Religion and Spirituality (and धर्म)

This is something I have been wanting to address for a while. I was waiting for more clarity about it but also just the time to actually sit and write it out. In a lot of my blogs I keep referring to “Religion/Spirituality” and not only ‘Spirituality’ – what I mean by this is that at times many things I am writing is relevant for Religion and Spirituality IN THE CONTEXT of that article. And I mean specifically the religions that have emerged from our sub-continent of Bharat.

Why specifically only the religions that have emerged from Bharat?


Firstly, these are the ones I know well. And even in these I would say that I know what they call ‘Hinduism’, Jainism and Buddhism well. Not so much Sikhism and any other. But all these religions have some significant common threads of tradition, understanding and even stories.

Secondly, when I mean that religion and spirituality are inter-changeable – it is meant in a certain context. And this context only applies to these religions that I have seen here in Bharat. Not the ones like Christianity and Islam of which I have some (limited) knowledge. One of the key reasons for this is because these religions they have a very clearly defined ‘God’ and are monotheistic in nature. We aren’t. Jain and Buddhism are considered agnostic, though there are some caveats there. And Hinduism can’t even be clubbed as one particular religion – there is so much diversity there.

And so I particularly mean only the religions that have emerged from Bharat.

Definitions: Religion and Spirituality

What does ‘Religion’ mean?

For different people as usual the word means different things.

Some people consider it a specific set of rules, culture and traditions – like a formal “Jain” religion. But then what does this mean? because within Jainism there is so much diversity.

Some people consider religion as a practice that is very fundamental and serious for a person – like “art is my religion” something like that.

And if I search Google there are many interpretations of the word.

Religion and Spirituality

“superhuman controlling power” – not sure in Bharat we actually have any such. The “controlling power” is karma as far as I understand this – and it is a natural principle of how life works – and not some other “power”. I know we have personified some aspects of the world and also have god-figures in stories and culture and rituals. But deeper to that and existing in every story is the Karma factor always. And even for “Gods” and demi-gods it is applicable. Anyway, this can be come a very long conversation on “Gods”. So for now, continuing onwards…..

In Sanskrit the literal translation of the word “Religion” is धर्म

Now धर्म (Dharma) opens a whole plethora of meanings. And it simply and quickly moves out of the realm of the above definitions I have highlighted for the word “religion”. And it also moves out of realm for the non-Bharat religions due to their monotheistic nature.

And this is where Spirituality comes in.

What is Spirituality?

I won’t refer to the actual meaning of the word “Spirituality” here because it falls into the same rigmarole. The English word has finite, sometimes dumb and defined meanings, but the Sanskrit word changes everything.

Here I am going to fall back on What is Spirituality : where I delve into what ‘spirituality’ or when we say ‘I am spiritual’ what it needs to mean. I have approached Spirituality from one perspective in the blog post but it is not the only way to approach it. And if you have read a few different yogis then you easily find them all approaching it in a different way. And as I keep urging people, you must gain clarity on what spirituality is. Only after that all this kind of reading actually matters. Otherwise, these discussions and thoughts are moot.

Now, referring to what Spirituality is, when we say that we want to get beyond our mental drama, our likes and dislikes – if this happens, where do we find ourselves?

Once our mind stops its own modifications – we perceive things the way they are and act through our very fundamental nature. And the way I see it, our fundamental nature or natural quality is same across humans. And like all of nature there are rules or laws. In nature things are not random, they are all as per their own nature or system functioning as part of the whole. Maybe as urban creatures whose minds are crazed by man-made things, we seem to think nature is unpredictable and random. But it is not so.  Everything in nature is as per the natural law. And the law that our true self (the mind without modifications) abides by is called “Dharma”.

On the basis of this (timeless) Dharma, systems have been created by great beings who were enlightened. They understood completely the true nature of humans (and all life?) and they also understood, in depth, the nature of human society (in that era but also its evolution in future etc…)

So, they created a system – a set of rules, activities, rituals and so on – to help humans realise their true self and get out of this cage of mental modifications (maya).  These systems over time crystallize to form Religions.

The process to remove mental modifications – get over likes and dislikes and the mental drama – is spirituality. And a crystallized system in human society to do this is a Religion.

And so they are fairly interchangeable in many contexts, specifically, in the matter of infrastructure and support system. Because Religion movements have been large, often with necessary funds, they have set up this infrastructure within the ambit of their religion. And it can very well be valuable for spiritual seekers. (and also vice versa).

