Q: I know that not all spiritual traditions are religions, but are all the world’s great religions spiritual paths? What is the difference between religion and spirituality?

A: All the world’s great religions have their source in the teachings of enlightened masters and flow from their deep spiritual knowledge and direct experience. But with the passage of time, the original insights and teachings of these masters have become so encrusted with custom, superstition, and dogma that the practical application of the original teachings has been obscured.

Spirituality has nothing to do with dogma or custom. Rather it is concerned with inner growth and with understanding and experiencing the deeper meaning and purpose of life. Only if we are trained to dive deep into a religious tradition, reach its core, and discover the transformative wisdom the founding master shared with humanity can that religion be helpful in our spiritual development.

A sectarian approach to spirituality is not helpful.

Religion is sectarian, and a sectarian approach to spirituality is not helpful, especially in the modern world. We are human beings first and foremost; all other identities are superimposed on us after we are born. From early childhood on, our parents, teachers, communities, and societies teach us to identify ourselves as Hindus, Muslims, Jews, or Christians, rich or poor, talented or ordinary. This training instills a variety of superiority and inferiority complexes in our minds and hearts. By the time we are teenagers, we are boxed in by these superimposed identities and convinced that this little box is the best of all worlds—and that we are the center of it.

We are not told that we have infinite potential, nor are we trained to seek life’s higher meaning and purpose. So we enter adulthood identifying ourselves as individuals separate from all other individuals and destined to compete for survival in a hostile world. We have forgotten that we are human beings above all and that all of us—Christians or Muslims, Easterners or Westerners—are striving for a healthy, happy, and meaningful life. We fail to understand that unless we see what we all have in common and learn to embrace all and exclude none, our search for peace and happiness will be fruitless.

Religious leaders proclaim that their god, their faith, their values, their method of worship, and their views on vice and virtue are the most authentic and are more valid than those of other religions, or even of other branches of the same religion. These religions have fixed dos and don’ts: purify your soul by fasting on the day of the full moon and you will go to heaven—if you don’t, you will go to hell; if you are not baptized in the name of Christ, you will not find salvation; if you eat the flesh of a pig, you are unclean. The examples are endless. This kind of rigid, extreme thinking creates an environment of self-righteousness and strife. It does not engender harmony or happiness and it has nothing to do with spirituality.

Inner transformation is both the ground for and the goal of spirituality.

Spirituality is a complete science that entails a comprehensive study of the intrinsic nature of the soul and its relationship both to the external world and to the higher, transcendent reality. When this science is not coupled with contemplative or meditative techniques for attaining an actual experience of higher reality, it is philosophy or metaphysics. When it is based on faith alone and is accompanied by superstition, dogma, custom, and cultural activities, it is religion. Only when this science rests firmly on a philosophy of life, incorporates ethical and moral values that are indispensable to well-being and happiness, and provides a workable system of self-training leading to inner transformation can it correctly be called spirituality. Inner transformation is both the ground for and the goal of spirituality.

We are embarking on a spiritual path when we set out to discover what constitutes the essence of our being. Spirituality encourages us to arrive at an understanding of truth and untruth through our own personal exploration. In a spiritual tradition, the heart is allowed to sense what is right and wrong, and further, the mind is given the freedom to evaluate the ideas of right and wrong that have come to us from great masters in the past. If the heart and mind are not allowed to come forward and help us find our path, the life goes out of spirituality and it becomes a religion. In other words, when the heart and mind are suppressed, when we are forced or manipulated to think along the lines of someone else’s thinking, spiritual wisdom declines and the process of inner transformation slows and stops. Transformation comes only when we put the teachings into practice in our own lives. Only then are we truly following a spiritual path.

More in this Series

Inner Quest: Seeker’s Q&A