Great Men and Greatness

In educated society today, we are exposed to this concept of 'Great Men'. These Giants, these Tall men are said to rewrite the history of the world with their magnificent ideas and actions.

From a very young age, we are advised to read their biographies, their books etc. We are advised to emulate them and strive to develop a character like them. We are encouraged to be just like them.


The realization that I had never possessed the inclination to do all of the above, came to me a few days ago.

And unfortunately, after the completion of about half my life span.


I was visiting a friend of mine, a well known intellectual and social worker, and I saw stacks and stacks of books in his library written about, or by these very great men. Evidently, he had read them all and waxed eloquent about them. They were his beacon of light, he said, his role models in life. He lamented that most of the literate world did not walk in their footsteps and imitate their lives.


I shifted nervously in my chair and from my expression, he perceived that I did not share the intensity of his lamentations nor his adoration for the Great Ones. My confession to the same confirmed his worst fears. With a bemused shake of the head, and a condescending tone, he regretted that I had almost squandered away my life, and to an extent, even neglected my duty. He wondered how as an educated, intelligent man, I had remained 'Deficient' in this area.


This left me a little unsettled and I began to seriously ponder on his suggestion.

Had I really missed the bus?


Actually, I had not admitted it to my friend, but since childhood I had done a bit of reading about many of the Great Men and their achievements. And that age, those achievements seem even more gigantic and impressive. But despite that, I had not idolized them like my friend had.

I wondered why…


I knew very well that I did not envy these Men. Even now, I am convinced that I am nowhere in the same league as them and I haven’t achieved an iota of what they have. I had not disregarded them out of laziness, thinking that it was too much work to be like them.

I felt that perhaps there were some features about them, a common issue perhaps, that had not struck the right chord in me right from my early years. I had to find out what and why...


To answer the above questions, I realized that I must do two things:

1. Greatness stems from virtues and deeds. I must understand what made these people great.

2. I must investigate why these Great Men had never endeared themselves to me.


So I decided to read some more about the Great Men. I would also try and remember what I had learnt about them since childhood.


But I had to be careful in my analysis. I had to be scrupulously unbiased and give due credit to those Great Men where necessary, lest my research deteriorate into a fault-finding exercise.

I had to ensure that I did not consider or project myself as one to judge and belittle those Great Men. And worse, do this to justify or cloak my lack of inclination to be like them.

But having said that, I also felt that I should be equally unbiased in examining where they went wrong or had the advantage of other unrelated benefits that contributed to their greatness.


I started with the most basic of research books; The Oxford Dictionary. I found that it describes the term 'great man' as a 'person who is of ability, quality, or eminence considerably above average.'

Eminence would logically result from ability and quality, so I began to focus on Ability and Quality, in thought and action.


There are many rich and famous people in the world today, and they too are considered great.

But I eliminated Wealth as a genuine reason for greatness simply because it is not. A close study of almost all the rich and famous reveals that their castles of wealth are built on the foundation of greed, dishonesty, exploitation, manipulation and corruption.

In today's world, I guess, there cannot be fire without smoke. And while the brilliance of the fire is there for all to see and admire, the smoke and stink thereof is sometimes not that evident.


Today's Politicians...the less said, the better...


So I began with the Great Men, whose greatness was due to display of talent like in Artists, inventions or discoveries like in the case of Scientists, or the success of Gurus in Commerce and Management. True, one can learn dedication, determination and the value of hard work from them and that must be appreciated.


The next virtue that makes a man great, I discovered, was Social Service. Providing basic necessities like food, clothing, shelter, medical aid and education to the needy has propelled many of these men to Greatness. Undoubtedly, this is an extremely noble activity, and unparalleled in the satisfaction derived thereof.


Thoughts and ideas have also made men Great. These intellectuals' lofty ideas on social reform, in the form of writings and speeches have changed the thought processes of entire populations, ignited and fuelled revolutions, and changed the course of history for entire nations, if not the world. Many of these men have been men of action, tirelessly struggling against social injustices and evils, and draconian traditions and practices.



However, research into the lives of these Great Men also threw up certain irrefutable issues that are of concern and cannot be neglected.



On careful study of their lives, one may realize that all Great Men came across or were put in significant situations at certain times of their lives, where they had an opportunity, or sometimes even forced to choose a particular mode of action that then set off a cascade of events leading them to greatness.

