My first encounter with religion was at a young age during the annual Christmas Eve nativity play at our local church. It was a time of excitement, not, alas, due to any concept of spiritual or religious feeling, but merely because it was the day before getting lots of presents. My family was not very religious, but we did put in a few appearances at church. My main memory is of counting down the hymn numbers waiting for it all to end, so I could go and play football. I had no interest in spirituality at the time, and didn't really see anything in it. My grandma had a very strong, but quiet, religious faith, and I think that did influence me quite a lot; she seemed to be the practical embodiment of all the good religious ideals.
I never really believed in the religion that I was brought up in. At that age, I had no interest in spirituality, so I kind of drifted away and later was quite proud in declaring religion to be a waste of time. At university some evangelical Christian friends portrayed religion as an 'all or nothing' – i.e. accept the one true path or you will go to hell. It was a pretty stark, simple choice, but all this talk of eternal hell put me off even more. I did go through a phase of debating religion with anyone who could put up with my rather tedious arguments, but I soon got bored with my own lectures and lost interest.
It wasn't until I later became interested in Eastern spirituality, that I looked upon religion in a different light. When I read about the love and devotion that the great Indian spiritual Masters had for Jesus Christ, my perspective on Christianity changed. It was from the yogi's sincere and highest regard that I could see Jesus Christ as a great spiritual personality, a great spiritual Master with the highest realisation. After taking up meditation, I later felt a strong affinity for some aspects of Christianity, from the lives of great saints to the beautiful sacred music. From meditating I felt that dogmas and intellectual beliefs were not the essence of religion, and it became easier to appreciate the spiritual essence of different religions and paths.
When I started researching the path of yoga and spirituality, the first thing that appealed to me was the idea that spirituality was something to practise and experience. It was not something meant to be just intellectually convincing, nor was it the mere acceptance of certain dogmas. The spiritual teachings I came across talked of the limitation of the intellect and of transcending the mind. After spending a difficult year struggling to understand Western philosophy, the idea of diving far beyond the realm of the mind seemed quite appealing.
Often religion is portrayed in a way which makes it seem divisive, each religion claiming to have the sole monopoly on Truth. It was a bit like supporting a football team and hoping your team would be the one to make it to the final. It seemed hard to reconcile the fact that each religion claimed to be right. However, Sri Chinmoy and other great spiritual teachers see it from a different perspective.
“True religion has a universal quality. It does not find fault with other religions. False religions will find fault with other religions; they will say that theirs is the only valid religion and their prophet is the only saviour. But a true religion will feel that all the prophets are saviours of mankind. Forgiveness, compassion, tolerance, brotherhood and the feeling of oneness are the signs of a true religion.”
Sri Chinmoy, World-Destruction: Never, Impossible! Part 1, Agni Press, 1994.
It was this universality of approach which appealed to me. In yoga there was no need to convince or prove anything to others. The goal was to follow your path; it wasn't a matter of finding the absolutely 'best path', but of pursuing your path/religion to the best of your efforts.
photo: Sri Chinmoy meditating at the World Parliament of Religions, Chicago, 1993.