What is the value of humility in society today? Ordinary people may consider it an illusion to make their mark in this world by being humble, and rightly so. We are a species that has become defined by our capacity to exploit material nature for the sake of economic and technological gain. Social Darwinism influences people’s minds—in order to survive in this world they must be selfish. My mother would encourage me to be the best, to be at the top, to succeed, or else, she would admonish, this world will swallow me, chew me up, and spit me into the gutter. What does humility have to do with this pursuit of success? How will humility get you by in times of contention and bitter rivalry, especially as humans struggle with one another and nations collide? I recall that one side of my family would brandish these individualistic impressions in one ear, but in the other, due to a reverent upbringing, the other side of my family would tell me, “the meek and humble will inherit the earth.” Can there be any reconciliation to such a perplexity?
The enlightened sages of the past claim that this value of humility is a positive quality. Indeed, we see the value of humility as a common thread in almost every spiritual path of the world, although a greater depth of understanding is required to apply the principle. Some people misconceive what is real humility, understanding it as a quality belonging to people who lack self-esteem, who wallow in moods of defeatism, or who are bound in codependent relationships. With such misconceptions of humility, people only harbour more doubts about how to apply the quality feasibly in their lives. Thus, people may resign the value of humility as a mere aberration, or a mental disease with no positive resolve.
In beginning to explore this topic deeper, I would like to share this incisive definition of humility from a revered ancient sage of India, Narada Muni: “Wise men define utter humility as the state in which one always thinks oneself exceptionally incapable and low, even when endowed with all excellences…”*
Gopiparanadhana Dasa, Sanskrit scholar and bhakti-yogi, further comments on Narada’s statement in this text: “Someone might say that the quality of thinking oneself very fallen may also be seen in persons who are simply lazy or those who abandon auspicious work… Therefore Narada specifies that one who actually has humility is endowed with all good qualities.”
So now, let’s ponder how a person can feel incapable whilst being adorned with exceptional qualities. For instance, almost fifteen years ago, I was a camp leader in a high school retreat. We went to the Outdoor Pursuit Centre on the West Coast of New Zealand and took our first year students on a tramp to the top of Mount Ruapehu. Upon nearing the summit of the mountain, as we stopped to catch our breath, I scanned the scenery, which was breathtaking to say the least. Before me, snow-laden peaks glistened glamorously as the sun yonder shone its magnificent rays down on us. The ebbing forests below, scattered far and wide, marched down the slopes till the shimmering vastness of the ocean line seemed to engulf the world from all sides. As I stopped to meditate on the wonder of what lay before me, insurmountable feelings of joy overcame my heart along with an acute sense of awe at the grandeur and opulence of nature’s glories. I was content to feel insignificantly small in comparison to a much greater and more beautiful reality. It was easy not to be self-centred and egotistical in that environment. I deliberated on the notion that I was no longer at the centre of existence, but rather, a tiny part of a preeminent whole.
Reminiscing on this experience leads me to remember that a humble person is happy and comfortable at being small, and despite being decorated with all excellences, he or she remains humbled. One can achieve this state by always being conscious of the sour ce of all opulence and by realising that one is but a tiny part of that absolute and superlative existence. For example, there are different grades of fire, but all of them derive heat from the sun. So one may have varying degrees of opulence, but to whatever extent that may be, it will always remain insignificant in relation to the source of the opulence. Such persons no longer think themselves great, nor do they want to be great, rather, they feel but a part of a universal order, and in acting in concert to that whole, they feel shelter, unity, and purpose. Hence, when I was on the summit of that mountain, the presence of nature’s overwhelming sublimity momentarily dissipated the burdensome idea that I was the centre, the master, and controller.
In contrast to real humility, defeatism and low self-esteem are the real psychological diseases. These issues dictate that I feel small but unhappy, because I want to be big, and because, by nature, one is not comfortable being infinitesimal. Tiny as we are, people unconsciously stride about like self-proclaimed masters of the universe, oblivious to an absolute reality of whom they are a part. If we stand back and take a look at our existential position from a more honest perspective, one can posit that we don’t know how to see things as they are, especially when the tendency is to be self-absorbed in an egocentric way. What can I really perceive with my tiny mind and senses, being debilitated by all kinds of limitations? Those who conjecture in this way may find themselves in a reasonable position to learn from self-realized sages who have taught spiritual knowledge for millennia.
Indeed, in the ancient yoga texts of India, such as in the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna says, “Know that all opulent, beautiful and glorious creations spring from but a spark of My splendour,” (10.41) and later He explains, “The living entities in this conditioned world are My eternal fragmental parts…” (15.7) The yoga texts let us know of our infinitesimal nature as parts of a personal, complete, and infallible storehouse of energy, Krishna. The duty of the part is to cooperate in relationship to that of whom we are a part. For example, the hand is a part of the body. In itself the hand has no meaning, having a separate existence from the body. If the hand tried nourishing itself by eating separately from the body, it would fail miserably. The hand needs to cooperate with the body by placing food into the stomach through the mouth. By this unity the hand will feel nourished and content because it is engaged in a relationship with the body of which it is a part.
A wise man used to say, “Humility does not mean to think yourself less, rather, it means to think less of yourself.” (Bhakti Tirtha Swami.) In other words, we need to see past our noses and realise the bigger picture. To think less of ourselves requires that we become absorbed in reconnecting with Krishna, the source of our very existence. The culture that fails to see value to humility is a culture characterized by the idea that we are all masters. Modernity is harvesting the fruits this view engenders in the shape of mass exploitation of people and animals, mental anxieties, strife, poverty, and family instability. Under what circumstances will it take for people to learn that the deep-rooted disease that is manifesting the world’s depravation is within all of us?
The benefits for a society that cultivates this mood of humility are refreshing and more realistic than the harsh arrogance of the prideful boasting of people who think themselves very important, or the meandering individual who is lacking self-worth. Neither of the se attitudes will benefit anyone. Furthermore, dare I say there can be no real experience of love in a society harbouring the contrasting attitudes of arrogance and low self-worth. How can a feeling of love and grace arouse in our hearts when there is a false notion of entitlement to all things around us? Let us consider true humility as the essence of the holistic development of individuals.
* Sanatana Goswami, Sri Brhad Bhagavatamrta, Vol. 3, part 2, text 222, trans. Gopiparanadhana Dasa (Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2002).