We often hear from even some of the most casual observers of India that Indian culture in general is a deeply religious and spiritual one. It is often remarked that pretty much every week there is a religious festival in some part of India. Millions of Indians travel to faraway places on pilgrimages, to places of religious and cultural significances. Millions of Indians consider Indian landmass to be sacred geography, land where gods also yearn to be born as human beings.

But what exactly do we mean by religion? And how is it connected with spirituality?
Are the two similar or is there any difference? More importantly, is there something unique about an Indian outlook on religion and spirituality? Do the outward manifestations of the religious spirit of Indian culture, such as the various festivals, religious practices and ceremonies have any inner symbolic significance? What about the various gods and goddesses of the Indian religious traditions? What do they symbolize? Are there any deeper spiritual significance behind the various outer adoration and devotional practices that millions and millions of Indians do and participate in every day? These and other related questions will be explored briefly in this multi-part essay, in the light of the timeless wisdom we find in the works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother (his spiritual collaborator).

What is Religion? According to Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BCE–43 BCE), the highly influential Roman politician, lawyer and a master of Latin language and literature, the English word ‘religion’ is derived from a Latin word relegere which means “go through again” (in reading or in thought), “to return”. However, the later ancients (Servius, Lactantius, Augustine) and many modern writers gave a different etymological explanation by connecting the word religion with religare, which means “to bind fast” via notion of “place an obligation on,” or “bond between humans and gods.” It was around 13th century that the meaning “particular system of faith” for the English word ‘religion’ came into use. But if we go back to the original Latin word relegere, we get a precise understanding of the essence of the immortal religious aspiration in Man – “to return” to the source of our own being from which we somehow seem to have strayed, wandered or fallen. The highest intuition revealed in all the ancient religious traditions of the world indicate that there is a supreme Reality – one may call it God or whatever name one prefers — behind or beyond our physical body, life and mind. And that Supreme Reality is not only the source of our own individual being but also the source of the universe, and yet is transcendent of it all. This discovery is expressed in different ways in various religions. The Mother speaks perfectly about the origin of Religion in the following words:

Religion belongs to the higher mind of humanity. It is the effort of man’s higher mind to approach, as far as lies in its power, something beyond it, something to which humanity gives the name God or Spirit or Truth or Faith or Knowledge or the Infinite, some kind of Absolute, which the human mind cannot reach and yet tries to reach. Religion may be divine in its ultimate origin; in its actual nature it is not divine but human.” (CWM, Vol. 3, p. 76)

Man-made Nature of Religions

What does it mean that the actual nature of the religion or rather religions (because there are many religions) is not divine but human? Let us explore this further.
All religions, says the Mother, have a similar story to tell. The occasion for a religion’s birth is generally the coming of a great Teacher of the world who reveals a Divine Truth. “But men seize upon it, trade upon it, make an almost political organisation out of it. The religion is equipped by them with a government and policy and laws, with its creeds and dogmas, its rules and regulations, its rites and ceremonies, all binding upon its adherents, all absolute and inviolable. Like the State, it too administers rewards to the loyal and assigns punishments for those that revolt or go astray, for the heretic and the renegade.” (CWM, Vol. 3, p. 77)

The Mother explains further with the help of a few examples:

We know how the Christian religion came into existence. It was certainly not Jesus who made what is known as Christianity, but some learned and very clever men put their heads together and built it up into the thing we see. There was nothing divine in the way in which it was formed, and there is nothing divine either in the way in which it functions. And yet the excuse or occasion for the formation was undoubtedly some revelation from what one could call a Divine Being, a Being who came from elsewhere bringing down with him from a higher plane a certain Knowledge and Truth for the earth. He came and suffered for his Truth; but very few understood what he said, few cared to find and hold to the Truth for which he suffered. Buddha retired from the world, sat down in meditation and discovered a way out of earthly suffering and misery, out of all this illness and death and desire and sin and hunger. He saw a Truth which he endeavoured to express and communicate to the disciples and followers who gathered around him. But even before he was dead, his teaching had already begun to be twisted and distorted. It was only after his disappearance that Buddhism as a full-fledged religion reared its head founded upon what the Buddha is supposed to have said and on the supposed significance of these reported sayings. But soon too, because the disciples and the disciples’ disciples could not agree on what the Master had said or what he meant by his utterances, there grew up a host of sects and sub-sects in the body of the parent religion—a Southern Path, a Northern Path, a Far Eastern Path, each of them claiming to be the only, the original, the undefiled doctrine of the Buddha. The same fate overtook the teaching of the Christ; that too came to be made in the same way into a set and organised religion. It is often said that, if Jesus came back, he would not be able to recognise what he taught in the forms that have been imposed on it, and if Buddha were to come back and see what has been made of his teaching, he would immediately run back discouraged to Nirvana!” (CWM, Vol. 3, pp. 76-77)

Sri Aurobindo explains this man-made nature of religions through a distinction he makes between ‘true religion’ and ‘religionism’. He writes:

“There are two aspects of religion, true religion and religionism. True religion is spiritual religion, that which seeks to live in the spirit, in what is beyond the intellect, beyond the aesthetic and ethical and practical being of man, and to inform and govern these members of our being by the higher light and law of the spirit. Religionism, on the contrary, entrenches itself in some narrow pietistic exaltation of the lower members or lays exclusive stress on intellectual dogmas, forms and ceremonies, on some fixed and rigid moral code, on some religio-political or religio-social system.” (CWSA, Vol. 25, pp. 177-178)

Difference between Religion and Spirituality

Before we explore the uniqueness of the Indian outlook on Religion, it is important to spend some time understanding the relation between Religion and Spirituality. In his philosophical magnum opus, The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo gives a wonderful definition of spirituality. He first speaks of what it is not, and thus gradually leads us to understand what it is.

