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.”
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.”
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.”
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.