Anniversary Special: The Matrix & Maya

Today, my movie-blog completes a decade in cyberspace with independent reviews of Bollywood and Hollywood movies that I loved or hated. Back then, in the winter of 2003, blogging began when the popular Matrix Trilogy came to an end and I penned my thoughts about 'Matrix Revolutions'. On the occasion of my blog's 10th Anniversary, what best to do than pay tribute to a cult cyberpunk movie, the 1999 film 'The Matrix'.

For the uninitiated, 'The Matrix' is a story of a software programmer Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) who moonlights as a hacker by the alias 'Neo'. He is sought out by a mysterious rebel Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) who reveals to him that the world around is nothing more than a computer generated dream world and makes him realize the truth so that enslaved humanity can be saved. And our hero, along with his love interest, Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss) must accomplish his quest by dodging and at times fighting the deadly 'Agents'.

The Human vs. Machine angle has been played out in many earlier films; chiefly so in James Cameron's Terminator series where, in a futuristic setting where machines seek to destroy mankind as a way to supposedly bring peace. In the Matrix universe, the setting is the post-apocalyptic future where machines have found a use for humans as an energy source, batteries to keep their systems going after humans had torched the skies and killed machines' access to solar energy. The Matrix is a mere simulated reality to keep the brains in the bodies alive.

The story's periodization is also of significance. Although the ruined world is set in the 22nd century, Morpheus refers to the simulated reality of the system being modeled on 1999 which is referred to as the peak of our civilization. This, in a way, the slice of time reflected the global obsession of the millennial bug at end of the 20th Century and the fears that the world may shut down due to Y2K. Fourteen years hence, we can scoff at the hysteria.

Back then, as teenagers, most of us enjoyed the sci-fi and cool action stunts. It was a transition point from the staple action films which blew up things to very slick stunts combining martial arts and state of the art photography. Does anyone remember the epoch making 'bullet-time' sequence created for this film? Well, the term has now been copyrighted by Warner Bros!  Subsequently, a lot of films have displayed reverence for these stunts by copying them. As the Winner of all the four technical Academy Awards for that year, the film was a visual treat.

Those with a keen eye would have noticed the use of a prominent tint to scenes in The Matrix Trilogy. Scenes in the alternate reality of the Matrix had a greenish tint like the yesteryear computer screens or like the display of the matrix code that rolls down as the ubiquitous 'digital rain'; the green therefore serving a metaphor for the computer generated dream-world that 'The Matrix' was. The core of human civilization at underground Zion in 'Reloaded' or 'Revolutions' had touch of warm hues, obviously giving it the most 'human' feel.

Character names have roots in Mythology and philosophy. Protagonist 'Neo' is an anagram of The 'One' that he plays. His mentor 'Morpheus' is named after the Greek God of dreams. 'Trinity' is probably related to the Holy Trinity, used with varying meanings depending on religion. 'Cypher', who betrays Neo is much like the Biblical character of Judas. And, as the name goes, the 'Oracle' is obviously a reference to the mythological wise one who sees it all.

The antagonist, Agent Smith, starts off as a mechanism of control, a sentient program of The Matrix; gatekeepers who prevent the unplugged ones from running amok and destroying the system. As the trilogy progresses, Smith's program gets entangled with that of Neo and becomes more 'aware' of his supposed role in the system. While Neo who has transcended the bondage of matrix but fights for a balance with the system, Smith takes a diametrically opposite, nihilistic approach against the system and seeks annihilation.

Neo's quest to uncover the truth behind the Matrix begins with a point-of-no-return choice offered by Morpheus: "You take the 'Blue Pill' - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the 'Red Pill' - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes". Obviously, he pops the Red Pill.

The writer-directors Andy & Larry (now Lana) Wachowsky have captured the nature of the matrix in one of Smith's dialogs where he says "... the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster..." The view, which is later acknowledged by the Architect in 'Reloaded', refers to a human need to understand the world around us through misery, something that the human mind actively seeks so as to keep itself busy and preserve a semblance of worldly meaning.

Another key to understanding the nature of Matrix is contained in a reference to Jean Baudrillard's 'Simulacra and Simulation' which discusses the use of copies to represent reality and Simulacra referring to copies that depict things which had no real basis to begin with. And  since the Matrix constitutes as a reality to those that haven't realized it's truth, that it is a whole system designed to act like a veil is much akin to 'Maya' in Advaitic philosophy.

