I kept a distance from you because I'd thought that Hare Krishna’s were religious. But now, after coming to know you better, I think you're spiritual." This was the remark of an old friend whom I'd met again after many years and whom I'd known before I was introduced to Krishna consciousness.
"Intriguing," I replied. "What made you think of us as religious, and what made you change your mind?"
"Well, you're so particular about your religious practices – a specific mantra, a specific God, a specific thing to wear, a specific institution to follow. All these things mark you as religious," he replied. "And religious people tend to be narrow-minded and fanatical. That's why I don't like them."
"But after talking with you, I saw that you are open-minded. You accept other religions as valid ways to God; that's a sign of your being spiritual. I like to meet spiritual people."
His parting remark made me ponder the idea of being "spiritual-not-religious," a notion so popular that it has spawned a self-describing initialism SBNR: Is it really possible to be spiritual without being religious?
After thinking about it, this was my conclusion: Yes, if by "spiritual" we imply open-mindedness and by "religion" close mindedness. No, if by "spiritual" we refer to an elevated state of consciousness and by "religious" a process to achieve that state of consciousness.
Let me explain.
The desire to be SBNR may be laudable, but its application is often questionable. Usually the intention is that we should be broad-minded, not narrow minded. That intention is fine, but is the underlying implication valid? Is it true that spirituality makes us broad-minded and religion makes us narrow-minded?
These two terms spiritual and religious have so many connotations that without specifying their meaning, we can't say anything useful about either one. Let's focus on what these words normally connote in the context of being spiritual-not-religious: spiritual usually refers to experience of the higher, deeper aspects of life, whereas religion refers to adherence to certain beliefs and rituals given in a specific tradition. The implication is that spiritualists are open-minded because they are open to higher experience, regardless of how they come by that experience, while religionists are close-minded because they stick only to what is given in their own religion and deride or dismiss other religions.
The Vedic wisdom-tradition points to an intriguing relationship between spirituality and religion. It explains that spirituality is meant to help us develop love for God. This is done through a harmonious combination of philosophy and religion, which constitute the two rails on which spirituality runs (please see figure 1). The philosophy aspect of spirituality involves study with the desire to understand matter, spirit, and the controller of both, God. And the religion aspect involves following certain rules and regulations that help us realize and directly experience higher spiritual truths.
These two aspects of spirituality are strikingly similar to the two aspects of modern science: the theoretical and the experimental. Science's theoretical aspect in-volves formulating hypotheses to explain the observable phenomena within the universe; it is similar to the philosophy aspect of spirituality. Science's experimental aspect involves following certain rules for regulating the laboratory environment so as to verify a given hypothesis; it is similar to the religion aspect of spirituality. Thus, spirituality can be considered a higher-dimensional science higher dimensional because it deals with a reality higher than that dealt with by material science.
Let's see how this understanding of spirituality as a combination of philosophy and religion illumines the SBNR issue.
Just as science requires some kind of experiment to be complete, spirituality requires some kind of religion to be complete. That is, spiritualists who want higher experiences need some process to consistently get those experiences. And that process can be identified as religion. So, to be spiritual, one would have to be religious in one way or another.
Does this imply that one can't be spiritual-not-religious?
Literally yes, essentially no. In essence the desire to be "spiritual-not-religious" is the desire to be "open-minded not close-minded." The Vedic wisdom-tradition acknowledges that there are various ways to gain spiritual experiences, which culminate in the experience of love of God. The philosophy aspect of the tradition helps us to see the various great religions as authorized ways of progressing towards love of God. So, although it requires seekers to be religious if they want to be truly spiritual, it does not mandate close-mindedness. In fact, it encourages open-mindedness.
The Health Analogy
To understand this, let's extend the above comparison of spirituality with science by using the example of medical science. Therein, theory tells us what the healthy state is and what the diseased state is. And the experiments provide the means, the treatment, for moving from dis-ease to health.
The Vedic wisdom-tradition tells us that our present materialistic state of consciousness is a diseased one, referring to it as bhava-roga. It recommends various processes, like chanting the names of God, to take us back to our healthy spiritual state of consciousness, referring to these processes as cikitss, treatment. The tradition is clear that the healthy spiritual state is not some vague misty feel good experience; it is a steady state of being in which one loves God undistractedly. The diseased state is the state of loving anything other than God. Significantly, love of God is also the universally accepted common goal of the world's great theistic religions. Augustine, the Christian saint, puts it well in one of his prayers: "You have made us for you, and the heart never rests till it finds rest in you."
