||Issue Date: 10 / 2005
Religion's Influence on Architecture and Culture
Their histories stretch back thousands of years. Their doctrines, myths, and ways of worship are varied, yet they promulgate universal doctrines of ethical conduct toward others. Their founders were exceptional people who attained a degree of self-knowledge that inclined them to repel evil and seek the highest ideals of good.
A Buddhist stupa in
Click image to enlarge.
Religions form the foundation of cultural identity and have decisively shaped world civilizations based on differing, but not exclusive, views of ultimate value: mercy and benevolence in Buddhism, morality and ethics in Confucianism, respect in Shintoism, devotion and mystical unity of divine Self in Hinduism, obedience and perseverance in Judaism, love for the Creator and one's fellowman in Christianity, and submission to the will of Allah in Islam.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines heritage as "our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations." Religious heritage is not only the faiths and traditions passed down through the generations but also the magnificent artistic and architectural works that embody them. It is not surprising that UNESCO has included temples, cathedrals, shrines, and religious iconography from virtually every major religious tradition on its World Heritage List.
Shrine-like buildings found at Catal Huyuk in Anatolia (now modern Turkey) date as far back as 9000 B.C. Within two thousand years, similar sanctuaries would be established in Jericho and elsewhere in the Near East. Shrine paintings, reliefs, and engravings suggest highly organized rituals connected with fertility, the afterlife, and worship of the Mother goddess. Processions were a feature in the cult temples, particularly during festivals, so free movement was required through and around the sanctuary, influencing its architectural form.
Hindu architecture testifies to the intense spirituality of the Indian subcontinent. Designed to represent a cosmic mountain, the Hindu temple serves as the earthly residence of the cosmic deities. Temple architecture embodies the faith's complex cosmology, with sanctuary walls accommodating statues, sacred emblems, and myths of the Hindu pantheon.
Unlike the Christian churches and Jewish temples that house believers in collective worship, Hindu temples ordinarily do not contain large internal spaces. They are tabernacles preceded by halls used for rituals, music, and dance. Because Hindu architectural styles are expressions of faith, adopting new forms would be a denial of the entire past.
The earliest surviving religious architecture on the subcontinent is Buddhist. The third-century B.C. ruler Asoka made Buddhism an official religion of his empire and gave the initial impetus to Buddhist monumental architecture. Monasticism grew out of places of pilgrimages, initially around relics associated with the Buddha and his disciples.
The supreme sacred monument of Buddhism is the stupa, whose basic form is a solid dome crowned by a parasol. Stupas were initially burial mounds for relics. The stupa form, with its vertical axis representing the axis mundi, or world axis, has cosmic implications. The parasol is one of the kingly symbols associated with the Buddha, who had renounced his former life as a prince. The stupa thus implies that the ruler upholds the cosmic law. Whether as containers of actual relics, aids to meditation, or symbols of enlightenment, stupas became objects of veneration.
Japan's Shinto shrines were built to welcome the gods when they descended to the Earth. Some were temporary buildings, used only once, during a god's sojourn. Shinto shrines adorn the landscape rather than host believers, and they reflect the worship of spirits of the environment who determine the success of the harvest. Deities symbolizing natural forces were given physical form, such as a wooden column at the center of a festival place.
In ancient China, shrines were used for sacrifices to ancestors and famous historical personages, as well as to the gods. Usually there were two groups of buildings--one for the worship of heaven and the other for prayers for good harvest.
The Imperial Vault of Heaven housed a sacred tablet. This shrine had three circular tiers. Heaven was said to be circular and the earth square. Thus, square courtyards were used to locate heaven on earth, while high supporting platforms, placed behind comparatively low surrounding walls, gave the impression that the buildings were close to the sky.
In the Roman world, the acceptance of Christianity by Emperor Constantine resulted in an ambitious program of ecclesiastical and monastic building. As Christianity spread across Europe, medieval Christendom witnessed the construction of enormous cathedrals, often taking generations to complete, which infused Christian belief in the majesty of the Creator within vast arched spaces, and reverence for the saints within intricate statuary and stained glass.
The great cathedrals housed regional bishoprics and became sites of pilgrimage for the faithful. In architecture as in literature, the dominant themes were feudal loyalty and Christian faith, both closely related to the mystic ideal of the knights dedicated to the service of Christ.
With the rise of Islam in the seventh century A.D., new styles and motifs appeared in religious architecture. The product of two streams of development, one in the Mediterranean and the other in south-central Asia, Muslim architecture is fundamentally centered upon worship. At its heart is the mosque, whose characteristic domes, minarets, and stylized decorative art encouraged contemplation and prayer. Historically, the mosque was of central importance to the life of the community--a place to worship, bathe, eat, sleep, debate, and be schooled.
The great temples, monuments, and cathedrals are virtual scriptures in stone, records of humanity's spiritual quest and its impact on diverse cultures that would arise from the soil of faith. Religious differences and prejudices, of course, have engendered great hostility and bloodshed; and a balanced view would need to record religion's perversions--its fanaticisms, persecutions, witch-hunts, and holy wars--as well as its glories. Our challenge, though, is to build upon the historical ideals of interdependence, cultural and theological exchange, and shared values.
