Sweetness of Humility

Guru Nanak Dev Ji has succinctly talked about the sweetness of humility in these words:

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

Translation: There is sweetness of humility, O Nanak, it is the essence of all virtues and goodness.

The above quote is from the composition where Guru Nanak Ji starts by describing the sweetness of humility with the example of its nemesis, the Simmal. It is also called Semal (botanical name: Bombax ceiba) and commonly known in English as Silk Cotton Tree. This native Indian tree bears bright red attractive flowers during the months of January to March, with fruits about the size of Ping-Pong ball. It is a fast-growing tree, that shoots up like a tall arrow and can have solid girth of 2 to 3 meters.

Guru Ji says its beauty attracts the birds who come there with hopes. But its fruit is tasteless, flowers are unwholesome, and its leaves useless (no nutritional value). By providing the example Guru Ji cautions against becoming majestic, attractive, and good looking, yet useless. While some famous and accomplished in life may appear attractive as a resource to help us to mitigate our life challenges, but we may be disappointed in them. Then Guru ji says that humility is sweetness, which will not disappoint those who come with hopes and expectations.

Guru Ji wants us to inculcate humility and to become humble in life. Becoming humble is recognizing that we are not here to see how important we can become, but to see what difference we can make in the life of others. Let us try to see to explore this virtue of humility.

What is humility?

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

Translation: Despite wielding power, they remain powerless, humble, and meek.

But in reality, what is the state of mankind? Guru Ji describes it as, “Virtuous is our talk, but our deeds are evil as well as our conduct. Pitch dark (totally evil) are our minds, but from our outward appearance, we present ourselves as (angelic) white – (SGGS, Pg. No. 85)”. In simple words there is a dichotomy between our words and deeds because of ego. Guru Ji wants us to shun our pride and ego in these words:

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

Translation: One who renounces egotistical pride is intelligent, wise, and farsighted.

Where did these traits come from? These are intrinsic, as we are born with them. Guru Ji has described the construct of the humans as:

“AvaguNee bharapoor hai guN bhee vasahi naal.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 936)

Translation: He (man) is overflowing with faults and demerits, but virtues dwells within him as well.

Guru Ji is sharing with us that we humans are packaged with both virtues and imperfections. Virtues are there as the Creator Himself dwells within each of us as the soul. Additionally, imperfections or faults are also present in each of us, as the Creator has imparted those within human body too. Interestingly, both these coexist in everyone since the time of inception. Brimming with such contradictions, becoming humble will be a paradoxical challenge. When we look at the life of Guru Nanak, we can see that he was epitome of humility. His words as enshrined in Sri Guru Granth Sahib, his personal interactions with others and his selection criteria for his own successor, reflect the significance of the humility. In fact, the successor selection during the subsequent Guru period the trait of humility was a preeminent consideration. Here in one quote by Guru Nanak Dev Ji that offers his personal perspective:

“Neechaaa andhar neech jaath neechee hoo ath neech.
Nanak tin kai sang saathh vaddiaa sio kiaa rees.
Jithai neech samaaleean thithhai nadhar thaeree bakhasees.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 15)

Translation: Nanak seeks the company of the lowest of the low class, the very lowest of the low. Why should he try to compete with the (so called) great/highest? In that place where the lowly are cared for, there the Blessings of Your Glance of Grace rains down.

Guru Ji sees no need to compete with the elite, affluent, successful, or those belonging to a higher caste by birth - he is happy with the lowliest. In the quote as under, Guru Ji addressed the subject of caste discrimination in these words:

“Hau dhadhee kaa neech jaath hor utham jaath sadhaaeidhae.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 468)

Translation: I am just a bard of low caste and low social status (at your door); others call themselves as belonging to high caste.

By declaring himself as belonging to the low caste, Guru Ji exposed the hollowness and futility of discrimination simply based on birth caste/class. Despite belonging to Khatri caste, considered upper class in class hierarchy, Guru Ji proclaimed himself to be minstrel, labeled as a lower caste by the society and was discriminated against. By doing so, Guru Ji displayed his true humility, and simultaneously raised his voice against the practice of caste system. Guru Ji demonstrated this trait when he spurned the invitation of elite state official Malik Bhago, in Saidpur but knocked the door of poor carpenter Lalo uninvited. Guru Ji again demonstrated it when he went to Multan and the pirs there sent a bowl full of milk symbolizing the fact that city is full to the brim with holy people. Guru Ji plucked a jasmine flower from the garden an placed it over the milk in the bowl. Guru Ji’s message was he was there to spread fragrance and not to dislodge them.

