God is the greatest, but it is not easy to live in the presence of greatness. When we encounter greatness, there are many different types of responses we can have. Those responses to greatness are also our responses to God. This post discusses how our acceptance of greatness, ability to distinguish the great from the not-so-great, and our readiness to serve the greatness, decide our acceptance of God.
Table of Contents
Four Responses to Greatness
The lowest class of people feel shame in the presence of greatness, which makes them angry due to the perceived humiliation, and they want to attack the greatness to prove that they are also great. The feeling of shame in the presence of greatness is caused by one’s realization of their inadequacy. However, it is projected outwardly as the humiliation caused by the greatness because the person is unable to accept their inadequacy and considers greatness as humiliating. It creates anger, which manifests into a denial of greatness, an attack on greatness, due to the inner need to prove oneself great against the true greatness. This is the disease of material existence. It is summarized as “envy” but it is caused by shame. This is called māyā, or “I am not (great)”. It is the material world.
Then, a slightly higher class of people withdraw into themselves in the presence of greatness. They are unable to acknowledge greatness, and they cannot praise that greatness. But they also do not attack it. Since there is no shame, therefore, they are liberated from the material world. But since they cannot accept greatness, therefore, they withdraw inward and isolate themselves from greatness. The inability to accept greatness is also called envy. But since there is no attack on greatness, and no attempt to prove oneself great, hence it is better than the material condition. This is called Brahman.
Then, an even higher class of people become excited upon seeing greatness. They see big prospects arising out of that greatness, and they praise the greatness and serve that greatness. However, within that expression of praise and service is the idea that I am great enough to be with greatness. Since there is a realization that I am not the greatest, therefore, there is a sense in which “I am not great”. And yet, it is compensated by the idea that I am great enough, such that I don’t have to stay away from greatness, that I’m qualified to serve the greatness. Hence, this is also called māyā or that “I am not great”, but it is conditioned by “I am not totally unqualified” and that I’m entitled to serve the greatness. The greatness invigorates them, and hence they are attracted to the greatness. This is Vaikuṇtha.
Finally, an even higher class of people become shy upon seeing greatness. There is no shame, and there is no withdrawal. There is excitement, but there is also a feeling that I’m not qualified to be in the presence of greatness, that I don’t deserve to even serve the greatness. Thus, an inner contradiction between excitement and shyness is created, which sometimes hides the excitement and sometimes reveals it. Since there is a realization that I am not even great enough to live in the presence of greatness or serve the greatness, therefore, this is also a type of māyā. This is also called yoga-māyā, but it is a different kind of yoga-māyā than the one in which one feels entitled and capable of serving greatness. There is no shame, there is no withdrawal, and the excitement is not imbued with entitlement and the sense of qualification to be in the presence of greatness. This is Goloka.
From Shame to Shyness
The journey from the lowest level of material existence to the highest level of spiritual existence is the journey from shame to shyness. It is a very long journey because one has to first progress from shame to withdrawal, then from withdrawal to entitled excitement, and then from that entitled excitement to shyness where one feels no entitlement. This state of shyness is called humility in Vaishnava theology. Under this humility, a devotee feels totally unqualified and considers himself lower than the blade of grass. However, this humility is not shame, which leads people to deny greatness or attack it.
A simple measure of progress in spiritual life is how a person reacts to something good or great. If they feel shame, perceive humiliation, become angry at greatness, try to deny that something is good or great, and attack that greatness to prove that they are also great, then it means that they are at the lowest level of material existence. If they become silent, withdraw from the greatness, then they are better. If they become excited upon seeing something good or great and consider themselves qualified and entitled to associate with that greatness, then that is even better because they will try to serve the greatness instead of attacking or withdrawing. And if they feel that they are not qualified to serve the greatness, but they are still excited to serve, and they have no shame, withdrawal, entitlement, or sense of qualification, then that is the greatest because such type of service is performed humbly.
