To follow a religion is to practice the rituals and teachings from an established faith, as prescribed by the holy texts and scriptures. People who are religious follow the basic traditions and customs passed down from their families or the faith they have entered by choice. They find religion gives meaning to their life and it is important to them.
On the other hand, there is a growing class of people, who call themselves spiritual without being religious. Spiritual people are more attracted to the abstract aspect of God and they pursue the limitless in meditation. In life, they try to purify themselves in their actions and deeds rather than going to a temple or engaging in established religious practices and customs.
What is interesting is how each side feels they are superior than the other. Religious people often have little respect for those who doesn’t follow the scriptures. Spiritual people feel the other side is too orthodox and tradition-bound.
So what does one do? Is ritual necessary to find the Ultimate Reality that rests within us?
I feel both aspects are necessary. Unless you believe in Form outside, you cannot believe in the Form within you. Rituals like getting up at dawn, bowing down before a deity and mantra japa bring a sense of discipline and routine in one’s life. Customs and traditions in religion have been devised by great Masters and have deep-rooted meaning and significance. Essentially, in order to experience the abstract, Formless God, you need to worship the Lord in form first.
Even Lord Ram worshipped Surya and Devi Durga for their blessings before embarking on the war to Lanka. Later on, after winning the war, he worshipped Lord Shiva at Rameshwaram in order to purify himself of the sin of killing of Ravana, a learned Brahmin. When the Gods and Avatars themselves have worshipped deities, there must be some logic to it. In order to reach the Infinite, a Hindu may start deciphering the meanings of mantras, stotras, kathas and understand the symbolism of rituals like Shiva Abhishek. No matter how many good deeds you may have done, you cannot overlook the deep significance of scriptural texts and Vedic commentaries.
The thing is, when you haven’t seen something outside of you, you find it difficult to believe it within. As human beings, we are the body in form and we believe in the intangible only when we have seen the tangible. Worship the Lord in the conceivable form first and only then can you progress towards meeting the Formless Absolute. Taking a route well-travelled for centuries can sometimes lead you to your destination faster than blundering your way through the forest on your own with no maps to guide you.