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  • Writer's pictureBharat Ranjan

Religion & Spirituality

GOD!!! That omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, benevolent, supreme being, the almighty creator, who is "up there" and watching over us all the time and is responsible for our creation, all aspects of our life here, death, and its aftermath. In most monotheistic religions such as Christianity or Islam, God is considered to be a male and depicted as an elderly, fair-skinned person. Since creation here on earth comes mostly from the female of the species, shouldn't God be female? And why not black, brown, pink, or yellow? And would a cow agree that God is a human versus being just a big cow with a glow of light around the body? And would plants not want God to be a massive tree, bush, or the most pristine lawn ever seen? In most of the monotheistic religions, there are also proxies to God as that great being cannot be worshipped or talked to directly. Jesus and Muhammad are examples of such proxies, where people go through them to get access to God. These proxies took a human form in some distant past, came to earth, and left behind their teachings and mandates on how to get to heaven. Interestingly, maybe because of man’s interpretation of those teachings, heaven is always filled with (mostly) sensual pleasures while hell is where one goes to suffer, usually by being burnt by fire for all eternity. There is no mention of meeting God or unity with God, at least in my nominal knowledge of those religions. Further, one only gets a single chance here on earth to get it right and that is it. Post death, there is a lawyer/accountant of sorts who tallies up your life’s good and bad actions and send you up to one or the other. I wonder if, like in court, one can argue each line item but that would take another lifetime to do. But there is a get-out-of-jail (or hell in this case) card available to followers in that one can utterly accept the proxy into their lives, and all is forgiven. Some subsects of these religion also offer a means of speaking to the God-proxy via a human-proxy and confess their individual sins on a weekly basis to have those nullified.

The polytheistic religions took a different approach by still presenting a single God, but one that has unlimited faces or incarnations. Hinduism is probably the best example of a polytheistic religion where one can worship anything, anyone or any being as God or a proxy to God or any combination that works for that person. While monotheistic religions split the opposite shades of good and evil into distinct personas, polytheistic religions often combine both into infinitely varying mixes of both. In many of the Asian religions which are mostly polytheistic, there really is no clear distinction between good and evil thought there is acknowledgement of acts which fall into either category based on intent. The Ying and the Yang of ancient Chinese philosophy best embodies this by stating that in both extremes there is a part of the other. After all, you cannot have light without dark or be able to see anything without the contrast provided by the two. The range of religions in the world, both active and forgotten, and what is on offer from each is a staggering array of choices and consequences that would utterly overwhelm and befuddle a visitor who was not from this planet. These consequences create such a paradox, that there is no way all of them can be right, at least not without sacrificing a vast majority of the planet to a version of hell. But what they all have in common is that they seek to address the single greatest fear of man, which is the greatest unknown that is called death and will the topic of a future blog. And not specifically death itself but rather what happens after this body and mind of ours finally goes back to the earth where it came from. At some level, we all seek (or something within us seeks) something greater than our physical form and some level of assurance that there is something beyond this temporary physical existence. Atheists fascinate me as they accept this existence as a singularity and that it is a one-and-done affair. It is a concept that I have intellectually analyzed but cannot relate to. But, for the vast majority of humans, in order to address that greatest fear, God, religion, and all that go with it were created.

