The Sacred and the Profane

The profane forgets the sacred. That is what makes it the profane.

The sacred embraces all, including the profane. That is what makes it the sacred.

The sacred and the profane are not two actualities. Not like table and chair, or pen and paper. Nor like two different places like New York and Paris.

They are like the true and the false. Reality and illusion. There is not a true world – one filled with truths – and a seperate false world – one filled with falsehoods. There is only one world, that which is real. Illusions are illusory mental states which are part of reality. They are not truthful mental states of a world consisting of illusions.

Truth seeks out all, including illusion, and embraces all with a common consciousness. Illusion resists aspects of reality, creating boundaries where there are none, and lives within those boundaries as if it were simply accepting how reality is.

The profane says: “The world is just like this, of divided, limited beings struggling for survival. Not an issue of whether I like it or not. Not about my preferences. It is just a matter of reality, just how things are. We have to make do and live as best as we can in this world of egos clashing. I am an ego, and egos look out for themselves. It is just what we do. This is just reality.”

The sacred says: “The world is just like this: whole, all embracing, without an other.”

The profane affirms itself by justifying limits. The sacred affirms itself by simply being.

The profane views the sacred with apprehension, with distrust. Or even sometimes, with longing and with desire. The profane views the sacred as the other, an illusory or a real other. Through this othering of the sacred, the profane affirms itself.

The sacred views the profane as itself, as not other than itself.

For the profane, there is a distinction between the sacred and the profane. For the sacred, there is no distinction between the sacred and the profane.

The profane is fear. The sacred is fearless.

The profane is profane. The sacred is sacred.

8 thoughts on “The Sacred and the Profane

  1. Bharath,

    A very thought-provoking reflection. You seem to be saying the sacred is inclusive, universal, while the profane is exclusive, circumstantial.

    It seems to me that when we speak of the sacred we are also speaking of something we should be reverent toward, something we should respect, something that is entitled to veneration, while when we speak of the profane we are are speaking of something that is disrespectful or irreverent (toward moral or social norms, linguistic conventions, or other standards of value or conduct).

    Of course, one can’t think about “the sacred and the profane” without recalling Mircea Eliade’s classic text, “The Sacred and the Profane,” in which he distinguishes between religious experience, in which sacred spaces have existential value, and profane experience, in which space is homogeneous and neutral. Eliade says the threshold that separates the sacred and profane spaces is also the limit or boundary between two modes of being (the sacred and the profane). “Every sacred space implies a hierophany [a manifestation of the sacred], an irruption of the sacred that results in detaching a territory from the surrounding cosmic milieu and making it qualitatively different” ( (p. 26). He also says, “The cosmicization of unknown territories is always a consecration,” (p. 32), and “the irruption of the sacred does not not only project a fixed point into the formless fluidity of profane space, a center into chaos; it also effects a break in plane, that is, it opens communication between the cosmic planes…and makes possible ontological passage from one mode of being to another” (p. 63).

    What are the sacred spaces in our lives? Do these spaces include our homes, places of worship, cemeteries, workplaces, schools, classrooms, courtrooms, museums, national parks, public memorials, and other localities? How can these sacred spaces be profaned? What should be our response to the profanation of our sacred spaces?

    You seem to be saying the sacred is real and the profane is illusory. When the sacred is denigrated or disrespected by the profane, is it enough to simply dismiss the profane as illusory? Don’t we have to directly confront those who profane our sacred spaces (e.g. those who deface or vandalize our places of worship, those who pollute our natural resources) in at least some cases or situations?

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    • Hi Alex,

      It’s like the movie the Matrix. Some people don’t know they are in the Matrix, and they experience reality as a uniform world they are used to in the matrix. Others, like Morpheus and Trinity, know they are in the matrix, but they can’t experience reality while in the matrix. To experience reality they need the phone booths, which are the spaces of hierophany which propel them into true consciousness where they are free of the illusory consciousness of the matrix. Yet others, like Neo at the end of the first Matrix, are able to live in true consciousness even while in the matrix; so there is no rupture in consciousness inside and outside the Matrix for Neo.

      The sacred is the awareness that the whole world is sacred, that there is nothing outside the sacred, that the sacred is not a protected realm outside of which lurks the profane.

      Prior to the axial age, all people experienced the sacred through sacred spaces like temples, totem poles, ritual spaces, etc. Even the shamans, the priests, they were able to realize the sacred and experience the whole world as sacred through organizing their communities and physical spaces in certain ways. The temples or ritual spaces were their phone booths.

