Religion vs Spirituality: An Old Debate Revisited

While the practice of religion is mostly collective, spirituality is an intensely personal quest

Let’s start at the very beginning – with life. Ancient wisdom associates life with breath, for we breathe only as long as we are alive. In fact, breath, or spiritus in Latin, is the origin of the word “spirituality.” All living beings – whether belonging to the plant or animal kingdoms – have a bodily process that likens breathing. Even plants take nourishment from air.

The source of the word “religion” is more debatable. The most commonly accepted explanation is that the word derives from “re + ligare” – implying, a re or again, plus ligare or bond/connect. This connection is usually interpreted as one with the divine, and insofar as the bondage aspect is concerned, to indicate a sense of servitude to the Almighty.

The word, religion, thus brings two additional concepts into the picture – the presence of a revered Almighty and the need to connect with, serve and obey this Being. Over centuries, religion has come to be associated with the practice of a set of certain beliefs, with a specific definition and understanding of the Almighty and His Commands as central to each other.

This opinion or understanding, who the Almighty is, often takes precedence over a broader acceptance of life in general. This is where spirituality scores, as its foundation is the concept of all living forms being part of a unified whole. Spirituality does not compartmentalise humanity on the basis of belief systems. In fact, some would say that spirituality goes still further, for it seeks to draw our attention to all living forms, not merely human beings. This emphasis on life or conscious beings, o r consciousness, itself is what spirituality is all about. Hence, to be spiritual, is to be aware of consciousness – within and without, throughout our world and beyond.

My religion, your religion versus our spirituality

In recent times, we have clearly witnessed humanity face the challenge of religious intolerance and, as a corollary, the segregation and insulation of certain communities. Even though the majority believe that this fallout was most certainly not the aim of any religion, it may be said that when religion makes such a religion of itself [pun intended!], it fails to keep alive its essence. Your reconnecting with the Supreme should by no means overwhelm, but if we fail to accept each others’ understanding of the Supreme, we have a problem on our hands. More seriously, if your faith, in any way, leads you to trespass on someone’s life, or on the lives of our loved ones, our problem is compounded exponentially.

An increasing manifestation of such problems has led to marked distinctions being drawn between religion and spirituality. A debate has also erupted to discuss ways to resolve any impending crisis brought about by religion. In the process, it is often said that religion must be more tolerant and accepting, and that we need a movement towards a more intuitive form of religion.

This is easier said than done, for doesn’t this imply that our problems may be rooted within religion? Or, perhaps what we have collectively made of religion?

Religion – entity and protocol

While the practice of religion is mostly collective [think of religious congregations], spirituality is an intensely personal quest.

All religions have practically become synonymous with a powerful, bureaucratic organisational structure – an entity in itself – preaching a set of equally influential, rigid practices. Once created, this entity needs to be protected. Hence, the keepers of religion often fear change, quite forgetting, that God and truth need no protection.

Spirituality, however, is free in form. It permits and encourages an ever-expanding understanding of our world and the Universe. Contrary to having set ideas, spirituality grows as every seeker widens his/her horizons. Perhaps, this is the key. Spirituality is associated with those who are “continuously finding and experiencing,” whereas religion has to do with those who “accept and practice.” Hence, spirituality is the way of seekers, while religion is the path of followers.

Inference: religion will do well to take a leaf from spirituality’s ever-growing tree.

Back to the basics

It appears that religion urgently needs to infuse itself with more spirituality to re-emerge from its essence. Spirituality though is doing fine without the backing of religion! In fact, humanity is increasingly talking about values, and all this is giving spirituality a boost, virtually leading to a widespread spiritual movement. Just think of the number of New-Age sects!

However, since spirituality was never meant to be so [remember solo, not organised] this chaos will end, sooner or later. Truth will reveal itself and prevail. The rest will fall away as though chaff. The essence will live; the trappings will fade.

Freed Wisdom

  • Spirituality encourages growth, it demands no affiliation or abandoning of the religion you were born to or adopted. Spirituality is as innocent as a child; religion claims to know all the answers
  • Spirituality actually helps inculcate a childlike questioning and explorative mind. The seeker decides whether to take for granted any existing spiritual wisdom as his/her journey’s starting point, or figure things out by him/her. In spite of offering spiritual seekers this freedom, the power of spirituality lies in the fact that all its seekers, sooner or later, experience the oneness of life first-hand, irrespective of whether they drew their inspiration from nature or otherwise – the greatest single manifestation of life or spirituality – or, from astronomy [the night or day skies]
  • Oneness implies being part of a connected, conscious Universe. This oneness, once experienced, is gripping and empowering for it pervades the seeker’s life. Truly spiritual persons express their spirituality in the choices they make – whether their actions, food, clothing, whatever. The preservation of life and, consequently, the inculcation and practice of values that further this end become the seeker’s path. Some religious people believe that spirituality is for the non-serious, those who choose to be wishy-washy about their religion. Evidently, this is not true
  • Certain devout also claim that, in essence, all religions hold the same wisdom as spirituality – the oneness of life. While this is true, religion has humanity dancing to its tune, masked as though at a fancy dress party, where everyone only sees each others’ facade, not their true self. Spirituality, on the other hand, encourages the seeker to experience the truth with no pretensions coming in the way.


  1. An excellent account of religion and spirituality. I particularly liked how religion needs to reharness more emphasis on spiritual development. I agree that organised religions do sometimes tend to become rather dogmatic with its adherents. Open minded, flexible thinking should override a tendancy to fall into dogma and black and white thinking all or nothing thinking.


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