What is the difference between religion and spirituality?

According to Indian tradition, while religion includes ritualism, customs, theology, mythology, philosophy, and, in fact, encompasses everything regarding God, the emphasis of spirituality is on the philosophy of life, transformation of life, and a way to attain eternal peace, joy, wisdom and freedom

Spirituality focuses on the realization of one's own real Self, which is pure consciousness, existence, knowledge and bliss absolute at the individual level. This is the same as the realization
of God or the Supreme Reality, Existence, Knowledge and Bliss Absolute at the macro level.

What is the difference between a cult and a mainstream religion?

All mainstream religions emphasize realization of God/The Self, purity, love for all, truthfulness, selfless service, and transparency of purpose. Cults, on the other hand, are secretive and narrow, and may even advocate violence and hatred toward non-conformists, creating disharmony in society.

Religion must teach the truth, so why are there such differences in their beliefs? For example, one has only
one life in Christianity, yet many lives in Hinduism, etc.?

Religions have originated and grown under different circumstances in different ages in different regions. Hence, various differences are found in religion. In spite of such differences in some areas there is perfect unity among all religions and their messages in various religions. For example most religions share views on morality, purity, truthfulness, compassion, selfless service, renunciation of the non-eternal in the quest for the eternal, prayer and contemplation, and finally, love of God.

What can religion do to solve the problem of war?

Religion can certainly help to solve the problems of war by creating an ambience of mutual love, respect and understanding among citizens of a country, peoples of the world, and devotees of different religions, by emphasizing the presence of the same God in everyone, or the interconnectedness of everyone irrespective of one's caste, creed and country through the same Self; also by emphasizing and practicing the idea of universal love and selfless service by seeing the presence of God in everyone..

I think religion makes one weak. What do you say?

Religion wrongly taught, understood and practised makes one weak, indolent and even a wrong doer, but religion rightly understood and practised will definitely make one pure, strong, active and wise. Did religion make Buddha, Christ, Sri Ramakrishna or Swami Vivekananda and their disciples weak? Did religion make Gandhi-ji weak, or the opposite? Do the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita make one weak and indolent, or quite the opposite?

Is not religion responsible for innumerable
cases of violence perpetrated in the name of religion?

It is true that violence is often committed in the name of religion killing many. But is religion responsible for that? Will you also condemn and hold science responsible for the innovations in the instruments of war, for example, drones and smart bombs, including tactical atomic weapons, biological and depleted uranium (DU) weapons which have polluted, maimed and killed millions and millions of people? There are huge stockpiles of atomic weapons held by the great powers of the world that could extinguish human civilisation within a few minutes. Is science really responsible for this? Or will you not hold those who employ science and scientists for such nefarious and horrendous purposes responsible?

Why then should religion be held responsible for the acts of those committing violence in the name of religion? It is those people who have misunderstood religion, or self-serving religious and/or political leaders who have employed religion for their temporal or nefarious purposes that are responsible.

Moreover, you should consider how much religion has nourished and is nourishing millions of souls the world over through the ages and has given them peace, solace, joy and mental strength.

What is harmony of religions? Is it not enough
if I practice the religion in which I have sincere faith,
or must I believe in a 'harmony of religions'?

Harmony of religions is accepting the idea that each religion is but one path leading to the same God. Moreover, while adhering to the path one chooses and practising it sincerely, one should respect other faiths, their scriptures, prophets and devotees. A practising devotee can even draw inspiration from the scriptures, lives and teachings of saints of other faiths, and may even visit their places of worship and thereby derive spiritual benefit.

However, there is nothing wrong if you choose a faith and practise it exclusively, provided that you do not criticise other faiths, scriptures and prophets as false. Such criticism is totally unjustified and unwarranted since, historically speaking, every religion has produced superior devotees and saints. Thus, the denouncing of other faiths only exposes the narrowness and ignorance of the critic. It also creates hatred, conflict and violence among the devotees and religious teachers of different faiths, vitiating society and causing violence. In the past, destroying places of worship and erecting those of the victors was commonplace. Such instances still occur, although to a more limited scale.