This fear comes from the fact that one day, we will no longer be any of the identities we have created for ourselves over a lifetime. Things such as the nice house, two cars, husband, being African, prize pony, TV, being able to run marathons, the executive position, the exclusive club membership, titles, awards gained, and the myriad of things we associate and identify with. They ALL fall away in a moment when we are confronted with even the possibility of death suddenly, we realize those were all temporary and illusional concepts anyway. And because we think of ourselves as the body and the mind, it is terrifying to think that it will all be gone in an instant. Further, we dread the inevitable suffering that comes from old age or serious diseases we may contract that can kill us or disable us in some manner. Then for much of the planet, there is the suffering of living itself, like for the residents of the slums of the world or those that have an ailment that is constant and causes debilitating pain or disability to function normally. I have seen this suffering in-person and it is really something that makes me wonder how any God could create an environment for that to happen. Kids digging through trash for food, elderly people begging for morsels, beggars with open scabs all over their body, and women going through all kinds of horrors just to stay alive another day or feed their children. Then there is the even worse suffering of the mind that is experienced by the more (materially) fortunate of the world where you have millionaires committing suicide or checking themselves into treatment for depressions or drug addiction. No matter where in the stratum of life you fall into, there is always suffering and the fear of death that we all think is far away but know can happen at any time. Man's greatest strength (and weakness) is that magical emotion we call hope and what makes many persevere through the travails of life. And the single shining ray of hope that we are given (or have given ourselves) to fortify hope and quell the fear of death is God. Because our creator is also benevolent, despite what we see and experience here in this existence, we are assured that there is a better place or existence after death. But this assurance comes with a hell (no pun intended) of a caveat in that you can only experience that better place IF you follow certain rules laid out by God. For somebody who is stricken with a terrible disease like leprosy or cancer, or someone that lives in the slums eating out of trash, they must wonder how it can possibly be any worse after death. To make matters even more complicated, many of these rules are contradictory and outright in conflict depending on which version of God you choose to believe in. I have seen missionaries of different religions going to the slums in India trying to covert the starving people to their cause. Most just took the food and mumbled whatever those of faith wanted and were just grateful for the meal. So, in some ways, the Gods of different religions at least enabled their faithful to do some good.


Like with anything else humans have done since time immortal, we tend to organize ourselves based on certain commonalities, identifications, or causes. Race, country, political parties, etc. are all examples of a collection of people who are brought together based on commonality. And almost always there is a hierarchy of power and control within these collections that can either come from physical or attributed power, consensus agreement, or faith in one person or a select group. To me, the origins of modern, organized religions come from a distant past when brawn and sheer might ruled the world. People lived in tribes that warred with each other and survival was definitely of the physically fittest. Even at the very beginning, the mighty had to go kill animals for food and many times became the food. The intellectuals among those tribes must have not only wondered how they could end these useless battles that were decimating their tribes, but also how they could gain any sort of power in a world dominated by brute force. Religion, or specifically being able to commune with a higher, invisible force, offered an unbelievably easy path to power for those that could manipulate it for their benefit. This gave rise to the priest class which were a group of intellectually strong, but typically physically weak, people who wielded a level of power completely asymmetric to their physical abilities. From most of ancient, recorded history, this class dominated cultures and had the ear of anybody who was at the figurehead of power at a given time. Every major civilization from ancient Sumerians and Egyptians to more recent ones like the Romans and Aztecs all were driven by the advice of their priests who communicated exclusively with God(s) to curry favor for their side. I always found it humorous that both sides of a conflict, be it war or a football match, pray to God for victory. Given God created both, I always wonder if she/he/it just gave up and went to have a beer instead of dealing with the mess that is humanity 😊 By becoming a proxy to God, these men of intellect discovered they could wield extraordinary power over a large number of people just by leveraging and becoming that chosen one. Emperors would murder millions or cancel wars just on the advice of a single priest or seer or whatever name was given to the proxy. Exotic means of supernatural communication such as reading tea leaves, burning of animal entrails, or even human sacrifices decided the fate of many major events in history. The priest class were even able to offer guarantees of abundance and untold riches in the afterlife in return for donations of wealth in the current life. In short order, a group of smart (but physically weak) people went from being the lowest of society to the very top, all by exploiting the single biggest and rooted fear of man.

This group have also been responsible for some of the worst atrocities ever committed by man in the name of their God. From the human sacrifices of the Aztecs to the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, millions upon millions of people have been tortured, raped, mutilated, and murdered. Empowered by their all-powerful God, men throughout history have taken it upon themselves to met out punishment to all the non-believers. Perhaps the one that many know about from recent history is the Crusades, which ironically, was in response to centuries of invasion and murder by the Muslim powers. In the name of their respective religions, multiple countries and groupings committed untold atrocities because of the hate for the other side, some of which lives on to this day. The almost weekly suicide bombings, Iran/Iraq war, Jihads, Syrian war, the tragedy that is Palestine, and many others over the centuries stand as testament to this. The utter irony here is that both religions (and Judaism) all stem from the same Abrahamic root and hence only the proxy is different. Even worse, the bloody and hate-filled conflict between the Sunni and Shia sub-sects stem over a simple disagreement over who would succeed the proxy, prophet Muhammad. Closer to home (the US), the eradication of the native inhabitants of the Americas is nothing short of genocide on a mass scale. Tribes were systematically slaughtered, given blankets with smallpox, starved to death, and made to march across the US in winter (Trail of Tears). Millions died and entire communities and groupings were simply deconstructed and destroyed, all in the name of one of the most gentle and loving humans to inhabit the earth. In South America, the Aztecs and Mayans destroyed the natives of that land, only to have the same happen to them at the hands of the Spanish. In more modern times, Hitler leveraged Christianity to commit the atrocities he did because it was very easy to manipulate people using religion. But, to his credit, he never claimed to be doing any of that because he was Christian or in the name of Christ. While it’s easy to pick on the Abrahamic religions, no other religion is exempt. Buddhists in Thailand and Myanmar have also murdered and rioted despite Budda being a complete pacifist. Hindus in India have caused many riots, destruction of Islamic symbols, and violence against their fellow citizens in the name of religion. The reality is that while God and the proxies mandate love, kindness, and tolerance towards all, man has ensured the exact opposite can happen in the name of the same God.

