Difference between religion and spirituality

We live in times where spirituality is the new buzzword and religion is derided as outdated, but it is not clear what the differences between the two are.  The religious approach can be summed up as a combination of nostalgia for the past, desire for structure  in life, respect for authority and an inability to entertain ambiguity.  The spiritual path is propelled by the desire to rediscover the Truth for oneself by using some psychological and occult practices.  The rest of this article delineates these differences in detail.

All religions have each the same story to tell. The occasion for its birth is the coming of a great Teacher of the world. He comes and reveals and is the incarnation of a Divine Truth. But men seize upon it, trade upon it, make an almost political organisation out of it. The religion is equipped by them with a government and policy and laws, with its creeds and dogmas, its rules and regulations, its rites and ceremonies, all binding upon its adherents, all absolute and inviolable. Like the State, it too administers rewards to the loyal and assigns punishments for those that revolt or go astray, for the heretic and the renegade…

The Mother, Questions and Answers (1929 – 1931): 9 June 1929

Image by Amarand Agassi via Flickr (Creative Commons). Click image for source.

Fear and Awe of God

In the religious approach, God always remains external, a great Power bigger than one’s ego that must be feared, respected and obeyed.   The reason why man tends to fear God is discussed in a previous post – Is fear and awe of God necessary?.  By contrast, in the spiritual path, one engages in some set of psycho-physical practices such as Yoga to realize the Divine inside as well as outside.    In this context, it may be noted that it is possible to practice yoga without believing in God!The case in point is Sri Aurobindo himself, who was an agnostic when he began Yoga.   A disciple once asked the Mother of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Mirra Alfassa, how Sri Aurobindo could have practiced Yoga in this fashion.

Disciple: How can one practice yogic disciplines without believing in God or in the Divine?
Mother: How? – Very simple. Because these are mere words. When you practice without believing in God or in the Divine, you practice to reach a perfection, to make progress, for all sorts of reasons. [Mother’s Agenda: October 8, 1966]

Faith in God turns into “God is with us” attitude

Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.

(Abraham Lincoln)

All paths to the Divine require that one must have some faith but in the religious approach, this faith often turns into the firm conviction that God is on our side and that whatever one is doing is part of “God’s plan for us”.  No proof is given for this belief (see also Truthiness).  If one succeeds, then one says that that God is with me.  But if one fails, then one says that it is so because of some enemy of God.  This is a very naive and simplistic view of life because the reality is much more complicated and we have multiple destinies.   The choices that we make in daily life can lead us to alternate futures.  For more on this, see a previous post Karma can be changed.  Your destiny is in your hands

What is the characteristic of the true faith required in a spiritual aspirant ?  It is a combination of faith and doubt.  For more on this, see the post on  Interplay of faith and doubt in yoga

Obsession with external rules

The spiritual spirit is not contrary to a religious feeling of adoration, devotion and consecration. But what is wrong in the religions is the fixity of the mind clinging to one formula as an exclusive truth. One must always remember that formulas are only a mental expression of the truth and that this truth can always be expressed in many other ways.

The Mother, Words of the Mother – III: Religion

In the religious approach, one observes a fixation with external rules.   People take great pride in being called observant and orthodox.  They regulate their lives according to arcane rules, often handed down by ancestors, which seem bereft of any logic.   Devotion to wearing  special clothing, having ceremonies and engaging in fasting or eating special kinds of food consumes the person’s attention and energy.  And all this successfully creates a feeling of holiness !  It works because the mind  which mechanically follows some pattern can successfully drown out self-doubt and create a halo of holiness.

In the spiritual path, mental rules are to be shed as much as possible and actions must be guided by an awakening intuition.   Actions which elevate the consciousness, which enable the mind to rise above the senses are undertaken without regard to tradition.

Proselytization – desire to impose God upon non-believers

God gives Himself to His whole creation; no one religion holds the monopoly of His Grace.   Instead of excluding each other, religions ought to complete each other.

The Mother, Words of the Mother – III: Religion

In the religious approach, the follower is filled with awe regarding the truths that he has received through his path.  As a result, he begins to impose these truths onto others.  He desires security in numbers.  If more people accept his path, then his conviction will grow stronger.  He cannot imagine how someone cannot accept the truths which seem so self-evident to him.  Therefore, he scorns those who do not understand the superiority of the teachings.