In this health analogy, the philosophy aspect of spirituality ex-plains what the healthy spiritual level is and what the diseased material level is, while the religion aspect provides the means to rise from the diseased material level to the healthy spiritual level. Srila Prabhupada characterizes the interrelationship of these two aspects: "Religion without philosophy is sentiment, or sometimes fanaticism, while philosophy without religion is mental speculation."
Let's take a closer look at the three parts of this statement:
1. Religion without philosophy is sentiment: When there is religion without philosophy, people don't have the intellectual framework to know what the actual spiritual level of consciousness is and to check whether they are factually experiencing it. So, they may stay sentimentally satisfied with whatever practices they have acquired from their present culture or past tradition, even if those practices don't actually make them spiritual. A common result of such sentimentalism is the naive acceptance of all ways as being more or less equal: "You have your way and I have mine. There are as many ways as there are people."
2. Religion without philosophy is sometimes fanaticism: Just as people can be healed by different treatments, people can become lovers of God by practicing different religions: Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism, for example. The decisive test for a religion is whether it enables its followers to become spiritually healthy, to become lovers of God. In this light, religious fanatics are like narrow minded proponents of a particular medical therapy who are ready to do away with all other therapies, being ready even to kill those taking and giving therapies that are not their own. Religious fanaticism is a titanic and tragic misunderstanding that arises from the lack of a proper philosophical understanding.
3. Philosophy without religion is mental speculation: The objective standard of love of God as the goal of religion enables us to choose among various religions just as we would choose between various medical treatments. But it doesn't make religion per se optional or dispensable. Without taking treatment' we will never become healthy. Similarly, without practicing religion, we will never develop love for God. The Bhagavad-gita (9.2) confirms that religion (dharma) brings about such realization (pratyaksavagamam dharmyam).
Many people merely read a lot of spiritual books, either as a hobby, being uncommitted spiritual explorers, or as a profession, being academic scholars. But they don't practice any religion. Consequently, they rarely realize, or experience as a reality, the subject they are reading about. By their refusal to practice any religion, they deprive themselves of such realization. So, their thoughts and talks about spirituality remain airy mental speculations without tangible connection with spiritual reality.
Often this kind of speculation ends in impersonal ism, the notion that the Absolute Truth is devoid of any personality, quality or activity. Why? Because as long as our intellectual endeavors to explore spirituality are not guided by scripture, we cannot get a clear understanding of the spiritual realm. So, by our speculation we basically negate the material and assume that when the negation is complete, what is left is spiritual. Srila Prabhupada pertinently points out, "Impersonalists always think back-wards. They think that because there is form in matter, spirit should be formless . All these thoughts are basically material. To think either positively or negatively is still thinking materially." (Bhagavatam 3.9.21, purport) And again, "Negation does not mean negation of the positive. Negation of the nonessentials does not mean negation of the essential. Similarly, detachment from material forms does not mean nullifying the positive form." (Bhagavatam 1.2.7, purport)
Only when our intellectual endeavors are guided by scriptural revelation do we connect with the positive spiritual reality Krishna' s world of eternal love filled with activity, personality, variety, beauty and reciprocity.
What applies to "philosophy-without-religion" also applies for SBNR. If the advocates of SBNR deliberately avoid religion by not adopting any religious practices, then they will remain mental speculators. They may occasionally get experiences that they consider spiritual, but they will gain no lasting transformation of heart and so largely deprive themselves of enduring fulfillment in life.
However, if they want to avoid the close-minded mentality associated with being religious, then they can adopt those religious practices that allow them to be open-minded about other religious practices. The practices of Krishna consciousness certainly encourage that open-mindedness. So, in accordance with the open-minded intent of the usage, Krishna-devotees can indeed be spiritual-not-religious. At the same time, in terms of the above usage, a more complete understanding is that devotees are both spiritual and religious.
Is Institutionalization Anti-spiritual?