Humans are not the only ones who have suffered because of the mandates of religion. Countless billions of animals have endured abject torture and death to appease the God(s) who never seem to be sated. Starting with the most ancient civilizations, animals were offered up to deities as a means of gaining favor, appeasing (bad weather, calamity, etc.), or as a symbolic gesture of faith. The Greeks and the Romans used animals for divination, which was basically a means to try to determine the will of the Gods and thus the future. Sheep, goats, hogs, poultry, and bulls were sacrificed, and their entrails used to decipher the future. The larger mammals were the prized ones and used for major decisions like battles or even ascension to the throne. The Chinese used pigs, chicken, duck, fish, and squid for sacrificial offerings. Competitions were held to see who could raise the heaviest pig and thus winning the most favor. The Old Testament Christianity required sacrifice of animals as a temporary atonement of sin. Fringe parts of Hinduism required animal sacrifice and a practice that continues to this day, sometimes as part of a festival. Just do a search on YouTube to watch the horror of hundreds of buffaloes, goats, and chickens getting killed in the cruelest of ways by worshippers drunk on the mandates of their religion. Islam has the Qurban which is the sacrifice of an animal in remembrance of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son at God’s command. Judaism also had ritual sacrifice in the early part of their evolution. I have personally never understood the proxy killing an of animal in remembrance of a holy person who had sacrificed his offspring to God. Why not mimic them and offer up your own offspring as that is the ultimate sacrifice in the eyes of that God right? Or if your God demands some manner of flesh as payment for favor, chop off a finger or limb as an offer. No, its far easier to torture and kill an innocent animal than make any real sacrifice from oneself.

But not all aspects of organized religions or their teachings are bad. To start with, the need to record and pass on divine knowledge and procedures led to the flourishing of language and written text. Just like the bandwidth needs of porn drove much of the innovation with the early Internet, so too did the need to document religious knowledge. Religious organizations throughout the ages have provided shelter, food, and care in times of strife, famine, or war. Millions have selflessly given their lives over to help the lot of the poor and downtrodden based on the edicts of their religion. Humans like Mother Teresa, who in 1946 said that Jesus spoke to her and told her to abandon teaching to work in the slums of Calcutta, personify what I think was the original intent of all religion. Sikhs, following the teaching of their religion to share and be generous, feed millions of people all around the world every day. Millions have found hope, solace, love, and peace by following the tenants of their religion and used that to be good human beings. Religious teachings have also been able to blunt or even eliminate racism as many found the word of God powerful enough to overcome their ignorance or upbringing. I have personally witnessed people of faith selflessly helping others and beautiful acts of kindness in my world travels. While the reason to do so may have been rooted in religion, the actual act is what would make any God proud of what their creation is doing. I really do believe that many humans have evolved in modern times to transcend the mandates of their religion to help, serve, and love no matter who is on the receiving end. Ultimately, in my opinion, the judgement by any God would be based on your action AND intent as that is what really determines good and bad. But unfortunately, there is a vocal and sometimes violent minority that continue to commit atrocities in the name of their God(s).