A lot of other men come across similar situations, but not everyone has the resources, or more importantly, the frame of mind or motivation to act in that particular way.


True, that person's own initiative does count, but would it then be fair to give complete credit only to that Great Man for acting in that Great way?

What if he did not have the frame of mind required to act in that way or the resources to do so? What if he was not put into that situation at all?

Should we then not consider the unseen role of Destiny, a Divine mechanism at work, which subtly, but firmly guided that Great Man on the path to his Greatness?


Similarly, in the case of Scientists, Artists etc, I realized that many of these people have come across their 'inventions', 'creations' and methodology by sheer accident or by inspiration which they are themselves unable to explain.

I also realized that very few of them give due credit to that 'X' factor.




Many of these Great Men were in the strictest sense, not ideal human beings at all. They too have succumbed to, or intentionally indulged in greed, lust, anger, dishonesty and many other vices that they themselves have warned us about.


Similarly, there are Great Men who have compromised on one virtue or duty, in order to excel in another and attain Greatness. For example, one may have been a brave leader and freedom fighter, but was addicted to substance abuse and was not morally sound.


I have seen that some of them have transformed the lives of thousands of others, while doing gross injustice towards their near and dear ones. I know of Great Men who have neglected, exploited and sacrificed the futures, dreams and expectations of their families, in their race to acquire their laurels of greatness.

And nowhere on those golden laurels are inscribed, the names of those family members who loved, helped and supported those Great Men, and forfeited their own happiness and lives so that those Men could wear those laurels. Those unsung heroes who never received a shred of credit or gratitude from that Great Man, nor the public limelight for the same.


Are the losses suffered by these families to be considered as wholly acceptable, necessary sacrifice at the altar of the Great Work done by the Great Man? Why should one group of people suffer, just to remedy the suffering of another?

I just cannot reconcile myself to that.


However, these vices are swept under the carpet. They are not openly discussed or made public, because the Great Men’s great work overshadows their vices.

And more importantly, because it is politically incorrect to do so.




Hero-worshipping is inherent in us Indians. We worship Men as Gods and demigods when they are not.

And it is often the case that a Great Man has been worshipped as a whole, not just for the Great work or act that he did. It may be entirely possible that he did other things that were not so praiseworthy, indeed worthy of criticism, but to say so openly would be sacrilegious.


Also, very often his greatness is blown entirely out of proportion by his followers and admirers to magnify his image.


Some Great Men are touted as the very personification of certain virtues. Society will say, Mr. So-and-So was the very epitome of selflessness and hard work!

But I ask, why should this Mr. So-and-So be any greater than say, a poor teacher in some rural school, who is virtuous and struggles all his life, equally selflessly, to provide for his parents, possibly other dependent relatives, is an ideal son, husband and father, devoted to God, and also diligently tries his level best to educate and inculcate values in his pupils? This teacher has fulfilled all his duties in this world with aplomb, far better than the Great Man!

Only, he does not earn his place in the annals of history as a Great Man.


Hasn’t the teacher struggled to the same extent, and with the same intensity as the Great Man? Does this teacher become less great because in his situation, he is able to only make a difference to a few people, and the Great Man, not having the disadvantages that the teacher has, does the same thing and makes a difference to a larger segment of the population?


In short, Great Men are not worthy of the demigod like status accorded to them.




Not all Great Men were successful in their projects, partially, or completely. Indeed, some of them have initiated plans/ actions that have caused more harm than good.

I used to believe that Gandhiji was a super colossal success until I came across a book by one Mr. S.S. Gill that clearly indicates how the venerated Father had failed in some of his major plans.


I have read a number of self-help books and treatises on Life and Philosophy, written by some of the world’s most celebrated 'Thinkers' and philosophers.

Unfortunately, apart from offering intellectual titillation and cosmetic solutions to Life's problems, they have left me dissatisfied in some way or the other. There is always a subtle, but niggling sense of incompleteness in their ideology.




Regarding struggle for social upliftment and social service, one cannot but realize that all the social service, change and reform performed until now has been temporary, lasting at best, a 100, 500 or perhaps, even a thousand years. Also, the permanent solution to one kind of problem has coincided with the emergence of another one.

For example, caste as a means of discrimination in our country may get eradicated over the next few decades, but will be replaced by religion and financial status.

A person who labors to satiate the hunger of a particular population can only do so for a few years, decades at the most, before running out of resources and support.


