Yoga, Spirituality and Religion

By Rudra Shivananda

pexels-photo-248082.jpegA little while ago, I was discussing the goals and practice of yoga with a friend and it dawned on me that there was a lot of confusion concerning the spiritual path and the religious path, especially among those who are beginning the exploration into the spiritual but were brought up in traditional religious backgrounds. This situation is further obscured by the lack of agreement on what constitutes spirituality.

For many, the dichotomy is between spiritual and material and all knowledge
and effort in the non-material plane is considered spiritual. A religion would
then be considered spiritual as it appears to be concerned with concepts
such as afterlife and God.

However, to those on a spiritual path such as yoga, religious systems seem to be anything but spiritual. The confusion is due to the fact that from time immemorial, there have been two approaches to the non-material – the majority are content with vague assurances of continuity after physical death and trust in the authority of someone or some organization to ensure happiness in the non-material realm while they themselves focus on getting some measure of happiness in the material world which they can experience.

The path of yoga is about experiencing the truths that have been taught for oneself in the present life. It is concerned with realization and not beliefs. The seeker must have faith in the yogic authority only as far as the wisdom needs to be relied on until one has achieved the same states described.

As an analogy, if someone describes an attractive place for you to visit, you would have to rely on that description to motivate you to go there. The path of yoga relies on individual practice to achieve the experience of the spiritual states described by the yogic guides and texts. This is similar to someone relying on a road-map to get to a destination – one must have faith in the accuracy of the directions to actually drive according to them.

However, you must drive there yourself, rather than take a bus – analogies from  material life can only be taken so far and do not apply fully! Religion is a binding with rules and regulations, institutions, and hierarchies relying on blind obedience,
threats of punishment and exclusivity. The believers do not usually have to make additional efforts beyond their agreement to join the group and subscribe to the same set of beliefs. If anyone should profess a deviant belief, that person would be branded a heretic. On the positive side, the believer is assured a place in heaven and can live a life unencumbered by other spiritual concerns.

Yoga is about expansion, freedom and openness to new experiences. However, one has to give up complacency and laziness. One has to take responsibility for one’s own spiritual evolution. There is no free ride, no assurance of everlasting bliss without effort. On the plus side, one has the opportunity through hard practice to realize reality, overcome one’s karmic chains, and to achieve freedom from the cycle of birth and death.

Yoga is not for everyone while religion is useful for the masses – each has its place in the schema of spirituality. In a more enlightened age nine thousand years ago, there was no religion or need for a separate yoga, the sages taught the Sanatana Dharma or Eternal Way. Perhaps in another five thousand years, humanity will be able to comprehend this vast teaching again.

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