How Can I Understand True Spiritual Humility

In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna inquires how he can know an enlightened individual, whether by his talk, or the way he acts, or by some other external sign. Sri Krishna replies that it is not through external actions or signs that one can recognise the realised souls. The truth lies in their inner attitude and experience. Similarly, an outward show of spiritual humility, or an outward show of apparent egoism may not reflect the inward reality of the person. One must understand the force behind the outer activity to understand its significance.

The famous tale of the young spiritual seeker who felt that he was a divine servant illustrates another aspect. He was walking along the road when a mahout (elephant driver) yelled for him to get out of the way as the elephant was charging. He was knocked aside when he failed to heed the warning. The master explained, ‘yes, you are the Divine. But you failed to heed the driver-divine and the elephant-divine.” Spiritual pride may tend to forget that all is the Divine and fail to keep a proper respect and balance in one’s relations with the other forms of the divine manifestation.

Spiritual humility then is an inward recognition of one’s subordination to the Divine, and one’s spiritual oneness with the entire creation. Each individual, keeping the proper attitude, will then be called on to act in the way that most appropriately moves the divine creation forward.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “As for the sense of superiority, that is a little difficult to avoid when greater horizons open before the consciousness, unless one is already of a saintly and humble disposition. There are men like Nag Mahashaya (among Sri Ramakrishna’s disciples) in whom spiritual experience creates more and more humility; there are others like Vivekananda in whom it creates a great sense of strength and superiority — European critics have taxed him with it rather severely; there are others in whom it fixes a sense of superiority to men and humility to the Divine. Each position has its value. Take Vivekananda’s famous answer to the Madras Pundit who objected to one of his assertions saying: ‘But Shankara does not say so’, to whom Vivekananda replied: ‘No, but I, Vivekananda say so’, and the Pundit was speechless. That ‘I, Vivekananda,’ stands up to the ordinary eye like a Himalaya of self-confident egoism. But there was nothing false or unsound in Vivekananda’s spiritual experience. For this was not mere egoism, but the sense of what he stood for and the attitude of the fighter who, as the representative of something very great, could not allow himself to be put down or belittled. This is not to deny the necessity of non-egoism and of spiritual humility, but to show that the question is not so easy as it appears at first sight.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Humility, pp. 289-291