Giving Up What You Do Not Have by Esther Nelson

I grew up within Christianity—one of the faiths that many religious scholars label as a Western tradition.  It can be difficult at times to wrap my head around religious concepts and symbols labeled by those same religious scholars as Eastern traditions.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam come under the rubric of Western traditions while Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism are categorized as Eastern traditions.

Years ago I came across Diana Eck’s book, Encountering God  A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras.  In the Preface, Eck writes: “I am a student, scholar, and teacher of the comparative study of religion. My academic specialization is the Hindu tradition….”  Throughout her work, she explores the meaning of “God.” “What if,” she asks, “the names and forms of…God are many, limited only by our human capacity to recognize them?”

Within Hindu tradition, the Divine (or God) is conceptualized in a variety of ways, however, an ancient Hindu text (Rig Veda) expresses this idea: “God is one, but wise people know it by many names.”  Hindus believe in one God, Brahman, the eternal origin who is the cause and foundation of all existence. There is a Trinity (of sorts) within the tradition—Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver; and Shiva, the Destroyer. 

Krishna is a widely-revered Hindu divinity.  He is understood to be an avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu.  (An avatar within Hindu thought is someone who comes to help humanity in a time of need.)

Eck recounts one story of Krishna (depicted as a cowherd) beckoning the milkmaids, who risk their lives as well as their reputations, to come to the forest in the middle of the night to dance the great circle dance.  When they arrived, “Krishna miraculously multiplied himself to dance with each and every one of them…there was plenty of Krishna to go around.” However, “the moment the milkmaids became possessive, each thinking that Krishna was dancing with her alone, Krishna disappeared.” 

The theological take-away from this story is the recognition that God does not belong exclusively to any one person or group.  As Eck writes: “The moment we human beings grasp God with jealousy and possessiveness, we lose hold of God.”

The story of Krishna and the milkmaids reflects our (human) proclivity to want to possess God for ourselves.  We like to believe our own conceptualization of the Divine is the “right” way to understand the Mystery we call God.  That possessiveness manifests itself in our everyday lives with our relationships—both with one another (attempting to control how others believe and act) and Earth Herself (greedily ravaging and pillaging Her resources).  

Our insatiable appetites demand that we possess, yet we suffer, remaining hungry and dissatisfied in spite of our grasping.  So for the following few paragraphs, I want to explore how/if we can find a way out of the suffering (grief, anger, tribalism, and war are examples) our seemingly limitless appetites can spark as we cling tenaciously to what we think we must have.

This then takes me into Buddhist thought—a religion that emerged out of Hinduism.  Siddhartha Gautama—the Buddha—preached what we call “the four noble truths,” giving us a diagnosis, prognosis, and prescription for our symptom—suffering.  

  1. Life is “out of kilter.”  We suffer. (Symptom.)  
  2. The cause of our suffering is craving—we MUST have things or things MUST conform to our specifications. (Diagnosis.)  
  3. Stop craving. (Prognosis is good if you follow advice.)  
  4. Follow the 8-fold path—right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.  (Prescription.) 

Perhaps the Buddha was on to something.  Suffering is inescapable.  It’s just the way things are–all of us seem to have this niggling sense that “things” are just not right somehow.  When we suffer loss such as the death of a loved one, a job, a house, or our trust in someone, a belief system, etc., we grieve.  We become sad, often distressed.  

I do not call myself a Buddhist.  I do not know experientially how Buddhists handle suffering.  Buddhism asserts that everything is impermanent–nothing stays the same from moment to moment, let alone year to year and century to century.  Is accepting (even embracing) the impermanence (changeability) of life—not pinning one’s hopes on having a specific outcome to anything—a way to eradicate our suffering?  We (humans) seem to continuously struggle here.  Suffering comes from our craving. We MUST possess like the milkmaids had to possess Krishna for themselves. Craving is like fire. The more one feeds it, the more it wants. Cut off its fuel supply and the fire dies.  In the earthly realm as we know it, all sentient beings and things fade away.  Attaching our hope and dreams to impermanence sets us up for misery.  Is meditation (I’ve little concept experientially of what this entails) a way to come to terms with impermanence and thus ease our suffering?

