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SACRILEGE is typically defined as "violation or theft of the sacred." It originates from the Latin sacrilegium or sacer (sacred) and lego (to gather or to steal). In addition to the literal theft of sacred objects or the violation of sacred places, sacrilege connotes violation of sacred practices (orthopraxy) and sacred beliefs (orthodoxy). Because the concept of sacrilege is founded upon the distinction between sacred and profane, this entry will begin with a brief overview of the academic distinction between those two terms and their relationship to sacrilege. An overview of different religious approaches to the problem of sacrilege and transgression will follow.

Émile Durkheim (18581917) argued that sacred and profane are distinct categories defined only by their absolute opposition. The sacred is that unique category circumscribed by boundaries that differentiate it from ordinary, or profane, reality. However, Durkheim claimed, the sacred is a category created by humans and not unique in and of itself: anything can potentially be set aside and distinguished as sacred. Mircea Eliade (19071986), on the other hand, argued that the sacred was an essential experiential category. From his perspective, the sacred is qualitatively different from ordinary, profane reality. While a sacred object may be physically identical to a profane object, they are not interchangeable because the sacred object has a special quality that the profane object does not have. Physically identical profane objects, on the other hand, are also qualitatively identical and interchangeable. Mary Douglas (1921), argues that the distinction between sacred and profane is a distinction between order and disorder. From her perspective, sacrilege means disturbing or disrupting the established order of the sacred. Contemporary scholars of religion, such as Jonathan Z. Smith (1938), argue that the definitions put forth by Durkheim, Eliade, and Douglas, while helpful, are too rigid and do not accurately describe religious realities. The sacred and profane are flexible, fluid categories that frequently overlap, distort, and transform. For Smith, a central religious problem is adapting sacred ideals to the messy reality of lived experience. Thus sacrilege is also a situational interpretive frame that must continually adapt to its context. What is clear, however, is that sacrilege is essentially concerned with the boundaries of the sacred.

The sacred is constituted by a perimeter, a differential limit. Sacrilege is the violation or rupture of sacred boundaries. "Theft from the sacred" and "violation of the sacred" are reciprocal actions. They consist of either bringing the profane into or the taking the sacred out of its established limits. In either case the sacred comes into contact with the profane and the order and purity of the sacred is disturbed. There are two distinct forms of sacrilege: interreligious and intrareligious. Violations committed by religious outsiders, or interreligious violations, are frequently described as "desecration" and will be discussed in the section below. Sacrilege typically refers to intrareligious violations, or violations by religious insiders, which will be the focus of the remainder of this section.

Although its etymological roots are in pagan Rome, sacrilege, particularly in its connotation of unorthodoxy, is a Christian concept (and to a lesser degree an Abrahamic concept) whose greatest cultural impact occurred during the Middle Ages and continued throughout the eighteenth century. Since the eighteenth century, its theological importance has waned, as a subject search in any academic library clearly demonstrates. Its Christian context is important because wide application of the concept requires the type of hierarchical organizational structure that was characteristic of Christendom during that period. Broad accusations, prosecutions, and actions of sacrilege require the broad agreement upon definitions of orthodoxy and unorthodoxy that only a hierarchical religious organization can bring to bear. When localized religious subgroups control definitions and consequences of sacrilege, its coercive power is significantly diminished. The definition of sacrilege is thus conceptually constrained in Jewish and Islamic communities, where the local community by and large sets its own criteria for transgressive behavior.

If sacredness is inherently dualistic, in that its definition requires the profane, then sacrilege or transgression are also inherent and essential to sacredness. However, this dualistic boundary can be drawn more or less boldly. The more absolute and impermeable the boundary is between the sacred and the profane, the more rigid and inflexible the concept and consequences of transgression will be. In the Abrahamic traditions, dualism is essential to creation, good and evil are irreconcilable, and the boundary between the two is conceptually impermeable. Non-Abrahamic traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, on the other hand, conceive of an underlying unity behind duality. Consequently, the boundary between sacred and profane is more lightly drawn, and both traditions include antinomian sects that employ transgression as a means of transcending duality and dissolving the boundary between sacred and profane.

Sacrilege and transgression are problematic because the sacred and profane inevitably come into contact during the messy reality of lived experience. Absolute conceptual and physical limits invite and require human transgression. The heart of the sacred lies at its edges, not at its center. It is in the encounter with boundaries, and their transgression, that we experience the sacred. The Abrahamic concept of sacrilege calls for retribution in so far as it maintains rigid boundaries. As rigid hierarchical boundaries lessen so too does the need for retributive sacred justice. The transgression of boundaries understood as sacred does not destroy the sacred, rather, it heightens awareness of those sacred boundaries where human desire for the sacred meets the mortal, transgressive reality of human life.


Interreligious sacrilege consists of actions by members of one religious group that violate the sacred boundaries of another religious group. Such destruction or damage by outsiders inflicted upon temples, shrines, and other sacred places, as well as upon sacred objects or beings, is commonly characterized as desecration, in contradistinction to intrareligious, or insider, sacrilege. In the case of sacred violation resulting from sectarian disputes, either term may apply, although sectarian conflicts inherently redefine former insiders as outsiders.

While intentional desecration has a long history, it is a particularly pressing issue at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Because of the increasing religious plurality of many societies in the so-called global village, and the resulting contact between members of different religious traditions, interreligious friction and tension with the potential for sacred violation and violence will continue to increase. The sacred boundaries, both physical and ideological, of multiple religions can be, and frequently are, coextensive. When sacred boundaries overlap in physical, ideological, or social spaces, competing sacred claims can result in volatile confrontations from which desecration may result.

Most acts of desecration are the result of interreligious contestation over sacred territory. It is an assertion of the primacy of one territorial claim over conflicting sacred claims. Desecration disrupts, destroys, and denies the claims of other religious communities to the sanctity of their sacred territory. As such it is an inherent attack upon the validity of those sacred claims and the very identity of the competing religious group.

