Sacred Spaces & Objects: A Common Theme Across All Religions

Thursday December 8 was Bodhi Day, which recognizes the day that the Buddha achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, which is still treated as a sacred space and a pilgrimage destination for Buddhists.

So often, you enter a church or a monastery or even a spot by the river where there might be fluttering prayer flags or a simple stone idol, and something inside you becomes quiet. It’s almost as if the aura of the space automatically sparks surrender, elicits prayer. It is a space quite distinct from other mundane spaces. These spaces and objects can be explicitly religious though not always, but they are always symbolic.

Sacred spaces and objects are thought to be effective in allowing us to experience the transcendent through material means. They allow us to concretize abstract concepts to help direct our focus toward something beyond. Since religion has historic narratives attached to it, many sacred spaces and objects derive their symbolic significance from historical events. These two elements, symbolism and historical memory, often go together in pilgrimages to sacred places. You journey to Mecca or trek to Mount Kailash. Almost all religions mark boundaries to create a separation between the sacred and the outside.

Temples, synagogues, churches are like the localized proxies of holy sites. In all three of the Abrahamic traditions, Jerusalem is a sacred place, though the holiest two cities in Islam are Mecca and Medina, all reflecting historically significant moments in the lives of the prophets in those religions. One of the 4 pillars of Islam — holy duties that all Muslims are asked to perform — is the Hajj, a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

In Hinduism, the parallel to the Hajj is the visiting of four dhamas (holy places), corresponding to the four points of the compass, which are sites where the great teacher Shankara set up special centers. Millions of Hindus visit these sites every year.

Hindu temples contain elaborate statues from the pantheon of Gods and even the Ganges River has been imbued with a divine energy by people. For Buddhists, it is the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.

During the times when most people were not literate, religious leaders started imbuing material objects with a sense of the sacred — candles, incense, bells, prayer beads. And, yet, any number of reformist saints remind people to not only worship in physical temples and mosques and churches, but to worship the divine energy within.

Christianity

“All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible […] People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.”

— C.S. Lewis, writer, and Christian theologian

“[Jesus] went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha.”

— The New Testament (John 19:17), Christian text

Islam

“God has made the Ka’ba– the Sacred House– a means of support for people, and the Sacred Months, the animals for sacrifice and their garlands: all this.”

— The Qur’an (5:97), Muslim text

“[the Ka’ba was] the first House [of worship] established for mankind.”

— The Qur’an (3:96)), Muslim text

Judaism

“The Land of Israel is the holiest of all lands.”

— Sefer Ha-Aggadah, collection of Jewish writings

“When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.”
— Hebrew Bible (Exodus 31:18), Jewish text

Baha’i

“In brief, the original purpose of temples and houses of worship is simply that of unity — places of meeting where various peoples, different races, and souls of every capacity may come together in order that love and agreement should be manifest between them. That is why Bahá’u’lláh has commanded that a place of worship be built for all the religionists of the world; that all religions, races, and sects may come together within its universal shelter.”

— ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i leader

Hinduism

“The word for a shrine in Sanskrit is tirtha, a ford, a place where one “crosses over” a river; once, all shrines were on rivers, and even now they usually have some sort of water, if only a human-made pool in which the worshippers can bathe[…]And indeed, shrines are where one can cross simultaneously over the river and over the perils of the world of rebirth, or cross from earth to heaven.”

— Wendy Doniger, Indologist and historian of religions

“The good people who go there [to Haridvara] find good health — men, women, the four-cornered worlds themselves. From merely visiting here they all go to the heaven Vaikuntha. Beautiful Haridvara is also a grand pilgrimage place of mine. This best of all fords bestows the four goals of life in the Kali Age; it gives Dharma to people, and release and success as well, there where the lovely and pure Ganges flows perennially.”

— Padma Purana, Hindu text

Buddhism

“We Buddhists believe that merit is accumulated when you take part in something religious, with discipline and faith, because in doing so you shape a proper attitude within. With the right attitude, any journey to a sacred place becomes a pilgrimage. In our tradition, the Buddha advised that in times to come people interested in his teachings should be told about the places associated with the major events of his life. His purpose was not to ensure the aggrandizement of the person of the Buddha, but rather the welfare of his followers.”

— The Dalai Lama

Confucianism

“Surely when one says ‘The rites, the rites,’ it is not enough merely to mean presents of jade and silk. Surely when one says ‘Music, music,’ it is not enough merely to mean bells and drums.”

— The Analects (17:11), Confucian text

Art and Literature

“The fact that the Greeks sculpted such statues of their gods does not imply a belief that the gods resembled men or had bodies that were in every respect human; what the Greeks did believe was that the beauty, youth, or perfection of a real human body evoked qualities of the divine.”

— Louise Bruit Zaidman and Pauline Schmitt Pantel, historians

“Wherever a hero has been born, has wrought, or has passed back into the void, the place is marked and sanctified.”
— Joseph Campbell, scholar of comparative mythology and religion

To learn more about other common themes across religions, visit us at uef.org/weekly-wisdom.

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