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.
In all three of the Abrahamic traditions, Jerusalem is a sacred place. Mecca and Medina are also highly revered as holy cities in Islam and a pilgrimage to these places is coveted by all Muslims. In India, “Char Dham”, a set of four holy sites considered to be heavenly abodes are visited by devout Hindus desirous of achieving salvation.
Sacred places such as the Temples, synagogues, churches, and mosques are like the localized proxies of holy sites. Within such houses of worship lie sacred objects. In a synagogue, you will find the Torah Scrolls; in churches, there is always some iconography depicting Christ on the cross; Islamic mosques are decorated with Arabic calligraphy emphasizing Qur’an as the living word of God.
Hindu temples contain elaborate statues from the pantheon of Gods and we often see objects such as conch shells, holy basil plants, and rudraksha beads used in worship rituals. Even the Ganges River is imbued with divine energy by people. For Buddhists, the Bodhi tree, the Dharma wheel, and the Stupa are sacred and often depicted in their art and scriptures. Christians consider sacraments as physical objects representing blessings and grace.
Almost all religions mark boundaries to create a separation between the sacred and the secular. Sacred spaces and objects are effective in allowing us to experience the transcendent through material means. They are icons that help us simplify abstract concepts to redirect our focus toward something beyond. Their power lies in what they symbolize, supported by the faith and belief that they can help us gain spiritual benefits.
“[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
“[The Ka’ba was] the first House [of worship] established for mankind.”
—The Qur’an (3:96)), Muslim text
“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.”
—‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i leader
“Pre-eminent among all sacred fords, the best of places, superior to all knowledge, this is my place, the supreme Avimukta. Within this area are to be found sanctuaries, purifying fords, and shrines in cremation grounds surpassing those in other divine spots on earth.”
—Kurma Purana, Hindu text
“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