Transcendence and Immanence
The perfect greatness transcends all less-than-perfect greatness. Hence God is transcendent. However, since everything has some great qualities of God, therefore, greatness is also in everything in a partial form. The greatness of God is in everything, but it is covered up, such that only parts of it are visible. This covering of greatness is also māyā, which means by covering God, it produces less than great things. But since beneath that covering is God, therefore, God is said to be immanent in everything, although covered by māyā. This hidden-by-māyā- and-yet-immanent form of greatness is called avyakta-mūrtī or an invisible form in everything, and it is sometimes described as Paramātma, who exists even in atoms. Thus, there is God in everything, because everything has some qualities of greatness within it. However, even though there is God within everything, those things are not God, because God is covered.
Since this immanent form of God is hidden, therefore, it takes a lot of effort to see what is truly great in everything. Lord Krishna states in the Bhagavad-Gita that I’m the taste of water, the light of the sun and the moon, and the prowess in great men. There are hence some things in which greatness is visible much more than in other things. In principle, we can say that “this is a great house” or “that is a great country” because there is indeed greatness in everything. But it is harder to perceive it. Indeed, we might often consider not-so-great things as great. For example, many people think that the modern materialistic civilization is great, even though it is lacking in most qualities of true greatness.
Six Criteria for Greatness
The natural problem in perceiving greatness is to distinguish it from the not-so-great. The general principle of this assessment is to see if something has more qualities of God. There are six such qualities called truth, beauty, power, pervasiveness, usefulness, and self-justification. For example, a book on fiction may be beautiful, but it is not the greatest because it is not true. Conversely, a book that is truthful, but still not beautifully composed, is greater than a beautiful book of fiction. Then, a book that is both truthful, and composed beautifully, is greater than the book of just truth. Similarly, a book that is truthful and beautiful but doesn’t prescribe a method to create more truth and beauty is less great.
Then, the general principle of greatness is also that when something approaches perfect truth, it also acquires the other qualities of beauty, self-justification, pervasiveness, power, usefulness, etc. Thus, we can say that perfect truth is true pervasively, is most useful, is most powerful, most beautiful, and self-justified. However, everything useful, powerful, beautiful, is not truthful. Factually, all such things are also not perfectly beautiful, most powerful, or most useful. They are not certainly completely self-justified. And they are certainly not pervasively true. But to the extent that they have some beauty, limited applicability, usefulness, power, justification, we cannot say that they are not at all great.
Material vs. Spiritual
Based on the six qualities of greatness, we can distinguish between material and spiritual. Matter is defined by that which involves tradeoffs between the six qualities of greatness. You get one quality, and you cannot get the other qualities. Thus, in the material world, truth is often ugly, and beauty is often deceitful. These tradeoffs are called duality or the separation between the six qualities. Conversely, the spirit is defined by the integration of the six qualities or non-duality. This means that truth is also beautiful, and beauty is also the truth. Both duality and non-duality are progressive or hierarchical.
The hierarchy in matter means that the six qualities separate from each other progressively, such that each thing is defined by the absence of other things. Thus, a dog in the material world is not a cow, a tree is not an ocean, a rich person is not poor, etc. The hierarchy in spirit means that every quality is present in everything but to varying extents, such that you can never say that an apple is not a mango, and yet, because the apple property is present dominantly hence you can say that it is an apple.
The simple difference between matter and spirit is that an assertion like “this is an apple” implies a negation of “this is not a mango” in matter. But in spirit, “this is an apple” is just an assertion about what is dominantly present, and it does not imply “this is not a mango”. The mango property, however, will not be manifest equally in all apples; some apples can also taste more like mango, others less so. The apple that can taste more like mango is more integrated, but even other apples are not not-mango.
This is extremely important because there are certain things in the material world where the six qualities of God are present to a far greater extent. These include the Vedic scriptures, the deity of the Lord, the names of the Lord, the mantras chanted in His glory, the rituals and sacrifices performed for His worship, and the food eaten by the Lord. All these things become spiritual by the same criteria that the spiritual is distinguished from the material—all the six qualities are present but to varying extents.
