Most ancient cultures accepted the existence of occult principles, and even celebrated these. These were the mysteries of religions. Mysteries were associated with Isis and Osiris in ancient Egypt, with Demeter and Kore in ancient Greece which had its Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries, with Indra and yajnas in ancient India, and so on. Mysteries have continued through the ages. Their eerie aspects have sometimes faded, but their vestiges are still very much with us, in every rite and ritual of religious praxis.

In the temple at Chidambaram in South India, built between the 10th and the 14th centuries, there is consecrated an ethereal rahasyam or mystery. It represents formless divinity: the grand mystery of all.

Religions attempt to grasp Divinity. They try to articulate the inexpressible, they help us experience the unfathomable. In these efforts, sooner or later, we are confronted with  Mystery. In the solitude of wilderness, during a gaze at the starry heavens, or in silent contemplation of life, we encounter mystery in our different ways. In the words of Omar Khayyam, mystery is a door for which we find no key, the veil through which we might not see. Sometimes it is wiser to accept that there are mysteries, rather than to strive to comprehend them. The recognition and surrender to Mystery can be more fulfilling than refusal to acknowledge it or awkward struggles to unravel it.

Many cultures guard(ed) higher truths from easy reach of the common people. Wielders of wisdom have often practiced secretive possession and transmission of what they regarded as knowledge of mysteries.  Egyptian priests, Vedic chanters, Jewish kabala were among the practitioners of the knowledge-for-the-initiated-few-only school. Pythagoreans called it esoteric knowledge To outsiders, what these men were engaged in was truly mysterious.

Mystery is not confusion in the face of complexity, nor puzzlement at a problem, magic-mongering least of all. It does not call for abandonment of efforts in the quest for answers to worldly problems. In the metaphor of Edwin Arnold, mystery is the veil that lies beneath all the veils that we can strip off. I see mystery as  the profound response of  a sensitive mind to the awe provoked by the magnitude and majesty of the perceived universe. It is a feeling of reverence and humility in the face of very deeply felt experience, a wonderment at the ultimate source of  joys and sorrows and the interlude of  human consciousness. It is a reflection on the marvel of the ephemeral flicker of terrestrial existence, an irrepressible why and wherefore of it all.

Machines manufacture and computers calculate, but the human alone experiences mystery. If we do not wonder about origins and ends at least once during life’s course, we are but biochemical blobs that devour matter and energy for a time-span, sport and make noise, and then go into eternal extinction. There is fulfillment in the experience of unuttered awe, enlightenment in the recognition that there are question marks with nothing to follow. Mystery is like the blanks that frame the printed page: They surround much that convey matter and meaning.

Sometimes, mystery induces us to deep silence, to marvel and meditate. In the religious framework, mystery is both unknown and unknowable, but one can get experiential glimpses of its presence. When we pray or worship, when we light a candle or wave a  flame to a divine symbol, when we prostrate, bow down or kneel, when we sing a psalm or chant a mantra, we are acknowledging the Mystery that eludes us.

March 27, 2016

Published by:

Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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