Folly of Pride

Humility and its nemesis Ego, and pride are within every human being, a universal presence. Ego grows like wild weeds when humility is not nurtured and cultivated. The pre-eminence of ego, pride and the haughty nature in humans is essentially declaring that ‘I am something or something in the making’. The Punjabi words for these traits are ‘houmai’ and ‘hankaar’. Guru Ji has described its prevalence in humans in these words as:

"Houmai rog maanukh kau deenaa."
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 1140)

Translation: (The entire) Mankind is afflicted with the disease of egotism.

Guru Ji has made it very clear that pride is the deadliest vice, by calling it a chronic disease by Guru Ji in these words:

"Houmai dheeragh rog hai…."
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 466)

Translation: Egotism is a chronic disease.

Guru Ji calls it a chronic disease as it is so self-deceiving; everyone else can see it clearly, yet the person himself is always totally blind to it. The mind under the influence of pride is always self-serving, and wanting more:

“Ghanno ghanno ghanno sadh loRai bin lahannay kaittai paaio ray.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 715)

Translation: More and more, he continually yearns for more (gripped by pride and attachment); but unless he is destined to receive, how can he obtain it?

Pride leverages minds into believing in an exaggerated sense of self, and the term narcissistic has been coined for it. Pride in self generates into prejudice against others. In Guru Ji words the one gripped by pride, is a walking testament of a lunatic:

“Jab eih mun mahi karat gumaanaa. T
ab eih baavar firat bigaanaa.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 235)

Translation: When this mind is filled with pride, then it wanders around like a madman exhibiting strange behavior.

Wisdom of becoming Humble

Pride and ego consume those who possess it, just as termite consumes the big tree from inside by hollowing it. These become self-destructing traits. As we can see ego is concerned in establishing who is right, but Humility is concerned only with what is right. Guru Arjan Dev Ji’s had succinctly summed the wisdom of becoming humble in these words:

“Sukhee basai masakeeneeaa aap nivaar tale.
Badde badde ahankaareeaa Nanak garab gale. 1”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 278)

Translation: The humble beings abide in peace; by subduing egotism they become meek. But the very proud and arrogant people, O Nanak, are consumed by their own pride. ||1||

Guru Ji advises us to get rid of hubristic ego in these words:

“Bholiaa haumai surat visaar.
Haumai maar beechaar mun gun vich gun lai saar. 1. Rahaau.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 1168)

Translation: (Guru Ji advises)
O ignorant one, forsake your egotistical intellect.
Make up your mind to subdue your ego
by enshrining the most Sublime virtue – (Naam). ||1||Pause||

We can see Guru Ji is extolling us to efface ego. To efface ego Guru Ji wants us to enshrine in our mind the sublime virtues of God’s Naam. Naam means remembrance of existence of God in his entire creation. The act of remembrance has not received its due recognition as a transformational tool. That remembrance effaces ego, planting, and nurturing humility instead. Thus, the act of remembrance is an act chiseling the persona by removing ego. The act of remembrance affirms power of God thus increases faith and builds positive feelings. Guru Ji shares with us the benefits in these words:

“Sukh prabh simaran kaa a(n)t na paar.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 263)

Translation: The peace and joy (that emanates) from the meditative remembrance of God are limitless.

In order to experience those benefits Guru Ji wants us to inculcate humility in these words:

“Budhh gareebee kharach laihu houmai bikh jaarahu.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 399)

Translation: Take wisdom and humility as your supplies (on spiritual journey) and burn away the poison of pride.

This is preparation for receiving divine grace. Guru Ji has advised that ego is only effaced by divine grace. He has asked us to seek grace from Almighty. Guru Nanak Dev Ji has clarified that grace eradicates ego completely. Once ego completely disappears the mind becomes immaculate:

“Eih mun nirmal haumai maaree.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 1049)

Translation: When Egotism has been conquered, then this mind will become immaculate.

When it becomes immaculate then it merges with the Creator God:

“Haumai jaaee ta kanth samaee.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 750)

Translation: If one gets rid of ego, then one merges with Husband Lord.

Cultivating Humility

Pride is biggest obstacle to inculcation of humility, yet most invisible to self. So, instead of reining in our ego we enable it by feeding it as we grow in age, as well as become successful. Then what should we do to become humble? Guru Ji has prescribed the method of singing the praises. Guru Ji has not just prescribed the path but has provided us with the words and mechanism to accomplish it. The technique provided by Guru Ji is Keertan (singing) and words are in Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Ji says:

“Vaahu vaahu karatiaa mun nirmal hovai haumai vichahu jai.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 515)

Translation: Chanting Waaho! Waaho! The mind is purified, and egotism departs from within.