In the Middle East, stories of archetypal figures such as Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and Job have become part of humankind's treasury of memories. Often, the three Middle Eastern religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--are referred to as the Sons or Children of Abraham. Muhammad had a lifelong respect for the "Book of the Jews." The Jewish patriarchs became his heroes, whom he would later enshrine in the Qur'an.
After the destruction of the Temple and dispersal of Jews from Israel in A.D. 70, Judaism attained influence among Bedouin Arabs not by the sword but by the exemplary conduct of the Jews. By the fifth and sixth centuries, many Arabs respected the nonsexualized symbols of Judaism, its ascetic monotheism, and the Jewish devotion to family life and education. The Arabs called the Jews "People of the Book," and Jews and Arabs lived side by side in peace. The general knowledge of Jewish and Christian scriptures among the Arabs helped prepare the way for the hero in history to fuse the nature worship of the Arabs, the salvation doctrine of the Christians, and the monotheism of the Jews into a new God image. The hero was Muhammad; the creed was Islam; the motivating ideology was Judaism.
Islamic Persia, Spain, and North Africa served as a refuge when Jews fled from ruthless Byzantine and Roman emperors. While there were sporadic outbursts of anti-Jewish feeling, Muslims valued the Jews as advisers, physicians, international traders, and cultural attaches. Interestingly, the span of the Jewish golden age largely corresponded to the life span of the Islamic empire. When the latter broke up, the Jewish golden age fell into decline.
In the growth and development of India's religious quest, Hinduism and Buddhism appear to be branches growing out of one tree and nourished by the same soil of Indian mysticism. In both belief and rites, the two faiths have much in common. For example, Buddha taught the doctrine of reincarnation and based his philosophy on the law of karma. He referred to the Vedas to illustrate his ideas and repeatedly praised Hindu sages. Often, Buddhist saints and Hindu holy men practiced the same type of yoga discipline, and both religions stressed the value of meditation as a means to achieve mystical illumination.
Despite Buddha's revolutionary and unique position in Indian religious thought, his ties to Hinduism are apparent. According to one group of modern Hindu apologists, Buddha was an exceptional world teacher whose differences from Hinduism have been exaggerated and whose ideas are in the main correct but have been badly misunderstood.
The Hindu concepts of divinity--the deist god who dwells in heaven, the pantheistic god who pervades everything, and the personal god who answers prayers--can create bridges of interaction and discussion with monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The greatest religions not only transformed belief systems but formed cultural spheres, whose influence continues to pervade traditions of daily life. Buddhism's core philosophy--nothing is permanent, all is change--has transformed the civilizations of much of Asia. Taoism, the oldest of the three religions of ancient China, and Confucianism influenced the ancient civilizations of the Far East with hopes of a golden age of harmony and tranquillity. While Confucianism magnified man's role in constructing such a social order, Taoism minimized man's role and looked to the vastness and majesty of nature as a model for human society.
Lao-tzu, the most revered of the old masters of Taoism, thought the ideal was to be found in returning to the uncorrupted state of nature, whereas Confucianism sought to build the good society through gradual development of civilization. Confucius was an apostle of culture, Lao-tzu an advocate of naturalism. The former wanted to reform the world through moral education, by which man judges his behavior using a moral standard; the latter urged men to return to the origin, the Tao, the basic principle of all things in the universe. Tao literally means the road, the Way.
In modern history, both science and religion have provided important models to help us understand and relate to our universe. Western society has been enormously influenced by the scientific worldview and the belief that nature's most intimate secrets will ultimately yield to our conscientious investigations. But for so many, the pressing issues of the day point to the need to resolve moral dilemmas, express internal values, and explore spiritual meaning. Solutions to such problems as poverty, corruption, racism, and violence will not come with more powerful microscopes or particle accelerators but with a more profound spiritual vision of what it means to be truly human.
"To transform the world, one cannot focus just on nuts and bolts," said Zbigniew Brzenzinski, former U.S. national security adviser. "Our central challenge is to overcome the global crises of the spirit." That is why religions, emphasizing the internal, invisible, and causal relationships, often are missing in public forums.
Religion plays a crucial role in many international conflicts, yet diplomats and world leaders often ignore or misunderstand the positive role it can play in creating strategies for peace. Religious loyalties outweigh political loyalties in the hearts of many people, and therefore faith must be taken seriously as a critical factor by those promoting solutions to today's problems.
Perhaps at no other time has it been more important to understand diverse religious traditions and to seek common and consistent themes that can become the basis for peace and harmony. As we strive for an interdependent world community--a "family of man" providing equitable and sustainable living conditions to all people--we look to the world's religions to exemplify the values and principles needed to create such a world.
© 2005 World & I: Innovative Approaches to Peace
Melvin Haft is executive vice president of the American Forum
for Jewish-Christian-Muslim Cooperation, a board member of
the All Faith Consortium in Washington, D.C., and director of
the American Freedom Coalition of Maryland. He was director
of the Youth Seminar on World Religions from 1982 to 1985,
touring historic religious centers of the world promoting
international harmony through religious dialogue.