The unidimensional concept of heaven is something that I never could fully believe in and one I have come to realize is responsible for the terrible ways in which we have treated this planet. This concept is one where a devotee is promised a far better environment, sensual pleasures, and existence “up there” after they die, in return for living life by the rules of the religion while here on earth. This has in many ways created hell on earth because that person believes there is something better in the afterlife and we don’t need to give a shit about this place other than as a steppingstone. This has led to utter destruction of the environment and elimination of countless species that once called earth home. It has also given us a pass to murder others not of our faith, because one believes they will be rewarded for doing so. Never mind the fact that every religion and its main figures have always stated that we have to take care of this planet and its beings, without exception. Instead, almost universally across all religions, we have raped and decimated our planet and environment to the point most of the signals from the natural world are all flashing red. If we continue down the path we are on today with uncontrolled consumption and population growth, I can’t help but believe we will create hell right here on earth. To a large swathe of humanity and creatures in nature, we are already there. It would be a delicious ending for us if every God or proxy just came down here one day and said “I/we gave you heaven and told you to take care of it but look what you have done.”

Overall, I believe that the mechanics of organized religion can do a lot of good for humanity and the planet if the actual mandates of their God(s) are followed. Even then, we should use our intellect and capacity for love and compassion to not do things that don’t benefit the target of our faith. But as soon as divine word (assuming it is) is interpreted by a select group of humans, we end right back up where it all started with the priest class. And hence we have what we have today where people are still being murdered in the name of God and every environmental system in the planet headed for oblivion which one day will include us.

Spirituality… the other path

There is an entirely another way to address both the ultimate fear of death and form a relationship with whatever is beyond this body and mind (call it God if you want). And that path is the one generally called ‘Spirituality’ and implies non-adherence to any one set of mandates. I will start by saying this is the path I have ended up on and one that makes the most sense to ME. It can be similar to paths offered by religion with one very significant difference and that being the path is an individual journey as opposed to a shared one. Spirituality begins by the simple realization or feeling that we are something more than just the body and the mind, and what we think of as the self. Something within all of us wants to connect and be part of something that is far beyond the five sensory organs. We get flashes of this with things like dreams, during meditation, intense involvement in something, or some even some traumatic event. It can also be driven by the ultimate fear of death in that we seek to know what it beyond this life. Beyond that, some signs of spirituality can include the following.

  • Introspection on the meaning of life and asking what happens after death.

  • Deepening connections with other people and a feeling of oneness with all.

  • Increase of compassion and empathy.

  • A sense of disenchantment with the material life and relationships. This happens when life does not live up to one’s expectations and desires. Or the opposite where there is too much abundance leading to no passion left in acquiring things or experiences in the material life.

  • Feeling of a lack of purpose or direction to life. This usually comes after reaching a material peak where the further gains bring no additional happiness of contentment.

  • A desire to help others and start giving back to life.

As I said before, spirituality is a very individual path and therefore every experience is unique in some way. But, typically, at least in my experiences, people turn to religion due to fear or as a solution to a problem whereas people become spiritual to seek liberation from this material existence and answers to questions within themselves. This path typically leads to some level of awareness that there is something greater than the self and that it connects all beings and things to each other and to the universe itself. Once this awareness is turned on, the person then becomes a seeker for answers to questions like the meaning of life, who am I really, truths about creation, and human existence. While religion offers a rigid set of answers to these questions, it falls short when confronted with the paradoxes of life such as ‘why does good things happen to bad people’, or ‘why do innocent children get murdered’. The typical answer to these questions is either blind acceptance on faith (stop seeking) or that ‘God works in mysterious ways’. But to the true seeker, these answers will not suffice as there is no experiential component to them. While God or higher power is the foundation of spirituality, there is, nor can there be, a preordained path based on prescriptions and mandates that satisfy the seeker. Rather, spirituality just lets one open up to all possibilities and with the very first step being the acknowledgement of ‘I don’t know but will seek the answers’. Not knowing offers an infinity of possibilities whereas acceptance of something ends with a single one. Religion mandates blind acceptance and rigid adherence which ensures that one can never seek answers beyond the confines of that religion. Hence, a religious person cannot be spiritual beyond the confines of the mandates whereas a spiritual person can partake in any part of any religion that works for them or none at all. The core of the difference between the two is that religion (especially all the monotheistic ones) is a single, rigid, prescribed path versus spirituality being an infinity of possibilities. Note that I am not stating that one is good or bad or better than the other, just that they are different approaches towards the same goal.