The Ayodhyā dispute is one example of contested claims to sacred space that led to desecration. In 1992, Hindu demonstrators destroyed the 464-year-old Babri Masjid Mosque located in Ayodhyā, India, about one hundred miles north of Banares. The territorial dispute can be traced to 1528, when a Hindu temple on the site was destroyed to make way for the mosque. The earlier Hindu temple was constructed on the site because according to Hindu belief the site was the birthplace of Rāma, the iconic hero of the 2,500-year-old Hindu epic, the Rāmāyaa. A new temple honoring Rāma was begun immediately after the destruction of Babri Masjid. Rather than an isolated incident, the Ayodhyā dispute is but one symptom of centuries-old tensions between Hindu and Muslim communities in northern sections of the Indian subcontinent. While the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan was an attempt to resolve such longstanding Hindu-Muslim conflicts, at the beginning of the twenty-first century relations have arguably deteriorated to the lowest level since partition.

Desecration is frequently directed at sacred sites such as temples and cemeteries, but can also include sacred texts and ritual objects. Like the Ayodhyā incident, desecration is not simply the result of conflicting claims to coextensive sacred territory. In most cases, including seemingly inadvertent desecration (discussed below), it is a strike against the legitimacy of the particular religious identity itself. Desecration occurs within the context of complex social, economic, and political tensions. Because religion and its demarcations of sacrality are so closely tied to individual and community identity, desecration is frequently linked to intolerance and hatred of religio-ethnic groups. Desecration is a symbolic negation of the targeted religious group.

Surprisingly, seemingly inadvertent desecration can also be understood as religious intolerance and negation. In 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was signed into U.S. law. The NAGPRA was an attempt to address Native American concerns about the historic and ongoing collection of native remains. Since death and the disposal of human remains are the object of intensive religious activity, disturbance of the dead constitutes desecration, particularly when it involves intentional abuse of the burial site or remains. Because many contemporary Native Americans experience collection and disturbance of ancestral remains as desecration, archeological excavation of historically remote but potentially native remains has emerged as a serious controversy.

Is it fair to use the term desecration when actions do not appear to intentionally target religious identity? After all, the object of collecting native remains is scientific knowledge, not the violation of sacred space. However, the historical context tells a different story. Anthropological study of Native American culture during the nineteenth century led to a frenzied collection of human remains, ritual objects, and secret ceremonial practices of those supposedly dying cultures. The alienation of remains and ritual objects, as well as the revelation of ritual knowledge, was, and is, a literal theft of the sacred. Most of the collection was illegitimate because objects and ceremonies were sold by native individuals who had no right to sell communal property, and others were simply taken without permission. All of these actions were desecration because they inevitably denied and negated Native American control of sacred possessions and, ultimately, the religious identity of those communities.

Such seemingly inadvertent desecration results from an underlying conflict over the right and ability of competing communities to designate sacrality itself. While there are clearly cases of errant violations of sacrality, apparent ignorance of the designation "sacred" more frequently results from an underlying challenge to the legitimacy of that designation. One community simply asserts and forcibly imposes its values or desires upon another community, irrespective of the second community's sacred designations. The inherent statement is that those other religious values do not matter and are unworthy of recognition. Like intentional desecration it is a symbolic (and actual) negation of the religious identity of the other community.

Because religious claims, by definition, supercede all other claims, interreligious contact can potentially lead to acts of desecration whenever two or more religious claims are in opposition. Since secular values tend to dismiss the ultimacy of religious claims, particularly when those claims are made by a less powerful or minority community, contact between secular and religious communities can also potentially lead to acts of desecration. The twentieth century, like previous centuries, witnessed horrible acts of desecration. The twenty-first century will be no different, unless or until individual religious communities find other means to live coextensively with other communities whose religious claims and values conflict with their own religious claims and values.

Jewish Sacrilege

In order to understand sacrilege in the Jewish tradition, it is first necessary to appreciate the significance of the fact that, for Jews, God is the sole genesis of all that exists. Because all of creation originates from God, all of creation must be considered of divine origin and, therefore, sacred. Moreover, the first humans were created in the image of God and became living beings only when God breathed life into them. Thus all of creation, including human beings, is of divine origin and is sacred. However, even though humans are made in the image of god, they are formed out of the earth, and this earthly component, insofar as it is derivative of God, is the impure, transgressive quality that leads to human mortality. Insofar as creation and humans find their genesis in God, they are sacred, but insofar as creation and humans become separate and independent from God, they are profane. Transgression, from this perspective, is simply separation and independence from God.

But God made a covenant with Abraham that was sealed by Moses and that bound the Hebrew people to God. Or, to put it a little differently, the purpose of the covenant was and is to bind the Hebrew people to God. How does it accomplish this? The covenant is the means by which God's chosen people are to honor and remember the sacred genesis of creation and themselves. For example, the keeping of the Sabbath is nothing less than the ritual remembrance of the divine origin of creation. Keeping the covenant involves maintaining connection to and awareness of the sacredness of God's creation. Failure to keep the covenant is a transgression against God; it is a sacrilege.

In the Jewish tradition the chosen people maintain the sacredness of creation through the keeping of the covenant. Without deliberate human action, the sacred aspect of creation and humans is profaned. The sacred is sustained through intentional human action. When humans fail to keep the covenant, they lose sight of the divine origin of creation. The material world becomes simply the material world, and human beings become simply flesh and blood. When the divine origin of creation is forgotten, God's creation is stolen from God. Keeping the Torah requires remembering that creation is more than simply the world we see; it means awareness that behind what we see is the sacred mystery of God. In the Jewish tradition sacrilege is stealing the creation from its source and reducing it to merely the dirt of materiality.

Jews who profane the sacred origin of creation lose their claim to the world to come. Only a life lived with full awareness for the divine aspect of humanity and its environment is worthy of the immortal life of the human spirit. A life governed by the covenant is one that continually reflects upon the fact that humans are created in the image of God. Sacrilege amounts to renouncing the knowledge of the divine breath that sparks human life and thereby cutting oneself off from God. Sacrilege is the grave loss suffered by those who lose sight of their intimate connection to the divine creative force inherent to all that exists. Moreover, the failure to recognize the image of God in others is equally problematic. All creation, including oneself and other humans, should be understood as an inherently sacred aspect of God's continually unfolding creation.

