“Loving God is the natural function of every living entity. It doesn't matter whether you are a Christian or a Hindu or a Muhammadan. Just try to develop your love of God. Then your religion is very nice.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Journey of Self-Discovery, 2.6)
Comment: “I just want to state that religion and spirituality are TWO DIFFERENT things, which most religions are far from spiritual (especially Catholics and Christians). Also, A LOT of what people claim is a religion, like Hinduism and Buddhism, ARE NOT religions, but mere ways of life... ways of viewing and experiencing.”
Response: Religion certainly means different things to different people. The ancient scriptures of India, the Vedas, actually don’t have a term that matches up with religion. The closest thing we can find is the term “dharma”, which is a much more concrete definition of what spiritual life really means. Dharma is that which is the essential quality of something, and when it is applied to the living entities, it means that the living entities’ natural occupation is that of being a loving servant of the Supreme Lord. Religion generally means a kind of faith; a set of guidelines which certain groups of people adhere to, while others do not. Faith can change at a whim, and we see that the religious beliefs of various sects around the world have certainly morphed over the years. It is for this reason that many people are justified in viewing the term “religion” with contempt.
Religion is also equated today with the practice of organized establishments, similar to how political organizations operate. The major established religions of the world today are run by governing bodies, with policies determined by the votes of the higher members. Now there is certainly some merit to having a governing board which oversees basic doctrine, but as we see in the arena of politics, things can get muddied fairly quickly through influence-peddling and corruption. People start holding strong to their positions and end up fighting with each other simply to advance their own personal agenda.
A great example of this can be seen with the practice of meat eating. The Ten Commandments clearly state that “Thou Shall Not Kill”, yet we see that religious leaders of today have no problem with the existence of slaughterhouses. The Vedas tell us that every living entity, from Lord Brahma all the way down to an ant, has a spirit soul residing within that forms the basis of their identity. This means that even animals have souls. This concept isn’t very difficult to understand if we apply a little intelligence. We human beings have souls because we know that as soon as we die, our bodies become useless. Our bodies don’t necessarily change at the time of death, but what causes our life to end is the exit of the soul from within the body. This means that our real identity, the guiding force, the master of the ship, is the soul within.
Animals are no different in this regard. Their bodies are very similar to human beings. Like us, they eat, sleep, mate, and defend. They may not have the same level of intelligence as humans, but they still perform many of the same activities. Their physical makeup can be so similar to those of humans that many scientists perform research on lab animals to test the effects of drugs and other therapies. Since even animals are living entities, the Vedas advise that we shouldn’t unnecessarily kill them. Formerly animals used to only be killed during elaborate sacrifices which were performed with the aim of achieving great material benefit and not simply as an excuse to eat meat. These sacrifices would test the mantra recitation capabilities of the brahmanas, or priests. Gradually over time, the practice degraded to the point where brahmanas were performing animal sacrifice simply as an excuse to eat animal flesh. Thus the practice was completely abolished, though the principle of non-violence towards innocent animals never actually changed.
Contrast this with today’s situation where millions of innocent animals, including cows, are sent to the slaughterhouses every year simply to satisfy the taste buds of the general public. Such a practice should never be sanctioned by any serious religious leader, but we see that this is not the case. In order to justify their sanction of meat eating, these same religious leaders have concocted the idea that animals don’t have souls. “Even if they do have souls, they are not the same as those of human beings”. Now this notion is actually quite silly, for a soul is a soul; there is no difference in quality between the souls of various living entities.
The only difference can be found with the soul of the Supreme Lord, who is known as maha-purusha, while we living entities are just ordinary purusha. Purusha means spirit, male, or controller. Matter by itself is dull and incapable of motion or action. It needs the hand of purusha in order for it to move. The example of the body can be used again. If it weren’t for the spirit soul, or purusha, residing within, our body would be completely useless. Death is the event of purusha exiting a material body (prakriti). The same principle holds true in the body of an animal. The components of the body of a cow are simply matter, or prakriti. It is the soul within, purusha, which causes the machine known as the body to function. Killing the animal means forcing the purusha to exit.
Another excuse given for animal killing is that animals lack the intelligence of human beings. Even this reasoning can be refuted quite easily. When a human being is an infant, its intelligence is actually less than that of many animals. Moreover, we don’t just kill a human being simply based off its intelligence. In life we meet many smart people and many unintelligent people, but we would never decide who should live and who should die based on this characteristic. Yet that is precisely what is done with animals. For example, cats and dogs aren’t sent to slaughterhouses. On the contrary, they are held in high esteem by their owners, for many people treat their pets better than they do their own family members. Yet what is the difference between a dog and a cow? A cow is so kind and compassionate; it doesn’t bother anyone. It simply requires some grass to eat and a place to stay. In exchange for this protection, the cow kindly offers us milk which can sustain our lives. The same can’t be said of a dog.
Yet just because the meat of a cow tastes palatable, people have taken to sending them to slaughterhouses by the millions each year. Religious leaders, not wanting to give up their meat eating habits, make up excuses for this animal killing by changing their established principles, for even many years ago the Catholic Church advised its members to refrain from eating meat on Fridays. So this is where people get turned off by religion. It is certainly a fact that animals have souls, but established religions around the world say otherwise, thus people have a hard time taking such religions seriously. As mentioned before, real religion is something that should never change because the relationship between the living entities and God never changes.
“The English word ‘religion is a little different from sanatana-dharma. Religion conveys the idea of faith, and faith may change. One may have faith in a particular process, and he may change this faith and adopt another, but sanatana-dharma refers to that activity which cannot be changed.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, Introduction)
We can also see the degradation of religion by studying how religious leaders are elected today. For example, when the Pope dies, there is a vote that takes place to determine the new pontiff. The worldwide media coverage of these votes is quite insightful. There are roundtable discussions held with “experts” speculating over what the new Pope’s policies might be. “Will they allow gay marriage? Will they still hold firm on the issue of abortion, taking it to be a sin?” Thus we see that politics plays a huge part in established religion today. The principles of spiritual life should never change because spirit itself is unchanging, as is God.
“It is said that the soul is invisible, inconceivable, immutable, and unchangeable. Knowing this, you should not grieve for the body.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.25)
Many people prefer the term “spirituality” over “religion”. Spirituality refers the true nature of the living entity, that of a spirit soul. Yet just knowing that we are spirit souls is not enough. As we see with all living entities, there is an inherent desire for activity. The exact nature of this activity certainly varies, but we still see that everyone wants to do something. Everyone has to be somewhere, doing something. So what is that something that we should be doing? The Vedas tell us that it is our nature to be servants. This may seem strange to hear at first, for we all love the concept of independence. It is certainly more pleasing to act on our own whims instead of listening to others, but this doesn’t mean that we still aren’t servants.
Our service mentality manifests through love. We love our country, our fellow man, our friends, spouse, and children. Loving someone means wanting more for the other person than you want for yourself. This love comes out in a variety of ways. Some of us love through intimate association, while others love through teaching and providing counsel. Even something as simple as filling up the gas for our spouse’s car can be considered an act of love. So we see that the commonality in all these activities is service. The Vedas tell us that this service mentality is actually an outgrowth of our original constitutional position as loving servants of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna.
“…the tendency to love and serve others is your dharma, or your religion. This is the universal form of religion. Now, you have to apply your loving service in such a way that you will be completely satisfied. Because your loving spirit is now misplaced, you are not happy.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Journey of Self-Discovery, 2.6)
Spiritual life means directing our service to the Supreme Lord. This service also must be performed voluntarily and with love, otherwise it is not pure. Real religion means serving God in a loving way, with all our hearts. So how do we practice this service? This is the million dollar question. Along with dharma, the Vedas give us the term “yoga”. Not to be confused with gymnastics exercises, real yoga means linking our soul with the Supreme Soul, or God. There are different ways to practice this linking, but the topmost system is known as bhakti yoga, or devotional service.
Devotional service involves nine different processes, the perfection of any of which can provide spiritual union with God. Though there are nine processes, two of them are recommended for the people of this age: chanting and hearing. These two processes can be simultaneously executed by regularly chanting “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare” out loud with our friends and family, or simply to ourselves.
In order to achieve success in yoga, one must practice it all the time. This means that bhakti yoga should be a way of life, not something we do for five minutes a day, as is the case with many pseudo-yogis and gurus. These spiritual leaders sit in meditation for a few minutes each day and then spend the rest of their time smoking cigarettes, eating meat, and indulging in other forms of sense gratification. Even the animals engage their time in sense gratification, so it is incumbent upon human beings to make the most of their intelligence by rising above animalistic tendencies. Understanding that we are spirit soul is one thing, but practically realizing it is a different matter. We can be a believer of the tenets of the Vedas, but this doesn’t mean that we should stop there. As previously mentioned, it is our nature to always be active. If we aren’t practicing yoga, then we are more likely to fall back into the pit of animalistic life. Living life without following the guidelines of a bona fide spiritual discipline is akin to animal life.
The term “spirituality” certainly describes dharma more accurately than does the term “religion”. But as we see, spirituality must be matched up with a full-time discipline in order for one to be considered on the path of dharma. Thus we can say that “spirituality as a way of life” is a more accurate translation for dharma. At this point one may ask, “Why even use the term religion if it is so inaccurate? Wouldn’t you be better served just using terms like dharma, spirituality, yoga, way of life, etc?” There is validity to these concerns, but we have to keep one underlying principle in mind. The Vedas themselves were originally transmitted in the Sanskrit language, which is also known as the language of the gods. These Sanskrit verses were carefully crafted and are very intricate, meaning even people born and raised in India have a hard time understanding them. We currently live in the Kali Yuga, which is known as the dark age of quarrel and hypocrisy. This means that people’s mental capabilities are greatly diminished from those who lived in ages past. It is for this reason that translation of the Vedas into other languages is required.
Regardless of what we may think of the term, “religion” is the word that most people associate with spiritual life. Thus in order to properly convey ideas and thoughts contained in the Vedas, we must make use of the term religion from time to time, as flawed as it may be. The same issue occurs with the term “God”. God can mean so many different things to different people, and the Vedas themselves don’t have any term that directly matches up to it. The Vedas tell us that the Supreme Lord’s opulences and powers are unlimited, thus He is given thousands of names. His primary name is Krishna, meaning one who is all-attractive. Krishna is also referred to as Bhagavan, meaning one who possesses all opulences. We are also supplied with others names such as Rama (one who gives transcendental pleasure), Parameshava (the supreme ishvara, or controller), Achyuta (one who is infallible), Govinda (one who gives pleasure to the senses and the cows), etc. Since these terms can’t really translate directly to God, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada invoked the term “The Supreme Personality of Godhead” to describe Krishna. This term is still limited in a sense, but it is certainly more descriptive than the term “God”.
“The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.2.6)
When describing God’s glories to others, issues of translations, vernacular, and semantics will certainly come up from time to time, but we must remember that the ultimate goal is to awaken every person’s dormant love for the Lord. Words exist for the purpose of communication, and the highest message we can communicate to our fellow man is that we should all reacquaint ourselves with our original friend, the Supreme Lord. That is the universal religion. We should all make a sincere effort to take up spirituality as a way of life. People of all ages and all cultural backgrounds can follow the simple formula of regularly chanting Hare Krishna and abstaining from the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex. This will lead us towards loving devotional service to Krishna, which is the supreme occupation for all of humanity.