A crystal-clear look at one of the priceless ornaments of the transcendentalist.

"One should chant the holy name of the Lord humbly, thinking oneself lower than a piece of straw in the street; one should be more tolerant than a tree, devoid of false prestige, and always respectful to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the holy name of the Lord constantly." (Siksastaka, Verse 3)

Srila Prabhupada

This recommendation was made by the Supreme Lord Himself, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who here prescribes the ideal condition for chanting His holy name. Note that He does not mention any particular qualification in terms of birthright, intellect, or social position; rather He describes an exceedingly humble frame of mind as the perfect basis for glorifying the Lord.

It sounds simple enough. After all, don't all religious scriptures advocate this sublime quality of humility? Our conception of saintliness is infused with the image of a meek and humble servant, head bent forward submissively, eyes gazing compassionately upon all fallen souls. Think of the great martyrs, humbly proclaiming their faithfulness to God as the crowd hurls stones. So humble they were that they would meet their own death without protest.

Yet how unappealing it is to consider placing ourselves in such a lowly position. Lower than a piece of straw in the street, to be trampled by everyone? More tolerant than a tree, which submits to the blazing heat of summer and the icy winds of winter without protest? What does this mean for me practically? Should I live naked on a sidewalk somewhere, enduring physical torture and social ostracism? Will this be pleasing to God? Do I have to give up all my worldly goods and beg from others? Should I humbly allow others to take full advantage of me? If someone wants my car, should I give it? If someone wants my wife, should I give her? If someone wants my allegiance, should I follow him? Does humility mean "nothing for me"?

Actually, humility means "everything for the pleasure of God." What do we have that is truly ours, anyway? We inhabit this body for some years and enjoy whatever opulence may come with it, be it talent or riches or fame. But ultimately these are all gifts from the Supreme Lord, and He can bestow or restrict them at His will. We should know that all of our wonderful qualities are but tiny borrowed plumes from God's magnificence.

Humility, as described by Lord Caitanya, is far more than an external presentation of meekness or an indiscriminate giving of one's possessions or loyalty. True humility accrues naturally to one who understands his real spiritual position. A humble devotee knows well that he is but a small spiritual spark emanating from the original, supreme being. We are forever linked to that Supreme Lord in a relationship of loving servitude. This link is never severed, although when a living entity rejects his position of servant, he falls to the material world. Under the spell of the Lord's illusory energy, the fallen spirit soul identifies with his physical body and material circumstances, forgetting his link with the Supreme Lord. Because Lord Krsna is our true source of love and happiness, we suffer greatly in this state of forgetfulness.

Humility begins when we recognize that we have become so bewildered by our infatuation with matter that we no longer realize who we are. More than a passive reaction to personal injustice, humility is a dynamic principle of exclusive devotion to the Supreme Lord and His cause. Thus a devotee is well within the bounds of humility to protect "his" body and possessions, since all is being dedicated to the service of the Lord. Not that a humble devotee must meekly hand over his money to a thief. A humble devotee knows that everything in this world is rightfully owned by God and is intended for His service and His glory. A devotee may sometimes even fight, as did Arjuna on the battlefield, yet still remain humbly serving the Lord. On the other hand, a show of humility toward others but without reference to the Supreme Personality of Godhead is not humility at all: it is arrogance.

A humble air might soothe ruffled nerves or win someone's favor, but such a superficial display has little connection with spiritual realization. I might be humble before my boss, or my landlady, or the cop leaning on my car door, but my motivation is clearly selfish. Humility is not like a fresh coat of paint covering our internal calculations for personal gain. How is it possible for even the humblest-sounding words, uttered under these circumstances, to be pleasing to God?

Nor should we use humility to seek favors from the Lord, as a kind of long-term investment give a little tolerance now and enjoy the reward in heaven. "Yea, all of you be subject to one another, and be clothed with humility, for God resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble," writes St. Peter. "Humble yourself before the mighty hand of God, that He might exalt you in time" (I Peter 5:5). But saintly qualities like humility shouldn't be adopted as a means to future glory. If we strive to become humble to get something we want, then we are missing the profound meaning of this rare quality.

The underlying basis for humility must be knowledge of our humble position in relation to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krsna. When we perceive how insignificant we truly are, and when we understand how we have foolishly identified with our temporal bodies and minds, then we can humbly conclude that we are indeed fallen. We need guidance to understand ourselves as spiritual and to learn to position ourselves in a devotional exchange with God. Such stirrings, or realizations, constitute the beginnings of the wonderful humility described by Lord Caitanya.

Every day we are humiliated here in the material world. Just to be here is embarrassing. For the pure soul to fall into this state is shameful. What are these bodies we hold so dear, anyway? A thin sheath of skin encasing an assortment of foul-smelling ingredients, a breeding ground for disease, and an open invitation to pain, senility, and death. Yet the bewildered spirit soul is content to build a complex identity on this arrangement of flesh and bone, thinking, "I am a white Anglo-Saxon American male," or whatever. We spend an entire lifetime serving these bodies with constant feeding, grooming, and rest, and in the end they simply become shriveled and useless.

Eventually this body will die, as all bodies do in the course of time. Then another is adopted, and another after that. Each of us has been through untold changes of body, taking birth in every species imaginable. Yet in each life we completely identify with the present material situation. Thus we are fooled again. And again.

Isn't that humbling?

In addition we are continually humiliated by the world around us. We are betrayed by faithless spouses, hurt by ungrateful children, neglected by a bureaucratic government, and so on. We are threatened by nuclear weapons in the hands of enemies we've never laid eyes on. We're forced to live in fear lest our fragile situation be overturned. One powerful wind could level our beautiful home, one slanderous remark could destroy our spotless reputation. We're driven by psychological needs to bring home a cocker spaniel for companionship or to seek a prostitute for romance or to pay strangers to listen to our troubles. How we are humbled! As we fight to preserve what little we have, time plunders. How can we be proud when our predicament is so pathetic?

When finally one has exhausted all possibilities for lasting pleasure in this world, he approaches true humility. Tolerating the blows of life as the tree tolerates heat and cold is easy when you understand that this world is not, thank God, your home. Then you can focus your desires on the spiritual world with determination and detachment.

The great Vaisnava preacher Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura composed a collection of songs that perfectly express these sincere feelings of humility and regret and the growing awakening of sublime devotion to God.

Hear, O Lord, my story of sadness. I drank the deadly poison of worldliness, pretending it was nectar.
And now the sun is setting on the horizon of my life.
I spent my childhood in play, my youth in academic pursuits,
And in me there arose no sense of right or wrong. . . .
Devoid of even a particle of devotion, lacking any enlightenment,
What help is there for me now?
Only You, O Lord, friend of the fallen, the lowest of men.
Please, therefore, lift me to Your lotus feet. . . .

Srila Bhaktivinoda is instructing us that although a contrite soul is remorseful for past sins, he is also full of hope. Whatever shameful activities smolder in our past may serve to remind us of our foolishness and to underscore our great fortune in being lifted from illusion. We may appreciate that without the mercy of the spiritual master and Krsna we are nothing. But this is not depression or a low self-esteem, because a humble devotee sees his real worth as a spiritual person, a servant of God.

The jewel of humility is an emblem of sincere surrender to a loving and merciful God. It is not a self-imposed torture. The deeper the spirit of humility, the deeper the feelings of love and happiness in the heart.