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

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Jan 18, 2012
get elephant's newsletter
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?”

  1. Ramesh says:

    There are no winners and losers here, Julian…both Tim and Thaddeus had valid points and I enjoyed this exchange very much.

  2. 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.

  3. yogijulian says:

    the image of the tennis ball is equally physical and non-physical in the TV example as in the brain example.

    as an image it is an abstract representation, not the actual thing.

    on the TV screen, as you point out, this image is achieved by using say liquid crystals to create the shape, color etc of a tennis ball that our minds recognize. the image is not physically real on the one hand, because it is an illusion – as magritte would say: c'est ne pas un pipe – right?

    but on the other hand it still has a physical basis, even as an image, because it is generated by those liquid crystals and other material technology.

    by the same exact relationships, the tennis ball in our minds is both physically real and not physically real….

    it is not physically real because it is merely an image in the mind, an abstract symbol representing something real or possible in the material world.

    it is physically real because in this case it is created by the neuronal and neurochemical activity (just as with the liquid crystals) in the brain.

    the "screen" of the TV here would be our interior awareness, and most likely there is some interaction between our imaginative centers and out visual centers that coalesce to allow the experience of the image.

    i make the analogy because in both cases there is no literal tennis ball – but an imaginary one made possible by the activity of a material network.

    in both cases we could be stumped by the question – where is the tennis ball!?

    but in the case of the TV we don't feel temptation to posit something other than the material circuitry bringing forth the image – because we know that is what TVs do!

    in the case of the brain for some strange reason, people of a certain temperament insist that there must be something MORE than brain activity bringing forth both images of tennis balls and emotions, thoughts, consciousness itself.

    this is based i think on a mistake in reasoning.

    it is like the chalmers type position that we can explain the "correlates of consciousness" but not consciousness itself – which is a bit like the old philosophical joke: "you have shown me the cafeteria, the lecture halls, dormitories and the parking lot – but where is the university?!"

    further this mistake in reasoning leads many in our community to commit the god of the gaps type fallacy, which i think you unknowingly fall into along with your covert intelligent design stance i pointed out above.

    the fallacy says: we can never really know what consciousness is in material terms so therefore it must be immaterial, supernatural, independent of the body – and is therefore a kind of stepping stone to pantheism or indian idealism or some other way of positing god based ultimately on mind/body dualism – by which i explicitly mean the idea that mind is something other than embodied brain activity.

    do you see how the way we approach this central question will determine everything about the metaphysics we embrace?

  4. Ramesh says:

    Julian, that's why I put shiva at the top of the article, to remember to dance in the balance of opposites. big hats off to you also my, friend…no matter what subtle theories we support, the most important thing is that we live and breathe yoga, and I feel that coming through, even in your sharp intellectual arguments. Smile and laugh on!

  5. Ramesh says:

    why is it a fallacy to to not be able to know consciousness in material terms? there is no need to. consciousness knows and recognizes itself as itself, that is what the spiritual journey is about, to understand the witness, the i, the soul, the atman, the source of stillness within the play. I think that your position is a fallacy for wanting to explain everything in material terms…
    that said, I do believe that we will, and even are already, able to explain many aspects of consciousness from a material perspective, thus the many neuroscientists talking about consciousness and spirituality, but not everything, because that is reductionist, the flattening of everything into one domain, the physical
    in tantric terms, even the material is consciousness, as all of reality is just gradations of the same, a metamorphosis, so the dualism is only apparently so, not ultimately real
    one example of this reductionism is your assumption that spiritual states can be explained as schizophrenia and epilepsy, that is farfetched to me. even knowing that there are some paralells, the overwhelming majority of great sages this side of christ, and everyone i have been in contact with personally had no such history
    there is a big difference between falling into samadhi and having a seizure
    I have witnessed this many times as i have engaged in intensive tantric sadhana for years on end with various yogis, and none of the two classifications you mention have been noticed, nor by any of my close associates, some of which include psychiatrists and psychologists and MDs
    as for the Tv analogy, I am not convinced, the TV picture can be analyzed dons to its last pixel in physical terms, not so the mental tennis ball, that is the differemce. this example was given to a scientist, and his explanation was that someday science would discover what that mental ball was made up of physically. at least that was a direct answer to the question. so here I agree with wilber–the eye of flesh cannot fully know the eye of spirit and the sages and yogis concur and there need be no conflict between science and spirituality as they are bot empirical in their own rights