Conceptual analysis apart, many SBNR proponents argue that anything affiliated with an institution automatically becomes a religion and can't be classified as spiritual. Why? Because, they claim, that institutionalization chokes the essence of spirituality. While this is definitely a possibility, it is by no means an absolute necessity. In fact, without institutionalization, spirituality will not be able to share its spirit with society and so won't be able to benefit people at large.
Let's understand this with an analogy. The purpose of spirituality is the development of love of God. If we compare the flow of our heart's love towards God to the flow of a river towards the ocean, then the institution is like the river bed.
If there is no river bed, only those rivers that have an exceptionally strong flow will reach the ocean. Rivers with a weak flow will, when faced with obstacles, stagnate and dry up. Similarly, if there is no institutional support, only those people who have an extraordinary spiritual urge will attain love for God. Those with average spiritual urge will, when faced with obstacles, stagnate and give up.
Just as several gently-flowing tributaries unite to comprise a forcefully-flowing river, several people with average spiritual urge unite to generate an above-average spiritual current that carries all of them forward swiftly. Just as a forceful river shapes a bed for itself as it keeps flowing, these people organize the necessities and facilities for their steady and smooth spiritual progress. Over time, this organized infrastructure takes the form of a spiritual institution.
Just as a river may be dammed by self-interested individuals, a spiritual institution may be damned by materially-minded people who are interested more in appropriating its facilities than in actualizing its purpose. To prevent such misuse, spiritual institutions need to have:
1. Systematic philosophical education so that its members become instinctively self-aware that their destination is not the dam (material aggrandizement) but the ocean (non-material devotional enrichment)
2. Regular religious practices so as to generate a powerful spiritual current that either exposes the materialism of self-seeking people, thereby pushing them to the sidelines, or purifies them of their materialism, thereby pulling them into its onward flow.
Some people may presume that they don't need any institution because their spiritual urge is strong enough for a solo journey. However, they usually underestimate the materialistic tug of their surroundings and overestimate their own resistance power. Consequently, their spiritual progress tends to be at best sporadic, being at the mercy of their unpredictable inner moods and uncontrollable outer circumstances. If they can just summon the humility to acknowledge that their solo trip is becoming more of a camp than a journey, then they will see the wisdom of joining those who are steadily on the move. And just in case these seekers are among the rare few who are genuinely self-motivated, then by joining an authentic spiritual institution, they will be able to guide and inspire other less self-motivated spiritual seekers.
So, vigilant institutionalization is essential to make spirituality accessible and beneficial to society at large.
Inner Vigilance Amidst Institutionalization
Nonetheless, many concerns of the 'spiritual but not religious' proponents are valid even for us as devotees. We need to guard against complacency, wherein we assume that just joining an institution automatically makes us spiritually advanced. Each one of us has to take individual responsibility for our spiritual advancement. Just as avoidance of commitments to external practices can be a kind of spiritual irresponsibility for the SBNR people, the mere adherence of external practices without due attention to our inner development can be a form of spiritual irresponsibility for us.
The scriptures caution us about this pitfall by underscoring that the purpose of all our religous activities is to remember Krishna, as is pro-claimed in an oft-quoted verse from the Padma Purana:
smartavyeh, satatam vishnur
vismartavyo na jatucit
sarve vidhi-nisedhah syur
etayor eva kinkarah
"Always remember Vishnu: never forget him. All the rules and prohibitions mentioned in the scriptures are the servants of these two principles."
By thus simultaneously adhering to external practices and internally cultivating remembrance of Krishna, we can avoid the pitfalls that alarm the spiritual-but -not -religious advocates and make authentic, swift, sustained spiritual advancement towards life's ultimate goal of developing love for Krishna,
To conclude, Krishna consciousness embraces the intent of open-mindedness underlying the SNBR idea: it acknowledges the reality and validity of other paths, and also focuses on an inner transformation that culminates in the supreme fulfillment of love for God. At the same time, Krishna consciousness rejects the SBNR content of uncom-mitted feel-good exploration: it emphasizes that to experience a real and tangible transformation that lasts, one needs to adopt a specific path and follow it diligently .
Caitanya Carana Dasa is the associate editor of Back to Godhead (US and Indian editions). To subscribe to his daily Bhagavad-gita reflections, please subscribe for Gitadaily on thespiritualscientist.com.