What is the difference between spirituality and religion?
Religion basically comes from a Latin word, meaning to reconnect with God. Most religions have some rituals, rites of passage, meditations, prayers etc to feel a connection with God. These practices being esoteric in nature do not fit into the scientific paradigm. Therefore, the modern secular mind may or may not be comfortable with these.
Spirituality on the other hand is a very broad term. It is not really defined. A good working definition would be any activity that can enhance the human spirit. That is why there are so many spiritual practices across the world; from going for a walk in the woods to meditations etc. This division and the commonness of some practices may lead people to believe that spirituality is the basis for all religions. So, one could think of religion as a form and spirituality as the content behind the form.
In the Vedic tradition, we would look at the religious part as Vedic or Pauranic worship to enhance our worldly actions, so that we can achieve what we want in terms of success. The spiritual dimension could be represented by Vedanta which is primarily a means to know yourself and secondarily contains attitudes, meditations etc to enhance psychological growth.
Is there a God?
The idea of God has a powerful influence in a human being ‘s life. One’s idea of God is based very often on one’s psychological maturity. And since God is not scientifically provable many reject the idea of God, forgetting that God is not disprovable either. All ideas of Gods in various cultures talk about God as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Omnipotent and omniscient are easy to assume as God is spoken of as the Creator of everything. The problem comes in understanding the word ‘omnipresent’ because most ideas would limit God to some dimension. In the vision of Vedanta, God is not merely a creator, but also the material for creation. Since we are talking about time and space and everything in it, the material cannot be apart from God. Given this, the world is not a creation of God but more like a manifestation. If the creation is a manifestation as God is both the material and intelligence behind the creation, then god being omnipresent everywhere is a natural conclusion. Vedanta helps us to understand Iswara or God and not just believe in God.
What is the role of God in my life?
The question is not whether God has a role in my life or not. The question is: Do I recognise the role of God in my life? If the whole universe including my body and mind is a manifestation of God, then God becomes a matter of understanding not belief. So, the first role of God in my life is that I need to understand what God is. The more I understand God, any cognition or understanding will naturally have an emotional response. With respect to God, this emotional response would be called bhakti or devotion. By devotion I do not mean mere rituals or bhajans or some make-believe ideas. Therefore anyone who has some understanding of God cannot help but have devotion. This devotion expresses itself in various ways. Like if one thinks that God is everything , that person could say all my fellow beings are also manifestations of God. Therefore his devotion could manifest itself as helping the less fortunate manifestations or involvement in protection of the environment. This is called seva in traditional Indian thinking or understood in a contemporary way as development work. Bhakti could manifest itself after recognising the order that is God and my devotion is nothing but fulfilling my duties to the best of my abilities where my actions itself are offered as a worship to the Lord. In Vedanta, the highest devotion would be in recognising that God and I are essentially the same. So, the role of God in my life essentially depends on my understanding of God
What is karma?
The word karma literally means actions by a human being. This implies an action that is done with a certain amount of self awareness and freedom of choice. So, only human have karma and karma phala(fruits of actions). It can also mean the result of an action in the Vedic sense. So there can be worldly actions – some duty oriented and other desire prompted. Similarly there can be Vedic actions or rituals which can be duty oriented like regular worship or desire oriented actions like prayers and rituals for fulfilment of a particular desire. All actions can have a seen result which is very evident in the world. It is the unseen result that I may get in this life time or another lifetime which is often called karma but is technically karmaphala the result of an action. This result can be divided further into punya or paapa and samskaaras. Punya gives pleasurable and conducive situations in one’s life and paapa the opposite. Samskaaras create a pattern or conditioning in my thinking and behaviour.
Who is a guru? Do I need one?
The word guru is very often used loosely to indicate an expert in his field. Like there are marketing and management gurus etc. Really speaking, the word guru was used only for a spiritual teacher. People rich in experience and knowledge were called jnana vriddhas, shreshthas, acharyas etc. Homage was paid to them on Dassera day. Guru Purnima was reserved for the spiritual master or guru. In the Vedic tradition, spiritual wisdom was always equated with self knowledge. By self, meaning not just the body and mind but one who is aware of the body and mind. Even in psychology which deals with thoughts and emotions, one may need a guide to understand oneself.
Vedanta goes beyond psychology. In the Vedic vision, all individuals are born with self ignorance. Therefore any attempt to read or speculate about oneself will be tainted with self ignorance. Therefore I need to be introduced to myself by someone who knows the real me and is free from the taint of self ignorance. Such a person is called a guru. Therefore on the spiritual path, the guru is one who has walked the path before and therefore can help me get there myself. The fact that all realised people had gurus indicate them as being indispensable in unfolding the message of the Vedas.
How does one find a right guru?
When the student is ready, the guru appears. So, one must really want the self knowledge and be open to learning which means one is willing to challenge every belief and concept of oneself on the path to self knowledge. One would have already explored self growth issues and have a lot of unanswered questions regarding life and its reality. When one discovers the student in oneself, one may discover the guru in the most unlikely of places. It is always better to go to someone who stands in a tradition or parampara of teacher-student. All gurus have gurus.