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Are the two paths mutually exclusive?

Sunjoy Hans

Twenty-three-year-old Jyoti Kiran Ray, who plies her trade as a social media strategist at a digital marketing firm in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, always keeps animated images of Lord Krishna as the display picture of her WhatsApp business account. Jyoti reveals that she felt a visceral connection with Lord Krishna when facing some challenging circumstances in her life three years ago, and has ever since maintained that connection in all ways she possibly could, both within and without her WhatsApp and other social media accounts.

“Like probably everyone else, I have to deal with personal or professional problems every now and then. But I go to bed every night leaving all the tension behind and I sleep tight knowing that Krishna will take care of everything,” she says.

Jyoti likes to describe herself as more of a spiritual person than a religious one. But she quickly clarifies that she has absolutely no problem participating in religious rituals and ceremonies conducted by her family and friends – nor does she think any less of atheists (people who lack belief in the existence of God).

There is a certain question that has increasingly become a subject of discussion – both casual and academic – across age groups over the past few decades: “Are you religious or are you spiritual?” Often forming an essential part of such discourses are some other posers: What exactly is the difference between being religious and being spiritual? Or if there really is a difference at all, what with the two terms often used interchangeably? With the lines blurred between where one begins and the other ends, are they part of a continuum? And if they are indeed different, what is superior of the two? What is more desirable at an individual level? Or what better serves society at large?

In the pre-Internet era, debates over such issues used to be the preserve of a few intellectuals and scholars and were often limited to niche publications, special occasions and exclusive gatherings. However, with the arrival of the World Wide Web and the start of the so-called – and ongoing – Information Revolution, these dialogues have very much entered the mainstream and everyday conversation where there is a proliferation of personal opinions. The unfortunate downside of this phenomenon is that such views are a dime a dozen, irrespective of their reach or the ‘likes’ they receive. But there is an utterly tangible and undeniable upside: easy access to knowledge from respected and credible sources.

The common ideas that such sources have propounded in their religious-versus-spiritual discourses make for the best place to understand the fundamentals of the subject at hand. Yet a good starting point may be the assessment of the two by their modern-day textbook definitions. Religion is widely defined as an institutionalised system involving belief in and worship of a god or gods, whereas spirituality is identified as a quality that involves soul-searching and deep feelings – not necessarily of a religious nature – about the non-material aspects of life.

Religion and spirituality are different in terms of their origins, too. The former is based on the lives, beliefs, teachings and preachings of historical or mythological figures such as Lord Krishna, Gautam Buddha, Jesus Christ, Prophet Muhammad and Zoroaster, which have been documented in scriptures or passed down through oral traditions. The latter is based on personal perspectives from individual life experiences as well as on practical applications of a spiritual guru’s – or multiple spiritual gurus’ – teachings.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of religion is the way it is structured and organised as an entity. Practically every religion in the world has rules that its members are morally (and sometimes even legally) bound to follow – by varying degrees, of course. More often than not, various religious principles, doctrines and laws determine the behaviour and way of life of their respective adherents in a specific or specified way. Thus, every religion has a uniform and unique belief system.

In contrast, spirituality has none of the formal rules and restrictions associated with traditional religion. Those on the spiritual path follow an individualistic and independent path. They are typically self-motivated to be on that road. That is quite unlike the way it is in the case of the religious lot who are often encouraged by their family or guided by their religious leaders or compelled by society from very early on in their lives to stick to their respective belief systems.

Because of their long histories, which are hundreds or thousands of years old, religions are intricately intertwined with traditions and rituals. And they are zealously preserved and protected by faithful followers and revered leaders generation after generation. Spirituality on the other hand has no such historical aspect. It is timeless by nature and evolutionary in approach. Those on the spiritual path, even if they are following the teachings of great leaders, philosophers and saints, tend to have a more flexible and adaptable attitude. That is because spirituality is never resistant to change; in fact, it embraces the universal truth about change being constant and the worldly truth about the importance of changing with the times.

Given the way they are structured, organised and institutionalised, religions often have a fear factor built into their doctrines. In some form or the other, concepts such as karma, sins, judgement day, eternal damnation, and heaven and hell are an inherent aspect of most religions that warn against flouting the divine rules. Such things essentially make religious people God-fearing. The upside of this is quite apparent. More often than not, people afraid of divine retribution are deterred from committing crimes and other wrong deeds.

However, spirituality comes with no such sense of trepidation. Because it is based primarily on love, compassion and consciousness pertaining to one’s self, surroundings and God or the Supreme Power. People on the spiritual path are more in a happy pursuit of peace rather than being guided by fear. They are probably what one may call God-loving; they are not God-fearing.

