Some Thoughts on Spirituality and Religion

Increasingly I hear people calling themselves spiritual, and not religious. There is a famous radio talk-show host in this part of world who is notorious for having explicit sexual and other outrageous and profane content on his show. His personality is magnetic and so he has a large and upbeat audience. When recently interviewed by an equally famous television host and asked if he believed in God, I was surprised to hear that he did indeed believe in God. His view of God was as some kind of ultimate power and not as an supreme person, but judging by the content of his show, I did not expect any kind of affirmative answer. He did, however, qualify himself by stating that he was not religious. Instead he defined himself as “deeply spiritual.” The issue of religiosity and spirituality is one that has also drawn my attention in recent years and so this interview sparked my thinking.

A lot can be said on this topic and I am not going to suggest that my thoughts embrace the whole matter in anyway, but I do want to offer the following perspective. The assertion made by our talk-show host that he was spiritual and not religions is actually a common view. There are many who speak of spirituality as something that is opposed to religion. They see spirituality as outside of religion and so reject, outright, traditional religions, which they see as obstacles to spiritual growth. There is, however, another kind of spirituality. This is spirituality within religion, which involves a believer with a faith that is more personal, pluralistic and open to new ideas than the doctrinal faiths of many traditional religions. As far as my comments are concerned in this article they are addressed primarily to spirituality within religion, but I think, in the end, they also have something to say to those who want to see spirituality as something outside of religion.

When I consider the matter of religion and spirituality I am reminded of the work of the German ethnologist Adolf Bastian (1826–1905), who spoke of myth and symbols as operating on two levels, one, the local (volkergedanken) , and the other, the universal (elementargedanken). There is hardly a civilization on this planet that has not had its sacred stories to explain its origins and its place within the universe. These are the myths of a culture, which Joseph Campbell saw as the collective dream of a civilization. As an individual has dreams to express his inner hopes and struggles, so a civilization has its collective dreams in the form of its stories and myths. These myths contain reoccurring motives, or to use the terminology of Jung, archetypes that are common to all civilizations. These reoccurring themes address Bastian’s universal symbols and stories that are repeated in local traditions the world over. In his work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell outlines many of these reoccurring themes.

One of the most important is the Great Goddess, the Mother of the universe. Pre-christian Europe had its Goddess in the form of Gaya. Hinduism has Durgadevi along with all Her forms. Similarly, the Greeks, the Romans and the Norse peoples had their Mother Deity, and even today, Christianity has this powerful image in the form of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. This reoccurring image of Mother is Bastian’s universal that manifests locally in the form of a particular ethnic goddess.

Another theme that appears over and over is that of the hero, who goes on a journey, faces trials and tribulations and then finally returns home renewed and self realized. In Hinduism the most famous hero is Rama, whose story is told in the epic tale, Ramayana. Rama, as the incarnation of Vishnu, who marries the beautiful princess, Sita, is exiled to the forest, who ultimately battles the ten headed demon, Ravana, and then returns home to Ayodhya, is the local image of the hero. But Rama as the universal hero, who goes on a quest and is tested by great dangers and ultimately overcomes these challenges and finally returns to his kingdom triumphant is the universal hero. In this way, we can read the Ramayana as a local story, or we can read the Ramayana as a universal event telling the story of the archetypal hero. Similarly, Indian’s other great Epic, the Mahabharata, is filled with an unending supply of heros and other archetypal forms that also can be read on either the local or the universal level. The life of Jesus as told in the Bible can also be read in this way.

I have a teacher, Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda (1838-1914), who also taught about these two modes, yet writing during the 19th century he spoke in different terms. He described two kinds of seekers, the bharavahi and the saragrahi. The bharavahi wants to focus on religion and so regards religion in more absolute terms, the right way to pray, the right way to dress, the right way to think, the right way to eat, the right way to perform rituals, the right things to believe, and so forth. This is the person who primarily sees the local. The saragrahi, on the other hand, is the seeker who is less interested in the local and more interested in the universal. In fact the world “sara” can be translated as “universal” and so the saragrahi is one “who grasps the universal.” This is the person who sees that the Durgadevi of Hinduism is the Virgin Mary of Christianity, that the Rama of the Ramayana is the hero with a thousand faces. The saragrahi may be likened to the spiritual person.The ability to read a myth or a sacred text in either a local or a universal way is key to understanding the relationship between religion and spirituality. Religion tends to focus on the local, while spirituality wants to focus on the universal and archetypal. In recent years, my path has turned towards the spiritual. I grew up thinking of God as the Father, who had a beard and sat on a large throne in the sky. This was a local and ethnic Christian perspective appropriate for a child, and then, coming to Krishna Consciousness, I learned that God actually had a blue color, that He wore yellow clothes, had four arms and was called Vishnu. Again, this was the local perspective of Hindu Vaishnavism. But now, having studied religion academically and seen the diversity of religious thinking, having travelled and seen the variety of religious practice in the world, having spent years as a priest and seen the huge ethnic diversity even within a single congregation, and having taught hundreds of students, Hindu and non Hindu alike, I necessarily come to think of God in abstract terms, as the Complete, as the Unthinkable, as the Infallible, as Beauty and Truth. There is even a side of me that says to call God Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, Ganesha or even Jesus is to diminish and trivialize what is profound and mystical. And yet there is that side who still wants to call out for the local God. I want to tip my hat to a person and not to an abstraction. So I find that I think in both modes now, the local and the universal, but with one important difference. As a child and young man I placed a lot of weight on the local. In fact, there were times when I took the local as absolute and even shunned the universal and archetypal as blasphemous! But now I accept the need for both, and yet I also know the limitations of both. A human being is a person, which is to say a human being is local, and so we respond to the local, the God in the sky, the God that is blue. And yet within us, we also hold the universal and the archetypal. We therefore need both.

In my world as a priest I have learned that religion and spirituality are related in many important ways. Religion is the outside; spirituality is the inside. Religion is the part and spirituality is the whole. Religion gives discipline; spirituality gives vision. In all cases, both aspects are needed and, indeed, complement each other. And yet a balance must be maintained between the two. One side cannot dominate the other. If we think of life as an ocean to be crossed, religion is the boat and spirituality is the compass. Both are necessary, but if one begins to think that the boat itself is the goal and so refuses to leave the boat, then no progress can be made. And yet if one rejects the local as parochial and restricting, it is like trying to cross an ocean with only a compass. It cannot be done. Our talk-show host whom I mentioned at the beginning is good for admitting a spiritual view of life and yet, I fear, he is limiting himself by rejecting the local, for one needs both a boat and a compass. The true saragrahi is a person who may, for a time, turn away from the local in order to grasp the universal, but eventually sees the need for the local and so turns back to embrace both aspects.

Ultimately, this is a discussion not only about religion and spirituality, but also about about life itself and our need to integrate and balance the part and the whole. It is within the religious world that I have learned these truths, but in fact they apply to other areas as well.

The radio talk-show host is Howard Stern and the television host is Larry King.

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