Gandhi and His Value of Humility
Please cite as Low KCP, Ang SL and Robertson, RW (2012) ‘Gandhi and His Value Of Humility’,
‘Gandhi and His Value Of Humility’, Leadership & Organizational Management Journal, ISSN
2152-8675. Volume 2012 Issue 3, p. 105 – 116
Patrick Kim Cheng Low
Ph.D & Chartered Marketer, Universiti Brunei Darussalam; Associate Training Consultant,
Institute of Leadership, Innovation and Advancement ILIA, Brunei Darussalam; Associate,
University of South Australia
MBA, Ph.D. Executive Candidate/Research Assistant, Universiti Brunei Darussalam
Robert W. Robertson, PhD
Adjunct Instructor, Business Administration
Stevens Henager College
Abstract: In this paper, the authors present and discuss the views of Mahatma Gandhi with
respect to the value of humility. For Gandhi, a leader, who is to serve others, must be humble.
(S)he is not to be served; if (s)he is not humble, (s)he cannot serve; (s)he will be more concerned
Key words: Gandhi, humility, serving, spirituality.
Albert Einstein once said of Mahatma Gandhi, “Generations to come will scarcely believe that
such a one as this, ever in flesh and blood, walked upon this earth.” (Burgess, 1984).
Mahatma Gandhi was a great leader (Low, 2010). Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869 to 1948)
was born into a Hindu Modh family in Porbandar, Gujarat, India in 1869. The title “Mahatma”
(Sanskrit for ‘great soul’) was given to him by his followers to denote Gandhi’s spirituality.
However, Winston Churchill, who disliked him, spoke dismissively of him as ‘that seditious half-
naked fakir’. In reality, India was still part of the British Empire when Gandhi was born in 1869;
by the time he died in 1948, India was a free country due to his practise of the value of humility
(Clement, 1996). Gandhi is considered as the father of the Indian independence movement.
Mahatma Gandhi is also seen as a master strategist and an exemplary leader as well as someone
whose ideas and tactics corporate India can (or should) emulate (Ganapati, 2003, cited in Low,
2010: 111). Given the current climate in India with respect to the crisis of confidence in leaders
generally the principles of humility advocated by Gandhi may provide a useful framework for
corporate and political leaders going about their work, respective professions and/or even in
The aim and objective of the paper is to examine and discuss Gandhi’s view and the value he
places on “ humility”. In particular, the question is the relevance of humility in the 21
What are the benefits of humble?
Gandhi held this view: A leader, who is to serve others, must be humble. (S)he is not to be
served; if (s)he is not humble, (s)he cannot serve; (s)he’ll be more concerned with him(her)self.
Hence he said, “Service without humility is selfishness and egoism” (Burgess, 1984: 47). For
Gandhi, a life of service must be one of humility. Anyone, who would sacrifice his or her life for
others has hardly time to reserve for him(her)self a place in the sun. True humility means most
strenuous and constant endeavor, wholly intended towards the service of humanity.
What Is Humility?
Humility is the quality of being modest and respectful. Humility, in various interpretations, is
widely seen as a virtue in many religious and philosophical traditions, being connected with
notions of transcendence, other-worldliness or the utmost unity with the universe or the divine,
and living without ego.
In Hinduism, numerous sacred scripts and sages which date back to 5500–2600 BC have
preached about humility and the “egoless” state. In fact, Hinduism has influenced many
originating religions like Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism regarding the egoless state and nirvana
or mukti. In the Bhagavad Gita, it is said that “the war within, the struggle for self-mastery that
every human being must wage if he or she is to emerge from life victorious” (Easwaran, 2007)
and “The language of battle is often found in the scriptures, for it conveys the strenuous, long,
drawn-out campaign we must wage to free ourselves from the tyranny of the ego, the cause of
all our suffering and sorrow” (Easwaran, 1993). Gandhi said, “The Bhagavad Gita is a mother to
me ever since I became first acquainted with it in 1889. I turn to it for guidance in every
difficulty and the desired guidance has always been forthcoming.” In this respect, Gandhi
strongly believed in the principles contained within the Bhagavad Gita. He further remarked, “I
have not been able to see any difference between the Sermon on the Mount and the Bhagavad
Gita. What the Sermon describes in a graphic manner, the Bhagavad Gita reduces to a scientific
formula. It may not be a scientific book in the accepted sense of the term, but it has argued out
the law of love - the law of abundance, as I would call it- in a scientific manner.” (Burgess, 1984:
In Buddhism, life is described as the ‘sea of sufferings’ (苦海, kǔ hǎi) and humility is about how
to liberate oneself from the sufferings of life and the vexations of the human mind. This means
that a person who is focused on being humble should serve and not be attached to anything in
life and this would help him or her to move away from not only any negative psychological
thoughts but to positive actions. Gandhi said, “Life is but an endless series of experiments and
that suffering is the badge of human race, not the sword” (Burgess, 1984: 60). What he meant
was that suffering is part of life and it cannot be resolved by violence. In Buddhism, the ultimate
aim of life is to achieve a state of enlightenment through either meditation or other spiritual
practices. Humility can also result from achieving the liberation of Nirvana. When one
experiences the ultimate Emptiness (空; Shunyata) and non-self (無我﹐Anatta), one is free
from suffering, vexations, and all illusions of self-deception. Humility, compassion, and wisdom
characterize this state of enlightenment.
