Humility, the Virtue of Virtues

The perception of humility slightly varies from one school of thought and tradition to another school or religion or even society
Image for representational purpose only.
Image for representational purpose only.Wikimedia/ Erwin Gerodiaz

“The proud man can learn humility, but he will be proud of it.” – Mignon McLaughlin

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” – C.S. Lewis

Humility is a characteristic often talked about when great leaders are mentioned. Philosophers have praised it since the early dawn of humanity and religions around the world are keen on teaching its value. Humility is considered a state of being, highlighted by our behavior and approach to things. It is also considered one of the virtues of the human condition, along with kindness, patience, diligence, charity, temperance and chastity. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu had said, “I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men.” Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist, there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.(St. Augustine) Obviously, humility is the most virtuous of all virtues.

The perception of humility slightly varies from one school of thought and tradition to another school or religion or even society. For the ancient Greeks, humility was discussed in the context of pride and one of the main stories involving humility was Homer’s The Iliad. The story examines the behavior of Achilles, an invincible soldier who found himself unhappy because King Agamemnon took away his slave woman. While his countrymen are fighting the Trojan, Achilles refuses to fight and eventually starts making his way out of the battlefield. Meanwhile, a Trojan fighter, Hector, kills Achilles’ friend, which eventually gets Achilles to act in revenge. He kills Hector, ties his body to a chariot and drags it around for nine days. It may be easy to think today that Achilles is the hero of the story, but actually, the ancient Greeks felt the actions were a consequence of pride. Instead of being arrogant and considering only our own fate, we should instead show humility. To the Greeks, an excess pride would only lead to vengeance from gods and thus humility must be exercised.

On the other hand, religions have added their own distinct interpretations of what being humble means. While many religious traditions continued to favor humility as a way of avoiding a punishment from God, they approached it not through pride like the Greeks, but by rejection of egoism. The idea in Judaism and Christianity was more focused on recognizing the limitations of humans as compared to god. For Christians, Jesus Christ, who decided to endure the earthly humiliation and punishment, just to allow greater redemption to take place, often personifies humility.

In a study by the University of Maine, researchers found that “humility was the most strongly linked (personality trait) with helpfulness”. Furthermore, the study found humility didn’t just make people more helpful, but also ensured they enjoyed better work ethic, generosity and reliable relationships. According to evolutionary scientists, the trait, which requires a person to put others’ needs first, has survived because humans have always required co-operation to survive. While the need for co-operation has changed from surviving the savannahs to staying alive in the corporate world, the benefits of humility, empathy and helpfulness remain a key for success. This ability to put our ego on hold and to emphathise with others has been further linked with good leaders. In 2014, scientist studied 1,500 leaders and their employees. The big headline finding of the study concluded, “humble leaders get more commitment”. The study found that a leader’s ability to demonstrate strong self-insight and humility provides them with a proactive approach. Furthermore, when employees experience this type of leadership, they are more committed to work. The researchers recommended that leadership development programmes should start paying more attention in self-reflection. Karoline Hofslett Kopperud, researcher at BI Norwegian Business School, said, “[training in self-reflection] will give the leader a better understanding of how his or her behavior is perceived and interpreted by the employees.” The ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes and to appreciate the deed, instead of the position, can help in gaining more trust. Trust, in turn, is essential for the creation of good teams. In essence, a good leader should understand that a bigger paycheck or a fancy title doesn’t necessarily mean you are more valuable to the organization than the other employees.

In humility, we are nothing more and nothing less than the other people around us. In essence, humility is not about hiding away or about becoming a ‘wallflower’, but it is about the realization that our abilities and actions are not better or less. Humility doesn’t require the ranking of things, but calls for the understanding of the true value or worth of things. Instead of focusing on the humility within us, we should pay more attention to celebrating the achievements of others. It is by acknowledging others and understanding the universal values we all share that we become humble. In a way, understanding the vastness of the world around us can make us realize our own value and the humility we should feel. We should always try to recall this profound and beautiful advice given by the Dalai Lama: “I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest. I do not judge the universe.”

In the Sanatan Dharam tradition we have the Upanishadic story of Bhrigu, son of Varuna. Legend has it that once the celebrated sage Bhrigu approached his father requesting him to instruct about the Brahman. While speaking to his son about Brahman Varuna said, "Dear Bhrigu! know that everything in the universe originates from Brahman, exists in Brahman and unfolds through Brahman and merges in Brahman alone. Discover this fact yourself through tapas.” With full faith in the words of his father, Bhrigu was thus engaged in tapas. The process of self control and self enquiry raised his consciousness and he believed in what he understood at that stage as Brahman and decided that food (annam) was Brahman. When he declared what he came to know, his father Varuna, told him that his answer was not right. So, he continued his tapas and found out that prana (Life Force) was Brahman since without prana, all things are lifeless. Prana causes life, promotes life and puts an end to life. But the father pronounced this inference also as wrong and sent him again for further tapas. In this manner, Bhrigu had a third period of austerity where he came upon manas (Mind) as Brahman and later, a fourth when he revised that conclusion and believed that it was vijnana (Intelligence). At last, after undergoing a fifth course of tapas, he became aware that ananda (Delight or Bliss) was Brahman. He stayed in the Bliss of that Awareness and never more proceeded to his father. The father sought him out and approached him. He said, "Son! You have now realised Brahman; you have merged in that realisation." With such credentials, all sages gave the difficult task of finding out the most 'Satvic' (pure) in nature amongst the Divine Trio – Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh - so that he could enjoy the honor of becoming the presiding deity. Bhrigu Rishi went to the court of Brahma, who did not accord the respect that he should have to his visit because Brahma got annoyed that Bhrigu Rishi had entered the palace without waiting for his permission. Bhrigu Rishi next visited Shiva, who was peeved at Bhrigu for having come to his private chamber at an inopportune time. Bhrigu Rishi had felt insulted by both Brahma's and Shivji's attitude. He then proceeded to the Ocean of Milk where Vishnu was reclining on His serpentine bed. Angry that instead of doing his duty, Vishnu was taking rest, Bhrigu Rishi angrily kicked in the chest of Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu readily apologized for hurting Bhrigu's feet as the latter had hit against the Lord's iron-like chest! Lord Vishnu touched and massaged the visitor’s feet. Tears welled up in Bhrigu Rishi's eyes because of this gesture of humility. Bhrigu apologized and the entire clan of Rishis concluded that Lord Vishnu was undoubtedly more Satvic (pure) than Brahma and Mahesh and appointed him as the presiding deity of their Hawan (Oblation).

