A pivotal point in many sacred narratives is the encounter between the human and the divine, often in terms of a theophany, that is, a visible manifestation of a deity. Early in the Book of Exodus, we read about Moses’ first encounter with God in the burning bush. When Moses realises that the bush is burning, yet is not consumed by the flames, he stops to examine it, and that is when God speaks to him –
“And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.”[Exodus 3: 4-6; KJV]
Here it appears that Moses is prevented from seeing God directly due to his own afraidness. God continues to meet with Moses and talk with him on a number of occasions, to explain the terms of his covenant with the people. On occasion, God appears in thick cloud to Moses and also to the people. However, it seems that God has still not clearly appeared on these occasions, as Moses later asks to see God directly. God cannot reveal himself fully to Moses, but does reveal himself in part, explaining this as follows –
“And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. And the Lord said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.”[Exodus 33: 20-23; KJV]
Here, it seems that the idea of seeing the back parts of God and not his face is perhaps to be taken figuratively. That is, no human being is capable of beholding the divine in its fullness, but only in very limited measure.
Another, rather more vivid, theophany, is found in the Bhagavad Gītā, when Arjuna similarly makes a request to Krishna to behold him in his divine form, rather than in his appearance as a normal person. Krishna grants his request, and is able to show himself in full, as comprising the vastness and complexity of the whole universe. Both Krishna and Arjuna articulate this divine vision, with Arjuna expressing his wonder and awe in ample terms –
Beginning-less, middle-less, endless, with endless strength,
Endless arms, eyes the sun and moon,
I behold you, mouth a blazing fire,
Burning everything with brilliance
To explain, this middle-space between heaven and earth[Bhagavad Gītā, 11.19-20; my own translation]
Filled up by you alone, and everywhere
Seeing your wonderful and dreadful form,
The universe trembles, Mahātmā
Here again, the vision of God is powerful and overwhelming, prompting emotions such as wonder, awe and dread. Indeed, such emotions are closely related to religious and spiritual feeling, and are a promiment theme in all religious literatures. This makes sense from a psychological perspective too, as such emotions cause a diminuition of the sense of ego, and a corresponding enlargement of our awareness of what may lie beyond it. Indeed, the sense of wonder and awe may have been the real beginning of our mental life, provoking a sense of curiosity not only about the nature of the divine but also about the real nature of the cosmos and the natural world. In this way, wonder and curiosity inspire the greatest human endeavours in the arts and sciences.
Thus, too, the term ‘epiphany’, primarily referring to the appearance of Jesus on earth, as the Word made flesh, is similarly extended to describe any sudden realization, such as that of an artistic vision or a scientific theory.
Time in its various guises and motions is itself deeply mysterious and a cause for similarly reverential wonder and awe. One Indian conception of time is the idea of kāla, a powerful and terrifying force that brings all things steadily nearer towards their end. As part of the above theophany, Krishna states –
“I am time, the cause of all development and decay.”[Bhagavad Gītā 11.32a; my own translation]
Intimations of such an awesome conception of time can be found across other Indo-European languages and literatures. Cicero expressed a similar thought in respect of the Greek conception of time as Χρόνος (Chronos), which he identified with both Cronus, who ate his own children, and Saturn, writing –
“The Latin designation ‘Saturn’ on the other hand is due to the fact that he is ‘saturated’ or ‘satiated with years’ (anni); the fable is that he was in the habit of devouring his sons — meaning that Time devours the ages and gorges himself insatiably with the years that are past.”[Cicero, De Natura Deorum; trans. Loeb Classical Library]
Time itself was thus proposed as the fundamental metaphysical principle or spiritual basis of all reality by some ancient Indian thinkers. This abstract conception of time as a vital, active and consuming force is made further concrete in the shape and form of the goddess Kālī, a personage who rightly elicits a sense of devoted awe. Indeed, if the divine or transcendent is to be discovered anywhere, it is perhaps simply in the present moment as such.
We have seen how wonder and awe, in humbling us, elicit curiosity toward both the natural world and also towards what transcends our empirical knowledge, prompting both our rational instincts and our religious feeling. We may end with the words of Prof. Albert Einstein, who has expressed a similar sentiment as follows –
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. This insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.[Living Philosophies, p.5]