Ahimsa is a Sanskrit term which means to do no harm. Ahimsa means kindness and non-violence
towards all living things including animals; it respects living beings as a unity, the belief that all
living things are connected. Gandhi strongly believed in the principle of Ahimsa. He said that
Ahimsa is the farthest limit of humility and that it is not a crude thing as it has been made to
appear. Not to hurt any living thing is no doubt a part of Ahimsa. But it is its least expression.
The principle of Ahimsa is hurt by every evil thought, by undue haste, by lying, by hatred, by
wishing ill to anybody. It is also violated by our holding on to what the world needs. In this
respect, Gandhi embraced the value of humility and adopted a simplistic lifestyle and minimal
Satyagraha means ‘holding to the truth’ and is a doctrine coined by Gandhi for the pursuit of
truth not permitting violence being inflicted on one’s opponent, but that one must weaned
away from error by patience and sympathy. Patience is really self-suffering. It also means that
the vindication of the truth, not by the infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on one’s self.
Satyagraha is gentle, it never wounds. It must not be the result of anger or malice. It is never
fussy, never impatient and never vociferous. It is the direct opposite of compulsion. It was
conceived as a complete substitute for violence. Satyagraha is a force that works silently and
apparently slowly. In reality, there is no force in the world that is so direct or so swift in working.
In this way, Gandhi created his concept of Satyagraha, a non-violent way of protesting against
injustices. He spent many years working diligently to both removing British rule from India as
well as to better the lives of India’s poorest classes (Clement, 1996; Burgess, 1984 and Gandhi,
1961). Gandhi said, “Non-violence is the greatest and most active force in the world. One person
who can express Ahimsa in life exercises a force superior to all the forces of brutality.” (Merton,
1996). Many civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. used Gandhi’s concept of non-
violent protest as a model for their own struggles.
The Downsides of Taking Humility Overboard
Any discussion on the value of humility would not be complete if one does not discuss the
disadvantages of humility or that of taking humility overboard in our lives.
While the authors point to and certainly appreciate the value of humility, it is instructive, at this
juncture to highlight that humility must not be taken over board or even as the slightest excuse
to do things less or worse, not to do anything at all. For example, there is an assumption (more
so, for small countries and the thinking or mindset of their populace). In that regard, Brunei is a
small country which does not have a significant amount of natural resources or raw materials.
Also, as the market is small. Given these facts, if one continues to think in all humility, one might
become complacent or not have the necessary courage. In this example, the concept could be
very self-limiting. (Vincent Cheong, CEO of Brunei Economic Development Board cited in
Ibrahim, 2011). One should indeed not associate passiveness or lack of courage with humility.
One at times can also use humility “to hide behind anonymity and pseudonyms”, and this may
have adverse effects, after all, it may breed a society with “zero responsibility and no
accountability”. Being anonymous can make it difficult for policy makers, leaders and others to
locate the source of complaint to resolve the problem. Conversely, “when you feel strongly
about something, you must be brave and move forward to say something about it” (Vincent
Cheong, CEO of Brunei Economic Development Board cited in Ibrahim, 2011).
