If you have been following along with our spiritual exercises, you have probably already discovered somewhere in you home or neighborhood that feels special or especially sacred. This week we are going to try to formalize that space into a home altar. In her book Wisdom Walk Sage Bennet describes a home altar as “a place where we could begin creating a connection with the divine and our own inner sanctuary” in order to learn the art of devotion, bhakti (2). As we’ve seen Hindus have many different ideas about the divine including the idea that there is a divine spark within each one of us, our atman. Basically there are four major paths available to lead the soul toward a direct experience of God—through love and adoration, work and service, the mind and study, or some combination of these, including various psycho-spiritual exercises.
For ancient Hindus the home altar was a place where they could commune with the divine. At the center of the area some sacred image or icon served as a focal point. It was believed that this image or icon did not simply represent God but was the embodiment of the divine in one’s own home. Although this focal point might be an anthropomorphic (human-like) or theriomorphic (animal-like) image from the vast Hindu pantheon, it might also be aniconic (non-representational). In addition, one might include prayer beads, spiritual literature, incense, and offering of food or flowers.
Many religious traditions encourage the use of home altars to serve as a sanctuary from the outside world and a place of connection with the divine. In order to create your own home altar you must first identify a place in or around your home that is or can become peaceful, beautiful and reflective of the spiritual for you. It might be a corner of a bedroom or living room, near a window with a special view, or near the bathtub. As you prepare to establish your special place you’ll want to first purify it, give it a good physical cleaning and then perhaps “clean” it spiritually with incense, smudge or even cool water. When you are ready approach your sacred space you may also want to similarly purify yourself.
You altar space might be a small table or the edge of the tub. You’ll want to include some special items on this space. Many people will cover the surface with a special cloth in an appropriate color or design. It is common to add candles to the space, just be sure that you handle the candle in a safe manner, keeping it away from flammable materials. You might also want to add other things to your altar including incense, fresh flowers, photos of your loved ones, shells, feathers or other items from nature, religious icons such as a stature of Ganesh, or the Buddha, or a favor saint or a stature from another tradition that you find meaningful. What you put on your altar is entirely up to you. You aren’t limited to any single tradition or symbol system. Over time you will also discover that object may come and go from your altar. Bennet also suggests including some small offering on your altar, perhaps fresh flowers or bowls of water. Again, you can use your own intuition and inclination to determine what is an appropriate offering.
You may have already developed a ritual or sequence of actions that helps you move from an ordinary state of consciousness to a more spiritual one. As you design and begin to use your home altar you might find your daily ritual changing or expanding. Again, you are the sole judge of whether a particular ritual is appropriate for your sacred space. I might want to light a candle and chant quietly while you might want to dance or shout or engage in more physical forms of devotion.
Bennet also talks about developing a traveling altar you can take with you when you leave home. It might be a miniature replica of your home altar with a small candle, image, and piece of cloth in a box or bag that you can use to transform a hotel room or other location into your own sacred space. She also talks about creating a theme altar, in her case a “marriage altar” where she could pray that the obstacles to her marriage might be removed. Her marriage altar included a vase that had been used at her wedding, fresh flowers, a statue of Genesh, the Hindu god that removed obstacles and two rose quartz hearts. Tending this altar, together with her partner, refreshing the flowers provided a focus that help the two of them do the hard work of pulling their marriage back from the brink. You might also want to create a special altar that helps you focus on a particular aspect of your current life.
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We will have a long break after today’s class as we’re not scheduled to meet again until December 4. During this time you can catch up on your reading, continue or revise your spiritual exercises or simply take a break.
Remember if you want to discuss any aspect of the class you can use the comments section of this blog. Share with us how your spiritual exercises are going, post photos of your home altars or tell us why these exercises aren’t working for you. Does having a home altar help you maintain your other spiritual exercises?