The original aim of all religions was to develop the spiritual side of human beings. However, knowingly or unknowingly, many religious groups slowly drifted away from spirituality. The earth has been covered with bloodshed more so in the name of religion than for any other reason. No religion can claim that it is inculpable of this. Every religion has a group of people who, instead of encouraging love for all human beings, espouse hatred for the people of other religions. That is why many thoughtful and sensitive people are distancing themselves away from religion and are happy to be called atheists. However, they do not realize that along with religion they are often giving up spirituality and thus they miss all life-essential benefits that spirituality can offer.
Keeping this in mind, I reflected upon the differences between being a spiritual person and being a religious person.
1. The Goal:
Spiritual: The goal of a spiritual person is to realize the Spirit or Soul or Atman that is lying within. The Spirit is what remains after we remove the name and form of a person. Thus, the Spirit is the same in all people irrespective of a person’s color, country, culture, religion, age, gender and any other external thing that separates them. This Spirit or Soul is divine. It is the support of every being on the individual plane and it is the support of the universe as a whole. It is called the Consciousness or the Ultimate Reality of a being. It is referred to as the highest truth a human-being can achieve. And it is the peak of the mental evolution of human beings.
Religious: The goal of a religious person is multifarious. Some people want to go to heaven. Some want worldly pleasures and success including wealth, power, position, name and fame. Some want a little peace of mind. Some want to continue the tradition of their parents and grandparents. And some want to avoid the guilt of not being religious.
2. The Practices:
Spiritual: A spiritual person’s practice is an inner search for the Ultimate Truth. This search is as scientific in nature as that of a scientist’s for external truth. Even though this inner search is based on the guidelines of the scriptures and the teachings of Sages and Saints who have realized the Ultimate Reality or Ultimate Truth, a spiritual seeker has full freedom to carve out a path which suits his/her physical and mental capacity and chemistry. Thus, the spiritual practice is individually customized. Since spiritual development is an inner journey towards our own divine Self, it is purely individual.
In general, there are four kinds of practices for spiritual development related to the four faculties of a human being: the physical, the emotional, the focusing of the mind (concentration), and the analytical.
The spiritual practice related to the physical faculty is unselfish service to humanity. In this practice, one puts aside all external differences and personal gain and tries to serve all beings for one’s own spiritual development. The more one becomes unselfish in thought, speech, and action, the more one advances towards his/her own divine Self.
The spiritual practice related to the emotional faculty focuses on developing love for a divine form of God, an incarnation of God, or a saintly person, and to think of and imbibe His/Her virtues in one’s personal life. One worships a form of God and sings His/Her glories to develop love for God or love for goodness. A devotee realizes that God is not hiding somewhere outside, but is residing within. Our true identity, the Divine Self, makes us pray to God and seek God. Through the worship of various forms of God, people are worshipping that same God that is residing within. Even though the same God resides in all, people are different because the manifestations of God through them are different. Shri Ramakrishna says that fire is in every object, but it is more manifested in wood, meaning we can get fire more easily from wood than any other object. In the same way, God’s presence can be felt more through the thoughts, speech, and actions of good people – our Saints and Sages.
Repeating name of God (Japa), doing regular prayers, worshipping God, reading spiritually uplifting books, serving and learning from devotees of God, and visiting holy places are various ways to develop love for God. Thus, these spiritual practices are associated with the emotional faculty of human beings.
The spiritual practices related to the faculty of focusing of the mind are measures that enable one to acquire complete control over the body and mind and to develop concentration power. Moderation in all activities – such as eating, sleeping, working, exercise, entertainment and others–is an important spiritual practice, which helps in focusing the mind. Trying to live a goal-oriented and self-disciplined life helps us achieve control over our minds. Worldly cravings distract the mind. If worldly cravings are more important than spiritual development, when one attempts to focus the mind, the mind will wander about thinking about those very cravings. Practicing virtues eliminate many worldly cravings.
To focus the mind, japa (repeating name of God) and meditation are useful. Japa easily leads to meditation. When we meditate, we become one with the object or the person on whom we meditate. Thus, when we meditate on our true identity, our Divine Soul, we become one with that Divine Soul.
The spiritual practice related to the analytical faculty of a person involves developing a refined, unbiased and objective reasoning. Through this reasoning, one can find out one’s true identity or the Ultimate Reality, Soul or Atman. Meditation and self-control help one in realizing one’s true identity. This realization is then reflected in the thoughts, speech, and actions of a person.
Religious: Going to a church or temple, or any other religious place, and doing solely ritualistic prayer or worship is the main activity of most religious people. Religious people do ritualistic worship whenever it is convenient for them. Some people do it daily, some do it weekly, some do it on monthly basis, and some do it whenever they remember to or have free time.
