Spirituality, Yoga, Religion and Mental Health - Shridhar Sharma

Shridhar Sharma


Emeritus Professor

D-127, Preet Vihar

Delhi – 110092, India

Tel: +91-11-22508749; Fax: +91-11-22524053; Mobile: +91-11-9810177743

E-mail: sharma.shridhar@gmail.com





            The primary objective of the paper is to clarify the concept of spirituality and to understand it in the context of religion. The secondary objective is to examine and suggest its relationship to Mental Health. The mind has the quality of self-awareness i.e. consciousness of ‘Self’. It was Plato, who said that man is not only conscious but he is “conscious of his consciousness”. According to the materialist’s view point of scientists, consciousness and thought are entirely physical products of our brain and are created by the electrical and chemical charges in the neurons in our brains. While many philosophers who believe in spirituality claim that spirituality is concerned with soul and it is directed for the pursuit of “personal meaning”. It is also suggested that there is a difference between spirituality and religion. Yoga is a methodical effort to attain perfection through the control of the different elements of human nature, physical, psychical and spiritual. The paper will delineate the intimate relationship of spirituality, yoga, religion and mental health in a trans-cultural context.

Keywords: Spirituality, Mind, Religion, Yoga and Mental Health


Obiectivul principal al lucrarii este de a clarifica conceptul de spiritualitate si de a-l întelege în context religios. Obiectivul secundar este de a evalua relatia dintre conceptul de spiritualitate si cel de sanatate mintala. Mintea are capacitatea de auto-constientizare, de ex. constiinta Sinelui. Platon a spus ca omul nu este doar constient, dar are si "constienta constiintei". În conformitate cu punctul de vedere al oamenilor de stiinta materialisti, constiinta si gândurile sunt în întregime produse fizice ale creierului nostru si sunt create prin descarcari electrice si chimice la nivelul neuronilor. Multi filosofi care cred în spiritualitate, pretind ca spiritualitatea este legata de suflet si este condusa de scopul "sensului personal". S-a sugerat ca exista o diferenta între spiritualitate si religie. Yoga este un effort metodic de a obtine perfectiunea prin intermediul controlului diferitelor elemente ale naturii umane, fizice, psihice si spirituale. Lucrarea de fata subliniaza relatia dintre spiritualitate, yoga, religie si sanatate mintala în context trans-cultural.                                                     

Cuvinte cheie: spiritualitate, gândire, yoga, sanatate mintala














            The primary objective of this paper is to clarify the concept of spirituality and to understand the context with religion. The secondary objective is to examine and suggest its relationship to Mental Health. As a part of this objective, a framework will be developed, since a framework is something considerably less than a model. As it is understood in science and philosophy, a model theories or theoretical constructs, actualizing or realizing ideas or concepts.

            In spite of our present day in-depth knowledge and understanding of the brain, we still remain largely ignorant of many aspects of human mind. We do not yet know, which process in the brain produces consciousness or how exactly the earlier described both by Eastern and Western philosophers.


            According to western philosophers mainly the Greeks in the west, mind was not material but spiritual and liable perhaps to survival after death. At the time of Plato, Socrates and Hippocrates, new elements were added to the concept of mind.  The first was the idea of “purposiveness” or intent, i.e. the idea that the mind guides human behaviour. The second was the moral principle that the mind guides behaviour for good ends rather than evil ones and that retribution according to Plato would follow if it was not successful. The third and the most important contribution of these philosophers was that mind had the quality of the self-awareness i.e. consciousness of ‘Self’ which distinguishes man from higher animals. It was Plato, in Wallach (1) who said that man is not only conscious but he is “conscious of his consciousness”. This view was challenged for the first time in 1835 by Charles Darwin in Dawkins (2), while probing the “Mystery of Mysteries” on the origin and nature of species.


            For Plato and Hippocrates the brain was the seat of interaction between body and mind. The ancient philosophers also believed in hierarchy of soul and mind. The upper most layer being ‘purposive’ self consciously aware, the next layer being the ‘level of feeling’ and energy and the last being bodily sense like appetite, (Ornsteine, R 3,4).

