As a family therapist, I counsel people both within and outside the Hare Krishna movement. I recently received an e-mail 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 which 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 Yudhishthira Maharaja and Duryodhana. Desiring to glorify His devotee Yudhishthira, Krishna requested him to find a person lower than himself, and asked sinful Duryodhana to find a person greater than himself.
Yudhishthira 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 Yudhishthira’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.
Our spiritual master, Srila 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 BTG. 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.