Leadership And Success In Life Is Assured By The Way One Manages When One Has Nothing
And The Way One Behaves When One Has Everything
Interestingly, most, if not, some people may have nothing yet they may act as if they have
everything. Here, they can be foolishly proud and extravagant; they are just like empty shells or
We can take it that one who is humble and who is determined to succeed even though one may
have little resources or nothing is likely to be successful. One thing that is very important to be
aware is that one does not bully or cheat to succeed. One is humbly resilient yet when one is
successful, one does not forget one’s own background and the experience(s) that one has gone
When one is successful, one is still humble, careful and prudent; one (still) does not bully or
cheat. One (still) stands tall and maintains ones integrity. Although one has everything, one still
acts as if one has nothing; there is no ego, pride or arrogance when one is successful. Humility is
embraced and practiced. One prods on, one still remains as hard-working and ever wanting to
learn or help others. In our view, the academic version of this is, and we have seen it when
scholars, having attained their terminal degrees or Ph.D.s, instead of continuing their individual
learning and research, they in most ways stop learning, writing and research. Sadly though, they
behave as if they have everything; what may be very disappointing are their crass behaviors and
attitude of having ‘reached’ it. And now, instead of coaching and helping others to get their
Ph.D.s, they arrogantly despise the non-scholars or run down aspiring Ph.D. candidates and
aspirants. Equally bad, they, at times, have been observed to be engaging in petty office politics,
back-stabbing and empire-carvings in their academia milieu. In this respect, the Sultan of Brunei,
in one of the University’s convocation day, delivered a titah (speech) emphasizing that he would
like to see an increase in the number of local graduates holding the positions of the senior
lecturers as well as associate professors in Brunei. The monarch added, “in light of that,
candidates for senior lecturer and associate professor must fulfil the conditions needed for
these posts, which includes being creative, relentless in their pursuit of research as well as
producing written work that is of quality” (ICC, 2009). This very clearly means that as an
academic, one should not stop learning, writing and research. One should be humble enough to
render help or assistance, daring enough to learn more, stop creating excuses and serving the
people and the nation.
Overall, leaders, or for that matter, any individual needs to be self-disciplined to continue to be
humble especially after they are successful, they must continue to be unassuming or meek
otherwise they can turn out or emerge to be proud and arrogant (Low, 2012).
If one is not self-effacing or humble and goes around with one’s ego, one may not be detached;
attachment or ego-nurturing may follow. This means that one may not listen to others, and
whatever one behaves or does things, one’s mindset is self-centered; only thinking of
him(herself), but not of others. This is, in fact, in contradictory to the purpose of being a leader
that is to serve or assist others. In this regard, a leader has to behave egoless and selfless (Low,
Service Is Like Spirituality
Gandhi took service like spirituality. To him, “God is continuously in action without resting for a
single moment. If we would serve Him or become one with Him, our activity must be as
unwearied as His.” (Gandhi, 1961: 73). In this sense, when it is linked to God or spirituality, it can
be taken that the integrity of the leader or the one who serves must be present or float out.
Indeed service then becomes something sincere, pure and from the heart. And that makes the
service very meaningful and wholesome. To serve, one should be polite and sensitive in actions
and words (Low, 2010a); one should be selfless and empathetic (Low and Ang, 2011a: 298). We
see that the value of ethics and integrity in business has become a major issue in the globalised
economy. The collapse of Enron and some of the blue chip companies in USA, including
Anderson, the leading accountancy firm in 2000, highlighted three key lessons, which the
Economist magazine in a survey gleaned. The lessons for the modern business today are, “be
honest, be focal, be prepared”. The authors would suggest or add that corporate leaders need
to have a reality check – are they humble enough? And are they service-oriented? Are they
working for their people’s interests? Or are they working for their interests? Indeed when one is
humble, one would want not for oneself and instead be more wanting to do more for others.
Indeed, leaders need to be altruistic and caring. In this regard, the Sultan of Brunei delivered a
scathing and critical review of the failures, faults and shortcomings that the government has
failed to rectify other than His Majesty. He questioned the government as such, “Do you have to
wait for my order? Can’t you think about this? Has anyone ever thought of it seriously? Is it
because you are scared to plan until I myself mention it repeatedly? Is this a right approach or is
the idea mature enough?” He felt that the kind of behavior exhibited by his government
servants seemed to him selfish and unconcern about the matter. He detested the behavior of
‘wait and see’ attitude and he considered this to be a disaster in burdening the government and
bringing misery to the people. He commented that the heads of department work ‘just like a
robot’ with no discretion, initiative or common sense. They just wait for instructions, they will
not take any steps even though they are mandated to decide, making certain considerations and
taking logical steps. (Borneo Bulletin, 2009). The Sultan would like his subjects to be humble and
responsible in what they are doing. He stressed the importance of being caring and wanting to
do more for others.
