The founders of all the great religions taught spirituality, yet religion and spirituality are not the same. When my own spiritual master was asked if he was trying to start a new religion he replied:
“I am not interested in religion. I am interested in human beings and the goal of human beings, and how to bridge the gap between the two.”
Many religions may make the same claim, but the reality is that all too often the spirituality taught by the founder of those religions has been lost, or obscured by dogma and ritual. There are profound differences between the teachings of Christ and the practices of mainstream Christianity, between what Krsna taught and Hinduism, between the teachings of the Buddha and Buddhism. Over time, divisions have developed within religions, which have sometimes led to persecution and even war. When you look at the darkest periods of religious history, it is hard to believe that people could depart so far from the exalted teachings of their great preceptors. The original message was spiritual, but to varying degrees that spirit has been diluted or lost through mistranslation and misinterpretation, through the loss of spiritual meditation practices, through the attempts of less evolved individuals to cloak spiritual concepts in dogma, and through religions becoming religious and political institutions.
Within all the major religions there are mystical traditions that include many of the features of spirituality, but these are the exception rather than the rule. They do not represent mainstream religion, and in many cases have even been branded as heresy, and the propagation of such teachings has all too often been rewarded with persecution.
What we are left with in our various religions is a somewhat confusing blend of truth and dogma. If we wish to sift out the spiritual elements it is important to understand the real differences between spirituality and religious dogma. With the passing of time, these differences within mainstream religion have become increasingly distinct:
a. Spirituality is theistic, and has a highly developed and rational concept of God or Infinite Consciousness. Religious dogma can be theistic, as in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, or atheistic, such as Buddhism, Shintoism, and perhaps even communism. Dogmatic Religions generally have either a poorly developed and irrational concept of God, or no concept of God at all.
b. Spirituality is non-dualistic, and states that the purpose of human life is to merge one’s self (or sense of “I”) into Infinite Consciousness. Theistic religions tend to be dualistic, propounding a fundamental separation between God and the world and the belief that the purpose of human life is to enter into a relationship with God and go to heaven after one dies.
c. Spirituality is practical, and can be experienced and realized by practicing spiritual meditation. The focus is inward, taking the practitioner towards a personal realization. Religions on the other hand, emphasize faith and belief, and though they teach people different types of prayer, most of the actual practice is externally focused, involving rituals, festivals and ceremonies.
d. Spirituality is a lifestyle choice, and is integrated into every aspect of a person’s existence. Much Religion is ritualistic, and is generally a compartmentalized part of a person’s life, practiced primarily in temples and churches.
Religion can only serve its proper purpose of liberating the faithful from ignorance and spiritual darkness, to the degree that it remains true to its original spirituality.