Spirituality, the consciousness of one’s mind, body and soul, is a continuous tradition in India, embedded deep within the culture – There is an integrated approach to life. The primary goal of understanding the ‘essence of being’ is the underlying purpose of every action. Growing up here, I was surrounded by custom, ritual and tradition that reflected the same. From harvesting crops to laying the foundation of a house – there is a sense of ‘ritual’ and celebration of life in common activities of man.
These philosophies are also applied and translated into the build environment. Vastu Shastra, also referred to as Vedic Architecture, is the science of built environment generated during the Vedic age. The architecture of ancient and medieval India was a product of this building science. Majority of the historic monuments and temples, Sun Temple in Modhera, Somnath Temple in Gujarat, Jantar Mantar in Jaipur to name a few, exemplify its application.
Due to my innate understanding of these Indian sensibilities and philosophy, the role of architecture in facilitating a spiritual process in humans, in this essay, is informed by Vedic principles – the foundation stones of the Indian civilisation .The association of religion and man dates back to existence itself. Historically, numerous religions have been recorded but the fundamental characteristics of all remain the same. From a functionalist perspective, religion is seen as a social institution for maintaining social order and cohesion and offering meaning and purpose to the existence of life. Moreover, the genesis and establishment of all religion is achieved through symbolism and objectification. All religious systems revolve around a set external or physical reference points known as sacred places, objects etc. In today’s context, the relevance of religion is in its universal function – to serve mankind in becoming a realised being. This self-realisation refers to a state of wholeness and consciousness achieved by awakening and unification of one’s mind, body, soul and surroundings; It is the meeting of Being and Becoming. From this broader perspective, the notion of sacred expands beyond religious symbolism and objectification. This perception of sacred is not restricted to places or objects, it rather is omnipresent ; the sacred exists in the surrounding environment inevitably. However, in today’s times this essence of self-realisation, is lost. Our modern world is fragmented into isolated parts. The discord and decay in daily life has been fuelled by the division of human beings and nature, mind and body, spirit and matter. There emerges a strong need to revitalise our surroundings in order to facilitate the process of self-realisation.
This essay is an exploration into how architecture can help man in regaining wholeness in mind and body. Therefore the idea emerges of a sacred and spiritual element in architecture for buildings to nourish life. Architecture is an indispensable element of human existence; it is deeply rooted to the sacred powers of life. Most humans spend their entire lives interacting with built environment and designed landscapes. We need hospitals to be born in, homes to live in , schools to study in, gardens and parks to play in, factories to work in, churches to pray in, etc. Buildings serve as key references on the psychological map of every individual – homes, schools, and workplaces are used as benchmarks to define people. Due to this vital role that buildings and cities play in forming human experience, architecture must provide wholeness for the mind, body and eventually soul – it must be “sacred”. This perception of sacred is not confined to the vocabulary of religious symbolism and ritual or places or times, but it refers to a mentality that encompasses life itself.
‘Although most of us have visited shrines, churches, and other settings where sacredness is a palpable reality, these places usually remain outside the stream of day-to-day existence. If access to sacred sites is limited to a few rare and distant locations, the totality of our consciousness is restricted to those moments when the “profane” world can be left behind to enter a holy precinct. Since the sacred is the most intimate part of ourselves. we ought to be able to find it at close hand , in the immediate circumstances of daily existence. Spiritual architecture is not solely the province of religious structures dedicated to particular rituals and occasion.’ – Lawlor
Each individual views sacredness in the surrounding environment through the lens of his/her distinct personal history. This sacredness present in the surroundings cannot be precisely defined as a specific element. Its essence can only be revealed and realised in the built form but its experience is exclusive to every individual.
Moreover, this sacredness of a built form cannot be divorced from pragmatism ; they are two sides of the same coin. Self-realisation involves a deep understanding of one’s self , the environment and one’s relationship with the environment. Even if one strips down the religious, abstract and philosophical connotations of this concept, this statement still holds good as a pragmatic and “scientific” approach to survival; It is extremely commonplace for humans to adapt or optimise things to suit their needs – The discovery of the wheel led to the invention of cars. Therefore, to create built environment that caters to man’s mind, body and soul is a plausible proposition. The sacredness in a built form is the factor that facilitates self-realisation – enriches and optimise human experience, resulting in human efficacy.Vedic Architecture (Vastu Shashtra) is a multidisciplinary and holistic approach to the built environment based on the teachings from the Vedas. All the practices, and disciplines and sciences derived from the Vedas, including Vedic architecture, are integrated and share the common aim to help man understand and experience life in the purest form so as to harness one’s true potential. The most fundamental theories manifested in space making have been discussed below.
Dynamics of Existence According to the Vedic psyche Time is seen as cyclic. The belief in reincarnation, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, the unending chain of construction, destruction and reconstruction, all refute the theory of recurrence of time. Despite its cyclic nature, time is not static, the concept of change is inevitably tied in with the concept of time. The past and future are separate realms which are connected by the continuity of time. Moreover, in this continuity of time change occurs in the form of of subsequent set of events. This frequency of time is the only constant which brings about a change in the surroundings. Time always recurs but the alchemy of time with space results in unique outcomes. This theory of time is central to the Vedic philosophy of life.
