A word that is described as a fundamental spiritual quality in Bhagavad Gita is “amanitvam” (Chapter 13.8). The English translation of this word is humility or not being proud of material existence. As the body and mind gain strength from childhood into adulthood the pride starts to fortify. Pride in one’s bodily appearance, pride in one’s mental acumen, pride in one’s job accomplishments, pride in one’s academic success, pride in one’s sports achievements, pride in one’s material possessions, and so on. When the question arises in the mind, “Who am I?” Then the body’s consciousness starts weakening. We start contemplating that I am not just the body, I am not just the mind, but I am something more than that. Thereby the realization of humility sets in.
Whatever one may have achieved can this body, can this mind take full credit for its success? We all were born as helpless newborns unable to survive even a few hours without help from society. Often society in the form of our parents takes care of us until the period when we can earn a livelihood. Even if someone does not have biological parents alive, someone in society rears them. The food that we eat and is brought to our mouth is because of the direct and indirect labor of so many hands from society. The clothes that we wear are the fruits of the efforts of so many people. The shelter that we have is because of the endeavors of so many laborers, masons, engineers, and architects. The education that we have is because of so many teachers, formal and informal, who imparted their wisdom. The job that we have is brought to fruition due to the coworkers, clients, superiors, and juniors. So, we see that we live in an interdependent world. Hence to claim credit for any material achievement is erroneous. Furthermore, being proud opens one up for getting hurt. The more we take pride in something if that is taken away from us, we feel depressed. We constantly persevere and live in fear of the possible loss of that prized possession.
Another way to conceptualize this notion is if we look at the mighty Universe and then look at us, we find that this body is not even a speck of dust in the greatness of nature. This is indeed what humility is all about – not having too high of a view of the importance of the work that our body and mind perform. Not thinking that we are the focus of the Universe but instead thinking that we are only a part of the whole. But is it not common for us to often think that we are the center of all existence and nothing else is more important than us? We must understand that if we were to die today, the world would continue to be the same. Maybe some of our loved ones will miss us for a short while but then no one is indispensable, and life keeps moving on. Having a perspective devoid of undue self-importance is so helpful in life. When we have humility we can laugh at our own self, see our shortcomings, and realize all the vanity of undue self-importance. Such an attitude helps us reflect on our mistakes, rectify them, grow as human beings, and become useful members of society.
Of note in developing humility is the concept of respect. Respect is relative. For things that one wants in life and anyone else they see having that attribute generates respect in one’s mind for that person or that thing. Another person may not see much value in that attribute and thus has no respect for it. For example, someone wanting to own the latest model Mercedes car and sees a person driving the latest model of Mercedes will have respect for them while a person who is not interested in that car will have no respect for that person. Therefore, one should not demand respect from others and not expect that others will show respect toward them for things that they may have achieved. Also, one should not be over engrossed in one’s achievements that one starts thinking of those as being the be-all and end-all of who they are. One is not what one’s achievements or lack thereof determine them to be. One should look upon oneself as being an instrument in the world who shares with the world its fruits and provides with love one’s labor just like all other human beings are doing — nothing less and nothing more. Based on one’s abilities and upbringing one is performing a particular role and so is someone else based on their life experiences. There is no comparison between any two human beings and thus there is no need for differential levels of respect for one’s work compared to another one’s work. Unfortunately, our society and most people who constitute this society do not think so. There are some people who are considered higher than others. For example, take the case of movie stars who are glorified in our society. But is their work any less or any more than that of another human being? We are all doing different roles and we should be proud of each other without becoming too absorbed in our own self-importance or unduly glorifying others for their achievements. In my opinion, all forms of activities and pursuits in this world serve some important purpose and we should not forget that even though we may not be able to appreciate their value immediately.
Humility is also related to self-confidence. When one is certain they have a quality that they claim they do then they do not need endorsement from others. Hence, humility automatically ensues. It is only when one is trying to prove oneself to others that one must demonstrate their achievements and seek approval from others. So, the seat of “manitva” is the underlying doubt about one’s qualifications that should be overcome. Inadequacy and self-doubt have no place in spiritual progress. Another angle in humility is the fact that whenever one thinks or says one is humble, humility is lost because there is some inherent sense of self-importance. However, if one is certain of one’s qualifications and simply projects those to help others and not for personal gain then there is nothing wrong with it.
To summarize, “amanitvam” or humility is a spiritual trait to be fostered in life. It can be developed by acknowledging the contribution of others in achievements, understanding the small role of the body, mind, and material consciousnesses in the vastness of the Universe, respecting and valuing all, and developing self-confidence.
The author is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Health at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, USA. He is an avid practitioner of Kundalini Yoga.