Pride is accepted in the Bhāratīya tradition as one of the six foes of mankind, that impede the blossoming of wisdom. Wisdom may be defined as awareness of the true-self, and pride is one of its greatest undoing, because pride leads man to identify with power that is fleeting and therefore false. Here is an anecdote from Śrīmadvālmīki-Rāmāyaṇa that elaborates how pride keeps one from doing the right thing for the right reasons.
In the Raghuvamśa was born the illustrious king Bhagīratha, who had heard from his very childhood, that sixty-thousand of his ancestors had been reduced to a pile of ashes due to a curse. He had also heard that it is the waters of the heavenly Gaṅgā alone that can liberate them. Bhagīratha decided to undertake the herculean task of liberating his ancestors. He commissioned his trusted ministers to safeguard his kingdom while he undertook penance in the forest. He performed mind-boggling penance to win the grace of Lord Brahmā, who revealed to Bhagīratha that he should please Gaṅgā with his penance. He then set out to perform the most austere of penance to win the grace of Gaṅgā.
Pleased with his penance, Gaṅgā appeared before the king and asked him what he desired. He said, ‘Devī, it is by your grace that my ancestors can be redeemed from the pile of ashes they have been reduced to. Please descend upon earth and deliver my ancestors from the hell they are in.’ Gaṅgā prided herself on being the most pristine river, and a river who was worshipped by the great sages and celestials. She found it unacceptable to flow down to earth, even if it meant her presence upon earth would benefit millions of souls. She said to Bhagīratha, ‘king, I am untouched by sweat and dirt. I am worshipped by gods. If I descend upon earth, I will be sullied by the sins of mankind’. Bhagāratha responded, ‘O’ Gaṅga, it is true that you will be the waters men wash their sins off in. However, you will also be the waters that the great sages of earth will revere as Viṣṇupadodbhavā (born of the feet of Lord Viṣṇu). These great sages who are dear to Lord Viṣṇu, will take a dip in your waters, crying out the Divine Name of the Lord with ecstasy. If you desire the association of these liberated souls, please accede to descend upon earth’.
Gaṅgā agreed to descend upon earth, but warned Bhagīratha that the earth was incapable of bearing the velocity of her descent. She advised him to earn the grace of Lord Śiva, for she said, ‘he alone is capable of bearing the burden of my swift descent’. Bhagīratha did as advised and earned the blessing of Lord Śiva. The compassionate Lord agreed to break Gaṅga’s fall by bearing her upon his head as she descended. He shook loose his matted tresses and stood majestically, his face turned skyward, awaiting the waters that would liberate millions of souls.
Gaṅgā looked down from heaven at the Lord standing there, His tresses swaying in the wind, and was suddenly smitten with pride. Her heart darkened with the venom of arrogance. She mused to herself, ‘I am Gaṅgā, the heavenly river. I am of immense power and inconceivable speed. I shall descend with all my might, that Śiva too is swept away into the nether world.’ The omniscient Lord recognized the dark shadow of pride that seized the heart of Gaṅgā. A playful smile danced upon his lips as she began her ominous descent. He bound her in the unending depths of his matted locks, along with her pride, in a trice! Gaṅgā was trapped. She found herself incapable of emerging from his locks, try as she may.
The velocity of her waves were no match for the will of the Supreme. Her pride which lead her to desire establishing her power over the welfare of sixty-thousand suffering souls, was shattered. Her pride which made her believe she was the most powerful was shattered. Her pride that she was the one blessing Bhagīratha too was destroyed, when he interceded on her behalf. He pleaded with Lord Śiva that he release her from his mighty tresses so that she could liberate his ancestors. Upon the words of Bhagīratha, Lord Śiva released a portion of the heavenly river to flow through his matted locks. Rid of the venom of pride that blinded her to the opportunity of service to mankind, Gaṅga now followed Bhagīratha to fulfil her duty. Bhagīratha became a father to her in some sense, for he opened her eyes to the nobility of her calling. She became known as Bhāgīrathī, the daughter of Bhagīratha. Humility embraces her, and she shone upon the matted tresses of the compassionate Lord like a diamond.
Devī Gaṅgā is worthy of our adulations not only because she is the heavenly river who is capable of destroying all our sins with her waters, but also because she has enacted this līlā in order to teach mankind the value of humility.
तिष्ठतां तपसि पुण्यमासृजन्सम्पदोऽनुगुणयन्सुखैषिणाम्।
योगिनां परिणमन्विमुक्तये केन नास्तु विनयः सतां प्रियः॥
tiṣṭhatāṁ tapasi puṇyamāsṛjansampado’nuguṇayansukhaiṣiṇām|
yogināṁ pariṇamanvimuktaye kena nāstu vinayaḥ satāṁ priyaḥ||
To which noble soul is humility not valuable; add as it does to the merit of the austere, the riches of those seeking luxury, and to the ease of liberation of the detached.