The Humble Gourd

I was pondering the subject of humility this morning, and came across a passage by Sri Chinmoy, where he makes a clear distinction between humility and unworthiness. I realised there are so many different interpretations of the quality. What is the true meaning?

My mother was an engineer, and still is at heart, even in retirement. Growing up in her presence everything could be questioned or taken apart: physically or theoretically. I thus learned that the Way of Things followed logical reason, whether or not we understood that reason at a given time. We were scientists, artists, tailors, chefs and gardeners, mechanics and explorers, borne on the wings of patience and liberty. Life was a joint adventure: the victory craftily skewed to me; the mess and mistakes discreetly absorbed by her.

One of our forays was the growing of sunflowers and ornamental gourds. I did not care for mud, so my mother did most of the squatting and furrowing. Having been stung by a wasp between ice-creamy fingers at an earlier age, I could not tolerate dirty hands. My self-appointed roles were instead Sower of the Seeds, and Wielder of the Watering Can, as both carried acceptable levels of pomp and cleanliness.

Gardening was one of many good bargains for me, but when it came to gourds I was not sure even my small efforts were well invested. Sunflowers I could understand – they are lofty and radiant, and can be used as food when they have finished blooming – but gourds? They can be hollowed into scoops or instruments. Ours would simply be varnished for show.

Varnished for show. Where was the logic? Even the name sounded disappointing. Gourd: nobbled, puckered, unwieldy, inedible, notable only for its unabashed ugliness. Gazing at the photograph on the seed packet for long enough, I came to a secret conclusion though: life itself was their reason, and perhaps life was reason enough. Being garish and warty was their role in the world, and they did it very well.

I learned more than I bargained for that day – undoubtedly more than my mother set out to teach me too.

* * *

The gourd is often referred to as the “humble gourd”. Humble in this case is more a kind word for unattractive, or unsophisticated at best. I was pondering the subject of humility this morning, and I realised there are so many different interpretations, ranging from modesty or servility to shyness or a simple lack of confidence. Humility thus could easily be misconstrued as a weakness: modesty can sometimes be false or insincere, a subtle ploy for attention rather than honest self-acceptance; servility may be more a desire to be liked, or a fear of punishment, than a longing to be of selfless use.

Then I came across a passage by Sri Chinmoy, where he makes a clear distinction between humility and unworthiness, reasserting humility as a positive force, an unshakable divine strength.

There is a great difference between humility and unworthiness. Let us deal first with unworthiness. When we are about to do something, certain incapacities that we are born with may make us feel unworthy. Again, unworthiness may come as a result of something undivine that we have done. But whatever the reason, he who feels unworthy of something will automatically remain far away from the world of delight.

This is a negative way of approaching the truth. But if we take the positive approach, then we feel always that we have come from God. We have to be conscious of God within us, not through the feeling of unworthiness, but through humility. If I am unworthy of my Source, then why did the Source create me? Parents bring a child into the world. Now, who is responsible for the child’s life? The parents! If the child feels that he is unworthy of his parents, it is a mistake on his part. According to their inner capacity, illumination and meditation, the parents have brought their children into the world, so the children must not feel unworthy. Only the children should be humble, because in humility there is soul’s light.

– Sri Chinmoy [source]

In this time of spring and seed-sowing, especially as today is apparently Mother’s Day (at least everywhere in the world except Britain), it seems a good opportunity to remember one’s roots. Also to remember that worthiness or unworthiness are equally irrelevant: I just am and you just are. Life is reason enough.

4 replies on “The Humble Gourd”

