Diana Eck, “Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India” (1998 edition)

Diana Eck, Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India, (1998 ed.)

Eck’s essay examines the practices of “holy seeing” among Hindus in India and America. Darshan simply means seeing, but it holds much richer valences. According to Eck, seeing the divine image with one’s own eyes—and in turn being seen by the divine image—constitutes “the central act of Hindu worship” for laypeople (3). In the visual image, the deity “gives” darshan and the people “take” darshan. Seeing acts as a kind of touch between the human and the divine—the worshipper reaches out with the eyes and the eyes of the deity reach back (9). But the act of holy seeing involves more than just the eyes. Worshippers engage the divine image with their whole bodies: touching it with the hands, hearing mantras near it, eating consecrated food in its presence, and smelling oil lamp offerings. Presence proves a key concept for this work—and connects it to the broader study of visuality in religions. Eck argues that, at bottom, darshan works because “God is present in the image, whether for a moment, a week, or forever. People come to see because there is something very powerful there to see” (51).

Though its argument now feels somewhat dated (it was originally published in 1981), darshan still provides a great text on visuality in religion. I think it would work especially well in a gateway course: it expands students’ understanding of what vision and images can be/do, but it does so without the heavy theory of more recent works. It’s also short and very readable. Eck’s account of the Sri Lakshmi temple in Ashland, MA “eye-opening ceremony” (in the afterword) and her brief discussion of mass-produced images (43-44) provide especially healthy food for discussion. In the former, elaborate rituals help to tame the awesome power that emits from the image when the deity becomes present and opens its eyes. Shown first to a cow, then a group of young girls, then others, worshippers must all look at the deity in a mirror before turning to the image itself. The section on mass-produced images deals with a completely different set of issues: cheap, readily available images of temple images that occupy people’s home shrines. These, writes Eck, allow worshippers to “have darshan not only of the image, but, of the picture of the image as well!” (44). In other words, divine presence remains even in reproductions of the divine image. Take that, Walter Benjamin?