Reading about the lives of saints is one way that we can learn important spiritual teachings. Stories about events in saints’ lives show us how to apply the lessons they learned to our own struggles. Saints lead by example, and to the degree that we are willing to learn, we follow their examples.
This month’s master is Nāmdev, a man who lived at the same time as Jñāneshvar. Nāmdev lived much longer than Jñāneshvar, and he is counted among the great devotional poet saints of that time. Both Nāmdev and Jñāneshvar composed in the local language. The common people, those not educated in Sanskrit and Vedic scriptures, found their verses easy to understand. Then they could apply the teachings to their daily lives. Similarly, when these poems are translated into our language, we can enjoy their messages.
From Sinner to Saint
Stories have been used for transferring knowledge and understanding throughout human evolution. There are many colorful legends about Nāmdev. Examples of his life teach us how to apply spiritual principles to our own efforts. Some of the tales attributed to Nāmdev’s life seem fantastic and unbelievable. It’s helpful to remember their purpose—to grab our attention and make a lasting impression.
Unlike Jñāneshvar, Nāmdev was born into a lower caste. His father was a tailor, so we assume that he followed that profession. Nevertheless, Nāmdev had a doubtful beginning, like Milarepa’s. Nāmdev’s abhangas, devotional songs, confess to living a lawless life. In one song, he tells the story of his conversion to religion. He had visited a temple after murdering eighty-four soldiers. At the temple, he saw the grieving widow of one of his victims. Nāmdev was so taken with the widow’s grief that he resolved to lead a holy life. He spent the rest of his life in repentance and devotion to God.
Eventually, as the legend goes, the Lord was so taken with Nāmdev’s sincerity and love, that He became his friend. He visited Nāmdev and conversed with him frequently.
The Story of Namdev’s Humiliation
Although Nāmdev was blessed by the Lord’s continual presence, his spiritual understanding was not complete. He still harbored one of a spiritual aspirant’s greatest obstacles—pride. Nāmdev was very proud of the fact that the Lord appeared to him and befriended him. However, in spite of the fact that God was his buddy, Nāmdev had barely begun his spiritual journey.
Making pilgrimage to spiritual centers is an ancient custom in India and is still practiced today. During certain times, devotees gather at these centers. There, they meditate, chant, and discuss spiritual principles with like-minded devotees. During Nāmdev’s time, and continuing even today, there was a pilgrimage to the holy city of Pandharpur. He went there to join the other great devotees, including Jñāneshvar, expecting to be greeted with great respect due to his friendship with the Lord. However, the saints ignored him, and he felt dejected. What a disappointment—no one acknowledged him!
One of the oldest saints of the congregation was a lowly potter named Gora. A potter will tap a pot to see if it’s fully baked. Gora walked up to Nāmdev, tapped him on the head and declared, “This pot is not yet fully baked!” He asked, “Who is your Guru?”
Nāmdev was incensed and replied that he didn’t need a Guru because the Lord was his friend.
Nāmdev left the assembly of saints, humiliated, because the others didn’t accept him into their group. Later he asked the Lord, “Why didn’t the others acknowledge me? And why did Gora the potter ask about my Guru? Should I need a Guru when you, the Lord, are my friend?”
The Lord explained: “Nāmdev, there’s nothing special about our friendship. I am a friend to all, dwelling in everyone’s heart.” He told Nāmdev where he could find his Guru, explaining that his Guru would show him how to experience the Lord in everyone.
Are You an Unbaked Pot?
Studying the lives of saints inspires us to be better human beings and spiritual aspirants. Nāmdev’s story reminds us that the effects of pride can be painful. On the spiritual path, pride is a great obstacle. It’s a product of the ego—the spiritual aspirant’s greatest enemy.
Ego, in the sense of Eastern philosophy, is the quality of mind that makes us put our own interests above others. It always asks, “What about me?” or “What’s in it for me?” The ego is the force behind one-upmanship.
Pride and ego arise because of the mind’s tendency to want approval and recognition. As Nāmdev learned, pride always leads to humiliation. But we can avoid that pitfall by witnessing where pride takes seat in our own thoughts and actions. By the power of our spiritual practices, pride is recognized, dealt with, and dissolved.
Nāmdev became one of India’s most beloved saints. The stories from his life have entertained spiritual aspirants for more than eight hundred years. They have given us the inspiration to overcome that powerful adversary, the ego.
Do you have an interesting story of your own, about how you learned an important lesson about pride or ego? Please share it in the comments section.
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.
Jnaneshvar and Namdev went on pilgrimage together expounding the Bhagavad Gita, local villages denied them and tested them with a number of miracles attributed to Jnaneshvar. Enjoying the company of Jnanesvar and nightly satsangs, miracles, and love for the Guru must have elicited a great deal of enthusiasm for a spiritual lifestyle and tells us once again that the star qualities: Enthusiasm + Guruseva can draw blessings from one’s Guru and make his company fun and all encompassing. Tony
Thank you for your insights, Tony. It looks like you understand the value of keeping company with saints. Namaste.
When I was young I had a speech impediment, stuttering, unbeknownst to my parents. I found ways to overcome this. We were studying a Greek philosopher named Demosthenes a great orator who stuttered, put pebbles in his mouth and practiced his oratory skills,. It worked for him, but sadly not for me.
I always believed in a supreme Lord and talked with Him regularly. He said the answer is inside you, so my intuition told me at that time to visualize that I was perfect, practice seeing myself free of this impediment, anything can happen. I somehow knew that this was a problem sometime long ago. Everything worked with relentless repetition of verses, everything came true and more – I found my guru.