      With the axial age, some people no longer needed physical spaces to be protected as sacred spaces of heirophanies. For them – like Christ, the Buddha, Socrates, Lao Tzu, etc – their own consciousness became the sacred space of heirophanies. What buildings or spaces does Christ or the Buddha need to experience the sacred? Who can profane Christ’s consciousness, or disrespect the sacred world he moves in? Like Neo, if one sees there is no spoon, there is no possibility of profaning anything. Profaning is itself only possible when one forgets that there is no spoon. Profaning is not caused by someone disrespecting a particular sacred space. It is caused by the assumption that anyone or anything can profane the sacred.

      This way of putting it is an Axial age insight. Which is not to say all people in the axial age or since then experience the sacred like this. They don’t. Most people still experince the sacred in a pre axial age way – through buildings, rituals, gurus, in terms of heirophanies eminating outside their consciousness and body. This doesn’t mean they are wrong. They are not profane. It is just what it is. Some people need a temple or church or a meditation space, and some people don’t. A person who doesn’t wouldn’t go destroy temples, any more than Neo at the end of the Matrix doesn’t destroy the phone booths as unnecessary.

      This much though is true. If one is able to access the sacred only through sacred spaces like places of worship, memorials, public parks, etc, then conflict over those spaces is inevitable (conflict with those who are seen as profaning those spaces). Physical conflict over that space becomes merged with spiritual conflict. This was the mode of humanity until the axial age, and still the reality for most humans. Axial ages sages moved beyond this by not needing a physical, contestable space to groud their heirophanies. If my sense of the sacred is not dependent on anything other than my own consciousness, then nothing and no one can threaten my sense of the Sacred. Then the profane is not something outside me or some space out there where the temple has been vulgerized, but the profane is just my illusion that the world could be profane.

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      • Thanks, Bharath

        That’s a beautiful explanation of something that seems breathtakingly clear and profound when you explain it that way. I’m particularly moved and inspired by your saying,

        “With the axial age, some people no longer needed physical spaces to be protected as sacred spaces of heirophanies. For them – like Christ, the Buddha, Socrates, Lao Tzu, etc – their own consciousness became the sacred space of heirophanies. What buildings or spaces does Christ or the Buddha need to experience the sacred? Who can profane Christ’s consciousness, or disrespect the sacred world he moves in? Like Neo, if one sees there is no spoon, there is no possibility of profaning anything. Profaning is itself only possible when one forgets that there is no spoon. Profaning is not caused by someone disrespecting a particular sacred space. It is caused by the assumption that anyone or anything can profane the sacred.”

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  2. Bharath,
    I hadn’t heard the term “axial age” before reading your comment, but I see on Wikipedia that it’s a term coined by the philosopher Karl Jaspers to refer to the period of ancient history from about the 8th to the 3rd century BCE. Thanks for enlightening me on this concept. The kind of insights and wisdom you’re describing have thus been available to humankind since antiquity, but as you said, they’ve not been fully realized by the modern world.

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  3. Hi Bharath,
    Thinking a little bit more about the profane and the sacred, it seems to me that the profane may in some ways be something immanent, while the sacred may in some ways be something transcendent. But the immanent (the natural world, for example) may sometimes be held as something transcendent, so there may in fact be no real distinction between them The profane may be the “natural” or worldly, and the sacred may be the “supernatural” or otherworldly, but the former may lead to the latter, so they may in fact be two sides of the same coin (“being,” as such).
    If, as you say, “the profane is not something outside me or some space out there where the temple has been vulgarized, but the profane is just my illusion that the world could be profane,” then why is it so difficult for us to accept this basic truth and express some form of non-attachment? I’m thinking here of acts of “righteous anger” in response to acts of profanation. I’m thinking of the kind of outrage provoked by Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. I’m thinking of the kind of harassment and emotional harm caused to minority students by the posting or racist graffiti in university residence halls (see http://www.mcall.com/news/breaking/mc-pol-bethlehem-lehigh-university-racist-graffiti-20180406-story.html). I’m thinking of the kind of despair caused by unsuccessful efforts to halt contamination of natural resources considered sacred, such as the river Ganges (see https://www.reuters.com/article/india-ganges/exclusive-indias-ganges-clean-up-in-a-shambles-modi-intervenes-idUSKBN1780ZC).
    You explain that
    “If one is able to access the sacred only through sacred spaces like places of worship, memorials, public parks, etc, then conflict over those spaces is inevitable (conflict with those who are seen as profaning those spaces). Physical conflict over that space becomes merged with spiritual conflict. This was the mode of humanity until the axial age, and still the reality for most humans. Axial ages sages moved beyond this by not needing a physical, contestable space to ground their hierophanies. If my sense of the sacred is not dependent on anything other than my own consciousness, then nothing and no one can threaten my sense of the Sacred.”
    This is a great point. I would add that there ideological contestable spaces, as well as physical contestable spaces.
    I came across an interesting article today by Robert Thurman, entitled “Transcendence and the Sacred in the Mahayana Middle Way,” in Transcendence and the Sacred, edited by Alan M. Olson and Leroy S. Roumer (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1981), in which Thurman describes Rudolf Otto’s fivefold characterization of the sacred (Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, Oxford University Press, 1975):
    “The five [qualities] are (1) awe-fulness, in the sense of absolute unapproachability: (2) majesty, in the sense of overpowering, crushing presence: (3) energy, in the sense of imparting a dramatic and undeniable sense of urgency through even the slightest encounter: (4) radical otherness, generating stupefying astonishment: and (5) fascination, creating joy, rapture, calm, and exuberance. From these qualities, it becomes generally apparent that the term “sacred” expresses the aesthetic quality pertaining to what is presumed to move from the transcendent back to the mundane. An actually unapproachable absolute, that is, could not be perceived at all, as such perception itself would violate its absoluteness.”
    Thurman explains that
    “Directionally then, we see the sacred as related to the movement to immanence from transcendence. Thus, a religious situation where only the absolutely transcendent was sacred would be absolutely deprived of aesthetic content, as the locus of value would be totally apart from the world, hence beyond all relationship to any living being. At the opposite pole, where only the immediate world is sacred, all experience is equally valued, there is no possibility of growth or freedom, and “sacred” loses all meaning, from loss of contrast with profane” (p. 103).
    Thurman says that Mayahana Buddhism’s Middle Way provides a solution to this problem through the teaching of non-dualism, “which describes reality as just as much ‘not one’ as it is ‘not many.’”

