Religion is the first attempt of man to get beyond himself and beyond the obvious and material facts of his existence.
– SRI AUROBINDO
Religion provides a framework for ethical behaviour, and links it to supernatural entities such as God and celestial creatures, and mysterious phenomena such as life after death. Every religion has four basic components. The first and foremost of these is an underlying spiritual philosophy. Spiritual philosophy defines the relationship of the individual with the Creator and His creation. With respect to the spiritual philosophy, there is a great deal of similarity between religions. The second component of religion is an ethical code. The most essential features of the ethical codes of different religions are also very similar. Truth, love, self-control and surrender to the Divine are the core values in the ethical codes of all religions. However, there are several other items in the ethical code, which are peculiar to each religion. These items might be regarding what one may or may not eat, how many times a day one should pray, how many times one may marry, and so on. Ethical codes provide precise rules about what to do and what not to do. Simple dos and don’ts in black and white are relished by the average person because of their clarity and finality. Ethical codes have been drafted by the founders of religions with the best of intentions to simplify the difficult process of right living for the average man. While several of the items in these ethical codes are timeless in character, some of these were appropriate only at the time and place of the founding of the religion. That is why, with the passage of time, rigid and detailed ethical codes may become difficult to follow in their entirety. The third component of a religion is its rituals and ceremonies. There are a few things, such as lighting a lamp or candle, which are common to many religions. But, by and large, the rituals and ceremonies of each religion are distinct. The fourth component of a religion is the myths and legends associated with it. These are naturally different for each religion, and are partly related to its origin, growth and development. It is, thus, the rituals, ceremonies, myths and legends of each religion that give it a distinct identity. These are the external, highly visible aspects of each religion. Although these are the least important aspects of religion, in practice, they get the maximum attention. As a result, the differences between religions get unduly highlighted. Ideally, the superficial aspects of religion should lead a person towards its deeper aspects. At the deeper spiritual level, the differences between religions tend to vanish, and whatever differences do remain cease to matter. Sri Ramakrishna achieved spiritual realization several times through the successive practice of various religions. The descriptions of the spiritual experiences of the rishis, sufis and mystics of different religious traditions are remarkably similar (see, for example, Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy). The spiritual worldview, based on their experiences, can be the basis of an ethically sound and meaningful life, quite independent of any ethical code. Further, the ethical guidance based on the spiritual worldview has a timeless and universal character. That is why, spirituality can also be the most dependable basis of human unity. Uniting humanity is also literally the function of religion (re, again, ligare, to tie or unite). But because of the emphasis on the superficial aspects of religions, religions have often ended up dividing mankind. Religion is good as a gateway to spirituality, but no religion is good enough as the ultimate anchor. That is why, religion has been called the kindergarten of spirituality. Or, as Swami Vivekananda said, any religion is good enough to be born in; no religion is good enough to die in. Having said that, the overall effect of religions on mankind, however, has been positive, in spite of the divisions and even violence that they have occasionally triggered.
Acknowledgement: I am happy to acknowledge the insight into the four aspects of religions that I gained from Prof. V.G. Bhide.