What is it? How do we get it?
IN THE Bhagavad-gita Lord Krsna lists humility as the first item of knowledge. And Srila Prabhupada writes that without humility we cannot gain knowledge. Until we know that we don't know, why should we want to learn? Lord Jesus taught that the meek will inherit the earth and those who put themselves last are first in the eyes of God.
Yet I fear humility. Are the humble full of self-loathing? Are they willing victims? Do opportunity and success pass them by?
If humility invites exploitation, why do scriptures praise it? Lord Caitanya says, "A person with all good qualities is bent down with humility, like a tree full of fruit."
So, I consider that maybe, just maybe, I should think about developing humility. The problem is, I'm not sure whether or not I really want it, I don't understand how I'll feel and act when I have it, and I haven't a notion of how to attain it. At least that's how I felt sometime ago when I decided simply to concentrate on serving Lord Krsna and let this humility business take care of itself. Krsna would find a way to help me to understand it and achieve it, I was sure.
Do we need humility? Srila Prabhupada writes many times that persons who have seriously taken up the practices of Krsna consciousness don't need to work separately at developing good qualities. For example, they're automatically vegetarians and need not join a vegetarian society. Still, Krsna's devotees carefully select food to make sure it's free from meat, fish, and eggs and suitable for the Lord's pleasure. The devotee does, therefore, make an effort to be a vegetarian as part of his or her service to the Lord.
Similarly, since we're offering ourselves to the Lord, we must examine ourselves to spot arrogance. Part of our spiritual advancement requires making sure our mind is pure, a fit temple for Lord Krsna.
Once I was eating in the dark, watching a devotional video. The excellent banquet, however, contained some putrid fig chutney. I gagged when I tasted it and rejected the rest of the meal. Arrogance is putrid fig chutney. Despite a person's good qualities, when we detect conceit we recoil and keep our distance. Can I truly say to Krsna, "Accept me, Lord, as your servant," when conceit covers and permeates all I do, say, and think?
I'm motivated to define and develop humility because Krsna demands it, and because false pride is painful. Respect and adoration have a high price. Others envy us, or they praise us, but with ulterior motives. We may be respected for our qualities or accomplishments, but abhorred for our pride in them. We delight in the sweetness of respect, but suffer the bitterness of insult. One who has received honor finds dishonor worse than death, Krsna says.
So, I've come to the point of at least tentatively deciding I want to be humble. At least I understand that humility is a prerequisite for the unlimited, eternal happiness of love of God that I do want. But what exactly is humility?
Humility Is Honesty
I know that humility is not a lie, because another saintly quality Krsna mentions is truthfulness. To say that I'm poor when I'm rich, ugly when I'm beautiful, would not be humility, nor would admitting I lack certain qualities that's just a statement of fact. Giving others credit and acknowledgment and minimizing our own accomplishments and abilities, while within we long for respect and recognition, is not humility. This false humility (while often a social necessity) is a lie, and one the liar rarely believes. Those who hear it believe it less.
Part of real humility is accepting the whole truth: I have this possession, or quality, or ability by the grace of God, Krsna. He can give and He can take away. Even if I say that He is simply administering the law of karma giving me what I've earned by my past piety still it is a gift. That I cannot hold on to my assets one moment longer than He desires proves I'm not the ultimate possessor.
If my assets are Krsna's, then my pride should be for Him. I should be proud of His cleverness or wealth or talent, a part of which He is allowing me to exhibit on His behalf. (Of course, I have to actually be using it in His behalf to feel this way. I can't simply say it's His and then try to use it only for myself.) At every moment I should feel dependent on Krsna to give me everything I have, as well as my ability to think, feel, and act.
Krsna supplies my knowledge, my memory, my attractiveness, my wealth, my ability to remember Him in times of trouble. My determination to keep my promises to Him comes by His grace. If He likes, He can easily test me beyond my limits, or remove my strength, whether physical, mental, emotional, or even moral and spiritual.
