Religion, Dharma, Yoga, Science, Spirituality. What’s the difference?

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Jan 18, 2012
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Shiva's Dance


The word religion comes from the Latin “religare,” which means to unite again with the Source, or with God. In other words, the word religion means much the same as the word yoga, which in its tantric definition means to unite, to become one with.

Throughout history saints from various religions have described their ecstatic experience of God-intoxication as gnosis, samadhi or satori. Religion in its truest sense is thus a path, which, if practiced diligently, eventually leads to the experience of unity with God, Spirit, Allah.

In its truest, deepest essence, religion is the same as spirituality.

But that’s not always the case. Religion has also been one of the most divisive and bloody forces on the planet—the source of many despicable dogmas and irrational creeds we sure (as hell!) can live without. Just think witch burnings and gay hating and no-other-Gods-but-mine hating!\But let’s get back to the deeper meaning of religion. In Sanskrit, the ancient concept of yoga means to become “one with paramatman, one with the cosmic soul.” In so many words, when our individual soul experiences oneness with the cosmic soul.

Thus, at the heart of every authentic religion lies an understanding that there is an all-pervasive state of reality–God, Brahma, Tao—and that this reality can be experienced within through the practice of yoga, meditation, prayer, chanting.


“The Kingdom of God is within you.”

–Luke 17.21

As comparative religious scholar Huston Smith has explained, each religion embraces the Great Chain of Being. According to this view, humans throughout history have viewed reality as a hierarchy of levels–from matter to body to mind to spirit. All these levels are ultimately enfolded by the Source, the Ground of being, by God, Consciousness, or Spirit.

But unfortunately religion is not always the same as spirituality. Religion has often kept people away from the experience of spirituality.

 “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

—Ten Commandments

A widow should be long suffering until death, self-restrained and chaste.
A virtuous wife who remains chaste when her husband has died goes to heaven.
A woman who is unfaithful to her husband is reborn in the womb of a jackal.

—The Laws of Manu, Chapter 5 verse 156-161, Dharamshastras (Sacred Hindu text)

While the originators of religion may have experienced a deep sense of union with Universal Consciousness, and also subscribed to the near universal belief in the Great Chain of Being. The same religions, which generally were established years after the founders died, are nevertheless riddled with myths and dogmas. That is, religions are often the opposite of spirituality.

The Hindu Vedas, for example, contain some of humanity’s most ancient and sublime spiritual revelations, but Hinduism is also full of dogmatic injunctions (such as the caste system) which serve to separate and discriminate rather than unite and embrace people. Hinduism is also full of irrational myths:  a dip in the sacred Ganges in the holy city of Varanasi (Benares) will bring you to heaven when you die.  And other such fundamentalist nonsense!

And there are still plenty of fundamentalist followers of Christianity who believe in such irrational hogwash as the virgin birth, the physical resurrection, and that creation was consummated in only six days.

No wonder the exponents of science and rationality revolted against such illogical doctrines. That said, scientific rationalism has failed miserably in its critique of the innermost spiritual truths of religion, in its critique of what is often called “perennial philosophy,” “universal truths,” or simply “spirituality.”

Why? Because objective science and rationality cannot describe, experience or proclaim the truth or veracity of something that can only be experienced subjectively and is beyond the rational. Objective science can determine that you meditate, but the same science cannot describe your spiritual experience. Even the person experiencing Samadhi will have an impossible task explaining how it feels!

The rational can only approximate the transrational. Objective science can never fully explain subjective truth. That’s why even scientists resort to poetry, to myth, to explain certain objective truths. That’s indeed why we have language, why we have maps. But language and maps are not the same as reality, neither objective nor subjective realty.

Ilya Prigogine is best known for his definition of dissipative structures and their role in thermodynamic systems far from equilibrium, a discovery that won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1977.  He likened his discovery, which basically reverses the second law of thermodynamics, to the dance of Shiva. Because in closed thermodynamic systems there is no exchange of energy or entropy with the environment. There is dynamic equilibrium. Thus his evocation of Shiva’s dance, who dances in eternal dynamicity beyond both life and death!