“…spirituality is not a high intellectuality, not idealism, not an ethical turn of mind or moral purity and austerity, not religiosity or an ardent and exalted emotional fervour, not even a compound of all these excellent things; a mental belief, creed or faith, an emotional aspiration, a regulation of conduct according to a religious or ethical formula are not spiritual achievement and experience.

“These things are of considerable value to mind and life; they are of value to the spiritual evolution itself as preparatory movements disciplining, purifying or giving a suitable form to the nature; but they still belong to the mental evolution, — the beginning of a spiritual realisation, experience, change is not yet there.

Spirituality is in its essence an awakening to the inner reality of our being, to a spirit, self, soul which is other than our mind, life and body, an inner aspiration to know, to feel, to be that, to enter into contact with the greater Reality beyond and pervading the universe which inhabits also our own being, to be in communion with It and union with It, and a turning, a conversion, a transformation of our whole being as a result of the aspiration, the contact, the union, a growth or waking into a new becoming or new being, a new self, a new nature.” (CWSA,Vol 22, pp. 889-890)

A few key points we note from the above are:

High intellectualism, idealism, ethical turn of mind, moral purity, religious fervour, emotional aspiration, mental belief or faith, well-regulated conduct in accordance with a religious formula – these can be preparatory and purifying movements which in turn can be helpful to a seeker in the stages of mental and emotional evolution.

Spiritual evolution is something beyond all these things. It is essentially an awakening to the inner reality of our being beyond mind, life and body.

Thus, according to Sri Aurobindo, a spiritual seeker can progress in initial preparatory stages through religion, but as noted earlier he also makes an important distinction between the spiritual essence of a religion and the outer religious forms (religionism, as he calls it, which has a tendency to become dogmatic, creedal and limiting).
As mentioned earlier, the essence of religion is connected with the highest aspiration in humanity, that of returning to the source, the origin of All and Everything, the source of Being and Existence. So how is religion different from spirituality? Are there some commonalities between them? The Mother helps us understand this in a very succinct response when she says:

“The spiritual spirit is not contrary to a religious feeling of adoration, devotion and consecration. But what is wrong in the religions is the fixity of the mind clinging to one formula as an exclusive truth. One must always remember that formulas are only a mental expression of the truth and that this truth can always be expressed in many other ways.” (CWM, Vol. 15, p, 27)
Let us explore these questions a bit more now with the help of a wonderful explanation given by Nolini Kanta Gupta, one of the earliest disciples and associates of Sri Aurobindo. In this passage, he clearly points out the difference between a religious approach and a spiritual approach to seeking the Divine.

“Religion starts from and usually ends with a mental and emotional approach to realities beyond the mind; Spirituality goes straight forward to direct vision and communion with the Beyond.

“Religion labors to experience and express the world of Spirit in and through a turn, often a twist, given by the mental being—manu—in man; it bases itself upon the demands of the mental, the vital and the physical complex – the triple nexus that forms the ordinary human personality and seeks to satisfy them under a holier garb. Spirituality knows the demands of the Spirit alone; it lives in a realm where the body, the life and the mind stand uplifted and transmuted into their utter realities.

Religion is the human way of approaching and enjoying the Divine; Spirituality is the divine way of meeting the Divine.

Religion, as it is usually practiced, is a special art, one – the highest it may be, still only one – among many other pursuits that man looks to for his enjoyment and fulfillment; but spirituality is nothing if it does not swallow up the entire man, take in his each and every preoccupation and new-create it into an inevitable expression of its own master truth.

“Religion gives a moral discipline for the internal consciousness, and for the external life, a code of conduct based upon a system of rules and rites and ceremonies; spirituality aims at a revolution in the consciousness and in the being.” (Nolini Kanta Gupta (1973/1996). Evolution and the Earthly Destiny, p.117)

To Be Continued…

Beloo Mehra is a student of Sri Aurobindo and writes on topics related to education, culture and society. Many years of experience in the field of education and research led her to the discovery that the central thing is to constantly un school oneself and become a freer and truer learner. She enjoys playing several roles Life offers a woman – with a hope to learn from all that happens and doesn’t happen, and with a wish to gradually become free of those roles because only then the possibility of the birth of true actor (or the non-actor) within exists.


  1. Very interesting. I was essentially forced to be religious and if not, I could easily be considered a demon. Which is a main reason why I have stopped religion. For me it was more of a bad rather than positive aspect of life, where life was often considered critical enough to be unpleasant. Spirituality isn’t very bad for me though, but as for religion, it isn’t the religion related to a god that I think of as important, but instead, to be able to coexist with nature.


    1. Thanks for sharing your experience and perspective. Much appreciated. Hope you will return to read the next several parts of this series in which this question of what is religion from an Indian perspective will be explored in greater detail. Perhaps you may then begin to see that we often get too caught up in the outer shell of the terminology without really going deeper into understanding that the same term could mean something entirely different when contextualised in a different view of existence, life and human development. This is not to deny your experience, but simply to offer an alternative perspective. Looking forward to hearing more from you when the next parts of this series are published. Regards,

      Liked by 1 person

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