Moving along to the present, I recently suffered a mild stroke and guess what, it affected my speech – mild stuttering. The moral of my story: always remember the most important lesson in life – the Self within is perfect, pure, unchanging, love, all knowing and is my Guru. Remember you are not the mind and all the things that are attached to it.
Thank you Svami Chityananda for the opportunity to share my story and move ahead.
Thank you for sharing this lovely story, Sue. You are good company for all of us on the spiritual path. Namaste.
My Guru has said that someday a computer will be made so wonderfully that it will spontaneously become self aware…which means the computer will think it has a life apart from its maker. Human minds designed computers, as a consequence, computers and minds share important features.
If we compare our minds to a computer, then we could think of the ego as a free download from the Heavenly Manufacturer. Ego comes pre-installed in the mind. Unfortunately, ego is also malware that pretends to be our best friend. Ego convinces us that we are separate, limited and subject to death. Greed and fear immediately follow.
My Guru also said the notion of a separate “me” or “I” is a work of fiction created by the ego. I can strengthen my ego through bad habits, or kill it with spiritual practice. I don’t much care for fear and anger. Consequently, I aim to strengthen my spiritual habits. Yogi’s cultivate Witness Consciousness to remain aware and aloof from the ego’s game. With meditation, my faith and focus shifts from the ego’s notions to the quiet bliss of its Maker.
The riddle of how to rid ourselves of ego malware is way too hard for a merely human mind to solve. An earlier commenter said that only with a true Guru’s help can we see ego for what it is. I completely agree.
Thank you, Rob. I love your computer analogy. It’s something we can all relate to these days. Namaste.
Death has taught me lessons about ego and pride. Whatever skills and talents we’ve developed during life are lost at death. Pianos of dead pianists collect dust in dark garages. Hand tools of once proud artisans rust and vanish.
The ego and pride of “I am great” is a delusion. As matter of fact, it’s a delusion even if you are great. I know this because I’ve seen it. Too many of my talented friends have died.
In your article you say, “By the power of spiritual excercise, pride is recognized,dealt with, and dissolved”. It makes sense we must witness pride and egotism through meditation in order to slay it.
Thank you for your perspective, Dusty. It’s always helpful to have concrete examples to learn from. Namaste.
Namdev’s story shows that ego can be overcome only with a Guru’s help. Namdev was upset because he wasn’t getting the respect he thought was his due, but he didn’t understand that the other people in the group were already realized saints. If he had thought good of himself instead of looking for their praise, he wouldn’t have felt insulted. He needed the lesson! And he needed a Guru to show him that God is in everyone. Not just his friend alone.
When Namdev finally recognized that his understanding was incomplete, and that the fellow the Lord had sent him to was indeed a great Master, he accepted him as his Guru, quickly understood his teaching and realized the all-pervasive nature of God.
Thank you, Roxie. Re. your comment, “If he had thought good of himself instead of looking for their praise, he wouldn’t have felt insulted.” — I understand this to mean that if he realized his inherent Divinity, he wouldn’t have suffered. And, yes, we all need a Guru to lead us to that realization. Namaste.
thanks for this timely reminder on the pitfalls and perils of pride. Relationships are the perfect set-up / opportunity to invite the field to be leveled. For example, with my partner, if I feel and say, (or just feel) “How dare you criticize ME!” Then if I am a yogi, i must be able to say and feel, “How dare I criticize HIM for criticizing.” How dare I make a problem out of this, by identifying with trivial thoughts. When the call in that moment is to turn within and choose the witness consciousness. “If this problem was not here, what IS here?” To be more interested in that.
Thank you, Svami,
Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Elizabeth. I like the way you use the yogic teaching to evaluate your own thoughts. That’s what they’re there for — not just armchair philosophy! Namaste.
Thank you Svāmī Chityānanda. Your teaching, and those of Svāmī Gurupremānanda, are gradually becoming clearer to me. The before and after Nāmdev makes sense. The ego keeps us separated from the divine within (and without).
My understanding is that yoga, unlike some religions, doesn’t see god as a guy with a white beard sitting on a cloud. To us yogis, I imagine, the only way to see god is to realize the Divine in each of us and thus be god ie: realized. The main path to realization is the loss of ego. How then can Nāmdev have the Lord at his side and have conversations with him while feeling proud (ego). The implication in Nāmdev’s abgangas is that god is a single entity and not the divine self ie: all encompassing. I humbly seek your guidance Svāmi Chityānanda.
Hello, James, I appreciate your thoughtfulness. Perhaps you can look at it like this: Consider that there were two Nāmdevs — the before and the after. The Before-Nāmdev was the unbaked pot, a sincere devotee before meeting his Guru. The After-Nāmdev was the fully enlightened saint.
There’s no reason to doubt that the Before-Nāmdev had a personal relationship with God, even though he still had an ego. Such a relationship is possible for anyone with a burning desire for this experience. We see this happening with many saints, of many religious preferences, throughout history.
Your question, and the article about Namdev, remind me of an important yogic principle: When God is pleased, He leads you to a Guru. When the Guru is pleased, he shows you God. Namdev’s ego kept him from seeing that his friend, God, wasn’t a separate Being. God also dwelled inside Nāmdev’s heart and in the hearts of all others. His Guru showed him the way to this realization.
I hope this helps, James. Do let me know if you have any other questions. Namaste.
A Very good lesson about pride. By the way, try public speaking. It takes away pride!
Thank you svami
Thank you, Richard. I think difficulties in public speaking have a lot to do with the ego and its many ugly heads, like pride. Public speaking is a wonderful opportunity to meet your ego head on and challenge it directly. Thanks for mentioning it! Namaste.