The recent scientific interest in the topic of awe had me look back at its experience by Guru Nanak Dev Ji, and how he framed it. Guru Ji has devoted an entire Salok in Aasaa-De-Vaar to share the feeling of awe, which we will explore here. Guru Ji feels the awe in the created world and uses the word “Vismaad” to describe that wonderous experience, which surprises the mind. Before exploring the Salok by Guru Ji let us first see what and how scientific world describes it.
Awe is an emotional response to perceptually vast stimuli that transcend current frames of reference. Awe has two phases, says Daniel Stancato, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies the impact of awe on emotional health. Awe arises when a person perceives something “so strikingly vast that it transcends one’s current frame of reference,” he said. Next, awe forces someone to change his or her beliefs or worldview in order to make sense of the experience. Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt in their paper in 2003 have concluded that awe has two aspects:
- Perceived vastness – anything that is experienced as being much larger than the self or self’s ordinary level of experience or frame of reference
- Accommodation - A reshaping of our existing understanding of the world
Stancato is the coauthor of a 2015 paper that associated awe-inspiring experiences with positive social emotions, including generosity, selflessness, and ethical decision-making. Its major finding was that experiencing awe “can increase ‘prosociality,’ or inclinations to care for, share with and assist other people,” said Stancato. A 2019 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that experiencing awe led to decrease in self-importance. Other documented benefits include – humility, decreased materialism, spiritual feeling, connectedness, positive mood and wellbeing, life satisfaction etc.
Now let see how Guru Ji has described his experience of awe:
“Vismaad naad vismaad ved. Vismaad je-a vismaad bhed.
Vismaad roop vismaad rang. Vismaad nagnae phireh jant.
Vismaad pa-un vismaad paanee. Vismaad agneekhaydeh vidaanee.
Vismaad dhartee vismaad khaanee. Vismaad saad lageh paraanee.
Vismaad sanjog vismaad vijog. Vismaad bhukh vismaad bhog.
Vismaad sifat vismaad saalaah. Vismaad ujharh vismaad raah.
Vismaad nayrhai vismaad door(h). Vismaad daykhai haajraa hajoor.
Vaiykh vidaan rahi-aa vismaad. Nanak bujhan pooraibhaag. ||1||” – (SGGS, Pg. No. 463)
Translation: I am wonderstruck observing that somewhere the wind is blowing and somewhere water is flowing. It is amazing, how the fire is displaying its own astonishing plays. I am wonderfully astonished upon looking at this earth sustaining the creatures from multiple sources (e.g.: egg, womb, earth, perspiration etc.) of birth. It is amazing, how the mortals are involved in the enjoyment of Your bounties. Astonishing is the experience of people being united or separated. O’ God, it is hard to believe that somewhere there is acute hunger and at other places things in plenty and voraciously being enjoyed. Somewhere the Creator is being praised and eulogized. Wonderful is straying-away (from the Hukam -Divine Commands) and wonderful is treading on the nicely laid out paths. It is just astonishing to see this wondrous play of Yours. It is amazing that someone says that You are very near; yet another says that You are far off, while still others see You right beside them (pervading everywhere). Beholding these wonders, I am wonderstruck. O’ Nanak, those who understand these astounding wonders of Yours are blessed with perfect destiny.
In this Salok Guru Ji shared how the Nature-Awe was experienced by him. The sheer size, variety, spectacle, grandeur is noticed and admired. Guru Ji has other shabads where the experience of awe has also been shared as in “So Dar” and “Aarti”. When the awe comes in, mind that thinks “I know it all” goes away, along with associated ego. When we feel incomplete, we become capable of experiencing awe or Vismaad. That realization immediately forces one to feel being the part of something bigger, longer lasting, mesmerizing, and amazing. This feeling was captured by Guru Ji in the last line in the shabad above, which can be termed as Spiritual-Awe. Similarly, Guru Arjan Dev Ji has described that same experience in these words:
“Bisaman bisam bhe bisamaadh.” – (SGGS, Pg. No. 285)
Translation: Gazing upon His wondrous wonder, I am wonder-struck and amazed!
“Bisam pekhai bisam suniai bismad nadree aieea.” – (SGGS, Pg. No. 778)
Translation: I gaze upon the Wondrous nature and listen to the Wondrous sounds; the Wondrous Lord has come into my vision.
The feeling of awe in the experience of potency of Wonderous Lord is expressed in these words by Guru Ji:
“Tu acharaj kudharat teree bisamaa. 1. Rahaau.” – (SGGS, Pg. No. 563)
Translation: You are wonderful! Your creative potency is awe inspiring! ||1||Pause||
The final experience of awe is the experience of Self-Awe, where there is an understanding of self, within a larger context of the entire creation. That experience has been captured in Gurbani in these words of Guru Nanak Dev Ji:
“Vaahu khasam tu vaahu jin rach rachanaa ham ke'ee. Saagar lahar samundh sar vel varas varaahu. Aap khaRoveh aap kar aapeenai aapaahu.” – (SGGS, Pg. No. 788)
Translation: Wow! Wow! You are wonderful and great, O Lord and Master; You created the creation, and made us. You made the waters, waves, oceans, pools, plants, clouds, and mountains. You Yourself stand in the midst of what You Yourself created.
