Every particle of the world is a mirror,
In each atom lies the blazing light of a thousand suns.
In the pupil of the eye, an endless heaven.
—Islamic mystic, Mahmud Shabistari
In the pupil of the eye, an endless heaven.The place is India. The religion is Hindu. The woman is old and determined. See her in your mind’s eye. The old woman has walked a long, long way. Her feet blistered and bled days ago, but something within still pushed her forward. Her back bends from the bundle of food and offerings pressing down on her shoulders. Still, she walks.
She could have taken one in the long stream of buses carrying other pilgrims to the distant temple. She could have packed herself tight on a rickety cross-country train. But for this pilgrimage, this 80-year-old-woman chose to walk—her own feet carrying her towards the place of power. A deep, aching need calls her. She yearns to be seen; to be seen in a way that will allow her to feel whole.
And so, she mingles her footprints with those who walked before her, crossing the heart of India, to the sacred temple on Chamundi Hill. Now, in the chilly pre-dawn, the temple mound soars 3,486 feet above her. Now, only one thousand stone steps separate her from the seven-story shrine rising from the summit.
One thousand steps to the shrine of the sacred Mahadevi, the Great Goddess.
As the woman makes her way up those last steps, she is engulfed in the sounds of horns and drums, the smells of incense and flowers, the pulse and push of thousands of worshippers cramming towards a single portal, a single door. She now hears the slow and insistent chant, calling on the Mother Goddess: “Chamundaye, Kali Ma, Kali Ma, Kali Ma, Kali Ma. Chamundaye, Kali Ma, Kali Ma, Kali Ma, Kali Ma.” (“O Kali Ma, your radiant blackness shines within your shrine in my heart, just as in your shrine on Chamundi Hill.”)
The sound of the chanting builds in intensity and speed as the woman steps across the threshold and enters the inner sanctum. In just moments, she will see the gold statue of the great goddess. For this Hindu woman, that statue is not a stone-carved representation of the Divine Mother. No, her faith tells her that the goddess herself is alive in that stone statue; from her Hindu perspective, the statue is the Divine Presence, not a symbol of it.
And then there are the eyes. On that huge gold statue, the goddess’s eyes loom large. The divine eyes seem to see all, seem to see the old woman: In the pupil of the eye, an endless heaven.
Chamundeswari, the Goddess of Chamundi Hill, or Kali Ma, as she is also known, is a ferocious Hindu goddess of protection and destruction. Legend has it that when a deadly demon began terrorizing and devouring people, Chamundeswari killed the evil one and brought peace to the world. The mythological place of her victory was the Chamundi Hills, and the temple was erected there in her honor.
But those who make the pilgrimage to Chamundi Hill do so for more than honor or worship. Their need goes deeper. Faithful pilgrims journey to the temple to be seen. To be seen. Hindu statues and images of the Divine are characterized by large eyes. If you look at the eyes of the various Hindu gods and goddesses in statues and paintings, you will see that they are exaggerated. The eyes are huge. They are deep and open. They truly invoke a quality of Infinity itself. The eyes are not large by accident. The eyes are large because eyes are the key to the Hindu faith experience.
These eyes, these portals, create the possibility for darsan. Darsan means “to see and to be seen.” Diana Eck, a noted Hindu Scholar at Harvard University, writes in Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India: “When Hindus go to a temple, they do not…say, ‘I am going to worship’ but rather, ‘I am going for darsan.’ [It is] not…a matter of prayers and offerings… They go to ‘see’ the image of the deity.”
But even more important than seeing the Divinity, they go to receive darsan, to receive the grace-filled glance of sacred eyes. They go to receive the healing that comes when they are seen full and complete in their humanity—bent or broken, old or young, depressed or happy, lovely or misshapen. In being seen as they are, they are made whole. This is the key element of the temple experience. The hymns, the chants, the readings, the priest, the traditions, the building are all secondary. The open eyes are what matter. In the pupil of the eyes, an endless heaven.
No matter what our religious beliefs, being seen for who we truly are is something that most of us rarely experience.
Look around—we are a people of masks and disguises. We are a people who have been taught to transform ourselves into what others need us to be. We’ve learned the roles and rules—the art of subtle artifice. We’ve come to believe that most people don’t want to see or hear what we feel, what we need, who we are. We’ve learned that most people don’t want to see the messiness and confusion that each of us carries inside. We’ve learned that only parts of ourselves are publicly presentable. Other parts must be hidden away. For acceptability, approval or promotion, we conceal the rough edges, the broken places. Appearance is the key.
We are afraid that if anyone truly sees inside us, they will run screaming from the sight.
What have you hidden from view? What don’t you let anyone see? What don’t you let yourself see?
There is a great price to pay for this fragmentation of our frailties. We cut parts of ourselves off from others. We cut parts of ourselves off from our own self. We become segmented people, compartmentalized false creations rather than the complex people we naturally are. And then we wonder: “Why do I feel out of sorts?” “Why do I feel like something isn’t right in my life?” “Why don’t I feel like me?”
We live deception when what we ache for is darsan, to be seen. And so seen, we ache for someone to love us anyway. Richard Selzer, a cancer surgeon in a major hospital, tells this story of ordinary darsan, of being seen:
I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be thus from now on. To remove the tumor in her cheek, I had cut the little nerve. Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry-mouth I have made? The young woman speaks. “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. “Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it,” he says. “It is kind of cute.” All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works.
This is darsan—to truly see, to truly be seen. As Diana Eck says: “Beholding is an act of worship, through the eyes one gains blessings.” In the pupil of the eye, an endless heaven.
As Unitarian Universalists, we may not often stand in hospital rooms and create crooked kisses for our beloved. As Unitarian Universalists, we may not often climb a thousand steps to stand before a goddess and receive darsan from her two large eyes.
But here, in our spiritual community, we have hundreds of eyes. Here, we have hundreds of chances to be seen. Here, we have hundreds of chances to see.
Our Unitarian Universalist faith can become darsan. When we come into a Unitarian Universalist congregation, we don’t ask one another to leave behind our doubts or our discoveries. We don’t ask each other to leave behind our questions in order to adopt some system of beliefs that someone else figured out for us and tells us is true. We aren’t asked to pretend to practice or believe in something that doesn’t feel authentic to us.
Here, we are seen as the unique, freethinking, questing spiritual beings that each of us is. Here, in this faith, we are seen, not as sinners needing salvation, but as human beings—beautiful, good, and flawed—who yearn to be recalled to our best selves again. And, here in this community, as we are seen for who we are, we also see in each other the potential to become together something so much more than we are on our own.
This is the true nature of hospitality: to offer, over and over again, to see the true selves of others. To offer our true selves to be seen. It isn’t always easy, to live with such open eyes, so open to the eyes of others. But the purpose of this faith is not to make us comfortable; the purpose of this faith is to help us choose to see and bless the world.
And when we choose to see and bless the world we can open our eyes and see those in need: those pushed to the fringes and forgotten. We can see the injustice, be it in access to healthcare or living wages, be it in exploitation or violence. We can see the destruction our lifestyle and need for convenience are bringing to this fragile planet earth. And we can allow what we see to transform us into people committed to healing our world. We can do more than speak about social justice and environmental action—we can devote ourselves to creating it.
To see and to be seen—this should be the work of our church community. This is the heart of our Unitarian Universalist faith. The hymns, the chants, the readings, the minister, the traditions, all are secondary. The open eyes are what matter. Our open eyes are what matter. Through those portals we will be made whole. Through the pupil of the eye, we’ll find an endless heaven.