Home Spiritual Spiritual But Not Religious: Life Lessons from the Bhagavad-Gita

Spiritual But Not Religious: Life Lessons from the Bhagavad-Gita


Many people who practice yoga, or other forms of spiritual endeavour, consider themselves to be ‘spiritual but not religious. But what does this phrase mean?

Let’s look at two aspects of this statement:

  • The process of receiving spiritual knowledge, and
  • Understanding what makes someone “spiritual”

One of the ideas contained in the phrase ‘spiritual but not religious is that of an individual journey, as opposed to joining a team, church, or group. Unlike most religious paths, spiritual life, even if undertaken in the company of like-minded people, is always an individual journey. Most people see ‘religion’ as meaning a centralized organization, a church, or some ecclesiastical authority, that prescribes a particular doctrine that everybody must follow to be saved or liberated.

Those who use the phrase ‘spiritual but not religious’ often feel some aversion to the idea of participating in rituals, going through the motions, as if that is going to be the answer to their spiritual quest. I had that experience to some degree as a child. I was raised a Roman Catholic and was taught certain things you had to do, and things that you shouldn’t do. When we attended Mass, there were times to stand and to kneel, and prayers to say. I did not really understand why this was being done. People who want to be more ‘spiritual than religious’ are generally against this idea of blind faith – that by blindly accepting and following, somehow everything is going to work out. (1)

The Vedic system for acquiring knowledge is completely different. There is no concept of a central organization that is empowered by God and possesses all authority. The Vedic term that is used to describe one’s connecting with God, and the method of receiving knowledge, is Guru Parampara. The word “parampara” means passing something from one person to another, in this case, spiritual knowledge.

In a conventional religious system, often a person’s relationship is primarily with an institution, and the hierarchy within that organization who preach ‘the only truth.’ To be saved, I must surrender to the institution, church, or faith, and its hierarchy.

In this system, you will generally see that the highest authorities are appointed, elected, or anointed in some way. These authorities, in turn, anoint other priests lower down the hierarchy, who become the designated representatives of God within local communities. Adherents or followers of the faith then develop their relationship with God under the direction of these designated representatives.

In the system of Guru Parampara, the understanding is that if I want to progress spiritually, then I need to seek out a bona fide representative of God and cultivate a relationship with that person – to submissively enquire and take guidance from them on how to progress on the path of spiritual life.

There is a well-known and beautiful verse in the Bhagavad-Gita that says:

Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.

Bhagavad-Gita 4:34

In the Vedic tradition, one is trained from a young age not to blindly accept but to question. (2)This is an important part of one’s spiritual development. The mood of questioning is also important. If a person is asking questions in an aggressive, challenging way, it generally means that they think they know the truth and that they want to see if the person they are questioning agrees with their own (mis)understanding. By such so-called questioning, one is passing judgment. In contrast, however, by submissive inquiry, one understands and accepts that they are not in full knowledge of God, of the soul, and of the true nature of this world, so they do need to question – but in a humble manner. (3)

The initial contact between a student and a spiritual teacher is also about trying to understand whether this teacher is a bona fide representative of God, or not. It’s very easy for someone to say, “Oh! I’m a spiritual teacher. I know all these things.” The questioning process helps us come to understand whether someone is genuinely a bona fide representative of God, or not. In the system of Guru Parampara, the understanding is that all spiritual truth originates with the Supreme, with God. This knowledge is handed down in an unbroken line of spiritual teachers, and it is my responsibility to seek out such a genuine teacher or guru. (4)

If we really understand the spiritual meaning of the word ‘guru’, then we understand we are speaking of someone who is factually a pure love of God. This is a state of consciousness. It is a state of complete surrender. It is a condition of an intimate relationship with, and submission to, the Supreme Soul. When a person is an actual lover of God, they are automatically empowered to share what they have received. (5)

This system is vastly different from conventional religion, where you are just a part of a congregation, who shows up at church and then goes back to their material life. What we’re talking about is taking guidance from a genuine, authorized, and empowered spiritual teacher; guidance which we can then apply in our daily life, to become both selves- and God-realized.

The attempt to acquire spiritual understanding can be executed in one of two ways. One is called the ascending process, and the other one is the descending process. The ascending process is focused on an individual’s attempts at acquiring the ability, purity, and personal qualification to come to know and realize the Absolute Truth, by their own strength. The descending process is quite the opposite. It is based on the recognition of my own lack of qualification and ability, my own unworthiness; the fact that I am ignorant, that I do not currently possess the highest truth, but if somebody hands the Truth to me, I can receive it.

