Humility Defined

Humility: A Spiritual Journey - 1

Different scriptures and philosophical literatures have defined humility in different ways. Still all agree that humility does augment the spiritual journey. So, how does a person conclude, as to what is the most appropriate and relevant definition? For a believer in Guru Nanak Dev Ji [1469 – 1539 CE] the first Guru of the Sikh religion, there cannot be a better definition than the one provided by him.

Guru Nanak Dev Ji has defined people possessing humility succinctly in the following quote in Sri Guru Granth Sahib — (SGGS) as:

Hodhai taan nithaaneeaa raheh nimaananeeaah.” — (SGGS, Pg. No. 85)

Meaning: They remain powerless, even while they have power; they remain humble and meek.

Interestingly, we can find a similar definition in the words of Farid Ji, who was a practicing Sufi Muslim almost three hundred years before Guru Nanak Dev Ji. He says:

“Mut hodhee hoae eiaanaa. Tan hodhae hoe nithaanaa.” — (SGGS, Pg. No. 1384)

Meaning: If you are wise, act like a (not knowing) child; if you are powerful, act like you are weak.

Bhai Gurdaas, the official scribe of the first Aad Bir (precursor of SGGS) in his poetic composition vaar, has hailed the person possessing the quality of humility in these words:

Hau tis vitthau vaariaa hodhai taan ju hoae nithaanaa. Hau tis vitthau vaariaa hodhai maan ju rahae nimaanaa. Hau tis vitthau vaariaa shodh siaanap hoae eiaanaa.” (Bhai Gurdaas, Vaar 12.3)

Meaning: I sacrifice myself to him who, even though mighty, yet professes to be powerless. I sacrifice to him who, being a person of standing still is humble. I am sacrifice to him who, despite all his intellectual achievements considers himself naive.

In the three quotes above, we see that the common thread is a total absence of the assertiveness trait or of any display of intellect, force or authority vested by the position. Does that imply that any attempts of infringement on personal rights are to be taken lying down? No, absolutely not. Rather it is an exercise of treating others as equals, as well as considering their needs and rights on an equal footing. This is not a “putting down” of the self; instead, it is essentially an absence of a desire to diminish others. This state of mind is the result of a clear understanding of the equality of all mankind.

Humility is the attitude in which the judgement of others, and conflicts between opinions is not exercised. In fact, when humility becomes one’s true nature, one sees others as better than the self. Kabir Ji has expressed this state of mind in these words:

“Kabir sabh thae ham burae ham thaj bhalo sabh koe. Jin aisaa kar boojhiaa meeth hamaaraa soe.7.” — (SGGS, Pg. No. 1364)

Meaning: Kabir, I am the worst of all. Everyone else is a better person than me. Whoever understands this is a dear friend of mine.

This is the thought process of a person steeped in humility. With humility, comes a transformation in perspectives and now one can see qualities in others. How can someone incorporate this definition of humility into his/her everyday life? This will only happen when the person has an authentic understanding of his/her own strengths and abilities, along with genuine acceptance of his/her own limitations. In addition, there must be a clear understanding that God alone is the Doer of all actions, and the Giver of all boons. So, if we are enjoying riches in life, or if we have achieved a significant milestone, then we know those are direct results of His abundant grace. This in itself is humbling.

When a branch of a fruit tree gets laden with fruits, it bends downwards. That is nature’s way of displaying humility. These loaded, sagging branches appeal more than the straight, stiff branches with no fruit. This is how nature is showing us how to be humble. Bhai Gurdaas Ji has observed and captured nature’s way of demonstrating humility in these words:

“Sirr talavaaiaa birakh hai, hoye sahas phall sufall phala(n)daa.” (Bhai Gurdaas, Vaar 26.15)

Meaning:The tree keeps its head (root) downwards, and therefore for its humility it is laden with millions of fruit.

Interestingly, what we experience in today’s real world is entirely the opposite. People are constantly exhibiting their intelligence, wisdom, power and position in order to impress upon others and to prevail upon others. Whenever they see an opportunity, without a second thought they exploit it to gain a property, position or a fortune. They are not bothered at all when they trample on others’ rights or when they resort to manipulation or outright extortion only for their personal gain.

