< Back to Articles

Being Humble: Weakness or Strength?

From time to time, for no apparent reason—or perhaps when my ego starts to assert itself a little too much—a phrase pops into my mind: “Be humbler than a blade of grass.” These words struck a chord in me when I first heard my teacher, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, say them in a lecture on bhakti yoga (the path of love and devotion) years ago, and they have stayed with me since. He used this phrase as an example of trustful surrender to the divine, and it made me wonder what it would mean to be that humble. Visualizing the image of grass meekly allowing itself to be walked on (having no choice), my initial reaction was: Does being humble mean I shouldn’t have an ego? That I should passively submit to the will of others and have no voice or desires of my own? Is humility weakness, or is it strength, as Panditji seemed to indicate?

Grass is kind and forgiving.

“Be humbler than a blade of grass.” Throughout the years this phrase continued to surface at odd moments and I would turn it over in my mind, trying to grasp its deeper aspects. Various insights emerged: Though the position of grass relative to its surroundings is the lowliest one, its dharma (duty) is of the highest—service to others. Grass is kind and forgiving, inviting us to enjoy its sweet nature in a gentle way, unlike, for example, the unruly nettles and thorns, which sting and prick. Grass accepts whatever and whoever comes its way, and does not discriminate between different faiths and nationalities or judge whether someone is “good” or “bad.” And with its network of underground roots, grass has its own community; this interconnectedness gives fragile blades of grass the strength, resilience, and support to grow through the darkness to reach and face the light, taking advantage of any avenue—even popping up through cracks in concrete.

This perspective helped me to understand that the level of being humble that Panditji was referring to (the highest one) does not come from a place of weakness or passivity. Rather it comes from a place of compassion, clarity, connectedness, and strength—rooted in a continual upward striving to reach the light, and a clear understanding and acceptance of our role and purpose in life.

This one phrase felt powerful on its own, like a mantra. But I remembered that there was more to the saying, and then one day in another lecture, Panditji gave a few more lines, attributing them to the sage Sri Chaitanya: “God can be worshipped only by someone who is humbler than a blade of grass; who has more tolerance and forbearance than a tree that stands outdoors in all seasons; and who gives respect, love, and honor to others without demanding respect from them.” And in studying Narada’s Way of Divine Love, a commentary by Swami Prabhavananda on the Bhakti Sutras, I found another version of Chaitanya’s words, with an additional line:

Be humbler than a blade of grass,
Be patient and forbearing like the tree,
Take no honor to thyself,
Give honor to all,
Chant unceasingly the name of the Lord.

Researching further, I found that this verse is part of the longer eight-part Chaitanya’s Prayer. Born in 1485 in West Bengal, the sage Chaitanya is regarded as one of the greatest teachers of bhakti yoga.

This verse increased my understanding of the qualities that go hand in hand with and support being humble. To be truly humble, we need to be rooted and grounded—not only like the grass, which stays close to the earth, but also like a tree, which reaches its branches to the heavens—and to have the infinite tolerance and patience to withstand whatever comes our way, just as grass and trees endure each season. Though winds can violently toss the branches of a tree, if the roots of the tree are deep and strong, it will stay firm. As the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi said, “Leaves tremble. Roots remain still.” Like the tree, when we connect to our inner center—the higher self—nothing can uproot us.

Leaves tremble. Roots remain still.

“Take no honor to thyself, / Give honor to all.” When we are securely established in our true identity, being humble comes spontaneously—there is no need to flaunt our ego. Instead of being small-minded and contracted, grasping for recognition and acknowledgement, we can soften and expand. We can be gentle, yet strong; yielding, yet dynamic; patient, yet determined. These words invite us to be open and gracious.

“Chant unceasingly the name of the Lord” offers us the final piece of the puzzle. We naturally become more humble when we recognize that everything comes from the eternal source, the divine, which guides us, embraces us, and helps us to grow and prosper. And in turn, with a heart filled with gratitude and respect, we chant (either inwardly with silent prayer or outwardly by singing) our offering of praise and acknowledgment. In doing this, our awareness that all comes from the divine deepens and matures.

I don’t always remember Chaitanya’s entire prayer, but the phrase “Be humbler than a blade of grass” still continues to reverberate in me, although now with its more profound meaning. What before I could have interpreted as weakness, now I see as incredible strength—an offering of the ego to our higher self, with its higher purpose. These words also help me to be more aware of our interconnectedness with each other and with all of life.

Last year, while I was doing a weeklong silence retreat, I was contemplating this prayer while walking through a field on my way to the Susquehanna River. In the past I would just rush through, stomping unconsciously on the grass. But this time I became attuned to the tender grass shoots allowing me to tread over them. As Chaitanya’s Prayer came bubbling up, I tiptoed as gently as possible (silently offering apologies along the way). And with each step, I recalled the essence of the art of being humble: be strong, kind, and resilient, always striving for the light; stay grounded in your inner self, remaining patient and tolerant in all situations; give honor to others, being open and gracious; and above all, remember to give thanks to the One who created it all.

About the Teacher

Irene (Aradhana) Petryszak

Irene Petryszak served as the chairman of the Himalayan Institute from 1996 to 2008 and was a senior editor of Yoga International magazine. She holds a master’s degree in Eastern studies and has studied and practiced yoga for over 30 years in the United States and India under the guidance of Swami Rama and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait. She teaches meditation and yoga philosophy at the Himalayan Institute.

See Teacher's Content, Programs, and Courses