What Eastern and Western religions can teach us about identity

I have seen the question asked many times “who is your idol?”, but I have never been able to actually answer this. I do believe that we have a natural propensity to see the heroic in other people. Even further than that, I believe that, in seeing someone as an idol, we set them as our inspiration, and define who we can be by who we choose to idolise. We shall establish the working definition of the act of idolising as an act of admiration of a figure, which has the consequence of projecting their qualities as qualities we wish our future selves to have.

So why have I never managed to answer who my idols are? In all honesty, I don’t have any. I don’t mean that I don’t admire people, there are a great many people I admire, but I wouldn’t call anybody an idol. For one thing, I could never wish to project traits of other people as future possibilities of my self because those traits fit in with their biographies, not with mine. To project another’s traits into my identity biography would be to posit the existence of an inauthentic life.

Another issue with the idea of idolising somebody is that idols are significant within their context. That context if both one of time and social continuity. ‘Era’ signifies a great number of things. For one, it confers the shared thoughts, ideas and values held at that place in time. That idol will be an embodiment of those values. Projecting them into us is good in that it helps us to learn from them, but creates an ideological discontinuity between our thought and the thought of our immediate social context.

It is important to realise that the people chosen as idols are in fact idols because of certain qualifying factors. Whilst there is a truth in the fact that we are the people we are, we are the people we are in contingent ways. Our identities are created and defined in relation to other things (events, other identities), and that set of events and qualities will never be repeated. For instance, we may idolise Johnny Rotten, he is famed for being one of the first people to make punk famous. However, what he did was only relevant to his context. Somebody may idolise a famous soldier for an act of bravery. What caused them to commit that act of bravery was the context of war, and more specifically, the particular situation in which they needed to act. That isn’t to diminish the value of their actions, merely that the value of their actions is pertinent to the context of the action.

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Now, in the branches of Abrahamic religion, it is consistently thought sinful to worship an idol. We could think of how the protestant faith separated from the Catholic faith’s use of images, statues of Mary, and the veneration of saints. The idea is that there is one god and that it is sinful to worship other gods. The object of those faiths is primacy of devotion to the singular universal. Followers of Islam and Judaism go so far as to deny the depiction of God (and prophets) completely. For all intents and purposes, we can draw a lesson from this idea. In Islam, there is the belief that God is perfection, to create a representative form of God would be disrespectful, and would dilute the values of god, making God seemingly imperfect.

I’m inclined towards a Buddhistic oriented worldview. In this model, I propose that the ‘I’ in the world is an effective form of God. By this I mean that whilst there may or may not be God (in my view, that would be besides any point. I agree with Sartre in trying to find truths regardless of, not in virtue of, theological values), we are each god to us. We create the world merely by perceiving it. We create orders in the world by having ideas about the world, and those ideas impose structure into the world, creating nature values. Each world is different because each world is constructed through different ontologies, and no two ontologies could be exactly the same, being that everyone perceives a different set of things at different times, and from different perspective; therefore, we each have our own worlds, and we are the creators and definers of these worlds, for all effective purposes. And since it is a truth that western world religions are inclined to halt the worship of idols because of its implications to God, the analogous fact presents its self that to have idols in people incurs the same problems regarding ourselves. In idolatry we self ‘inauthenticise’ our identity values.

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One thing we can learn from the Hindu faith is what place idols have in their culture and belief system, as opposed to how they are placed in our western systems. An idol to a Hindu is not a direct representation of a God in the traditional sense. Whilst it seems that there are many Gods in Hinduism, there is in fact only one. Each ‘God’ is a representation of an aspect of God as appears to humanity. God is far too expansive, multifarious, and complex, to perceive. Therefore, God is divided into aspects which are each relevant to us in certain ways. In being before a Hindu idol (known as a Murti), they gain ‘Darshan’, or vision. That means they get a glimpse of God. What is so important about the Hindu view is that they accept an idol for what it is- Not God, nor a truly representative form, but a tool which can help us to better ascertain true sight, and eventually insight, of God.

It is indubitably true to assert that Gods change over time. The Gods of the Poetic Edda or the old world Greek Gods never truly died, they simply transformed into new Gods to fit new cultures and new values. Many of these Gods were in fact earlier forms of certain Hindu Gods. We even see, to show how far ideas travel, that many words in Sanskrit travelled from Ireland. Another example of this would be to see how the God of the early Jewish people has transformed in culture into the God of all the different forms of Christianity, whilst maintaining old world Jewish values, Islamic values. In India, some Hindus even believe that Jesus is an avatar of Vishnu. What this shows us is how important it is not to have idols because they are constructed and designated to cultural values at a point in time. There are truths encapsulated in idols, but the form in which those truths are contained are transient. The importance is in the values, not the container (idol).

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My idol, since we all must have them, is myself. Yours should be yourself. This is not a vanity project, but an authenticity of identity project. The goal we should aim towards is the projected future self. We each exist as our own projects, and those projects are sacred, since we are the creator God of our ontology. This is a valuable lesson to retrieve from the Buddha. I see the figure of the Buddha, not as Siddhartha Gautama, but as the imputed value of self-perfection. The Buddha understood that it needed to be done within the context of the world in which we live. The Buddha understood the value in each and every person and action. The Buddha understood the perils of idolatry. The important thing is to think “where would it be best for me to go from here?”, not “who would I most wish to be like?”.

The self creates its identity by relating to its perceived self in the world. When the self relates to a future self, a progressive self, we shall call this a positive relation. When the self relates to somebody else in the world, we shall call this a negative relation. The goal of the Hindu and the Buddhist is to remove themselves from Samsara, eternal rebirth. One way to do this is by separating ourselves from our actions, which means to develop so pure a mind that our actions and their karma are separated. The Buddhist ideal is to get to a point of mind where their actions are real, but are apart from their values in the world. In exactly the same way, our nature of authenticity should be that we can get to a point of realisation. A point in which we can be our selves, our authentic ‘I’s, well within the context of the world, with other people, but without those other people interfering with the positive relation of self to future self.

The psychologist Julian Jaynes believed that consciousness was a much more modern phenomenon than we believe it to be. He proposed that at one point in history, we believed our inner voices to be the voice(s) of God(s). We developed consciousness to more and more complex forms when we learned to separate ourselves from that voice, and perceive it as an aspect of the mind, not as a governing voice of the divine. In creating consciousness in more complex forms, we separate ourselves from the world, inner voices, and feelings, and form our identity into an authentic ‘I’. Will this form of consciousness maintain its self, or will it transform? Who knows, it will likely change further. The point here is that as consciousness emerged and changed as it separated into a relational unity of its own, so has identity. Identity has become a separate relational unit from the world to further and further degrees too. Our goal should be to do for identity what Jaynes has done for consciousness.

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