Baba Nand Singh Ji Maharaj said about Guru Nanak that Garibi, Nimrata, Humility is the Divine Flavour, the most wonderful fragrance of the Lotus Feet of Lord Guru Nanak. There is no place for Ego (referred to in Sikhism as Haumain) in the sphere of Divine Love, in the sphere of true Prema Bhakti. That is why in the House of Guru Nanak one finds Garibi, Nimrata and Humility reigning supreme. Guru Nanak was an Incarnation of Divine Love and a Prophet of True humility. Make contentment your ear-rings, humility your begging bowl, and meditation the ashes you apply to your body. Said the first Sikh Guru:

· Listening and believing with love and humility in your mind.

· In the realm of humility, the Word is Beauty.

· Modesty, humility and intuitive understanding are my mother-in-law and father-in-law.

Neecha Andar Neech Jaat Neechi Hu At Neech Nanak Tin Kai Sang Saath Vadian Sio Kia Rees. ( Nanak is the companion of the lowest of the low and of the condemned lot. He has nothing in common with the high born).

In the Qur’an Allah Almighty tells us the story of Iblees to warn us about the disease of arrogance and notion of superiority. Iblis was ordered by Allah to prostrate to Adam and he rejected because of his arrogance and envy towards Adam. Allah says in the Qur’an: “(Iblees said) “I am better than him. You created me from fire and created him from clay.” (Qur’an, 7:12)
The story of Iblis teaches us that we need to adopt the qualities of humility and submissiveness and avoid the destructive sins of arrogance and self-praise as both would lead us to destruction in both worlds. The Prophet (pbuh) also said, “Shall I tell you about the people of Hellfire? They are very haughty, mean, and arrogant.” Let’s take account of ourselves, strive to fix our attitudes and be of those who humble themselves for the sake of Allah, for if we do that then Allah will raise us in status in this world and in the Hereafter.

For all the virtue it has, Humility can, at times, be tricky; one that can quickly take a different shape if we are not careful with its application. It can be helpful to understand the virtue of humility by examining what it is not. Perhaps the most common mistake is to associate humility with false modesty. If we go around telling everyone how humble we are, we most likely are exactly the opposite. Humility is not something that requires acknowledgement or recognition. We should not become humble because we think it is the right thing to do – humility comes from within and from the acknowledgement, we are not any better or any less than other people. In other words, the peculiarity of humility is further highlighted by the ease with which it turns to the exact opposite of itself. By highlighting one’s humility, one is in essence acknowledging a valuable quality in oneself and one’s humility changes to something else. This is perhaps best highlighted in the saying, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way”.

Finally, it can be a mistake to think humility is the opposite of self-confidence. Being humble doesn’t mean we can’t be confident. In fact, by being humble, we can be more confident because we are aware of the value of our actions without thinking they matter more or less. But while it may be simple enough to know that we should be humble, it is not always so easy in practice. Accordingly, those of us who desire to cultivate the virtue of humility should make conscious efforts to do so.

A highly effective way of cultivating humility is to meditate on the grandeur and greatness of God, while simultaneously acknowledging our own nothingness in relation to Him. We should daily pray to God with our whole hearts for humility for the grace to know that we are nothing of ourselves, and that our corporal as well as our spiritual welfare proceeds from Him alone. Perhaps the most painful, but also the most effective, way to learn humility is by accepting humiliating and embarrassing circumstances. Many souls would like to be humble, but few desire humiliation; many ask God to make them humble and fervently pray for this, but very few want to be humiliated. Yet it is impossible to gain humility without humiliations; for just as studying is the way to acquire knowledge, so it is by the way of humiliation that we attain to humility.

One of the clearest manifestations of pride is disobedience (ironically, disobedience, cleverness and rebellion are hailed as virtues in modern society). On the other hand, humility is always manifested by obedience to legitimate authority, whether it be our boss or the government. The saints tell us that every sin we commit is due to our pride. When we are proud, we inevitably think we are better than others. We pray like the Pharisee, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men.” This self-righteousness is incredibly harmful; but in humility we should count others better than ourselves.

Bhushan Lal Razdan, formerly of the Indian Revenue Service, retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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