Why is God Scary? Beholding Cosmic Form

If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once
Into the sky,
That would be like the splendor
Of the mighty one.
~Bhagavad Gita XI.12

I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. 
~Bhagavad Gita XI.32

Language, by its very nature as crystallized concept, can only stab at slivers of experiential fullness. It isn’t fine enough a sieve to completely capture the multidimensionality of any experience, including experiences beyond the familiar. To put something into words is to limit its limitlessness, to pin it down behind glass. The onlooker creates what they see in the very act of observation. If we are limited in our discussion of any experience, how then do we digest and integrate awakening experiences that are beyond language and concept?

When we use language to describe unfamiliar and peak experiences, we use relative truth in an attempt to describe absolute truth. As Agehananda Bharati, a Hindu monk, Sanskritist, and comparative theologian, notes succinctly, language uses object-language terms to qualify non-object-language concepts. In the phenomenal realm, saṃsāra (संसार), we stab at the absolute, nirvāṇa (निर्वाण), of which the phenomenal is only a reflection. Within the limits of ego identity and language, how can we contain non-duality? How can we articulate the unspeakable? How can we digest and integrate experiences that are far beyond our ken, without driving ourselves back into illusion-borne fear?

J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb, recalled the two verses (śloka, श्लोक) above from Chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita, after witnessing the successful detonation of the first atomic bomb at the Trinity site in New Mexico. In a completely non-moralistic sense, śloka 12 is positive and śloka 32 is negative. These two verses convey the sheer awe of a force that is powerful beyond conception, and they happen to beautifully bookend the nuanced scope of what we might call divine experience, a glimpse of the transcendent other.

For the sake of this piece, this is what I mean when I use the terms “God,” “the unspeakable,” and “non-duality;” experiences that are beyond the familiarity of the everyday. It’s important to note, however, that if we look very closely, these experiences wink at us even in the midst of the banal. In uncovering the loving presence that is our true nature, we’re able to more readily see divinity’s expressions in everyday life. This requires erasure of the culturally borne boundary between mundane and spiritual life.

Whether Oppenheimer intended it or not these two verses above very aptly collapse the spectrum of divinity, in seemingly paradoxical terms that in truth hint at its wholeness. Śloka 12 describes the wondrous, creative and life-giving aspect of the divine in all its fullness, embodied in the god of the ancients, the sun itself. The second line, from śloka 32, describes the chaotic and terrible aspect of divinity, its apocalyptic, human life-taking capacity as death and destruction beyond reason and comprehension. In the divine vision Arjuna receives, the seamless unity of positive and negative gushes forth infinitely from the manifold fiery eyes, arms, thighs, feet, bellies, and much-be-tusked mouths of Krishna in supernal all-form, at once marvelous and horrifying. Filtered through the limitations of human egoic and intellectual understanding, the paradox of the absolute is overwhelming and confounding. Holy shit!

Rudolph Otto, a German Lutheran theologian and early 20th century scholar of comparative religion, describes the “elemental experience of apprehending the numinous itself.” In such moments of apprehension, he writes, “we are dealing with something for which there is only one appropriate expression, mysterium tremendum et fascinans,” the divine as both wrathful and awe inspiring. Dionisio Santos and Aubrey Bamdad, contemporary vegetalistas and the founders of Yacumaman Ethnobotanical Center for Shamanic and Vedic Studies, use the same pithy Latin phrase to describe the challenging and beatific nature of experiences beyond the familiar. They write, “touching the eye of the tornado can perhaps be better understood through contemplating the Latin expression, Mysterium tremendum et fascinans, which roughly translates to ‘the Mystery before which one both trembles and is fascinated, is both repelled and attracted.’” While we cannot fully understand the divine mystery of this relationship, a variety of wisdom traditions, and the unfamiliar experiences themselves, teach us that this mysterious complementary play undergirds consensus reality as we know it.

As Ram Dass says of relative and absolute truths,

Krishna is suggesting that beyond both that which is form and that which is without form, behind both purusha and prakriti, behind the Brahman and the shakti, there is still some other… what? Something. But what is it? It seems there is still the dharma, there is still law, there is still some kind of directionality to things.

Whatever Brahman is, we know that it is the ultimate paradox, the simultaneous presence of all paradoxes. In Brahman, there is no space: everywhere is here. In Brahman, time has stopped: past, present, future, all are right now. So there is freedom from both space and time.