So, both science and religion uses metaphor to explain certain truths. No problem there. The problem arises when we take the metaphors—the virgin birth, the resurrection, the virgins in heaven, the flames of hell, the matter-is all-there-is, the-brain-is-all-there-is theories—literally. That’s when the trouble starts.

Trouble starts when we take all that science has to offer and believe that is all there is. No wonder we ended up with a world of lean yogis without soul, buildings without sacredness, things without depth.

There’s trouble when science says that the sensory world is everything. Objectivity is everything. We end up with a flat world devoid of inner transcendence, inner subjectivity, inner spirit.

But those scientists who understand the mystery, the sacred, they become poets, mystics, spiritualists. Why? There is no other way to explain the unexplainable.

“The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the source of all true science.”

–Albert Einstein

Benedictine monk and author David Stendl-Rast explains the importance of distinguishing between the essence of religion and its institution or dogmas: “Religion…should be written with a capital R to distinguish it from the various religions. Translated into everyday living, Religion becomes spirituality; institutionalized it becomes a religion.”

The main point here is not one of semantics but to understand the essence of what some call Religion, universal religion, the perennial philosophy, spirituality.

Or Dharma. Which, to me, is the same as spirituality and Religion, but very different from religion with a small r.

Let me explain. The Sanskrit word dharma means “an object or a being’s inner nature.” In the context of humanity’s search for perennial wisdom, spirituality is the dharma or inner characteristic of that human condition. In fact, dharma is often translated as “the spiritual path.”  Dharma just is, and to be human is to become one with that which just is.

Thus spirituality supports and includes rationality and science. Religion, in its various guises, on the other hand, is often based on a literal translation of irrational myths and legends and thus is often in conflict with both human nature and science.

Also, because religions generally depend more on scripture and belief  rather than, as in spirituality, on practice and experience, we may term it a dogma. It is also often in conflict with basic human values and therefore unable to inspire and guide humanity on its march toward creating a universal and truly integrated society.

So, for the sake of a theoretical definition of the difference between religion (dogma) and spirituality (dharma), let us say that religion contains both certain universally accepted truths as well as many irrational dogmas, while spirituality soars beyond and above these irrational limitations, it contains truth, beyond words, truth which can only be approximated by poetry, dance, song, truth in its most unblemished and sacred form.

Another way of making this distinction is to say that religion, with its emphasis on external rituals, is exoteric, and that spirituality, with its emphasis on sacred, meditative practice, is esoteric. In conclusion, spirituality, not religion, is the only power that is universal, sublime, and silent enough to truly unite human society.



About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, meditation and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India). He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.


71 Responses to “Religion, Dharma, Yoga, Science, Spirituality. What’s the difference?”

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  2. Daniel says:

    The following quote seems to be correct but misleading: "Objective science can determine that you meditate, but the same science cannot describe your spiritual experience." I say this because the article omits any mention of subjective science (neurophenomenology). Neurophenomenologists can describe spiritual experiences.

  3. Thaddeus1 says:

    I have to say I am a bit taken aback regarding your vitriolic characterization of fundamentalist perspectives, not to mention wondering how your own positions do not succumb to the very same critique you lay at their feet.

    I, more often than not, find great value in your perspective and voice, but am perplexed about what lies at the root of your painting Fundamentalism as "nonsense," "hogwash" and "dogmatic?" It appears to me that perhaps such labels originate from a perspective outside the actual tenets and principles of Fundamentalism and are more derived from a social justice perspective. This, of course, would beg the question as to whether the application of such principles are in fact the cause? For instance, there are many vedic and sastric arguments which debunk the validity of the caste system based simply on birth.

