“The person in material consciousness is convinced by false ego that he is the doer of everything. He does not know that the mechanism of the body is produced by material nature, which works under the supervision of the Supreme Lord. The materialistic person has no knowledge that ultimately he is under the control of Krishna.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 3.27 Purport)
Question: How does a person remain humble in devotional service? Material life is itself humbling, so in that realm it is not difficult to understand. In bhakti-yoga, however, if a person has great success, they can’t help but feel proud of their accomplishments. They know how difficult it is to advance along the path of the purification of consciousness. How do they avoid getting too puffed up, especially if others laud them for their efforts?
Benjamin Franklin, a famous inventor and statesman from the 18th century, once undertook a self-improvement project wherein he would keep track of certain virtues and whether or not he was acquiring them. The effort itself is indicative of great intelligence, but he found complete success to be almost impossible. Humility, one of the target virtues, seemed the most difficult to acquire. Franklin joked that even if he did become humble, he would likely become proud of how humble he had become.
Ahankara is the material element that leads to pride. Ahankara is a Sanskrit word that means “false ego.” The ego is always there. The concept of “I am” references the ego. I have to be something. I may not know exactly, but there is always some form of identity. In material life the ego is false because the identification is not proper. I think that I am my body, when in fact that body is constantly changing. I am the same person throughout those changes, so the body can’t be the real form of identification.
Excessive pride is always crushed in the material world because of the all-devouring enemy that is time. Even if a person thinks they are invincible, they will eventually lose everything over which they are proud. Beauty, wealth, strength, fame, wisdom – all will vanish at the time of death. Moreover, there is stiff competition in each of these areas of opulence. Just because I am the best athlete in a particular professional sport today, it doesn’t mean that I will stay on top forever. Someone will see my excellence and then work hard to exceed it.
Spiritual life is different. The inexhaustible one helps those who try to connect with Him. He guarantees that their efforts are also inexhaustible. In the Bhagavad-gita, He gives the assurance that He maintains what the devotees have and brings to them what they lack.
ananyāś cintayanto māṁ
ye janāḥ paryupāsate
yoga-kṣemaṁ vahāmy aham
“But those who worship Me with devotion, meditating on My transcendental form – to them I carry what they lack and preserve what they have.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.22)
Spiritual life may bring opulences like beauty, wealth, and strength, but the most lasting and important boon is a purified consciousness. Consciousness continues into the future, even to the next life. Therefore the results of devotion to God the person do not vanish. As such, does this mean that pride will remain? If a person is proud of their advancement, isn’t it a bad thing? How do they avoid it?
Bhakti-yoga flows through one of nine different processes. Hearing, chanting, remembering, serving the deity, praying, and other such things are done to maintain a connection to the Supreme Consciousness. A person who is successful in one or many of these processes naturally feels some pride. Success is difficult. The default position in material life is to struggle with the six senses, which include the mind.
One way to avoid excessive pride is to use one of the nine aforementioned processes. Vishno-smaranam is remembrance of God the person. Vishnu is non-different from His pure devotees, so remembrance can also be of past personalities who excelled and uplifted others in the spiritual path. I may be proud of composing and publishing so much devotional literature, but people of the past wrote way more than I ever could. No one can surpass Vyasadeva in the sheer volume of composition. He also didn’t have typewriters, computers, or printing presses to help him. He dictated from memory.
I may be proud of being able to speak to assemblies for hours and hours and holding their attention. From village to village I travel and get great receptions wherever I go. The audience always praises me after I speak. Yet people of the past extended their reach much further, travelling to different planets even. Narada Muni is the spiritual master to some of the most important personalities in the parampara, or disciplic succession, of devotion. He rescued so many people, who each had unique problems with which to contend.
In the past there were hardly any books. The teachers had to memorize everything. They couldn’t go on the internet to look up key verses. They could deliver Hari-katha, or discourses about God the person, for the entire day. They could survive on very little and not complain. They could stay fixed in their position without caring about outside opinion.
Goswami Tulsidas remarks that when a king builds a bridge, even the ants are then able to cross over. The humble devotee thinks like this. “The past acharyas are like the kings who have built the bridge, and I am a mere ant now able to cross over. Without them I would be nothing.” The person who remembers this is able to keep their pride in check, and that humility helps them to stay on the devotional path.
Even in bhakti difficult handle to maintain,
Since pride through accomplishments to gain.
But to past acharyas just see,
And how far superior to me.
Message of Divine to other planets took,
Speaking Hari-katha without needing a book.
King building bridge, can cross then even the ant,
Without past acharyas to have success I can’t.