Darshan comes from the Sanskrit word, darsana, meaning a sight or vision. In the Hindu faith, darshan is an experience of grace and connection arising from the sight of a holy being or natural spectacle -- a sudden ray of light striking a mountain peak, for example. The darshan of a living guru is so prized that people will wait in ashram lines for hours for a glance or gaze lasting a few seconds or a moment.
Puja is ceremonial worship of a deity through prayer, song, chanting mantras and sacred rituals. For a member of the Hindu faith, a miraculous and very personal form of puja is the experience of darshan. The connection opens the heart and bestows peace, blessings, boons and divine energy or shakti. At the moment of darshan, the entire focus of the devotee is absorbed in the image of the deity, be it in the form of a statue, a sunrise or a living guru. The object or person viewed becomes the Hindu god or goddess -- and this can happen in front of a home altar with a picture of the deity, in a temple or sacred place, or in a vision in meditation. The experience is deepened by the belief that the person who receives darshan is also seen by the deity.
There are hundreds of gods in the Hindu religion, although a much smaller number are popular figures of worship. A statue of a god or goddess that has been transformed in a special ceremony by an enlightened guru into a living presence of that deity is an important focal point for darshan in a temple ceremony. The transformed statue is considered a murti -- a real, breathing embodiment of the god or goddess -- and treated with the respect due to a living saint. The murti is tended, ritually bathed in flower-water and anointed with precious oils, dressed in silks and adorned with jewelry and live flowers by the priests or temple sevites. Once prepared, the Shiva, Ganesh, Laxmi or other deity is available for darshan. Presenting offerings, bowing or pranaming before the murti, chanting or otherwise participating in ritual, confers powerful blessings on the participants. Murtis are made with open eyes to allow darshans.
Preparing for Darshan
The transformation of an ordinary human to a figure worthy of a sacred darshan is no less exacting than that of preparing a murti. It is important to bathe and be as clean as possible. At the very least, hands and feet must be washed. Cleanliness includes a fresh set of clothes, which must be carefully pressed and arranged, selected to show respect for the deity or living guru. Traditionally, women wear saris or punjabis -- a loose tunic and pants -- but modest western dress is acceptable. Women and men place a dot of kumkum, red powder, at the point of the third eye between the eyebrows and women may choose to further beautify themselves with henna tattoos. Darshan offerings in Hindu temples range from coconuts to fruits and flowers to money -- garlands and coconuts for darshan are sold outside temples in India.
Darshan with a living guru or saint is very auspicious and may involve participation in a meditation, chant, Hindu ceremony or teaching, followed by an encounter with the divinity. A darshan can be the appearance of a saint to a large crowd or a one-on-one meeting of the eyes. Contemporary gurus hold darshans in the courtyards of their ashrams or in meditation halls. Devotees line up to kneel or bow at the feet of the seated guru, make an offering, receive a few words, a swish of peacock feathers or a look. One modern saint, Mata Amritanandamayi, affectionately known as Amma or Ammachi, is famous for being the "hugging guru." Despite crowds of thousands at every appearance, she hugs each devotee who waits in line, often for hours, to see her and receive her Devi bhava darshan.
- Smithsonian Institution:How are Sculptures of Deities Used in Hindu Worship?
- Virginia Commonwealth University: World Religions & Spirituality Project: Ammachi
- University of California Press: Approaching God; Stephen P. Huyler p. 36-37
- Shri Swaminarayan Mandir: Murti Puja: Image Worship in Hinduism
- Smithsonian Institution: What is Puja?
- John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images