  6. yogijulian says:

    you miss the point entirely and fall back again upon your argument from authority viz the metaphysical assumptions of vedanta.

    it is NOT that i or anyone else WANT to explain everything in material terms – but actually that in the entire history of scientific method, going back almost 400 years there has not been one single example of anything immaterial – least of all consciousness absent a physical body. were this not the case, science would have gone in a different direction – the data just never has been there to make this left turn happen…..

    that is just a fact. it is not up for debate – and if there was one single exception it would be the biggest news in the history of news. period.

    as for your other comments – no, no don't get me wrong, i NEVER said samadhi was a seizure – i implied rather that people who have full blown experiences which they interpret as literal encounters with disembodied beings are more likely to be mentally ill than anything else.

    are you familiar with temporal lobe epilepsy? it often shows no outward signs and has a fascinating trifecta of symptoms: 1) those afflicted think god is talking directly to them, 2) they become repulsed by sex 3) they develop hypergraphia or the need to obsessively write thousands of pages…. (usually about what god told them and all sorts of OCD details about purity, sex, food, numbers etc…) sounding familiar viz scriptural authors?

    it should!

    simple observation: the only people we have come across since we began looking with a methodical eye who report full blown supernatural experiences are TLE, bipolar manic or schizophrenic patients… makes you think?

    as to deep states of meditative absorption – i am 110% o board with these as deeply beneficial and real – we just have to be honest with ourselves that they are interior experiences and have their basis in neurophysiology.

    in these cases i am suggesting that you and others make a fundamental mistake in interpreting deep subjective experience as telling you something about objective truths – for example whether or not consciousness is possible absent biological life.

    your thinking gets very fuzzy once i zone in on these key distinctions ramesh, and you just start to fall back on your faith, or on logical fallacies that mistake the ontological uniqueness of first person consciousness as demonstrating that it is not in a direct causal relationship with the brain.

    just sayin'

  7. […] 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 […]

  8. integralhack says:


    I see a few problems with your logic:

    1. You write: '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.'

    How are you ascertaining this pathology? Has there been a study?

    2. You write: '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.'

    Similarly, should we discount science because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Yes, old religions come with some baggage, and like yourself and Ramesh, I tend to be more "spiritual than religious" but I don't discount someone else's religion because it has some negative historical references. "Living religions" and "living dharma" can change and in most cases a practitioner can remove any negative baggage–this tends to be non-essential baggage, after all. More than that, a religion can take on positive attributes (socially-engaged Buddhism/Yoga, for example). Naturally, that doesn't mean that a person has to be a socially-engaged Buddhist to be a contemporary Buddhist, it is just another form.

    3. You write: "being a christian who does not believe in the literal doctrines of christianity is not really being a christian at all."

    This sounds rather fundamentalist, such as how some religious right-wing extremists would like us to reify "marriage" as being between a man and woman only. Many people who identify themselves as Christians choose to interpret the virgin birth and resurrection metaphorically rather than as literal events.

    Just like Buddhists and yogis, you never really know what a Christian's real beliefs or understandings are until you talk with them. Unfortunately, you might never know what their actual beliefs are if you begin that dialogue by telling them that they aren't real Christians.

    I also used to think that every "doctrine" or idea in a religion was the result of some mistaken historical baggage, but I learned that this was often hubris on my part based on uneducated assumptions. Karma, for example, has different meanings and contexts with different Eastern religions, so it is wrong to assume it is statically attached to the caste system. Again, this is a strategy to reify the term in some particular historical/cultural context.