    Furthermore, your characterization of Fundamentalist interpretations as "naive" stories and "myths" seems to be just as dogmatic, if we are to understand "dogmatism" in accordance with its definition as "Characterized by an authoritative, arrogant assertion of unproved or unprovable principles." How would one prove that something is simply a myth when purportedly such things are based on subjective experience? As you write, "Because objective science and rationality cannot describe, experience or proclaim the truth or veracity of something that can only be experienced subjectively and is beyond the rational." Why praytell are Fundamentalist perspectives not to be treated similarily? I guess I'm just curious how you arrived at the veracity of your opinion that such views are "hogwash?" At the very least, I would be interested in hearing an argument for such a designation as opposed to simple assertions.

  4. My dogma just stole your karma and ran over your dogma
    Good points Thad…I often also wonder why "Fundamentalist" can often be misconstrued as a swear-word :) I think it's possibly due to "fundamental" (that which forms the necessary base or core of a subject) as opposed to "fundamentalist," which has negative connotations, and even by definition is "strict" and "literal." Both of those are good things, but the only time we ever hear about them is when they're used wrongly or in a negative sense….

  5. Tanya Lee Markul says:


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  6. tim says:

    I found this to be a fantastic article, thanks for sharing!

    By way of background, I have been a scientist in industry for about ten years; mix of environmental and pharmaceutical analytical chemistry. In my experience working in multiple laboratories in different states is that most scientists (again in industry, not in academia) have a sense of spiritual and/or religious practice. In fact, in two different labs in two different parts of the country I had former colleagues who left science to enter the seminary. Most of them (us?) approach religion in how I think it is approached by wide segment of Americans; attend church/temple/mosque on the big holidays and maybe a couple of times throughout the year and for births, deaths, weddings, and that's about it.

    I would hazard to guess that most scientists are comfortable with the unknown. After all, in a sense, science is about embracing and exploring the unknown. There is so much we don't know, an honest scientist – or person in general – has to accept the fact that there are subjective experiences that we simply cannot quantify or objectify; nor should we.

    I tend to think that, typically, a scientist moves away from fundamentalism, regardless of the source. We tend to be a rational and objective sort of people. However, there are vocal groups who usually seem to be "fans" of science – as opposed to scientists themselves – that cry havoc and wish to remove any reference to spirituality or religion from our culture. Fundamentalism of a different stripe.

  7. Padma Kadag says:

    Ramesh…your name is Ramesh. Is this the name you have given yourself or did this name come from your parents or your guru? If it is from your guru then why do you use it? Is not using the name and recognizing it's meaning and non-christian origin part of a mythic belief?

  8. Ramesh says:

    There are different ways to interpret a myth…. something that is not true, illogical, unscientific… or something that is an inner psychological archetype used to invoke the spiritual.
    Ramesh, my spiritual name, is of the second category. It has a rather nice, poetic meaning: the brightest jewel in the universe, or the one who controls his senses, and a few more. In other words, just like many other names, it has an inner,symbolic meaning. It was give to me by a spiritual teacher but not my guru. It is also sanskrit, which has a nice ring to it, etc and a mantric quality and vibration. I could go on an on about its many rational as well as mythic or poetic or spiritual qualities. But I still also use the name my parents gave me, Roar, which is an old Viking name and means "chief of the tribe"

  9. integralhack says:

    My spiritual name is Dharma Raja and it was given to me in jest by someone on Twitter. One day I'll have it sewn on a leather biker jacket, but I digress . . .

    To me, "reality" is an increasingly fuzzy thing. Scientific materialists like to purport that only material phenomena is "real." I think this ignores a whole realm of phenomena which some Buddhists and many tantrics know as "mind."

    As Vajrayana Buddhists, Indian Tantrics, Jungian scholars/psychologists and Christian mystics understand, some "divine" images have a potency and a power that have a certain reality of their own. I might try to meditate using Abraham Lincoln or Spiderman during a deity yoga practice (in attempt to cultivate the qualities and powers of both in myself), but somehow the potency of "real" deities like Heruka or Shiva (that are recognized as having potency or energy by many as part of a spiritual tradition) just seem to be more effective–even if they are outside my cultural milieu.