The sum result of profaning the sacred is to lose one's claim to the world to come. Full awareness of having been created in the image of God is necessary to claim immortal life for the spirit. Sacrilege means cutting oneself off from the image of God and thereby forfeiting an intimate connection to God. God established the Torah to promote consciousness of the sacred, divinely created aspect of humanity and the rest of the physical world. Transgression is essentially any violation of the Torah. There are consequences for this, but reconciliation is always possible with sincere atonement. Because of our earthly aspect, humans are naturally transgressive. Orthopraxis (correct practice) brings humans into union with God, as partners in the maintenance of the sacred essence of creation. God created the Torah because it makes it possible to mitigate or manage human transgression.

In the Jewish tradition the primary transgression is idolatry. Idolatry violates the entire Torah because it negates God's genesis of creation and renders it profane. Public profaning of God's name can result in excommunication. However, other than violation of the Torah, there is no uniform code of transgression in the Jewish tradition. Transgression and its consequences are determined by the local community to which one belongs. Different communities establish different standards and may not recognize the determinations of other communities. Thus it is apparent that the Torah creates and maintains the worldwide Jewish community as a sacred community. Following the Torah sets Jews apart from the surrounding secular community. The community is differentiated through its self-conscious spiritual identity. For example, the laws of purity situate the community as having a different orientation than surrounding communities. Transgression of these laws separates the individual from both God and the community. Maintaining the Torah establishes one's life and community within a world that is sacred through an intentional acknowledgement of the givenness of God throughout all creation. Sacrilege is turning one's back on the sacred and thereby dwelling in the world of the undifferentiated profane.

Christian Sacrilege

The history of heresy, inquisition, and witchcraft in the Christian church has been the subject of an enormous body of scholarship. The picture presented here is far from complete, and the reader should be on guard against easy or fashionable generalizations. In the history of the concept and pattern of sacrilege in Europe, one is confronted with striking paradoxes: it is often the case that sacrilege was neither invented nor spread by those one would have at first suspected. Sometimes the very forces that were responsible for the prosecution of sacrilege were the ones that prevented such prosecution from being effective. If trials for sacrilege finally came to an end, this did not happen according to any known law of human progress. A thorough investigation of this phenomenon, as of any other phenomenon in history, will show that whenever human consciousness, reflection, and intentionality are involved, things are far from being simple.

The Roman Empire

In the Roman Empire, sacrilege was considered to be a crime carrying the penalty of death, and torture was sometimes used to extort confession. The persecution of Christians, in particular, was justified by a pattern of defamation: besides their sacrilegious practices, the Christians were represented as murderers of infants and as engaged in promiscuous sexual intercourse.

This basic pattern of defamation, analyzed historically by Norman R. C. Cohn in his influential book Europe's Inner Demons (1975), was then taken over by the victorious church and applied to several of its enemies, both external and internal. The revival of Roman criminal law in the eleventh century provided the legal procedures for the conduct of the Christian Inquisition. These procedures were in turn copied by the lay authorities of Europe at the time of the witch craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By this time the Inquisition itself had adopted a skeptical attitude that in some cases prevented abuses by the secular powers.

The eleventh to thirteenth century

The revival of Roman criminal law in the eleventh century seems to have been accompanied by a revival of the ancient Roman pattern of the defamation of Christians, used this time, however, by the Christians themselves against enemies of their own. This was not entirely new. Augustine had used these tactics against the Manichaeans, and John of Odzun had used them against the Armenian Adoptionists in 719. Now the target was the heretics of Orleans (1022), who were said to recite a litany of demons, renounce Christ, spit upon his image, engage in sexual orgies, sacrifice children, and practice cannibalism. At the end of the century (10761096), the priest Alberic of Brittany was convicted of sacrilege for having smeared the crucifix with excrement and poured animal blood upon the altar. He was further accused of selling this blood to the people as relics.

By 1150 to 1160, a group of heretics in Germany had been accused of offering solemn sacrifices to the Devil, practicing incestuous intercourse, and ridiculing the celebration of the nativity on Christmas Eve when, in mockery of the Christian kiss of peace, their priest allegedly uncovered his backside to be kissed by the congregation. This is perhaps the earliest testimony concerning the osculum infame (kiss of infamy). In 1182, Walter Map mentioned the kiss of infamy as being practiced upon the backside, the genitals, or the paw of a huge cat. Down to the mid-fifteenth century, the new conventicles of the alleged worshipers of Satan were called synagogues (later sabbat, a term also used in reference to witches), a clear reference to a group to whom sacrilegious activities of the most extreme kind were attributed, namely the Jews. Sexual intercourse with the Devil is mentioned for the first time in 1275, when a woman in Carcassonne, France, was burned at the stake for this sacrilege.

Inquisitorial and criminal procedure to the fourteenth century

The relationship between ecclesiastic and criminal justice forms one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of European civilization. Without some knowledge of this relationship, it is impossible to understand such a fundamental phenomenon as the witch craze. It is important to establish two facts: first, that this relationship underwent constant changes; second, that it varied from country to country.

In the early Middle Ages, religious offenses in Germany were prosecuted by the secular authorities. The accusation had to be proved, and thus the accuser risked greater damages than the accused. In Spain under the Visigoths, by contrast, religious offenses were, according to the juridical formula, mixti fori, that is, they belonged both to the ecclesiastical and to the lay authorities. In Italy, according to Langobardic law, the crime of maleficium fell under secular jurisdiction. In northern Italy, under French influence, the episcopal inquisition was in place after 800. Indeed, in the Frankish Empire, justice in religious matters was assured by episcopal visitation and inquisition (Latin inquisitio, "investigation"), the bishop being supported by the landlord as defensor ecclesiae (this is the oldest form of local justice, the justice seigneuriale ). After the fall of the Frankish Empire, however, the institution of royal justice became increasingly important, having been taken as a model by the local landlords.