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    • “If, as you say, “the profane is not something outside me or some space out there where the temple has been vulgarized, but the profane is just my illusion that the world could be profane,” then why is it so difficult for us to accept this basic truth and express some form of non-attachment? I’m thinking here of acts of “righteous anger” in response to acts of profanation. I’m thinking of the kind of outrage provoked by Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. I’m thinking of the kind of harassment and emotional harm caused to minority students by the posting or racist graffiti in university residence halls…I’m thinking of the kind of despair caused by unsuccessful efforts to halt contamination of natural resources considered sacred, such as the river Ganges.”

      The reason is simple I think, though counter-intuitive in a way: humans find it easier, and more natural, to try to change the world, and others, rather than change oneself. This is what perpetuates the sense that the profane and the sacred are out there in the world. So seeking the sacred becomes identified with public actions and spaces, and anything hindering that is seen as an obstacle to what is best in oneself.

      This is a remnant of the mythic-warrior mentality of the pre-axial age, a time when all hierophanies were seen as actual physical spaces (pyramids, ritual fires, etc.), and where protecting those spaces was central to protecting the community.

      The axial age sages were the first to experience the hierophanies within themselves, where they themselves were the link to the sacred, and so the sacred was not a space outside them, but was their own way of relating to the world. This was the inner revolution, of meta-awareness, stemming from the realization, as far back as 2,500 years ago, that civilizations already back then were sufficiently diverse that fighting for public spaces meant that citizens in an empire would be forever at war with each other.

      As might be expected, the axial age wisdom was itself interpreted by most people in a mythic-warrior mentality, with temples, churches – physical spaces of worship of axial age sages – being treated as the locus of the sacred. This has set in place a constant push and pull for the last 2,000 years within each religion between the more public sacred space model and the inner sacred space model. The same is true for rational thinking, between the Socratic/Diogenes model of rationality as inner reflection and the Plato/Aristotle model of rationality as an academic, social activity.

      This is why the usual religion vs atheism debates are off target from what the axial sages were about. These debates are usually had in the mythic-warrior mode, where what is really being “debated” is which social institutions should have more power, or in which domains they should have more power, etc. Jesus, Socrates, Buddha, Lao Tzu – there is no analogue of any such argument in the axial age sages. Because for them what mattered was not academia or temples or churches or social organization even, but the inner formation to see the hierophany within oneself. Their interest was in seeing the sacred not as a space outside them but as a constant within themselves – which means that the profane as well is not a space outside them, but is one’s own inabiility to be with the hierophany within oneself.

      The real issue isn’t which religion is right, or whether religion or science, or religion or atheism is correct. Those are all versions of the mythic-warrior mindset. The real issue is how to move beyond the mythic-warrior mindset into the axial age mindset. This is for us now to achieve what Buddha and Christ achieved back then. This is usually ignored when Christ and Christianity, or Buddha and Buddhism as a religion, or Socrates and academia are conflated.

      I should add, I don’t mean to demean pre-axial age modes of the sacred, such as that of the Native Americans, or the Egyptians, and so on. Those are beautiful and amazing as well. But the question the axial age faced was what happens when people of different myths live together in a common society and with common political and social rules, etc. The axial age was the transformation of the previous wisdom traditions for such a political and social situation. Which is to say, for our own social situation now across the world.

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