Religion below the surface: an experience of the senses

After spending a week at a Religious Diversity Leadership Workshop at Hartford Seminary, I left with a new appreciation for the variety of ways the world’s religions express their spirituality and values – especially through engaging all five of the senses. The Eastern religious houses of worship we visited, including Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, and Sikh temples, encapsulated this beautifully. Here are a few short examples of how the religions of India use all five senses in worship and practice.

Upon arrival at Hindu temples, visitors are greeted with vibrant color and bright decorations that surround the murtis (images of God). Hinduism is centered on darsan, which takes sight to mean something beyond the colors; it is the experience of seeing the divine image and in turn being seen by the divine image. This is considered the essential personal practice of worshiping the divine.

Music and chanting are powerful tools for spirituality. In the Sikh Gurdwara, part of the worship ceremony is music provided by members of the community, singing hymns from their scripture – the Guru Granth Sahib. Additionally, in Hinduism, chanting is said to be a purifying and cathartic practice, both for the person performing the chant as well as the person hearing it.

Sharing food is a unifying act, and is an important element of Sikhism through prashad and langar. Upon leaving the sanctuary, the worshiper or guest will be offered a handful of a sweet rice-like food called prashad, which is considered the grace of the Guru. Following the visit is a communal meal shared by Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike, called a langar. Eating together represents the equality and oneness of humankind, and is the Sikh expression of hospitality.

The smell of a temple is integral to the spiritual experience. When we arrived at a Buddhist temple for a meditation practice, incenses were lit to mark our presence in a sacred space. Further, in the Hindu and Jain temple that we toured, the smell of the oil lamp offerings signified the full engagement of self in worship.

In Indian, and especially Hindu culture, there is a tradition called pranam, which is a ritual of touching the feet of elders and teachers as a sign of respect, reverence, and humility. Other forms of pranaminclude kneeling and placing your forehead to the ground, as well as bowing with your hands folded and touching your chest.

Religion is about more than just the scripture or doctrine – it’s about how these are expressed, both humanly and divinely. This overview does not come close to capturing the depth of worship through the senses, nor the traditions of the religions, but I encourage readers to experience this for themselves. By focusing on engaging all five senses, people can better understand other traditions’ experiences while strengthening their own. After all, religion is not meant to just be heard, it is meant to be felt.