Spiritual, religious or philosophical?

Many people confuse spirituality with religiousness, and philosophy with spirituality. Here I will attempt to tease out the differences as I see them.

To be religious is to follow a given set of rules generally defined by an existing system of organised faith. Such rules exist in every religion and may come in the form of procedures to follow during ritualistic ceremonies, memorising certain prayers or in simply believing in certain definitions of ‘god’. Religion is very embedded in cultural and social context and one type of faith can be redefined in different geographical regions, all of which add to the diversity of the religion.

Although religious philosophies, rituals and customs may be used as tools in one’s spiritual journey, not everyone who is religious is automatically spiritual. For example when one performs a pooja for say Ganesha, one gets all the flowers, incense, lamps, naivaidyam offerings etc., one may know a few Ganesha mantrams and songs and pray for all obstacles to be removed in new beginnings but this whole process doesn’t necessarily add to one’s spiritual awakening or experiences. It is a primarily religious experience. I would suppose that going to Church or doing Namaz serves a similar function in Christians and Muslims.

A spiritual experience, on the other hand, is something that an individual experiences internally, rather than learns from others. It is not organised and is seldom collective. It cannot be contrived directly, though some religious tools like meditation, yoga and perhaps prayer and/or exposure to religious philosophy and mythology may aid or enhance such experiences. Monks or sanyasis who meditate for hours strive to contrive a spiritual experience because such an experience is more likely to happen when one quietens mental definitions and thoughts and venture into the undefined unity.

We live in the world of duality. Our minds and language itself is full of it. We like to categorise things, distinguish differences between objects, people, concepts. We separate ourselves from our mothers, separate humanity from the rest of nature, and even try to separate our emotions from our rational selves. With each such separation, with each definition, we create new identities, and name them to keep them distinct. When we are one thing, we are not the other.

So what is a person? As Ramana Maharishi would ask, ‘Who am I?’. We each answer this question with our names, what we do for a living, our national, religious, and other identities, and also with the roles we play in life; I am a daughter, a sister, a colleague etc. If one keeps asking we would answer with details about our pasts, our memories and our understanding of our personalities; likes and dislikes. But all of this is mentally defined. What remains when one takes these definitions away? Who are we underneath it all?

I think there are two ways of looking at what is left. One is the physical, material and, if you like, the ecological aspect, which would be quite obvious to anyone who wanted to see it. We are all made of the same material. The matter which our body is made of was once in a plant, or in a rock. The water that flows in our blood contains the same molecules of water that a triceratops perhaps drank millions of years ago, and was part of stars even before Earth was formed. The whole Universe is materially connected and Earth more so. It is possible that material sameness, echoes another less tangible connection in cycles of energy. So what we have left after removing mental definitions of ourselves is our connection to the rest of the universe through our physical being and our life energy. This connection, once accessed, can perhaps lead the part of the whole that we are, to behave in harmony with the rest of the whole without getting lost in the distraction of mental fluff. And beyond that connection would be what is called Moksha, Nirvana or Salvation where we become one with the whole, the unity. In this state, there is no duality at all. In religious terms I suppose one would call it merging with god.

Joseph Campbell describes duality very well in his book Myths to Live by in terms of Adam, Eve and the forbidden fruit. Eden was unity, bliss, peace, divine. Once Adam and Eve ate the apple, they gained knowledge, a mind of their own. And thus our marvelous mental existence was born. God gets angry and throws them out of Eden. We do indeed lose our peace with thought, categorisation, collection of knowledge and definitions. Definitions and identities cause conflict; internal and external. Any joy is fleeting so long as we live in duality. A spiritual journey would endeavour to take us back into the mental state of Eden, eternal bliss, Nirvana, unity, call it what you will.

From this one can understand the role of mythology and meditation in understanding and striving towards a spiritual experience; Both from a religious context perhaps, but used to enhance an individual’s own experience of connection with the unity. But it is possible to experience spiritual feelings in other contexts too. When Arne Naess describes the feeling of the mountain disagreeing with him when he shot the wolf and saw the flame of life die in its eyes, it made him feel connected ecologically and understand his place in the eco-system. He writes in a chapter called Thinking like a Mountain that: “there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain. I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” This was his Deep Experience which lead him to form the philosophy called Deep Ecology. There have been cases where there was no external trigger at all to a spiritual experience.

I suppose it is natural for us to be spiritual because it is so biologically inherent. The connection is there in our very physical form and life.

And what about Philosophy? This is a purely intellectual pursuit where interesting concepts and ideas are thrown around, grappled with and understood in a way that stimulates the mind. There are large portions of philosophy that don’t lead to topics related to religion or spiritual pursuits. But as my class teacher from school Gopi once told me, if you go deep enough into one thing, you will reach the infinity of existence within it. This is true of all fields. A musician touches the infinite connection when touched with inspiration. Tunes are given, just as words to an inspired poet. Given from where? Perhaps the connection. A physicist breaks matter into smaller and smaller particles and then reaches a point where the dualistic nature of language can no longer describe what is observed. A mathematician delves into the depths of abstraction in pursuit of truth of the universe.

So while Philosophy and Religion are related in different ways to Spiritual experiences, they can be very different things by themselves. One can be one, two or all three of spiritual, religious and philosophical; each in varying degrees. What are you?


See also