Let us for a moment understand and explore the opposite of humility and that is “pride”. The Punjabi words for pride are “Ahankar” and “Haumai”. The word “Ahankar” is a compound word consisting of “Aham” meaning “I” and “kar” meaning “maker”. So, the word means “I-maker”. “Haumai” means “I am”. Basically, its implication is that “I am the doer”. What is this? Is it not sheer pride or ego? Pride consists of attributing all talents and successes to oneself, and demanding for oneself the recognition for achievements, contributions and offerings to social welfare causes. This pride and egoistic tendency is not something that an individual has acquired by himself. Rather, it is a part of the cosmic design and it came into existence along with the creation itself and it still exists. In everyday life we come across many instances, when unchecked pride drives humans to do misdeeds. In fact the root cause of sins is pride. Although, that may yield short term gain and fame but in the end it brings disgrace. So, the renunciation of arrogant pride means acquiring humility, and it is the essence of spirituality.

We will see that true humility makes one take on even demanding tasks just to serve others. Thus the person with humility will dedicate his life serving others, as if serving has become the truly beloved spouse. This desire to serve by doing good deeds originates from the heritage of modesty or humility and a higher intuitive understanding. Guru Ji has shared this concept in these words:

“Saram surat doe sasur bhaae. Karanee kaaman kar man leae.” — (SGGS, Pg. No. 152)

Meaning: Modesty, humility and intuitive understanding are my parents-in-law; I have made good deeds my spouse.

Thus, humility is nurtured within, only with an attitude which recognizes owns insignificance and unworthiness before God. Humility is a result of one’s cognition of the vastness, variety, and complexity of the creation in its entirety, and one’s awe in its flawless perfection. This humility arises out of admiration born from the awareness of the beauty in the creation and the intelligence of the Creator. It is a realization and admission of the limitations of one’s own capabilities. Furthermore, it also encompasses a higher level of understanding which accepts that others can be better than self. Humility is not cowardice or a sign of passivity or a lack of self-confidence; rather, it is born out of profound insight and out of wonder noticed by a keen awareness. This is not out of ignorance of one’s own talents, but in deference to the talent of others. In addition, this humility gratefully recognizes dependence on our Creator for everything, including all of our prized possessions and our very existence. Guru Ji has described it as:

“Tu karaN kaaraN samarath hai too karahi su theeaa.” — (SGGS, Pg. No. 585)

Meaning: You are the all-powerful Cause of causes; whatever You do, comes to be.

In fact, humility and bravery always go hand in hand. The concept of humility does not include timidity. It is only the wise, brave, and courageous who exhibit sincere humility, by risking their lives to put others first. It is no wonder that Guru Ji calls those who renounce ego as wise:

“Chathur siaanaa sugharr soae jin tajiaa abhimaan.” — (SGGS, Pg. No. 297)

Meaning: One who renounces egotistical pride is intelligent, wise and refined.

At certain times, in our life we bow to others, out of necessity, not out of humility - because the particular situation demands that, as the most appropriate posture and position to assume under the circumstances. This may be posturing or a pretense, or it may be possibly the safer way out. Guru Ji has made it crystal-clear that such opportunistic posturing for selfish ends cannot be taken as a sign of humility. Guru Ji says:

Aparaadhhee dhoonaa nivai jo hantaa miragaahi. Sees nivaaeiai kiaa thheeai jaa ridhai kusudhhae jaahi — (SGGS, Pg. No. 470)

Meaning: The evildoer, like the deer hunter, bows down twice as much. But what can be achieved by the mere bowing of the head, when the heart is inclined to be impure?

Here, Guru Nanak Dev Ji has clearly condemned the posturing, outward display of facade of humility, when the real intention is selfish. Guru Ji has compared this to the posturing of a hunter while aiming at his prey. The hunter is bowing not out of humility, but out of necessity to achieve the real objective of hunting. Once the objective is achieved, then fake humility evaporates. So, let us ask Guru Ji to share with us what the essence of humility is? Guru Ji summed it up in these words:

“Mithath neevee Naanakaa gun changiaaeeaa tat.” — (SGGS, Pg. No. 470)

Meaning: Sweetness and humility, O Nanak, are the essence of all virtues and goodness.

