We live in times where spirituality is the new buzzword and religion is derided as outdated, but it is not clear what the differences between the two are.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
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.
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.
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.