Following the western winds breezing through the state of Rajasthan and deep into the arid mountains surrounding the town of Pushkar there is a lake that is scattered with floating pink flower petals and filled to the brim with prayers. Unlike other lakes, the lake identifies with the Hindu creator-god Brahma and the lake’s waters are said to cleanse away sickness of the mind, body, or soul. It is Pushkar Lake. Smooth marbled Ghats, shaded under canopies of worship, enclose the boundaries of the lake’s rippling waters. Pushkar Lake is included in the top pilgrimage sites in all of India. The soft tones of liquid blue and hum of the wind off circulating waves, make the religiously significant site a pleasant contrast to the background of the town of Pushkar which are filled with constant bustling movement, ringing of bells, and shouts from people. Escaping the crowded streets and working my way down the soft stairs to the river’s edge it was there, along the sacred waters of Pushkar Lake, that I found my ability “to see”.
In the Indian context “seeing” is another form of touching, knowing, and seeing “the truth”: it is called darśan. Diana L. Eck, author of Darśan: Seeing The Divine Image In India Eck illustrates the deeper meaning behind the action of “seeing”: “Darśan is sometimes translated as the ‘auspicious sight’ of the divine, and its importance in the Hindu ritual complex reminds us that for Hindu’s ‘worship’ is not only a matter of prayers and offerings and the devotional disposition of the heart” (Eck 3). I often wondered if I would ever be able to fully understand the power of darśan
There are many darśanas or “points of view” of what we know to be the truth. I have never considered myself a religious person. I ground myself in methodical thinking and reasoning. That day, however, sitting on the Ghats of the lake, I found my truth through the translation of worship and participating in my first puja. This is my truth, my darśan.
A holy man in all white sat down next to me. Handing me a tin plate he introduced himself as one of the river’s Brahmans and asked me to repeat after him, speaking the mantra to the god Brahma. While repeating the mantra my thoughts escaped the small compartment, where I had stored them long ago and penetrated my every sense. I heard my breathing change tempo, slowing to a steady beat. I felt the hair on my arms lengthen. I tasted the salt in the wind, a mixture of wet heat and particles of sand. I smelled the sweetness of the flowers. I was captivated in a spiritual cleanse. Releasing the collection of offerings into the river along with my prayers for myself and my family I saw the flower petals, granulated sugar, white rice, red and yellow turmeric flow into the water and sink away with the rest of worshippers’ voices and prayers.
After I finished my prayer, the once peaceful red-cheeked Brahman priest turned to me with piercing eyes. “You must go now and donate,” he said, gesturing up to the top of the Ghats where a golden donation booth stood. “But I have no money,” I replied. I looked up the marbled Ghats to where a cluster of devotees had gathered, emptying their pockets for donations. Turning my head back to the river filled with rose petals flowing away in the river’s waters, a shadow felt across the lake from an overhanging cloud. In that moment of grey I imagined Brahma himself looking down at me, me and my empty hands. I then realized that beyond the pressure to donate, that puja was an honor and act of worship in-itself. Just because I didn’t have the means to give a donation didn’t mean that my actions were then unqualified. Most importantly, I remembered the meaning of darśan. What I had found during my moment of worship was something that only I was able to interpret and “see” for myself. One of Eck’s messages in her writing, she explains the idea of hermeneutic, the task of understanding ideas and texts through self interpretation, “…the task of developing a hermeneutic of the visible, addressing the problem of how we understand and interpret what we see, not only in the classical images and art forms created by the various religious traditions, but in the ordinary images of people’s traditions, rites, and daily activities which are presented to us through the film-image” (Eck 14). This is what I’ve learned to be my truth, by participating in a spiritual Hindu tradition and going through the motions of sharing my prayers with the god Brahma I had given apart of myself to him along with my offerings. The chance I took at participating in a religious experience overpowered the guilty feeling afterwards I had by not donating. I found the ability to see my offering as being something much larger than myself and realizing that that truth outshined any other action I could have participated in that day. I saw I could find something of substance and something higher to believe in. That ability to overcome my previous notion that I would never find something religiously moving was shattered and I couldn’t have realized that if I hadn’t gone through the motions of my puja on Pushkar Lake.
Rosalind Gray-Bauer is from Cape Elizabeth, Maine and a junior at Hobart and William Smith Colleges pursuing major in Psychology and minors in English and Environmental Policy.