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Conquering the self

Huzaima Bukhari

“Who has a harder fight than he who is trying to overcome himself”—Thomas A Kempis (c 1380-1471) a German-Dutch canon regular (priest).

According to the English dictionary, the word ‘conquer’ is a verb which means to take control or possession of foreign land, or a group of people, by force. In a metaphysical sense it implies dealing with or successfully fighting against a problem or an unreasonable fear. The main thrust of these definitions is the ability to bring under one’s power lands, people or a situation. Centuries old human history is fraught with conquests where a tribe or a nation has fought bloody battles and wars with the sole aim to subjugate other nations and exploit their economic resources. In doing so, the conquerors establish their supremacy in various ways relishing in the control they can exert upon the vanquished.  

Come to think of it, how easy it is to raise an army, attack other territories, shamelessly kill, imprison important persons, rampage assets, play havoc with the honour of women and show no mercy towards children and the invalid. If all this does not satisfy aggressors, to make matters worse, perpetrators sabotage the language, culture, arts and crafts that are made objects of ridicule. People are subjected to humiliation; their sense of pride is replaced by shame and embarrassment as is their history. In doing so, the conquerors are full of themselves and totally intoxicated by their victories, they tend to display an arrogance that befits God only. In their imperiousness and while looking down upon their subjects they definitely and conveniently fail to notice myriads of their own shortcomings. At least this is what has been seen to occur in the many eras representing conquerors and the vanquished.

There is a popular belief that he who masters the self is greater than he who conquers thousands in battle but it does not mean that someone should chain his hands and feet and imprison himself physically. This is more to do with “self-control” because showing anger and ill-will towards others are no more considered as attributable to “temperament.” A cursory look into the Books of Revelation would reveal that through His emissaries or holy Prophets, God has persistently taught the world to abstain from exterminating the living which can only be done if humans were to exercise control over themselves rather than trying to overpower others. Thus the Quranic word “jihad” often misconstrued as “holy war” (the right term for war is ‘al harab’) in fact refers to ‘struggle’ or ‘effort’ to make oneself a good practicing Muslim or better still, achieve the status of an excellent human being. Similarly, admonitions in ‘Proverbs’ [Bible] clearly spell out: (16:32), “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”

These divine concepts are also reflective in the universally accepted ideals as apparent from a couple of lines from the Rays From the Rose Cross Magazine (September-October 1995 edition) that are worth considering: It is the great privilege and good fortune of some of us to have received an understanding of the laws of life, as given in occult philosophy, so that we know how to live the constructive life. It should be an ever-increasing joy to those so blessed to apply these principles in daily living, and thus hasten the day of Universal Peace and Brotherhood.”

Incidentally, those who are desirous of leading nations have even a greater responsibility to conquer their self because if they are incapable of controlling their own appetites, passions and inert desires, what kind of values would they instill in their people who can be likened to sheep, that follow their leaders without questioning their actions?

The logical question that ensues is how to learn the art of self-control, to conquer one’s self and what is the biggest obstacle that lies in the path of acquiring this important knowledge. The answer is very simple and is hidden within one’s conscious mind while the hurdle in mastering self-control is actually in the form of oneself. According to the famous Greek philosopher, Plato: “The first and best victory is to conquer self. To be conquered by self is, of all things, the most shameful and objectionable/vile.”

The best way to conquer one’s self is to probe into one’s own mind and find out the most influential things related to one’s emotions, attitude and thoughts. If one can discover where one stands, who is the real person within oneself, who is the hypocrite within and what is it that one would like to see oneself as then there is no reason why one cannot truly conquer oneself. We can be the best judges of our good and bad attributes although it does at time become awkward to accept one’s faults. Perhaps the most difficult thing is to perceive the idea that essentially we are all the same from inside. No matter who we are or where we come from, we all yearn for love, kindness, happiness, peace and security basically for ourselves and for our loved ones. If this is the position then how can a heavenly society be possible if we are the ones to disrupt the environment?

Conquering the self implies elements of self-control, self-discipline, subduing the ego, overcoming fear which is actually instrumental in leading people to belligerence, suppressing the rage for revenge, rationalizing one’s circumstances and finding a way out that is more productive and less damaging. Amazingly, these qualities are present in almost all human beings who are actually the mature forms of those unassuming innocent little babies who attract the attention of any passerby. The only action required is the application of a conscious mind.

One wonders that if all conquerors, past, present and future had and would spend some time in waging wars with their own selves, then the likes of Sargon of Akkad (2000 BC), Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Cyrus, Hitler, Mahmud of Ghazni, Hari Singh Nalwa, Tamerlane (better known as Taimur Lung), Genghis Khan would have refrained from slaughtering and seizing in order to satisfy their insatiable lust for power. The false notions of ‘self’ emerge from minds conditioned to believe in mirages and the cocoons of ambition they have wound around themselves which are very short lived and leave in their aftermath only the feeling of disgust and repentance. An important example from history is that of Asoka the Great, who after soaking his hands in the blood of innocents, realized the frivolity of aggression and resorted to converting to Buddhism, which at that time meant peace.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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