madopaśamanaṁ śāstraṁ khalānāṁ kurute madam
cakṣuḥ prakāśakaṁ teja ulūkānām ivāndhatām
madopaśamanam — removers of arrogance; śāstram — scriptures; khalānām — for the wicked; kurute — they increase; madam — arrogance; cakṣuḥ-prakāśakam — eye illuminating; tejaḥ — brilliance [of the sun]; ulūkānām — for the owls; iva — like; andhatām — blindness.
“The arrogance of the wicked increases on studying scripture, which is actually meant to remove arrogance, just as the darkness owls experience increases with the rising of the sun, which is actually meant to remove darkness.”
— Subhāṣita-ratna-bhāṇḍāgāram, ku-paṇḍita-nindā, Verse 11.
To properly perceive even ordinary reality, we need humility. While driving along a road, if we become overconfident, thinking that we know the way, we may become neglectful and get jolted by newly-formed potholes. For our life-journey, scripture is a guidebook. If we become over-confident, thinking that we know the way and don’t need scripture, we won’t see life’s spiritual side and will find ourselves coming to a dead end at the end of our life with death. Even along the way to that gloomy destination, we will be tormented and thwarted by the temporariness and emptiness of the world’s many allurements. Given this blinding power of arrogance, the Bhagavad-gita (13.08-12) places humility first in its list of twenty items of knowledge.
Humility means to acknowledge that reality is bigger than our conceptions. And since scripture is a guide to reality, humility in the study of scripture means acknowledging the complexity of scripture too. No matter how learned we may be in scripture, it will still have many subtleties and nuances unknown to us.
This Subhashita illustrates the pitfall of pride with the example of owls. With the rising of the sun, all living beings start seeing, but owls stop seeing. Scripture is like a sun – it illumines our life-journey with the light of knowledge. However, if we are owl-like, we shut ourselves to that illumination. Pertinently, the Ishopanishad (mantra 9) cautions that those in ignorance enter into darkness, but those with so-called knowledge enter into far greater darkness. To understand this paradoxical statement, consider the metaphor of blindness. To be blind is problematic; to be blind and to believe that one can see is even more problematic; to be blind, to believe that one can see and to believe those with vision are blind is most problematic. Similarly, to be in ignorance is bad; to be in ignorance and to claim to be in knowledge is worse; to be in ignorance, to claim to be in knowledge and to deem those in knowledge to be in ignorance is worst. Such is the condition of those proud of their scriptural knowledge – they remain blind to the essence and purpose of scripture.
While it is easy to minimize or even demonize others as being owl-like, we ourselves may have owl-like tendencies too. We all tend to zero in on things that reinforce our understanding and tend to explain away things that problematize our understanding. That’s just basic human tendency to seek intellectual security. Nonetheless, if we have humility, or at least if we don’t have arrogance, then we remain open to re-examining and revising our understanding when presented proper reasoning and references.
Whereas owls just can’t see in light, we can, provided we use our free will to seek holistic understanding of scripture. We need to study scripture to understand our place and purpose in the overall scheme of things, not to reinforce the place and purpose we have assigned to ourselves without considering the overall scheme of things.
The Bhagavad-gita states that the ultimate purpose of all knowledge is to know Krishna (15.15), and that those who have devoted themselves to him have attained all knowledge (15.19). Without humility, even if we study scripture extensively, we can neither know Krishna nor love him.
Because as long as we are filled with thoughts of our greatness, we have no room within us for appreciating Krishna’s greatness. Even if we study scripture and even if we use our scriptural knowledge to glorify Krishna, we end up doing it with an erroneous motive – we long to be glorified for being learned and devoted, not to savor and share Krishna’s glories.
Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.23) describes the pastime of the pompous priests engaged in elaborate ritualistic sacrifices. Being inebriated by their prestigious position as officiators of that grand sacrifice, they neglected the unimpressive-looking cowherd boyfriends of Krishna and thereby neglected Krishna, who was the Lord and purpose of their sacrifices. In contrast, their wives, though not as learned as them, grabbed the opportunity to serve Krishna. They had the humility to not judge people based on external appearances – they could see that the simple cowherd boys were offering them the greatest privilege of their lives: a chance to directly serve the Lord of their hearts, who was the master of all living beings and the purpose of life itself.
When we cultivate humility, our consciousness becomes increasingly available for realizing and relishing Krishna’s unlimited glories. The more we accept our insignificance, the more we taste his magnificence. Indeed, humility opens the floodgate for our head and heart to be inundated with Krishna’s supremely sweet glories.