A large part of spirituality is also having engagements that are experiential versus just intellectual ones or blind acceptance. What I mean by this is a book can tell me to close my eyes, say a certain prayer, and that I will connect with God, but unless I can experience that, it means nothing beyond the intellect. This is also why I believe spirituality is actually a means of trying an infinite number of paths as not all paths will work for everybody. And there is no rule or mandate to only stay on one path nor walking along multiple paths at the same time. If praying to Jesus, while also practicing yoga, and enjoying wine works for you, go for it. If you feel some energy or able to connect to God via a rock or shell you found while walking on the beach, great. If serving food to homeless people or providing medical services in a poor area does it for you, keep at it. Or if doing nothing and watching a movie puts you in a spiritual state, fantastic. As long as something works for YOU, then that is your relationship with God and what is the basis of spirituality. But it is has to be tempered with the fact that you cannot hurt somebody or something nor can you expect the same of others who may not believe you at all and think you are crazy. I have been there many times off late 😊 Spirituality is ultimately about finding and walking down a path that works for you, without any thought to what may or may not work for somebody else. If every human in the world can do this and focus on their path, we would really evolve to a higher level of interaction between ourselves and all that is here on earth. Every single thing and part of this creation is a reflection of the Creator and we should treat it as we would him/her/it.

my path

Having been born in India and growing up there in the ‘70s, Hinduism is what I was introduced to, by default, at an early age. The earliest memories of God and prayer came from being taken to the temple once a week or being shown how to pray in the prayer room which was present in every home in some manner. I used to love going to the temples as they offered large and beautifully decorated areas to play in and there was always free food on offer. I also loved the smell of the different foods mingling with the intoxicating scent of incense. The ancient buildings, some over thousand years old, fed the imagination and awe of the child in so many different ways. I also felt a sense of serenity and peace there no matter which God(s) was represented in that particular temple. In many ways, I feel really lucky that I was born into this particular religion during that time because of the myriad of paths that were on offer from the start. The pooja (prayer) room literally had small idols or pictures of no less than 20 different Gods and I could choose from any, all or none of them based on what I liked. And not only that, I was not restricted to humans but also animals, symbols, or even nothing. Growing up like this, I never felt there was a right and wrong way to communicate with God. Even within the same household, 4 people could worship 9 different Gods with no conflict or judgement. In fact, every week there was some festival or occasion to pray to and celebrate a different God. I would also go to churches and mosques as nothing was really off limits or were we judged in any manner.

After moving to the US, this continued in a far smaller way in our house, and it was always optional. At no time where we forced to pray, thought our parents did highly encourage it. Our prayer room had the usual collection of Hindu Gods but, in addition, also a crucifix and symbols from other religions. This was because we were told that there are infinite paths to God and all religions were right. This one element stuck with me and grew manyfold over my lifetime and had allowed me to experience all religions as my own. I have visited and prayed in countless temples, mosques, synagogues, prayer rooms, caves, beaches, forests, and gardens all over the world and the experiences has always been the same; a sense of peace, serenity, and connectedness with all. I felt as at home and comfortable in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul as I did in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or the Buddhist Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. In between, I have prayed, meditated, or just sat in countless places of religious or spiritual significance in all my travels around the world. To me, the inner experience in every single one of them is the same and none of the symbols, mandates, dogma, teachings, etc. matter in the least. To use an analogy, I feel like somebody took the ocean and make roped-off areas based on their belief of God and identified with that area by giving it a name and a set of rules. But for me, no matter which area I swim in, I still am in the same water and breathing the same air as the entirety of the ocean.

My path now is a simple one, but it took decades to get to the realization of what it was that I was seeking. And that is to continuously evolve towards a life whereby my being is based on the pillars of equanimity, humor, and compassion, all built on a foundation of universal love. That is MY own definition of spirituality based on what has worked for me thus far. But, as I say, it is an evolution that will last this lifetime and into many others. And finally, I have found the one thread that unravels it ALL for me. Every question, doubt, and the millions of ‘why’ were all at once dissolved, like when Neo finally sees the Matrix for the first time. What is it? Ah dear reader, if I gave that away now, I could not keep you coming back for more, right? 😊Joking aside, it will take many pages and explanation to tell you what it is. But rest assured, I will in time.

May you find your path and walk it with joy and love for the remainder of your life!


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