Undervalued and even disparaged today, humility is an essential trait for progress on the spiritual path.
By Guru Dasa
The shastras instruct us about the importance of humility; so why is achieving true humility so challenging?
“Oh, God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet, 2.2 (First Folio) This line from Hamlet nicely sums up the absurdity of our delusions of self-importance. I wrote this meditation on the importance of humility as part of my effort to shake my own delusions of knowledge and significance.
Human nature seems to drive us to thinking we know more than we actually know. I like to tell people, “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” I believe this principle holds true for any sphere of human activity or learning, be it scientific, theological, or anything else, even vocations.
We should always try to appreciate that the “unknown unknowns” – those things we do not know that we do not know – vastly outweigh both the tiny pittance of knowledge we have obtained in our years and those things we actually understand we don’t know.
We are all in that boat no matter how accomplished, learned, or scholarly, but appreciating that fact takes effort. We seem to be hardwired to think we understand things even if we do not. I count myself as no exception to this rule, and it takes great mental effort for me to step outside of my own shoes and even try to appreciate my own ignorance.
“The more you know, the more you know you don’t know” could be regarded as a truism. Merriam-Webster defines truism as “an undoubted or self-evident truth.” This same truism goes for all fields of so-called knowledge, including all faith traditions, all philosophical points of view, and all sciences, whether considered “soft” or “hard” or anything in between. You see this false confidence in the rabid atheist who insists that there is no God and no such thing as the soul. You see it in the fanatic who shouts that nobody else understands God or that everyone else is going to hell for their sins.
We followers of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition and of Srila Prabhupada are not exempt either. Generally speaking, we all have our anarthas, the dirt in our minds and our hearts that causes us to be arrogant or do things that are unhelpful for ourselves or others. We also all have our false ego, or ahankara, that false sense of self that identifies with our specific situation of the moment. This is our “false ego” – a false sense of self – and it evolves over the course of our life and from one life to another. It is temporary, as are all things in this material world.
The Tao Te Ching advises that humility is the best policy. One quote I like is translated as follows: “If the sage wants to stand above people, he must speak to them from below. If he wants to lead people, he must follow them from behind.” (Chapter 66) Leadership and humility paradoxically go together. We don’t often associate leaders with humility, but wisdom traditions teach us they do go together.
Jesus also advised humility. He said, “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.” Matthew (King James Version) 20:16.
Last year I heard a talk about this same principle at a conference in San Francisco attended by hundreds of defense and corporate lawyers. We were told how the U.S. Marines follow this principle – they eat together by reverse rank order. The newest private eats first. The general eats last. It is not a written rule but is a tradition going back for centuries. This practice of humility demonstrates leadership and quality of character.
Our own shastras are replete with examples of humility. Even God Himself shows by example the importance of humility. Lord Chaitanya, whom we accept to be an incarnation of God, often speaks humbly in Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, disclaiming His own divinity and knowledge, or claiming He is a fool or pretender even though He is God Himself posing as His own devotee. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam we have many examples of demigods – advanced souls invested with great opulence and cosmic responsibilities – being humbled or having faults. We have the story of Lord Brahma trying to trick Krishna (God) and finding out that he is only one of numberless Brahmas. There is a reason for all this. It is all directing us to endeavor for humility if we really want to make spiritual progress.
Fighting Our False Pride
We must always fight our false pride. False pride in ourselves or in our knowledge makes us miserable. Humility is liberating. When I think about how small I am and how little I actually know, it is liberating, like a weight lifted off my back. I am not in control, so why worry? Stress at work? Stress at home? It will all pass. It is just material nature and time playing their usual tricks. All of our stresses and insecurities are like a fleeting shadow play. Shakespeare said it well: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.”
We all have our parts to play at various stages of life, but unlike the actors in a Shakespeare play, we forget we are acting and think we are the character we are playing.
Our false pride also corrupts our sentiments about who God is. One of my favorite verses in the Srimad-Bhagavatam is “O brahmanas, the incarnations of the Lord are innumerable, like rivulets flowing from inexhaustible sources of water.” (1.3.26) This makes intuitive sense. Could a limited God be God? Doesn’t that defeat the very definition of God? Shouldn’t God have limitless forms and activities?
Who are we to understand God? We do not even understand ourselves, what to speak of God or God’s spiritual world. How arrogant is it to think we understand who God is? Don’t we all box God in within our minds even if unknowingly?
Another area where this comes into play is the seeming conflicts between faith and the sciences. Over the years I have thought about this topic quite a bit, and now I ask myself this: Do I really understand either the sciences I look to or the scriptures I have faith in? I like to think I do as to both, but in truth I do not understand either fully. Therefore there is no need to dwell on any seeming conflicts between science and faith.
I have faith in God, but not blind or unreasoned faith. My faith in God is tested by critical thought, and that testing strengthens it. If I were to have only blind faith, I’d easily be swayed away from faith.
True humility does not mean self-hatred. It’s an acknowledgment of our own limitations, and that is all. As I have heard some wise friends say, one who is humble does not think less of himself, but thinks of himself less. We should seek that humility which does not diminish our sense of self-worth but abhors narcissism and self-promotion.
Finally, the value of humility in our spiritual quest is that it opens our minds and hearts to instruction from higher authorities. If we do not have humility, we close the door to learning. Spiritual sources of knowledge are guru, sadhu, and shastra. It’s easy to feign respect for these higher authorities and put on a show of humility; it’s not as easy to truly achieve that humility. Without achieving it, who are we fooling? We might fool others, and we might fool ourselves, but we can’t fool the Paramatma in our hearts, the Supersoul who sees and knows all. Ultimately only the Supreme Personality of Godhead is the witness who actually matters – and we can’t fool him. So why try?