Similarly, it is often pointed out that religion is exclusive in nature while spirituality is inclusive. Because religion, with its fixed beliefs and traditions, separates itself and its followers from the rest of the world. Those whose views and ways of life do not match with what a religion prescribes are excluded and isolated and, in worst-case scenarios, castigated or ostracized. Spirituality does not make distinction between people. Everybody is welcome into its world irrespective of their backgrounds and power rarely ever gets concentrated in the hands of a particular person or group of people.

Many also note that religion is an objective experience because it involves tangible things such as buildings and idols of worship, books and scriptures, not to mention rituals – whereas spirituality is a purely subjective and intangible experience thanks to its focus on inner consciousness or, in other words, inner voice.

While these are the most noticeable and widely accepted differences between religion and spirituality, equally popular and true in the religion-versus-spirituality debate is the fact that neither of the two is fundamentally good or bad. For instance, religion and one’s religious identity has always served as an extremely effective support system and also as an amazingly efficient social network. Just like spirituality, religion is also often meant to help people live a happy, meaningful and peaceful life.

This brings up another pertinent question that also comes up during this big debate: Is it indeed possible that somebody can be spiritual and religious at the same time? The answer to that can firmly be in the affirmative if someone’s inner beliefs are in sync with those with the belief system of their religion.

Hence, while religion and spirituality are different in the way they are practised, both serve – or were at least originally meant to serve – as a means for people to get closer to the truths they seek in life.

Isha Foundation founder Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, who is a yogi and also one of the most popular and respected spiritual masters in India with a fast-rising global following, had dilated on the spirituality-versus-religion debate a couple of years ago and had made some rather insightful observations. He stated that every religion had started out as a spiritual process or experience.

The mystic rued that the advent of religions should have meant the end of all conflicts worldwide but ended up becoming the main source of conflict, claiming the maximum number of lives and inflicting the maximum amount of pain across the globe and throughout history.

At the same time, he pointed out: “Religion has filled the gap between that absolutely blissful state that one can achieve in his own nature, and one’s present level of instability.”

Much of humanity is looking more for solace not liberation, Sadhguru further explained, and religion has been providing that much needed succour for the longest time. The thought that God is by their side through all the pain, has forever helped people cope with sorrows, shocks and tough circumstances in order to maintain their sanity.

Without saying in so many words, the new-age guru suggested how the world was moving towards spirituality as human beings were thinking for themselves more than they had ever been in the past when priests, gurus, pandits and scriptures were influencing, if not completely determining, their perspectives and actions. However, he said so in other words as he noted how desirable it would be for the world to slowly shift from religion to responsibility.

“Human potential will be fully explored only by moving the world from religion to responsibility. Otherwise, everybody has an excuse and divine sanction for all the rubbish they do … We need to move humanity from religion to a more responsible function.” Sadhguru added.

Another beautiful take on the discussion was offered a few years ago by prominent spiritual leader Swami Mukundananda, a world-famous teacher of yoga and meditation and a best-selling author.

While responding to a question from a software developer in his audience, the founder of the yogic system called Jagadguru Kripaluji Yog noted: “Every religion has got two aspects to it. One is its cultural setting, traditions, customs, rituals, practices; the other is its very life, which is love for God, purification of the mind, cultivation and application of ethical values – that is its spiritual aspect.

“For example, visiting the four dhams and other holy places is being religious, but to practise holiness for yourself is being spiritual. To recite prayers in the temple is being religious, but to develop a prayerful heart is being spiritual. To wear tilak marks and rosary beads is being religious, but to decorate your inside with the ornaments of good qualities is being spiritual.”

He points out that religiosity will help one please society but spirituality will elevate them “in the journey of self-unfoldment”.

“Ultimately this is semantics. When people ask me to distinguish between what is religious and what is spiritual, I remind them that different words mean different things to different people.

Yet he reminded all that the wave of Bhakti saints who emerged all over India some 500 years ago and inspired the masses to follow the path of devotion sent out one overarching message: learn to love God. That love aspect is spirituality and the external form is religion.

While Swami Mukundananda asserted that the thing that matters most – attainment of God – can only be achieved through spirituality, he also emphasized that the ritualistic practices of religion and society should never be brushed aside.

“Sometimes the younger generation become highly critical of the rituals being performed by their parents. They make a mockery of the elder generation for their indulgence in religious practices. But they need to know that these religious practices keep culture and traditions alive. If these ritualistic practices were not there, the religious traditions would have died down within a few decades,” he explained.

Pointing out that the number of people who understand, are interested in or are inspired by spirituality always make for a small percentage of society, the renowned spiritual guru reiterated the importance of the world’s great religious traditions as those provide the masses with something tangible – in the form of rituals and practices – to hold on to for emotional support and peace of mind.

“In fact, 80 percent of our Vedas propound religiosity, while knowledge and devotion is propounded by only 20 percent. The Vedas are divided into three sections, or three kandas. The Karma kanda comprises 80,000 Veda mantras, the Bhakti or Vipasana (devotion) kanda comprises 16,000 Veda mantras and the Gyan (knowledge) Kanda comprises only 4,000 Veda mantras,” Swami Mukundananda said.