  9. Ramesh says:

    Matt, I think the nuances you bring up are important: we cannot discount all of religion because of its many dogmas or superstitions anymore than we should discount science because it has been part in creating a violent, polluted, unsustainable planet….
    That is, I agree, part of Julian's message, and it is similar to the fundamentalism he is against in religion. I agree with many of the warning signs he puts up, but not the all-or-nothing message.

  10. yogijulian says:

    hey old buddy!

    1) i am basing this on the fact that we know exponentially more about mental illness than we did in the time when prophets claimed supernatural communication. interestingly, since we have come to a better understanding of how to diagnose brain pathology there are fewer and fewer folks around who gather a congregation based on these kinds of claims.

    sane people no matter their faith or dedication to practices simply do not have full blown experiences of the kind that used to be explained as supernatural.

    2) your comparison of outdated religious moral positions with the problems of horrific use of technology is cynical, manipulative and warped – it is the typical move of the religious apologist.

    in the point your are referencing, i am saying it is a romantic delusion to try and implant a mystical core that fits our own western values and liberal spirituality into old world religion and say that this is the "true essence" – when in fact the true essence of religion has been superstitious and ethnocentric – simply because it comes from a time before we knew better.

    you may note too that i am not saying there is no sophisticated mysticism – but rather that there is and it exists alongside rather than at the heart of religion, with religion caste (as ramesh does) as a misinterpretation of this non-dogmatic ultimate mystical truth.

    3) oh my, another classic cynical manipulative religious apologist move. bummer! i am being fundamentalist?! come of it mate.

    99.99 % of people who identify as christian believe that jesus christ was the son of god, born of a virgin, sacrificed for our sins, rose on the 3rd day and ascended to god's right hand. whosoever believeth in him shall not die but shall have eternal life.

    that's just what christianity is. period. no matter the variation between sects, basically they all believe this central doctrine about why christ is important and why one should believe in/follow him.

    might there be some people who call themselves christians but don't believe christian doctrine in some form?! well, sure, but still calling yourself a christian then is a bit of a stretch, why not let it go and just say you like the archetype of christ for certain spiritual reasons, but don't buy the literal interpretation.

    don't be so slippery and don't turn the tables in dishonest ways – you're too bloody smart for that and it disappoints me.

    4) the relationships between karma, dharma and the caste system are explicit – but again if you wanna keep tweaking old world religions so that they fit what you'd like to believe they mean, that's your prerogative.

    the facts of the matter are simply that old world religions are prescientific, pre enlightenment, woven into the fabric of sociopolitical systems that had caste, monarchy, slaves etc by simple dint of their timeframe. while we cannot blame them for this, we certainly should not pretend it is not so.

  11. Louise Brooks says:

    Ramesh: Christian belief in the Virgin Birth and physical resurrection of Jesus Christ is not fundamentalism. Rather, these are basic tenets of the faith. Yes, more liberal Christian of some denominations would agree that these beliefs should be understood as mythological stories but this puts them outside of what separates Christians from non-Christians.

  12. integralhack says:

    Wow. Based on your comments I'm being "slippery" and my comparisons are "cynical, manipulative and warped."

    One might argue that presenting percentages and claims without supporting evidence is also a bit slippery. One could also argue that a cynical viewpoint is one that assumes that a religion is irrational or outdated based on its history.

    Let's get started:

    You state: "since we have come to a better understanding of how to diagnose brain pathology there are fewer and fewer folks around who gather a congregation based on these kinds of claims."

    Really? I would argue that relatively few of these people have access to healthcare and unless dudes in white coats instantly appear in paddy wagons whenever someone purports to see God or a pink elephant, the claim that contemporary psychology is decreasing the numbers of the faithful seems pretty tenuous.

    Also, I would counter that we have plenty of irrational congregations that aren't necessarily religion based. Ever hear of the Tea Party?