In the Bhagavad-Gita, after speaking about this system of Guru Parampara, Krishna states:

That very ancient science of the relationship with the Supreme is today told by Me to you because you are My devotee as well as My friend; therefore, you can understand the transcendental mystery of this science.

Bhagavad-Gita 4:3

Your capacity to understand this knowledge, and to have a profound realization of it, is very much dependent on your humility and submissiveness towards the Supreme Soul, and to receive this knowledge from a spiritual teacher or ‘guru’.

I am seated in everyone’s heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge, and forgetfulness.

Bhagavad-Gita 15.15

Unlike in ecclesiastical systems, an actual guru in Parampara is never appointed. Why? Because ‘guru’ is not a position but a state of consciousness, and while you can appoint someone to a position, you cannot appoint them to a state of consciousness.

One’s relationship with the guru has two components: submissive inquiry and the rendering of some service. This system enhances your spiritual growth and your advancement to the platform of actual God-realization.

As already stated, submissive inquiry includes trying to ascertain whether this teacher or guru is actually a representative of God. Part of our problem is often that we have not had training in how to question, but the Vedic scriptures are filled with such directions. There are also three things that you can use to verify the truth. These are the guru, sadhu, and shastra.

This means that what comes from the mouth of the guru must be perfectly in line with what is stated in shastra (scripture). If it is not, such a guru needs to be respectfully rejected. The sadhus are the saintly teachers of the past. When a guru speaks or teaches, his teaching must be perfectly in line with the previous spiritual authorities, and with what is in shastra. That is required. If these are not lined up; if somebody’s statements are not in line with the teaching of a bona fide guru, the previous authorities, and other scripture, then they are to be rejected.

Another important method of verification is the Supreme Lord or Paramatma, our dearest of friends, who sits within the heart of all living beings. If I go deep within my heart and I ask God, “Can I trust this person as Your actual representative?”, I will have some inkling as to whether I can fully embrace them, or whether I need to be cautious, or perhaps even reject them.

These are the safeguards that help a person in their quest to find a bona fide spiritual teacher. Having found such a teacher, one must approach in a mood of humility. The enquiry should be from the point of view that, “I don’t know this. Can you please tell me?” Then, one should take that knowledge away and contemplate, and consider it in light of what scripture says the statements of other spiritual authorities, and the Lord within my own heart. I question, “Does this all harmonize? Does this all match up?”

There is a great responsibility placed on the individual to use their intelligence and to seek out the Truth in a scientific manner. If you do not do this, then you may be cheated.

Turning now to the question of what is actually spiritual. The very core of this idea of ‘being spiritual’ lies in the understanding that ‘I’ am a spiritual being, and that this body I possess is not me. It is simply a vehicle that I, the spiritual resident within the body, amuse.

A person can be considered religious or very pious yet be completely immersed in the idea that “this body is me”, and “your body is you.” In such a condition, a person is not really living a truly spiritual life. Unless a person comes to this fundamental understanding, it is impossible to be genuinely spiritual.

True spirituality means that my life is based on the understanding that I am a spiritual being, this world is not my home, I cannot lay claim to this Earth, and I cannot find true shelter here. I am a transient, moving through this life and this world, and this world is not my shelter. I must seek my true shelter in another place. That shelter is the Supreme Soul. Living with this foundational understanding or realization means that I am truly living an enlightened life.

At the beginning of the Bhagavad-gita, Arjuna, a warrior prince, wanted to avoid an inevitable war on the grounds that killing was against ‘religious principles.’ He later came to understand that to abandon his duty as a warrior – which included the responsibility to fight to protect the innocent – was sinful. Thus, he was instructed to fight as an offering to the Supreme, without attachment to loss or gain. In this case, such spiritual undertaking transcended ‘religious principles.’

After giving Arjuna this very amazing understanding of what true spirituality is, Sri Krishna’s concluding statement to Arjuna was:

Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me [the Supreme Soul] I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.

Bhagavad-gita 18:66

To be truly spiritual means living a purpose-filled life based on the reality of my spiritual existence; a life that is dovetailed with the will of the Supreme Soul. Such a life will also be filled with compassion and love for all beings, and with great respect for the world, we live in.