Of religion we can say that it is akin to an iceberg only whose tip is visible to the common man while most of it is concealed from view, not so much because of a conspiracy to hide its essential content but because this content, being purely metaphysical, remains inexpressible in mundane terms, and hence it is always reserved for an intellectual elite who are willing to dive in and realize the Truth for themselves, a truth that underlies all outward forms and expressions.
No doubt the word religion, along with the word God, has acquired a peculiarly western meaning in that it is understood to be no more than a dogmatic belief in an ideology in competition with other ideologies such as system philosophies, sciences, etc. But if we take religion in this sense, then we have missed its essential content and function, and what is worse we can no more include in this definition some major spiritual traditions. For instance, Hinduism, along with Buddhism, cannot be said to be a religion in the above sense; neither is it a philosophical system, for it is much more than a mere religion or a system: Hinduism is rather a way, or as it is termed by its true practitioners an eternal way, Sanatana Dharma. More alien to this western definition of religion is the esoterism that underlies all religious traditions, an esoterism whose sole aim is the attainment of perfect knowledge of Truth, i.e. the Ultimate Reality. In Buddhism, for example, there is no notion similar to that of God in Abrahamic traditions, and this to the extent that from the point of view of Abrahamic exoterism, Buddhism can be regarded as a more or less agnostic, if not an atheistic, tradition. For this reason, Hinduism and Buddhism, among some other Eastern traditions, are not subject to a clear cut division between an esoteric, purely mystical and intellectual, and an exoteric, purely formal and devotional, department. This division into esoteric and exoteric is more vivid in traditions such as Islam and Christianity, though the esoterism within these traditions is concealed under a predominantly formal and exoteric outlook; in such traditions outward forms are emphasized much more than the essential, metaphysical content which is accessible only through an esoteric understanding. i.e. gnosis. However, esoterism is still and always present in all religious traditions, Abrahamic or otherwise, though access to it may be more or less difficult in some traditions, and this is so for reasons that depend entirely on the collective intellectual capacity of a people insofar as they are the recipients of revelation.
Therefore, in order to have a definition of religion that encompasses all spiritual traditions, i.e. traditions based on revelation, we have to understand what tradition implies in the spiritual context. Tradition, not to be confused with customs of popular origin, is a non-human, i.e. divine, influence that propagates in time and space, using culture and social structure as a medium of its propagation and operation. This non-human influence is nothing but revelation. Thus, a useful picture that can assist us in understanding the nature of tradition is that of a stone producing concentric circles in a pond upon its impact: When a stone, spiritual influence, makes contact with the surface of a pond it creates concentric waves propagating in all directions; its propagation in time is the transmission of the spiritual influence through history and by an unbroken chain of spiritual masters, Guru Parampara, that is connected to the center, the Avatara, i.e. the Son and the Logos; and its propagation in space is the echo of that spiritual influence, namely the truth, that reaches all people in a given historical period. There is not a people who has been left out.
Now, outward forms, which is the only level at which traditions seem to diverge, are no more than means of communicating The Message which has to adopt a particular form in order to speak to a people. Truth is one but has to speak different languages in order to make itself understood to different cultures. Or as Ananda Coomaraswamy says, “different cultures are the different dialects of one and the same spiritual language.” Also, according to Rig Veda, “Truth is one, but sages call it by various names.” Esoterism, which is the level underlying all forms, is where the differences fade and all these different traditions converge. Thus, one must look at spiritual journey as a path that leads to the summit of a mountain; the summit, the Truth, is one and the same, but it can be reached through different paths starting from the base. It is obvious that as we approach the summit, the different paths become closer and closer together, and it is at the summit that all paths converge to the same point, a point at which there are no more differences because there are no more paths.
The summit, or rather moving toward it and ultimately reaching it, is the inner message or call of all religious/spiritual traditions. This call is none other than the universal invitation to “Know Thyself.” The essential identity of the inner Self with the Truth, i.e. Supreme Identity, is expressed by a Muslim mystic as following: “I searched for myself and found God, and I searched for God and found myself.” Supreme Identity constitutes the essential doctrine of Advaita Vedanta formulated by Shankara: “Brahman is Real; world is illusory: Atman [Supreme Self] is Brahman. This identity, That thou art, is expressed in one form or another in the kernel of all orthodox traditions though gravely misunderstood by pseudo-spiritual movements of the modern age. It should be emphasized that this inner Self has nothing whatsoever to do with this psycho-physical compound we call human being which is only a transient appearance veiling its permanent principle, i.e. the Self. The Highest Point at which this identity is consummated, the Truth, the Ultimate Reality, The Absolute and the Infinite, the Godhead, Brahman, Deliverance or Liberation, i.e. Moksha, Nirvana, Fanaa-al-fanaa, Birth and Breakthrough (Meister Eckhart), Transcendence, Enlightenment, Unconditioned Reality, i.e. Supreme Identity, or the placeless state of Eternal Self-Knowledge, is the supreme goal of human life. It is a point at which, according to Dante’s Paradise, “every when and every where is concentrated into a dimensionless point.”
