What exactly is humility – how do we develop it in bhakti?
From Raj Parikshita Prabhu
Transcription (edited) by- Keshavgopal Das
Question- What exactly is humility? Is it a feeling of respect when we approach spiritual master or the Deities? How do we develop humility?
- Humility is not about thinking oneself worthless or fallen.
- Humility is about thinking less and less about oneself, but thinking more and more about Krishna and serving Him by our abilities.
- We can develop humility by always reminding ourselves that our abilities are temporary and can leave us anytime.
Answer (long)- If we look at broad process of bhakti, the essence is developing love for Krishna. Everything else is meant to assist us in remembering Krishna. Central principle is Smartavyaḥ satataṁ viṣṇur vismartavyo na jātucit– always remember Vishnu, never forget Him. Central principle is not that – “I am very fallen”. That is not the thrust of our remembrance. Thrust of our remembrance is Krishna.
Humility in the path of bhakti is meant to be our assistant in our absorption of Krishna. When we love someone, our thoughts naturally go to that person and stay on that person. Even if there are distractions, once that is over, the thoughts go back to the person. Similarly, when we love Krishna, our thoughts naturally stay with Him. Humility is meant to assist us in centering our thoughts to Krishna.
Now let us consider humility as a quality in itself and try to understand its relationship with love of God. If we focus only on humility without its connection with love of God then there may be some misperceptions of humility that may slow us down. Humility may appear in first glance as lack of self-esteem, inferiority complex, guilt etc. All of these are not humility since all of them are self-centered. The essence of all these negative feelings is – “I am worthless”, “I am not capable enough” and so on. Other end of such negative feeling is – “I am great”, “I am powerful”. As devotees, in both feelings – “I am worthless” and “I am great” – the center is “I” and as long as center will remain “I”, it will be an obstacle on the path of bhakti. Relatively speaking, among the two negative feelings, the idea that “I am great” would be a greater obstacle because in such thinking one will end up seeking pleasure in one’s greatness and one cannot focus on thinking about Krishna much. However, in the opposite case ( “I am worthless”), if there is positive redirection of one’s thoughts and emotions then one can move from “I am worthless” to “I am dependent on Krishna”.
We can feel helpless but we should never feel hopeless. “Helpless” means I cannot do much, but “hopeless” means nothing can be done about me. One of the qualities of a devotee, as described in Nectar of Devotion, is aashabaddha (bound with hope), i.e. always hopeful. Such hopefulness comes from awareness of Krishna’s greatness and love. Therefore, we focus on trying to cultivate remembrance of Krishna so that it increases our affection towards Him. It is natural that when we try to live in another world, we cannot be entirely oblivious, unaware of ourselves. However, we do not have to be self-conscious in an uncomfortable way.
There are two kind of self-consciousness. Let us understand the first type with the help of an example. When a person gives a public speech for the first time, person is always conscious how I am speaking, am I pronouncing correctly, etc. Such type of self-consciousness makes one feel uncomfortable, de-energizing etc. In second type of self-consciousness a person is aware of both his strengths and weaknesses, and uses one’s strengths in Krishna’s service. To be humble does not mean that one have to think that I do not have any strength. However, we need to recognize that the strength we have has been given by Krishna. Therefore, one uses his strengths in getting absorbed in Krishna. One can become absorbed in doing something only when he is competent at it and feels comfortable doing it. For example, if a person is good in playing music, naturally the person will feel absorbed while playing a musical instrument.
In the second type of consciousness, the primary focus is neither on our strengths nor on our weaknesses, but on remembering Krishna using our strengths. For example, if someone is good at giving classes, the person should not think that he is a great speaker, or how many people are attending my class etc. Rather the focus should be that I have now an opportunity to remember Krishna by presenting this class, it does not matter if not many people have come to attend my class. Also, by giving this class, I do not want people to think how great I am, rather I want that people understand how great Krishna is. Therefore, just by shifting the focus of our activities to Krishna, humility naturally comes. In other words, if we try to become more and more Krishna conscious, humility is the natural by-product of such consciousness.
We can also consciously cultivate humility. How? One way is by remembering that our abilities are only temporary and can leave us anytime. Also, since our abilities are only temporary, we should not become proud of them. We should not brag about them, nor should we delight in our abilities. Rather we should delight in remembering Krishna. If we start feeling too proud of our abilities, we should then try to think about our weaknesses to counterbalance the bloating of the ego that might be happening.
Essentially, we should remember that our goal is not to be humble, but Krishna conscious. You can also read my article on similar subject on Gitadaily – Humiliation is false ego frustrated and humility is false ego rejected.
Srila Prabhupada defines humility as “one should not be anxious to have the satisfaction of being honored by others”. A devotee may accept even honor from others but it is not the anxiety of a devotee. Devotee’s anxiety is whether I am remembering Krishna or not or whether I am helping others in remembering Krishna or not. If I am doing that, then the mode of self-awareness which helps me in maximizing my absorption in Krishna, that is the essence of humility.