We have discussed in one of our earlier articles the differences between religion and spirituality. This brings us to two important questions. If religion is different from spirituality, do they have to be kept apart? Shall we have to discard religion in order to progress in the spiritual path? Here comes the issue of role of religion in spiritual development.
To comprehend this issue in a holistic perspective, we have to avoid tow extreme views. An exclusive observance of external religious practices without a corresponding inner spiritual attitude cannot obviously lead to spiritual development. On the other hand an exclusively inwards spirituality which looks down upon all external supports as inferior cannot also be very creative for a large number of people. Only a few with a special capacity for inward meditation can practice such an exclusively inward spirituality. Moreover it develops an elitist spiritual ego which can be a great obstacle to spiritual progress and also prevent the flowering of a universal love and compassion which is the hallmark of a true spiritual person.
Religion can help in the spiritual development of individuals, if the original spiritual inspiration is rediscovered and lived. In other words, instead of accepting the religion into which one is born as it is in its outer form, if one make a sincere effort to find the inner spiritual core and discipline of the religion and put into practice in one’s life, then religion can be of great help in our spiritual growth. The other factor which is not fully recognized is that for someone who is inwardly and spiritually advanced the nature of the outer religious beliefs and practices do not matter much in her inner growth. Such people who are inwardly advanced will spontaneously take the right inner spiritual attitude and therefore can progress spiritually through any belief-system or practices.
A certain mental development can also be of help in spiritual growth. If the mind is broad, well-developed and intuitive or spiritually sensitive it will not be attached to any fixed or dogmatic belief or practices and also open to other beneficial spiritual ideas, practices or influences from other cultures, traditions or religion. Here ar e a few examples. Francisco Roberto Canana, Director of Erraparsa, Argentina, is a practicing Catholic but finds spiritual upliftment both in his private life and in his worklife in the teachings. On religious tolerance and the underlying unity of all religions of his Indian Guru Nilofer Merchant, President of Rubicon Consultants was born into Islam, but after her marriage converted into Christianity. She says “I do not consider myself as a religious person—but to be a spiritual person. I use my religion as a way to express and nurture my spiritually.” She has the inward looking attitude of eastern spirituality and tires to listen to the inner voice. “I have never found that the answer comes from outside even from a spiritual teacher” states Nilofar, “The answer is truly within you and all the spiritual methods and processes are designed to help you get quiet enough, fearless enough, compassionate enough, loving enough to discover who you are.” The third example is President and COO of Pantersbank of Phillipines. She is a devout Christian who believes in “God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son of God.” When she is confronted with a situation she asks “What would Jesus do” and tries to “see the Christ is others and helping others to see Christ in you”. These are, in their essence practices of universal spirituality, Though expressed in the terminology of a particular religion.
So an integral spirituality does not discard the supports of religion. The seeker in the spiritual path uses whatever religious symbols or instruments like forms of deities or scriptures, which help him in his inner growth without any dogmatic, emotional and mental attachment to these forms. He will use them as long as they are needed for his growth and drop them when they are no longer necessary for his growth. This is not easy to do. This requires intuition, humility and self-knowledge. We may think that we are beyond religion because we have some big spiritual ideas in our head, acquired from reading the teachings of spiritual master who have risen beyond religion. But this may be an illusion created by mental and spiritual vanity. Our physical or emotional consciousness may still need some external religious support for its spiritual growth. A spiritual seeker should have a humble, objective and candid look at his own mind and heart and their actual needs.
So a mature seeker of the spirit, even when she is following a predominantly inward path, does not look down upon other seeker who performs the outer religious practices. She knows that the spiritual growth depends mainly on the inner attitude and condition of the person and not on the outward act. A religious ritual, when it is done with the right spiritual attitude of love, devotion and surrender can lead to rapid inner development of the individual. On the other hand, inward meditations on the formless divine, when they are done with vanity and selfish craving for some personal gains may not lead to any spiritual results.