What is Spirituality?

‘Spirituality’ needs to be defined, if possible, although no one can give a clear definition about it or claim to have understood it totally.

As a bhakta of Mukitinath, “Love your God and love (or serve) your neighbour (meaning whoever is in need) could summarise this spirituality. Summarizing even further, I use my favorite word, relationship, both with God and others (including non-humans).

For a typical Hindu, ‘spirituality’ could mean many things. ‘Aanmiiham’ in Tamil, ‘Atmikta’ in Hindi, and perhaps ‘Adyatmika’ in Sanskrit although this word does not have a standard definition. But for the majority of Hindus, spirituality is personal and individualistic. For example, in Tamil we often say, ‘Anmiiha vidudalai’ (liberation in anmiiham). But what is this liberation is a big question. In general we take it to mean liberation from the karma.

But a common, practical understanding of spirituality for most Hindus is doing one’s own dharma – which is largely social requirements. For this, one’s personal faith is not required. Dharma can and should work independently from faith. Faith is personal, even though it has social implications in its wider perspective.


Where should spirituality be taught?

Some feel that spirituality should be taught at home and others think it should be left to the swamijis in the Mutt, or guru’s, etc. But like faith, spirituality is left with the individual to work out her own way that suits her personality. In most homes, they teach certain rituals as per the family tradition. Rarely will two individuals in a Hindu home sit and discuss ‘spirituality’.  All of the recent developments of reading, learning and discussion on some scriptures like Bhagavad Gita are a modern development. Some sectarian texts were taught or recited regularly in homes or important functions organized for this purpose. (For example, Divyaprabandam Parayanam is arranged, mostly at a temple on important family events). I know in North India, when a person is nearing death, some kind of ‘katha’ or reciting Bhagavad Gita by the Pandit is arranged–but nothing is taught or explained.

Even attending religious discourses like ‘katha kalashebaam’, ‘bhajans’, ‘akhanda keerthanas’ etc., falls within the premise of ‘religious sadhana’ like visiting a temple but nothing is discussed once they return back home. Instead, the discussion will be about the jewels and dress of the speaker (if she is a woman), or the oratory, or the bliss (paravasam, maimarandu podal=forgot oneself) while listening to some bhajans or keethans. Nothing seriously discussed on the philosophical level.

Swamijis know that people come to them with their mundane problems and needs and are not seeking any philosophical answers to the issues in life. These days Sri Indra Sowdarajan is sharing about the life and teaching of Kanchi Maha Periyava (late Jagadguru Sri Chandrasekara Saraswati Maha Swami). He will often mentioned how ‘swamiji was very sensitive and even predicting the need and problem of his devotees and gave (practical) solutions and tried to solve it. That is why there is a common saying that while keeping ‘paramartika’ (transcendental) for themselves they are more ‘vyavakarika’ (non-transcendental) in dealing with their followers.

This ‘dharma’ is also not uniformly translated in every regional language. For example ‘Aram’ is used for ‘Dharma’ in Tamil. But ‘aram’ also means doing some charity. And while giving a talk on doing or following ‘aram’ while quoting from various Tamil scriptures I have seen many quotes taken out of context. Where it is specifically mentioned as ‘charity’, it will be explained as ‘duty’, and vice versa. For example, the very first line in Athichudi by Owvaiyar is ‘aram saiya virumbu’ (have desire to do aram). To many it means ‘be charitable’. But it could also mean follow your dharma.

A universal problem common to every faith is that its concepts or precepts are not in a plain reading of the scripture(s), but in the interpretation of their exponents. And spirituality is the first victim to it.



The following is a brainstorm I wrote in 2012. It is more of a philosophical response.



For me relationship is the end of spirituality. True spirituality should reflect our relationship with God, Creation and Human beings.

Next, relationship is based on value (principles, ideology, etc.) which alone could help us to know how to have that relationship and then maintain it to reach its logical conclusion.

Leaving other secular ideas about that value which could help or govern our value, here I am restricting myself with religious one.

Traditionally, in India, to give an over-simplified formula, three kinds of sadhanas or margas help us to have this value. They are Jnana, Karma and Bhakti.

Jnana helps us to have a clear theoretical understanding about that value, bhakti gives the purpose and Karma helps to implement it in practical life.

Though all three sadhanas are essential for us to know and implement the value, jnana is considered the most important among the three. Because without having the right kind of knowledge (jnana) the other two will become mere sentiment (bhakti) and legalism (karma). Similarly, without karma and bhakti, jnana will remain barren theory with intellectual arrogance or stoic indifference.

Jnana helps us have a clear and right understanding about value. But the first danger here is that our particularly understanding about value could make us judge others’ jnana from our perspective. So true jnana will never judge others’ knowledge (from her or any other perspective).

Having said this, can we apply the same formula regarding one’s jnana about God? Though one should not judge others knowledge about God (from a personal understanding), yet how does it help her to have right knowledge about bhakti and karma? In deciding value, which is fundamental to relationship? All the three are important. But knowledge could be the foundation.

Db. Gurukulam, February 10, 2012