One night several years ago, on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California—three pedestrian-only blocks with shops, restaurants, theaters, and street entertainers—some Hare Krishna devotees were chanting and dancing.
All of a sudden, a group of Hasidic men in traditional black hats and black suits joined them.
When one of the Sanskrit chants ended, the Hasids started singing in Hebrew, and the saffron-clad Krishnas did their best to sing along.
It was so infectious that the crowd of spectators grew quickly, and many sang and clapped in rhythm. Among them no doubt were Christians, and probably Muslims and atheists and undecideds and others. It was a cross-cultural, transreligious celebration.
I half expected whirling dervishes and a gospel choir to join the mix.
It occurred to me afterward that the ecstatic Hasids might have more in common with the Krishnas than they do with most conservative and reformed Jews, and the ecstatic Krishnas might have more in common with the Hasids than they do with more austere Hindus from other sects and lineages.
What that odd coupling of chanters shared was a spiritual orientation that favors devotion through music and motion.
That memorable evening stayed with me, and the lesson I derived from it has colored the way I think about religion and spirituality. Specifically, it helped me see how inadequate our usual religious categories are.
Categorically Insufficient Categories
The typology we’re accustomed to, what might be called the comparative religion model, portrays a religious landscape of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus—and, when the inclusivity is stretched, Sikhs, Jains, Taoists, Baha’is, pagans, Wiccans, and others.
That convenient grouping makes sense to a certain degree, but the categories are limited. They don’t tell you very much about the actual spiritual lives of the individuals within each group.
For one thing, when someone checks off a box on a religion survey, it might just mean they were born into that particular tradition. Well, when people hear my last name (Goldberg), they naturally assume I’m Jewish.
In truth, I was raised by anti-religious, atheist parents, and I didn’t see the inside of a synagogue until I was old enough to be invited to bar mitzvahs. So my name doesn’t tell you much about my spiritual life.
The same might be true of someone named Wilson, or O’Hara, or Ahmed, or Patel, or Suzuki.
In addition, the comparative religion model downplays, and often ignores completely, the enormous differences within the categories.
I don’t just mean the obvious ones: Catholic or Protestant? Methodist, Presbyterian, or Baptist? Suni, Shia, or Sufi? Saivite, Vaishnavite, or Advaitan (among Hindus)? Orthodox, conservative, or reform? Those are important distinctions, but there are many divisions within those divisions.
More important, think about the many similarities across the religious divides.
Look closely and you find that the orthodox of every religion have a great deal in common with one another that they don’t share with the more liberal members of their own traditions.
The same is true of fundamentalists. And the progressives, pluralists, and independent thinkers in every religion are in many ways more like one another than they are with their coreligionists.
In other words, the usual groupings often reflect ancestry, ethnicity, and culture, not the reality of people’s spiritual lives (or even if they have a spiritual life).
A Different Type of Typology
I think we would benefit from looking at the religious landscape through different lenses.
Why not groupings based on types of spiritual practice? Wouldn’t that be meaningful? Wouldn’t it tell us a great deal about how we relate to the Divine?
The typology I’ve found most useful is based on the four classic pathways of yoga. These functional categories go back a few thousand years, at least to the time of the Bhagavad Gita, and they don’t apply only to Hindus and yoga practitioners.
You will find their equivalents in every tradition on the planet, as well as among spiritual independents who reject religious labels altogether—what are commonly called the unaffiliated, the “nones,” or the “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). I’d venture to say you’ll find them among the congregants in every Unity church.
In fact, anyone who takes the spiritual life seriously can locate themselves in one or more of these four traditional yogic pathways:
- Bhakti yoga: the path of the heart, emphasizing devotion
- Karma yoga: the path of action, emphasizing selfless service
- Jnana yoga: the path of the mind, emphasizing study and discernment
- Raja yoga: the practical path, emphasizing spiritual disciplines like meditation
When reading those concise definitions, you’ll likely identify with more than one, perhaps even all four.
