BAPS-fullcathy-headshotBy Cathy Hird

The darkness felt solid as I slipped into the church sanctuary without turning on the lights. I had not realized that the sun would have already set when I planned this time to do an observation exercise for my writing course.

I felt my way forward with my feet. I could see nothing but the high windows at the back of the building. The stained glass allowed a little light in from outside, so slowly I was able to see the shape of the walls and the patterns in the windows. The dark wood of the pews remained hidden, but eventually I could see the white vaulting arches of the ceiling.

Technically, I know that my pupils slowly opened, letting in more light. What I felt was that patience and stillness opened my eyes to see.

The Sanskrit word for seeing is darshan, and in Hindu practice this means that we catch a glimpse of God. In a temple, the images stand in plain sight, but through the offerings, the chanting, the time spent, we can experience another kind of darshan.

Recently, we stopped in at the BAPS Swami Narayan temple. This is the white marble structure just off the 427 north of the airport that you have probably noticed. The inside is like the outside, intricately carved white marble. The worship space is small with beautiful arches, four rows of columns and two domes.

The columns are carved with flowers and with images of the deities. At eye level, we see Ganesh and Hanuman, Krishna and Radha. We are asked not to touch the delicate marble, but the carved images are right in front of us, beside us.

The only colour in the space comes from lights in the two domes that shift from blue to purple to red, orange, yellow and back. Small seated figures encircle the first dome depicting various poses of worship. Above them is a circle of standing figures in yoga poses. Although I had to crane my neck to study them, they showed me the peace of mind that meditation can bring.

The second dome has larger standing figures. As the light shifted to red, the shadows behind them deepened, and they seemed to stand independent from the dome. In the blue light, the shadows disappeared, and they seemed to step back. The shifting light was a bit tacky, but in the apparent movement of the figures, I sensed the movement toward detachment that Hindu practice promotes.

On my first visit to this temple a couple years ago, I found the white emptiness cold. This time, the darshan, what I saw, invited me into stillness and peace.

Last week, we visited another Swami Narayan temple in a nearby industrial area. As we entered, we smelled curry, food that would be shared after the time of teaching and worship.

Just inside the entry is a room called Darshan Abishekam. Here, an image of Swami Narayan, a reformer from the early 1800s and the founder of this branch of Hinduism, stands in a wide bowl. Those who enter the temple first come to look upon this sage's image, and if there is prayer they wish to offer, they bathe the image with water. Just looking provides the first step in centering the seeker.

In the next open area, an altar holds images of the first swami and the leaders who followed him. This is called the Darshan Room. Beyond are the teaching halls where men, women, boys and girls gather separately. This division both limits some roles for women and promotes others.

After the teaching, arati is celebrated in the Darshan Room. All can see as three lit candles are circled in front of the images. Trays with lit camphor are circled by lay people as all chant in the language of Gujarat.

After the ritual at the altar, the lights are brought to each person. When the candles come to you, you draw the light to yourself, into yourself.

Would these particular sanctuaries and practices provide you with darshan, a glimpse of God? Perhaps not. There may be places in nature or other worship spaces where you go for that momentary vision of what is beyond the material world. But just as our eyes can be opened to see even in the darkest places, there can be glimpses, moments of darshan for each of us.

Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister and writer living near Walters Falls.


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