Places of Worship – Their Evolving Nature and Purpose

Over the past couple of years the Office of Public Affairs of the Bahá’ís of India has in collaboration with academicians, development organizations, media persons, interfaith associations and policy makers, engaged in a discourse exploring the role of religion in building a better society. As part of discussions with various individuals and groups on this theme, the Office has become increasingly conscious of the role of religious institutions in promoting social transformation. Among these institutions are places of worship. Mandirs, mosques, churches, gurudwaras, houses of worship and synagogues are institutions in every locality and neighborhood that provide a powerful stimulus for unifying people through communal worship and in inspiring them to carry out acts of service for the betterment of society. In the Office’s conversations with its collaborators a sense of concern had become apparent with regard to these places of worship – contemporary events have shown that they could serve a unifying and constructive purpose or become platforms for propagating hatred and fanaticism. It seemed like a new conversation was needed on the role of places of worship in the evolving realities of twenty first century world. This discourse would have particular relevance for India where religious co-existence has become a pressing social need. This document has been prepared by the Office to provide a few initial thoughts and questions to stimulate discussions around this theme.  

Throughout the ages, human beings have pondered and marveled with awe at the majesty, grandeur and beauty of Creation– from the exquisite perfection evident in the arrangement of the petals of a flower to the mysterious order that pervades the behavior of galaxies in the Universe, from the realm of thoughts and feelings to the subtle and ineffable realities of the spirit.  The only befitting response the human heart and mind has found to the overwhelming perfection and beauty of the world of existence has been to worship and adore the Intelligence that lay behind its creation. The relationship between this Being who has been called God, Ishwar or Allah and the individual soul has been the fundamental theme of all the religions of the world. It is in the context of this loving relationship that the Founders of the great religions have been able to inspire their followers to discipline animal tendencies and to cultivate divine attributes and virtues such as love, generosity, compassion and justice that are needed for harmonious social existence. Not only has this connection with the divine provided a sense of meaning, security and moral orientation to the individual, it has also served as the basis for the consciousness of the oneness of humankind as people see each other as children of one God who embody in their essential nature the same set of divine attributes and qualities.  

At the centre of humanity’s relationship with the Divine has been the place of worship. In communities wherever they live, human beings have always consecrated an area of space and reared a structure especially meant for worship. It could be as small as a street-side shrine or a towering architectural marvel – for the worshipper the space is rendered sacred by its association with the remembrance of God. The place of worship has been a site of communal worship uniting its worshippers in a pure bond of love. It has been a mainstay in the spiritual life of the individual as well as the community.  

In the rapidly changing world of the twenty-first century, as human beings strive to anchor their lives in spiritual awareness and to orient themselves to God, there is the question of what role places of worship will play in the life of the individual and the community. There is no doubt that as every other institution in society evolves in sync with changing realities, places of worship will also have to evolve in terms of addressing the complex needs of an increasingly interconnected and complex world. The challenge is to ensure that in this process, it evolves in a way that channelizes the powers of the spirit to unify people across ethnic, religious, racial and national lines and to instill the desire to build a society based on justice and not to reinforce religious fundamentalism and fanaticism or to encourage divisive, sectarian and narrow forms of identity.  

Below a few questions to stimulate discussion on the direction this evolutionary process could take:  

  • If places of worship are to be true to the spirit of love and oneness that underlies all religions, they must serve as agents for unifying people of all religious, national, ethnic, and social backgrounds in society. What role can religious leaders and religious communities play in ensuring that the spiritual energies generated by places of worship provide a powerful stimulus for overcoming prejudices against peoples of other backgrounds, for healing past conflicts, countering hatred with love and establishing the spiritual basis for unity in diversity? 
  • What are some of the barriers that prevent places of worship from fulfilling their true purpose of establishing unity among all peoples? How can these obstacles be overcome? 
  • If places of worship in the modern world are to contribute to building a better society, their social contribution should be more than just creating unity among diverse peoples, vital as this is. The spirit of compassion, dedication, altruism, and self-sacrifice that is awakened through worship yearns to find expression in concrete actions taken for the establishment of justice and for the overall betterment of society. How can programs of social action be connected to these places of worship that would offer channels for directing the desire for selfless and sacrificial service in areas of much needed social change in India such as the promotion of the education of children and youth, the abolition of various social ills, the promotion of the equality of women and men, the preservation of the environment, and the overcoming of poverty, among others?
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