Hindu Darshan, Idolatry, and Eucharistic Presence

I’ve been watching a UCLA course on Indian history on Youtube and I came to a discussion of Hindu Darhsan that was intriguing.

Darshan is a Hindu concept of gazing at a god where the god also gazes back at you. It is a communion of sorts. For example, you might go on a pilgrimage to a temple or other special place in order to experience Darshan. But it can also be accomplished more simply with a postcard of a particular deity. The idea behind this is the postcard or place is not simply a representation, it is an incarnation of the god.

This brought to mind idolatry. I’ve never been satisfied with the standard monotheistic critique of paganism. The standard line of criticism is that the stupid pagans think that their statues are gods (recall the story of Abraham demolishing statues). But the HIndu idea of Darshan suggests a more subtle view: that a statue of a god is not the god itself nor is it merely a representation or reminder but a real presence of the god.

And that phrase, “real presence”, is certainly familiar to Catholics. Catholicism teaches that the Eucharist is the real presence of Christ. How this is so when it’s obviously merely bread and wine is part of the schism with Protestantism who regard it as merely symbolic. But we see this also in the nature of any church building (why do we go to church to pray?) which borrows from the presence of God in the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple. And then there are the relics of the Saints.

One might even stretch the idea to include Christ himself as the real living, breathing presence of God.

I’m confused. You’re saying they believe the idol is an incarnation of the god, but then you say they don’t believe it is the god?

It’s a hard idea to explain, the closest comparison that comes to mind is an Orthodox icon depicting Christ. It might depict the divine and posses some power in the eyes of the believer, but it isn’t believed to be an actual deity itself, only its presence.

The image is a portal or window, that might be a better way. It would make an interesting comparison to the Eucharist, but I wont do that on here since I know someone will take umbridge with that :p.

Yes. I’m not sure if there are any Hindu theologians who might have worked out some mechanical details as to how exactly this might work but I think it is sufficient to describe it by what it is not: it is not a mere depiction and it is not the god itself. A window is one metaphor that might help but perhaps, borrowing from science fiction, we might describe it more like a portal from one dimension to another that would otherwise not be connected. The thing has a real bridging function.

What is the difference between an incarnation and the god itself? If I destroy an incarnation I have obviously not destroyed the god. The god is not trapped in its incarnation. The incarnation, though, has some functional ability beyond a mere symbol.

Incarnation vs. window, I’m not sure which is better but both express something between a mere symbol of a thing and the thing itself.

From what I understand, the statues/images in a Hindu temple are consecrated by their priests. Once this consecration is done (“prana pratishtha”), a “portion” of the essence of the deity in question is present within the image or statue. So, from the Hindu perspective, it is not just a statue or just a picture, but the actual presence of the deity is there.

I had also thought about this practice in Christinity: consecration of places and things. I got my rosary blessed at the Vatican.

Actually I would not say that Darshan is exactly a form of Hindu Eucharist. Darshan does consist of beholding or viewing the sight of God and the God looking back at you with a blessing.

What is more like the Eucharist is the way Hindus offer fruits or sweet stuff to the God and after the puja (worship), the fruits etc are then distributed (as prasad) and eaten by all the devotees (this would be like the bread of the Eucharist). The God also blesses holy water (tirth) that is then distributed among the devotees (this would be like the wine). I do not think anyone claims that prasad and tirth are the actual body/blood of any God, but their consumption by worshipers is very similar to the Christian holy communion.

As for the statue itself being God - that is a separate story. We should address one topic at a time - for now just holy communion.

You are quite right - a statue without ‘Prana Pratishta’ is just a statue. Prana means the ‘life force’ or ‘spirit’ similar to the Chinese ‘chi’. After ‘Prana Pratishta’ the spirit of the God (a portion of it, as you say) is considered to have entered the statue and made it a living God.

There are several tests that the priests use to determine if the Prana Pratishta has been successfully completed. After those tests are passed, the idol is then considered ready for worship.

