The Art of Building Shrines: A Lesson in Karma Yoga

By Swami Atmajnanananda

This 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.

About 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.

Since 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.

One 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.

The 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.

The 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 to God.

We 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 feet;
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 mantra;
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.

What 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 bondage.

When 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.

We 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.

Meditation and Concentration – Part 1
December 1, 1999
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The Art of Building Shrines: A Lesson in Karma Yoga