From the above quote, it is obvious that Guru Nanak Dev Ji viewed humility as the epitome of all the virtues. Here is another quote where Guru Ji defines the state of mind of a person with humility as:

“Munda janai aap ko avar bhalla sansar.” — (SGGS, Pg. No. 991)

Meaning: He sees himself as worse and all the rest of the world as better.

In fact learned people define the purpose of religion as the inculcation of humility and the extermination of ego or pride. Thus, ego is like the root of the tree and attachments are like its outgrowth- trunk, limbs, branches, and leaves.

Guru Nanak Dev Ji has not just defined humility but lived it. He shares with us the fact that no matter what our possessions and achievements in life are, we should not forget God. Guru Ji has thus given us a road map of living a life of humility in these words:

Mothee th mandhar oosareh rathanee ta hoe jarraao. Kastur kungoo agar chandan leep aavai chaao. Mut dhaekh bhoolaa veesarai teraa chith n aavai naao. 1. Hur bin jeeo jal bal jaao. Mai aapanaa gur pooshh dhaekhiaa avar naahee thhaao.1. Rahao. Dhharathee th heerae laal jarrathee palagh laal jarraao. Mohanee mukh manee sohai karae rung pasaao. Mut dhaekh bhoolaa veesarai teraa chith n aavai naao.2. Sidh hovaa sidhh laaee ridhh aakhaa aao. Gupat paragat hoae baisaa lok raakhai bhaao.Mut dhaekh bhoolaa veesarai teraa chith n aavai naao. 3. Sulathaan hovaa mael lasakar thakhath raakhaa paao. Hukam haasal karee baithaa naanakaa sabh vaao.Mut dhaekh bhoolaa veesarai teraa chith n aavai naao.” — (SGGS, Pg. No. 14)

Meaning: If I had a luxurious palace made of pearls, inlaid with jewels, embellished with musk, and the fragrance of saffron and sandalwood, a sheer delight to behold-seeing this, I might go astray and forget You, and Your Naam would not enter into my mind. Without the Lord, my soul is scorched and burnt. I consulted my Guru, and now I see that there is no other place at all. Pause. If the floor of this palace was a mosaic of diamonds and rubies, and if my bed was encased with rubies, and if heavenly beauties, their faces adorned with emeralds, tried to entice me with sensual gestures of love -seeing these, I might go astray and forget You, and Your Naam would not enter into my mind. If I were to become a Siddha, acquire occult power and work miracles, summon wealth and become invisible or visible at will, so that people would hold me in awe -seeing these, I might go astray and forget You, and Your Naam would not enter into my mind. If I were to become an emperor and raise a huge army, sitting on a throne issuing commands and collecting taxes-O Nanak, all of this could pass away like a puff of wind. Seeing these, I might go astray and forget You, and Your Naam would not enter into my mind.

Here it is useful to compare our body to the palace - how we decorate it with jewelry, perfume, and cosmetics. It soon becomes glaringly apparent that such decoration can be so consuming that it can make us forget God. We can easily grow narcissistic. Additionally, if we have property that is loaded with precious stones, bed encased in rubies, and heavenly beauties with faces adorned with emeralds in attendance, living a life of such opulence can make us forget God. Guru Ji then talks about acquiring occult powers with a capability to vanish into thin air and reappear at will, resulting in being held in awe, because of these powers. All these achievements can make one forget God. Lastly, Guru Ji talks about becoming a powerful king with large armies under command, having orders carried out. This, along with acquired wealth, can make us intoxicated with power and forget God.

Guru Ji’s emphasis is that I do not want to forget God at any cost. Guru Ji holds that all other worldly achievements are worthless, if they contribute in any way towards increase in my distance from God. Same way possessions, wealth, and properties are worth discarding, especially if they are going to be the cause of my separation from God, and produce a burning desire for them within. Guru Ji talks about remembering Naam (see Chapter III for discussion) and says that forgetting Him will lead to the following:

— Attract me to the self, and to power, possessions, authority and position

— The flow of Naam will cease

— Finally, upon realization that the flow of Naam has ceased, and tries to reinitiate it, the mind may still be on its own fantasy flight, and that will become a hindrance.