Thus, religions which otherwise should have preached and practised universal love and harmony in society, fail to play that role because of wrong understandings and the narrow-minded practice of a faith by its adherents and its wrongful use by motivated people.

What is the difference between spiritual healing and spirituality?

Spiritual healing is oriented toward addressing diseases of body and mind, and in seeking relief from such ailments by engaging practitioners of occult powers through a financial arrangement. Spirituality, on the other hand, is something quite different.

Though I believe in God and pray to Him I have no clear
idea of God, which at times makes me uncomfortable.
Moreover, I hear so many confusing ideas about God.
Can you enlighten me about the true idea of God?

You are not alone in this predicament. There are many who do not know a God in which they can believe, or in the case of atheists, they know neither the God in which they do not believe.

Consequently, such belief or disbelief suffers from superficiality, ambiguity, contradiction, and vulnerability. Hence, it is necessary to form a clear idea about God as we shall discuss here. There are four aspects of the same reality, called God or Supreme Reality (Brahman), which are as follows:

1. God is Pure Consciousness with no form or quality, which pervades the whole universe in all that
    is animate and inanimate, and manifests through them in various degrees.
2. God has no form, but has qualities and powers, like the power of creation, preservation and
   destruction of the universe; He is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient; He is the dispenser of
    justice, yet shows mercy, the giver of the fruits of Karma. This concept of God is similar to that
    of the Semitic religions, namely Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
3. God assumes different divine forms having various qualities and powers, for example Shiva
   and Ganesha (Gods), and Durga and Lakshmi (Goddesses) of the Hindus. This concept of God is
   similar to that of Shinto.
4. God periodically assumes human forms to guide human beings in the path of peace, bliss,
    wisdom and liberation. Such human forms of God, for example Krishna, Buddha, and Jesus,
    are known as 'Avataras' (incarnations or sons of God).

Hinduism believes in all these four aspects of God.

How can God have form and, yet, be formless?

This is a question which has baffled many sincere seekers, since the idea that God can have form and, yet, be formless, is quite puzzling and even sounds irrational. Sri Ramakrishna explained this point beautifully to his devotees, who would often put this question to him, by giving simple, but convincing, examples of water and ice and of the chameleon.

Though the states of vapour, water and ice are different, and accordingly, their characteristics of visibility, transparency, temperature, etc., also become different, the basic molecular structure of vapour, water and ice remains as H2O. Again, though the chameleon sometimes assumes the colours of green, blue, and red and sometimes is without any particular colour, it is, after all, the same chameleon.

Is there only one way of God- or Self-realisation,
or are there various ways?

There are various ways of 'Realisation'. For example, there are paths of knowledge, of devotion, of meditation, or of work, and any combination of them.

Buddhism places emphasis on the paths of knowledge and meditation, Christianity on the paths of devotion and selfless service, and Islam on the path of devotion. Hinduism accepts all these paths, but recommends a particular path or paths according to the aptitude and capability of a given aspirant.

How can I love an entity (God) whom I have not seen,
nor am I even sure of His existence?

This is a pertinent and common question. However, you may try the methods explained below to have faith in God and to love Him.

1. By appreciating the following arguments:
  a) Every creation has a creator, so this universe also has a creator, whom the devotees call God,
     as the universe cannot create itself.
  b) A conscious and intelligent entity is necessary to make an insentient thing start and continue
      functioning and also to guide it. Nature, which is insentient, also needs such an entity to do
     these jobs, and this conscious and intelligent entity is called God.

2. Having faith in the words of the scriptures and saints, who have realised God and who say
    emphatically that God is.

3. By a continued and sincere prayer to the effect: "God, if you really exist, please reveal
    yourself to me."

4. By worshipping and meditating on God in an image as the Hindus do.

5. Another way, which is rather common and feasible, is to love incarnations or sons of God
     and prophets like Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and Ramakrishna, who are full of God.

What are the most important pre-requisites
for God- or Self-realisation?

These are mainly four:
1. Purification of body and mind
2. Control of ego, anger and greed
3. Love for all
4. Concentration on a spiritual theme (Self or God or incarnation of God).

Can grace of God and self-effort be reconciled
in spiritual life?