Actually, I was more interested in understanding the last part first and then considering it’s relationship with the Eucharist. The Eucharist is obviously a more complex practice but it rests, I think, on a similar concept. It’s not just bread (or sweets) and you’re not consuming the god as you would a plant or animal nor is it merely symbolic of something. There is a significant presence with real consequences.

But the simplest form of this is the statue (or other object or place). And while this remains current Hindu practice it seems entirely reasonable to me that this was an ancient pagan practice in the west as well. It seems like a much more reasonable understanding of idolatry, generally.

Please elaborate on this. Is there a more detailed HIndu theology here? How exactly does this spirit presence work? Obviously you can’t destory the god by destroying the statue. But if you worship the statue you’re not just using the statue to think about the god, right? (That’s how Catholics think of saint statues and othger icons, they are mere tools for focusing thought.)

And what is the nature of the blessing? What enables a priest to cause the statue to contain the spirit presence?

These rituals consist of reciting Sanskrit mantras which invoke the God in question and asking him to enter the statue. So the idol is not just a symbol, it actually has the presence of God within it. If some vandal desecrates this statue (by say dropping it over/spitting on it or something), then the statue is no longer considered a presence and the ‘Prana Patishta’ has to be done all over again. The presence of God is maintained in the statue by the priest or priests by daily rituals (usually at least three times a day). If this daily cycle of rituals is ever interrupted or discontinued, then again the presence of God is now in question. The idol may have to go through PranaPratishta again or at the very least go through some purification process again.

As far as I am concerned the equivalence of Hindu Gods to Christian ones is as follows (some Mutt will disagree soon):

The Father - Shiva
The Son - Vishnu
The Holy Spirit - Brahma

Brahma then splits into five (per the five elements of Creation) to give three Goddesses and two part animal Gods.

All other Hindu Gods are usually different forms or incarnations of these basic seven Gods/Goddesses.

Thank you.

As far as I am concerned the equivalence of Hindu Gods to Christian ones is as follows (some Mutt will disagree soon):

The Father - Shiva
The Son - Vishnu
The Holy Spirit - Brahma

Brahma then splits into five (per the five elements of Creation) to give three Goddesses and two part animal Gods.

All other Hindu Gods are usually different forms or incarnations of these basic seven Gods/Goddesses.

This raises a different question that should go into a new thread. Watch for it.

This video should answer your question OP


Thanks for the video. This is an argument of symbology that is essentially the same as the Catholic veneration of statues of saints or a crucifix or even nationalistic respect for the flag. I think it’s much less than a real presence. Or perhaps you are suggesting that a real presence is nothing more than a respect for the symbol.

Welcome. The spirit is believe to dwell in the Murti during veneration but the the Murti itself is not the object of veneration. The Murti is only a visual representation of God.

I’m trying to figure out if there is a real difference here or just a semantic difference.

Let’s compare, for simplicity, a Catholic and a blessed statue of Mary to a Hindu and a consecrated statue of Vishnu. (Let’s set aside for the moment the distinction between praying to Mary and worshiping Vishnu.)

A Catholic would treat the statue of Mary with respect as suggested in the video you posted for almost exactly the same reason (respect for what it represents). And he would use the statue as a visual representation of Mary. But he would stop short of saying that the spirit of Mary is in the statue. The statue is only a representation of Mary like the picutre was a representation of the king or a flag is representation of a country.

That is not the case for Holy Communion. There the Catholic belief is that there is a real presence of Christ in that wheat wafer.

That’s the difference then. The spirit of whatever invoked deity is believed to come down and dwell temporarily in the Murti.

When and how would it matter whether or not the spirit is in the statue? What is the significance of asserting a dwelling of the spiritin the statue as opposed to a mere representation?

If the spirit is not in the Murti then that would really be idol worship; you’d just be worshiping an inanimate object.

What is the significance of asserting a dwelling of the spiritin the statue as opposed to a mere representation?

Because that is who we are giving veneration to. The Murti is a representation of the spirit which comes down and dwells in the statue. The murti is only venerable after it is enlivened with the spiritual energy and essence of the Deity.

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