Question: How would you define the difference between a religion and spirituality?
Radhanath Swami: If we try to understand the true meaning of religion, we will find that there is no difference. But if we view the way religion is often followed in the world today, there is a big difference.
The word religion comes from the Greek word religio, which means ‘to bind back’ or ‘to reconnect’— to reconnect our hearts, our consciousness, with God. The word yoga means exactly the same—to reunite the atma with the Paramatma, to reconnect our consciousness with the Supreme, and to reconnect our consciousness with each other through our connection with God.
Religion is the path of purification. We understand that love of God is dormant within the heart of everyone. The mind is like a mirror. When you look in a clean mirror, you see yourself. But if the mirror is covered with dirt, dust, pollution, and all sorts of other coverings, all you see in the mirror is the dust, the dirt and the pollution—and you think “that’s me”. Similarly, when the mind is clean, we see Krishna, the all beautiful all loving object of our love, and we see our own eternal soul as the lover of Krishna. But when the mind is covered by arrogance, greed, envy and passion, we think that’s me.
What is religion? My gurudev Srila Prabhupad would say that real religion is not about being a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian or a Jew or a Jain or a Sikh or a Parsi or anything else. Real religion is about awakening love of God. And the first commandment of the Bible is to love God with all our heart, mind and soul. And if you love God with all your heart, mind and soul, what comes next? Naturally, spontaneously, we love our neighbor as ourselves — and every living being happens to be our neighbor. Every living being is our neighbor because every living being is a part of God.
Krishna tells in the Bhaghavad Gita:
mām ekaḿ śaraṇaḿ vraja
ahaḿ tvāḿ sarva-pāpebhyo
mokṣayiṣyāmi mā śucaḥ
He says, “Abandon all varieties of dharma, (sometimes dharma is translated as religion) and just surrender to me.” What is ‘surrender to me’? It doesn’t mean surrendering in defeat. The mother surrenders to the baby, doesn’t she? In the middle of the night when the mother is sleeping and the baby goes “aaahh…” the mother surrenders to the baby. She gets up to take care of the child. That’s not surrender of defeat, that’s the surrender of love. Unselfish love is to surrender in love to God and be an instrument of God’s love in this world; that is religion. That is the spirit, that is the essence of religion, and that is the essence of spirituality.
As far as the various rituals are concerned, when we become attached to those things and forget what it is for, it becomes what we today know as religion, where there are so many differences. What are we doing puja for? Do we really know what it is? It’s meant to tune us into the grace of God. It’s meant to help us focus on the divine power of God’s love. And why do we study scriptures? I have seen people who have studied scriptures and have memorized thousands and thousands of slokas, but their ego and their envy and their greed is as much as anybody else’s. The purpose of studying scripture , the purpose of puja, mantra, yantra, tantra, mudra, – the purpose of all these things is to clean the mirror of the mind and reconnect us to the divine grace.
Becoming religious is about becoming saragrahi. Saragrahi means one who seeks the essence; that is real religion. When we seek the essence of all religions, then we see what is in common. In my book The Journey Home, I give one analogy. When I was living in Patna, I was 20 years old. I stayed with Ramasevak Swami who was about 85 years old, and there was another man who was over 85; his name was Narayan Prasad. Everyday about 11 ‘o-clock in the morning he took me to his best friend. His best friend lived at the Magadha X-ray Clinic and his name was Mohammad. Interestingly, Narayan Prasad would speak to him about Bhagvad Gita, Mohammad would speak to him about the Quran, and I would speak about all the different stuff that I knew. One day I asked Narayan Prasad, “How is it that in a place like India, where there is so much conflict between Hindus and Muslims that you and Mohammad are best friends and you are sharing each other’s scriptures like this?” He said, “If a dog has a master, the dog will recognize the master in whatever way the master dresses. Sometimes he may be in a suit and tie, sometimes he may be in t-shirt and jeans, sometimes he may be wearing a dhoti or a lungi, sometimes he may not be wearing anything, but the dog will recognize. If we cannot recognize our beloved Lord when he comes in different times, in different dresses, with different names, then we have much to learn from the dog.”
Saragrahi means to seek the essence. Even though there may be differences, if we seek the essence, we will understand what we really have in common, and then there is no difference between spirituality and religion.