The procedures of the episcopal inquisition were introduced by the church in 1184. A further step was taken by Gregory IX (12271241), who created the papal Inquisition as a central institution staffed by the Dominicans and the Franciscans and directed from Rome. Torture, sporadically employed since the eleventh century, was expressly recommended for inquisitorial procedures against heretics by Innocent IV in 1252. The death penalty, in accordance with Roman law, had been applied since the eleventh century in the French and German territories, but not in southern Europe. Starting in 1197, the death penalty for heretics upon relapse was decreed in Aragon, France, Lombardy, Sicily, and Germany. In 1232 it became effective for the entire Holy Roman Empire. In 1198, Innocent III had recommended execution upon relapse in instances when excommunication had proved ineffective. By the fifteenth century, witches were burned as heretics upon first conviction rather than after a relapse.

Islamic Sacrilege

Because the Islamic tradition does not have a central hierarchical authority structure, the generally accepted definition of sacrilege is relatively narrow. Transgression of the first and foundational pillar of Islam, the Shahādah, is the tradition's only unforgivable sin. While a Muslim is obligated to fulfill all the five pillars of Islam, sincere and devout recitation of the Shahādah is the sole requirement for becoming a Muslim. The Shahādah is the deceptively simple statement: "There is no God but Allāh, and Muammad is his prophet." The first of two assertions in the statement is that there is no God but Allāh (Lā ilāha illā Allāh ). There is only one God, and that God is known as Allāh. The Arabic word translated as God, ilāh, means one who is worshiped, one who has the greatness and power worthy of worship. It also implies the Islamic principle of tawīd, the absolute oneness and unity of God. The first principle of Islam is a radical, or absolute, monotheism. Allāh is one all-powerful harmonious being. Allāh is not and cannot be a multiplicity.

In addition to the unity of Allāh, the statement "there is no God but Allāh" necessarily requires that Allāh is not a physical being. Allāh is the powerful and mysterious being behind all other powers in creation. As such, Allāh cannot possibly be a physical being. Shirk, idolatry, is the worship of anything less than the all-encompassing unity of Allāh. Allāh is the limitless power concealed beyond the human or material world, indeed Allāh is beyond human understanding altogether. Focusing one's care and attention upon any worldly power, such as wealth, fame, sex, and even nature, is shirk, just as much as the worship of an idol is shirk. Both the denial of the unity of Allāh and idolatry are sacrilege in the sense that they lessen and thereby violate the essential sacred qualities of Allāh.

Like idolatry, apostasy is a transgression against Shahādah. Abandonment or renunciation of the Islamic faith amounts to the repudiation of the Shahādah. Like religious conversion, apostasy repudiates the divinity and unity of Allāh. Thus, either apostasy or conversion amount to transgressions against the sacrality of Allāh.

The second assertion of the Shahādah is "Muammad is his prophet." (Muammad rasūl Allāh ). This statement legitimizes Muammad as a prophet among other prophets of the Abrahamic traditions. It is also understood to establish Muammad as the final prophet, the last of Allāh's messengers, who seals, or completes, all revelations from God to humans. As the last prophet, the message revealed to Muammad supercedes all other prophets, including both Moses and Jesus. As a result of having brought divine revelation to an end, worship of Allāh in a consecrated temple is no longer necessary. Muammad's message includes the revelation that the entire earth can now be a place of worship and purification. This is relevant to discussion of sacrilege because sacred space is transformed. Prayer in a state of impurity simply makes the prayer invalid. Pollution of sacred space is of lesser concern than the ritual purity of the individual who offers prayer to Allāh. After Muammad brings the revelation, violation of sacred space is no longer universally understood as sacrilege. Prayer that takes place within a polluted context is simply invalid.

Muammad is the preeminent human, but human nonetheless. His humanity and mortality are essential because he in absolutely no way resembles the singular divinity of Allāh. On the other hand, Muammad is the foremost exemplar of human behavior. His speech and character are models of perfection. Thus the sunnah, the historical record of Muammad's words and deeds, is considered the second most sacred text in Islam. Because of Muammad's unique exemplary status, he is worthy of obedience and the utmost respect. Any statements or action that impugn Muammad in any way are without a doubt sacrilegious. Salmon Rushdie's Satanic Verses (1988) was condemned by the Islamic community precisely because it characterized the prophet in derogatory and offensive ways. Rushdie's book provoked outrage because it profaned the sacred name and character of the prophet.

The divine origin of the Qurʾān is implicit in the statement that Muammad is Allāh's prophet. Islamic tradition understands the genealogy of the Qurʾān as having been transmitted directly from Allāh to the angel Gabriel, who brought Allāh's message to Muammad. The Qurʾān is nothing less than the divine speech of Allāh. The Qurʾān, in its original Arabic, is not created nor interpreted by Muammad or any other human. Because it is an exact replication of divine speech, the Qurʾān is unique among all other texts. Both the oral recitation and the written text (in Arabic) are considered sacred and should be treated reverently. Consequently, physical mistreatment, misrepresentation, or mockery of the Arabic Qurʾān is considered extremely sacrilegious. Questioning the validity or truth of the Qurʾān is equally transgressive. Scholarly investigation of the literary and historical origin of the Qurʾān, in itself, would amount to sacrilege precisely because it undercuts its foundational claim to authority by presupposing human authorship.

Hindu Sacrilege

There are two areas in Hinduism where concerns similar to the Abrahamic concept of sacrilege arise. One area of primary concern would be nāstika, unorthodox interpretation of the Vedas. Religions derived from Hinduism, such as Buddhism and Jainism in particular, constitute the unorthodox insofar as they are a rejection of the authority of the Vedas. For example, rejection of the principle of sasāra, the ongoing cycle of rebirth, would be an extreme form of unorthodoxy worthy of censure. The second concern is the so-called laws of purity. While purity concerns vary by caste, there are general principles governing purity and pollution. The near universal prohibition against sexual contact with menstruating women also holds in the Hindu tradition. Intercaste sex or marriage, like all intercaste contact, is also subject to regulation. Included in such prohibitions would be objects and food handled by those of a low caste. Finally, contact with excrement and dead animals or humans, as in many cultures, is a source of pollution that must be ritually regulated.