Thus we can see here that Guru Ji has defined how to lead the life of humility in the world. It is written in Janam Sakhi that these words were uttered by Guru Ji to God in response to the question from Him about the significance of Naam. Thus Guru Ji has declared his own insignificance, and imperfection before Him, and that God’s Naam is the most significant.


Humility can be defined as recognition of our own insignificance, and imperfection of self before God. All power, wisdom, intelligence, is attributed to God. Therefore, God is adored; saluted, admired, worshipped, as a result an attitude of gratitude is born. Thus, devotion, submission and acceptance of the Supreme Authority happen naturally. Let us summarize the various aspects of humility:

1. The humble person always has an abiding sense of owns insignificance compared to God. This state of mind has been shared with us in these words:

“Hum sar deen daeiaal n tum sir ab patheeaar kiaa keejai.” — (SGGS, Pg. No. 694)

Meaning: There is none as forlorn as I am, and none as Compassionate as You; what need is there to test us now?

2. The person of genuine humility has a clear understanding of sinfulness of self and God’s compassion. This contrast has been succinctly captured in these words:

“Hum paapee thum paap khanddan neeko thaakur dhaesaa.” — (SGGS, Pg. No. 613)

Meaning: We are sinners, and You are the Destroyer of sins. Your abode is so beautiful, O Lord and Master.

3. The truly humble person has a clear understanding of the working of his/her mind and how it forgets its own Creator and becomes consumed in material world.

“Eih munooaa dheh dhis dhhaavadhaa dhoojai bhaae khuaaeiaa.” — (SGGS, Pg. No. 599)

Meaning:This mind wanders in ten directions; it is consumed by the love of duality.

4. The truly humble person has a clear understanding that God is the center of everything, and everything is His creation. He is the true and only Master. In contrast, the egoistic person has an anthropocentric mind-set, where he/she visualizes self as the center, and perceives that everything in his/her life revolves around it. Guru Ji says the humble see everything happening according to His Command:

“Jio jio thaeraa hukam thivai thio hovanaa.” — (SGGS, Pg. No. 523)

Meaning: As is the Hukam of Your Command, so do things happen.

5. The truly humble person attributes to God credit for everything, and has nothing but praises, admiration, and gratitude for God. Humility is an acknowledgement that our talents and abilities are all gifts from God. Our achievements in life are direct results of His blessing, which gave us physical strength and the intellectual capability, making those achievements possible:

“Jaehee thoo(n) mut dhaehi thaehee ko paavai.” — (SGGS, Pg. No. 351)

Meaning: As is the understanding which You bestow, so do we receive.

6. Everything is happening in accordance to His divine Will.

“Tudhh aapae bhaavai tivai chalaavai.” — (SGGS, Pg. No. 351)

Meaning: As it pleases Your Will, so do You lead us.

For a journey on the path of humility, the quotes above become a touchstone, for a personal appraisal on a daily basis. In conclusion, we can say that a person of humility recognizes that every achievement is made possible by the grace and blessings of God. Such a person lives his/her life for the glory of Almighty alone. Humility is such an empowering quality, that the person becomes devoid of all expectations or desires. Such a humble person has a ready acceptance of everything taking place without questioning or complaining. Guru Arjan Dev exemplified this aspect when he was tortured (and consequently killed) by being made to sit on a hot iron plate, with fire underneath and having hot sand poured over him in peak summer. His words convey the extreme humility and acceptance of Divine Will:

“Teraa keeaa meethaa laagai.” — (SGGS, Pg. No. 394)

Meaning: Your actions seem so sweet to me.

Let us make together this spiritual journey on the road of humility and may all of God’s acts become sweet to us.

To be Continued

The book Humility - A Spiritual Journey
ISBN 978-93-87276-19-2 is available from Gracious Books


More by :  Bhupinder Singh

Top | Sikhism

Views: 3808      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.