            The present day scientific belief is that all life including human life is merely a product of the blind forces of nature. In this materialist’s view, our “minds”—soul, spirit, free will—are simply an illusion created by the electrical and chemical charges in the neurons of our brains. Nature is, as Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins (2) famously put it, a “blind watchmaker”, while American philosopher Daniel Dennett (5), who is a renowned philosopher of mind, believes that computers can simulate human mental processes as he tries to convince that there isn’t really any such thing as a mind in the traditional sense. He is best known, perhaps, for saying that “Darwin’s dangerous idea” on the origin and nature of species is the best idea anyone ever had, because it firmly grounds life in materialism. Dennett further argues that there is no soul or spirit associated with the human brain, or any supernatural element, or life after death. The question addressed by Dennet and similar other scientists is not whether materialism is good news or bad news. Rather, the question is, does the evidence from neuroscience support it?

            In the first place, the materialists’ account of human beings does not bear up well under close examination. In the second place, there is good reason for believing that human beings have a spiritual nature, one that even survives death. But why should we embark on this journey unless we see the need for a non-materialist account of human nature? (Denton, MJ 6). A new account is needed because the materialists’ account is inadequate. It is failing in a number of areas. So let us begin by outlining some of the failures. Let’s start with this question: What would you be left with if you accepted the materialists’ explanation of you? Would you recognize yourself? If not, why not? What is missing? These are vital questions which need clarification and clear answers.

            According to the materialist’s view point of scientists consciousness and thought are entirely physical products of our brain and nervous system—and since our brain is fully imprinted at birth—what makes us think, that “Man have free will”? Where is it going to come from? what “mind,” what “self,” what “soul,” what anything that will not be immediately grabbed by those scornful quotation marks, is going to bubble up your brain stem to give it to you? Neuroscientists theorize that, given computers of sufficient power and sophistication, it would be possible to predict the course of any human being’s life and actions moment by moment. This raises serious questions. “Since consciousness and thought are entirely physical products of your brain and nervous system . . .” In other words, neuroscientists have not discovered that there is “no you in you”; they start their work with that assumption. Anything they find is interpreted on the basis of that view. The science does not require that rather, it is an obligation that materialists impose on themselves.

            Why don’t most people believe in materialism? Early twentieth-century psychiatrists (7) theorized that spirituality is driven by a desire for a father figure or an unconscious desire to avoid death. Those explanations were plausible attempts to explain spirituality, though, by their very nature, they were not testable. They also tended to be Eurocentric, assuming that developments in European Christianity or Judaism were representative of religion worldwide. Unfortunately, the progress of science, far from shedding light, has led to a host of less plausible explanations today. In this controversy, two areas need special attention.


            This is an interesting area of study and some neuroscientists like, Vilayanur Ramachandran (8) and his colleagues, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California at San Diego, raised the question by suggesting that his study had discovered a “God spot” in the human brain that could underpin an evolutionary instinct to believe in religion. Popular media, the scientific community, and the academy have been attracted to this idea that religious belief was somehow “hardwired” into the human brain in such a module. Persinger’s (9) findings simply indicate that the temporal lobes and the limbic system are involved in spiritual/mystical experiences. They do not mean that these areas create the experiences all by themselves. The Spiritual Brain demonstrates the role of a number of other regions in the brain.

            Brain scans taken with positron emission tomography, show these neural areas light up whenever research subjects are exposed to discussion of spiritual or religious topics. The “God spot” does not prove the existence of God but it does show that the brain is sensitive to wider meaning and value of faith. But meditation seems to be the way to a bigger brain. Certain regions in the brains of those meditating for a long period were larger than in a similar group. A group of researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of the people who meditate. Specifically, such people showed significantly larger volumes of the hippocampus and areas within the orbito-frontal cortex, the thalamus and the inferior temporal gyrus-regions, known for regulating emotions. People who consistently meditate have a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability and engage in mindful behaviour. People who meditate said that deep concentration was an essential part of their practice.



