Religion and Spirituality – Part 1
Religion can be referred to as accepting some higher force and relating to it. Through ages humanity has related to a bigger force through prayers, rituals and various ceremonies in cultures across Asia, Africa, Europe and Americas. Then we have religions of book- Christianity, Islam and Judaism with their own set of beliefs and prescriptions.
Spirituality does not begin with a belief that there is some higher force. It starts with a question, is there anything higher and if so, what is its nature. It also dwells into question of how one can transform ones life for knowing the nature of reality. That means, a spiritual person seeks answers about the truth of the cause of universe and links these to ones own personal development and seeing oneself from much wider perspective.
Let us turn to the nature of religious beliefs. With reference to relating to higher power, there is a common belief that Hinduism is polytheistic in nature as it believes in many higher forces as opposed to one. The misconception that Hinduism claims existence of many gods needs to be corrected. In fact, as clearly indicated in chapter 10 and 11, Gita reveals that in and through all different forms, all that is here is Isvara, there is nothing else. Just as we give distinct names for each form of clay (pot, cup, flower vase etc); similarly we refer to one omniscient and omnipotent Isvara through different manifestations and give different names to deities in form of laws that govern our lives. For example, the presiding deity for laws which govern our intelligence is called Sarasvati, wealth is Lakshmi, our having obstacles or removing them is Ganesha. That means, one grand intelligent order is looked from different aspects from the stand point of ones own aspirations and laws which determine ones ability to fulfill them. But in terms of reality, there is only one Isvara. In fact, Gita deviates from other religion not because it talks about many Gods, it differs because it does not talk about one God, it reveals there is nothing but God which does not have to be believed but to be understood through inquiry. Any distinction between individual-cause; cause-universe; and individual-universe is only from a given stand-point and is not an absolute reality.
With reference to what religion is supposed to do for the individuals, there is a minimum expectation that any religion will help the individual to live an ethical life and become a good human being. Surprisingly, not all people who practice religion fair well in living a life with ethical values. There are reasons why religious person may have difficulty in being ethical. People may be told to be a compassionate, loving person but the inner conflicts stemming from ones envy, jealously, anger, hatred are so strong that these feelings overshadow ones sense of right and wrong. Here, the denial or repression of this inner conflict is the source of a religious person’s inability to be ethical.
Besides that, there is a range in the understanding of religion which influences whether religious persons are ethical or not. One person can be praying with an orientation that there is God in heaven and a person is subject to his laws and mercy. He may connect to a particular concept of ‘God’ through prayers, rituals, chants, etc. One may start thinking that my God is the only Lord and everybody else’s God is not, and if they don’t accept my ‘God’, they will go to hell. This person may think he/she is religious, but creates millions of enemies by saying other human beings are not privileged. The person may even begin to have condescending attitude towards other people and try to bring them in his flock. This way, one can be more misguided than a normal rational person.
Then we can have religious persons who are ethical and more inclusive in their attitudes towards other religions, but periodically have doubts about the benefits derived from being religious and ethical. They may ask questions such as “I am very religious and always prayerful, even if I pray to the Lord who is all-powerful, why I have so many challenges and continue to have problems in my business, job, and difficulties with my family, etc.? Why is the Lord not answering my prayers?” That means, any religious person even if ethical, is prone to having some doubts about fairness of life.
In contrast to religion, spirituality refers to not only accepting higher forces but also inquiring into the nature of the cause and making effort towards self development to know the final reality. This clearly indicates that anybody who is a spiritual person who contemplates on the nature of this cause and its implication on ones personal development, is necessarily ethical. This progression does not naturally take place, it requires a deliberate effort.
At this juncture we would like to address a very critical question about how Gita fairs with reference to propounding to adhere to universal values. Does not Gita ask Arjuna to fight? Is not this advice of Lord Krishna to Arjuna against universal ethical value of non-violence? In order to appreciate that the teachings of Gita is very much in conformity with ethical values, we have to understand that even though values are universal in nature, at times they need to be interpreted to arrive at what is an appropriate response in a given situation. Even though non violence is a general rule, in some circumstances it has to be interpreted keeping a larger good in mind.
This idea of need for interpretation is very understandable from an example of a surgeon who may cut our body, but the intention is to make it free from diseases. That is why, even if a surgeon cuts our body, we don’t call him/her criminal, but a life savior. When we open any value to interpretation, there is a danger that one ends up twisting facts to suit one’s own convenience. Therefore, it is imperative that one exercises utmost care to interpret values correctly. The general rule is that ethical values have to be interpreted keeping in mind the larger good of many people rather than looking at our own self-interest. In the case of Krishna and Pandavas, war is very much justified as Lord Krishna tried to bend a lot in his negotiation with Duryodhana, settling only for one house with five rooms instead of getting the whole kingdom back for Pandavas. However, Duryodhana refused to part with even little land and said that they have to fight if they want it back. When negotiations failed, according to Lord Krishna it became imperative for Pandavas to fight because if they let a greedy and corrupt person like Duryodhana to rule without any resistance, with his unchecked powers he would certainly become exploitative and many people would suffer as a result of his atrocities. Given this particular situation, in order to protect dharma, which is defined by seeing the larger good, war happened to be the thing to be done.
To conclude, any vague understanding of the cause of the universe is not going to make me a spiritual person. There is a danger that ones religious belief system takes one on a tangent, away from realities. Hence, whether we come from a religious background or not, to be spiritual, we have to inquire and gain proper understanding of nature of this cause and pay attention to personal transformation.
The question arises as to whether a spiritual person is necessarily a religious person? The answer is- to start with, a spiritual person may have no firm opinion about the cause of the universe. But as a spiritual person goes further in inquiry about realities, one cannot avoid looking into nature of the cause of the universe. As a result of inquiry, discovers and assimilates the nature of the Lord as pervading everything in form of infallible order. The person then begins to take every situation of life as part of order which is manifestation of Isvara. The person begins to see that one’s actions; responding to situations; emotions etc is not separate from Isvara. Ones relationship with Isvara becomes far deeper and penetrates every aspect of life. This makes the person highly religious as relating to Isvara includes much wider range than defined by conventional religious practices.
The spiritual teaching of Gita not only makes the person aware of presence of Isvara in form of order that manifests in form of laws guiding ethical values. It is a teaching whereby master teacher Krishna reveals to Arjuna essential non-difference between individual and the total.
Part two of the article will discuss further the nature of spirituality as envisaged in the Gita, which includes inquiry into some essential realities and initiating personal transformation.