I’d like to qualify that a little bit differently. In Brahman, the unspeakableness of non-duality, time hasn’t stopped, rather, the human perception of two-dimensional linear time has is expanded, becoming multi-dimensional. It has gained volume beyond our linguistic and cognitive capacities, because the experience itself is so much fuller than language, so much more overwhelming than the narrow vision that our filters in ordinary consensus reality allow.

So what we call the Bhagavad Gita is a moment outside of time. It is sadhi (संधि), a juncture or ligature, in the epic time of the Mahabharata, the larger epic structure in which it is embedded. As Winthrop Sargeant writes in the preface to his translation, “when God speaks, it is not illogical for time to stand still while armies stand frozen in their places.” The Bhagavad Gita crescendos with Chapter 11, Krishna’s ultimate teaching, delivered as violent divine revelation to Arjuna. Until Chapter 11, Krishna’s teachings are in the form of philosophical discourse with Arjuna, theoretical explanations of the paths and practices that lead to mokṣa (मोक्ष), or liberation, in an attempt to persuade Arjuna to get right with his dharma (धर्म), which is his duty to support the cosmic order via right action.

When Arjuna still isn’t convinced, he requests vision of Krishna’s true form, and Krishna grants him the grace of temporary divine sight. In the radical formless (and thus infinitely formful) emptiness of divinity he glimpses, Arjuna experiences both the wonder and terror of a vision of that is everything all at once. He witnesses the gushing and torrential maelstrom of radiant chaos that is vishvarupa (विश्वरूप), the all form, sampurna virata (सम्पूर्ण विरत).

As Winthrop Sargeant also writes in the preface to his translation,

“The dialog builds, until Arjuna receives from Krishna a vision of totality that liberates him from his prior self-preoccupied identity. This experience prompts Arjuna to seek new answers from Krishna, answers that explain how to live with an understanding in which action becomes purposeful and liberating.”

So what about this overwhelming and expansive experience of God teaches Arjuna that action can become purposeful and liberating? When we have such an experience, how do we integrate it into our mundane lives, lest we fail to awaken to its wisdom, the event’s teaching unfulfilled? What practical digestif or linguistic shift might ease our spiritual digestion, begetting integration and adaptation of said experience beyond the familiar?

Tantric scholar Christopher Wallis makes a distinction between what he calls awakening experiences and enlightenment experiences, an important linguistic nuance that isn’t often made. In the West, the terms “enlightenment” or “liberation” seem to suggest downloadable wisdom, without the caveat that a true awakening experience will require integration work, which takes time and repetition.

Processing an awakening experience requires a framework for addressing psychological and saskār-ic baggage(from saṃskāra, meaning habitual mental impression, संस्कार). This integration work, which is sometimes painful, and sometimes joyful, and most often a medley of flavors including repetitive, frustrating, humbling, and boring, is what we call practice. Of yogāsana (योगासन, yoga postural practice), BKS Iyengar said, “change leads to disappointment if it is not sustained. Transformation is sustained change, and it is achieved through practice.”

Wallis goes on to note, that in the context of the Indic traditions, the awakening experience isn’t enough in and of itself, in contrast to the contemporary Western cultural approach, which is often to focus on the dazzling, blissful, or overwhelming experience itself, without intent to integrate it into daily life. We have many wisdom traditions or paths, mārga (मार्ग) from which to choose, as the dialog of the Bhagavad Gita teaches, but the point is that we are engaged continually in practice that is integrative. Wallis asks, are we interested in the experience itself, however spectacular, terrifying, and awesome, or in the fundamental reorientation of which the experience is both byproduct and catalyst?

In the yoga and healing circles around me, I often witness a lack of awareness of this distinction, sometimes resulting in spiritual bypassing. Wild and awesome experiences are seductive, but we are stuck when we resist the practical work that follows these experiences, which leads to reorientation and growth. We risk treating occasions for growth as experiential tourism, to be consumed and discarded, in typical techno-capitalist fashion.

In this sense, as a culture, we are more likely to value the thrill of being in motion, becoming so caught up in the intensity of the experience that we fail to notice the subtle and pervasive field of awareness that underlies this intensity. We run this risk of missing out on a glimpse of the substratum of being, even when searching for the familiarity of stretch and effort in habitual yoga postural practice, without attention to the nuanced interstices between these familiar sensations.