This type of conduct ignores the fact that people’s personalities are constituted differently and each one evolves in his own time by the truth of his own nature.  What seems evidently true to one person at one point in time may not make sense to another.

Inability to rise above contradictions in the Master’s statements

Often, there are contradictions in the utterances of the Enlightened Master or Prophet (whichever one you are following at the moment!).  Some statements uttered by the Master are Eternal Truths while others are situation-specific remarks uttered in the context of some event or some person.  When these distinctions are not understood and the statements are taken out of context, they start to exhibit contradictions.  Resolving such situations requires a mind which is capable of holding and resolving two or more opposing ideas.  One must be able to identify and argue from every side of the issue to resolve the contradiction.   This practice is referred to as Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis.

It was with regards to these difficulties that the Mother Mirra Alfassa made the following remarks:

In order to understand and follow Sri Aurobindo’s teaching, one must learn to rise above all possibility of contradiction. That is, to reach the region where contradictions no longer exist. That’s true. You understand, if you take quotations from Sri Aurobindo on a particular subject, you can put side by side things that are the very opposite of each other: he says one thing, then its opposite, then again something different.

The Mother, Mother’s Agenda: June 7, 1967

Lack of Liminality

Coupled with the above issue of contradictions is the issue of lack of liminality.  The religious mind tends to be captivated by the personality of the Master and wants to bathe in the words of the Master.  It is unwilling to accept that the Master’s words may have become outdated or may have lost power sans their original context.  Therefore, it tries to force-fit the Master’s utterances into the present-day world and resolve all contradictions by resorting to fruitless, albeit innovative, arguments.   This is the cause of much misery, conflict and confusion.

The spiritual approach to such confusions is to neither believe nor disbelieve the problematic assertions in question but to lay them on the side for later resolution.   One must understand that some assertions of spiritual truths made by the Master, who was living in a Higher Consciousness,  can only be resolved by reaching the same state within oneself.   Truth has to be rediscovered. Until then, everything one reads and receives is second-hand knowledge.  For more on lack of liminality, see a previous post – The Liminality or Negative capability required in Yoga

Emotionally swayed by poetic language

Another problem that one recognizes is what may be called Argument by poetic language in which theological arguments expressed using a melodious language (Sanskrit, Arabic, Latin, Hebrew) are more likely to prevail because the mind gets emotionally swayed when hearing sonorous rhythms.

Misuse of the Master’s words to justify present-day actions

In the course of a lifetime, the Prophet or Enlightened Master is bound to make certain remarks pertaining to the world situation – nations, races or individuals.   After his death, his followers reuse those remarks to justify their own actions.  The religious mind always seems eager to abandon it’s thought process and blindly apply the Master’s words.   To apply the Master’s words without realizing the consciousness behind them turns truth into falsehood.

The right approach is lay aside any remarks which can be potentially misunderstood until one purifies one’s own consciousness.   The goal in the spiritual path is to rediscover the truth for oneself and not get stuck in the words of past Prophets.   It was in this context that the Mother Mirra Alfassa remarked on how people misused her words.

When I speak, there is a Consciousness which is expressed, and that Consciousness is what’s important — but people catch the words and leave the Consciousness!  So of course that makes a frightful muddle. Therefore it’s better not to speak.

The Mother, Mother’s Agenda: September 4, 1971

Curse of Literalism ( The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life)

Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

(Corinthians 3:6)

In the religious approach, the entire holy book is taken to be holy and has to be accepted in totality.  This is known as the curse of literalism – perhaps indicated in the above verse from the Bible.  A related problem is the belief, born primarily out of religious pride, that everything science has discovered today already exists in the ancient scriptures of one’s particular faith.

The spiritual approach to reading holy books calls for a fine blend of critical thinking and interpretive insight.  One must separate the parts of the text which indulge in proclamations (i.e. God is so great, God is so good, etc) from those which discuss practical methods on how one must live and attain Divine union.  It is the latter which must be studied first and used in spiritual practice.  Accept all proclamations as hypothesis which will be proved later by personal spiritual experience.  Many verses make sense only after one experiences a different reality through a change of consciousness.  One begins to connect the dots only after one rediscovers the Truth.  For more on this, see the post : How to read holy books

One can also apply the Vedantic method of reading a text, which has three stages called Sravana(hearing), Manana(reflection) and Nididhyasana(contemplation).  The rationale behind this method is that texts which have been written by a person who has attained Enlightenment  carry a powerful vibratory power, which can be helpful in inducing a state of contemplation, improving attention span and creating harmony within oneself.

