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Sacred Places (Sponsel, 2007)

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Course Title

Sacred Places


Les Sponsel
University of Hawaii


Anthropology, Religious Studies

Subject(s) Religion and Ecology

Often places in the landscape are not only geophysical, biological, cultural, and/or historical in character, but also religious, spiritual, mystical, or numinous. A wide variety of ―natural phenomena are selectively considered to be sacred, including some individual trees, groves, forests, mountains, caves, rocks, springs, waterfalls, lakes, rivers, and so on. Billions of people throughout the world recognize and appreciate the special significance and meaning of various sacred places in their own habitat. Moreover, people from many different cultural, religious, ecological, and national backgrounds may independently consider the same site to be sacred, although they may interpret it differently. Many of these sites attract pilgrims, some annually in the thousands or even millions. Therefore, sacred places and related phenomena in ―nature merit serious scientific and academic attention, including anthropological and ecological, to advance knowledge, understanding, appreciation, and protection.

Sacred places may be viewed as varying along several continua ranging from natural (or biophysical) to anthropogenic (or sociocultural); prehistoric to historic, recent, or newly created; permanent to temporary; fixed in place to portable; secret or private to public; single culture (or religion) to multicultural (or multi-religious); intrinsic to extrinsic in value; uncontested to contested; and protected to endangered. Particular sacred places variously emphasize one pole or another of these continua, or some combination of them.

Despite their diversity, sacred places in nature have in common the ability to evoke a special state of mind and emotion, sometimes even catalyzing an altered or spiritual consciousness. Thus, for a multitude of people sacred places are wellsprings of spiritual vision, cultural creativity, and even healing.

In general, however, Euroamerican culture has not recognized and appreciated the sacredness of natural areas and phenomena to the extent that Native American, Hawaiian, and other societies have, one of the reasons that this topic has been so neglected by Western scientists and scholars until the recent explosion of research interest in it. In the case of Native American and Hawaiian sacred sites, their contested character stems from the clash of two fundamentally different systems of world views, values, attitudes, and discourses regarding the natural environment—indigenous and Western. Other contributing factors are the ethnocentrism, racism, and materialism of the dominant culture in the United States as well as the myopic scientism of some individuals which is predicated on ignorance and prejudice. As anthropologist

Colin Turnbull observed in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review (1992:273): "...it is surely a gross intellectual arrogance to suppose that we can understand a phenomenon that others say directly relates to the existence of Spirit while we openly deny it." In short, the objective exploration of sacred places in an academic context requires an open mind, one attribute students will be stimulated to further cultivate in this course.(Of course, a closed mind is antithetical to genuine science and scholarship anyway).

The subject of sacred places is a relatively new frontier for scientific and scholarly investigation and documentation. This course explores the fascinating and important world of sacred places and landscapes through emphasizing the anthropological perspective encompassing holism, culture, cross-cultural comparison, and ethnographic fieldwork. In addition, this course explores sacred places in ―nature with special attention to their relevance for environmental and biodiversity conservation as well as for cultural and religious identity and practice, pilgrimage, tourism, cultural resource management, human rights such as religious freedom, and related matters. The instructor will also discuss some of his own research and publications on sacred places in Thailand and elsewhere.

At the same time, the study of sacred places cannot be limited to anthropology alone. Instead, it is a multidisciplinary arena of research involving aspects of physics, chemistry, geology, ecology, botany, zoology, geography, natural resources, economics, sociology, psychology, political science, peace and conflict studies, law, history, religion, philosophy, art, literature, theatre, linguistics, medicine, and so on ranging through the natural and social sciences and the humanities. In short, sacred places are a catalyst for the holistic integration and synthesis of knowledge and understanding as well as experience and meaning.


See PDF here.