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Humble and Feeling Good

In light of some of the discussions we have been having I thought an old article by my wife would be useful. Being humble is essential in K.C. yet it has to be practiced in consideration of our realization. It doesn't mean we are a doormat, a "yes man", or trembling in the corner having to be told what to do. Like so many things we can imitate it or practice it artificially or we understand it more deeply through our spiritual practices and asking questions. We learn many things through time and maturity. Sometimes someone can appear humble just by being "beaten down" by the material world, though in truth it is not the realized humility that comes from the understanding of the greatness of Krishna. When I was a new devotee, I was such a person, "beaten down" by my life. It did serve me to come to Krishna, but I had to eventually learn that it would not be favorable for my maturity as a devotee and a human being.

We may feel useless in any circumstances just out of a material concept of who we are, or out of low self-esteem. Let us use this article to churn the topic of humility in comparison to saying what might need to be said or done, but isn't out of fear of not being humble or submissive. In most everything balance is essential, as is using our common sense. In the beginning of K.C. we sometimes think K.C. is different in every way from normal life---certainly the ultimate goal is, yet there are many similarities in the area of common courtesy and morality---though they go deeper.


Humble and Feeling Good

by Archana-siddhi Devi Dasi

(reprinted from Back to Godhead Magazine Volume 41, Number 02, 2007 © BBT International; all rights reserved)

Humility and a healthy self-esteem are compatible on the path of spiritual progress.

As a family therapist, I counsel people both within and outside the Hare Krishna movement. I recently received an email from a young woman devotee who was unhappy in her relationship with her abusive husband but was conflicted about leaving him.

"Maybe it's good that I feel bad about myself," she wrote, "because that will help me develop humility."

This wasn't the first time I had heard this logic. The Bhagavad-gita teaches that humility is essential for spiritual progress. Unfortunately, devotees sometimes think that feeling bad about oneself is a prerequisite for humility.

I often see devotees struggling with the concept of self-esteem. Having read the prayers of saints in our line, they often think their own feelings should align with the self-effacing statements of these great souls. They may associate low self-esteem with spiritual advancement and perpetuate a lifelong attitude of feeling bad about themselves. They may then attract people into their lives who treat them in accord with how they feel about themselves.

The confusion comes from trying to equate feelings that come from our pure ego with feelings that come from our material, or false, ego. The great souls express sentiments arising from pure spiritual ego uncontaminated by the modes of material nature.

When they feel, in Lord Chaitanya’s words, "lower than the straw in the street," that is an exhilarating emotion. They see the greatness of the Lord, and they see all others as more qualified than themselves. They are imbued with love and appreciation for all of Krishna's creation.

Bhaktivinoda Thakura, a superlative Vaishnava teacher, wrote many beautiful songs expressing his attraction and love for the Lord, songs about achieving the goal of his heart--unconditional love for the Lord--and self-denigrating songs in which he laments his lack of devotion. As a pure soul, he expresses his attachment and love for the Lord and at the same time his feelings of being unqualified and hopeless of achieving such love. These are both authentic feelings that spring from humility, attachment, and love for the Lord.

Acknowledging Our Faults

In the early stages of our spiritual journey, we may experience a semblance of these emotions as Krishna prepares the soil to cultivate our devotion. I recall an important experience I had before becoming a devotee. I had a difficult time accepting criticism and felt certain that my opinions were right.

That mentality created numerous problems, both professionally and personally. For months I had been contesting my supervisor's advice about how to do my job as a resident director in a university dormitory. My obstinacy was making my job very difficult, and I was suffering. Finally, one day I had the powerful realization that I was wrong. Not only was I wrong about this particular issue, but I was wrong about so many things.

I can't describe how liberating it felt to accept my fallible nature. I no longer carried the burden of having to be right about everything. I felt lowly, but at same time new possibilities opened up to me. For the first time in my adult life I could hear my authority with true submission. This mental shift prepared me to take shelter of my spiritual master and devotees. In instances when Krishna helps to free us from false pride, we can taste the sweetness of humility.

Sometimes, however, when we are still contaminated by the modes of material nature and identifying with our material mind and body, feeling lower than the straw in the street can lead to self-loathing and despondency.