That’s because few serious spiritual seekers adhere to one of the pathways exclusively. They’re not like sects or denominations. They simply describe different orientations toward the sacred and, within each, the kinds of practices people adopt to foster their spiritual aspirations.
They describe different ways people relate to the Divine, based on their personalities, predilections, and needs.
It’s quite common for one orientation or another to be dominant, but a well-rounded path typically draws from more than one, and the relative proportion of each is likely to change at different points on the journey.
If we want more unity in the world, maybe it’s time for a more transfaith orientation.
The Yogic Pathways Here, There, and Everywhere
It’s easy to see that people can have different beliefs and practices and at the same time share one of these four orientations. They’re also likely to have similar experiences.
Take the Hasids and Hare Krishnas chanting in Santa Monica. They would be far apart theologically and culturally; their views on doctrine, history, lifestyle, the afterlife, and such would be very different.
But both groups favor the devotional path known in Sanskrit as bhakti. And the spectators that joined in the revelry were also bhaktas, at least for that moment in time.
Similarly, the primary spiritual approach of some people in every religion is the path of selfless service called karma yoga.
Those dedicated souls are drawn to helping the unfortunate, or tending to the sick, or working for social justice, and they strive to do so with a minimum of ego, personal desire, and attachment to results.
Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi were karma yogis, for instance, and they no doubt would have had similar experiences, challenges, and spiritual rewards.
Why? Because, despite coming from different cultures and religions, they shared the same orientation toward the Divine.
And that, in my experience, is precisely what ordinary service-driven people find when they come together.
The same is true of the jnana yogis in every tradition.
These are people who are drawn to knowledge, to study, to pondering life’s big questions and contemplating deep spiritual truths.
They immerse themselves in sacred texts. They try to discern the temporal from the eternal, the sacred from the profane, the real from the unreal.
And their practices yield similar internal experiences even though they study different scriptures and have different theological beliefs.
There are also raja yogis in every tradition, and many who affiliate with no single tradition.
SBNRs, for instance, tend to acquire contemplative practices from an eclectic range of sources. And the mainstreaming of meditation and mindfulness practices has given rise to Jews, Christians, and even staunch secularists for whom inward-directed disciplines are the centerpiece of their spiritual lives.
Classifications such as the four yogas can help spiritual aspirants better understand their paths and make intelligent choices.
They would also add nuance and texture to public discussions of religion and spirituality, giving us ways to frame conversations in terms that are relevant to people’s everyday spiritual lives as opposed to the religious identities they adopt or were born into.
It would also more accurately reflect current research, which clearly indicates a shift away from belief-centered religion to experiential spirituality, and to independent exploration over exclusive membership.
Unity Amidst Diversity
It is not unreasonable to expect that if a practice-oriented typology were to find its way into textbooks, the media, and interfaith gatherings it would be easier to transcend the religious labels that continue to create tension and conflict in the world.
We need to highlight the points of unity across traditions instead of focusing on the belief systems that divide them.
The domain of spiritual practice and experience is the home of authentic unity.
Here’s an experiment you might want to try to test that theory.
When you get together with people from diverse traditions, ask them to describe their most memorable spiritual experiences—with this caveat: no religious jargon.
Only ordinary language. No “God” or “Jesus” or “Buddha” or “Allah” or “Brahman.” No “satori,” “nirvana,” “Godhead,” or “Atman.”
You’ll probably find that their everyday-language descriptions sound very similar, if not identical.
In my experience, people will use terms such as profound inner peace, unconditional love, safety, awe, a vast expansion of awareness, and intimacy with something beyond themselves.
The exercise is not only extremely revealing, it’s also a powerful way of breaking down barriers.
Nineteenth-century Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda once said he hoped religions would continue to multiply until everyone had a religion of their own. In a sense, that’s always been the case because every individual path is unique.
It’s just more that way now, in this age of diversity, independence, and easy access to the myriad ways of being spiritual.
So maybe it’s time to move from interfaith to transfaith.
New ways of framing the eternal spiritual quest will help us transcend, and yet include the categories and concepts that keep us chained to a divisive past.
This article is an online exclusive of Unity Magazine®.