The grace of God is kindness or favour shown by God to human beings in general. For example, He provides sunlight, water, and air so that we can live. In some cases God also shows special favour to particular individuals or groups, for example granting His vision. Such a special favour, however, is unconditional, which means that it depends on the sweet will of God.

According to one interpretation, because such grace can be obtained with little or no striving whatsoever, self-effort in spiritual life is secondary, and one should patiently wait for such grace. According to another interpretation, without effort and striving grace cannot be obtained, hence self-effort is also very much necessary. Cases of obtaining such special grace without any self-effort, however, are indeed rare. Moreover, most scriptures, saints, and prophets advise self-effort; that is, first do spiritual practices sincerely and then wait for God's grace in reaching the spiritual goal.

a)How can you prove there is a God?
b) Must I believe in God?

a) Through reasoning alone God can neither be proved nor disproved. God can be realized by following a prescribed and tested method as follows: control of the mind and senses; practicing truth and selfless love; discriminating between the eternal and non-eternal, and focusing on an eternal entity, namely God/Self. Persons who have followed this method with utter sincerity, faith and patience were convinced of the existence of God over time through spiritual realization.

Such persons, known as realized souls or sages, speak with direct authority and conviction about the existence of God. Millions of people over the ages and all over the world have believed the testimony of these sages, who were the embodiment of purity, truthfulness, selfless love, and wisdom about the existence of God. These millions have followed their spiritual instructions; have called on God and found peace in life.

b) To believe in God or not is one's choice. However, certain things are to be considered before making such a choice:
i) It is far easier to disbelieve certain things, like God, than to investigate the matter properly and seriously. Is the enquirer willing to commit to the serious investigation following prescribed methods necessary to come to a conclusion on such an important matter as believing or non-believing? Most so-called non-believers fail here.
ii) After experiencing a few hardships in life many people often value a sustained mental peace more than money and other secular things. This peace is not a purchasable or transferable commodity, and we have to seek it in a different way. This way calls upon us to shift our focus from the fleeting, ever-changing, and finite things of the world to that non-fleeting, eternal and infinite entity known by the generic name `God`.
iii) Irrespective of the existence or the non-existence of God, it is an established fact that millions of people over the world and over the ages have found in God their one and only dependable refuge and solace in days of trouble and suffereing.
iv) There are people who profess themselves as modern, rationalistic, scientific and hence, non-believers in God, yet believe in all sorts of supernatural things like ghosts, spirits of ancestors, fortune-telling, spiritual healing, visiting power spots etc. They would rather believe in ghosts, spirits, and the effects of planets on their lives, than God. The lives of such people suffer from dichotomy and contradiction. Moreover, is not this belief in and dependence upon occultists and astrologers quite possibly more degrading in the long run.

What does God incarnating as 'Avatara' mean?
How can one recognize an Avatara?

While the birth and death of ordinary persons are bound by the laws of Karma, God, of His free will, incarnates Himself as a human being known as 'Avatara', in different ages to teach humanity how to overcome suffering and get abiding peace, joy and wisdom by realizing God/his own Self. Thus the concept of Avatara, which is basically of Hindu origin, is most similar to the Christian concept of the 'Son of God'.

The following are some of the characteristics by which an Avatara can be recognized
by observation:

1. The Avatara is pure and spiritual to the core.
2. He is completely free from all bondages and attachments and established in wisdom.
3. He is an embodiment of universal love and compassion.
4. The Avatara can absolve sins of others and make them pure, which in Christianity
    is known as vicarious atonement.
5. The Avatara has the power to grant liberation or give the highest spiritual realisation
    to His devotee, if He wants to.
6. The Avatara's spiritual influence is not restricted to the country and time where and when
    He was born.
7.The Avatara's impact is felt not only in the religious field, but also in the fields of society, literature,
    music, art, architecture etc.

If one sees God or feels God, is it an illusion?

A vision of God is genuine if it gives unbound joy, ineffable peace, and paves the way for a transformation of the character of the person who experiences such a vision. This fact is authenticated by the lives of those who have had the experiences of a genuine vision. On the other hand if the vision of God is not followed by these effects, the genuineness of such a vision is questionable and may be an illusion, a mere fancy of the mind.