Here we can see that self is viewed as one of the creations, which is a realistic assessment, unlike the feeling of the self being the center of the universe as with an egoistic. This experience witnesses the Creator in the midst of creation, and not separate from it. We have become accustomed to living a life on autopilot and have forgotten our innate ability to experience awe. We need to start by bringing our awareness to it and spending time in nature, trying to see the Creator's manifestation in everything that we observe in nature. The experience of final destination of Self-awe has been shared by Guru Arjan Dev Ji in these words:
“Su(n)n samaadh anahat teh naadh. Kahan na jaiee acharaj bisamaadh.” – (SGGS, Pg. No. 293)
Translation: The Deepest Samaadhi, and the unstruck sound current of the Naad are there. The wonder and marvel of it cannot be described.
That ‘Su(n)n Samaadh’ that Guru Ji has described is essentially stillness, silence, calmness, and a total absence of fluctuations resulting from torrents of thoughts in the mind. That calmness and blissful feeling gives birth to the feeling of awe and ecstasy, which is expressed by Guru Ji as ‘Acharaj bisaadh’. According to Gurbani, that experience is so exhilarating that one does not knows its limit, not does one want to come out of it, and only the words of awe come out:
“Eiaa ma(n)dhar meh kauan basaiee. Taa kaa a(n)t na kouoo payee. 1. Rahaau.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 871)
Translation: Then what is it, which dwells in this temple of the body? No one can find its limits. ||1||Pause||
In conclusion let us try to summarize experience of “Vismaad” from Guru Nanak Dev Ji Salok above and try to make it our experience as well.
- Sounds (including music) – Guru Ji is awestruck by the variety of sounds from humans, animals, birds, nature, musical instruments etc.
- Scriptures (Ved) – Guru Ji is in awe by the written word, and the depth of knowledge they convey is mindboggling.
- Living Beings - Guru Ji is awed by the sheer variety, color, shapes, and their unique distinctions, movements, and identity.
- Unique Appearances – The range, variety of forms, and species that change forms makes Guru Ji awestruck.
- Colors – The sheer variety of colors and color combinations in nature, species and vegetation transports Guru Ji in awe.
- Animals - Even the sight of animal creatures wondering around naked, unashamed takes Guru Ji in awe (while humans have to cover themselves).
- Air – Which sustains life, refreshes and its blowing and howling shaping objects which wows Guru Ji in wonder.
- Water – Again essential for life, quenches thirst and how it assumes shape of containers it is poured in wows Guru Ji. The term encompasses all liquids and vapors (becoming steam, ice, snow, hail, thunder, and lightning etc.).
- Fire – The source of heat, warmth, with its dazzling display and ability to transform fills Guru Ji with wonder.
- Earth – Wonderful is the earth that is the source, nurturer, sustainer, and supporter of the variety of the species.
- Sources of birth – Guru Ji is awed by the sources of birth – Womb, egg, from the earth as plants, from the secretion as sweat, microbes, bacteria etc.
- Tastes and pleasures – Guru Ji is even awed by the variety of tastes that abound and pleasure the species relish from those tastes.
- Union and Separation- Even in the meeting (union) and separation experiences awe Guru Ji.
- Hunger and Copious Consumption – Pangs of hunger and indulgences in copious consumption makes Guru Ji awestruck.
- Praises and Adoration (of Almighty) – Guru Ji is in awe for those engage in praises and adoration.
- Wilderness and Paved Path – Guru Ji even finds awe in those straying in the wilderness, while others treading on the paved path of ‘praise and adoration’ Guru Ji finds wonderful.
- Closeness and Distance – Some see Almighty as very intimately close while others feel His separation and distance, which puts Guru Ji in awe.
- Awe Factor – Seeing all these diverse wonders, Guru Ji is awestruck, and exclaims that this mystery of awe is only experienced through good fortune.
This is the type of experience that humans have always longed for. However, to gain a fraction of that grandeur many make use of intoxicants, drugs, herbs, medicines, exercise, yoga postures, and even prayers. But Guru Ji is saying that everyone can experience the feeling of awe, all we need to do is spend more time in nature with awareness. Those who are blessed, experience the awe, and get freed from the attachment to the material world. Instead, they get attuned to the Creator, who is full of wonders:
“Bisam binodh rahe paramaadhee. Gurmat maaniaa ek liv laagee.” – (SGGS, Pg. No. 1342)
Translation: The exciting and intoxicating worldly plays come to an end, for those who accept the Guru's Teachings, and become lovingly attuned to the One Lord.
- Keltner, Dacher and Haidt, Jonathan. Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion. March 2003
- Einisman, Karen. Discover the Power of Awe. Renew by United Healthcare
- Lebwitz Rossi, Holly. How to Save the World: Schedule some Awe in Your Summer Vacation. Houston Chronicle, July 01, 2018.
- Greater Good Science Center, University of Berkley. The Science of Awe. White Paper prepared for the John Templeton Foundation.
Image (c) istock.com
Illustration by the author