Virtues in Sikhi | 6. Humility
Humility is a virtue which has both personal as well as social importance:
When viewed from the personal angle it consists of having a humble estimate of one’s own merit and from the social one, it consists of checking the tendency to expect and demand approbation and subservience from others in recognition of the merit one possesses.
It is a deliberate cultivation of refusal to give up to the “dangerously seductive impulse” of obtaining pleasure in one’s own respect and admiration.
The failure of man to cultivate humility may be due to his ignorance of the moral ideal against which he must measure himself:
Persons, who have some inkling of the ideal, should be humble as this brings home to them the fact of how far away they are from the realization of the ideal.
The virtue of humility, thus, is not to be the virtue of only those who have some achievement to their credit, but it is to be the virtue of all who measure themselves against the goal of ideal-realization.
It may be reflected in the attitude of man towards himself, towards social relations, as well as towards the moral ideal which ought to be qualified by humility.
It is with all these aspects of the virtue that we find the Gurus occupying themselves.
The term used to denote humble and humility, in Sikhism, are garīb (poverty), nīch and nimāņa.
The term nimratā along with nitānā (humility and powerlessness, respectively) are also used by Bhai Gurdas in the above meaning.
The Guru, providing the clue to humility, proclaims, “I am low and supportless, ignorant and shorn of merit.” This attitude is required to be followed by others also for the cultivation of this virtue.
The Guru, at another place, says,
“Some pride on their power of speech, others that they have riches to lean upon, but I have no other support but God’s: O Creator-Lord! save me, your meek slave.”
Bhai Gurdas writes, “One who follows the instruction of the Guru, calls himself as lowliest of the lowly.”
He then proceeds to explain analogically that one ought to have humble estimation of one’s merit, as that attitude alone is expressive of one’s merit.
He quotes the example of a guinea being lighter in weight, though more in value and merit, than the coins it can command in exchange, the diamond in turn being lighter than the weight of guineas it can fetch.
Another example of a mango tree laden with fruit and inclining downward and many more, are cited in order to drive home the moral –
that humility is in fact a sign of merit and the value of this merit lies in not being proclaimed as a merit but rather in having a humble opinion about its possession.
From the social aspect, humility may mean virtue expressed towards fellow men, the Guru and the Absolute:
The first seems to be the most difficult one because in the case of the Guru and the Absolute a person sincerely believes himself to be by far imperfect as compared to them, but in the case of his fellow men, in so many respects, he may have different views.
But although the most difficult yet it is the most urgent because it is the fundamental. It is the most disarming weapon, a congenial attribute for social concord. The Guru declares,
“Humility is my bludgeon, my doubled- edged dagger is to be the dust for all men to tread upon. No evil doer can face these weapons. The perfect Guru has made me wise, this-wise.”
Here a historical fact may interest us:
It was customary with the Sikhs, even before and after the times of Bhai Gurdas (1551 – 1636), that they greeted each other by touching each other’s feet, a practice which was meant to reinforce the profession of humility.
Bhai Gurdas cites this practice - head is high but it bows to feet - to bring home the moral of humility.
Next comes humility before the Guru, the spiritual teacher, which indeed is the only proper attitude. The Guru says, “In utter humility, I fell at the door of the perfect Guru. He honours the humble; and strokes their backs.”
The Guru himself gives expression to the virtue of humility, thereby, setting up an example to others:
Guru Arjan expresses many a time his own desire to apply “the dust of the saint’s feet to the forehead,” and “becoming lowliest of the lowly.” And then comes humility before the Absolute.
The virtue of humility at this stage is not exclusive of the earlier two; it is rather here that we realize the reason for the earlier two aspects as well.
No matter, how much merit we might have considered ourselves to possess in relation to our fellow beings, it pales into insignificance before the Absolute Ideal, bringing home to us the futility of any response other than humility.
We become aware of our imperfections and limitations:
Guru Nānak declares that we speak, eat, walk, see and breathe within limitations and that our life span is also limited.
The attitude or virtue of humility thus comes to be grounded in the awareness of the finitude of man and his merit which always falls short of an ideal excellence.
While expressing his humility before God, the Guru declares the bride (symbolic of self) to be humble and powerless. The self by seeking to measure itself with the Absolute, is convinced of the futility of nourishing any notion of pride.
In the treatment of this virtue by Bhai Gurdas we come across quite a few classifications of things which, according to him, highlight the great importance of the virtue of humility:
He cites the examples of earth, fire and water as huge things but possessing the virtue of humility because they do not burst out with the feeling of their power:
Humility here may be taken to mean self-restraint or acting according to one’s function in the most orderly manner without any bursting out from a sense of one’s importance or power.
Humility does not require any slackening of one’s function:
On the contrary it expects performance of one’s role, howsoever important that role may be, without being engulfed by any sense of self approbation.
One ought to treat, even the very powerful roles in life, as the roles or functions one has to perform to the best of one’s ability without being consumed by a sense of self-glow.
Bhai Gurdas then names certain small things which he takes to be the examples of things professing humility:
He points out that this humility is their virtue since otherwise those are things of great merit: In this group, we meet the examples of the small finger, the small drop of water, the poppy and the til seeds.
He then proceeds to show the great merit of these humility professing things:
The small finger is the ring-finger and is thus of great importance. The small drop of water is pearl-making. The small seeds have great usefulness and are, therefore, things of great merit and utility.
He argues that in spite of the great importance of these things they profess humility by remaining small in appearance. Thus Bhai Gurdas shows that the virtue of humility is even possessed by big and small things of nature. Therefore it is all the more necessary and important for man, who is also a link in this continuity of nature, as well as its apex, to possess humility.
It is in this sense that Bhai Gurdas proclaims that a “Gurmukh though powerful, professes, powerlessness.”
Humility is a necessary part for the realization of the ideal self:
It is in this sense that the Guru calls humility-possessing persons as nearer to the Ideal, or that they would be realizing the ideal soon, as they are on the correct path.