Swami Adiswarananda used to say that many people go to religious places of worship when they are hatched, matched, and dispatched; when a child is born, when people get married and when they die.
Religious people like to go to a religious place to offer prayers, worship as prescribed by the priest, and eat sacred food given by the priest. They occasionally read religious books, watch religious videos, and listen to or sing religious songs. These practices are the means and ends of religious people. It is more of a congregational practice. Many people go to a religious place to socialize or to eat good food. Thus, many religious places have become social, economic, and political centers. Prayer and religious worship seem like excuses to meet and socialize. People worship with the hope that these practices fulfill their worldly desires. Since genuine spiritual practices are difficult, people take satisfaction in going to holy places and doing some ritualistic worship or prayers.
3. The Progress:
Spiritual: If a person does spiritual practices properly, then the following can be seen in a person.
(i) Transformation: A transformation starts taking place in his/her life for good. Many virtues develop like humility, unselfish love for all, not hating anyone, seeing good things in all, service-oriented nature and others.
(ii) Inner Peace & Strength: A person feels peace within himself / herself. He/she develops inner strength which helps to face any situation with calmer mind.
One feels joy within. This joy does not depend on any worldly object or a person. With this joy, a person’s life becomes truly and genuinely joyful.
(iii) Deeper Understanding: One obtains a deeper understanding of one’s own mind. This helps in understanding others’ minds and in looking things with a proper, balanced perspective. With this understanding, one develops better relationships with other people.
A finer intellect (Viveka) develops which makes a person realize that the body and mind are not permanent. The body and mind constantly change. A person realizes that one’s true identity is beyond the body and mind, and is rather the Soul or Atman. This Atman is the support of life. Because of Atman, the body, mind, and senses of an individual function. Similarly, as with Atman on an individual level, there is a single support of the whole universe, which is called Brahman. The whole universe came from this Brahman, is nourished by Brahman and is going to dissolve in Brahman. Through a deeper understanding, one understands that there is no difference in Atman and Brahman. Brahman residing in an individual person is called the Atman.
(iv) Self-Control: One attains more control over one’s own mind and senses. This helps a person avoid unnecessary problems, which he/she could have been trapped into unconsciously. One develops virtues and obtains control over weaknesses like lust, greed, anger, jealousy, hatred etc.
(v) Awareness: One lives a life with awareness. One thinks before uttering any word or getting involved in any action.
One realizes that the goal of life is not moneymaking, producing children, acquiring name and fame, or seeking out sense-pleasures. One becomes fully convinced that the goal of life is to realize one’s true identity, Atman, whose nature is “Existence-Knowledge-Bliss-Absolute” – the support of all life. All knowledge and bliss comes from the Atman. In short, whatever a human being is seeking in the universe (happiness, knowledge, fearlessness, immortality, satisfaction and others), he/she gets all by realizing Atman.
A religious person who attends church, does prayer, etc. and is regularly engaging in spiritual practices for spiritual development will obtain all the benefits mentioned above.
However, one who does only religious practices without the goal of spiritual development will only achieve the following:
(i) Momentary Satisfaction: Through the performance of religious practices without spirituality, one attains momentary satisfaction and feels happy that one has followed the family tradition.
Since the motives of religious practices do not include spiritual development, the joy of performing religious practices is short lived. Many times, after the religious worships, trifle matters remain engraved in the mind of this person. This person focuses more on things like the worldly behavior of the priest, the behavior and interactions of people in the congregation, the taste of the Prasad (the sacred food) etc.
Without trying for spiritual development, religious practices become like a patchwork or bandage treatment. Since the fundamental problem, “the basic ignorance of life”, is not resolved, life brings many problems like fear and frustration, which ultimately make life miserable. This prevents a longer lasting peace.
(ii) Worldly Benefits: A religious person seeks to develop a social network by meeting other people in religious places and uses this network to accomplish some worldly goals and increase his/her name or fame – whether professionally or socially. Through these contacts one’s wealth may increase and one may acquire name and fame as a religious person.
(iii) Fanatic Joy: On an extreme end, a religious person may acquire joy in converting people to one’s faith and sometimes one gets joy in killing people of other faiths.
4. The Outcomes:
Spiritual: The major outcomes of truly engaging in spiritual practices include the following:
(i) Divinity: A complete transformation of life for good. A person becomes divine, meaning all of the virtues described in the scriptures (which are needed to have a happy human society) manifest in the person: love for all, humility, free from lust, greed, anger, jealousy, ego and selfishness, forgiving nature, and others.
(ii) Freedom: A spiritual person becomes free from all bondages. He/she will not be a slave of anything and will work and live as his/her own master.
