What Darshan Means

Indian Mythology 24 Comments

Published in Sunday Midday Mumbai on 10 May 2009

Hinduism is based on orthopraxy – greater attention is given to ‘doing’ rather than ‘thinking’ or ‘feeling’. While it is good to understand or experience rituals, it is critical to at the very least just do it. So the high point of the religious activities is ‘darshan’ – looking at the image of God. Hundreds of devotees will throng to see the image of the deity, special preference being given to certain deities at certain times (for example, Siddhi Vinayak of Mumbai on Tuesday especially if that Tuesday coincides with the fourth day of the waning moon).

Darshan is a very simple ritual; one does not have to say any prayer, make any offering, perform any ritual; one is expected to just look at the image of god, and that act of looking is enough to bring about spiritual and/or material upliftment as the case may be.

The word darshan literally means outlook, viewpoint. Technically, it means ‘philosophy’. Thus by looking at the world, one forms an opinion about the world. By looking at a person, one forms an opinion about the person. Better the observation, better the understanding.

Ancient Rishis saw life with such clarity that they wished to share their understanding of the world with the rest of humanity. Their understanding over the years was transmitted via symbols and rituals. If we look at symbols and rituals carefully, profound wisdom can emerge, provided we care to really look and contemplate. Unfortunately, over the years, darshan has been all about looking, and not about contemplating or learning.

Imagine going to a Shiva Temple: the deity within is just a pillar. One can touch the pillar and go around this pillar, but not completely, as the path of circumambulation is blocked by the tip of a leaf-shaped trough called the Gauri-patta or the mark of Gauri (Shiva’s consort). Devotees pour raw milk over the sacred image which flows out via the leaf-shaped trough. The experience is rather different from what happens in a Krishna temple. The temple itself is usually rather grand, like a palace, and access to the deity is restricted. The deity is adorned with flowers and gold and jewels and one can circumambulate around Krishna and his consort, Radha. The offering here is not raw milk but processed milk – either butter or ghee. Why does darshan in either case lead to such a difference in experience?

People have no answer. The ritual is strictly adhered to in the name of tradition (something that ensures its flawless transmission). Every time one visits the temple the experience is repeated – again and again and again. Our senses get the image, but somewhere along the line the mind does not process it. We restrict ourselves to the aesthetics and details of the ritual but fail to see what is being communicated by what is being observed. But every once in while, one devotee actually sees the symbol or ritual, and they provoke a life-changing insight, which is the ultimate aim of darshan.

Let us see what the darshan of Shiva and Krishna can reveal. Shiva is a hermit-god, who shuns all things worldly. Vishnu on the otherhand is a householder god who celebrates all things worldly. Shiva’s temple therefore is rather simple compared to that of Krishna (Vishnu’s earthly incarnation). Shiva shuns even his worldly form, hence the pillar or linga; Krishna on the other hand stands fully formed with his flute. Shiva shuns his wife, Gauri, but she ensures that her presence is felt when she does not allow Shiva’s devotees to go around him completely. By blocking her path, she demands attention, for she represents the world that Shiva shuns. The Gauri-patta is a reminder that one can withdraw from the world, like Shiva, but not completely. It is the material world that gives us our body and this body needs nourishment and care, so even the greatest of hermits cannot totally turn away from the material world. Vishnu on the other hand is always with his consort, Lakshmi – thus Ram is with Sita and Krishna is with Radha. Thus while Vishnu enjoys the world, he is also responsible for his consort/world. One cannot see Vishnu without Laxmi, Ram without Sita, Krishna without Radha, celebration without responsibility. If milk is a metaphor for life (the whole world was churned out of the ocean of life), then Shiva accepts it raw, as it is, while Vishnu demands it be churned and protested, hence he demands butter or ghee. The making of butter or ghee demands effort, which is necessary if one engages with the world.

Thus the darshan of Shiva and Krishna has much to teach us about life. The one teaches us about withdrawing from the world, the latter teaches us about engaging with the world. The question is do we realize these messages that come from our ancestors during ‘darshan’. Are we really looking?

  • WOW… Very nicely explained :)

  • Hema

    That is a thought provoking explanation. I liked the way you differentiated the two dieties and their outlook or rather teachings to their devotees. Engagement in the world requires both detachment and responsibility, isn’t it so?
    Or does responsibility include also include efforts but without expectation of outcome (detachment)? I guess that was not clear to me right away. Anyway thanks for the wonderful explanation of darshan.

  • Just like water is found everywhere, but ponds are natural sources of abundant water, so is true for temples wrt divinity.Hence, the natural predilection for souls to get drawn to the source.

  • Kishore Verma

    Nice to understand the logic behind our offerings to the God and the reasoning behind the different forms of the Hindus God. The knowledge of differentiation shall enable in reposing the faith of Genex in our traditional values and Dharmas.

  • Dilip Sridhar

    Dr. Pattanaik,

    As always very well written and deeply insightful.

    For some time I have been wondering about the following:

    Sri Rama has two sons (Luv and Kush). Bur Sri Krishna has no children. What does this mean and signify to us?

    Well many deductions can be drawn from this. What would you say about this?


    • Krishna had many sons. Pradyumna was one, Samba was another. Pradyumna’s son was Aniruddha. Aniruddha’s son was Vajranabhi.

  • Hi,
    Nice explanation given by you. I like it.