In this context, also see : Why read Sri Aurobindo’s books.

33 thoughts on “Difference between religion and spirituality

  1. ohens emma

    am a student of psychology who will be much happy getting articles from you as it has to do with religion and spirituality and other related articles.

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  4. stumblingmystic

    That “I’ve got nothing against God” bumper sticker cracked me up! Now there’s a bit of timeless wisdom for you! 😉

  5. Sandeep Post author

    The satirical magazine “The Onion” injects humor into the SBNR acronym by hypothesizing the religious-but-not-spiritual possibility.


    BOSTON—Father Clancy Donahue of St. Michael Catholic Church told reporters Wednesday that while he believed in blindly adhering to the dogma and ceremonies of his faith, he tried not to get too bogged down by actual spirituality. “I’m not so much into having a relationship with God as I am into mechanically conducting various rituals,” Donahue said. “To me, it just feels empty to contemplate a higher power without blindly obeying canon law and protecting the church as an institution.” Donahue emphasized that although he did not personally agree with those who pondered the eternal, he had nothing against them

    1. Jason Wingate

      The Onion thing is delicious — until you realise people of this kind really do exist.

      Not merely people who I would say are like that, but people who themselves say they want to be like that. See this book:

      Christian Atheist: Belonging without Believing

      Christian Atheist examines the growing religious phenomenon of those who are drawn to Christianity without accepting its metaphysical claims or dogma.”

  6. Sandeep Post author

    Sri Aurobindo discusses religion in this excerpt from Savitri Book VII, Canto III. See also https://auromere.wordpress.com/2010/05/30/how-religions-are-formed/

    A house was built with too close-fitting bricks;
    Action and thought cemented made a wall
    Of small ideals limiting the soul.
    Even meditation mused on a narrow seat;
    And worship turned to an exclusive God,
    To the Universal in a chapel prayed
    Whose doors were shut against the universe;
    Or kneeled to the bodiless Impersonal
    A mind shut to the cry and fire of love:
    A rational religion dried the heart.
    It planned a smooth life’s acts with ethics’ rule
    Or offered a cold and flameless sacrifice.
    The sacred Book lay on its sanctified desk
    Wrapped in interpretation’s silken strings:
    A credo sealed up its spiritual sense.

    Sri Aurobindo, Savitri – II: The Entry into the Inner Countries

  7. Pingback: Cases of reincarnation across religions | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

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  9. Pingback: Religious, mechanical and psychological methods of self-realization | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  10. Sandeep Post author

    Eastern religion vs Western religion

    Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, and Taoism) are separated from Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) by a deep philosophical dividing line. The three Western religions belong to the same thought family; historically, they grew from the same roots. As argued in Chapter 6, all three are based on the existence ofa Truth that is accessible to the true believers. All three have a Book. In the East neither Confucianism, which is a nonreligious ethic, nor any major religion is based on the assumption that there is a Truth that a human community can embrace. They offer various ways in which a person can improve him-or herself; however, these consist not of believing, but of ritual, meditation, or ways of living. Some of these may lead to a higher spiritual state and, eventually, to unification with God or gods…. It is an irrelevant question in the East. What one does is important. U.S. mythologist Joseph Campbell, comparing Western and Eastern religious myths, concluded that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam separate matter and spirit, while Eastern religions and philosophers have kept them integrated!

    (Geert Hofstede, et al. Cultures and organizations : software of the mind, New York : McGraw-Hill, c2010, p 248)

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Bryan Magee, British writer and politician on the difference between Western and Eastern religions :

      Almost the first thing a Christian has to believe if he is to be a Christian at all is that certain historical events took place in the Middle East about two thousand years ago – that God came and lived on earth as a man, was crucified, and after three days rose again from the dead, and so on. In this important sense Christianity is a history-based religion: it centrally involves believing that certain things happened. The great religions of the East, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, do not share this characteristic to anything like the same extent. They too have their stories to tell about the lives of their founders or their important early figures, but the defining characteristic of belonging to those religions is not believing in the truth of these stories; it is believing in the validity of the religion’s philosophical or quasi-philosophical doctrines, and trying to live in accordance with its moral precepts. This gives them a character which is altogether more “philosophical” and less “historical,” than Christianity.

