Understanding the Comparative Meaning of Spirituality, Adhyatma and Religion

Meaning of spirituality adhyatma and Religion

You must have heard of words like adhyatma or spirituality used interchangeably at various places. Commonly it is understood to be synonyms. Adding to the confusion is the word religion. Often in general fashion terms like “spiritual but not religious” are used without understanding the meaning of either of the term spiritual and religious. To complicate the matter the word spiritual means different to different people. For some it means going to a religious gathering like Temple, Namaz or the Church. For some spiritual means doing good, compassionate and being a good human.

In this post we will discuss the exact definition of these terms from their philosophical background.

Meaning of spirituality

The word spirituality is derived from the word spirit. It relates to something  affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things. It is the primary concern in Western Philosophy. Moreover the word is found in almost all the semetic religion which is considered as the vital force and which exists even after the death. The matter which is considered as the anti soul is considered as perishable.

Hence the word has a dichotomy of spirit and matter and both are exclusive of each other and have no relation to one another.

Meaning of Adhyatma

The word comes from the Sanskrit origin words “adhi” and “atma”. Adhi means understanding and atma means the self. Hence literally the adhyatma means understanding the one’s own self. The self is composed of senses, mind or the chitta, buddhi or the intellect. However it doesn’t include the Self or the atman. So basically adhyatma is study and proper understanding of working of the mind and the body along with the intellect.

It has nothing to believe or to have faith which is currently understood commonly.

Also Adhyatma doesn’t believe on the dichotomy of matter and anti-matter or the soul. It derieves its origin from Indian philosophy which is based on the concept of ignorance which one has to come out by proper knowledge (prajna).

We will discuss Adhyatma in detail in coming posts as it is the bedrock of self-discovery.

Meaning of Religion

Religion is the word which carries a lot of misunderstanding. It is the mostly used for the group of people having same ritual practice with the belief on same scriptures. For most of the people religion and spirituality is one and the same thing and for some, they label themselves “Spiritual but not Religious”. So let us now have clear understanding of what exactly religion means.

The word is derived from the Latin word religio which means reverence of the Gods or the divine. So the word has a clear connotation for a belief based system. You need to have faith on the particular God like Jesus or Allah or Yehowa. Unlike adhyatma which focuses on self contemplation, religion is a faith based system.

Also the word is often translated as Dharma in Sanskrit which is absolutely wrong as Dharma is used in Sanskrit texts in entirely differently manner. We will delve into this in detail in coming posts .


Hence we now find that the words have totally different meaning. Moreover they are derived from entirely different philosophical systems. Hence using these terms interchangeably is not right. In general parlance speaking adhyatma as spirituality can be ok for understanding. However using it in philosophy is not proper. So we can rightly call the word adhyatma as “intranslatables”. This is the term given by Rajiv Malhotra which means the sanskrit word adhyatma has no counterpart in the western language.

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