Rishi Manu has clarified in Manu Smrti: "A wise man should constantly observe the universal values (yama), but not always the religious practices (niyama); for he who does not discharge the former, while he obeys the latter alone, becomes an outcast."
Yamas are a set of very basic universal values essential for us to live in a community. These are values like compassion, kindness, honesty, contentment, non-injury and so on. These are the values that differentiate a human being from other classes of beings.
Niyamas refer to cultivated religious practices that connect one to a form of God one believes in. These practices may include practices and rituals such as meditation, chanting, prayers, fasting, Yoga, temple visits, reading scriptures and so on. These practices help one to connect with a higher being and seek blessings in order to attain health, wealth, happiness and spiritual growth.
One who lives a life of universal values, not concerned with any potential for growth through worship of a higher being, may be considered as a humanist as she is concerned with the fellow human beings and their well-being. One who is focused on Niyamas may be treated as religious, following traditions and practices, at times neglecting the universal values knowingly or unknowingly. When we are able to develop awareness of these two paths and able to balance it, we could call ourselves spiritual. A spiritual person is rooted in the universal values with uncompromising commitment with flexibility demonstrated in worship practices.
One who is religious may get caught up in daily practices forgetting the higher purpose of common good. Such people tend to get caught in defending ones practices, the way they should be done and how superior they are compared to others. This attitude and behaviour have caused conflict in the society and had led to even loss of many lives. A spiritual or a humanist individual is unlikely to cause a war, as the peaceful co-existence of the community is a priority. The same cannot be said about a religious individual or a group as they might get caught in justifying their religious beliefs, observances or rights. A humanist will do no harm, but she may have a number of lost opportunities in her life, as she is not leveraging all possible levers of success.
To bring some clarity and create opportunities for self-check, let’s compare and contrast some of the mindsets and behaviours of religious and spiritual. Bear in mind that usually people are a mix of religious and spiritual in their outlook, with varying focus and attention depending on the individual situation.
When we behave as a religious individual, we feel forced to follow a life style or observance. We may also force or coerce someone else to follow us. We might be more focused on the end results of an observance, more than the means. We might be overly concerned about the past or the future. We might consider God as the centre of our life and be fearful of consequences if we do not follow 'his' instructions. A lot of energy might be spent in 'doing' religious observances and prayers, with less attention paid to 'being'. In connection with worship, festivals etc, one tends to be very loyal to the customs, practices and traditions.
When we move up to a spiritual plane, we might enjoy the freedom to choose and also respect others choices in terms of religious observances. A 'love to do' attitude prevails rather than a 'have to do' attitude. The means is equally important as the end. A spiritual person would consider the consequences of performing a ritual carefully - how does it affect the family? environment? She tends to live in the present. She connects with God by expressing love and compassion rather than fear. She is focused on 'being' in addition to and while 'doing'. She tends to be rational and practical in terms of traditions, rather than dogmatic and uncompromising.
One may start on a religious plane and move up gradually to a spiritual dimension by cultivating awareness and sensitivity. Openness to change and the ability to let go of dearly held beliefs for the sake of others are key attributes to cultivate. With a bigger picture of the collective benefit of the humanity in mind, step by step, focusing on one value at time, one could progress gradually to a spiritual space. - Science of Living