We paradoxically uncover the fundamental stillness embedded in this intensity and vibration, or spanda (स्पन्द), when we learn to see beyond the fireworks of a powerful experience, when we learn to rest, steadily witnessing, in the eye of the storm, rather than seeking the divine experience in and of itself. As Wallis further notes, “the awakening is real, but the integration is incomplete.” The Gita addresses this potential problem, which Wendy Doniger describes as a satire on the reader’s forgetfulness and spiritual indigestion as much as Arjuna’s, when Krishna, ‘rather crossly, remarks that he is displeased that Arjuna failed to understand or retain the revelation, and he adds, ‘I cannot tell it again just like that.” But he says he will tell him “another story on the same subject.’”

In cultivating detachment from the fruits of practice, we honor the process, rather than grasping at the milestones we encounter along the way. These milestones are grace granted, but the work is never done. Like everything, they come and go, and come and go. This is what Krishna means in the primary message of the Bhagavad Gita, advising that we abandon the fruit of our actions so we may be fully present in the process rather than obsessed with the goal. The result isn’t that we arrive at liberation sometime in the future, but that we achieve liberation in action, as process, discovering in witnessing the seeming transcendent other that liberation is immanent already.

Approaching new experiences in this way accounts for a very different outcome of practice in the field of day-to-day life. We learn to see the wordless underlying truth of reality such that it cannot be unseen, even in the quotidian, thus fomenting evolutionary change in our default mode of being. We grow new neural network connections, flexible and joyous bridges over the well-worn gulches of habit and conditioning. Practice stabilizes us such that we do not confuse passing blissful experiences (or equally temporary terrible experiences) for the fundamental reorientation that guides us toward discovery of our immanent wakefulness.

The theoretical teachings of the Gita can be viewed as an initiatory path for Arjuna, and for the reader as jñāna yogi (ज्ञान योगि), culminating in divine revelation. In the narrative, the hierarchy of practices that Krishna offers to his disciple are frameworks for understanding the mystic vision of chapter 11. However, even with the deliberate and didactic paradigms Krishna has provided, Arjuna trembles at the intensity of this vision, his hair standing on end. The Gita is a moment of crisis for Arjuna. His inner conflict has become so real, his typical patterns so disrupted by the situation in which he finds himself, that he is finally open to the possibility of something new. This moment functions as an ego death for Arjuna, a kind of shamanic dismemberment. Ram Dass writes of this pivotal moment in the Mahabharata, in which Arjuna’s crisis becomes his reorientation opportunity:

The discipline of not being attached to any patterns whatsoever, the discipline of standing nowhere. That’s a very scary discipline. It’s terrifying to stand on the edge that way, to have no definitions you can cling to: no reference groups, no identifications, no self-concepts, no models (Dass 32).

In culturally-conditioned consensus reality, we lack the eyes to see divinity, the form of the cosmos. The mystic vision Arjuna receives in Chapter 11 is gratuitous grace granted by Krishna, so that he may be seen in his supernal form, the form of everything, sampurna virata (सम्पूर्णविरत). The framework of practice that Krishna offers is an initiatory path, providing Arjuna with the interpretive scaffolding to understand and integrate his experience of beholding the divine. Being rooted in practice allows the initiate to understand the experience of the absolute, which is by its nature disorienting, because we are so comfortably and habitually oriented in our ego identities. It is how we know ourselves, and thus how our automatic brains feel safe. In order to see the divine, Arjuna is granted divine vision, and this vision requires him to temporarily forgo the orientation of his ego constellation in the familiar, including the familiarity of his buddy Krishna’s human form, which has been veiling the full expression of his divinity.

The culmination of practice we maintain at the moment of beholding cosmic form, and of which we continue maintenance following an illuminating experience, allows us the potential to sit in the eye of the tornado, the relatively still place from which we see the storm raging all around us, to feel its awesome power, and to hold steady our gaze nonetheless. We seek the relative stillness within the movement, rather than the movement itself. We remain upright in our seat, aligning our spines with the eye of this soteriological storm, homeostatizing back to center even when powerful winds threaten to knock us over, again and again. We pan out into a more holistic sphere of open awareness, and expanded halo of mindfulness, becoming the balance of dynamism’s dance itself, refining this open awareness to such a degree that we may penetrate through the swirling motion around us, flowing this way and that without losing connection to the substratum beneath this wild window dressing.

