There is an exquisite kind of intellectual happiness that comes from understanding the world better. This can arise from something as small as a single fact, a quotation, or even a new word.
Recently I came across a word that answered a question that has puzzled me for a long time, ever since I started my book Power Money Fame Sex: Why are people so eager merely to come into the presence of a famous person?
Most days I work for a while in a pizza shop, Pisa Pizza, on 83rd and 3rd. The décor is dominated by two poster-size photographs, at least fifteen years old, of the shop owner standing beside John Travolta, who apparently wandered into Pisa Pizza one day.
I’ve never understood it – what’s the big deal? Exactly what do people feel that they’re gaining from these glancing interactions? Why are they so excited to see John Travolta?
Darshan is a Sanskrit Hindu term meaning “sight” or “auspicious viewing.” Darshan is the beneficial glow that comes from being in the presence of a great spiritual leader (or holy place or object). Merely looking at such a person – and even better, receiving his or her glance – bestows a blessing.
In Vikram Chandra’s fantastic novel set in India, Sacred Games, I noticed, people also sought darshan of a rich and famous mobster.
So when people crowd into a store because Jennifer Aniston is inside, or follow Woody Allen down the street for blocks, or stand outside in the freezing cold to see Barack Obama speak instead of watching him on TV, it’s because they want darshan.
I myself don’t have much feeling for darshan, but it’s obvious how eagerly many people seek it out.
For instance, I clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and I can testify that people get a mighty darshan from a Supreme Court Justice.
Justices are treated with great deference and respect, but by contrast, TV and movie stars – especially those considered very friendly and accessible – sometimes seem overwhelmed by people’s desire for darshan.
I was particularly interested to learn that with darshan, eye contact with the revered person conveys particular grace. It absolutely seems true that a mere eye-lock can bring about some kind of transfer of power.
If you’re a saint or guru, you aren’t depleted by the act of making eye contact. But this transfer may explain why powerful or famous people sometimes insist that others not make eye contact with them – a demand that always struck me as particularly bizarre and puzzling. People seeking darshan drain them of their energy.
Just a few months ago, Page Six (a renowned New York City gossip column) reported that “Victoria Beckham styled Katie Holmes for an upcoming Harper’s Bazaar cover, and during the 300-plus person shoot in Los Angeles, the production team was told not to look either of them in the eye.”
When I read that item, I wondered, “What’s that about?” Now I know. Darshan. It feels good to have that figured out.