The meaning of humility

There’s one elusive quote from Śrīla Prabhupāda. Elusive in the sense I don’t see it explained anywhere else in his books. I’ve seen is supported in the statements of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī but can’t find them at the moment. The latest I’ve seen it is in this image on facebook but originally it’s from Harivilasa Prabhu’s memories on Following Srila Prabhupada DVD 5 (source):

Humility means that you are convinced beyond any doubt that there is nothing in this world, absolutely nothing in this world, not your money, not your family, not your fame, not your gun, not your education, nothing that will save you except the mercy of Krishna. When you are convinced like this, then you are humble.

It’s obviously quite different from a dictionary definition of humility or from how we talk about what it means to be humble or from Bhāgavatam examples of humility, and even from tṛṇad api sunīcena verse in Śikṣaṣṭaka. In fact, it is so different it doesn’t make sense at all. We can’t disagree with the requirement to see Kṛṣṇa’s mercy as absolute but why is it called “humility” here? I’m not entirely sure but I do have an idea and I do consider this definition of humility as a new standard. It doesn’t apply everywhere, obviously, but it’s what humility means in the ultimate sense.

To start with we need to look at general meaning of humility – it’s an attitude displayed in relation to others, though one can be humble in the face of events and impersonal forces as well. In any case, to speak of humility you need to accept the worldview where there is you and there are other people and things, and you all relate to each other in terms of “bigger” and “smaller” and “weaker” and “stronger” etc. You need to see your own power and the power of your counterpart and conclude that one power is greater than the other. Then you can start thinking about displaying humility. It would not make sense to talk about humility is these basic distinctions aren’t there.

In the quote Śrīla Prabhupāda gives us a few examples of distinct entities – family, guns, education etc. They are not our counterparts, however, but they are sources of one’s own strength when we compare it to that of “others” whose existence is indicated by mention of “save you” – there’s someone or something to be saved from. So we have three parts to consider – me, others, and sources of my strength.

Now let’s see what these parts mean in terms of Kṛṣṇa conscious philosophy. “Me” could be me as the soul or it could be me as an embodied entity, forced by māyā to identify with material form. “Others” can be divided similarly into spirit souls and forms created by material nature. As we shall see later it doesn’t really matter, and the answer was given to a person still identifying himself with the body in the context of relating to material objects, not relations in the spiritual world.

So now we have “me” foolishly thinking that I’m am my body even if I do theoretically know that I’m not, so I have to elevate my current understanding of humility to that suitable to my real nature – jīva trying to free itself from clutches of māyā. That’s why the definition was given in the first place – to improve our current understanding. Then we have “others” who are not actually “who” but are “what” – forms created by the illusory energy. Jīvas behind these forms are similarly illusioned and have no control of what the forms do or how they appear because forms are products of universal guṇa and karma.

This basic understanding is actually quite revolutionary – we are not dealing with other jīvas, we are dealing with products of guṇa and karma, and even more to the point – with OUR guṇa and karma. Because we can’t perceive guṇa and karma of others and because we can’t perceive anything but what is allotted to us anyway. Nobody can do anything to you that is not in your karma. They can’t harm you and they can’t give you pleasure either. All that we experience is OUR guṇa-karma.

This means that we have a misconception about our real identity, we are aware it exists but it’s very persistent and we need to overcome it, and we are dealing with results of our karma which we perceive as “others”. We intend to counteract these results with our own powers which we draw from the sources mentioned in the quote – education, means knowledge, means we think we know what to do. Family provides emotional support, guns provide physical safety, wealth provides resources and so on. From Kṛṣṇa conscious point of view all these are illusory and unreliable. They are also in the same category as threats – they are both provided by karma. We have no more control over our gun as over a home intruder. It is the same karma that dictates that the gun is locked and you have no time to load the ammo and protect your family. It might work or it might not just as the intruder might attack you or might decide to flee.

What Śrīla Prabhupada is saying here is that actual knowledge means that in our interactions with illusory energy we can rely only on Kṛṣṇa’s mercy. Because He is in control of the illusion and because He can free us from our karma as well. Actual knowledge means all we are ever dealing with is Kṛṣṇa’s energies. There’s one energy to create our perception of the world and another energy to counteract that perception if necessary. Both are strictly controlled by Him and both work for our ultimate benefit.

It’s this vision – that there’s absolutely nothing but Kṛṣṇa everywhere, which brings humility. When death is coming it’s Kṛṣṇa who wants to kill me and when I’m saved it’s Kṛṣṇa who saves me as well. When Kṛṣṇa presents danger with one hand we can take shelter of His other hand, there’s nothing else to it. In this state we realize that we don’t have any powers ourselves but are absolutely helpless in the face of Krṣṇa’s all-powerful energies. Of course it brings humility.

If, by Kṛṣṇa’s grace, we become freed from the illusion and we see actual spirit souls then the attitude of enjoyment and dominance disappears. We become servant of the servant of the servant, we stop competing with others’ powers but rather want to help them and serve them to please Kṛṣṇa better. That is the state of our constitutional humility which should be thought of in spiritual terms, not through comparisons to our mundane definitions.

Anyway, realization of humility as explained in Śrīla Prabhupāda’s quote means we realize we never deal with other people or forces but only with ourselves (and Kṛṣṇa, of course). All the phenomena we perceive as “outside” are actually products of our own hearts and our own illusion. They don’t objectively exist. Just like in quantum mechanics – if you don’t look the particles aren’t “there”, they exist only as possibilities. These possibilities are converted into observations by guṇa-karma. If we take shelter of the material energy She would show us all kinds of things. If we don’t look all these things will disappear.

Humility means we don’t compete with creations of our own illusion but take shelter of Kṛṣṇa, or if we do decide to compete due to our lack of knowledge it’s only Kṛṣṇa who can counteract them anyway. The deep seated illusion that we do have some independent sources of power goes away, we sort of become stripped of our powers, and this realization brings humility.

This realization will not come about as a result of observing material nature – we have to stop looking at it and concentrate our consciousness on Kṛṣṇa instead. This means that my explanation isn’t really necessary – one can just absorb himself in chanting the Holy Name and the humility will appear naturally. It doesn’t need to be explained, it will become a self-evident, undeniable truth.

PS. One corollary of this is that when people get into fights and try to prove something to somebody or rage against something somebody has done they are actually dealing with themselves. The solution to fixing their perceived problems is not fixing the world but fixing their own hearts. In my experience people do not normally accept this suggestion but it’s the truth. All we need is to become Kṛṣṇa conscious and all the “problems” will be solved, which is what Śrīla Prabhupāda says in the quote – we need to attain Kṛṣṇa’s mercy (and then we can call the result “humility” as well).

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