Worship of an external deity, an avatar, savior or enlightened being is recognised as a sign of religious dedication on the part of an individual. In many instances, however, this form of worship is a more or less empty ritual that is part of a societal expectation or norm, or operates as a mechanism for indoctrination and control, but does not necessarily effectuate any deeper change in the being. Founders and leaders of some of the great religions speak of an inner change that must take place to follow their teachings. Compassion, peacefulness, goodwill, sharing, a non-judgmental attitude toward others, represent just a few of the qualities that these leaders ask their followers to incorporate in their lives. How frequently, however, have we seen religion turned into a weapon and a cause for hatred, destruction, oppression, suffering and greed! Some of the people most outwardly devotional seem to, at some point, turn their devotion into a desire to control, dominate, convert or ‘put to the sword’ those who follow a different religious belief.
The difference between organised religion and spirituality lies precisely in the need to shift from an outer form of worship to an inward process of growth and maturation. What a number of the great religious personalities of the past have called upon their followers and true believers to do was not to wage war against others in the name of the religion, but to inculcate within themselves and enliven the tenets of the religion in their own inner reactions and in the way they relate to those around them.
Worshipping a great soul is therefore insufficient. What is needed is for the individual to work at transforming himself into such a great soul! The great leaders recognise that all are one, part of the same universal manifestation and their role is to provide an example, an influence and an encouragement for us to grow and represent what it is we want to worship in their lives and existence. We are not to worship the Divine from afar, and create a separation and gap between God and man; rather, we are to bring the Divine into our lives and close the gap so that we recognise our inherent oneness with the Divine.
Sri Aurobindo observes: “… It is not sufficient to worship Krishna, Christ or Buddha without, if there is not the revealing and the formation of the Buddha, the Christ or Krishna in ourselves. And all other aids equally have no other purpose; each is a bridge between man’s unconverted state and the revelation of the Divine within him.”
Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter III Growth of Consciousness Basic Requisites, pg. 53