Q: Is it important to embrace a religion in order to grow spiritually?
Embracing or not embracing a religion has nothing to do with spirituality. It is only by embracing the spiritual wisdom you gain through spiritual practices that you become a spiritual person. All the world’s great religions have their source in the teachings of enlightened masters and flow from their deep spiritual knowledge and direct experience. But with the passage of time, the original insights and teachings of these masters have become so encrusted with custom, superstition, and dogma that the practical application of the original teachings has been obscured.
Embracing or not embracing a religion has nothing to do with spirituality.
Spirituality has nothing to do with dogma or custom. Rather it is concerned with inner growth and with understanding and experiencing the deeper meaning and purpose of life. Only if we are trained to dive deep into a religious tradition, reach its core, and discover the transformative wisdom that the founding master shared with mankind can that religion be helpful in our spiritual development.
Religion is sectarian, and a sectarian approach to spirituality is not helpful, especially here in the modern world. We are human beings first and foremost; all other identities are superimposed on us after we are born. From early childhood on, our parents, teachers, community, and society teach us to identify ourselves as Hindus or Christians, rich or poor, talented or dull. Such training instills a variety of superiority and inferiority complexes in our minds and hearts. By the time we are teenagers we are boxed in by these superimposed identities and convinced that this little box is the whole world—and that we are the center of it.
We are not told that we have infinite potential, nor are we trained to seek life’s higher meaning and purpose. So we enter adulthood identifying ourselves as individuals, separate from all other individuals and destined to compete for survival in a hostile world. We have forgotten that we are human beings above all and that all of us—Hindus or Muslims, Easterners or Westerners—are striving for a healthy, happy, and meaningful life. We fail to understand that unless we see what we all have in common, that until we learn to embrace all and exclude none, our search for peace and happiness will be fruitless.
Religious leaders proclaim that their god, their faith, their values, their method of worship, and their views on vice and virtue are more authentic and more valid than those of other religions, or even of other branches of the same religion. These religions have fixed dos and don’ts: purify your soul by fasting on the day of the full moon and you will go to heaven—if you don’t, you will go to hell; if you are not baptized in the name of Christ, you cannot go to heaven; if you eat the flesh of a pig, you are unclean. There are endless examples. This kind of extreme thinking creates an environment of self-righteousness and strife. It does not lead to happiness and has nothing to do with spirituality. It is only when we set out to discover what constitutes the essence of our beings that we are embarking on a spiritual path. That has nothing to do with religion.
It is only when we set out to discover what constitutes the essence of our beings that we are embarking on a spiritual path.
Q: The Bhagavad Gita says, “One must stick to one’s religion; adhering to others’ religious views is always a source of fear.” What is your opinion of that?
The word you are translating as “religion” in that passage is dharma. The concept of dharma in the Bhagavad Gita bears only the faintest resemblance to our modern concept of religion. In Sanskrit literature, dharma refers to those eternal rules, laws, principles, and practices that hold and nourish the world in all its diversity. In the passage you are quoting, it refers specifically to one’s duty or destiny in life, not to a sense of religious identity. It is my firm belief that everyone—whether we identify ourselves as Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or simply as a human being—has the same dharma, and that is to discover the unifying thread that holds all diversities in place. When we discover this unifying thread (I call it the “sacred link”), our personal faith and everything that goes with it will find its rightful place in the religion of humankind—the religion that has room for all the children of God.
Q: Religion tells us that knowing God is the surest way to discover this unifying thread.
Be practical. First, you must know yourself. Understand that what you call “you” is a combination of body, breath, mind, and soul. You are an individual person, complete in yourself, but you are also a social being. You are born in a family, which is in turn part of a larger society. Your society has embraced certain social, moral, ethical, and religious values. All of those are part of you because your personality has been shaped by them. As an adult, your sense of duty, obligation, and responsibility is heavily influenced by the values with which you grew up.
In order to find happiness, you need to learn the art of meeting the needs of your body, mind, and soul, as well as the art of meeting your duties and obligations to your family and society. Only when you know that you are doing your best to help yourself and serve those who are an integral part of you, will you find fulfillment. Knowing God does not need to be your top priority in life. First, learn to know yourself, your family, and your children. Come to know the people whom you love. Know your own strengths and weaknesses. Make your body healthy and your mind clear. Then you will have a better understanding of what you are seeking when you seek to know God, and you will know when and how you should begin your journey to find God—or even if there is any need to do so.
Q: Religions hold that finding God is the highest goal of life. Are you saying that religion should be discarded?
No. What I am saying is that you need to be practical. Know your priorities. Walk one step at a time. Begin with being honest with yourself and with others. Let the voice of truth tell you what the goal of your life is now, in your current circumstances. Religion and God have become such loaded subjects that it is difficult to think about them clearly. If your goal is spiritual unfoldment, it is better to begin with knowing yourself. When you do, you will then be able to approach the idea of God. But the concept of God has become such a source of confusion that it makes people emotional. Instead of working on themselves, they focus their energy on condemning anyone who has a different idea of who or what God is. This is the cause of much of the turmoil we see in the world today.
Q: What is the goal of spirituality and how do we attain it?
Self-transformation is the goal of spirituality. It begins with self-understanding, which dawns when we know ourselves at every level. It is only when we know ourselves and our place in our family, community, and society that we will be able to find our spiritual path. We will figure out what qualities we must awaken, and what weaknesses we must overcome. This understanding will help us either to overcome our bad habits or transform them and replace them with good habits. Self-understanding makes us practical, methodical, and down to earth; it allows us to create a world that is personal and private, yet big enough to contain all the diversities that exist in the world around us. Thus self-transformation is both the ground for, and the goal of, spirituality.
As you gain a right understanding of yourself and of others, you will discover your rightful place in this world and will give others their rightful place.
You begin walking toward your goal in life by establishing a routine. Go to bed on time, get up on time, eat your meals on time, do your work on time. Through routine, you bring regularity to your life and to your practice, and this helps you overcome the negative tendencies of your mind, as well as unhealthy habits related to food, sleep, sex, and the desire for self-preservation. In the process you will come to see the powerful role your belief system plays in finding happiness and overcoming misery. As you gain a right understanding of yourself and of others, you will discover your rightful place in this world and will give others their rightful place.
A clear understanding of the meaning and purpose of life frees you from all doubts. Clarity of mind then infuses your relationships with love, respect, trust, and selflessness. This is when you become a light to yourself and a light to others. Then, life is no longer a punishment, and the world is no longer a prison. People belonging to other faiths and cultures are no longer alien. You experience life as a gift, this world as a paradise, your family as a source of joy, and all living beings as a manifestation of the Creator. This is the ultimate goal of spirituality. It begins and ends with self-transformation.