One might argue that these stalwarts who struggled to do the above, at least tried to make a difference, and must be given due respect for the same.

I am wholly in agreement with that. It is the duty of everyone to work for solutions to the various problems faced by society today, especially the have-nots. Hats off to those Great Men and their efforts, and it would be wonderful if I could do even half as much.


But my point remains valid and unchanged...  

No one has come up with a permanent solution to all the recurring problems of the world.


I know, no human being can achieve the above. But, has no Great Man tried to look at the issue of Life’s Problems itself as a whole, from a different angle, and tried to seek a permanent solution for the same?




I have yet to see a Great Man, who has done a lot for the victims of hunger, poverty, disease etc, but who himself is not a victim of ego. The more the achievement, the more the ego.

Many a time, these people inadvertently drop their holier-than-thou facade and reveal to us that they are extremely puffed-up about their achievements, dominating, arrogant, self-centered and praise-hungry. They often believe that their way is the only, right way and are averse to accept suggestions and criticism.

Some even strive as a result of low self-esteem, constantly trying to convince themselves of their own worth.


For me, ego is a big put-off. There is a saying in a South Indian language, that sometimes a cow gives a huge bucket of rich, mouth-watering, nourishing milk and at the end, passes stool into it.

When I see a grand display of yeoman social service by an individual, and then realize that the same individual is also an egotistic megalomaniac, I'm reminded of that South Indian saying.

Ego and greatness just don't mix.


In my book, Humility is the first and most important pre-requisite for a man to be known as Great. An inflated ego negates all the good work a man has done. And I do not agree with some people's opinion that since that Great Man has done so much good work, he has the 'right' to be proud about it.



At the conclusion of my exercise, I realized the bitter truth that in my opinion, although the Great Men fit the definition of my trusty Oxford Dictionary, they also fell short in one or many ways. They did not warrant my devotion and emulation of their lives.

In other words, I felt that they are not so great after all.


I realize that the above analysis may sound offensive and audacious, heretical even. Who am I, an inconspicuous nobody, who dares to talk like this about those famous personalities?!

I confess that I too felt a pang of guilt on realizing that I felt that way.


One might also accuse me of being too harsh in judging the Great Men, because they too are human beings and are prone to mistakes and failures.

I plead guilty on that count too.


Analysis and interpretation always depends upon one's knowledge and paradigms. So perhaps I have read the whole issue incorrectly, as per my knowledge and paradigms. But then again, isn't there a single grain of truth in the above analysis?


The question was of making these Men my ideals, to appreciate their greatness, and model my life on theirs, because they are considered by Society to be Great. If I found that there are significant negative issues like the above staring at me in the face, should I just ignore them like everyone else in Society and jump onto the band-wagon of blind hero-worship?

After all, it's a question of my life, or what's left of it...


One may argue, that then I should only imbibe the good things from them and their lives, and ignore the undesirable elements.


Fine, but can't I then find a Great Man who lived by a philosophy that overcomes all the above shortcomings?

A Man, a Means of Living and a Philosophy that is faultless, perfect in every way?

Am I to be condemned for setting the benchmark that high for the definition of Greatness?


I could almost picture everyone screaming at me, 'Then take your wretched benchmarks and overexpectations, and retire to an uninhabited cave for the rest of your life, for you will not find a single human being who can satisfy your criteria!!'


I felt morose and unhappy that in addition to not having the inclination to read about and be like those great men, I could not even appreciate their greatness.

I racked my brains and tried to analyze why I felt that way.


Then enlightenment dawned upon me and I understood where the 'pathology' lay.


The ‘problem’ was that I was exposed to the Bhagavad Gita and God at an early age. So I came to understand Greatness from a different point of view altogether.


I learnt that our duty, work, social service...anything that we think or do, if performed sincerely for the satisfaction of Lord Krishna, without expectation of the result, is perfect in every way, without any faults.


In other words, if a man’s words and deeds fit the above criteria, all the faults I had found in the lives and work of the non-devotee Great Men would disappear…

Yes! Everything then fell into place. I realized that all the non-devotee 'Great Men' had all those inadequacies, because their Thoughts and Actions were not intended to be as a service to Krishna.


Thus, the truly Great Man, also known as the Devotee of Lord Krishna, by doing any work as per the Bhagavad Gita would be guided and inspired by Krishna. Being His Devotee, he would naturally recognize the fact and give the credit to Krishna.