He concluded his discourse by stating that spirituality should definitely be one’s goals, but one should also always have a healthy respect for religious practices.

Then there are others like Gaur Gopal Das – a Hindu monk, motivational speaker and lifestyle coach all rolled into one – who avers that there is no difference between religion and spirituality if the spirit is existing in the former. A member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), he says that every ritual can be spiritual if done with the right spirit.

As soon as the spirit is gone from religion, Das reckons, then it becomes merely a ritualistic religion.

On popular podcast “The Ranveer Show”, while responding to a question from the host about the Indian youth’s increasing disillusionment with the so-called Baba Culture in the country, Das explained that in spirituality – just like in any vocation or aspect of life – one needs good teachers, gurus and mentors who lead him or her in the right direction.

“But when the spiritual leader becomes the focal point or centre point and the spiritual wisdom that they are teaching takes a backseat. Then it becomes a cultist affair,” he pointed out.

If that situation is reversed and the wisdom comes to the front with the person imparting it staying behind as a facilitator or “mouthpiece” of that knowledge, he continued, then the youngsters will no longer have a problem with understanding or in relating to spirituality.

The world needs spiritual leaders who are not attached to their own face, name or institutions but are truly committed to bringing wellness into the world, Das added.

This theory holds water because world history is replete with proof of how power-hungry religious leaders and corrupted religious institutions with vested interests have brought misery upon the common people, hindered progress in society and even led to the downfall of kingdoms and nations.

Even today it seems as if much of the sorrow, conflict, bloodshed, hatred and ruination in the world stems from religious intolerance.

Yet there are so many people across the globe who have sought and successfully found love, happiness and contentment somewhere in life and, of course, within themselves. These moments and realities appear to be oases of spirituality. No matter what community or religion they belong to, the number of people who seek peace and happiness far outnumber those who strive for strife and want to see the world burn.

Even as contradictions, contrasts, confusion and even chaos continue amidst this seemingly never-ending spirituality-versus-religion narrative, people’s interest in these constructs has only gotten keener over time along with rising discontentment with an increasingly materialistic world. There is mounting evidence of that in this era of information explosion across a proliferation of media.

The immense and still rising popularity of Shirdi Sai Baba, arguably the most revered saint in India who has been worshipped as a god both by Hindus and Muslims in the country even after 100-plus years of his passing, also offers one of the greatest examples of such evidence.

As per accounts from his life, Sai Baba refused to identify himself with any one religion and condemned any kind of discrimination based on religion or caste. Instead, his teachings were focused on the importance of self-realisation, serving others, charity, inner peace and devotion to God and one’s guru. Yet, when he was about to leave his mortal body during the last few weeks of his life, he asked his disciples to recite holy texts to him.

Similarly, Sadhguru – someone who has for decades openly favoured spirituality over traditional ritualistic religiosity – had been speaking in support of the construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya over the past couple of years. This had raised the eyebrows of some people, particularly his critics. They used his stand on the matter as an opportunity to expose what they claimed to be his double standards. Their principal question was: Why was a spiritual person supporting something that had become such a major religious issue and caused communal tension in the country since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in the early nineties?

However, when attending the inauguration of the Ayodhya Ram Mandir earlier this year, Sadhguru gave a befitting answer. He said the temple was not about winning some fight, but was simply a reclamation of what was significant for the Indian civilisation and for the world.

“Rama is an epitome of humanity. No matter what people did to him, no matter what life situations did to him, he did not lose his humanity. He did not become frustrated, angry, hateful and depressed. He always remained equanimous, doing the karma that he had to perform in his life irrespective of personal problems or personal tragedies. This is what we need in our nation, our leadership, our people and in every human being on the planet,” Sadhguru stated.

“No matter what is dear to us personally, when it comes to the greater good, we will keep it aside and do what is best for everybody,” he continued, before adding that the Ram Mandir was not made of stone but of human spirit.

It is undeniable that the inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya was not only appreciated and supported but also widely celebrated across the country. Just the same way that the completion of Shree Jagannath Heritage Corridor was hailed by people from all walks in Odisha and far beyond, regardless of whether they were religious.

While the religious-versus-spiritual debate will continue for a long time to come, it may not be wrong to conclude that both religiosity and spirituality can benefit humanity if the spirit and intent driving those following either of the two paths (or even both, which seems perfectly possible from aforementioned examples) is in the right place.

As the old adage goes, “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” However, in the Indian context, the best way might be to adopt a balanced approach. In other words: pursue one’s spiritual path with conviction, have a healthy respect for religious traditions, and not pass judgement on those professing or following entirely different paths.

Just like young Jyoti in Bhubaneswar already seems to be doing.

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