    Such practitioners, however, know the difference between a deity and what a fundamentalist understands as a god. Tantric deities have specific contexts for realization and self improvement; this is different than a fundamentalist's god–the literal interpretations of which might lead to blowing up an abortion clinic or telling people to drink poisoned Koolaid. In fact, those harmful actions by fundamentalists prove that their own gods have an archetypal reality; but it also indicates they were totally unaware of their god's dark side. Tantrics, as original Jungian psychologists, understood this a long time ago–their gods were always paired with a female consort and they also had their own "wrathful" aspects. They respected the potency and different facets of their deities. They also understood that they are vulnerable–the deities cannot exist on their own and require attention for their very existence, much like ourselves. By themselves, they are empty. Sunyata.

    Fundamentalism and scientific materialism, in contrast, are similar to each other in that they posit a reality and purport absolute certainty. It is a neurotic view that seeks ultimate control even though the realities they posit are "turtles all the way down."

    I, Dharma Raja, hope you will all reject this neurotic view and instead embrace uncertainty, contingency and irony. Oh, and love: I hope Angelina Jolie will consent to be my consort in a thangka painting soon to be available for your meditational practice . . . or whatever.

    – Dharma Raja

  10. Ramesh says:

    Well, said Dharma Raja, my great King of Dharma…that eloquent diatribe would certainly make Angelina proud….the thanka is hereby granted!
    But seriously, Anandamurti, my guru, says the same in an essay on the tantric gods and goddesses that they are "psychological archetypes" with the potency of helping the practitioner into the nondual realm of spirit. That is, form is used in meditation to go beyond form. That is a far cry from believing that Kali or Durga grants me the right to slaughter this animal, no, is indeed happy that I am doing so…
    Kali or Durga, or any God does not need to be pleaded with by our sacrifices…. one myth is dogma, the other a potent tool for meditation…

  11. integralhack says:


    Yes, Anandamurti was brilliant. Thanks for turning me on to his work.


  12. yogijulian says:

    ok so let's start at the top:

    the word "source" as a synonym for "god" is a bit of a slippery dodge in terms of a definition for religion because most religions would not agree that these words mean the same thing. "source" is vaguely secular/spiritual an attempt to de-personify god and in religious terms for 99.99% of religious folks – god is personified.

    a tiny percentage of religious people report actual "union with god" – and 5 will get you 20 these are the ones with brain pathology. saying that the correct practice of religion leads to union with god would mean by default that hardly any religious people practice correctly.

    erasing the difference between religion and spirituality overlooks the very reason why so many would say something like "i am spiritual but not religious." there is a difference – most spiritual people choose to not buy into religious dogma, black and white literalism and institutional power.

    it is a romantic white washing of religion to try and claim that in it's "true form" it is about mystical self-realization. the gay hating, woman hating, divisive dogma preaching face of religion you recognize is not an aberration – it comes from people actually taking stone age scriptures at their word.

    the whole idea of true religion as being about love and peace and union with a vaguely mystical undefinable god is a 20th century notion that misguidedly tries to gloss over history and the content of beliefs and romantically attempts to source all religion in one a priori ground that happens to have liberal western values. B.S. :)

    originators of religion were most likely either temporal lobe epileptics, hallucinating schizophrenics or people who had inadvertently eaten psychoactive plants. the notion that these folks were in touch with the pure spiritual essence of religion and that this then was corrupted by infidels is a fantasy.

    the caste system is indeed supported by doctrines of reincarnation, karma and dharma – the idea is that you should perform your dharma according to your karma so you can come back higher on the food chain of wealth and power – because clearly you are a poor lil untouchable because of your sins in a past life!

    being a christian who does not believe in the literal doctrines of christianity is not really being a christian at all. all christians believe in the virgin birth, resurrection etc of the divine personage of jesus who will save us from going to hell after death if we believe in him. without these ideas christianity is merely being a nice person and following basic ethics one can find in any culture, religion or philosophy.