These feelings then impede the execution of our devotional practices. We have to judge whether our psychology is favorable for serving the Lord or an impediment. Paradoxically, most people need to develop a healthy material ego before they can transcend it and realize their spiritual ego.

I once heard a motivational speaker say that people with healthy self-esteem think of themselves less, not less of themselves. When we feel good about ourselves, we can devote more time and energy extending ourselves to others, rather than being absorbed in self-deprecation. High self-esteem also gives us more freedom to act according to our values and convictions.

When we feel bad about ourselves, we may do things to please or placate others. In an effort to receive external validation, we may be easily influenced to do things that conflict with our beliefs.

Feeling Worthy and Competent

Nathaniel Branden, a well-known psychologist, defines self-esteem as "the disposition of experiencing oneself as competent in coping with the basic challenges of life and as being worthy of happiness." How do these aspects of self-esteem--self-confidence and self-respect--relate to Krishna consciousness? Krishna wants all souls trapped in the material world to be peaceful and happy. Human life affords us the opportunity to engage our talents and abilities in serving the Lord. When we offer ourselves to the Lord's service, we feel joyful. A friend once gave my husband and me a framed aphorism that says, "What you are is God's gift to you, and what you become is your gift to God."

Aside from confusing humility with low self-esteem, devotees sometimes correlate the concept of high self-esteem with pride and self-absorption. But it is actually the contrary. People who exhibit high self-esteem also exemplify a more humble attitude toward others. They show a willingness to admit and correct mistakes, whereas persons with low self-esteem are often defensive and feel a need to prove they are right.

In a famous story from the Mahabharata, Krishna once met with Yudhisthira Maharaja and Duryodhana. Desiring to glorify His devotee Yudhisthira, Krishna requested him to find a person lower than himself, and asked sinful Duryodhana to find a person greater than himself. Yudhisthira had all good qualities. He was peaceful and self-satisfied. No doubt he had healthy self-esteem. Yet he could not find anyone he considered lower than himself. Again, this is the example of an advanced Vaishnava who embodies genuine humility.

On the other hand, the unrighteous Duryodhana searched the kingdom all day and couldn't find anyone he considered superior to himself. Duryodhana was contaminated by vanity and pride. He envied and abused great souls.

He was in constant anxiety over his position, always trying to eliminate his competitors. His sense of self depended on externals such as position and power, and thus he knew of no inner peace. He was tormented by his own lust and greed.

Pride Versus High Self-esteem

Thinking oneself to be great is pride, not high self-esteem. A person with high self-esteem exhibits humility. The perfection of self-esteem is seen in persons completely free from false ego, where humility is a product of their spiritual realization.

In our conditioned state, we might identify more with Duryodhana's mentality than with Maharaja Yudhisthira's. But as we progress on our spiritual journey, we will see ourselves differently. The more we come to realize we aren't the independent performer but the instrument, the healthier our self-esteem becomes. In material life, the modes of goodness, passion, and ignorance influence us. These modes mix and compete with one another to shape our state of mind, including how we feel about ourselves.

Persons steeped in the mode of ignorance are happy and feel good about themselves when their senses are pleased. Persons immersed in the mode of passion are happy and feel good about themselves when others value and validate their accomplishments. In these lower modes, our sense of self fluctuates constantly.

Persons in the mode of goodness are happy and feel good about themselves when they act in knowledge, adhering to their ethical codes and values. They are less reactive to external stimuli so their self-esteem depends more on their inner life. Thus they have more control over how they feel. As people move into pure goodness, they realize themselves to be instruments of the Lord. They no longer identify themselves as the doer of their activities.

Prabhupada's Example

Our spiritual master, Shrila Prabhupada, showed high self-esteem. Although small in stature, he seemed large to us. He always held his head high and moved with purpose and confidence. He spoke in a straightforward way, with conviction and courage. His actions were bold and daring, yet he had a humble attitude, knowing that his success was totally up to the Lord. His humility is exemplified in his prayers aboard the ship when he first came to the United States from India:

“O Lord, I am just like a puppet in Your hands. So if You have brought me here to dance, then make me dance, make me dance, O Lord, make me dance as You like.

