Sunday, May 21, 2017

Drawing Parallels - Could religious symbols signify similarities?

I recently had the opportunity to visit St. Mary's Church, Harrow (London) and had the pleasure to discover more about various Christian symbols and practices. It was an euphoric moment for me when I heard the narrative given by the church representatives and I just could not help myself but draw parallels to the Hindu Temples that I grew up knowing about. Below are some of them:

Tall Tower - At the entrance of the church we were introduced to the Spire (alternatively called the Steeple), the tall structure in the church. She explained that the presence of Spire was as a symbol to point us to heaven and heavenly things that makes us forget about the earthly things that surround us and we start concentrating on the beautiful sky and think about God and Angels bringing about a shift in our thoughts. This was the start of the euphoric moment that I mentioned about. As a Hindu (practising or by birth - I am not sure where I would put myself) I was immediately able to relate it to the Gopura Dharisanam (the Kalasam present atop the tallest tower or gateway tower in front of the temple is looked at in a similar fashion for almost the exact same reasons) symbolisation.

We went inside and sat down at the prayer hall where we were introduced to the other members present there including the Vicar (who was also the Chaplin at the school nearby), who was the highest person of importance as far as this church was concerned.

Design - The first explanation given was about the design of the church. She told us that all churches were built with a basic design of the Cross and this was common for all churches and this was to symbolise that Jesus Christ died on the cross and hence Cross represented the most important event in the history of Christianity and considered to be very holy. So that was the length of the church with the altar at one end and the entrance on the other end of the long vertical side of the cross while the short and horizontal portion of the cross had chapels for other important people/things. Over the years, other structures get built around this main structure (like hall of peace that is used as place of meditation or prayer for people from other beliefs) and hence it might be difficult to see the Cross on an aerial view of the Church but if you see from inside, this basic design will be present as a common element. 

This made me draw a parallel to the Hindu Temples and their basic structure of commonality of having a Sannidhi (or Sanctorum) for Lord Ganesha as the God at the entrance of every temple, and then a main sannidhi that houses the main diety of that temple. Then there is the Navagraha (that represent the Sun, Moon and the eight planets). In addition to these three features depending on the temple, there may be more additions to the temple in the form of halls for conducting prayers/poojas and functions.

Functionality - The next parallel I drew was in olden days, Church was the centre point for almost everything including reading, teaching, healing, spreading the word of the Lord and such. Similarly, Temples were the epicentre of power for similar reasons like teaching, lecture, healing, spreading spirituality and the teachings of Gurus (or Saints) to common people. 

Paintings & Carvings - There were tinted glass paintings that tell a story because in olden days, people did not know to read and write and hence art came to the forefront to spread the message. The roof of the church had wooden carvings of angels, saints, musicians and so on. Parallel to Hinduism is the carvings on the Temple towers and pillars, paintings on the inner walls and ceilings that each told a story and conveyed a life in that village/town where the temple was located.

The Holy Water Font or the Stoup - A Symbol to denote that the water is a cleansing agent and hence sprinkling of water is to denote the cleansing of the person/thing. 

The Temple Pond – A parallel to the Stoup - A dip in the Temple pond (Teppam – a pond found outside the temple) is supposed to cleanse one completely. If this pond is absent, the sprinkling of holy water (water mixed with turmeric, camphor, Tulasi - Indian holy basil) is supposed to do the job. 

A final tit-bit that I learnt about the altar was the significance behind the presence of the table present at the altar. This is to symbolise Jesus' Last Supper with his disciples.

These insights probably indicate that different religions indeed have similar notions and commonalities, adapted to local context.

Pictures courtesy:  Google search