Vāmācāra, left-handed conduct, refers to ritual Tantric practice of traditionally prohibited behavior involving sex, alcohol, dead bodies, and so on. Savism is the best known form of Hindu Tantrism; it refers the ritual practices of devotees of the deity Śiva. Śiva is the destroyer, but he is also a creator, in that he destroys the cosmos at the end of its cycle, making way for creation anew. A common depiction is of Śiva dancing within a ring of fire. The fire represents both the destruction of ignorance and the fire of cremation. Śiva is the first of all yogis, demonstrating sensual experience and the freedom of nondualistic awareness. Śiva exists in the particular and subsumes all dualitycreation and destruction, good and evil, bodily eroticism and supreme consciousness.

Left-handed Savism exploits the embodied, erotic aspect of Śiva in order to attain to the nonduality of Śiva. Like all Hindu gods, Śiva is powerless without Śakti, the feminine power that animates all things. Śiva and Śakti together are the combination of consciousness and power. The union of Śiva and Śakti is the model for Tantric sexual ritual. Through sexual union with the active principle of the woman, the pure consciousness of the male yogi is liberated from the oppositions of the material world. The devotee becomes oblivious to everything but divine unity. At this point, the categories of purity and impurity are also destroyed. Tantric ritual also employs other ostensibly sacrilegious practices, such as contact with death or prohibited castes, in order to merge the Śakti power of impurity with yogic consciousness. Such legitimized sacrilegious behavior is powerful precisely because it transgresses the opposition of purity and impurity, exposing them as products of dualistic consciousness, and thereby paving the way to liberation from the body and to unified consciousness beyond opposition. This is an example of when ostensibly sacrilegious behavior is legitimized within a sect but condemned by the orthodox tradition.

Buddhist Sacrilege

The Buddhist perspective is that all transgressions arise from one source: fundamental ignorance about the nature of the self and the world. Anātman (no permanent self) is a foundational principle of Buddhist thought. While the precise meaning and implications of anātman are beyond the scope of this entry, the general idea is that wrong actions stem from the normal human illusion of possessing a permanent self. From this illusion, self-serving and self-interested behaviors necessarily follow. The Buddhist view is that the individual self is impermanent in the sense that it is in a constant state of flux. Furthermore, duality, the perception of self and other as discrete entities, is also an illusion that leads to actions harmful to both self and other. Because the two are inextricably linked through the chain of causality, self-interested actions that negatively impact the other will inevitably impact the self negatively.

Because Buddhism understands that duality and wrong action are illusions, sacrilege is both the result of individual illusions and, ultimately, also an illusion itself. However, there are boundaries of moral transgression. There are five moral precepts that all Buddhists are expected to uphold: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no mistruth, and no intoxication. Violations of these precepts (or the violation of any other vow) constitute the primary "sins" of Buddhism. During the lifetime of the Buddha, members of the sagha (the religious community) could also be expelled for lying about spiritual achievements. During this time, the five worst transgressions were patricide, matricide, killing a monk, wounding the Buddha, and causing dissent in the community. Even so, when the Buddha's cousin, Devadatta, tried to kill the Buddha several times and sought to undermine his leadership, the Buddha reacted to these grave transgressions with equanimity and compassion, and Devadatta was never punished for his actions. The Buddha's action, or more accurately, nonaction, set the precedent that transgressions should be handled with compassion precisely because the transgressors are already enduring the suffering that inevitably arises from the illusion of self and other.

Buddhist Tantrism was derived from Hindu Tantrism; both are widely known antinomian traditions. Tantra (to weave) refers to ritual instructions opposed to sūtra, a discourse of the Buddha. Originating from Bengal, Buddhist Tantra developed within the Vajrayāna tradition (diamond vehicle) of Tibet in the tenth and eleventh century ce. The Tantras are ritual instructions and practices for visualizing buddhas and bodhisattvas with the express intent of bringing the practitioner into transcendent union. The goal is to remove karmic defilements and the illusion of self, and thereby experience the supreme reality of nonduality that underlies the perceptual world. The goal is nothing less than achieving the union of sasāra and nirvāa ; that is, to experience nonduality while still living within the illusionary world of suffering and duality.

Tantrism is best known in the West for the practice of imagining or actually engaging in sexual union as the culmination of disciplined spiritual practice. The underlying premise is that the lesser pleasure of sexual union is linked to the superior pleasure of the transcendental union that occurs when the illusion of duality is overcome. This premise is based on three observations. First, sexual union gives rise to desire and is extremely pleasurable. Second, sexual union is the union of the male-female dyad, and thus an experience of nonduality. Third, the pleasure of sexual union is a minute fraction of the pleasure of transcendental union. The Tantric insight is that sexual desire can be employed as the means to overcome the desires that bind one to the duality of sasāra.

The Tantra adept is supervised by a gurū who has mastered the Tantric rituals and teachings. While Tantrism is thought to be the fast way to enlightenment, traditional Buddhist practices, such as meditation, must be mastered prior to Tantric practice. When the gurū determines the adept has demonstrated the spiritual discipline needed to experience transcendental union, the practitioner is instructed to focus upon the previously cultivated experience of nonduality during sexual intercourse, rather than upon sexual desire. It is thought that the pleasure of sexual union will be experienced as inferior to the much greater ecstasy of the spiritual union of opposites. Sexual desire will in turn be diminished because it will be eclipsed by the desire to experience complete nonduality, rather than the experience of limited nonduality of sexual union.