I have no devotion, nor do I have any knowledge, but I have strong faith in the holy name of Krishna. I have been designated as Bhaktivedanta, and now, if You like, You can fulfill the real purport of Bhaktivedanta.”

With great humility, Prabhupada finished his letter, "Signed, the most unfortunate, insignificant beggar A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami."

On the one hand this prayers shows that Prabhupada feels very lowly, but on the other hand he is confident he can do anything by the Lord's grace. The prayer also gives us the key to developing qualities of pure devotion: faith in the holy name of Krishna. The stronger our faith in the holy name's ability to transform our material consciousness, the more we will apply ourselves to the process of chanting. We will chant with as much focus and attention as we can and will carefully avoid offenses that hinder our spiritual progress.

We are less likely to exploit others when we see ourselves as their servant, realizing our--and their--true spiritual nature as part of God. We are glorious sparks of spiritual energy, with all good qualities, yet we feel tiny in the presence of the greatest, our Lord. With this true knowledge, the pure soul can have high self-esteem and humility simultaneously.

When I shared some of these points with the young woman who had e-mailed me her question, she wrote back: "It is a great relief to understand these points from this perspective. I now understand that I don't have to keep living in shame and abuse to be spiritual."

She suggested I write an article on the subject for Back To Godhead Magazine. I took her suggestion to heart, since other devotees have asked similar questions over the years. I hope it will be useful to others as well.

Combined comments from old site

Wed, 12/10/2008 - 03:58 — Go-Seva
Much to learn

Hare Krsna prabhuji~ This was one of the first articles I had read written by your wonderful wife, and re-reading now, I still remember it as being so "triple i" - insightful, informative, and inspirational. She helped me to understand the difference between cultivation of real humility and just having low self-esteem, which ends up being self-destructive and devotional creeper-destructive.

Just prior to coming to KC, I had little, if any, humility. My self-esteem was very good, but I did tend to think myself the enjoyer. Then, I found Krsna and just after that, I had my first child. Childbirth and having a high-need child was an EXCELLENT way for me to begin my journey toward being more humble. You have to begin serving that child while they are making their way out of inside of you, then your every waking moment is spent in serving that little entity. In this way, it seemed that my real position of "servant" was awakened. I began to understand how surrendering unto the Lord was the only way and, as I was serving everyone else (including my own body post-childbirth), why not serve the Lord first? He is the Lord, after all (and I was never an athiest.)

Gradually, my self-esteem was rebuilt in such a way to be conducive to service instead of a hinderance. Eventually, just surrendering to the Lord was the easiest thing to do for me. And in time, I began to understand (and am still trying, as sometimes I am set back by thinking that I am a very vile slug due to my past sins) that since we are part of the Lord, there is good inside, waiting to come out and serve the Lord as He deserves.


Wed, 12/10/2008 - 13:43 — Karnamrita.das
Water finds its own level

I have some thoughts Lisa that are loosely related to what you have shared. It is inspiring to see how Krishna has made the perfect arrangements in your life.

There are many levels of understanding the philosophy. We have the words of the scripture and Prabhupada's explanations, and then his practical example we can study through the eyes of those who observed and served him personally in the form of their remembrances. A fascinating point in reading the different books giving eye witness experiences of dealing with him, is there is a different picture painted of him by what is emphasized, according to the nature of the devotee.

Subjectivity rules the spiritual and material world. We read in the 10th Canto of Shrimad Bhagavatam how at the wrestling match arranged by King Kamsa, different groups of people saw Krishna differently--as incompetent, as son, lover, friend, impersonal Brahman, or Supersoul. In the biographies of Prabhupada we feel a different lens at work in seeing Prabhupada as we read them. In comparing some of these books, we hear comments like, "I like (for example) Gurudas' Prabhupada better than this devotee's Prabhupada".

This means as far as possible we have to be aware of our own biases in our reading about the experiences of others and the also the bias of the devotee in their narration. In addition we have to consider the fact that in the beginning we tend to think our surface understanding is the correct perception. I have spoken about this before. Our conception of K.C evolves as we advance and we go deeper. The limitedness of our sensual, intellectual ability to understand becomes apparent, and this is humbling. We discover things we didn't notice before, hear what we once missed.

