of lawlessness", and "son of perdition appears, they will receive him, who claims he is the return of Christ, but who is just the opposite.
  • Marek Alexander
    Dec 18, 2018
    These writings are clever.They tug at the strings that exsist in all of us," why/how are we here?".As an artist it has been this very question that has plagued me since childhood.Tune in tommorrow ,as the world turns.
  • Dec 17, 2018
    Nice piece, Zarrin joon. I too have been contemplating the existence of an energy field of which all created things are a part, ever since reading some books during my training to be a Certified Music Practitioner. I sometimes wonder if the force that Abdu'l-Baha calls "love" might be that force, inasmuch as He describes it as a binding and unifying entity (and nothing like the "love" that we think of in contemporary culture).
  • Chris Badostain
    Dec 16, 2018
    Love, love, love this essay---right in my lane---these are the facets of the Writings that are really "fun" to contemplate as well as to put into practice
  • Rosslyn and Steven Osborne
    Dec 16, 2018
    I likewise enjoyed the Matrix for the mastery of filming technics but for the pondering of different slant on life. The film about 'How Far Down the Rabbit Hole do you Want to go' I had to watch several times and it is about quantum physic's, totally amazing and made me realise just how wonderful God's creations really are. The book 'Holographic Universe' is another good read, in my opinion. Wonderful title on a very interesting subject, thanks.
  • André Gariani
    Dec 15, 2018
    Amazing ! I always remembered this movie "Matrix" when think about this material life. Same thing as the example mentioned by Baha'u'llah that this world if like a theather in a box. I even used to make fun about it while trying to invite friends to the path of service, I offered then a "blue or red" pill, that would make then awake for what is true purpose of life. Allah'u'abha friend!
  • Dec 15, 2018
    This article is real food for thought. I will be pondering it today and sharing it with friends.
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