At a basic level, temple is symbolic of God’s abode.
King Janaka of ancient India was greatly revered for his holiness. Once, while listening to a wise guru together with others, a herald announced: “The king’s palace is on fire!” Everyone rushed to the palace since they had friends working there or fields around it. King Janaka sat unmoved. Thinking that Janaka hadn’t heard him, the herald cried louder: “Your palace is burning!” The king calmly replied: “Let it burn! It’s more important that I become holy by heeding my guru rather than saving my palace.” The king was aware that personal holiness was far more precious than any concrete structure.
The Bible has myriad images of temple — visible, invisible, geographical and personal. At a basic level, temple is symbolic of God’s abode. However, the omnipresent God cannot be confined within the walls of any temple. Thus, King Solomon — who builds God’s temple — acknowledges the impossibility of imprisoning God therein, saying: “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even the highest heaven cannot contain you, O God, much less this temple that I have built!”
Biblical imagery has this paradox of portraying God as both, present in the temple, as well as being present everywhere. Therefore, the earth and all of creation is sacred — regarded as God’s abode. Temple is also the place to communicate and enter into communion with God. It is a cosmic centre. Ezekiel describes Jerusalem’s temple as “centre of the nations” and “navel of the earth”.
Since the temple represents God’s house, sacred geography of religious traditions holds that the nearer one gets to the sanctum sanctorum or the garbhagriha, the greater holiness one encounters. Social hierarchies also either allow or disallow one’s access to sacred space.
The gospels contain a startling narrative of Jesus driving out the money-changers and merchants from the temple, profiting from religious commercialism, saying, “Stop making God’s house a marketplace!” Moreover, to a socially-stigmatised Samaritan women, he says: “The time is coming when believers will worship God not in any temple, but in spirit and in truth.”
After Jesus’ resurrection, in the absence of any mortar-and-brick church for community prayer, Paul tells believers: “You are God’s temple!” Likewise, Peter teaches: “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house,” meaning, temples and churches are neither built by bricks nor as institutions but rather by hearts and as “body” of believers.
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad speaks of the divine internal principle, the Antarayamin present within believers, which is God’s spirit: The Divine Indweller that someone harmonises our hearts with melodies of love, joy, forgiveness and peace.
Amidst oft-emerging disputes over sacred space — masjids, churches, mandirs and gurdwaras — it might help us all to look into the eyes of our neighbours, whispering: “You are God’s temple!”