  13. yogijulian says:

    now here's where you totally drop the ball and just repeat a party line that is essential lacking in substance:

    " No wonder the exponents of science and rationality revolted against such illogical doctrines. That said, scientific rationalism has failed miserably in its critique of the innermost spiritual truths of religion, in its critique of what is often called “perennial philosophy,” “universal truths,” or simply “spirituality.”

    Why? Because objective science and rationality cannot describe, experience or proclaim the truth or veracity of something that can only be experienced subjectively and is beyond the rational. Objective science can determine that you meditate, but the same science cannot describe your spiritual experience. Even the person experiencing Samadhi will have an impossible task explaining how it feels!

    The rational can only approximate the transrational. Objective science can never fully explain subjective truth. That’s why even scientists resort to poetry, to myth, to explain certain objective truths. That’s indeed why we have language, why we have maps. But language and maps are not the same as reality, neither objective nor subjective realty."

    here's why:

    subjective experience does not need to be validated by empirical methods. we have all manner of other good methodologies for interpreting subjective experience – psychology, philosophy, art etc….. but when subjective experience is the basis for objective claims – why those claims are now in the empirical domain and stand or fall on scientific method.

    i can say i felt great peace in meditation and perhaps we can evaluate that in non-empirical ways – BUT if i say this great peace was as a result of a being outside of myself that came down and bestowed this upon me, well then this is an objective claim and we don't have to take you at your word.

    it is a very poor argument for religion to say that science and reason cannot enter into this domain because of it's subjective nature. the fact is (and i know you are a wilberian) the subjective aspects of experience have an objective basis.

    when we feel love certain chemicals are coursing through us, when we perceive beauty it has to do with proportion and composition, contrast and form etc, when we enter meditative states it is because of shifts in how the brain is functioning.

    we have no more basis to say that religious experience is beyond the inquiry of reason or science than to say the same of dreams. might my dream be literally real just because it has happened only inside my head? of course not! were i to say that my dream is real in the world outside my head this claim would be subject to objective analysis, as are claims about god, consciousness, souls etc…

    wilber massively over-privileges the upper left quadrants and forgets conveniently that these are utterly dependent upon upper right structures and neurochemistry.

    for a long time i was also all about the trans-rational, but i came to see it was just another way (even in the hands of wilber) of smuggling in superstition and dodgy claims.

    the trans-rational i recognize has to do with mythic symbol, archetype and poetic meaning – but not with nonsensical metaphysics, pantheism, gussied up intelligent design or absolutist claims about the primacy of consciousness.

    the place science and reason may at times fail is to communicate to people the possibility of having a deeply fulfilling and rich life whilst maintaining a grounded relationship to reality – that poetry and beauty and wonder are enough without believing in delusional fantasies…

    lastly: you say that science says there is nothing subjective. this is a commonly repeated untruth. science simply says that what is subjective only becomes objective via evidence. you can have all manner of interior experience, and in fact that experience has an objective basis – you are correct that empirical methods cannot interpret it' meaning, for that we need hermeneutics, philosophy, poetry, psychology etc

    it is a false dichotomy to say that either we must embrace a false caricature of science as banishing poetry, meaning, consciousness subjectivity etc or we must embrace unfounded religious claims about the beyond-objective ultimate truths of unreasonably elevated subjective claims!

    we can thoroughly embrace scientific method and be deeply engaged in subjective modes of inquiry, but only if we don't make the mistake – as you point out – of literalizing or concretizing interior metaphorical symbols.

    wilber and most integral folks trot out this fallacy all the time and i hope the distinctions i am pointing out have some impact?