Being Krishna's Devotee, the Devotee would perform his work sincerely, honestly and to the best of his ability, without compromising the quality of work.


When the Devotee does his work without expectation of any result, there is no question of partial success or failure, because Krishna has Himself ensured the result of that work and is satisfied with it. This implies that the project was a success anyway.

Again, any successful turnout of the project, will be attributed to the Grace of Lord Krishna by the Devotee. So there is no question of false pride and ego.


Similarly, his family who helps and supports the Devotee in his devotional work will also earn the gratitude and credit from that humble Devotee, and a special place in the heart of Krishna, because that work was done as a service to Him. So there is no question of injustice towards them.


A Devotee always strives for the upliftment of the needy, sick and downtrodden. So he will do all the social work that a materialistic social worker does, but with all the attributes and advantages as listed above.

Similarly, any talent, genius or virtue that is 'inborn' and developed in a Devotee, will be accepted as a gift from Krishna and used for his Service.


A Devotee will not want to be subjected to the blind hero-worshipping characteristic of materialistic great men. A Devotee’s followers and admirers may worship him for his Devotion to Krishna however, because by serving him, they too will be blessed by Krishna. But the Devotee will accept that worship on behalf of Lord Krishna and offer it in turn to Him.


The Devotee lives his life by imbibing all the fabulous virtues detailed by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, so he is untouched by vice. Even if he falters, because he is making a sincere effort in that direction, Krishna is satisfied by it, and even declares the Devotee worthy, despite his mistakes. Thus, a Devotee's personal life is perfect.


A Devotee will think, analyze, discuss and preach philosophy and ideologies concerning Life and its Goals that will be both intellectually stimulating and faultless, because they are derived from the Vedas. After all, a successful formula that has worked for billions of years (and originating from God Himself!) cannot be faulty.


It can only be a Devotee, whose Ideas and Service will seek not just quick-fix and temporary solutions to the recurring problems of the world, but the permanent solution to the larger problem, escape from the material existence itself.

Which will solve all of Life’s Problems as a whole, once and for all.



The above analysis brought forth the following realizations.


I'm sorry, but I cannot keep on the same pedestal, people who are considered by Society to be 'Great' and the True Devotees of the Lord.

The Devotees occupy a much more exalted place than the former.


I feel that all these men considered by Society as 'Great Men', should be conferred the more humble title 'semi-great' men, because while they did what they can to improve the world, it was in the wrong spirit.


I am not a hardliner, so I would not completely remove the examples of semi-great men from the sphere of my life.

After all, they did try their best to improve the world in their own way, unlike many others who live completely selfish lives for their own material sense enjoyment.


My policy would be to give a lesser priority to these semi-great men. One can learn from their lives, experiences and ideas, a number of things that can be of practical importance. But while being grateful to them for the same, one need not hero-worship them.

Indeed, one can also learn from their lives, a number of things that should NOT be done.

And I would prefer to stay away from their philosophy and ideology, which in my opinion is 'deficient' in itself.


Then is it time for Society to redefine the criteria for Greatness?

In my opinion, yes, but I also know that unfortunately, it will not happen. In this Age of Illusion, deluded people will find their false heroes, worship their false gods.


So coming back to my alleged 'Deficiency', after all this analysis, I am relieved that I may be deficient in a million other ways, but by merely not trying to be like the Non-Devotee semi-great men, I am not faltering in my duty at all...


In conclusion, I would prefer to dedicate a greater proportion of the limited time that I have on this Earth, to reading and trying to learn from the lives and Teachings of the genuinely Great Men (and Women), the Devotees.

And I would allot a considerably lesser amount of time to reading about and applauding those who in fact, I'm increasingly beginning to feel, 'missed the bus'...







Non-devotees may try to make a case against Devotees (Sannyasis/ Brahmacharis) who they will allege, also leave their families and their obligations to pursue their work. They will say that in this matter,  Devotees are not much different from non-devotee great men.


There is an explanation for this, but to be able to understand any explanation, the person who gives the explanation and the person who receives it must agree on certain concepts.


Unfortunately, the concept of the Bhakti and Self-Realization being the duty and supreme goal of any human being is not something that is acceptable to people in general, and atheists in particular. In fact, spiritual advancement is far down on the list of goals of the common man. He is like one who only knows about the existence of silver but not of gold, and therefore spends his life obsessing about the former without realizing the superiority of the latter.


