Connecting Faith and Life

Mircea Eliade: The Sacred and the Profane

Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane is considered as one of the classics in Religious studies. This work follows the methodological framework used by Rudolf Otto in his work The Idea of the Holy, but with a distinct emphasis.According to Eliade, the irrational element (like the Holy of Otto) that forms the essence of religion is the idea of the sacred and the profane. In the introduction, instead of providing a definition for the term sacred, the author simply puts it as the opposite of the profane or something wholly different from the profane. However, Elaide makes it clear that the term sacred refers to something transcendent that manifests itself within human experience. Hence, hierophany (divine revelations or appearances) is at the root of the idea of the sacred. Moreover, at the outset, Elaide introduces two categories of people – the religious and non religious. The archaic peoples of the world are considered as religious while the modern (civilised) people are described as non religious. According to the author, the concept of the sacred and profane is mainly found in the midst of the religious people whereas it is either degraded or totally nil among the non religious.

For the religious person, the whole world (space), time, nature, and human existence is determined either as sacred or profane. Elaide describes this in detail in four separate chapters. First, he describes the concept of sacred space. Unlike the non religious man for whom the world is uniform and homogenous, the religious man considers some places as sacred and different from the rest. As far as possible efforts are taken to live within the sacred centre (proximity to the divine). In other words, there is a desire to live in a pure and holy cosmos (world). Hence, religious man attempts to create sacred spaces by repeating the work of gods (as seen in religious myths), the cosmogony. For instance, many of the rituals that take place during the construction of a house reflects this idea.

Second, closely associated with sacred space is the idea of sacred time. For the religious person, some days and hours are special. They are distinct from the historical time in which . The periodical festivals remind the religious person of the primordial time and rituals associated with them recapitulates the first cosmogony. Many mythical elements are involved in the process including sacrifices. In this way, the original sacredness of the earth is renewed periodically and the religious person is able to keep in touch with the divine (sacred). Eliade points out that while in some religions the cyclical approach to time resulted in optimism (continuos renewal), it also caused some religions like Hinduism to hold the possibility of eternal return (deliverance from the cycle). Similarly, he observes that although Judaism and Christianity perceive time in a linear fashion, the concept of sacred time is present in them through a different dimension. Because of God’s act in historical time, history becomes sacred. While notions of sacred space and time vary from culture to culture, Elaide focusses more on the common elements rather than the differences.

Like space and time, nature too is overwrought with religious value for the religious person. This is the subject dealt in the third chapter. Sky, water, earth, trees, sun, moon, stars, stones, etc., are given religious meanings and symbolisms. This section of Eliade’s analysis is very interesting. For instance, he points out how in almost all religions God is portrayed as someone dwelling in the sky. Hence, in Eliade’s point of view, nature is not just something natural but it is fully loaded with religious significance. The author’s final discussion revolves around the aspect of sacred life and human existence. In order to understand this concept, Eliade opines that one has to enter into the world of primitive peoples. He states that for primitive men the world (cosmos) existed only because it was created by the gods. Religion was an experience and not a philosophy. Hence, by involving in rituals, they constantly imitated the divine acts. In their world, bodily functions, puberty, sex, death, etc., has deeper religious connotations. The book concludes with a brief chronological survey of the growth of the science of religious and its historical background.

Overall, this is a well written book. Eliade deserves much appreciation for the way in which he has handled the subject. The concepts are well explained with the help of illustrations taken from a variety of religious contexts including South Asia and the Ancient Near East. Nevertheless, Eliade’s presupposition that the modern people are not religious or less religious than the primitive people is questionable. Religion is not static but dynamic. It takes different shapes and forms. The civilised person may not have the same sort of religious sentiments like the primitive man of the past but still has his or her own version of religion. Likewise, Eliade’s initial definition of the sacred as ‘wholly other’ is not elaborated in the book. In sum, this book may well serve as an introduction to comparative religion and the phenomenological approach of the author provides basis for further researches.

New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1987. Pages 1-256.

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