The juxtaposition of time and space serves as the datum in Vedic architecture. The created space i.e. the architecture , regardless of the complexity in its form, always remains static. It is the built environment’s interaction with nature, over time, that renders a dynamic interface. The position of the Sun is ever-changing with time. This movement of the Sun creates variations of light and shadow quality that give life to the built-form as the experience of the space is constantly changing with time. This interplay of time with space is harnessed through motion. Kinaesthetic qualities of space are fundamental to its experience and perception. Elements like layering and thresholds are used to express these qualities in a building.Duality of Existence
The Vedic theory of existence is based on duality. Atman (the human soul) and the Brahman (the entire universe) are considered the primal basis of existence. This constitution of duality accepts the part a whole and the whole as a part, creating the notion of a ‘world within a world.’ In one dimension an entity is whole by itself but in another it is a part of the system. This harmony of duality is achieved in architecture by the concept of centres and sub-centres. The most apparent translation of concept in architecture is a courtyard system. The central courtyard surrounded by enclosed spaces becomes the epicentre yet it empowers the surroundings to break into a different centres of activities.
The relationship of part and whole are considered symbiotic, not hierarchical. In the grand scheme of existence, each part is unique and independent and the only the amalgamation of all parts creates whole. This mentality accommodates identity and individuality within a common consensus – Unity in diversity. Streets of a towns exemplify this phenomenon. Each street is an entity having distinct characteristics but it is unified into the townscape by the junction of buildings, arrangement of apertures etc.Bipolarity of Existence Existence is also believed to have a contrasting virtue that is bipolar where the opposites re-establish each other. Purusha (man) and prakriti (nature), light and darkness, solid and void are seen as interdependent aspect where one defines and validates the presence of the other. These aspects form the basis of a counterbalanced environment that ensures continuity and endurance. Such lateral understanding of existence allows opposites to co-exist.In the architectural context, this bipolarity is revealed in numerable ways. One way is through absolute contrast – negating one and glorifying the other for mutual definition. Historic Indian architecture is often referred to as the architecture of the unbuilt. The built defines the unbuilt notionally. Another way is through interdependence where one cannot be experienced without presence of the other. This co-existence is exemplified in the caves temples of India where the cut and the uncut rocks validate each others’ presence. Paradoxical language in architecture reiterate the duality of existence.
Following an understanding and identification of these opposites, the composition created by the specific relation of the opposites gives rise to a new third entity – a spacial experience. This experience created by the physical realities of a space is what stimulates the mind, body and soul.Spatial Narratives
Architecture is seen as a glorification of life. Moreover, the underlying theme behind Vedic personification of built environment is to create a notion of sanctity and reverence among users for life itself. Built environment communicates with its user through the architectural tools of building organisation and sequence, elements of space-making, proportion and form , symbolism etc. Messages are encoded and decoded within a building. This communication takes place at a sensorial, experiential and associational level. It is the harmony of all these three aspects that result in a holistic and purposeful dialogue between architecture and man. Kinesthetics play a vital role in creating this atmosphere.
Vision is the main sense of perception in architecture. Our interpretation of the built environment affect and informs our actions.
‘The inferred messages through perceived visual frames can guide and dictate behaviour. A bank wall with a curvature or inclination may direct a movement and, placed en-face as a baffle, may restrict it. This same wall, when overlaid with motifs and symbols, communicate further through associations that they may conjure.’ – Pandya
Space is created and perceived by movement through it. In a typical Vedic public building, the clues of movement through the space unfold along the journey which engages the visitor. Despite the placement of the spaces along the visual axis, the circulation path is not restricted to the visual axis making the visitor experience the sub-centres of spaces along the journey. Thus the experience is unfolded sequentially. Thresholds and physical features are introduced for smooth transitions, breaks, zoning. These thresholds reorient and help one validate one’s bearings. Each individual’s experience and understanding of space is personal and intuitive.
Narratives are also conveyed through notions. Semiotics acts as an associational overlay to spatial narrative. Symbols and metaphors in the built environment, due to socio-cultural pre-conditioning, create an associational bond and reiterate the underlying concept of the spacial experience. They simulate the though process of individuals and deepen the comprehension of context promoting spirituality.RELEVANCE OF SUCH CONCEPTS in THE modern world
Vedic design approach is driven by the of influence and impact of primary factors that affect a human being, namely the five elements, eight directions, sun and moon streams, vibrations, waves, sound and light. Experiential richness and the ability to identify with pluralistic value system are the main themes and concepts of Vedic architecture.
This dynamic perception of existence informs the idea to create a space that it is dynamic through its interaction with time. For instance, due of the importance of sunlight to humans, the design goal is to capture the useful rays of sun in the internal environment for its users. Moreover, the varying position of the Sun throughout the day informs the placement of the accommodations. Different rooms are used for varied activities at different hours. Therefore each room is positioned so as to maximise sunlight in into it at a time when it is most likely to be used.
The themes of equality, diversity and tolerance are encoded within and communicated through the built environment experientially. Vedic design aims to cultivate a mentality of a pluralistic world with diverse value systems amongst the users – a quality much needed our modern context.
Space making through such a holistic approach creates a conducive and positive environment for its users thereby adding value to built environment. These qualities render the Vedic principles of design universal.
Despite the Vedic perspective on the issue, these principles resonate with and are common to every faith and value system as they are based on fundamental structures of human life. These universal tenets of design weave consciousness and life within walls, rooms, cities, and all other elements of the built environment.
Unfortunately, architecture informed by these principles has been reduced to historic buildings – monuments, public buildings, temples, etc. The ancient buildings offer a timeless atmosphere – an experience which nourishes the mind and body and adds value. However, in modern day architecture, the profitability precedes the impact of a building on its user. As a result we are surrounded by buildings that efficiently store people and cars alike but overlook the need to nurture man.
‘Our perception of the sacred can either be limited or liberated by architecture.’ – Lawlor
We often alienate spirituality and sacredness from ourselves and our environment due to our narrow perception of them. However, spirituality and sacredness are synonymous with pragmatism. Due to the powerful impact of the built environment on man, architects have a moral duty to serve mankind. Architecture must aim to connect spirit and matter for man to flourish.