Other Tantric practices include the eating of meat, sex with low-caste women, and meditation in cemeteries or upon corpses. All of these practices are intended to overcome sasāra in its most polluted form so as to experience the blissful spiritual reality that underlies it. Intimate contact with a corpse, for example, is an experiential lesson in the transitory nature of bodily life. Tantric practice seeks to exploit transgression by putting it into direct relationship with the transcendental union of opposites. In this sense, Tantric practice articulates and explores the boundaries of Buddhist transgression. Tantrism exaggerates and underscores the very behaviors that transgress the boundaries of traditional Buddhist mores; as such it provides an inverted image of Buddhist sacrilege.

Zuni People and Sacrilege

The concept of sacrilege is not indigenous to the Zuni people; however, actions and things that do not conform to their conservative social and religious norms make the problem of transgression a central concern. Traditional Zuni society is highly structured, as it is among other tribes in the Pueblo cultural group. Membership in Zuni society brings specific rights, privileges, and duties. All Zuni are expected to actively participate in religious societies and perform the accompanying ceremonial duties. Their ceremonies are organized according to a rigid agricultural cycle, and individual participants are often required to undergo exacting preparations and ritual restrictions. Failure to perform ceremonies to traditional standards or individual failure to carry out ritual privations brings great danger to both individuals and the group. The ceremonial responsibilities of the Zuni are among the most exacting in the world.

Individual behavior is closely monitored, and conformity to group valuesincluding hard work, good manners, and social conservatismis expected. At the heart of the Zuni value system is conformity to traditional mores. The individual is taught from an early age to avoid either deviation or notoriety. Public display of inappropriate behavior is highly censored. Expressions of sexuality, such as kissing or touching; smoking (for women); or any hint of immoderation or disrespect is considered deeply disgraceful. Secrecy, not only in relation to people outside the pueblo but also in regard to intra-Zuni behavior, is therefore highly regarded and always an ideal. For the Zuni, transgressions of such traditional mores, and of prescribed ritual responsibilities and restrictions, are treated seriously and subject to a range of social and ritual sanctions.

During many Zuni rituals, divine beings arrive at Zuni and dance in the plaza at the center of town. These divine beings, kachinas, are present in the form of masked members of Zuni religious societies. During kachina dances the plaza exists within sacred space and time, and it represents the idealized spiritual life. However, in the midst of the ritual dance, masked clowns inevitably arrive and disrupt the proceedings with antics that transgress proper social and sacred behavior. These ritual clowns may engage in simulated copulation, sex-role reversal, gluttony, backward behavior, smearing of ashes (associated with witchery and death), and other disgraceful behaviors, including mockery of either audience members or the kachinas themselves. What do these ritual clowns, who are brought into divine presence and sacred space and time, teach about the transgression of the sacred?

The actions of Zuni ritual clowns draw attention to and reflect upon the progress of the kachina ritual. When the clowns disrupt the ritual, the contrast between sacred and profane behavior heightens. The actions of the clowns clearly delineate the boundary and distance between the clowns and the kachinas. The role of the clown is to stand in and act as the agent of the ordinary human members of the audience. The clowns remind the Zuni that in the face of the sacred all humans are transgressive, all humans are clowns who cannot control themselves and who do everything backward. The clowns are funny and entertaining, but they also prod the people to reflect upon the incongruence of their own behavior with their spiritual aspirations.

The ritual clowns' bodily humor and mockery of spiritual solemnity during sacred rituals is often perplexing to Euro-American observers. However, the clowns perform a profoundly moral role in Zuni cosmology. The clowns, in fact, are one manifestation of the Zuni attempt to mediate duality. The clowns, continually "in process," weave together the sacred and the profane, the people and the deities, such that the ritual performance brings bodily, material life into the realm of eternal truth. Rather than profaning the sacred, the ritual clowns express the sacred potential of the profane. Through attention to these two essential, but opposite, poles, the delicate balance of cosmic duality is maintained and affirmed.

The clowns remind the Zuni people that the ideal spiritual life is ultimately incongruent with their everyday profane lives. And yet their spiritual aspirations require that they bring their transgressiveness into the presence of the kachinas' sacred dance. The ritual clowns dissolve the absolute distinction between sacred and profane, creating a permeable boundary that welcomes human contradictions and transgressions into the sacred dance of life. However, the tension between human transgressions and spiritual ideals is heightened, not erased, especially when the clowns are eventually disciplined by the kachinas for their behavior. Here then is what the clowns teach: that human appetites and desires, and the transgressions to which they give rise, need not be eliminated prior to contact with the sacred. When transgression is recognized as the place where the human and sacred meet, incongruity is not eliminated but does become manageable.

See Also

Blasphemy; Heresy, overview article; Inquisition, The, article on The Inquisition in the Old World; Taboo.


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Craig A. Burgdoff (2005)

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Sacrilege is generally defined as an offense against the sacred. Sacrilege derives from the Latin word sacrilegium (sacer, sacred and legere, to gather). In its Greek and Latin usage sacrilege is understood as the crime or sin of stealing any object consecrated to the worship of divinities. In its modern usage sacrilege refers to the physical or visual violation of the sacred. Sacrilege differs from blasphemy only in form: Sacrilege is physical and visual; blasphemy is spoken or written.

Sacrilege results from the violation of codes that designate the proper interpretation and use of sacred things, including sacred persons, places, objects, and symbols. Sacred things receive their meaning and power from religious groups who hold them in high esteem. Religious groups also establish norms, rules, and procedures that govern their meaning and use. The improper use of sacred things may elicit averse reactions from believers who attach strong sentiments to them. What is sacrilegious to one person may not be to another. Two criteria are used to determine whether sacrilege has occurred: the intention of the offender and the interpretation of the sacrilegious act or object. For example, artists may not intend to profane religious symbols, but religious persons may interpret their art as sacrilegious.

Physical violations of sacred things are usually referred to as desecration and include acts such as vandalism and the theft of church property. A more striking example is the excavation of Native American burial sites for universities and museums. Many Native Americans protest excavation because it violates their sacred beliefs regarding death and burial. In response, Congress created the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which requires the return of Native American artifacts and the preservation of their sacred burial sites. Church arson and bombings are the most frequent type of sacrilege in its physical form. From 1980 to the present, thousands of church arsons have occurred in the United States, the majority against African-American Baptist churches. As a result of these crimes, Congress enacted the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996, and President Clinton created the National Church Arson Task Force (1996).