How can I love God more? How can I always
commune with God?

By undertaking spiritual practices sincerely; purifying the heart and mind and establishing a relationship with God, as we do in the case of our human relationships. Such a relationship is practised both in Hindu and Christian religious traditions. Thus, we can look upon God as our master, father, mother, friend, or even a child and direct our innermost love to Him. God is far away from us, as it were, when we are in awe of Him; He comes nearer to us when we love Him.

One can always commune with God through regular introspection and meditation, and by repeating God's Holy name and/or a mantra and soulful prayer, and reading selected holy books.

Sometimes I wonder who I am. Am I a body with mind
and intelligence inside it?

If so, how is rebirth possible when this body is either
burnt or buried?

How can I go to heaven or hell in which all religions believe? Can you explain?

We have eight aspects or levels of our being as a human:
1. The physical body, which is made of skin, flesh, bone, blood, and physical organs of the senses,
     like the eyes and ears.
2. Our senses, which are ten in number: sight, sound, taste, smell and touch, the five senses of
     knowledge, and the hand, leg, speech, excretion and generation, the five senses of action
3. Vital energy
4. Mind (thinks, imagines, feels)
5. Intelligence (analyses, understands, decides)
6. Memory
7. Ego, 'I-ness' and 'my-ness'
8. The Real Self, or Atman.

The first aspect refers to the gross body. The second to sixth aspects refer to the subtle body. The seventh aspect refers to the causal body. Beyond these seven aspects there is the Self, which refers to the substratum of our being, which is Pure Consciousness, and from which consciousness is lent so that the body and mind, etc., can function.

In death it is the physical body which dies and is burnt or buried, but not the subtle and causal bodies, which, accompanied by the soul, travel to heaven or hell according to one's Karma,
and then are reborn.

Sometimes we identify ourselves with the gross body and think "I am the physical body, I am walking." Sometimes we identify ourselves with both physical body and senses, like the eyes, and think "I am the body and the eyes, and I am seeing." Sometimes we identify ourselves with the body and mind and think "I am body and mind, and I am thinking." Thus, the idea of 'I-ness' focused on different aspects of our being at different times continuously changes.

But the only aspect of our being which is changeless, which neither decays nor dies, is Pure Consciousness, and it is the substratum of all other aspects of our being. This pure Consciousness; eternal, infinite, free and blissful, is our real 'I' and is known as the `Atman.`

If the real 'I' is Pure Consciousness why can't I feel it?

According to one explanation, under the spell of 'ignorance' ("Maya"), the real and eternal 'I' identifies itself with the body-mind complex, which is material and transient. In other words, it gets a false notion of itself. But when, by following the methods of discrimination and other spiritual practices, the real 'I' dis-identifies itself from the body-mind complex and focuses on its own Self, it realises its real nature, which is Pure Consciousness, eternal, infinite, free and blissful.

a) Why are we born?
b) What is the purpose of life?

a) According to one view, we are born so that we can get the `Joy of Liberation` while we are still
    in this mortal body. For another explanation of our birth,

b) According to the Hindu tradition, there are four aims of life worth considering:
    1. To lead a virtuous life.
    2. To earn money by honest means.
    3. To have enjoyment of life with discrimination.
    4. To realise God or Self and attain liberation.

Liberation, the 4th aim, has been regarded as the highest and ultimate goal of life by Hindus, as it brings to an end to the incessant sufferings caused by repeated births and deaths and gives one eternal life full of bliss and peace.

What is death and what happens after death?

Death is the end of one chapter of the book of life. Death occurs when the soul gives up a diseased and worn out body to take up a new one bearing new energy and enthusiasm to do unfinished jobs, fulfill unfulfilled desires, and to experience the results of `Karma` of previous lives, which had not yet been experienced. Thus, one chapter ends and a new chapter opens, until our soul attains liberation and our book of life comes to an end.

If there is a God, why are there such calamities
and sufferings?

God has designed the world in such a way that we can learn here important lessons and gain wisdom. It is through experiences, which may be good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, painful, and even shocking, that we really learn. Only when our learning is completed and we become truly wise in one life, or series of lives, are we then set free to enjoy limitless joy and eternal peace.

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