      Perhaps partly for this reason, philosophy has developed in a more consistently symbiotic relationship with religion in the East than in the West. And, since the religions themselves are more philosophical, philosophy has been able to develop more freely in the East than it was able to do in the West during the period when it was treated as little
      more than a handmaiden to religion: it was allowed to have more independently interesting philosophical content.

      (Bryan Magee. The Story of Philosophy, New York : DK Publishing, 1998, p 146)

      1. Jason Wingate

        I wrote about this here:

        Ceci n’est pas une religion

        … from an angle that might interest you.

        I have to say a fully secular SBNR space has built up in various Western countries now — later this year I’m going to put together a treatment of its history, which begins several centuries ago, and try to predict something of where it’s going.

        Cheers for your blog Sandeep, it’s great stuff.

      2. Sandeep Post author

        I’d love to read the history of this concept. Please drop the link here when you write that article

  11. Sandeep Post author

    > Misuse of the Master’s words to justify present-day actions

    In this context, here are a couple of remarks by the Mother and Sri Aurobindo:

    Each one has his own idea and finds out suitable sentences from Sri Aurobindo’s writings to support his views. Those who oppose such views can also find suitable sentences from his writings. That is the way mutual opposition works. Nothing can be truly done until Sri Aurobindo’s total view of things is taken.

    10 October 1954

    The Mother, Words of the Mother – I: Work and Teaching

    It is not always safe to apply practically to oneself what has been written for another. Each sadhak is a case by himself and one cannot always or often take a mental rule and apply it rigidly to all who are practising the yoga. What I wrote to X was meant for X and fits his case, but supposing a sadhak with a different (coarse) vital nature unlike X were in question, I might say to him something that might seem the very opposite, “Sit tight on your lower vital propensities, throw out your greed for food—it is standing as a serious obstacle in your way; it would be better for you to be ascetic in your habits than vulgarly animal in this part as you are now.” To one who is not taking enough food or sleep and rest in the eagerness of his spirit, I might say, “Eat more, sleep more, rest more, do not overstrain yourself or bring an ascetic spirit into your tapasya.” To another with the opposite excess I might speak a contrary language. Each sadhak has a nature or turn of nature of his own and the movement of the yoga of two sadhaks, even where there are some resemblances between them, is seldom exactly the same.

    Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – II: Sadhana in the Ashram and Outside – III

  12. Pingback: Parallels between Buddha and Jesus | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  13. mike

    l was surprised to read this in the agenda. A pope actually said this according to Mother. Pope Paul VI, lf l’m not wrong:

    “March 29, 1969

    Have you received any news of P.L.?

    Yes. You know that he was supposed to arrive today. Then he sends this wire: “Impossible to leave. Letter follows. Situation difficult.”

    Oho!… I hope they haven’t put him in jail.

    They can’t. But they can put him on trial for heresy.

    Yes …. “On trial for heresy”!…

    (long silence)

    Was it you who told me that the Pope had invited a sadhu from India?


    But the Pope too is on trial for heresy! Since he told the sadhu that true spirituality is now found in India – so he too is a heretic!

    But the Pope is isolated. He told that sadhu that his task is very difficult in view of the people around him. He is isolated in there. He is surrounded by a mafia of cardinals who are attached to power.

    What I mean is that the Pope and P.L. are guilty of the same heresy! So if they put P.L. on trial, it’s like putting the Pope on trial – will they dare to do it?

    But no one knows that the Pope and PL. have some relationship. P.L. has never been able to meet the Pope personally.

    He has never been able…

    No, never, he has always been prevented. It’s a… rigorous mafia.

    (Mother goes into a trance and keeps working inwardly till the end)

    Should I wire or write something to P.L.?

    I don’t know.


    If they’re watching him, they will get hold of his mail. That could put him in trouble.

    If they do something against him, they have innumerable ways of getting hold of his mail. We shouldn’t make problems for him.

    It’s better to wait for his letter.”

    The Mother, Mother’s Agenda: March 29, 1969

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  15. mike

    ” Accept all proclamations as hypothesis which will be proved later by personal spiritual experience. Many verses make sense only after one experiences a different reality through a change of consciousness. One begins to connect the dots only after one rediscovers the Truth”

    That’s probably the healthiest attitude.

