Religion vs. Spirituality: In the Light of Sri Ramakrishna

By Swami Tyagananda

Swami Tyagananda is the minister of the Ramakrishna-Vedanta Society in Boston. Before coming to America, he was the editor of the Vedanta Kesari, one of the journals associated with the Ramakrishna Order in Chennai, India.

The claim that one is “spiritual” but not “religious” has lately become so common as to be almost unnoticed. I first noticed this trend among students on college campuses but soon discovered that it was everywhere. It is found in all age groups (but more among the young and the middle aged than the elderly) and in all places (but more in urban settings than rural) and cuts across religious, social and cultural boundaries. The claim to be “spiritual” but not “religious” looks ludicrous at first sight, as if it is possible to have a religion without any spirituality, and to be spiritual without having to do anything with religion!

For a long time I resisted and even ridiculed the idea. After all, the word “spiritual’ is derived from the word “spirit,” and isn’t that the domain of religion? Is it possible to have any idea of “spirit,” or the conceptual framework in which it can be located, without the help of resources found only in religion? Does a religion that has no place in it for “spirit” deserve to be called a “religion”? Lately, though, my resistance has dwindled. It now seems to me that while religion and spirituality are connected, it may be possible to distinguish them. While religion without spirituality is still unthinkable to my mind, I am now willing to concede that spirituality does outgrow the defined structures of religion. That is perhaps what Sri Ramakrishna meant when he said that his mystic experiences had gone “beyond the Vedas and the Vedanta.”

Religion vs Spirituality

The reasons behind the claim that one is spiritual but not religious are varied and understandable. Certainly one major reason why many prefer to be “spiritual” and not “religious” is that religion today, especially what is generally referred to as “organized religion,” has not exactly covered itself with glory. No day passes without some media report somewhere of financial and moral irregularities in people and organizations that claim to be religious. While this kind of media attention ignores the simple fact that the majority of religious people are still leading their lives quietly with faith, dignity and sincerity, it does skew the context and make many allergic to the idea of having any ties with “religion.” After all, establishing guilt by association is a fairly common human frailty.

Another reason behind the desire to be spiritual rather than religious is plain laziness, the chronic inability or unwillingness to make any sort of commitment. The practice of religion demands commitment: in terms of time and energy to devote to prayer, study, meditation at the personal level, and in terms of time, talent and money to support a place of worship for the practice of religion in an organized and collective way. Preferring instead to be merely “spiritual” can be an easy way to be free from any and all commitments. In the absence of any commitment, being “spiritual” generally makes a person live by one’s own rules, being answerable to nobody. This arrangement is convenient for those who reject rules or any kind of discipline and it eliminates guilt from the minds of those who want to feel religious without doing anything about it.

Being spiritual instead of religious can also be the preferred self-identity of those who haven’t yet figured out which religious path they want to follow or which religious practice they would like to embrace. So the phrase “spiritual seekers” can, in some contexts, also refer to those who are still on the look out for a definitive religious path with which their heads and hearts resonate.

Yet another reason is the neutrality inherent in the term “spiritual” as opposed to the potential biases and prejudices that the term “religion” or “religious” can evoke. In social contexts, self-identifying as “spiritual” is safer and precludes further questions that a religious identity can invite, “what religion do you belong to anyway?” for instance. Such questions can sometimes feel intrusive and irritating, if we are not predisposed to speak about our personal beliefs and feelings to others.

Religion and Spirituality

No matter how one’s identity is configured and proclaimed, those who take religious practice to heart and persevere in it with purity and patience find that religion and spirituality are connected, even indistinguishable. They learn about God and the soul from religious texts, they reflect deeply over the worldview they acquire from their religion and, when it satisfies them, they try to attain the truth to which these religious concepts point. Religion becomes “real” to them only when it is inseparably connected to their daily lives—and finds expression through their thoughts, words and actions—instead of remaining merely a dispensable add-on to their already full lives.A committed religious practice, such as prayer, worship, meditation, scriptural study, or selfless service, reveals inner and hence deeper aspects of religion. When that happens, the inner practice of religion gets recognized as “spirituality.” It becomes easy then to distinguish it from the popular, stereotyped “religion,” which gets increasingly identified with the outer and therefore visible practices and observances, such as periodic pilgrimages and visits to places of worship, membership of a church or a temple, celebration of festivals, and so on. Instead of being locked in opposing camps in an either/or scenario, religion and spirituality are seen to be complementary to each other. Instead of perceiving “religion vs spirituality,” it becomes possible to perceive “religion and spirituality.”

Spirituality is not necessarily greater than religion just because it is inner and deeper. After all, the form that religion provides is essential to protect and nourish the soul. Religion protects the tender, growing spiritual plant from unwanted interferences and dangers threatening the very survival of the plant. It nourishes the soul through its various disciplines. Once the plant grows and becomes strong, it is able to find its bearing and can flourish independently. It then can survive and thrive without the protection.

It is time for spirituality to take off without leaning forever on the shoulders of religion.

In that phase of transcendence, spirituality does not deny religion inasmuch as go beyond it. It affirms the truth of religion without being trapped in the structured formats of religion. It can now stand on its own feet. Specific forms and names and rituals may remain and don’t have to be denied, but a person is no longer confined to them. It is possible to be both inside and outside the visible manifestations of religion. That is the gift of spirituality, the largely invisible aspect of religion.

Spirituality beyond Religion

When religion transcends itself, when it goes beyond specific forms and names, and when it breaks the barriers that separate it from other religions, it enters the realm of spirituality or, what Swami Vivekananda called, the “eternal religion.” In Swamiji’s words:

That one eternal religion is applied to different planes of existence, is applied to the opinions of various minds and various races. There never was my religion or yours, my national religion or your national religion; there never existed many religions, there is only the one. One infinite religion existed all through eternity and will ever exist, and this religion is expressing itself in various countries in various ways.

The “one eternal religion” is Religion (with a capital “R”) beyond religions. It is spirituality, pure and simple. It can still look different when there is need to “express” it, for then it has to clothe itself in the language of theology and take the help of symbols and concepts. But bereft of all theological trappings and at its highest level, it can look startlingly same as “experience.” After all, how does one distinguish between two experiences of total fulfillment? How different can one’s experience of absolute freedom be from someone else’s? In how many ways really does a person experience the undivided oneness of existence? Multiplicity can be varied, but oneness is just one. In oneness, there is no dissension, no debate, no disagreement and, well, no agreement either. There is no one with whom to dissent, there is nothing about which to debate, and there is no one with whom to agree or disagree. Oneness solves all conflicts, all dilemmas, all doubts, all fears. Religion reaches perfection and becomes spirituality when it reaches the One.

Sri Ramakrishna’s life introduces us to him both as a student of religion and, later, a teacher of religion. He played both the roles to perfection, because he lived religion. Through his own lived experience, he showed the interrelationship of religion and spirituality and pointed to us the way to the highest spirituality. There are any number of ways that religion and spirituality can be understood and interpreted. The two need not be at loggerheads. It is possible to see both as complementing one another. Religion paves the way to freedom; spirituality carries us across it. Without religion there would be no road, without spirituality there would be no force to take us across.

REVIEW ARTICLE: Toward a True Kinship of Faiths
September 1, 2010
Emulating Holy Mother
November 1, 2010
Show all

Religion vs. Spirituality: In the Light of Sri Ramakrishna