You’re just left with yourself all the time, whatever you do anyway. You’ve got to get down to your own God in your own temple. It’s all down to you, mate. Â John Lennon
Spirituality. One word that probably unites Â as it should, I think Â believers and non-believers alike. The religious ones stake a special claim to it but those who are not go to many lengths to do so too. The former often take the word for granted, given their credentials, as do the latter with equal fervor, despite their credentials, shall we say? There’s blood in the name of religion and there’s none in the name of spirituality. Is that something to ponder?
Many a common man has felt it, many an artiste sought its refuge to transcend the bounds of religions, many a believer has taken it as the essence of all the goodness in his religion and many a non-believer has stood by it to pledge his faith in good karma.
The nature of spirituality has been a subject of reflection and study for ages and has been variously defined by philosophers, religious leaders and scholars. Western philosophers have attempted to look at it through the lens of metaphysics, exploring and understanding the nature of human conscience, and man’s relationship with his environment. They have attempted to understand the relationship between the within and the without with an interpretive synthesis aimed at answering the ontological questions of the nature and the purpose of the self.
On the other hand, religious leaders ended up attempting to give a form and face to this beautiful quality by linking it with values, ethics and a sense of the higher Self – lending it a mystical edge too. Rituals came in, and then followed identity, and perhaps that’s how religion tried to become ‘spirituality with a face’. But as it happens with labeling things, man grows attached to them, and the things and labels given to them become dangerously synonymous.
This is perhaps why scholars have increasingly tried to distinguish spirituality from religion, even though these distinctions have been usually nebulous at times. One of the reasons for this could be that associated concepts of values, culture, customs and religion make the discourse a very complex one.
I turned to the Vedas for insights on spirituality, being as they are the oldest written texts in the world, but mainly because most scholars agree that the text of the Vedas is universal in nature and does not cater to any specific religion or set of people. The term Veda derives from the root word ‘Vid’ meaning knowledge, and according to Indian lore, it has existed in an unwritten, eternal and perfect form from the beginning of time. This knowledge has formed the backbone of Indian philosophy, and is organized in four separate Vedas: Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sam Veda and Atharva Veda, all four containing a variety of literature in them.
Specifically, Chapter 40 of Yajur Veda provides rich insights into the understanding of spirituality through its 17 mantras (hymns) that also form a part of Ishopnishad, an Indian text on philosophy. Subsequently, an expanded understanding of these 17 mantras forms the text of The Gita, the basic text on Indian philosophy.
The Sanskrit word for spirituality is Adhyatma or Adhyatmikta. The word Adhyatma is derived from a combination of two words: Adhi and Atma. Adhi implies empowerment and Atma could mean soul, the self, the Higher Being or conscience. The implied meaning of Adhyatma would be everything that is done by the empowerment of the Atma. This is to say everything that the Atma allows.
In this context, therefore, the meaning of the word Atma would be closer to conscience. Thus the meaning of spirituality would be the development of this conscience. The scriptures further suggest that this conscience is developed in people by understanding their own self and their purpose in life. People also need to understand their relationship with the universe that surrounds them as well as their obligations towards this universe and the self. Finally, people ought to act by the guidance of this developed conscience.
And this is where, I believe, the distinction between religion and spirituality lies. Religion performs an important function of buffering stress in individuals but spirituality is the ‘voice of that conscience’ that guides us towards that which is good for our fellow beings. Anything that makes us better human beings, in layman’s terms
Conceptualizing spirituality as something related to higher powers/higher being puts it beyond the reach of atheists and others who may not believe in the existence of a higher power besides the self. The introduction of ethics here would also make it dependent on other social and cultural variables that would color the ‘spirit’ in spirituality. It is therefore necessary to either reconcile these conceptual contaminations or do away with them.
Considering all of these aspects, I propose the following definition of spirituality: ‘Development of one’s conscience through understanding one’s own self, one’s purpose in life, and one’s relation with the universe around one (and by extension one’s obligations)’. The definition would also extend to include one’s following (as in acting in accordance with) this developed conscience.