Religion and spirituality and not Religion vs. Spirituality

(I seek the understanding and forgiveness of learned scholars and souls for lapses in what I have written below.)

I just happened to read the piece by Sandipan Deb on the anniversary of the speech by Swami Vivekananda in Chicago on 11th September 1893.

What follows is a stream of thoughts triggered by the piece. They do not necessarily constitute a response to the piece.

The author takes great pains to distinguish between spirituality (Hindu spirituality) as opposed to faith, belief and rituals.  Among many relatively young people, it is almost a fashion statement to claim or to consider themselves spiritual as opposed to being religious. In their minds, the latter is somewhat obscurantist, antiquated, quaint, primitive and superstitious whereas being ‘spiritual’ is a sign of intellectual evolution.

This also helps them sidestep the question of belief in an Almighty. They can profess a studied neutrality at best or contempt, at worst, towards the question of a God or an all-pervasive external force. See this blog post, for example. [This blog post is better in that it mentions ‘ego’ twice but does not discuss the concept of surrender and its role in spiritual evolution. That said, I must add that I liked the idea of ‘detaching from drama’ as a sign of emerging spirituality.]

To a large extent, all of the above are understandable and even reasonable. After all, while it is possible to be both religious and spiritual, the truth is that, for most, being religious stops with that and they do not make any attempt to see their religiosity, beliefs and rituals as stepping stones or milestones in the path towards spirituality.

For many, their interaction with divinity in its multiple manifestations found in Hindu temples is at a transactional level.

So, one can understand a certain aversion towards being called or being considered religious or ritualistic. Being considered ‘spiritual’ or a seeker of spirituality sidesteps all these inconvenient questions and practices.

However, there is nothing wrong or shameful being a religious person who believes in rituals and who is a seeker or a person in quest of spirituality.

To understand that there is only one Brahman that pervades all living beings – animals, plants, birds and humans and space, air, water and fire – and that it resides within us as it resides within others and that our quest in life is to realize that Brahman (or, Godhead) in ourselves is one thing but to actually realize or experience it is another thing.

There are very few – perhaps none – who have reached or arrived at this understanding truly and permanently taking an intellectual approach to the quest for self-realisation.

The reason, as far as I can tell from my own reflections and experiences on this matter, is that an intellectual approach to spirituality will confront that one trait that most intellectuals (self-acclaimed, perceived and real ones) suffer from – EGO.

Ego will come in the way of crossing the last several steps because realizing the Brahman within oneself and accepting ITS presence in all others is to shed the last vestiges of ego, self-importance and self-righteousness. These are much easier to discuss and to write about than to shed, in practice.

Religion – faith, beliefs and rituals – has an advantage in that. If pursued and practised with the ultimate goal of becoming a spiritual or evolved human being – can help better in realizing that goal than an intellectual approach. Why?

Faith, rituals and prayers to an anthropomorphic God – done in the proper spirit – can help inculcate the spirit of surrender to a higher or superior force. That attitude of surrender – unconditional and permanent – is needed to achieve the last few steps of spirituality or, more precisely, to reach the pinnacle of human evolution, which is to realize and experience the oneness of Brahman – inside and outside – and to stay with that realization, forever.

Human beings have to realize that there is precious little that they control – even typing these letters and words. Psychological experiments and studies (books by Daniel Kahneman and Dan Ariely are but two of the sources) have amply demonstrated that our decisions are influenced by thoughts and forces that we are not even aware of. Indeed, the very success of consumer marketing and advertising is an eloquent testimony to human irrationality or put differently, a severe indictment of human rationality.

In spite of these studies, we refuse to surrender. We believe that we make things happen. Without the shedding of ego, it is impossible for anyone to become spiritual and remain in that state.

It is very difficult to ‘surrender’ to ideas. We surrender to those who espouse certain ideas. Whether it is Hitler, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Friedman, Gandhi or Annadurai, in the hands of certain individuals, ideas become powerful. That is, ideas become powerful tools of enslavement of humans by certain humans. Therefore, ideas do need champions and leaders. It is to those people that others surrender.

Therefore, belief in the existence of an anthropomorphic God becomes essential to develop the habit and the idea of surrender and without surrender, there is no self-realisation.

It is true, as many have argued, that there is a very thin line between A-dwaita and atheism, which is more clearly directed at the notion of the existence of Gods as defined by Abrahamic faiths.

That is why some of them claim that Adi Sankara who preached A-dwaita could not have written hymns and slokas in praise of anthropomorphic Gods – hymns such as Bhaja Govindam, Soundarya Lahari and Kanakatharaa Stothram.

[Sandipan Deb does well in his article to note that Swami Vivekananda’s spirituality was ‘pragmatic, robust and even physical’ but fails to elaborate or explain them. That is a pity.]

I do not know enough to take sides in this debate. But, I do not find this reason persuasive enough to dismiss his authorship of these works. I believe that he understood that faith and belief lead to surrender and then to self-realisation and realisation of the Brahman.

Further, those who are (or, think that they are) spiritual and not religious, should also be clear in their heads as to what exactly they mean by ‘being spiritual’. I doubt that, among the God-sceptics and intellectual seekers of spirituality, there is unanimity on the definition of spirituality. Lord Krishna, in his Bhagawad Gita, had defined, at several places, the attributes of an elevated soul in different ways. One thing is clear. Spiritual evolution is not about an intellectual pursuit of ‘spirituality’.

At a personal level, I see (a) action (or, non-action) with awareness and consciousness and (b) alignment of thoughts, words and deeds between themselves and with Dharma as being spiritual. I had written about it in a blog post on ‘What it means to be spiritual’.

As I wrote earlier, I understand the aversion to rituals. Many religious people stop at being ritualistic. It is seen as an end in itself. The larger purpose behind them all continues to elude them. I had covered this aspect in the above blog post too.

But, the trap for genuine seekers of spirituality is that they see this and shun rituals totally. That is a mistake too. In doing so, they are falling into the same trap as the ritualistic practitioners of rituals do. They should see the deeper purpose and meaning of rituals beyond their ritualistic practice.

In sum, there is no faith without rituals. There is no surrender without faith. There is no elimination of ego without surrender. There is no spirituality without ego elimination.

May we celebrate the true spirit of Shri. Vivekananda’s speech!

2 thoughts on “Religion and spirituality and not Religion vs. Spirituality

  1. Dear Ananth,
    I appreciate this post. There is too much vagueness and confusion about these two profound terms viz., Religious and Spiritual. There is a general lack of awareness that the two are not mutually exclusive and certainly not substitute for each other. Generally we notice an urgency to skip “Religious practices” and jump to Spirituality in many. Similarly we see in many the habit of getting stuck on very elaborate religious practices. Great Rishis and Mahans, who have been at the highest levels of spiritual evolution have structured and followed religious practices themselves life long. They know why. At the same time they have written copious works on the highest Brahman and the human Soul as well as teaching them to select disciples. Religious practices are necessary for the continuous cleansing of the soul (not an one time or short term event) and for the welfare in this world. Spirituality is necessary for the long term evolution of the Soul.
    Good article.
    Best Wishes

  2. Pingback: Spirituality and the jigsaw puzzle | Jeevatma

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