Mircea Eliade’s Observations on the Sacred and the Profane in Space-Time

“It is sacred time that makes possible the other time, ordinary time.”

mircea eliade the sacred and the profane

In a desacralized world that has surged forth from an advocacy for a machine age built on rational thought and purported ‘freedom’ from the past, Mircea Eliade’s excellent book The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion produces a strong narrative regarding our roots in sacred space.

The sacred is that which markedly manifests itself in a certain space, here described as hierophany, while the profane is a space of homogeneity and neutrality. When one looks at the relations that man has been making for millennia between the body, the world and the cosmos, the relationship between the macrocosm and microcosms is a fascinating subject. This necessity to form relations with the larger cosmos has driven man for years to project a fixed point in the world around him, such that

‘Settling in a territory is equivalent to founding a world.’

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A typical courtyard in a Kerala house in India, with a 1m X 1m container for a sacred tulsi plant at its heart.

The universe emerged from a central point, in the cardinal directions, and hence man ‘assimilates the dwelling place to the cosmos by projection of the four horizons from a centre’ (in the case of a village), or the installation of an axis mundi (in the case of a house). The axis mundi is a vertical pole, or a similar vertical element such as a tree or a ladder, that establishes a relation between the heaven, the earth and the underworld. The marking of this enables a drawing inwards of the forces of the heaven, as can be seen in the examples of various temples. By doing this, man attempts to create an imago-mundi of the cosmos around him.

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Diagram from Roger Cook’s ‘Tree of Life: Image for the Cosmos (Art and Imagination)’, 1988

In a world so steeped in contrast between its history and modernity, the thresholds that exist between the sacred and profane spaces are described thus:

‘The threshold, the door, shows the solution of continuity in space immediately and concretely; hence their great religious importance, for they are symbols and at the same time vehicles of passage from one space to the other.’

Eliade goes on to elaborate on sacred time, as witnessed in festivals. While the likes of Walter Benjamin may assert that tradition is but a modern construct, and the pop culturisation of tradition is what forms the undertone of festivities today, it is essential to remember that festivals revert one to the mythical ‘illud tempus’, the time of origin, for:

‘It is sacred time that makes possible the other time, ordinary time, the profane duration in which every human life takes its course.’

This ontological nostalgia to revert to the beginning of time, and re-actualise those same rites and activities in order to draw oneself out of one’s routine existence, forms perhaps the backbone of the religious fervour that one witnesses. A want to feel the presence of God has constructed much of our cities, lending explanation to how villages have grown over time around religious centres in order that people may feel the closeness to that ‘fixed point’, the centre of the world that marks their territory.

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Women performing rites for the river at sunrise, at Benares, India

Aldous Huxley made a similar observation in The Doors of Perception when he said:

‘That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradises seems very unlikely… Art and religion, carnivals and saturnalia, dancing and listening to oratory — all these have served, in H.G. Well’s phrase, as Doors in the Wall.’

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Niharika Sanyal

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Door in the Wall: How Art is Redefining Therapy | The Bricolage

[…] “Art for art’s sake” is the famous translation of a French slogan that saw art as being an autonomous thing that has no other purpose or aim but to be for itself. Philosopher Alain de Botton argues, in the book “Art as Therapy”, that this slogan has in fact held art in the Western civilisation back from expressing its full potential. However, the use of art for therapeutic purposes has arguably always existed in Indian society. It has existed in the form of the many hundred festivals that Indians celebrate, restoring to ordinary life a rhythm and celebration. Historian Mircea Eliade had written that festivals revert us to the mythic time of origin, and that “it is sacred time that makes possible the other time, ordinary time, the profane duration in which every human life takes its course.” And so it is with art therapy –as it seeks to create a space where happiness can fill us for a while, making possible the more difficult times. In H.G. Wells’ phrase, it serves as a Door in the Wall. […]

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