Religion and Spirituality
And yet even in Religions you can look beyond the rules, dogma and discipline and see the deeper essence being promoted which are inner qualities & the fundamentals of the universe around us. And also vice versa, to develop our consciousness and understand the essence of things around – how do we do it? We would need some rules/activities/discipline to develop these….. 😉 [source of this quote]

Religion from a Social Perspective

Now “religion” has many social implications which ‘Spiritual’ doesn’t.

Religion has for example government recognition. While a ‘spiritual’ organization may fall under humanitarian or non-profit one. A religious organization falls under ‘religious’ one with often different legalities and administrative rules applicable. Or in school they make us fill a form with a “Religion” box but not one that asks about the “Spiritual” leaning. So many social implications of Religion but not of Spiritual.

So in human society because ‘Religion’ has many implications apart from the actual meaning of धर्म it also assumes different meanings and connotations. And because of these additional social meanings and connotations people think that Religion and Spirituality are two very different things. But fundamentally in their inherent nature, they are not. They are both paths to realise the true self without any mental modifications and drama or the धर्म that you abide by.

This is why a lot of Spiritual organizations seems to take heavily from Religions. But they will still claim to be non-religious. It is not because they are “dubious” organizations. It is because in Bharat the line between Religion and Spirituality are blurred.  Isha Foundation takes largely from Saivism while Dada Bhagwan Foundation takes largely from Jainism. It is hardly surprising. 🙂

These religious systems of Bharat are very intelligent and comprehensive paths of spirituality. But they have got years and years of tradition and social baggage and also some modifications.

Religion and Spirituality
This is an answer that Sadhguru had given to someone when asked about something he had said on “religious conversions” in the UN. Here he highlights well the point that along with religious comes a lot of very deep rooted culture. And this has many benefits/wisdom of the ancestors associated with it. So that is also worth noting.

Religion is by Birth

One of the key aspects as to why people think of Religion and Spirituality as totally different is because – they are Jains or Buddhists or Hindus by birth while they choose to be Spiritual. This is happening because:

Governments (and the society) recognizes and creates a religious identity: As I mentioned above –  this is one of the significant differences between religion and spirituality. BUT this is only a social identity.

Consider a devout yogi who does yoga diligently every day. Follows a spiritual life and not religious. When he/she has a kid, very likely that from an early age the kid will also be doing yoga and has inculcated some basic spiritual practices from the parent. So then the kid is a yogi from birth. If the government recognized “yogi” as a social identity and gave say some concessions and free facilities to practice yoga – then all of a sudden we have a religion.

So, we can see that many aspects of Religion are social. And then if we look at the rest of it, I find the lines between Religion and Spirituality blurring. 

The Fetters of Religion

Inevitably, due to the mainstream nature of religions, power struggles and vested interests have creeped in. Rituals and traditions over time have often become heinous and terrible.

A lot of social history has happened, wars have been fought and a lot of social baggage has collected over it. Destroyed temples, converted temples from another Religion, corruption in temples and religious custodians and other disputes are rampant.

The quality of religious understanding in the masses has reduced and is often pitiful. And at worst very harmful to themselves and society at large.

And Yet Religion Often Echos the Spiritual Thought

And yet we find if we are open enough to see it, that there are many very genuine and dedicated devotees or yogis within the religious structure. A lot of religious people will talk about basic human nature of compassion, humanity over smaller identities and such beautiful sentiments. And also, many a times, they will actually be walking a very spiritual path but through the ambit of religion.

And this is not a contradiction nor a surprise. Because as I mentioned the fundamental nature of both is the same.

Maybe at the time of Mahavira and Buddha, they would be seen by the masses as contemporary spiritual leaders as we see the spiritual leaders of today. There are doubters, haters, believers, supporters and devotees. If the movement becomes big enough in many years to come it crystallizes into a more deeper social identity – religion.


So I hope I have been clear about why Religion and Spirituality can and often need to be used interchangeably in my blog posts. And also in our general understanding.

This also helps me perceive the Bharat soup a little better. India often comes across as such a hotpot that one finds it hard to decipher, especially the religious and spiritual diversity. This blog post also attempts to see it all in one light – by understanding what is spirituality and Dharma – and thus a common thread starts to emerge.

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