Krsna's devotee Arjuna discovered that everything he was proud of was actually the Lord's. Arjuna, a prince and an unparalleled warrior, was the best archer in the world. He had single-handedly defeated entire armies. His bow was a gift from the greatest of the devas, Lord Siva, and his quiver never emptied. By the grace of Indra, ruler of heaven, Arjuna had traveled to other planets. By the grace of Lord Krsna he had journeyed beyond the material world. He was handsome, powerful, intelligent, and learned, and had wealth exceeding that of the richest man of modern times. His wife was like a goddess, his son a great hero.
Then Krsna left the earth to return to His own kingdom, and Arjuna couldn't even string his famous bow. He used it like a club to pound his enemy. His quiver emptied, and the undefeated hero found himself the loser at the hands of untrained fighters. Arjuna concluded that the Lord had withdrawn abilities that had seemed an integral part of himself.
All I have is Krsna's gift. I discover that this truth isn't a step to devotion, but an integral part of it. And it is sweet beyond either the false assertions of incompetence or false pride in borrowed ornaments.
Humility Is Grateful
Humility is more than an ongoing understanding that everything is the Lord's. Saintly, pure devotees often speak of their unworthiness and even wretchedness. But my experience with "honest introspection" is as painful as my experience with pride, or more so. I see, meet, and shake hands with my faults, relive my mistakes, and have at least a glimpse of my irritations and worse from others' point of view. I feel some of the pain I have caused others. And I know my evil motives of lust, anger, greed, envy, and vengeance.
To stay in moods of self-assessment is difficult. When in them, we may approach friends, family, and the Lord to ask forgiveness. "Have mercy on me, a sinner!" When we're wracked with revulsion at ourselves, such humility can seem like torture in hell.
Yet those who are pure in loving devotion to Lord Krsna are always joyful, living with a thrill at every moment. Just as real humility must be truthful, it must also be joyful. Clearly, torturous self-abnegation is also a pretense or shadow of humility.
The pain we feel when seeing our sinful nature comes from pride and self-love. We think we are great, but our faults shame us. Thomas Merton writes, "For the saints, when they remember their sins, do not remember the sins but the glory of God, and therefore even past evil is turned by them into a present cause of joy and serves to glorify God." In real humility, our sense of unworthiness is eclipsed by the wonder and happiness of understanding that Krsna has blessed us despite our faults.
Although I knew something was brewing for my birthday last year, I expected only a cake at the home of my son and daughter-in-law. To my surprise, many devotees from the community where I live gathered to offer me gifts and share a feast. Their love was like many waves of pleasure, at least in part because I felt gratitude that it was far beyond what I deserved. How little we feel such happiness when we think we deserve it! Rather, proud of our own qualifications, we may deprecate what we receive. But if we consider that we have no merit, then even the smallest thing done for us will bring great satisfaction.
In Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, we read of Madhai, who was born in an elevated brahmana family but became a criminal. He and his brother not only committed every imaginable crime, but they scorned religious people.
One day Nityananda, the Lord Himself, came to ask the brothers to reform and to chant the name of Krsna. In a drunken rage, Madhai tried to kill Nityananda. Yet the Lord showed him mercy and forgiveness. Astonished, Madhai repented. When he fully accepted Lord Nityananda's mercy and love, his pain of remembering his sins turned to ecstasy, the symptoms of his happiness obvious to everyone. That the Lord had mercy on such a person as himself gave him happiness in Krsna, rather than shame born of wishing he were a great person.
Just as humble persons are always aware that all their assets are God's gifts, they also know that those gifts are given by God out of pure love, and not because they deserve them.
Humility Is Joyful
Prabhupada defined humility as not wanting respect from others. The humble person is ready to offer all respect to others and doesn't want any in return.
Full renunciation of the desire for respect, however, comes when we relinquish all sense of proprietorship over our "rights." The Christian writer C. S. Lewis states, "Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, the more often one will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered."