I’m struggling these days, grieving the loss of health, loss of friendship, and loss of family relationship.  If the Buddha is right, these things (health, friendship, and family) were never ultimately mine to begin with.  How can one own that which is impermanent? Wouldn’t it behoove me to give up what I don’t have and can never possess?  When the milkmaids tried to take hold of Lord Krishna for themselves, Krishna disappeared. When we try to make the impermanent permanent, we lose touch with reality and set ourselves up for disappointment.  

The Buddha never claimed to be a God, but perhaps his prescription to ameliorate (end?) suffering holds the possibility of opening up space for us to actively take part in the Mystery many people DO call God.  

What I’m attempting to do right now is sew together wisdom from “Eastern” religious tradition with my own experience, try the frock on for size and see how it fits.  No doubt the garment will need alterations and adjustments. Nothing is permanent. 


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

14 thoughts on “Giving Up What You Do Not Have by Esther Nelson”

  1. Great post. Like you I have not embraced Buddhism fully, but I do believe it is important to give up attachment to outcomes or having to have and having to have it now. Life does not revolve around my ego or yours and often we simply cannot have everything we think we want and in some cases we also do not need it as much as we think we do. I am not interested in giving up all desires and I do not think it is possible to avoid all suffering. But I do think it is important to recognize that life is not about me and mine. May your suffering be lessened. (Mine too hee hee!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Carol. I think what you say here is key–or at least one key: “But I do think it is important to recognize that life is not about me and mine.” I also agree that it is not possible to avoid all suffering. Don’t believe we (in Western world) especially know how to sit with suffering as part and parcel of the way things are.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes and not accepting suffering is part and parcel of the New Age, which sells the idea that “I create my own reality.” This is a half truth, the other half being that there are other actors in the universe near and far who contribute to the reality that I experience. But obviously people who go for the New Age philosophy want to believe that they are in control of everything. What a crock (pardon me). And they would rather accept that they create their own suffering than acknowledge that sometimes other people or things cause it. We can to some extent control our response but that does not mean that I can get what I want or need whenever I want or need it. Siggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Esther, sorry to hear that you have sadness and grieving in your life right now – and for such important things, too.

    I think all we can do sometimes is to accept our feelings as the natural outcome of events. That sounds obvious, but there’s a lot of kindness to ourselves in that process – why wouldn’t you feel sad/upset after such ands such a thing happened?

    Acceptance and then releasing the outcome. There’s magic in those two things. When the prodigal son set off for home, he had to let go of the outcome. I’m sure he wanted his father to welcome him back but he probably feared the worst, but went anyway. If we can let go of the outcome, the Divine comes running to meet us halfway.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you, Sarah, for commenting. I like this sentence: “I think all we can do sometimes is to accept our feelings as the natural outcome of events.” Our feelings about “things” is also part of the way things are. We are often so quick to judge ourselves, thinking we “should” feel this or not feel that. One of the images I like is to imagine myself in the middle of a moving river and then to just observe the rushing water (a metaphor for feelings) travel downstream.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Very interesting! We need some avatars right now, kind and good gods and goddesses–and people–who will rescue us from all the negative energy filling and killing our blessed Mother Planet. Thanks for writing this interesting post. Yes, we need to, as they say, go with the flow in your moving river.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful! Thoughtful post. I am struck by these words “Is accepting (even embracing) the impermanence (changeability) of life—not pinning one’s hopes on having a specific outcome to anything—a way to eradicate our suffering? We (humans) seem to continuously struggle here.” From my standpoint accepting impermanence may be key to feeling some sort of peace – with that much said – I am not even sure this is possible – I am constantly attempting to align myself with the inevitability of change – moving with the river – with varying very temporary success. I also think that when we lose our health, or family as we both have it is really important to acknowledge that our feelings are absolutely natural. Grieving loss is life…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, thanks Sara. Our feelings of grief due to our losses are natural. What do we do with those feelings then? There are a lot of options–many of them not conducive to thriving in the present world. This is the struggle for me these days.


      1. agreed…many options are not conducive to thriving…and by the way I think the word thriving in this climate is unrealistic – enduring and making the best of what we are given seems more sensible in our present cultural context –


  5. Thanks so much, Esther Nelson, your title is priceless, that is —
    “Giving Up What You Do Not Have…”

    Reminds me of the symbol of nature used in Taoism — that is, a circle with a an S curve through the middle — one side in shadow, one side in light (Yin and Yang). But what seems so important in the Tao emblem, is the mother-child too — and so the “S” curve creates out of itself the other half.

    Liked by 1 person

Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: