In modern times religion is a bit of a dirty word. People don’t want to talk about religion and often people cite religion as the cause of many of the world’s current conflicts. I always think that religion would be perfect if we could just keep the humans out of it! It’s us flawed human beings who throughout history have misinterpreted the rules of religion and have used it as a weapon against others. But of course religion is meant for the people, so we need to understand its purpose and place in society.
Religion’s original purpose is to offer a system whereby a person can live a peaceful, pious life that focuses on the cultivation of a relationship with God. Religion offers us guidelines to live a regulated life, coupled with study and rituals, which allows our minds to be more open to spiritual concepts and understandings.
Now the problem or confusion with religion is that it can lead to dogma, fundamentalism or a neophyte belief that the religion, or the external activities prescribed in a particular pathway of religion, is the end in itself. But here is the difference. Religion is a means to an end; it is not the end in itself. Religion allows a person to be in the mode of goodness, which allows for higher thoughts: introspection, studying spiritual texts, meditation and enlightenment. This is all well and good, but is it everything? No.
A person needs to do the internal work. A person needs to commit time alone in meditation, prayer and introspection, in the discipline of habits, in commitment to the path to truly comprehend and experience a spiritual life. Your spiritual life is beyond the doors of religion.
People mistake religion and spirituality as the same thing, and therefore want to throw spirituality out with the religious bathwater, but they are not necessarily the same thing at all.
A spiritual life can use religion as a springboard to getting started but spirituality is over and above religion. Religion is external. Spirituality is internal; it comes from within. It cannot be forced upon anyone. Spirituality requires free choice. It is an affair of the heart. It can be taught and encouraged but the awakening of it, the realisation of its reality can only come when the soul is sincere and ready to see it. To force it upon someone else is religion turned into dogma and fundamentalism. To find it organically within, from following a path prescribed by a religious process, or through some other form of introspection, study and prayer, is spirituality.
In Sanskrit there is another word and explanation for this. It is called sanatana dharma. It is one’s eternal religion. It is your eternal function and identity.
When we talk about religion we talk about something that can change. You can be Christian and then Muslim. You can be an atheist and then Hindu, etc.
But santana dharma is something you can’t change, you wouldn’t want to change it, it is your eternal identity. Spiritual life, or true religion, is a process of discovery of who you really are. It is the uncovering and understanding of the eternal truth of your identity. It’s not a matter of belief. It’s not a matter of if you believe it then its real and if you don’t believe it then it’s not real. It’s there, its always there whether you realise it or not, and its just waiting for you to discover it.
Real spiritual life means you as an individual undergoing a process of self-discovery. Its the true meaning of self-discovery – discovering your identity as atma, which translates literally as ‘self’. It is understanding your ‘self’, your true identity. It is self-realisation. We are spiritual beings having a human experience, not humans seeking a spiritual experience. It’s not about becoming something better, or different, than what you already are, rather it is about remembering who you actually are! A spiritual being, covered in confusion about your true power and beauty, but thoroughly capable of becoming enlightened again.
The type of religious process you may be using is just a tool to get you to what is important. Sanatana dharma doesn’t have anything to do with anyone else and what they are doing or believing, it’s your journey. What is important is that an individual is sincere in asking, “What is my spiritual essence? What is my relationship with the Supreme Person?” When you see God as your foundation, your happiness – that is your real religion. The only term that refers to that is sanatana dharma.
Everyone wants to be happy but because we falsely identify with the temporary material body we are misguided. We accumulate wealth and leave it all behind when we die. What is the gain? People who engage in philanthropy to help others find some happiness in that. Why? By nature we are related to everyone like we are related to God. It’s natural to be nice. That’s why it feels good to help others. This is karma yoga; when you find happiness by being of service to a cause bigger than yourself. When you do it to cultivate your love for God then it is Bhakti yoga. Yoga means union with God.
Everyone is struggling to be happy but no matter what enjoyment you have it still does not actually satisfy you in your heart. We need material things for this body, but we take so much time taking care of our material needs, yet won’t take 20 minutes a day to look after ourselves spiritually. So we are spiritually dying as people. We are so accustomed to try to find satisfaction outside of us, but it is inside of us; always has been inside of us, and always will. The answers we seek, the happiness, the peace we seek, is deep within us. It’s always been there, just waiting for us to turn inward and discover it again. In the Bhagavad-Gita the mystic finds happiness within.
We think of religion as separate from our attempts at finding happiness but they are not separate. We think religion is where there is no happiness. We view it as a necessary evil. We do it to stay out of trouble. But the truth is that real happiness lies in the spiritual life.
We learn about our spiritual essence and our relationship with God. We do this through meditation, prayer and study. We learn how to serve God and serve others. That is the process of spiritual life. We live in this material world but we can have a secret inner life, a private life, a personal relationship with the Supreme Person. A life filled with strength and self-awareness, love and understanding. A little drop of nectar is all we need to have purpose in life.
We need to do this and experience inner happiness. There are many sources of stress but if you have a secret spiritual life you have a refuge from this. When we speak of the spiritual world we speak of the happiest place. Bliss or ananda is not present in the material world. This ecstatic form of happiness is available to us, not just as a fleeting experience, but as an eternity, once we rediscover our true nature, our sanatana dharma.