Shankara was protected before the elephant could do him any harm because the point was not to harm Shankara but just to test if he really believes that the world is an illusion. Dripping with perspiration, frightened out of his senses, he was called to the court. The emperor began to laugh and said, “Tell me now that the world is an illusion.”
Shankara said, “Your Majesty, the world is certainly an illusion.”
The emperor burst out laughing and said, “You are mad! This is absolute madness! Why did you run away? Why did you shout and scream? Why did you cry? Why is there perspiration on your face? Why is your heart still beating so fast? Is this all because of an illusory elephant?”
Shankara said, “Your Majesty, this is as illusory as the elephant. With a real elephant there would be real tears. With an illusory elephant there are illusory tears. My running was also illusory, my shouting and screaming were also illusory, your listening to it was also illusory.”
The emperor shouted, “Stop this nonsense! You are mad! You are even more mad than the elephant. Now there is nothing more to discuss.”
On the surface it will seem that Shankara has given a strange answer, but it is right. When Shankara says “The world is an illusion” it does not mean that the world doesn’t exist. It simply means that you are just looking at the reality in a wrong way, hence things are not as they appear to be. Your perception is false and this “world” is your perception, it is your projection on the truth. You have not known truth, you have only defined it, and your definition is false. “World” is an ignorant man’s definition of the brahman, the ultimate reality.
And when your eyes are opened in awareness and a stream of love begins to flow from them, then you will see this same world from a different angle, from a different perspective. Then a different context will happen and all your definitions will change. Then you can say, “What I saw before was false,” because faced with this vaster reality what you saw becomes insignificant. Then you will say, “Whatever I have seen until now is not right, this new vision has cancelled it.” Your seeing is the decisive thing.
This is why in India metaphysics is called darshan, seeing. In the West they use the word philosophy. “Philosophy” is not so precious a word as darshan. Philosophy means to think, to contemplate; it is not seeing. Philosophy means to think about life, to contemplate and to make conclusions. Darshan means that whatever you think and conclude cannot be the truth because in your conclusion, in your thinking, you will be included. Your definition will be your definition. Just see directly without bringing words in.