ART OF BUILDING SHRINES: A LESSON IN KARMA YOGA
article was written by Swami Atmajnanananda, the resident
swami of the Vedanta Society of Greater Washington, D.C. It
has been published in Living Wisdom: Vedanta in the West.
ten years ago I had the privilege of making a shrine for the
Vivekananda House in South Pasadena where Swami Vivekananda
lived for several weeks in 1900. I had recently helped restore
the house to its original condition, just as it might have
been when Swamiji actually lived there, and the whole time
I was working on the house, I felt greatly inspired just knowing
that such a noble and heroic soul had lived there. Later,
as I was making the shrine which was to be installed in the
room which served as Swamiji's bedroom, my mind was filled
with thoughts of him and his stay in California. I could picture
him sitting at the breakfast table in the morning, smoking
his pipe in the garden, or absorbed in deep meditation in
his room. It was a very special period for me and one in which
my mind naturally tended toward higher thoughts while I worked.
I carry out various types of maintenance chores at the monastery
where I live, I was often given jobs not nearly as inspiring
to work on. As it turned out, my very next assignment was
a stand for an old pump motor in one of our storage sheds.
I had completed the basic structure and was working on the
final finish of the stand. Very likely I was paying more attention
than necessary to the aesthetics of the job and may have gone
a little overboard in sanding and finishing a structure which
would very soon be splattered with grease and gasoline. Having
just completed the shrine project, however, I was blissfully
unmindful of my unwarranted attention to detail and beauty.
of the brothers happened to see me putting the final touches
on the stand and jokingly asked, "Are you making another
shrine?" His words, though casually uttered, caught me
totally off guard. Something clicked inside my head, and I
immediately realized that, without my knowledge, the same
attention to detail, the same concentration of mind, and the
same devotional feelings that had been my constant companions
throughout the shrine project had managed to infiltrate the
seemingly trivial job I was working on. So, despite the fact
that the stand I was making was to bear not a picture of Swami
Vivekananda but rather an old pump motor, I at once saw that
I had been building another shrine, though unconsciously,
and replied (incredulous that he had to ask), "Yes, as
a matter of fact, that's exactly what I'm doing!" And
from that moment on, I have tried to maintain the same attitude
in all my work, to feel that whatever I was making was a shrine
to the Lord.
experience that I had that day was a particularly valuable
one for me. I began to understand the great importance of
attitude in spiritual life. I saw that with the help of a
healthy imagination and a smattering of devotion, all action
can be converted into acts of worship. All activities can
be spiritualized until the line of demarcation between sacred
and secular, spiritual practice and worldly duties, begins
to gradually melt away. We can wash the dishes with the same
care that we take when polishing the sacred vessels used in
worship; we can spread the tablecloth and set the table for
the evening meal with the same reverence that we feel when
arranging the altar cloth in the shrine room; we can serve
our family and friends with the same devotion that we would
feel when serving the Lord.
critical element is our attitude. We need not sand and stain
the stand for a motor with the same zeal that we would the
shrine, but we should try to maintain the same state of mind
and the feeling that we are performing our work as an offering
find this same idea beautifully expressed in the Bhagavad
Gita: "Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you
offer, whatever you give away, whatever austerities you perform,
do all of them as an offering unto Me." The spiritual
aspirant who adopts this attitude is limited only by his imagination
with regard to spiritualizing his everyday activities. There
is a wonderful song by the great mystic poet of Bengal, Ramprasad,
which reveals the heights to which the devotee can aspire
along this path:
O my mind, worship Mother Kali in any way you like;
Repeat her name both day and night.
When you lie down for rest, feel you are bowing at her
While you sleep, feel you are meditating on her;
And when you eat, think you are making oblations to Mother.
Whatever sounds you hear, know them all to be Mother's
For Kali is the embodiment of all the letters of the alphabet.
Ramprasad says with joy: "Mother dwells in all things;
When I walk about town, I am circumambulating Mother herself.
do we gain by adopting such an attitude? The fruits of this
practice are many and enduring. By keeping our minds fixed
on our spiritual ideal at all times, we become forgetful of
self. Our actions become purged of selfish motive, and the
heart becomes purified. We no longer feel that strong sense
of attachment to work which only leads to greater misery and
we look upon action as an offering, we can freely give it
up. Since our work takes on a new importance for us, we naturally
perform our duties with greater attention and efficiency.
Knowing that we have done the best job we can, we are not
disturbed by the praise or blame of the world, especially
since our motive for action is no longer a self-centered one
but a God-centered one.
also find that much of the drudgery which normally accompanies
work begins to disappear the more we think of it as worship,
until even the most menial task becomes a source of joy. At
that point we no longer look upon any activity as "secular"
or "worldly." All our actions become opportunities
for spiritual growth because the mind remains fixed on God
or the spiritual ideal throughout. By cultivating the attitude
that all action is an offering to the Divine, we can ultimately
make our whole lives an offering to God. By mastering this
art of "building shrines" we can, in the course
of time, make that final offering of the lower self into the
higher Self, the soul into God, and so attain the final aim
of human life.