Assessing Greatness in Things
By assessing the presence of these six qualities, we can distinguish greatness from the not-so-great. This is an objective analysis to decide if something is good, better, best. It creates a hierarchy of truths in which the highest truth is the greatest, below it is a truth that is great but not the greatest, and so on, until we come down to things that have almost completely lost all their greatness, which means there is very little truth, beauty, pervasiveness, self-justification, power, and usefulness. This hierarchy is like an inverted tree in which the root is the greatest and the leaves are the least great relative to the root.
If we can perform this objective analysis, then we can objectively state that something is greater than other things. Whatever is not so great can be criticized because it has lesser qualities of God, relative to something that has more qualities of God. This criticism is not arrogance, because there is an objective definition of greatness, which is perfectly embodied in God, and less perfectly in other things. Since greatness can be assessed objectively, therefore, criticism of the not-so-great is also objective.
People who don’t understand this objective standard of greatness as it appears in this world, and try to relativize greatness. They say: You think it is great, but I think something else is great. That is because they don’t have a definition of the word “great”. Most time, they have limited ideas of greatness, and they might often ignore the six qualities of greatness as they exist in God. For example, someone can say that a theory of nature that has limited applicability but it is still useful in some contexts is also great. Thereby, we don’t need to see a pervasively true truth, because there can be many narrowly true truths. They don’t realize that if such a criterion is applied, then in the limiting case, it follows that each theory may only describe one thing, and it would be a theory of just that thing as it is not pervasively true. We surely cannot accept such ideas of truths as “great truths”, although they are non-great truths.
The Four Responses Revisited
Relativization of greatness is ignorance of the nature of God. Most people do that to rationalize their own greatness. They know that they don’t have all the great qualities, but they cannot accept perfect greatness. So, they try to lower the bar of greatness to be able to cross that low bar. This is especially the case for a person who feels shame and humiliation and tries to attack greatness to prove their greatness. They think that if we can criticize greatness, then they have become superior to it. That overcomes their feelings of shame, guilt, and perceived humiliation in the face of greatness.
Then, as we have discussed above, there are people who don’t acknowledge the greatness in great things, but they don’t attack or criticize that greatness either. They instead withdraw from the situation. Then some people feel excited about true greatness and consider themselves entitled and qualified to associate with the greatness and serve it. Finally, there are those who feel shy to approach that greatness, but are also excited to serve it. The combination of that excitement and shyness becomes the perfection of life.
Objectivity and Subjectivity
Since there are many objectively distinguishable levels of greatness, therefore, God is the standard by which to measure greatness. Just like length is measured by the standard called “meter”, similarly, God is the perfect standard for greatness. Since nobody can attain that perfect standard of greatness, therefore, nobody can equal God. And yet, based on that standard we can objectively assess the level of greatness and decide if something is superior or inferior. Then, based on a person’s attitude toward that objectively superior or inferior level of greatness—i.e., shame, withdrawal, excitement, or shyness—we can judge those persons objectively. Thereby, everything is objective and not subjective or relative.
The subjectivity is in our choices, namely, that we can aspire for greater or lesser greatness, we can feel satisfied or dissatisfied with a certain level of greatness, and we can acknowledge our true state of greatness or pretend to be in a better or worse state of greatness. The person who aspires for greater perfection naturally rejects lesser perfection. This is their choice. The person who doesn’t aspire for greater perfection can say: I’m satisfied by my level of perfection. But there is no point in criticizing the person who is aspiring for greater perfection. That criticism is a sign of fear, shame, and envy.
Manifestations of God’s Envy
When we reject an embodiment of greatness as not-so-great, then we are rejecting the definition of greatness—God—and creating our own definition of greatness. The fact that we think that we can become the arbiters of the definitions of greatness, and reject true greatness, is envy of God. We don’t necessarily have to reject God’s deity, or scriptures, or mantras to be envious. We can be envious in millions of other ways by rejecting the definition of greatness and creating our own definition.