Saying “Vaahu, Vaahu” is praising and is the only avenue of access to God. This is method that Guru Nanak Ji adopted and encouraged everyone else to practice. Have we not failed to exercise it? If we had not, then we would have known about its benefits. Praise is acceptance of the situation we find ourselves in. It is acceptance of one’s own inadequacy to handle and asking for Divine intervention. It is so powerful that it brings a paradigm shift from me to Him. Its nature is to draw our attention away from our problems no matter how overwhelming and lift our gaze to God. Praise changes relationships, hearts, and mindsets. Guru Arjan Dev Ji demonstrated its efficacy, when Sulhi Khan mounted an attack on Guru Ji from Lahore and his shabads on the subject of attack paint its picture.

Guru Ji created a fountain of praises in form of Sri Guru Granth Sahib for us and sealed it for posterity to prevent its doctoring and plagiarizing. Guru Ji have not just set the words in poetic meters and strung them on musical scales, but also set the style of singing for its optimal effect on the mind. The result is that these words just don’t reach our ears but can penetrate the deeper core – the soul within, transforming it. In the process we witness our own limitations, while offering us a dazzling display of magnanimous nature of God. These words can become the catalyst for our resizing of ourselves, in the process deflating our ballooned ego. The ego is the wall that separates us from our Creator God. So, what should we ask from our Guru Ji? Guru Ji even provides answer for that as:

“Saa mut dhaehu daeiaal prabh jith thumehi araadhhaa.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 677)

Translation: Bless me with such understanding, O Merciful Lord God, that I might engage in Your adoration.

Let us take the first step to go to Guru Ji, with complete faith and in total surrender. There, the process of transformation will be initiated by listening and believing; and both these activities are associated with the mind alone. When one listens attentively and starts believing, then a sacred shrine develops within. Thus, awareness of pride is the prerequisite for the humility cultivation process to take place. By incorporating these processes with reverence, progress is made, humility is cultivated, and one experiences cleansing of the mind. When one is reminded that one is lacking virtues inside, it produces an immediate humbling effect. As the malignant growth of ego is curtailed, a prayer is born and humility blossoms from within. Such is the humble prayer to the Almighty to bless with virtues. Because without virtues, the progress on the path of spiritual evolution cannot take place, as Guru Nanak Dev Ji has advised:

Vinh gun keethae bhagat n hoe.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 4)

Translation: Without virtue, there is no devotional worship possible.

Guru Ji has shared the fact that the Creator is the reservoir of virtues, and these can only be acquired when one is blessed by Him, in grace. So, this becomes a starting point of realization of need of Guru. It is through that relationship the connection with Almighty will develop, for the journey on the road to humility. In Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, Sheikh Fareed Ji has taken the example of a floor mat made of river-bed grass to describe how humble one has to become. He says:

“Fareedhaa Thheeo Pavaahee Dhabh.
Jae Saanee Lorrehi Sabh.
Eik Shhijehi Biaa Lathaarreeahi.
Thaan Saaee Dhai Dhar Vaarreeahi.16.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 1378)

Translation: Fareed, become the grass on the path, if you long for the Lord of all. One will cut you down, and another will trample you underfoot; then, you shall enter the Court of the Lord.

To paint a complete picture of humility, Farid Ji uses the metaphor of a variety of grass that grows on riverbanks used to make floor mat. In this example, first the grass is cut that symbolizes giving up or total surrender. Then the cut grass gets trampled upon to flatten it, finally woven into a floor mat. Only then does it qualify to become the mat that graces the door of the house of Lord picking up dust from feet of the devotees. When it becomes the floormat at the place of worship, then worshippers in reverence pick up dust from it and apply it on their foreheads. Thus, the grass because of its humility was elevated to become an object of reverence. In fact, Guru Arjan Dev Ji has recommended a two-pronged attack on the ego from his own personal experience as:

“Prathhamae tyagee houmai preet. Dhutheeaa tyagee logaa reeth.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 370)

Translation: First, I renounced my egoistical love of the self. Second, I renounced the ways of the world.

Here, Guru Ji is talking about abandoning self-hood, the ego that is afflicting everyone. It is the thinking of the mind in terms of “I, me, mine” alone. The ego likes to rule over everyone but does not relish the thought of becoming subservient to anyone else. That is how slavery, caste systems and feudal systems made inroads and established firmly in societies. These were later scorned upon as perverse and are now slowly working their way out of the society.