While the path of initiatory practice doesn’t guarantee a particular outcome, and one of the most important lessons of the Bhagavad Gita is detachment from the fruits of our practice and actions, if we take the Gita allegorically, and engage in steady practice, metaphorically remaining upright on the practice path, in a sense we, like Arjuna, are requesting the possibility of mystic vision from Krishna. It is the practice path that primes us for direct knowledge of the unspeakable. These practices themselves have the power to call up experience beyond the familiar, and simultaneously have the potential to prepare us to meet this altogether-something-new, and to process it once we have beheld it. In practice we set the conditions so that the fundamental truths underlying everyday reality may unfold in a manner that we may observe more intimately. Like bower birds, we prepare our nests well and beautifully, building more welcoming and hospitable bowers into which the visions of truth may fly. Practice is at once scaffolding and means and end, a container for the unspeakable nature of non-duality.

The unspeakable is our own eschatology, a symbolic, shamanic death in the form of reorientation and initiation via communion with the divine, in preparation for the real thing. In the ego death of experiences that beget paradigm shifts, we rehearse our own eventual passing. We prepare for the unknown by confronting the unknown.

This is why we fear reorientation, clinging to our familiar identities and habitual strategies, even when we are painfully aware they are no longer serving us. The ego constellation resists death at all costs, even as we see progress in our spiritual work. The purity and joy of innate divine consciousness is scary when perceived through dim windows stained by the ego, because we assume it is other, rather than an awesome flash of a previously unknown part of ourselves. Ram Dass reminds us that “the higher wisdom only comes from direct experience; you have to become it.”

Sacrifice as a cultural ideal is understood as part of the fabric of life in the Bhagavad Gita, in a way that is very different than many of us know in the Western world today. It can be hard to understand why, in this part of the epic, it is righteous and dharmic for Arjuna to fight a war in which he, sometimes brutally, and at Krishna’s behest, kills his kith and ken. In his biography of the Gita, Richard Davis writes about understanding war and sacrifice in context. In the apocalypse vision, Krishna already embodies Arjuna’s dharmic role in war, in full surrender to his dharma, embodied as the instrument of God in death. Just as myriad streams of practice paths coalesce into the ocean of mokṣa (मोक्ष), so too do all the warriors on the field of battle stream into Krishna’s fearsome manifold maw, their heads crushed like grapes, visibly clinging to his fangs.

With a violence that can be difficult to accept and understand, nature is self-regulating, and often in conflict with our small personal desires and dramas. The Vedic culture that predates the Bhagavad Gita sought to align human rite and ritual with the ordering of the cosmos, in a moral definition of harmonious holistic health that is unfamiliar to us in the individualistic West. We are reminded that the health of our seeming separate selves is in fact not separate from the health of the whole, that our seeming separate human bodies are not separate from the earth and the greater cosmos.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna’s divine revelation catalyzes divine regulation of the corrupt warrior culture that needs to be wiped clean, a social, political, and cosmic mega-purge. A fragmented, depraved society and cosmos are torn apart, and reconstituted in a new age: after the holocaust of the Kurukshetra battle, the Dvapara era ends, and Kali Yuga begins. Of physical yoga practice, BKS Iyengar said that we enter the yoga classroom with fragmented and distracted minds. Through learning the anatomy and alignment of postural yoga, we pick ourselves to pieces, and reintegrate ourselves as a result, leaving the classroom in hard-won wholeness and integration. So in practice, we deconstruct our selves, and resynthesize the complementary and paradoxical forces within us, micro-cosmically mirroring, in our own dynamic equanimity, a kind of universal homeostasis, the constant atmic dynamism that reconciles and re-reconciles us back to equilibrium. The aggregate rhythmic dynamism of the self in the timeless now is sattvic, (from sattva, सत्त्व, meaning balanced and wholesome luminescent peace).

In the renewal of Indic and tantric timeless time, these temporal ripples reverberate infinitely in all directions. From the point of view of linear time, the repetition of the lesson prior to and following a direct experience of the absolute extends, wavelike, away from its temporal epicenter. We have had this rippling experience before and after yoga classes, meditation retreats, in build up to and resolution of the spanda of orgasm, and in ceremonial entheogenic practice. We see it in the arc of story-line and ritual. We see this mirroring in Krishna’s repetition of his lessons before and after chapter 11. These are containers for non-duality.

Oppenheimer noticed the wisdom beyond rationality in his observation of electrons:

If we ask, for instance, whether the position of the electron remains the same, we must say no. If we ask whether the electron’s position changes with time, we must say no. If we ask whether the electron is at rest, we must say no. If we ask whether it is in motion, we must say no.

Ram Dass writes of Oppenheimer’s observation, “you can’t say that [particles] are either this or that, but just some sort of patterning of the energy… [and] then everything in the universe is made up of the very same stuff, and it’s all absolutely interchangeable at every moment.”