(iii) Fulfillment: All human desires become fulfilled and a true sense of fulfillment comes in life.
(iv) Love For All: One develops unselfish love for all, understands that each person is divine as a soul, and is always ready to serve others.
(v) Inner Peace and Power: One feels an unbroken inner peace which does not depend on any worldly object. Being identified with the soul or Atman, one feels tremendous power within.
(vi) Realization of Truth: One realizes that one’s true identity is divine. This divinity is Atman. One realizes that as the ocean water in pots of different shape and colors is the same, the Atman in all is the same. If a pot breaks, then the water inside merges with the water outside and it becomes one. Similarly, when the body-mind frame of a being dies, the Atman lying within merges with Brahman outside. Identifying with the Atman (Spirit) makes one immortal and fearless.
One realizes that just as various ornaments are made from the same element of gold, all “different” beings and things of the universe are made from the same consciousness called Brahman. In this way, one realizes that he/she is associated with all beings and things of the universe and that they are part of him/her. As one hand does not harm another hand because both the hands are the parts of the same body, a realized person does not harm another person. If the left hand is hurt, the right hand will try to ease the pain of the left hand. Similarly, a realized person is always ready to help any other being considering that they all share common identity.
A realized person lives a fully aware life. He/she is always aware that the true identity of a being is Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute. This person’s life is creative and not monotonous. For such a person, everything in the universe is alive and meaningful. He/she takes full interest in everything that comes to him/her. In the presence of a realized person, others feel that their lives are meaningful and as a result their good qualities blossom. To live in the company of such a person is truly a blessing. It is like living in the presence of God.
Religious: If a person doing religious worship develops love for spiritual development, then he/she can obtain the benefits outlined above. Yet if a person does religious worship without spiritual development, he/she will only gain the following major outcomes and will risk facing the dangers described subsequently.
(i) Short-term Satisfaction: A religious person will earn some satisfaction and short-term peace of mind thinking that one has continued one’s family tradition.
(ii) Worldly Gains: A religious person may acquire name and fame, develop a strong social network helpful for worldly purposes, and gain financial benefits.
Dangers: However, along with these limited benefits, there are various dangers of doing religious practices without having spiritual development as a goal.
(i) Being Mechanical: The mouth may repeat the words of prayers and hymns, but the mind will become occupied with worldly thoughts. Thus, ritualistic prayers and worship may become mechanical and one may lose interest in them.
(ii) Losing Faith: If by doing ritualistic worship one’s worldly desires do not get fulfilled, then one may lose faith in God and thus lose the benefit that spirituality can offer.
(iii) Living Double Life: Without a spiritual goal, one’s actions may not match with the words of prayers. Many times, the actions of a religious person become contradictory to the meanings of the prayers uttered. One may pray to God who is compassionate, but the person may become cruel to his/her fellow beings.
(iv) Frustration and Depression: Since the fundamental questions of the life – “What is my true identity?”, “What is the meaning of my life?”, “What is the connection between the people of the world and I?” – are not addressed, one will become frustrated and depressed. A time comes when money, worldly name and fame, or sense pleasures become meaningless and a person will crave for something higher to have a peace of mind.
(v) Becoming Fanatic: On an extreme end, one may become a fanatic. One may lose the sense of discrimination between what is good and what is bad. A fanatic believes that his/her religion is the only great religion in the world and all followers of other religions are demonic. A fanatic believes that converting other people to one’s faith is a great religious activity. The worst is when a fanatic believes that killing the people of other faiths is a religious activity. This is the complete opposite of the goal of a religion.
I love my mother. But, it is ludicrous to ask and force everyone to love my mother as I do. Each person has a mother who is dear to him/her. The point is that the forms of the mothers are different, but the “motherhood” is the same. Thus, God has many forms and people, according to their own family faiths, situations, and tastes, worship the form they feel comfortable with. Like motherhood, Godhood is the same for all religions. All are worshipping the same God through different forms. However, the fanatics are ignorant of this, causing them to lose their common sense and simple human decency. Because of this, sensible people get fed-up with religion and are happy to be atheists.
As I had mentioned in the beginning, all religions started for the spiritual development of human beings. But slowly, many religious groups have drifted away from their goal and have become more or less social, economic, and political groups. As a result, the religious people, instead of becoming divine, become more worldly, hypocritical, indecent and cruel.
The great religious personalities who have done good for the whole of humanity and not just for a selected group of people were all spiritually oriented. Spiritual Development is the ultimate goal of human life and until we accept that, we will have to face death, destruction, fear, frustration, depression, and all the negative aspects of life.
(Thanks to Ronak Parikh for editing this blog.)