Surveys done of young people today indicate a strong movement to reduce the role of the mainstream organised religions with people claiming to be “spiritual” not “religious”. What is spirituality and how does it differ from being religious?
Religions tend to focus on a fixed belief system and set of observances and rituals that are intended to deliver the solace, support and comfort to those who practice that religion. Many religions, in particular those stemming from the Judeo-Christian source, rely on a particular leadership hierarchy to interpret the tenets of the religion and ensure conformity with the practice of religion. In many cases, the ego-personality is supported and encouraged with various potential rewards and punishments for following, or failing to follow, the rules set down by that religion.
Hinduism, in particular, becomes harder to define in this way due to the vast range of beliefs and observances which vary from one sect or group to another. Even here, however, certain basic principles of religion are operative, although in concept, the Sanatana Dharma is intended to go beyond all rules and fixed practices to lead the individual to the practice of spirituality, the direct relation of each individual to the Divine, and the realisation of that truth by the individual. Sri Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita, advises Arjuna to “abandon all Dharmas” and live in the greater truth of oneness through taking refuge in the Divine alone.
Sri Krishna goes on to provide the essential definition of spirituality: “Completely giving up desire and attachment, having put away egoism, violence, arrogance, desire, wrath, the sense and instinct of possession, free from all I-ness and my-ness, calm and luminous impassive — one is fit to become the Brahman.” (Bhagavad Gita Ch. 18, v. 53, from Bhagavad Gita and Its Message by Sri Aurobindo)
The essence of spirituality is to transcend the limitation of the individual ego-consciousness and shift to the divine standpoint with the individual being acting as a nexus, but not a determiner of the action of life in the world.
Sri Aurobindo notes: “It is spirituality when you begin to become aware of another consciousness than the ego and begin to live in it or under its influence more and more. It is that consciousness wide, infinite, self-existent, pure of ego etc. which is called Spirit (Self, Brahman, Divine), so this necessarily must be the meaning of spirituality. Realisation is this and all else that the experience and growth of this greater consciousness brings with it.”
Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, Spiritual Experience and Realisation, pp. 171-174