Thanks for that, Sumangali! I have always been very moved by Sri Chinmoy’s use of the word ‘humility.’ I once read this definition of humility from his writings; he said that true humility was to neither underestimate your capacities or to overestimate them. So it is a state of being in which we see things as they are. He also talked about the connection between humility and nobility, that they went hand in hand. Often when he has talked about a famous Indian ruler or leader he has mentioned the word humility, usually in the context of unity with the people that they were ruling or leading. In this case humility being the quality needed to see the real relationship between the different members of a well-functioning group. I don’t mean current Indian rulers or politics or anything like that or even that it was limited to specifically Indian characters; he was usually telling stories of underground heros of the Indian revolution or spiritual leaders or illumined kings of the past and so the discussion was rooted within his own culture. He was not talking about one particular social structure that worked, but the qualities needed by the leader or responsible member of any group to make it work; humility being the chief quality. People often think of humility as being a weak quality; ‘…he has humility, but then he has a lot to be humble about…’ but Sri Chinmoy always connected humility with majesty, using the word to describe a state of being in which the ruling force sees its own reality in others, enabling it to serve the others as if it were serving itself, a solid vision of reality, in other words, and a real road to God for any ruler, who will be beset by countless distractions and temptations. Also he connected the word humility with vastness, saying that humility enabled us to enlarge our hearts to encompass others, in the case of a ruler a very necessary capacity in order to make the concept of oneness live and breathe and not just remain a concept!

Actually, on a very practical note, it just occurs to me that this state of humility is also a safeguard against flattery and deception; it is very difficult to deceive someone who sees themselves for what they are.

That’s my recollection!

Thanks so much for the ideas on humility, Hita! It’s such a huge subject isn’t it? The more you look at it, the more strengths it seems to reveal. I love the concept of humility as being true to oneself – this is how it makes most sense to me, and how I probably think of it most often. I found a really interesting quote of from Sri Chinmoy on an aspect I hadn’t considered:

“Soulful humility itself is a form of divine power. There is no difference between divine power and soulful humility. Real divine power is an aspect of the highest transcendental Power; and the Mother-power, the divine power, the power of the Supreme Mother, also has its soulful humility. You cannot separate soulful humility from power. So if you just develop soulful humility, automatically you will cultivate divine power within yourself.” – Sri Chinmoy [Source]

That made so much sense to me – just to think of mother nature herself, how humble she is, and how completely true to herself. In the same vein I also love Sri Chinmoy’s analogy of a tree bowing down to offer its fruits:

“Whoever is in a position to give is stronger than one who receives. I need something from you. That means that you are superior to me. The tree is in a position to give us fruits, leaves and everything. But when the tree becomes great as a result of its possessions and achievements, the tree bows down. When it offers us all its capacity, it bows down. A tree is a radiant example of how power and humility can go together.” – Sri Chinmoy [Source]

Very inspiring indeed!
The longer I live the more I value the quality of humility. I remember Sri Chinmoy once telling us that pride was at the root of many of our spiritual problems. An exaggerated sense of our own importance, he said, was behind most of our feelings of insecurity and jealousy.
In her books Caroline Myss talks about the sense of entitlement, the feeling that we deserve certain things from life. If we don’t get what we feel we are owed we tend to feel aggrieved. She advocates adopting the attitude “I’m entitled to nothing”. This way whatever comes to you, even love from your parents, is a gift rather than a salary.
Once Sri Chinmoy dictated a poem to me which felt like the answer to all life’s difficulties in a two line aphorism. Everyone else in the group he was dictating to got poems about the meanings of their spiritual names, their soul’s qualities. Mine was simply:
“Be selfless-
You will automatically
Be blameless.”
Seventy-Seven Thousand Service Trees no. 41, 625
It was like a light bulb went on inside me: the realization that if I can act from a place of selflessness, if my motivation is always generous I can never have reason to reproach myself.
It’s a lofty ideal, who knows if I’ll ever live up to it, but it’s worth a try.

I still haven’t read Caroline Myss, but I remember a conversation about her concept of “entitlement” and it has stayed with me. It’s so true that our feelings of entitlement are exaggerated or just simply misplaced. I think it becomes even more interesting in a spiritual sense than in terms of the outer world – what we feel we are entitled to from God. I suppose at the deepest and purest sense of entitlement, everything is ours – as Sri Chinmoy says, “meditation is our birthright” [Source] – but how many outer things I felt entitled to when I heard that concept, even without realising it! It’s good to be reminded again, thanks.

That aphorism is beautiful and perfect. I often think how spoiled we are with Sri Chinmoy’s writings – he was so prolific, yet even one tiny quote like this contains more than a lifetime’s work and inspiration. I remember that day very clearly, the aphorism he dictated to me is also more than a lifetime’s work and inspiration. I am often reminded of it, although I admit not often enough!

“Every day, every hour, every minute
Has to be auspicious.
Only then can we make
Tremendous progress.”

– Sri Chinmoy

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