Though personally I did see real humility in Prabhupada and certain devotees, with others I wasn't sure---strange behavior was labeled eccentricity, though it might have been just strange had we had more experience. Not that I was agonizing over it, I just was in a receptive, non-judgmental mood which is actually good for making progress. Later I found that what I once thought was humility in some devotees turned out to be more of a semblance of humility or imitation in someone who didn't like themselves much. One perspective of humility from Prabhupada is found in those persons who though extremely qualified, are humble---not those who have nothing and are humbled by their sorry plight.

In time we realize that there is more going on that meets the eye. On the other side, we realize how rare K.C and how rare are devotees of Krishna. As we mature as a person and understand our psycho-physical (conditioned) nature and where we are on the spiritual map, we realize that we require the association of devotees who encourage our faith--like minded. Though the idea of being with like minded devotees can keep us stuck in our limited conception of K.C if those devotees are neophytes, or not broad minded, we still require to be with devotees who encourage us, are very thoughtful, and set a good example as serious practitioners. Water finds it's own level is the old Western expression that says what I want to say.

Your friend in Krishna,



Wed, 12/10/2008 - 19:15 — Snehal

Hare Krishna!

This is a wonderful blog. Thank you for sharing it her.

I also liked to read your reply to Lisa. But kindly explain to us further what you exactly mean by:

"The limitedness of our sensual, intellectual ability to understand becomes apparent, and this is humbling."

I havent understood how can understanding of our limitedness bring about humbling? When we understand our limitedness, what happens to our consciousness that we become humble?




Thu, 12/11/2008 - 05:54 — Karnamrita.das
Ego's vision of grandeur

In the material world our tendency is to be prideful of our sensual, intellectual abilities, especially if we have relatively more then others. However, through spiritual practice we come to realize that thoughts of our importance and "bigness" are total illusion. Not only are we tiny and insignificant, but we are totally dependent on God. While a devotee may be inspired by this eventually by seeing Krishna as his or her loving refuge and friend, for a materialist or even a beginning devotee it can be disconcerting to have ones' false conceptions shattered. We may doubt everything and not know how to understand even simple truth--what to speak of about Krishna, as our world may be turned upside down.

We have to become reoriented to our real position as dependent, a cooperator or servant and gain strength though spiritual practice, prayer and finding encouragement in scripture and the association of saints from whom we feel the current of spirituality. From such persons we gain faith in the process of bhakti and feel that we too can become an advanced devotee and lover of Krishna.

I am speaking in general as to how difficult it is for an attached person to believe in their tininess, and how, if one is accustomed to figuring out everything by themselves, what a shock it would be to realize that we are not the doer and that the world does not revolve around them---that we are not as the saying goes, "The master of our destiny, the captain of our soul". We have free will so we are responsible for our life, yet we require grace from above to realize our true potential.

For a young person who has not invested a lot in material pursuits it may not be as shocking to accept their smallness, yet for a person accomplished materially with a scientific doubting mind it can be much more difficult. In any case it is really only by the mercy of Krishna through his devotees that people can have the opportunity to understand their real spiritual position as part and servant of God. Krishna works through his devotee agents who canvas on his behalf.

Your friend in Krishna,



Thu, 12/11/2008 - 15:13 — Snehal
Thank you

Hare Krishna!
Thank you for such a mindblowing explaination.

Your blog and this explaination has come at the right time for me. Past few days I was trying to figure how to handle material and spiritual success and fame so as to remain humble. This piece of writting from your wife and your explaination has cleared all my doubts.

You are right , "Krishna works through his devotee agents who canvas on his behalf".

Haribol and thank you once again.


Wed, 12/10/2008 - 14:46 — Aruna Locana
Nice lesson

Thanks Prabhu for posting this nice topic your wife has written. Very valuable to be aware of the modes that affect us and how they influence our life. I liked to read about high self esteem and also pride, the comparison of Duryodhana and Yudhistira helped me to learn nice things. A great lesson, thank you.

Hare Krsna

Aruna dd