The preaching religions have long espoused the suppression of the self. The book The World’s Religions by Huston Smith gives a wonderful overview of our religions. When I read the book it became clear that the common thread of the major religions is this suppression of self.
As for Hinduism, he says “Every act done without thought for myself diminishes my self-centeredness until finally no barrier remains to separate me from the Divine,” The World’s Religions, p. 38. To be self-centered is to be apart from God, according to Hinduism. But loving yourself glorifies the divinity God placed in you, and nothing could please God more.
Smith repeats the dictum from Hinduism’s holy book, the Bhagavad-Gita: “To work you have the right, but not to the fruits thereof,” p. 40. This angle has you doing everything in this life for God, and not reaping any reward for self. In my view this is completely backwards, and cuts against what we are born thinking.
On to Buddhism: Smith explains that Buddhists revile ego as a “secret sore,” or a “strangulated hernia,”p. 102-3. Buddhism decries Tanha, or the “specific desire for private fulfillment,” p. 102. I just don’t see fulfillment of your gifts as something shameful. We exit the womb bent on self-preservation and aglow in self-love. Trying to reverse nature by decrying pride in yourself has put us in a straitjacket. We are perfect and exude divine potential, and when we see this, the world will be made anew.
The Confucian Book of Li states that “Pride should not be indulged. The will should not be gratified to the full. Pleasure should not be carried to excess,” p. 175. Again, this religion suppresses self and free will.
Smith states that the sacred text of Islam, the Koran, “proclaim[s] the unity, omnipotence, omniscience, and mercy of God—and correlatively the total dependence of human life upon Him,” p. 234. There is no life without God, teaches Islam. Never forget how small you are in his shadow.
Judaism, Smith contends, is based on a covenant with God, or as he describes it, a “pledging of total selves,” p. 306. He cites Exodus 19:4-6:
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”
So here, God owns the whole earth, and he expects complete obedience from us, as his possessions. The most we can ever hope to be is a prized possession, gathering dust in His trophy case. Where the Jews were once slaves to Egypt, they are now simply slaves to a new master: God.
And finally, Christianity: Smith talks of Jesus as “free of pride” … “a man in whom the human ego had disappeared,” p. 328-9. Jesus minimizes his own self when he says “Why do you call me good? Don’t you know that only God is good?” The man we are supposed to emulate always practiced being a servant to others and putting God first. “The meek, they shall inherit the earth.” Hide that light, temper your glow.
I recall a story my husband Nathan told me about a Christian summer camp he went to. He won the “Me Third” award, which meant he put God first and others second, and then himself last. This is the Christian way: your Self is an afterthought.
I believe we can all agree we live in a far from perfect world. With tragedies like Newtown, Massachusetts and Columbine and 9/11, it is easy to subscribe to the saying that “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” It seems hopeless, and the road to Heaven seems as far away as it was thousands of years ago. And thousands of years ago we didn’t have suicide bombers and baby killers. So if the religions have failed to deliver us to the promised land (and in fact seem to be carrying us farther away by day), why not find their common thread and see it as the common problem? Maybe they’ve all got this ego thing backwards. Maybe you are really better than the religions ever allow you to be, and denying that truth is why we live in hell on earth. Maybe love of self as the key to finding Heaven on Earth is the single most important thing you can take from this book.
I’m not the first one to the dance in terms of this concept. None other than Nelson Mandela assessed the importance of profound self-love:
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are born to manifest the glory of God that is within us. All of us. And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Who else will shine your light for you? If not you, then who? Why not you?
Why can’t you be the next great thing? Why can’t you light the world? Shouldn’t our religion empower and embolden us to be the best we can be? Not to hide our light under a bushel?