These days, service should really be embraced and practiced by our corporate and national
leaders. And here we can immediately see the relevance of Gandhi’s value of humility more so
in the contemporary world; because of the importance of self, ego, pride and arrogance, there is
much corporate greed. There is also executive greed: here it is best to quote: Kothari (2010:
Preface: iii), he highlighted that “in 2009, the insurance giant AIG (American International
Group), along with Merrill Lynch and a number of other American firms, stood for corporate
greed. Their CEOs were handing out huge bonuses for themselves as well as for their cronies,
angering the society at large. Americans were enraged by the news of executive bonuses in the
firms that were being bailed out by the government. Without the billions in government
assistance, most of these businesses would not have survived. Even though many managers of
these firms were responsible for their firms’ financial decline, they were rewarding themselves
as if they deserved high compensations for their disastrous business decisions, policies, and
actions. The financial excesses brought these executives worldwide notoriety and public
Another example of bad and in fact, harmful service to the public is the 2008 Chinese Sanlu
branded milk powder scandal case. It was one of China’s worst food safety scandals as six babies
died from kidney problems and some 860 were hospitalized. Public outcry and anger were
expressed through Information Communication Technology (ICT). This led to serious scrutiny of
the integrity of China’s top Internet firms, with strong actions taken against the culprits. Soon
after the news broke out, a Sanlu memo revealed bribing Chinese search engine Baidu to cover
up the news that surfaced online. Two men responsible for the contamination were executed
while four others, including the former head of Sanlu, were given life sentences (Ho, 2011, p. D2
cited in Low and Ang, 2011:187).
Interestingly, Gandhi also cited Bhagavad Gita which states that, “Do your allotted work, but
renounce its fruit. Be detached and work - have no desire for reward and work.” He further
explained that by detachment he meant that one must not worry whether the desired result
follows from one’s action or not, so long as one’s motive is pure, one means correct. In another
word, it means that things will come right in the end if one takes care of the means and leave
the rest to Him (God). (Burgess, 1984: 94)
Part of the Greater Sea
Similar to the spirit of Zen, one, an individual or each of us are mere waves, all, part of the
greater sea of the Absolute Reality; there is really no self or atman (or the soul as in Hinduism).
It is one in all, and all in one; and all of us is part of the main. The bamboo is useful because it is
hollow, the bowls can contain rice because they are empty. Leaders are serving and they are
helpful because they are without ego or selves; in other words, they are selfless, serving and
are, most beautiful of all – like parents, willing to make sacrifices for their children.
‘JUDGE Not Lest You Be Judged’
Gandhi also spoke of: ‘JUDGE not lest you be judged’. Its latter part asks us to beware of falling
into the same error ourselves. We should not be stuck-up or arrogant in dealing with the world.
‘Let the world say or do what it likes’ is a thought which we must not allow to enter our minds.
We are humble before the world even when we are sure we are on the right path, we do not
punish the world or judging over it. On the other hand, we suffer the world’s punishment and
bow to its judgment. This is humility or Ahimsa.
One needs not give in to haughtiness or incivility in order to stand up against the world. Jesus
faced the world and so did Buddha, and Prahlad. But they were all the very picture of humility.
The essential requisites are self-confidence and faith in God. Those who opposed the world in
their pride have collapsed at last. The power to stand alone till the end cannot be developed
without extreme humility. Without this power, a man is nothing worth. Many who pass as brave
people have never had their bravery put to the test.
In sum, Gandhi embraced and practiced the value of humility persistently as shown in Figure-1.
Mahatma Gandhi, is noted as a benevolent leader who led India’s struggle for freedom. He did
not follow the crowd who blindly accepted the given system of British colonialism for centuries.
He saw the injustice and he wanted to change. He said that he had learned through bitter
experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved “is
transformed into energy, even so an anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which
can move the world.” He believed strongly in the value of humility and applied the principles of
non-violent (Ahimsa) and non-violent action (Satyagraha) effectively in his leadership to free
India (Merton, 1996). Although an assassin’s bullet ended Mahatma Gandhi’s life prematurely in
1948, his life and thinking, like a beacon, remain a brilliant example today. His example and
teachings have helped to reshape a country while enriching the lives of millions.
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