So only if a non-devotee agrees to the above concept, or at least agrees to see this issue from a Devotee’s point of view, will he then be able to understand the following explanation.


There are vast differences between the ‘renunciation’ of the materialistic great man and that of a Devotee.


First off, unlike a non-devotee great man who relinquishes his family obligations as per his own whim and fancy, an aspiring Devotee especially a Grahasta (a married householder) will never take a decision or be asked by his Guru to suddenly leave his family duties and take sannyasa. The Bhagavad Gita also criticizes anyone trying to do that, and recommends that a householder continue his spiritual advancement within his own surroundings as a Grahasta. A Krishna conscious Grahasta will be blessed with the same spiritual benefits as a Sannyasi.


A non-devotee great man claims to forgo his familial obligations for doing selfless work. But selfless work devoid of Devotion is an oxymoron. It is always tinged with some form of material contamination, like pride, expectation of fame and recognition etc.


Some people claim that there exists a grey area, a type of selfless work done purely for its own sake without expectation, but not for the sake of God or oneself. But I wonder how many people can strictly dissociate motivation (‘for whom and why am I doing this’) from work, and for how long, without either leaning towards doing it for oneself, or dedicating it to God. For action begins with intent or motivation. And intent or motivation would either involve doing it as an offering to God, or for personal gain.


Often, the materialistic Great Man conveniently gives up his familial obligations while maintaining his personal interests, hobbies, activities and other indulgences.

A Devotee gives up all his personal indulgences and dedicates his entire life to Krishna. He only indulges in activities that are of Krishna conscious value without any material expectation, because he is doing it as a loving service to Krishna, for His satisfaction.


According to the Bhagavad Gita, a Devotee has taken up the most important duty in the world; the practice and preaching of Bhakti. So he is relieved of all his other worldly duties. In case of a Devotee, the Supreme Lord of Creation, Lord Krishna, Himself undertakes the responsibilities of the Devotee’s family and its well-being; Material and Spiritual. What better deal could one wish for his family?


A materialistic Great Man may at the most, score brownie points only for himself i.e. rebirth in a more materialistically enjoyable world, but a Devotee secures the permanent release from the painful cycle of birth and death for a number of his preceding and successive generations!


Regarding Saints like Sant Meerabai, who gave up their family obligations even when they were still Grahastas, one must understand their true identity.


These Persons belong to a different class altogether and non-devotee great men cannot compare themselves with them in any way or imitate them for many reasons.


These Saints take birth, live and die for Krishna. In fact, many of them are said to take birth at the behest of Krishna to reestablish and propagate Religion and Bhakti. These people come into the world once in a century or so and they inspire Bhakti in their contemporaries and numerous future generations.


From a very young age itself, they exhibit signs of disinterest in material matters. Sooner or later, they are irrepressibly drawn to Krishna and leave everything for His sake.


It is said that when they hear the Call of the Divine, all their material attachments disintegrate and fall away, and they are swept away by the overpowering, glorious, flood of Devotional ecstasy, much like a raging river that easily snaps the strong chains that moor a boat and carries it out to sea.


Possessed by the overwhelming, restless desire for their Lord, they simultaneously long for His Company and yet are never apart from Him. There onwards, their every thought, deed, speech...their every breath is embedded with the fragrance of His Name.


Once enveloped in their Love and longing for Krishna, they have no material desires and in fact even neglect their basic necessities; hunger, sleep, health etc in order to serve and practice their devotion to Krishna. Their only desire is Krishna-Bhakti, for themselves, and for the whole world.


Truly, they belong only to Krishna; not to their friends, not to their families, not even to themselves! They lose their identity as a mother, father, son etc of someone and attain their true identity as a part of Krishna. One who loves equally, every human being, animal, bird and insect as a fellow jiva atma. His familial obligations are replaced by his obligation towards every living being, to free them and take them back to His Abode.


I do feel that at some point of time in their lives, their family members realize this fact and come to terms with these Saints’ lack of attachment and attention towards them.

And if they don’t, they nevertheless get the benefit of being related to these Saints in this life and attain the Supreme Goal without having to take the necessary effort!

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  • A person that fulfills all the criterias for being a great man , an epitome of perfection, who fits the the idealistic view of greatness is "SRILA PRABHUPAD"  all glories to to srila prahupad....

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