From what we said above we can offer an all-encompassing definition of religion: Religion is the science of Reality.” All orthodox, i.e. true, religious traditions contain within them, and by necessity, the means not only of attaining the knowledge of Ultimate Reality but also of utilizing that Reality for the good of mankind. Note that experience is an essential component of all science. Contrary to the common assumption that religion is only a matter of faith and that its truths can never be verified, religious experience is at the heart of all living traditions. It may be true that religious experience for the beginner is entirely subjective, experienced only at the level of feeling or passing visions. However, at higher levels and when the higher states of the being are realized, we are no more in the sphere of human subjectivity but rather come to the permanent acquisition of states, or stations to be more precise, that are known with irrefutable self-evidence, a degree of certainty alien to the human mind. What is more, the attaining to the ultimate state, the state-less state, i.e. Turiya, is a complete transcending of all contingencies, and hence it is an illumination, a transcendental experience, that comes with absolute certainty in which the doctrine is immediately verified and all doubts instantly removed. This summit of spiritual ascent is none other than the unconditioned state where there is direct experience of the Truth, known as Brahmanubhava in Shankara’s doctrinal expositions. Therefore, faith and belief are only means, or preconditions, that support the aspirant in the path of spiritual realization whereby faith is ultimately transcended and replaced by intuitive and immutable knowledge, for those who can see need not believe. This is the reason that all religious traditions are based on two intrinsic dimensions of Doctrine and Method.
What distinguishes this science from what nowadays passes as science is that religion considers reality as a whole and without limiting it to one particular aspect. Modern sciences, on the other hand, consider only a very limited, and above all the least real, aspect of total Reality, that is, they consider reality insofar as it is sensible and measurable. All modern sciences are blind, from their very inception, to a supra-sensible reality which is inexpressible in terms of quantity. We see only in quantum physics, and yet with an halfhearted understanding, that the idea of material and sensible reality is replaced by the idea of a purely intelligible reality that is not susceptible to commonsense or human imagination. But even quantum physics, along with all other modern sciences, can have no access to unconditioned reality for the simple reason that all these sciences are too human and ultimately subjective, having no intellectual foundation in the self-evident ground of all knowledge, i.e. the Pure Intellect.
Reality in itself, however, can be known only by an objective intelligence, undivided and un-fragmented by the flood of the senses and not defiled by human subjectivity and the facts of empirical consciousness. This objective intelligence is no more a human faculty but a ray of the Intelligible Light, the Solar Ray of all mythologies, emanating from the Divine Intellect. This sort of intelligence, which is the only means of true and objective knowledge, is accessible only in and through orthodox spiritual traditions which include within themselves true philosophies such as those of Plato and Plotinus. The final aim and sole function of all religious practices, all rites and symbols, is to remove from the soul the dust that obscures and dissipates that Intelligible Light, a purification that inevitably leads to an effective knowledge of total Reality, which amounts to the same thing as the summit of all spiritual ascent. In fact, consciousness-of-a-world, i.e. empirical consciousness, which is ignorance rather than knowledge, world being a veil over the Face of Truth, is the result of the refraction of the Intelligible Light, the source of all knowing, by the plane of human mind. In effective spiritual realization which amounts to the withdrawal and gathering of this Light into its source, i.e. mystical concentration or Samadhi, all phenomena, including the universe and the mind, disappear all at once whereby the never-lost identity of Atman with Brahman is immediately realized. Thus, it is never the individual human person who realizes the Truth, for the human person is himself the very veil that hides the ever shining Face of Truth. Instead, it is the nothingness and illusory nature of existence, human or otherwise, that is realized upon the annihilation of all forms and phenomena. This unveiling, which is meaningful only from the point of view of the spiritual aspirant seeking Liberation, is itself found to be illusory from the point of view of the Absolute, for there is nothing but the naked Truth, never veiled and never lost. From this point of view known as Paramarthika, which is the only true point of view, both bondage and liberation are realized to be illusory. In other words, at all times and in all places nothing is and nothing is known but Brahman, the knower and the known both being Brahman, i.e. Satcitananda, being of the nature of Existence-Knowledge-Bliss. Therefore, empirical consciousness, being of the nature of ignorance, is no more than an illusion, a veil known as Maya, superimposed on the just mentioned Truth of Brahman: In truth, and at all times, nothing is known or seen but Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, i.e. the Supreme Essence.
Thus, religion is the only true science of reality because it aims at the knowledge of ultimate reality, a knowledge which is essentially unitive and nondual, and hence it is attained by identity rather than difference. One knows That Reality by being It rather than reducing it to an object of empirical consciousness, a reduction that is absolutely impossible. Prayer, meditation, invocation, etc. are all means of establishing an effective communication with the source of all reality, a communication by which one can choose either to stay in a spiritual orbit and hence enjoy the warmth of Truth, or to ride the Solar Ray into the Sun and achieve Supreme Identity and immortality. We only add that this immortality is not the same as perpetuity, an indefinite prolongation of one’s individual existence in time or in other planes of manifestation. Immortality par excellence is rather becoming free from the bounds of time and individual existence; it is an attainment, by identity, of the unconditioned Reality, a timeless state not conditioned by existence. Thus, the truly enlightened man, the Universal Man and the Solar Hero, attains immortality by going beyond being and non-being, and He dwells in the Eternal Present, the permanent actuality of the Self, and is no more subject to time or existence in any sense of these words. Religion, as a science of Reality, or more precisely as a Way rather than an end and a goal in itself, provides the spiritual aspirant with all the necessary means for attaining to this unconditioned state, i.e. the perfect knowledge of total Reality, by a sophisticated interplay of doctrine and method without which Truth cannot be known but all of which are to be ultimately transcended in the face of The Naked Truth.