Q: I’m deeply disappointed with religion but passionate about spirituality. I find religion dogmatic, authoritarian, and full of dos and don’ts. It feeds on fear and guilt, whereas spirituality seems to be focused on techniques leading to an inner experience. Yet after reading your last Inner Quest post Where to Find God, I realize my understanding of religion and spirituality is too narrow and limiting. Will you please share your broader understanding of religion and spirituality?

A: Sanskrit has two distinct words for religion and spirituality: dharma and adhyatma. Dharma means “that which provides stability and nourishment.” Adhyatma means “that which is concerned with or associated with atman, or pure consciousness.” A practice brings stability and provides nourishment only if it helps us connect with the primordial pool of consciousness. Finding our connection to consciousness is possible only when there is stability in our lives and when our body and mind are fully nourished. That is why dharma (religion) and adhyatma (spirituality) go hand in hand.

Dharma means “that which provides stability and nourishment.”

In the olden days, people made no distinction between religion and spirituality. It was only when people starting using religion as a basis for group identity that the fundamental principle of stability and nourishment began to erode. As ritualistic ceremonies and social activities came to the fore, religion became increasingly outward-oriented. This tendency reached its peak when religion joined hands with commerce and politics. Spirituality, on the other hand, moved to the opposite extreme. It began to focus exclusively on atman, the individual self, and its relationship with God. Inner inquiry, supported by logic and reason, came to dominate the field of spirituality. People became less and less cognizant that inner inquiry requires a systematic practice, and further, that a practice will be successful only if it embraces the principles of stability and nourishment. Thus religion and spirituality, each with a shrunken view, drifted apart.

Religion and spirituality are two sides of the same coin. They have the same goal: direct realization. Direct realization arises from purity, simplicity, honesty, and innocence. These virtues fill our lives with thrilling experiences of the divine. Purity of heart enables us to see an everlasting force of safety, security, nourishment, and guidance in our parents. Simplicity allows us to see the beauty all around us. Honesty fills our lives with friends and frees us from fear of enemies. Innocence makes God manifest in any object of our choice. Simply put, the virtues of purity, simplicity, honesty, and innocence empower us to retain an uncomplicated mind—a mind that has no reason to be disturbed, stupefied, or confused. Such a mind effortlessly lives in the present, looks forward to an exciting future, and has no regret about anything done or not done in the past.

We all came to the world with an uncomplicated mind. Those who retained this pristine mind came to be known as rishis (seers), for they were able to see the truth without distortion. Scriptures such as the Vedas embody the experiences of these rishis and so are regarded as the original sources of religion and spirituality. The knowledge and experiences documented in these primary sources are as simple, pure, and pristine as the rishis who received them. Their experiences are as real as the seers themselves. Their gods and goddesses are as close to them as they are to themselves. Their seeing power is not limited by time and space. These seers saw life and death from an equal distance, and this unique seeing capacity enabled them to rise above both. This made them immortal.

Religion and spirituality have the same goal: direct realization.

The experiences attained by these immortal beings were so profound and wondrous that they could not be contained or expressed in speech. What little could be expressed was extremely compact and exceptionally potent. These expressions—which came to be regarded as revelations or mantras—form the foundation of spirituality. The techniques that enable us to gain experiences similar to those of the rishis are spiritual practices.

Rishis understood human nature and were sensitive to the limitations of their fellow human beings. They knew that people are social creatures who like to live in communities and tend to be highly impressionable—mob mentality is embedded in their psyche. By and large, people are concerned with survival and meeting their day-to-day needs. The last thing they are interested in is learning how to overcome their bad habits, and the last thing they think of protecting is their own mind.

The rishis knew that sharing their pure and pristine spiritual experience with such people would be challenging, and further, that sharing the spiritual practices that lead to that experience would be fruitless. They also knew that helping people cultivate purity, simplicity, honesty, and innocence is a crucial preliminary to imparting the lofty principles of spirituality. For this reason, they introduced the principles of dharma.

In early periods of human history, purity, simplicity, honesty, and innocence constituted the core of dharma. The purpose of dharma was to show how to be a good person, how to live a sustainable life, and how to interact with others in a peaceful and mutually beneficial manner. As an integral part of dharma, the sages emphasized the importance of attenuating and eventually eliminating hatred, jealousy, greed, and other divisive tendencies that lead to fear, anger, and violence and that disrupt peace in both the inner and outer worlds. Without inner and outer peace, human beings cannot succeed either in worldly or in spiritual endeavors. This realization caused the sages to introduce dharma as a vital step toward practicing spirituality.

Thus we see that dharma as envisioned by the sages is totally different from sectarian religion as we know it today. According to the seers of the truth, religion that promotes a shrunken view of group identity and discourages the expansion of consciousness is an obstacle in the spiritual quest. Nevertheless, there are spiritual nuggets hidden in sectarian religion, provided we know the art of how to find them.

More in this Series

Inner Quest: Seeker’s Q&A