            There are few behavioral geneticists like Dean Hammer who assume that humans are animals who have some kind of organ, gene, or programmed instinct for spirituality. Geneticist Dean Hamer10 thinks that he has found a gene or genes that code for spirituality. But what have they actually found? Another group of medical geneticist do not support this view and carry contradictory views of their own. According to Genetists like Dean, Religion is so widespread that it must be a genetically inherited instinct. “If there is any behavior that has been universally exhibited among every human culture, that behavior must represent an inherent characteristic of the species, a genetically inherited instinct.”

            God gene, or a “God spot” in the brain. We may examine many proposed explanations and show why they are inadequate to the explanatory task. For now, it may be noted that all these contending explanations have one feature in common. Like the early twentieth-century psychiatrists’ theories, they are attempts to explain away spirituality as something that does not in fact point to a spiritual reality.

            Philosopher of science Karl Popper (11) has called this line of thinking “promissory materialism.” In other words, if we adopt it, we are accepting a promissory note on the future of materialism. Promissory materialism has been immensely influential in the sciences because any doubt about materialism—no matter what the state of the evidence—can be labeled “unscientific” in principle. In this respect a more balanced view is given by Sir John Eccles (12) a neurologist and Noble Prize winner, in these words “We are spiritual beings with souls in a spiritual world, as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world.”

            Materialist neuroscientists and some philosophers hold that mind, consciousness and self are by-products of the brain’s electrical and chemical processes, and that spiritual experiences are “nothing but” brain states or delusions created by neural activity. Accordingly these scientists believe that there is no spiritual source for mystical experiences, that is, they think that the human brain creates these experiences and in so doing creates God (13,14).

            While some scholars like Vailant (15) believe that spirituality is all about positive emotions. “These emotions included love, hope, joy, forgiveness, compassion, truth, gratitude and awe”.  They epitomize what Charles Darwin called social-emotions; they help us “to break out of the ego cage of I and mine”.


            Various spiritual traditions indicate that the nature of mind, consciousness, and reality as well as the meaning of life can be apprehended through an intuitive, unifying and experiential form of knowing. A scientific frame of reference must address the evidence for that. Such a framework would greatly stimulate the scientific investigation of the neural, physiological, psychological, and social conditions favoring the occurrence of mystic experiences as well as the effects of such spiritual practices on health and psychological and social functioning. There is a newer trend in human evolution toward spiritualization of consciousness. The proposed new scientific frame of reference may accelerate our understanding of this process of spiritualization and significantly contribute to the emergence of a planetary type of consciousness. The development of this type of consciousness is absolutely essential if humanity is to successfully solve the global crises that confronts it and wisely create a future that benefits all humans and all forms of life on planet Earth (16).

            Spirituality has many meanings. While spirituality is both the source and the outgrowth of faith for many people, for others “Spirituality” can be equated with the occult and with bogus faith healers often bringing to mind reincarnation, telepathy, and angels. To others, less burdened with a belief system, spirituality can appear as nothing more than covert narcissism and a New Age mandate to follow your bliss (15).


            Spirituality is concerned with soul and it is directed towards the pursuit of personal meaning. Leading a spiritual life, a person develops his power of concentration through selfless action, gains, and is able to discriminate between spirit and matter, the real and the unreal. Soon a spiritual person comes to realize that the self in him is the self in all, thus experiencing “Godhood”.  Such a concept has been supported by many scholars, who believe in spirituality.

            Spirituality is that aspect of life which gives people meaning and purpose in life (17). It can be achieved through participation in religion, belief in God, family, naturalism, humanism etc.



            Many philosophers, who believe in spirituality, claim that recognition of the Truth is the discovery of true conscience. Being haunted by the truth is being haunted by your own true conscience. The point of these experiences is for you to realize what your part in the big drama of life is. Most people are so concerned only with themselves that they do not feel any responsibility for those around. The more deeply a person has realized self, the deeper will be the realization of the kind of conscience. The true value of profound spiritual experience lies in the discovery of fundamental truth. Full realization is the evolutionary leap to which all spiritual experiences ultimately lead. Though deep spiritual experience a human being realizes a profound truth, hence liberating himself from tendencies towards aggression and illusions.