We all want to be successful in life. Unfortunately, the gauge of our success in life comes from the acknowledgment and endorsement of others. In order to declare our success to the world, we paint our own poster with the brush of lavish lifestyle. That lifestyle is a demonstration to the world, that we have made it big on the world stage; that we are somebody worthy of endorsement. The influence of celebrities in our lives can be gauged from the way we try to imitate their lifestyles, dresses, their sense of fashion, mannerisms, hair styles, etc. In fact, if we go to the magazine section in bookstores, we can see that celebrity magazines are doing roaring business, but mind-stimulating magazines have their sales plummeting. Our only objective from all these senseless imitations is to declare to the world that we have joined the elites club. Now we are the glitterati ourselves. These lavish lifestyles are food and nourishment to the ego. The ego desires respect and recognition from others. In one short sentence, Guru Ji has provided a strategy to tame ego with a double pronged attack. Guru Ji’s prescription is to give up ego and cease conforming to the norms of the society which only result in ego enhancements. According to Guru Ji, by adopting this double pronged strategy, a big transformation will take place. Faith and humility are garnered while the ego is tamed. Then the race to do what everybody else is doing takes backseat.

So, how to prepare ourselves to rid the filth of ego? Guru Ji declares that the ego is only washed away when the love for God wells up inside.

“Prabh kee preeth houmai mul khoe.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 391)

Translation: In the Love of God, the filth of ego is washed away.

When the filth of ego is washed away, then through the teachings of Guru a clear understanding and realization that the divine light is within everyone is enkindled. Thus, Guru Ji has clarified that getting rid of the ego is a pre-requisite for cultivating humility. So, when in the midst of crisis and we remember God, we have accepted that the difficult or unpleasant situation as God’s plan, whose outcome will be beneficial for our growth. This is contrary to mere acceptance of the situation as fate and becoming complacent. Instead, it is an endeavor to precisely gauge the situation, and plan for commensurate, strategic course of action. Such a course of action leads to dissolution of ego and growth to take place. Guru Nanak Dev Ji has very clearly defined those growth areas for human form as:

“Thithhai gharreeai surath math man budhh
.” – (SGGS, Pg. No. 8)

Translation: The intuitive consciousness, intellect and understanding of the mind are shaped there.

Guru Ji is talking about development not just at intellectual level but the spiritual. Guru Ji has defined the four faculties where development needs to take place as:

  1. Thorough development of awareness
  2. Acquiring higher understanding
  3. Complete evolution of perception
  4. Thorough development of logic and rationality

Guru Ji calls those who embark on this journey as “Spiritual Warriors”. These warriors develop these four faculties, and a realization of the One consciousness is behind all the forms. Our current dilemma is with lack of complete awareness, the higher thought processes and understanding is not in our realm. So, how can these four faculties be developed? These faculties can only be developed if humility is cultivated. Guru Nanak Dev Ji has advised us about it in these words:

“Suniaa munniaa mun keethaa bhaao. Antharagath teerath mul naao.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 4)

Translation: By listening and believing in reverence with humility in mind, one cleanses the sacred shrine (soul) within.

Guru Arjan Dev Ji has suggested:

“Mun kee muth thiaageeai suneeai upadaesh. Rahaau.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 814)

Translation: So, renounce the intellectual cleverness of your mind, and listen to the (divine) Teachings (from Guru).

Guru Ji wants us to be convinced without a doubt that whatever Guru Ji’s teachings are, they are for our good and to have complete faith in them:

“Joe gur kahai soe'ee bhal maanahu har har kathaa niraalee.1. Rahaau.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 667)

Translation: Deem whatever the Guru says as good (for you); the sermon of the Lord, Har, Har, is unique and wonderful (as it is best for us). 1. Pause.

It is through the words of the Guru; the ego gets completely eradicated:

Gur shabadhee vichahu houmai khoe.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No.1173)

Translation: Through the Word of the Guru's Shabad, egotism is eradicated from within.

Guru Ji’s words or teachings share with us the greatness, benevolence, infinite capability, art, and intelligence of God, who made the entire creation and is sustaining it continuously. It is again Guru Ji’s teachings that make us realize that our own strength, capability, faculties, and intelligence are quite limited. Guru Ji’s words perform the work of a life coach, transforming life. The outcome is clarified by Guru Ji as follows:

“Hoae sagal kee raenukaa har sang samaavo.”
– (SGGS, Pg. No. 322)

Translation: Become the dust of all men's feet, and so merge with the Lord.

Now, this is true exalting of the humble. This is true sweetness of humility, a result of God’s grace. The path prescribed by Guru is through remembrance and praises of God.


1. Singh, Bhupinder. Humility: A Spiritual Journey. Gracious Books, Patiala, 2018
2. Pierce, Virginia. The Power of Remembering.


More by :  Bhupinder Singh

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