As I wrote elsewhere, there is a great deal of difference between Religion as I use the term and the organisations which claim Religion as their own.
So, what is Religion? To me, it's the path to the Realisation of the creative power, for which the term "God" is mostly used, within me. What does that mean?
As a child I couldn't understand the world, which seemed to be full of contradictions. I wanted to find whatever the truth was, not contradictions. My reading of many scriptures and commentaries led me to a point where I did have some criteria which anything called Religion would have to fulfil.
The first was, that it could not be anything such as an organisation, but would have to be a truly personal experience. I studied Philosophy, Psychology and Comparative Religions in the hope that I would find answers there. I recall vividly the opening lecture for the new philosophy students, where the Professor commented that "those of you who have come here hoping to find the answer to the big questions such as the meaning of life, are going to be disappointed. The best we can do ist to teach you to ask better questions."
Great! Was I to leave then? During my first Psychology tutorial, we were encouraged to say what we would like to focus on in particular. I suggested we should first start to understand this "I" about which we would be psychologising. The rest of the group didn't seem to know what I was talking about, and eventually I discovered that there are a bunch of theories around, none of which offered an integrated understanding of the human being, but would be selected and applied, depending on the problem for which the chosen theory offered the best options. Another dead end.
As for Comparative Religions, which largely consisted of views on Christianity, a little about Buddhism and that was about it. I recall asking on lecturer, why so many lecturers in this department were Catholics and the reply I was given, was that they choose that particular system because it relied on belief and faith, where, of course, analysis cannot reach. It was covering all bets.
Now that I've started, I thought, I might as well finish the course, and I did, and got my degree. But the hope of finding a path that made sense of the crazy world I was in was dashed almost as soon as I started the course.
I had written off the various religious organisations and their rituals, money making, "I'm right-and-your-wrong" attitudes. Reading history, made it very clear to me, that whatever positive messages the original masters behind the texts had offered, had been taken over and perverted by the subsequent organisations (after all, the Master wasn't around to correct anything anymore)  and used it to manipulate people and to gain power and riches. So, really, was that it? All of it?
Clearly, these masters had something to offer to their followers at the time they lived, which had had such an impact that we could see their effect hundreds, even thousands of years after. To me, that was possibly the biggest clue: the answer would not be in books, but in a real experience with a master. What else would work? You don't go to the grave a dead doctor to get cured, you go to a live one.
Every day, it seems, we read about the disgusting and truly shameful behaviour of the religious representatives, be it in child abuse, in starting wars (as an aside, the Christian religion did not condone violence until Pope Urban started the Crusades by declaring God was on their side and let's go and kill the Unbelievers), and the mistreatment of so many uneducated people by exploiting their ignorance. I find more or less all religious organisations disgusting and only interested in preserving their own power. It is beyond my understanding in this day and age, where so much is known of the past and present atrocities  of the organisations and their hierarchies, that anyone believes in them at all and worse, supports them. Politics have long since invaded each of these organisations. Apparently more and more people see that too and have lost faith. It's hard to believe the things a priest or a rabbi or mullah or monk or a vicar or whatever the representatives call themselves say, when you read about the machinations in which they are involved. Everything  and anything is allowed in order to preserve the status quo. For many it's just a job and like any job in any organisation, it's more about climbing the slippery pole of promotion and more power and status and, of course, pay and benefits, than it is about helping others realise God in their life. But then again, without that ongoing personal experience, what else is there for them to aspire to? The arrogance in believing or promulgating that theirs is the only way to commune with God, is staggering, as, in the same breath they claim the universality of the creative power! 
When someone points to the moon and say that's the moon, we don't look at the finger and think that's the moon. And yet, isn't that what the organisations say? Look, the rituals are important, not the experience!
The image I've chosen for this particular entry in my blog, is called "The Prophet" and when I saw it, it immediately made me think of how many people (white, of course) imagine God to be, The stern white old man with a beard from the old testament who sends down floods and causes great grief to the non-believers. Nothing to do with a God of Love. No, this is the guy who sends people to hell and shakes the finger at them. And yet, God is referred to as universal and the giver of life to all, the Creator of the Universe, All-Knowing, All-seeing and the power behind all. The contradiction in this fire and brimstone God and the Universal God who gives life and love to all is what drove me to my search.
That said, of course there are many exceptions and exceptional people, who, however, sadly prove the rule.
For me, organisations with such histories have nothing to do with what I mean by religion.
So, how do I see all this on a personal level and finding that personal experience?
It was the time of the hippies and make love not war and in the 70's that was where I'd found at least others who seemed to be on the same wavelength as me. Several experiences in my life had strengthened my view that love had to be the source of all and that was a criteria which no religious organisation or ritual seemed to do more than pay lip service to.
The final criteria was that if I could meet such a master, then finally I could ask the two most important questions I had, which I'd read had been posed to the great Master Ramakrishna: Question: Can you see God? And, depending on the answer, the follow up question: Can you show me?
It was at this point in my life that I was introduced to Prem Rawat through meeting some of his followers including one of the Philosophy professors, with whom I had a number of interesting conversations. It encouraged me to go and see what was behind all this talk.
Attending several meetings, I found most of my boxes being ticked. Prem Rawat, it was claimed, could feel God in his life and that he could show me. Wow!
The price was not financial, but required effort; effort to understand. It still does - it's a lifetime effort. Prem Rawat refers to what he offers as "Knowledge"; i.e. the knowledge of the Self. The process was joyful, it involved listening to those who had received this "Knowledge" sharing their experiences and understanding. It also involved doing selfless work, i.e. not for personal gain, but to help others. I was fine with that.
Eventually on the 23rd of January 1975 I received Knowledge. The way to go inside and discover me, the me beyond words, the me which is part of everything. That is what I understand religion to be and what I'd been looking for all my life. I celebrate that as my true birthday. My own Pentecost!
Read the message of the past masters wherever and whenever they lived and it's the same message: you have been given the gift of life; understand what that gift is and you'll understand how precious a gift that is. You did nothing to get it and yet you have it. Look in the mirror, there you'll see the proof of your existence. Only love can give a gift like that. Understanding that makes me truly grateful for the chance this existence offers, to experience not only the external world, but the internal universe within me.
Religion is the path of coming closer to the Creator within me. I don't need external paraphernalia and rituals. I need love and clarity and joy and thankfulness. They all exist within me and make my life a wonder which I treasure every day and put effort into to be consciously aware of.
Every master says the same: look inside, all you need is there. Each Human Being on the planet comes with a complete kit, but most of us are unaware of it and very few seriously search for it. The benefits are huge.
Thank you for life and thank you for making me aware of it.