            The crux of any spiritual experience is to bring a human being to the point where he is able to harmoniously live with other human beings. Indian Psychology has always realized the value of Introspection and Concentration and looked upon it as the means for perception of the truth. It recognized the close connection of mind and the body (18). The Yoga system of philosophy by Patanjali deals specially with these experiences. The Yoga helps reach higher levels of consciousness; through a transformation of the psychic organism, which enables it to get beyond the limits of ordinary human experience. Consciousness is the very window through which we perceive reality. From a scientific perspective, Quantum Physics has theories for us to accept mind and matter as two irreducible but inseparable aspects of universal reality, just like the inseparable wave and particle aspects of a quantum particle. In 2004, the Nobel Prize in Physics was given, in the words of the Nobel Committee, for contribution towards the “Theory of Everything”. This theory aims to show that considering all the fundamental particles and fields that makeup (at least physical) that makeup this universe, you are nothing but different aspects of one single source. In 2006, the Nobel Prize in Physics is for “discoveries in cosmology” that allows us to glimpse the universe close to its very inception.

            The preponderance of evidences uncovered by cosmology point to a mind boggling fact - this vast universe originated from a space much smaller than a speck of dust.  In fact, from such a small space that we are as large compared to it as the universe is large to us.  It now seems plausible that the oneness envisioned by the “Theory of Everything” existed at the inception of the universe in a tiny nugget of space. It suggests that the universe indeed came from one source. Body and mind are inseparable.  Both are interlocked.  A balance of the two is a necessary condition for a healthy and meaningful life.

            Science gets us physical comforts, spirituality brings us mental peace and raises our consciousness. Positive values, attitudes, beliefs and strength acquired through spiritual practices contribute to the sense of Bliss. But spirituality is not just about following your bliss alone. Spirituality has a deep psychobiological basis and a reality that needs to be understood. The pleasure we derive is through our senses and is basically physical. While happiness, which is a positive emotion, is psychological, ‘Bliss’, which is higher than ‘Pleasure’ and Happiness, is Spiritual. This hierarchy of positive emotions will help us to clarify the concept of spirituality.

            Happiness has been the timeless goal of humanity. Since we have a notion that anything pleasant or pleasurable to the senses would lead to happiness, our mind craves for such experiences. However, there are several shortcomings in seeking happiness in this manner. Firstly, senses always require some external object in order to convey an experience. This spells “dependence”. Secondly, experience of sense gratification is only temporary, while what we really are looking for is a lasting state.  Thirdly, if an experience is pleasurable, the senses demand more of the same experience, leading to a constant state of wanting  Yoga deals with searching for lasting, sense-free happiness and knowledge. Since for lasting happiness, its source has to be free from the five senses. We should strive to find a force in this hierarchy which is superior to the mind.

            According to the Buddha, understanding or “Knowing” has two layers, ‘Anubodhi’ and ‘Pativedha’. Anubodhi is what we call ‘knowledge’. It is nothing but accumulated memory, an understanding of a particular subject on the basis of data or observation.  It is therefore superficial. Real understanding comes from “Pativedha” or deep penetration into the core of a subject which depends on wisdom.  It enables us to understand an object in its true nature and colour. In it, all the exterior labels like name, fame, money and power hold no value. This kind of understanding can be developed only through rigid training of mind through meditation. A person, on reaching this stage of penetrative wisdom, can see everything in the right per­spective. He acquires the capability to make a distinction between what is desirable and correct and what is undesirable and incor­rect.  Such a person also develops the ability to acquire habits that enables his mind to see and believe nothing but the good of all.  One has to first strive to be free from all kinds of impurities that tend to derail us from the right path.


            It has been found now that there is a difference between spirituality and religion. The term ‘religion’ usually refers to the interpersonal and institutional aspects of religio-spirituality that are derived from engaging with a formal religious groups, doctrines, values and traditions (19, 20). While spirituality is defined by some as the “Psychological experiences of religio-spirituality that relate to the individuals sense of connection with a transcendent power”. Although both spirituality and religion are both born in our brain, important differences exist. First, religion draws circles that draw others out, whereas spirituality draws circle that draw others in. Secondly, spirituality is based on our biology, whereas religion is based on our culture (15). Religion and spirituality are not same. Religion is associated with formal organization Religion indicates an organized way to relate to the Divine; focusing on controls and morals. 