Everything is great only in a partial measure relative to God. But since it can be greater than other things, therefore, those who want to honor God, honor that greatness to the extent that it approaches God’s greatness. If we cannot honor true greatness, then we can never live in the presence of the greatest. God’s greatness will make us insecure, fearful, and shameful of our inadequacies, which will lead to criticism and attacks, and the attempt to prove one’s greatness in comparison. The soul falls into the material world due to its inability to live happily in the presence of immense greatness.
Seeing God in the World
People think that they want to go to God’s kingdom, see God, or live in God’s presence. But they don’t know that God is greatness. If we cannot see greatness, acknowledge when something is greater, honor the greater thing, and serve that greatness to advance it, then we are not aspiring for God’s kingdom, possess the ability to see God, or even the desire to live in God’s presence. If we feel envious of ordinary people because they have some limited greatness, then we can imagine how envious we will be of God’s greatness. If limited greatness in ordinary people triggers a sense of shame, insecurity, fear, and anger, then we can imagine what it will do to us when we meet the greatest. Therefore, there is a long way to go before we meet God, and that way is long simply because of our attitude toward greatness.
People often say that they are trying to see God, but they cannot see Him. That is because they don’t have the eyes to perceive greatness. God approaches us in the form of perfect knowledge, which is beautiful, pervasively true, self-justified, always useful, and extremely powerful. But we reject that knowledge, and thereby we reject God. Instead, we take refuge in not-so-great, which is not pervasively true, not as useful, not self-justified, not beautiful, and not powerful enough. Therefore, God is everywhere, but we need the eyes to see Him. What are those eyes? They are the eyes to perceive greatness. If we can perceive the truth, beauty, power, etc. in different things, then we see God.
Developing the Eyes to See God
To develop the eyes to see God, we have to undergo shame and accept it. For example, a theory of physics that doesn’t apply to society or economy is not pervasively true; hence it is not great. A theory of biology that cannot provide perfect predictions and explanations is not useful; hence it is not great. A theory of chemistry that is too complex is not beautiful; hence it is not great. And a theory of economics that doesn’t explain how people can become happy is not self-justified; hence it is not great.
When we criticize such theories, the criticism must create shame in the listeners. But they have a choice: They can accept or reject that shame. If they accept the shame, then they can progress toward a truth that is also beautiful, powerful, always useful, pervasive, and self-justified. But if they reject the shame, then they can go on attacking the person who is criticizing their imperfection, just to prove their superiority. Therefore, shame is an essential tool to make progress in spiritual life, and nothing improves without accepting that shame.
Those who can accept the shame, make rapid progress in the spiritual life because by accepting the shame, they develop the vision to see that which is the greatest. The job of a teacher is to create shame in the student and use it to give them the vision of greatness. Of course, if the student is humble, then shame is not necessary because he or she will accept the teacher’s definition of greatness easily. But this may not always happen, especially if the person lacks the qualities of greatness, and they hear about greatness and they feel: This means I am not great! That makes them angry. Very few people can accept shame. They are so attached to false prestige that they cannot see how their good lies in accepting the shame. Some societies teach people to be proud, although not necessarily great; if you can’t make it, then fake it. Such people have a harder time accepting shame, and then becoming truly great. They always retaliate against any shame and slow their own progress.
Since the journey to greatness goes through shame, and most people cannot accept that shame, therefore, the vision of God is hard for them. They will keep wallowing in mediocrity. If someone can accept some shame, but not a lot of it, then he or she progresses slowly. Such a person may theoretically accept the changes to be made but is unable to make them in practice. He or she justifies their shortcomings in different ways and refuses to accept the shame of the shortcomings, which could propel them toward perfection. The power to see God is thus in our hands: Can we accept shame? To what extent? If we accept shame, then we will reject the not-so-great, accept what is truly great, learn to see greatness, become excited about serving that greatness, but without the desire to become great, or the entitlement to be in presence of greatness. Then that long journey is completed quickly.