Visually and symbolically, sacrilege assumes three general forms: syncretism, secularization, and profanation. Syncretism refers to the blending of religious traditions. Syncretistic religious art, for instance, combines sacred symbols from diverse religious traditions. Because it is not antagonistic toward religion, syncretistic art rarely incites accusations of sacrilege. Secularization involves the diminution or elimination of the traditional religious meanings of sacred things. Profanation occurs when sacred symbols are degraded by improper use or when they are mixed with profane symbols. In either instance, the meanings of sacred symbols have been altered or the codes regulating their use have been violated. Other factors increase the possibility for sacrilege. For the visual arts, the more significant the sacred symbol and the more realistic its representation, the greater the likelihood that it will offend. For example, many of the most controversial sacrilegious works of art contain easily recognizable representations of Jesus or the crucifixion.

The following examples of sacrilege from American visual culture aroused public controversy: Popular music singer Madonna's Like a Prayer (1989) is perhaps the most well-known sacrilegious music video. In the video Madonna is erotically kissed by an African-American saint while lying on a pew inside a church. One of the most controversial examples of sacrilegious art is Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (1987). Serrano's photographic art shows a plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist's urine. Director Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, created tremendous dissension because it alters the biblical account of Christ's life. In fact, Christ's last temptation is to live a solely human life without fulfilling his obligation to die and be resurrected. The most recent example of sacrilege onstage is playwright Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi (1998). In McNally's play the Jesus character, Joshua, has sexual relations with his disciples and is crucified as king of the queers.

Antagonism toward sacrilege may produce conflict among cultural and religious critics. These conflicts over the control of public expression have come to be known as the culture wars. On one hand, cultural critics view efforts by religious critics to censor artistic expression as a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech. On the other hand, religious critics view sacrilege as a form of religious bigotry and as a threat to the public image of religion. As illustrated by the recent McNally play, sacrilege continues to be a controversial issue in American culture.

See alsoBlasphemy; Freedom of Religion; Heresy; Secularization; Syncretism.


Dubin, Steven C. Arresting Images. 1992.

Meyer, Jerry D. "Profane and Sacred: Religious Imagery and Prophetic Expression in Postmodern Art." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65 (1998):19–46.

Westin, Alan F. "The Miracle Case: The Supreme Court and the Movies." Interuniversity Case Program 64 (1961):1–38.

Jonathan F. Cordero

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In a wide sense, sacrilege is any sin against the virtue of religion; more strictly, it is the abuse or violation of a sacred person, place, or thing (respectively, a personal, local, or real sacrilege). The sacredness of the object of sacrilege arises, not from private decision, but from public dedication to divine worship, by either divine or ecclesiastical law. All sacrilege is against the virtue of religion, but it is commonly admitted that not all offenses against the virtue of religion are sacrilegious. True sacrilege is not simple irreverence for an object, but for an object precisely as sacred. Anything dedicated to the service of God by proper authority acquires a new dignity; it is stamped, so to speak, with the seal of God. Because it enters, in a sense, into the sphere of the divine, irreverence to it is an irreverence to God Himself (see St. Thomas, Summa theologicae, 2a2ae 99.1).

Personal sacrilege is the physical mistreatment of a person whom dedication to the service of God has made sacred. To strike, wrongfully imprison, or bring to a public courtwithout approval, implicit or explicit, of competent authoritya cleric or a member of a religious community, even a novice, would be personal sacrilege. Also any external action of impurity involving the person of one with a public vow of chastity, whether performed by the person under vow or by another, is sacrilegious. (Not all authors agree that sins against chastity involving those with a private vow have a sacrilegious effect.) Double sacrilege is certainly involved in any impurity between two persons, both of whom are bound by public vows of chastity.

Local sacrilege is the violation of a sacred place, such as a church, a public oratory, or a cemetery, whether these have been blessed or consecrated. Theft of a holy object from a church, for example, is sacrilegious, whereas to pick the pocket of a fellow churchgoer would not be. To use a sacred place for a profane purpose, for example, to use a church as a dance hall or barroom, would involve sacrilege. Any external act of impurity or the shedding of blood to the point of mortal guilt, if committed in a sacred place, is sacrilegious.

Real sacrilege is the misuse of sacred things, that is, of things that have been formally dedicated to the service of God, or things that of their nature pertain to divine service. To administer the Sacraments, for example, or to receive Holy Communion while in the state of mortal sin, would be a real sacrilege.

Sacrilege is commonly admitted to be a mortal sin of its nature (ex genere ), because it is seriously opposed to the virtue of religion. But a sacrilege may be a venial sin from the slightness of the matter with which it is concerned. Slightness of matter, for example, makes the thoughtless use of holy water a venial fault. Diverse degrees of gravity in sacrilege depend upon the relative sacredness of the thing profaned. To profane the Holy Eucharist is thus more grave than to steal a chalice. Practically, to estimate the gravity of a sacrilege, one must take into account the degree of sacredness of the person, place, or thing involved, the sinful action itself as viewed by prudent people, and the intention of the one who performs the action.

Bibliography: j. abbo and j. hannan, The Sacred Canons, 2 v. (St. Louis 1960). l. g. fanfani, Manuale theoricopracticum theologiae moralis (Rome 1950) 3:175182. b. hÄring, The Law of Christ: Moral Theology for Priests and Laity, tr. e. g. kaiser (Westminster, Md. 1961) 2:209214. l. bender, in f. roberti et al., Dictionary of Moral Theology, ed. p. palazzini et al., tr. h. j. yannone et al. from 2d Ital. ed. (Westminster, Md. 1962) 1087.

