This I tell you: decay is inherent in all conditioned things.
Work out your own salvation, with diligence.  – the Buddha [1]

In the same way that there was an exile and then redemption in Egypt for the whole of the people of Israel, so there is [an exile and redemption] for each individual person. This is the interpretation of the verse in Psalms, “Draw near to my soul and redeem it”(Psalm, 69, 19).  Therefore, before we pray for universal redemption we must first pray for the redemption of our own soul. – the Baal Shem Tov

What motivates the search for personal salvation? Is it merely a selfish desire or is it an essential part of the process of humanity’s redemption? Is it a sign of arrogance or is it an expression of humility and a realistic understanding of the human condition?

The Hasidic Master, Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, teaches that real exile is the exile of the soul in the body. The depth of our present exile, he says, is reflected in the fact that we are totally focused on the body and on all things physical, while the soul and its needs have been cast to the side. Before the redemption of the world can be achieved, he concludes, we must first free ourselves from our bondage to the yetser harah – to the lower self.

When someone asked Sri Ramana Maharshi a question that implied a desire to reform the world, the Maharshi sharply replied:

“You imagine that you are going to mend the world with your questions. Who are you to meddle with the world? Look after yourself first. Do you know yourself? Do you know what you really want? How can you know what the world needs when you are blind to your own needs? First set yourself right.”[2]

Sri Ramakrishna also similarly rebuked a devotee who wanted to ‘do good to the world’:

“You people speak of doing good to the world. Is the world such a small thing? And who are you, pray, to do good to the world? First realize God, see Him by means of spiritual discipline. If He imparts power, then you can do good to others; otherwise not.”[3]

Nor is this skepticism about man and his ability to help others before helping himself restricted to Hinduism alone. We are told in the Talmud (Eruvin 13B) that the Rabbis debated for almost three years about whether it was better that man should have been created or not. In the end, they decided that it would have been better if he had not been created, but since he already has been created, let him examine his past errors and try to mend them, and let him reflect carefully before engaging in future actions.

This seemingly harsh view of humanity arises out of the Rabbis’ deep understanding of our frailties and a keen awareness of the power of the lower nature. They recognized the importance of knowing ourselves and discovering the true motivations behind our actions. They realized that we are complex creatures with complex internal processes. Most of us remain unaware of the extent of our bondage. We do not want to look at the truth of our spiritual condition.

Sri Ramakrishna used to say:

“The bound creatures, entangled in worldliness, will not come to their senses at all. They suffer so much misery and agony, they face so many dangers, and yet they will not wake up.

“The camel loves to eat thorny bushes. The more it eats the thorns, the more the blood gushes from its mouth. Still it must eat thorny plants and will never give them up. The man of worldly nature suffers so much sorrow and affliction, but he forgets it all in a few days and begins his old life over again.” [4]

We will make up all sorts of rationales to try and explain our behaviour. We will argue for hours in order to justify ourselves. But in the end, the simple truth is that most of us continue to want our “thorny bushes.” It is very difficult to break the chains that bind us to the lower self.

Yet it is not only because they understood man’s faults and weakness that all these great teachers put such a huge emphasis on the work of personal redemption. They also saw the incredible potential for good in a person who has broken-free from the hold of the lower self and realized God.

In one of his letters, Swami Vivekananda writes:

“Neither numbers, nor powers, nor wealth, nor learning, nor eloquence, nor anything else will prevail, but purity, living the life, in one word, anubhuti, realization. Let there be a dozen lion-souls in each country, lions who have broken their own bonds, who have touched the Infinite, whose whole souls are gone to Brahman, who care neither for wealth, nor power, nor fame, and these will be enough to shake the world. [5]

According to the Hasidic Master, Dov Baer of Mezeritch, a person with perfect faith can raise the dead, turn silver to gold, and change the patterns of nature.

One of the Hasidim asked the Kotsker Rebbe how he knew to answer questions about commerce and other mundane matters, when he lived ‘apart from the world’ and had nothing to do with business. He answered: only a person who is outside the world can look inside it. How will a person who is standing inside look and see?

Once we are above the turmoil of this world, then we can see things as they really are. After we have swept aside the veil of glamour that covers this material world, we can begin to act with clarity and effectiveness.

Some people may think that realized souls benefit only themselves and do nothing for others. But that is only because they do not understand the wider influence of such a life.

A visitor once remarked to Sri Ramana Maharshi: “Some say that to make an effort for one’s own liberation is selfish, and that instead of that, one should do good to others by selfless service.”

The Maharshi replied: “Those people believe that jnanis [realized souls] are selfish and that they themselves are selfless, but this is not a true belief. The jnani lives in the experience of Brahman and the effect of this experience spreads all over the world. A radio transmission is done from one point but its effect can be felt all over the world. Those who would like to benefit from it can do so. Similarly, the Self-realization of the jnani spreads everywhere and whosoever wants can tune into it. This is not a lesser service.” [6]

According to Rebbe Gedalyahu of Linitz, one of the members of the Baal Shem Tov’s circle, the Baal Shem not only taught that there is both personal salvation and collective salvation, he saw a direct link between the two: when everyone has been redeemed personally, then the collective redemption will follow automatically.

The Baal Shem Tov understood that all the goodwill in the world would ultimately come to nothing unless it is accompanied by the hard work of inner perfection. Only when we have freed ourselves from the hold of the lower self can we become effective Divine instruments to transform the world. Without individual self-transformation, humanity will never be redeemed.

Yet despite these assertions, the spiritual life is not an all-or-nothing proposition. There is a great deal of work to be done in the world. There are many of us who, though we may not have achieved personal redemption, still want to help others wherever and however we can. We are looking for clear spiritual guidance in balancing these two separate paths.

On another occasion, when one of Sri Ramana Maharshi’s devotees asked him a similar question about doing good works, he gave the question a very different reply:

“Till you reach the state of jnana and thus wake out of this maya [illusion], you must do social service by relieving suffering whenever you see it. But even then you must do it, as we are told, without ahamkara, i.e., without the sense ‘I am the doer,’ but feeling, ‘I am the Lord’s tool.’ Similarly one must not be conceited, ‘I am helping a man below me. He needs help. I am in a position to help. I am superior and he inferior.’ But you must help the man as a means of worshipping God in that man. All such service too is for the Self, not for anybody else. You are not helping anybody else, but only yourself.” [7]

Personal redemption is an integral part of global redemption. We begin this process by accepting the truth of our own imperfection. We recognize that ‘God is the doer’ and we are only ‘His instrument’. Then we strive to do whatever work that God places before us, while constantly reflecting on the purity and motivation of our every thought, word and deed. Then, tikkun nefesh – fixing ourselves – will naturally lead to tikkun olam – fixing the world – in accordance with God’s Eternal Plan and Purpose.

Copyright © 2008, by Yoel Glick

Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The Dighanikaya, ii 154/sutta 16
  2.  David Godman, The Power of the Presence, Part II
  3.  ‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda
  4. ibid
  5. Swami Chetanananda, How to Live with God
  6. Godman, The Power of the Presence, Part I
  7. Devaraja Mudaliar, Day by Day with Bhagavan