            Religion may some times act as a driving force. Religion is accessible at church/mosque/gurudwara or temple. Spirituality does not depend on institutional affiliation. Spirituality operates in private. It is intrinsic and chosen, though in private. Spirituality is a personal way of relating to the Divine, self, people and the world. Religious institutions are usually looked at with doubt.  In religion, people have difficulty in interactions – ‘my way is right’. Craving for ego, power, control, prestige and arrogant authoritarianism may be the underlying currents of religion. The words might vary in terms of individual, time, place and socioeconomic set-up, yet acceptance is the same in terms of distinctiveness of the people.

            On the other hand, spirituality offers autonomy from institutions and provides an open ground for exploration. Spiritual people have a common communication flow. Spirituality lies in the kind of religion where there are no doctrines, dogmas, intellectual argumentation; it is being and becoming”. Spirituality is all about personal positive emotions. These emotions include love, hope, joy, forgiveness, compassion, trust, gratitude and awe. The core of spiritual philoso­phies dwells on understanding the purpose and meaning of life. Understanding is at the root of development that leads one to ultimate deliverance or nirvana.

            Most of us have had some taste of an experience where time stood still, one forgot oneself, and was carried away by the moment. A spiritual experience is the same, more intense, and powerful enough to transform one over a period of time. In time the transformation is permanent and there remains no looking back.

            If we consistently follow four basic steps, as Indian sages and seers did, we can also experience enlightened living:

Step 1: Principled and organized living:

            We should base our lives on sound ethical and moral principles. These principles are ageless cosmic laws that are expounded by all religions which enlightened beings scrupulously follow in their lives.  If we emulate this, we link ourselves to Divinity, thus expanding our hearts and purifying our minds. 

Step 2: Empowering the Conscience:

            As we follow Step 1, we integrate ethics and principles into our lives and empower our conscience. This changes our attitude, repels negativity and propels us to­wards Divinity. As our ethical base becomes strong; our con­science becomes clear and easily repels negative influences like cravings temptations and habits. We realize that our thoughts, words and actions are gradually turning our ordinary lives into enlight­ened ones. We get empowered to see and shape our lives with clar­ity; we also get interconnected to each other.  The words we speak and actions we perform will have a good impact because our conscience is clear as crystal.

Step 3: Self control:

            When our conscience starts guiding us, it gives us the master key to com­plete self-control.  We begin to con­trol our thoughts, emotions and senses. We are no longer be car­ried away by temptations, cravings, desires and negative emotions. Our willpower establishes itself. We gain Supreme Will. 

Step 4: Divine Intervention:

            After establishing self-control, the divine begin in us and everywhere around us. We see paradigm shift in our perception and also experience waves of care, compassion, tolerance, patience and selfless love. Selfless love puts us in touch with the omnipotent power of the Creator. Yoga principles and the Buddha’s philosophy of life revolve around the purifica­tion of mind and delivering from worldly attachments. The Buddha says that every human being has the innate qualities and abilities to come out of the world of ignorance and move towards the world of enlightenment. In other words, we have the choice. Until we ourselves try ourselves to get rid of the "shackles of misery", no divine power can come to our rescue. Our gurus can only show us the way, but the real "action" is in our hands.

            The world literature reviewed by Koenig et al. (21) asserts that greater religious involvement reduces depressive symptomatology.  It has been shown that increased spiritual involvement not only reduced depression in terminally ill AIDS victims, but it also mediated an increase in hopefulness and helpful behaviour and also decreased serum cortisol (22).

            Levin (23) and others (24) suggested that spirituality reflects positive emotion. Spirituality, like positive emotions, is generated by the limbic system and is more about us than me. We do not have to be taught positive emotions; our brain is hardwired to generate them. Humanity's task is to pay-attention to them, for they are the source of our spiritual being and the key to our cultural evolutionary progress. Spirituality reflects humanity’s evolutionary process towards connection and community building even more than it reflects humanity’s need for solace and revelation. The Buddhist ideal is that of the Bodhisattva - one who elects voluntarily to stay in this world and to help others, rather than entering directly into nirvana. Nor is spirituality trivial; if one follows the lives of history’s great spiritual exemplars, they have always been builders of humanity.


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