  14. yogijulian says:

    otherwise your general points about metaphor and incorporating both science and reason AND interior psyche and spiritual practice are good ones. :)

  15. Ramesh says:

    Julian, to illustrate my point further: years ago, when i was a traveling teacher and monk, I initiated a young man into tantric sadhana. as soon as he received the mantra and repeated it silently he fell over into a superconscious trance (samadhi). that experience was not cause by his brain, but rather by the much subtler effect of the mantra, its sonic sound, his karmic reactions/readiness, the kundalini awakening the mantra caused etc.
    So, I disagree that the spiritual and the subjective has an objective or physical cause….there is a subjective/objective relationship but the interior exist in a subtler realm apart from the exterior and has as in this case when the guy fell backwards, a physical effect…while a more experienced yogi would not fall over, of course…
    afterwards, as is often the case, he reported feelings of bliss, peace, seeing light etc. it was not an epileptic seizure, for sure :-)
    I have witnessed many such things, and these expereiences have an origin that is not just brain located….

  16. Good conversation all round, gentlemen….have enjoyed it immensely. Good groundwork, Ramesh, to create such a deep response.

    Btw, Krishna said if you don't believe him, he wants his name back….


  17. Ramesh says:

    Julian, just wanted to mention that your strong assumption that my philosophy in life is based on an outdated mythical worldview is not how i see things at all. That seems like a possible projection on your part. I have never been interested in deities and mythical explanations. My spirituality and yogic tantra is very simple and based on experience. My experience is that mind is real, subtler than brain, that nature has an intelligence (call it whatever you will), a consciousness that creates. This seems like the only rational, logical explanation to me, and this is how I experience my own body, mind and spirit in my deepest of meditations. To me, this is simple, and not metaphysical mumbo-jumbo.

  18. littlewing108 says:

    Hey interesting article and 2 comments:

    1. Agree that there must be a differentiation between metaphor and reality. . . Someone has to stand up for Christians tho after the especially loud and stupid ones have given the whole thing a bad name– the Tibetans believe in attaining rainbow body is not a metaphor but real…along with many other "non scientific" things. So I'd say that taking a more open mind on the resurrection issue would be interesting for you. . . Aware its a big metaphor in nature, but sometimes reality imitates natures patterns…

    2. I learned in an Indian history class that spirituality and religion serve a dual purpose– Religion is the masculine structure which keeps the teachings of spiritual people alive. Without their structure those teachings would die out. Spirituality is the feminine life force that keeps it all vibrant and new, evolving and so on. Ultimately, spiritual people's teachings such as new Buddhist teacher, Christian Saints and so on are incorporated into the beliefs of the religion and preserved.

    Both groups have their shadow side– religions you pointed out and are quite real…

    True personal spirituality is great, but often times those who attain anything stand on the shoulders who came before (religion) and those new age spiritual types seem like they are trying to reinvent the wheal sometimes with groundless beliefs can lead people astray into paths that lead nowhere close to re-linking anything.

    Just pointing this out because I believe polarizing mentalities don't solve problems… acknowledging that both play the part is invaluable… The external world is just as sacred as ideas and good feelings. That's why religion is not irrelevant. Respecting both parts for what they are is necessary for a realistic path. Thanks for provoking a discussion!

  19. yogijulian says:

    ramesh big hats off to you my friend – you are taking fire from all sides!

    the true believers who want to believe myths are literal, the postmodernists who deny the difference between metaphor and reality on intellectual grounds, the rational scientists who think you are still playing to much to the previous two groups! hahahaha…

    and you manage all this with aplomb and diplomacy.

    have a good rest of your sunday.

  20. […] experience. Unique wisdom I can support. But I personally do not know anything much about the spiritual path for certain. I have many moments of small realizations as I go through my daily life. But I have no […]

  21. Ramesh says:

    I have very much enjoyed this detailed and spirited discussion, and I especially want to thank Julian for shaking things up a bit with his passionate arguments against religion in all its flavors and colors. Although most of us see deep values in many religious practices and teachings, Julian does not want anything of it. in your attacks on religion, especially fundamentalism, however, I have, ironically, noticed a fundamentalist streak common among people who deny anything that is not "scientific". Also, in presenting your attacks, there was little if any scientific evidence, mostly hearsay and speculation and conjecture, even though I asked for such evidence many times. So, while i agree with many issues you brought up Julian, I have not been convinced by your arguments as they lack in the scientific proofs you so passionately ask of others to deliver.

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