According usually accepted beliefs, the absolute Truth, also called 'Brahman' refers to the all pervading universal consciousness with the rest of the universe constituting Maya. But then, the latter is both real and unreal. As Sankaracharya points it out in Vivekachudamani, 'seeing the reflection of the sun mirrored in a water jar, a fool thinks that it is the sun itself'. Apropos, while the image of the sun may be a false, a simulation, but the sun itself is real.

In his lectures on Jnana Yoga, Swami Vivekananda has said "Maya of the Vedanta, in its last developed form, is neither Idealism nor Realism, nor is it a theory. It is a simple statement of facts - what we are and what we see around us" and is precisely so in the case of 'The Matrix'. Also, the Swami goes on to say "it (Maya) exists only in relation to my mind, to your mind and to the mind of everyone else", much like Morpheus describing Neo's self-image in the Matrix as a 'Mental projection of the digital self' and describes real as "If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain".

Some fictional but logical additions to the Matrix cyberspace are its rules such as that of gravity which can be beaten by those who have gone beyond its existential plane. Take the scene where Neo asks for guns and rows of them simply appear and you could load combat training programs and technical skills at the click of a button. But, when Neo realizes his 'One-ness', he just does stuff by merely contemplating it and using bare-hands instead of weapons.

The very concept of some people being 'liberated' and the rest still being 'plugged' to the system is also profound. Morpheus warns Neo that the very fact that the people you see around you in the Matrix are potentially enemies although it is the latter's intention to save them. The following lines describe the feeling "you have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it". Doesn't this sound familiar with the world we live in?

Big questions on ideas of 'Fate' are also discussed. While Morpheus believes in Oracles and prophecies, Neo doesn't even believe in fate. But, as it turns out, the Oracle predicts a lot of things including Trinity's love for the One, Tank stopping Cypher from Killing Neo or the whole Merovingian and key-maker sequence. In the end, it is revealed that all of this was nothing more than a feed-back loop of the Matrix. Even about choice, the Merovingian describes it as an 'illusion between those with power and those without'. Ultimately though, Neo somehow brings a form of peace which wasn't thought of by either humans or machines earlier.

But why the middle-path? Why not bring down the Matrix? This is like asking the oft repeated philosophical question: why can't we destroy Maya? The simplest way of explaining it is by the analogy of life and death. The very fact that life exists means that it is going to die someday as no matter is immortal. While Neo perceives a solution through balance, Smith sees an answer in annihilation. Therefore, where there is good, there is evil and prosperity exists only in juxtaposition with poverty. Even the universe is rests on the premise of destruction in the process of creating or sustaining something else. Ah our life is such a contradiction!

Therefore, the film or the Matrix Trilogy doesn't actually suggest overthrowing the machine regime and creating a new world order. While the first film ends with the note of Neo turning into a superhero, he actually represents the idea of a liberated one.  This idea of personal liberation is not unlike the idea of 'Moksha' where one is 'free' of the bondage of the Matrix depicted by 'Maya'. And the trilogy ends on the note of finding balance between things where the simulated reality persists but those that want to opt out will get to be free.

The spiritual underpinnings are obvious at the beginning of Neo's quest when they visit the Oracle as Morpheus tells him “I can only show you the door; you have to walk through it”, he is the quintessential Guru to Neo. And in the Oracle's home are the profound words 'Temet Nosce' meaning 'Know Thyself' in Latin, probably hinting at the heart of Advaitic beliefs about the self being nothing but Brahman, as the vedas proclaim "aham brahmāsmi". And the realized ones do their level best to alleviate suffering around them without destroying the system.

To sum up, the profound revelation of the falsehood of Maya is most clearly portrayed when one of the children being cared for by the Oracle bends a spoon at will and Neo fails at it. With all serenity, the boy says "Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead... only try to realize the truth.. there is no spoon.. it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself".

So, where do we go from here? 'Red Pill' or the 'Blue Pill'?

References: (1) The Matrix Trilogy Films, (2) Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol 2 & (3) Wikipedia entry on Advaita Vedanta

Declaration: The analytical content in this article is the author's original contribution. Names and Characters from the film are the property of the filmmakers. The views on philosophy and interpretations of quotes from spiritual texts linked to the films are purely personal.