    Can anyone give an explanation for why we all have preference for a particular temple. We travel hundreds of miles to have darshan of the same god (image), whereas many temples of the same god are in our neighborhood.

    Is the god in a posh locality also more influential? Ironically people from posh locality also travel hundreds of miles to see some rural temples. They think the gods here must be genuine.

    I am also surprised that when a idol of god breaks (in our home), instead of throwing it, we generally keep it below some Banyan or Pipal tree. I have seen many broken and incapable gods lying below such trees and dying their own deaths, while the trees serve as a temporary orphanage for these poor disabled gods.

    I think we treat these idols ( I am not talking about GOD) as cheap servants whom we tolerate as long as they work, or as long as they fit in the decor of our house. Once they are misfit-we look for a graveyard (some river) or orphanage (trees). Needless to say, they(the idols) do not treat us any better?

    • An image is just an image till “prana” has been instilled in it through ritual. The potency of this “prana” or lifeforce varies from idol to idol hence the differential treatment. It is all a matter of faith so beyond a point cannot be rationally explained.

  • rajat

    not related with this article but i have a question, In north India we perform “Katha” of God Satyanarayan [God Vishnu];in which we listen story of Sadhu Baniya,Kanya Kalawati etc all story say when they refuse to listen the katha they got trouble and as soon as they listen it they got prosperity and welth advised other to listen it.
    Here arise my question we listen story of Sadhu baniya and Kanya Kalawati but what story was listend by them ? does it mean that the main Satya-narayan story[katha] is lost ? and what we listen Katha is only like user feedback ?

    • Excellent observation. If you read the story carefully, all they have to do is perform the ritual and acknowledge the deity. And we have to hear the story AND perform the ritual and acknowledge the deity.

  • Kartik

    Never thought of that while visiting a temple, from our rituals we have so much to learn.
    thankyou for sharing

  • Dr B B Dash

    Dear Dr Patnaik, I only wish I had come across your articles earlier.

  • Dr. Pattanaik,
    i am a great fan of yours thanks to ‘the pregnant king’. the book has an ancient world ambience which reads genuine. simple and yet raises profound issues of choices. i enjoy the sexual scenes. it has the ability to provide succour to a sad heart.

  • Murthy

    Great Article ! Came across one of your article in rediff.com and followed here..

    Can we have another article about why some symbolic rituals are performed in temple.. like why cocunut is broken and offered ? why do we do Abhisheka to idol ? why do we offer flowers ? What is the significance of aarthi ? What is significance of ringing the bell during pooja.? Significance of huge temple towers in south india ?

  • Vijay

    Awesome…Mind Blowing..Must rate this article of yours as one of the “Master Piece” ..Simply too good thanks a ton .BTW Happy new year..
    You had promised an article on Lord Karthikeya and reasons for him being prominently worshiped in southern India..hope you find time to write on this subject.

  • Mohan Ramchandani

    Excellent as usual. I also have same questions
    as Mr. Murthy. I hope you will explain those
    in your comming articles. Thanks.

  • Piyush

    It leaves me little confused as to why Krishna is always shown with Radha even though Radha wasn’t his wife while Rama is with his wife Sita, Vishnu with his wife Lakshmi. If krishna and Rama are incarnations of Vishnu, why are the differential images and treatment? Why does Rukmini doesn’t get the due credit?

    • Good points to ponder over…maybe there is a secret hidden in this that your ancestors have left for you to find

    • great explanation which is my requirement

  • Ans to Jawahar Singh: Some temples are famous as they have some history or story behind. Like many famous Shiva temples – where the ‘Linga’ appeared from the earth. Likewise, ‘Shakti’ and Lord Vishnu temples are also famous for the same reasons. Besides this, it is also believed that ‘star/planet’ above such places have soothing affect on visitors.

    Ans to Piyush: Many believe that (especially in Mathura & Vrindavan) that Krishna and Radha had got married and Lord Bhrama had performed this ritual.

    It is Krishna who is near Radha and not otherwise. Whoever loves Krishna with devotion (Radha is believed to be the firstone who loved Krishna with all her heart) Krishna will always be there. Radha is an example. Thats why people of one particular area greet each other by saying ‘Radhe Radhe’ meaning hearing Radha’s name, Krishna will not leave their place/city.

    Raj Arora

  • Gitanjali


    It is a ritual at home to pray or do “pooja” after we have our bath. When I was living away from family I followed the same, only I prayed to a symbol of Om & Ganesha. It was simple and clear, but I always wondered “Am I not praying to some god/goddess I should be praying to ?”. Now that I am back home there are all god, goddess and various other things and I don’t know who I am talking to anymore !

    Is there a away to simplify without feeling that we defying a certain god/goddess ?

  • K K vasekar

    Dear Dr Devdutt,

    I am delighted. We can also add few more Learnings from Darshan.
    1.The Qualities of the Deities we need to internalise.eg Message from Krishna-is the Law of Atraction–Aakarshati iti Krishna.
    2.Shiva stands for Purity and paragon of Detachment and will digest poison for Bhaktas.
    I have seen only Leaders who put the Poison in their peoples mind and down the throat.
    We must start and include such stories in our
    Management programs.

    The Ultimate of Darshan is Transformational Leadership. My GURU used to say-Went to Darshan to see the God and I became GOD.Thanks.

  • Sunil

    Dear Dr Devdutt.
    I bow to you with my ‘pranam’
    You provide education and guidance as like a ‘Guru’.