Dawn in the south Indian pilgrimage town of Sringeri, in Karnataka. It’s a brief moment of stillness and cool. Walking sleepily in the half-light, I’m startled by something coiled on a veranda—a snake, which, from the looks of it, is drowsy too. But as my eyes adjust to the rising light, I look again and laugh: it’s not a snake—merely a coiled rope, left by a man who’s been fixing the tiled roof.
This bit of self-deception—mistaking a rope for a snake—is an occasional false alarm in Indian life. It’s also among the most well-known, even hackneyed, examples cited in Indian philosophical thought. Its purpose is to show that, although the sensory world is out there, our imaginations sometimes intervene between us and reality. Our minds, in other words, are tricksters. At the same time, what we perceive—the snake superimposed on the rope—has real power. As another famous example from Indian philosophy runs, even someone who only thinks he has been bitten by a snake can die from shock.