We can release the fear of ego death, and eventually physical death, in shedding the duality of beginning and end by illuminating the spectrum between, expanding our vision to encompass the infinitude of the endless cycle of birth and life and death. Beyond linear time, birth and death are not full stops, but are rather vertical walls of extremely rapid change. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, noted for his theory of cognitive development, describes the progression of psychological maturity as it traverses distinct stages. Rather than mapping progress towards wisdom on a consistent 45-degree-angle slope, it follows a step wise process, with fairly flat, steady periods abruptly butting up against the steep walls of developmental obstacles. We suffer in temporary stuckness, and then learn to overcome these obstacles, leading to growth and change. If we expand the two-dimensionality of Piaget’s step wise model, psycho-spiritual development winds up round a spiral. Birth is not the beginning, and death is not the end. Both are ultimately transformative in timeless time.

God is scary, because God is the unfathomable immensity of which we catch the tiniest glimpses, dare we peek amongst the seams of the everyday. Even then, while our heart-intuition knows what we’ve seen, the training in our minds, a natural protective tendency of our automatic brains in the face of the unfamiliar, bolstered by an out-of-balance society, overrides this deep wisdom. God is scary, because we realize that we are not separate, but are rather part of this immensity ourselves. As Iyengar teacher Nikki Costello says of our return to wholeness through practice, “less of myself is obscure to myself.” We have the capacity to embody new facets of being, but it requires sloughing off some of the old identities, in radical growth and change that our smaller selves react to with aversion. The various forms of divinity, however culturally inflected in their appearance, have the power to connect us to the divine, if we cultivate the steadiness to see beyond them. Otherwise they remain another developmental roadblock, miring us in the morass of spiritual bypassing. When we eye gaze with God, breathing up against the bursting seams of our discomfort in the face of the transcendent and immanent other in the formlessness of our underlying nature, and in the form of atmic dynamism, hair standing on end, trembling visibly in the spanda of the it-all, we are unafraid to directly perceive the fullness of beauty and terror. We are greater than the safety and mooring a limited identity, a “me” that this seeming separateness from others affords.

The wealth and variety of yoga practices delineated in the Bhagavad Gita and beyond, the rich Indic tradition and its contemporary diaspora, as well as a wealth of global integrative disciplines, are some examples of frameworks that provide us interpretive scaffolding to integrate experiences which arise that are beyond the familiar. We’re afforded practical and theoretical mooring lest the immensity of these beatific and terrible experiences send us reeling off into the beyond. Once we’ve begun the practices that allow us tiny glimpses behind the curtain of consensus reality, once we begin to recognize the depths of our societal and egoic training, we realize that the rivulets of this conditioning run so deep, that the various cultural images of divinity are still not quite it— they are not yet the substratum of being beneath it all.

Even visions of the supernal Hindu trimūrti-form (त्रिमूर्ति) of God as maker, sustainer, and destroyer, the temptation of Gautama Buddha by the demon Māra, the beatific visitation of an angel to a Christian saint or Jewish mystic, a djinn or demon appearing to Muhammad as the first revelation of the Quran, a Panic appearance to a Pagan, machine elves or the ecstatic vision of Indra’s net in the journey of the psychonaut, even folkloric gnomes, faeries, and aliens, the variety of these experiences beyond the familiar are still egoic and culturally informed fireworks, window dressing of an extraordinary but still limited capacity of true perception.

The infinite fabric of creation, the writhing, foaming quantum embodiment of all possibility, the ground of being behind it all, is ephemerally crystalline, gossamer and so subtly palpable and shifting, so high in its vibration, that we can only begin to stab at it with language, and the limiting construct of the ego. When we let these self-imposed limitations fall away, we discover what Christopher Wallis calls the “seamless unity of flowing energy and pure awareness.” Beyond the baryonic, beyond material and mystical experiences, the substratum is love. Its steady power is poised to penetrate through the veil of the mesmerizing distortion of the everyday, which keeps us hidden from ourselves, limited in our capacity to awaken to love.Arjuna is so devoted in his love of Krishna, that in return, Krishna grants him the divine visions of Chapter 11. The power of love is reciprocal, integrative, and mutual.

We have caught glimpses of divinity in practice, with a fleeting sense of recognition. God is scary, because beyond even fireworks and death, God is love, and when we look God in the eyes, returning this love in kind, sitting and facing the divine, unblinking, tears running down our cheeks, when we bear our vulnerable hearts without hesitation, we can no longer fall back and rest on comfortable identities that used to serve us, but no longer do. God has called bullshit on us, and we’re left no choice b