Do we own the right to have others speak to us with deference? Do we own our time, so that we can claim that others impose on it? If we are dealt insults, if we're cheated, if our plans are ruined, our desires trampled, what will it matter if our time, body, possessions, and life itself belong to Krsna? Ultimately He is in control of what happens to us. It is a matter of surrender to His will. And if we place our trust and shelter in Him, then the things that normally rile the ego will not touch us.
I had planned one day to write this very article. In fact, I had been planning for two weeks to have a Sunday free for writing not an easy task with my schedule. Yet that morning I got an emergency call and so spent the day babysitting, cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes full of baby vomit. During the moments when I remembered, "My time and life are Yours, Lord. I'm just a lowly servant who is to follow Your will," then I found great joy in setting aside my plans even my plans for devotional service as He directed.
A humble person, reposing all feelings of kinship in Krsna, takes little notice of how others should treat him or what he deserves. He is content and even joyful in all circumstances. The only right the humble insist upon is to be counted as Krsna's servant, however insignificant.
After all, a humble servant feels honored to take trouble for the master. Do we respect someone willing only to serve the beloved in good times, or someone who vows faithfulness "for better or for worse"? If to serve the Lord He wills that I be treated unfairly or forced to undergo hardships, that should be my happiness.
Young men and women willingly risk life and health to serve their country in the military. Wounds, capture, lifelong disfigurement or handicaps, make them feel proud to have taken the trouble to repay their country. Such "pride" is the happiness of the humble.
One who shuns all respect, therefore, is not without the happiness that comes from material honor. Rather, he or she gets many times that satisfaction from the pride of being the Lord's servant, in however menial or difficult a situation. The satisfaction is so great that in comparison the positive or negative dealings of the world are of no consequence. Those caught up in the ownership of many "rights" in this world cannot understand the inner happiness of a pure devotee of Krsna.
After some research and contemplation, I feel I have a better idea what humility is. It is honest: Everything belongs to Krsna, so He gets the credit for what I have and what I do. It is grateful: Whatever He gives me is as great as I am unworthy. It is joyful: Being Krsna's servant is so wonderful that I'm happy to do whatever will please Him, even if a materialist sees me as unfortunate or exploited.
How do we get this grateful joy of true humility? We begin by submitting ourselves to a spiritual master. To claim that we are God's servant is easy; the test is whether or not we can serve a servant of God. The bona fide spiritual master instructs us in accordance with the scriptures and other saintly persons. He also lives in obedience to his own spiritual master. And his orders are founded in love of Krsna as well as love for his disciples.
When serving our spiritual master, we should be ready to do any humble work without compensation or recognition, while seeking the mercy of Lord Krsna.
Our only prayer should be, "What is Your will, O Lord Krsna? Give me the strength to serve Your will. Let me love You and have You in my thoughts always."
Regrettably, we might still pray for other things and try to bargain with Krsna, as if we were His equals or He our servant, but at least we can know the goal and practice to achieve it.
The Lord lets us know His will from within our hearts and through our spiritual master, the instructions of the scriptures, and the examples of many saintly people. According to our desire to do so, He gives us the determination to work in line with His will.
Our prayer for that determination is as simple as calling on Krsna's names in a mood of helpless surrender, like a small child calling for its mother. The maha-mantra Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare is simply the names of God and His energy. Yet Prabhupada explains that the mantra is a prayer asking the Lord and His energy to be engaged in His service.
This use of our will to subjugate it totally to Krsna's is the development of our natural, spiritual humility. In material affairs, such subjugation would be foolish. One who humbles himself to a material master is quickly exploited. But Krsna wants not robots, or slaves, but sons, friends, and lovers. He wants a deep and meaningful exchange of love with devotees who give of themselves happily and willingly. And Krsna also gives Himself to His devotee. He takes the form and relationship the devotee desires. Surrender to Krsna means giving nothing What have we to give? and gaining everything. We will surrender only pain and the false pride that causes it. Surrender to Krsna is a humble surrender to peace, satisfaction, and unlimited pleasure.
Urmila Devi Dasi and her family run a school in North Carolina. She is a frequent contributor to BTG and the major author and compiler of Vaikuntha Children, a guide to Krsna conscious education for children.