    I live in a country that invaded Iraq based on reasons devoid of significant evidence. Thousands died as a result. I can't blame religion. Mediated mass hysteria was one factor. Who needs church when you got Fox News for a dose of BS?

    Irrationality comes in all kinds of containers: politics, ideology, culture and yes, religion.

    You state: "99.99% of people who identify as christian believe that jesus christ was the son of god, born of a virgin, sacrificed for our sins, rose on the 3rd day and ascended to god's right hand."

    What is it with you and "99.99 percent?" You used this percentage before when you stated: "'source' is vaguely secular/spiritual an attempt to de-personify god and in religious terms for 99.99% of religious folks – god is personified."

    You really need to get that percentage thing checked out–preferably by someone knowledgable in brain pathology. I jest, of course.

    Contrary to these percentages, a 2008 study states that only one third of Christians polled believe in a virgin birth.

    Of course, based on *your* criteria the 2/3 that don't believe in a virgin birth can't call themselves "real" Christians.

    This is similar to your claim that karma is statically attached to the caste system based on *your* understanding of the concept.

    Is there a pattern here?

    I'm not a "religious apologist," but I do try to be "religiously tolerant" of other spiritual belief systems. I also try to refrain from purporting to "know" what the particular religion is all about–especially when I don't have experiential knowledge as a practitioner.

  13. yogijulian says:

    ugh! of course i agree viz the tea party and iraq…. but the tea party is explicitly christian, as were the bush supporters who made the war happen – bush himself thought god told him it was the right thing to do!

    for your information i grew up in a theocracy where absolutely no businesses of any kind (movies, restaurants, supermarkets, sports stadiums) were open on sundays and went to a full anglican liturgy every thursday for 8 years and every morning had assembly in the same chapel with scriptural reading and hymnal.

    but yes – one can be irrational without being religious (but probably not religious without being irrational)

    it is the religious anti-science anti-facts anti-reason presence in american politics that makes for such precarious danger viz global warming, gay rights, biology and cosmology education…. and it is this in combination with misguided postmodern relativism that allows the spin doctors to confuse the american public about the facts in ways not unlike what led to the invasion of iraq.

    otherwise i am not interested in wasting any more time.

    have a good night!

  14. integralhack says:

    Thanks, Julian. As usual, I end up arguing with the people I probably have much in common in terms of outlook. 😉

    I agree with much of what you've said, but I don't agree that Christians by themselves caused the Iraq war. Religious extremists–both Christian and Muslim–were a factor, of course. The involvement of Muslim extremists in 9/11 was a factor that contributed to mass hysteria, but several "reasonable" secular politicians also gave Bush the the carte blanche to declare war. But we can also blame American imperialism, greed and basic nationalistic/tribalistic thinking in addition to religion and misinformation via the media.

    I just believe that religion gets held up as a straw man for irrational thinking (it's an easy target, after all) when we need to reveal irrationality in all its forms and some of those forms are more insidious and less obvious. And, as I tried to point out, "religion" itself isn't a very useful labeling term when addressing real problems and solutions.

    I also think we need to be cautious in the promoting of a "myth of progress" in terms of secular spiritual development. That is one issue I have with some integrals who assume we are moving toward some secular spiritual future. That itself seems to be something of a religious notion. I'm not saying you are promoting this view, of course.

  15. Daniel says:

    * "From the perspective of the brain" should have been "at the level of the brain."

  16. 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.

  17. […] dumbass yogis who will gladly pay to say they practiced with “so and so.” Hence, they can claim spirituality and enlightenment –– and look oh so good doing it. These are the ones who will Namaste you in class and then flip […]

  18. […] psychedelic community prides itself on progressive, transgressive and even utopian values. But do these values […]

  19. […] now expecting my third child, (it’s a boy). Finding your center and continuing to walk your dharma can seem at times impossible while raising a […]

  20. Tejpal says:

    Very nice. You may like to visit: