A yogic monk looks at the differences between spirituality and religion

by Dada Maheshvarananda


As a yoga monk and spiritualist, I strongly believe that we must think deeply about our vision for world peace. For the sake of our children and all living beings, we have a duty to encourage every movement that contributes to it and struggle against all divisive and exploitative trends. So what should be our attitude towards organized religions? Different people hold vastly different opinions about the world’s churches and faiths. How can we decide what is good or bad about them?

The Ecumenical Movement

Tolerance of other faiths, dialog to discover common views, and working together for common social goals are the foundation of the ecumenical movement. The World Network of Religious Futurists (http://www. wnrf.org/about/faq.htm) is one such endeavor. While I applaud their ecumenical efforts, I disagree with their conclusion that organized religions will still exist in 3000.

My first experiences with the ecumenical movement in Brazil highlight the possibilities and the dangers of this approach. One month before the historic 1992 Global Forum that took place in Rio de Janeiro alongside the Earth Summit, I was invited to help organize an inter-religious vigil for that event. I was skeptical, because praying for the welfare of the earth is, I think, less important than our actions. However, in the first meeting at the Institute for Religious Studies (ISER), the organizer, Ruben Fernandez, impressed me because he gave equal respect to the representatives of every tradition, from the Catholic priest to the old woman saint of the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda tradition, from the Lutheran minister to the Hare Krishna devotee. More than 20 different religions, spiritual paths and esoteric groups participated, each allotted their own structure in the park, to practice according to their beliefs. Nearly 10,000 people stayed until dawn, when everyone gathered in the amphitheater. There the Dalai Lama and Dom Helder Camara, the former head of the Brazilian Council of Catholic Bishops, shared the stage with leaders of other faiths. At the end the religious leaders were embracing one another and all were singing and dancing together to the spiritual music of different traditions. It was an unforgettable vision of the future, of people from every race and land living together in peace and harmony with the planet.

Another ecumenical group tried twice to stage inter-religious programs at the same Global Forum. The result of these shows by the Open Heart Foundation was disastrous. The organizers invited representatives from different religions and spiritual groups to the stage, but when we arrived, they did not even want to know our names or what groups we represented. They explained that they wanted us all to sit on the stage as a colorful background while they gave a lecture. At the end we would all hold hands and read aloud their prayer for world peace. They would have done better to hire a group of professional actors dressed in different costumes!

This symbolizes some very serious problems with the current paradigm of the major world religions.

Dogma Vs. World Peace

In The Liberation of Intellect: Neo-Humanism, Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar defines dogma as any intellectual barrier beyond which one may not question. Examples of some religious dogmas are the ideas that we are the chosen people of God and others are not, that ours is the only way, that we are going to heaven and everyone else is going to hell, that only our holy book is the word of God.

I remember an incident from my childhood that typifies religious dogma. When I was 11 years old, I attended a catechism class in a conservative church in the southern USA. During the class I raised my hand to ask a question. The pastor said, "Don’t ask questions! Have faith! Blind faith!" Then and now I believe that faith and surrender have value on the spiritual path, but I also believe that we have the right to ask questions. A fundamental spiritual principle, called Svadhyaya in Sanskrit, states that we should utilize our intellect in our search for truth. Fanaticism, even religious violence, occurs when adherents of a religion blindly follow their dogmatic leaders without thinking for themselves.

Another popular trend today is materialist appeals in religion. Preachers urge us to ask God in prayer for what we want, and they share the testimonies of those who found a better job, became rich, were cured of painful ailments. With a materialist outlook, these are boons, but with a spiritual outlook, they may be the opposite. Personal problems, loss of wealth or possessions, the death of loved ones, fall from power or physical suffering may be the crisis or tragedy that awakens in us a greater devotion for God. The Indian writer, spiritualist and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, understood this when he wrote: "My prayer to You is not ‘Save me from danger,’ but ‘Bless me so that I can overcome danger.’ You need not take away all suffering, but bless me so that I can overcome it."

Years ago I attended a lecture by evangelist Hal Lindsey, who has spent his career predicting and praying for the imminent second coming of Christ and the destruction of the planet, the ‘day of final judgment.’ At the conclusion, the entire audience raised their index finger to indicate "There is only one way to heaven!" This dogma concludes that there is no reason to do charity or to work for social justice, ecology or world peace. Instead they only try to baptize and save souls before the fateful day arrives. The worst example of this is the recent, well-documented cultural destruction of dozens of remote Indian tribes in Central and South America by American evangelists of the New Tribes Mission and the Summer Institute of Linguistics. They offer a lot of material possessions, then teach that tribal ways are sinful. The tribe becomes divided, and many suffer severe depression, malnutrition, sickness and thoughts of suicide.

In the past, male religious leaders invented dogmas to suppress women; sadly some of these dogmas still survive. Orthodox Hindus believe that only men can achieve liberation; women must be reborn as men before they can hope for this. Others believe that women cannot be priests. Some say that women are the original cause of sin. These dogmas must be discarded, for regardless of the physical and psychological differences between men and women, spiritually they are equals.

Intolerance and Conflict

Fundamentalism and fanaticism are darkening the psychic climate in some parts of the world. In the Middle East, hatred and fear between Jews and Muslims is growing. Both groups are of the same racial Semitic stock, yet the growing violence is driving a wedge ever deeper between them. Religious riots and armed conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in India are increasing. Fear of religious violence is a constant part of life amongst Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka, amongst Christians and Muslims in Sudan, East Timor and the southern Philippines, between Christians and Protestants in Northern Ireland and between Sunni and Shiite Muslims of Iran and Iraq. Structural violence is equally terrifying. In Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh and other Muslim countries, the oppression of women and the violence that the courts mete out to criminals are barbaric and repulsive.

Why is religious fundamentalism growing? Too many people feel they have no future. Unemployment, heavy debt, insecurity, urbanization and Westernization are marginalizing millions. They clearly do not feel part of the capitalist dream presented by Hollywood with beautiful, rich, happy American actors. Alienated, confused, with little hope for the ever-elusive material wealth and romantic fulfillment, people fall into personal despair or turn to religion as a way out.

The majority of religious conflicts are rooted in economic injustice. Countless petty tyrants have followed Hitler’s formula for political success: preach to the poor and unemployed that the cause of their suffering is exploitation by followers of another religion. Sometimes these religious leaders whip up a frenzy of communal hatred that results in orgies of ethnic bloodshed. If we cannot eradicate the scourge of poverty, then it is reasonable to predict increasing religious violence as a consequence.

A Spiritual Vision

Only universalism can bring world peace. We are all brothers and sisters in one human family. We must treat each other with mutual respect and love regardless of race, caste or nation. A universal outlook is needed to overcome the harmful effects of racism, nationalism, sexism, etc. A world government that guarantees the fundamental necessities of life to everyone, that prevents any form of exploitation and that allows freedom of travel, should be our goal. The earth is our common heritage, so we must share it equitably. A universal and comprehensive outlook is also needed in the spiritual dimension. Dharma is an ancient Sanskrit term which means following righteousness and doing spiritual practices such as daily meditation. Our goal should be to channel our natural human instincts in a positive direction for our physical, mental and spiritual development. The path of Dharma is from imperfection to perfection, to become saint-like, to become God-like.

Wisdom, and not mere intellect, is a very rare, timeless quality that the world desperately needs. A wise person, understanding the deepest truths of life, becomes a fountain of divine love and inspiration. There are saints who, though illiterate, are respected by all for their wise counsel. Wisdom comes through knowledge of the self, through deep reflection and meditation.

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton urged spiritualists to take moral stands and point the way towards a new future that is not based on materialism and exploitation.

A new human ethics based on universal principles of morality should be the base of economic activity and global peace. For example, the ancient yogic principle, aparigraha is an ecological ideal of simple living, not accumulating unnecessary things. On the personal level it encourages the adoption of a humble lifestyle and donating extra wealth to charity. On the social level it is the basis of creating a ceiling on the excessive personal wealth that is robbing the planet of the resources that God gave to humanity. The Liberation theology of the Catholic Church, led and inspired by Brazilians Leonardo Boff, Frei Betto and others, and the courageous stands taken by some Catholic priests against the torture and killings of military dictatorships throughout Latin America are examples of spiritual leaders fighting for social justice.

Self-realization and service to the universe are universal goals that all people can be encouraged to adopt. Service work is both purifying and humbling. Bo Lozoff’s wonderful Prison-Ashram Project of the Human Kindness Foundation in the US is a sterling example of teaching ancient yoga techniques and sharing correspondence of love with more than 50,000 prisoners around the world (http://www.humankindness.org). The Chicago School of Theology was so impressed that they awarded Mr. Lozoff an honorary doctorate degree in divinity. From this example, for the last three years I’ve been teaching weekly meditation classes in the local prisons in Brazil.

The Paradox of a
Spiritual Future

I find myself in a paradoxical role. Spirituality is deeply important to me, but I do not teach religion. I love peace, but am dedicated to fighting against the enemies of peace.

It is only by taking the best from the East and the West, and by honoring the spiritual treasure at the heart of every religious tradition that we can make a better future. At the same time we must reject the dogmas and fight against injustice and exploitation wherever they are. It is our personal meditation and other spiritual practices which will give us the inner strength and inspiration to continue on our journey of self-development, creating a brilliant future for ourselves and a better world for our children.

Dada Maheshvarananda is the author of Neo-Humanist Ecology. He can be reached at: Proutista Universal Rua Buarque de Macedo 35 Floresta, Belo Horizonte MG CEP: 31015-350, Brazil. Tel/Fax: (31) 444-1574 http://www.prout.org http://www.proutworld.org ,  e-mail contact: maheshvarananda (at) prout.org

This article was printed in New Renaissance, Vol. 9, Number 3.