  16. Sandeep Post author

    Losing my religion – R.E.M


    Oh life, it’s bigger
    It’s bigger than you
    And you are not me
    The lengths that I will go to
    The distance in your eyes
    Oh no, I’ve said too much
    I’ve said enough

    That’s me in the corner
    That’s me in the spotlight
    Losing my religion
    Trying to keep up with you
    And I don’t know if I can do it
    Oh no, I’ve said too much
    I haven’t said enough

    I thought that I heard you laughing
    I thought that I heard you sing
    I think I thought I saw you try

    Every whisper
    Of every waking hour
    I’m choosing my confessions
    Trying to keep an eye on you
    Like a hurt, lost and blinded fool, fool
    Oh no, I’ve said too much
    I’ve said enough

    Consider this
    Consider this, the hint of the century
    Consider this, the slip
    That brought me to my knees, failed
    What if all these fantasies come
    Flailing around
    Now I’ve said too much

  17. musael

    A reblogué ceci sur musael and commented:
    Désolé, c’est en anglais. J’en ferai peut-être une traduction partielle quand j’en aurai le temps après autorisation des auteurs.

  18. Pingback: Différence entre spiritualité et religion « musael

  19. Sandeep Post author

    Sri Aurobindo on the difference between religion and spirituality

    Disciple: What was the utility of the external rites of Vedic sacrifice — they were certainly practised at that time.

    Sri Aurobindo: Yes, they were practised. But the external rites were only religious —there being nothing spiritual in them.

    Disciple: I cannot clearly understand this distinction between religious and spiritual.

    Sri Aurobindo: When the inner meaning of these rites is not lost sight of, then they are a help to spiritual uplift. But when the meaning is lost, it becomes only religion.

    Disciple: It comes to this that religion is that which has no meaning behind it (Laughter).

    Sri Aurobindo: Religion is generally so meaningless. Either the rites are quite meaningless or the meaning that was behind them has been lost. Those who want to progress spiritually should rather stand back from these rites, though there is no necessity of complaining against these rites.

    Disciple: If these rites are impediments, why should we not complain against them?

    Sri Aurobindo: Because you have nothing to replace them. They create a sort of religious atmosphere — an atmosphere of bhakti, the sense of a higher power, a higher life, and so forth, which may be taken advantage of by some, though generally this is not done — religion being only a sort of vital enjoyment and calls forth the vital forces. If you abolish these religious rites, you create a dry atmosphere, the lower religious instincts cannot have any play. These religions serve many human purposes — national, social and so forth.

    Disciple: They are often a source of consolation.

    Sri Aurobindo: Yes, but there is consolation from Truth, and there is consolation from falsehood.

    Disciple: Still it is consolation. (Laughter)

    Then Sri Aurobindo referred to X’s statement that according to the Christians, there is innate inferiority and imperfection in man.

    Disciple: Yes, there are some Christian teachers who say that it is a great temptation to be free from temptation. Virtue consists in being sorely tried by temptation and yet in resisting it.

    Sri Aurobindo: But if a man is above temptation, if the temptation cause no response in him?

    Disciple: A wall is like that.

    Disciple: Gita speaks of bearing the impact of temptation.

    Sri Aurobindo: But that is at a certain stage. There is the prayer in St. Paul — make us as perfect as the father in Heaven and so forth.

    Disciple: St. Paul is regarded as being much above the other preachers of Christianity.

    Sri Aurobindo: Again and again, attempts have been made in the past to revive the true meaning behind religious forms, but all such attempts have been frustrated by the inrush of the vital forces, which have brought down religion to the level of vital satisfaction, depriving it of all spiritual power. Then there is the dogmatic element in all religions which, however, is not so strong in Hinduism, which is more fundamentally tolerant than any other religion in the world.


  20. Lama Surya Das

    Spirituality is an internal process of seeking personal authenticity, genuineness, and wholeness as an aspect of identity with the creator. The true value of spirituality is that it points to the fact that there is something and someone beyond this physical world to which we need to connect. Spirituality is about loyalty to justice and compassion. Religion is often about loyalty to institutions, clergy, and rules. Religion talks about God. Spirituality helps to make us godly. Religion at its best is spirituality in community.

    Lama Surya Das Dzogchen Center

      1. mwb6119

        Sandeep: can I ask? When and where did you live in the US? Just very curious. Mark – San Francisco Bay Area.

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