[m. herron]

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SACRILEGE , the deliberate or inadvertent violation of sacred things. The Torah ordains the punishment of *karet for anyone who deliberately flouts the sanctity of the Temple precincts or deviates in the slightest from any of the rules or rituals connected with its service. Under this heading comes slaughtering, offering, or partaking of the sacrifices outside their appointed time or place, entering the sanctuary, officiating, or eating holy things while ritually unclean or when disqualified by reason of non-priestly status (Lev. 17:1–9; 19:5–8; 22:1–16). The priest profaned his sacred office by officiating, when suffering from a *blemish, when in mourning, or by contracting a forbidden union, such as marrying a divorcée, which disqualified his offspring from the priesthood and from marrying a priest (Lev. 21). To make a replica of any of the utensils or ingredients, such as the incense used in the Temple, is also regarded as sacrilege (Ex. 30:32). The seriousness of the sin of sacrilege is underlined by the biblical stories of Nadab and Abihu, burnt to death for offering "strange fire," and the stoning of Achan for taking the spoils of war dedicated to the sanctuary (Lev. 10:1–2; Josh. 7). The inadvertent use of sacred things, termed me'ilah, is also penalized in the Pentateuch (Lev. 5:14ff.). The offender is required to bring a guilt offering and reimburse the Temple treasury to the value of the theft plus one-fifth.

A whole tractate of the Talmud (see *Me'ilah) is devoted to the offense which became obsolete with the destruction of the Temple. But the principle involved lived on to safeguard the remaining sancta of Jewish life, in a carefully graded order of holiness: the Sefer Torah, religious articles such as tefillin and ẓiẓit, printed holy books, and the synagogue and its appurtenances. The rabbis adopted the formula of ma'alin bekodesh ve-ein moridin – "holiness may be increased but not decreased." The Mishnah in Megillah (3:1, 2) forbids the sale of a synagogue for a public bath or tannery, a Sefer Torah for books of lesser sanctity such as the Prophets. Even a disused synagogue may not be used as a shortcut or for spreading nets or drying fruit. Printed pages of holy books must be buried (see *Genizah) out of respect for the name of God inscribed therein (see *Shemot). No benefit may be derived from the dead, including the shroud or the corpse itself, except for the purpose of saving life (see *Autopsies). Cemeteries must be treated with the utmost reverence, and it is not permitted to walk over the graves or pasture cattle there (Sh. Ar., yd 368). The scholar who adopted an irreverent approach to difficult passages in the Torah was guilty of sacrilege too (Maimonides, Hilkhot Me'ilah, end).

Under a law promulgated by the State of Israel for safeguarding the holy sites of Judaism and other faiths (1967), there is a penalty of seven years' imprisonment for "profaning a holy place or violating it in any manner" (see *Holy Places). Detailed regulations have been gazetted by the Ministry of Religious Affairs prohibiting sacrilegious behavior at Jewish holy sites (Protection of Holy Places Law, 5727–1967, in: Laws of the State of Israel, 21 (1966/67), 76). These prohibit ritual slaughter, eating and drinking, smoking, sleeping, hawking, profanation of the Sabbath and festivals, and immodest dress. These regulations have been applied to Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem and other parts of Ereẓ Israel. After the Six-Day War the Israel Chief Rabbinate proclaimed it sacrilegious for a Jew to enter the Temple Mount because of ritual defilement.

[Aryeh Newman]

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572. Sacrilege

  1. abomination of desolation epithet describing pagan idol in Jerusalem Temple. [O.T.: Daniel 9, 11, 12; N.T.: Mark 13:14; Matthew 24:15]
  2. Aepytus Arcadian king; entering Poseidons sanctuary, forbid-den to mortals, he is blinded. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 9]
  3. Beaufort, Cardinal (13771447) haughty churchman; dies execrating God. [Br. Lit.: II Henry VI ]
  4. cleansing of the temple sacrilegious money-changers driven out of temple by Christ. [N.T.: Matthew, 21:1213; Mark, 11:1518]
  5. Heliodorus Syrian official attempted to loot Solomons temple. [Apocrypha: II Maccabees 3]
  6. Hophni and Phinehas contemptuously abused holiness of sacrifices. [O.T.: I Samuel 2:1217]
  7. Simon Magus tried to purchase apostolic powers; whence, simony. [N.T.: Acts 8:1824]

Sadness (See MELANCHOLY .)

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sacrilegeabridge, bridge, fridge, frig, midge, ridge •quayage • verbiage • foliage • lineage •ferriage •stowage, towage •buoyage, voyage •sewage •Babbage, cabbage •garbage • cribbage •Burbage, herbage •adage • bandage • yardage • headage •appendage • windage • bondage •vagabondage • cordage • poundage •wordage • staffage • roughage •baggage • mortgage • luggage •package, trackage •tankage • wreckage • breakage •leakage •linkage, shrinkage, sinkage •blockage, dockage, lockage •boscage • corkage • soakage •truckage • tallage • assemblage •railage •grillage, pillage, spillage, stillage, tillage, village •pupillage (US pupilage) • sacrilege •ensilage • mucilage • cartilage •sortilege • tutelage • curtilage •privilege •mileage, silage •acknowledge, college, foreknowledge, knowledge •haulage, stallage •spoilage • Coolidge

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sac·ri·lege / ˈsakrəlij/ • n. violation or misuse of what is regarded as sacred: putting ecclesiastical vestments to secular use was considered sacrilege. DERIVATIVES: sac·ri·le·gious / ˌsakrəˈlijəs/ adj. sac·ri·le·gious·ly / ˌsakrəˈlijəslē/ adv.

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Sacrilege (Lat., the theft of sacred objects). The violent, contemptuous, or disrespectful treatment of persons or objects associated with religious reverence or dedicated to God. In Judaism, the violation of sacred things is a deep offence. In Christianity, the notion of sacrilege is extended to include receiving the sacraments unworthily or in a state of mortal sin.

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Sacrilege ★½ 1986

A nun and a nobleman engage in a hot love affair that fosters scandal, murder and, revenge. Cynical use of religious theme masks otherwise ordinary sex/romance flick. Controversial Italian-made erotic drama. 104m/C VHS . IT Myriem Roussel, Alessandro Gassman; D: Luciano Odorisio.