By Makarand Paranjape
The guru is central to spiritual life. here, we present a contemplation of nine aspects of the guru’s role and the ways in which he awakens and enlightens us
The guru is not limited to his body, he has taken it in compassion for us because we believe only that we can see
1. The guru is a ‘heavy’ dude
The word ‘guru’ is used as both adjective and noun in Sanskrit. As an adjective it means weighty, heavy, long, extended, immense, formidable, great, momentous, important, arduous, difficult, excellent, venerable, best, even intense, excessive, and violent. Common meanings of the word are father, teacher, spiritual guide, head of an order, master, and so on.
The reason I consider the meaning ‘heavy’ valuable is because the guru is someone who is calm, steadfast, and unflappable. He is unmoved in adversity and prosperity, though the distress of others may evoke his compassion. Unlike the rest of us whose consciousness fluctuates, the guru’s mind is like a still flame, unwavering, clear, luminous.
Many of us have glimpses of higher consciousness now and then. What is missing is the steady abidance in the higher reality, which is the hallmark of the guru. The guru’s acts are deliberate, unhurried. While we tend to be anxious or thoughtless, the guru is established in the moment, solid as a mountain. Though he does not move much, the guru makes a lot happen around him.
We, on the other hand, are toys of fortune, which winds us up to dance or cry as it wills. A small good news drives us to ecstasy while an equally trivial misfortune is enough to make us miserable. The guru is rooted in the deeper substratum of reality. It is difficult to dislodge him from himself.
2. The guru is not a person
Because we think our being is bound by the confines of our bodies, we think that the guru is also a person. That is why we make the mistake of trying to establish a human relationship with him. But the guru is not limited to his body, even if he seems embodied just like us.
The body is in the guru rather than the guru being in the body. The guru has taken on the body out of compassion for us because we are convinced by truth only if it comes in our own likeness, in the form that we can recognise.
The guru is not a person but a function, a process, a principle. Whatever takes us closer to God, to higher consciousness, to our reality, is the guru. Since the guru is not a person, his action is limitless. It neither begins with our assumption of this body, nor will it end with its demise. The guru’s action transcends time, space, and understanding.
That the guru is not a person is indicated in the concept of the akhandagurutatva, or the undivided guru principle. Vaishnavites believe this principle to manifest in the shiksha guru or the one who teaches, the diksha guru or the one who initiates, and the chaitya guru or indwelling guru, the self.
According to the Advayataraka Upanishad, gu means darkness and ru means dispeller. The guru is neither male nor female—he is beyond gender. If we say ‘he’ it is for convenience; we may as well say ‘she’ or ‘it’. The guru is a non-person who seems to be a person. Novelist Raja Rao used the word ‘abhuman’ to describe such a person or principle.
3. The guru is God
Ramana Maharshi says that God takes the form of the guru to help the devotee in the spiritual path. When the longing for God intensifies to the point of becoming intolerable, God in compassion manifests as the guru. If anything, the guru is ‘greater’ than God—one cannot see God, but one can see one’s guru. The latter’s proximity allows one to follow, obey, or worship him, all of which leads to one’s own liberation.
Otherwise, God who is everywhere would be hard to identify. Ramakrishna said that only when rainwater passes through a drain can we collect it. It has the force of coming through one channel. The guru, likewise, is the channel which funnels the ever-present grace of God into a channel for us to receive.
Those who consider God and guru to be separate have not understood the way. The Guru Mantra says: Gurur Brahma Gurur Vishnu Gurur Devo Maheshwarah, Gurursakshat Para-Brahma Tasmai Sri Gurave Namah. (The guru is Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; I salute that Guru who is verily the transcendent Brahman.)
There are many other beautiful celebrations of the guru in our tradition, for instance, the Guru Stotra, which translates as: I bow before that Sadguru, who embodies the bliss of Brahman, who is the giver of supreme happiness, who is sheer knowledge, who is beyond the pair of opposites, who is as extensive as space, who is attained through realisations like Tat twam asi—that thou art, who is one, eternal, pure and changeless, who is the witness of all beings, who transcends all modifications, and who is devoid of the three modes of prakriti—sattva, rajas, tamas.
This glorious conception of the guru is unmatched in any other tradition outside India.
4. The guru is the self
When we worship the guru, we are actually worshipping the self. The guru is the best of what we are or can be. The guru has made the transition from the earthly to the divine. This he does by discarding his lower nature and identifying completely with the divinity within. The guru thus represents what each of us can be and are in potential.
To say that the guru is the self also means that the self is always realised. Because we don’t know it, we think that we have to move towards self-realisation. As long as the self thinks it is not realised, it needs a guru. As soon as its ignorance ends, it understands that the guru was none other than the self. The guru as self pulls us to the truth from within; the guru as the other points to the truth outside. Thus from both within and without, we are urged towards the goal. Within and without are, after all, purely relative. Actually, God, Guru, and Self are identical.
Then why are we not already ‘one’ with our higher self? There are two answers to this: one says we are but we don’t know it. To be established in this knowledge, to remove false identification, is the purpose of life.The other answer is based on the idea that we are psychic beings who evolve. This is what Sri Aurobindo and the Mother taught. The surrender of the psychic being to the Divine, under the guru’s direction, leads to inner and outer transformation.
5. The guru is one (but not all gurus are the same)
In the marketplace of gurus today, there seems to be too much of the good thing. There is almost a surfeit of godmen, saints, mahatmas, yogis, mahants, healers, avatars, jnanis. Market watchers are actually talking about brand equity, market shares, profit lines, export potential, and so on. In the West, this commodification of spirituality is an accepted fact. It is only in India that we are still suspicious when there is a price tag on truth.
The real guru is only one. That is the sadguru or the true guru. All the others are upagurus or subsidiary gurus. The One Guru may come to us in many forms, but we recognise his action despite all these disguises and masks.
The crucial question is, how to decide which guru is the right one? Who can set about listing the qualification of a genuine guru? This is not a matter of external measurement so much of inner experience. What you experience in the presence of the guru will tell you what to think of him or her.
What we experience has to be a peace that passeth understanding—a stilling of thoughts and sensations, a movement towards our own higher nature. The guru shows us what is already in us. He does not bring something from the outside or gives us anything that is alien to us. Ramana Maharshi says that anyone who asks you to achieve your own state is either Brahma (who wants to create a new world) or Yama (being anything other that yourself is akin to death), but not the guru. The guru, instead, says: “Look no further. You are already home.” Of course, continuous practice is required to realise that.
6. The guru is the hunter, not the hunted
How do I find my guru, is the question many ask. Actually, it is not just us who are looking for the guru, the guru is looking for us too. The guru stands for that knowledge that preys on egoism. Ramakrishna once likened himself to a king cobra whose venom was sure even if it wasn’t swift. The effect on the devotee was certain. A rat so bitten may die at once or go back to its hole to die. But die it must. This is the rat of the ego. Similarly, Ramana likened the guru to the tiger who has the deer by its throat; the death of the deer is certain. The guru mercilessly destroys egoism, which arises from ignorance.
The guru stalks us in the most unlikely places. We may encounter him within us as our inner voice, giving us hope and direction, telling us what to avoid and what to accept. Or he may be a stranger who suddenly tells you something about yourself.
For instance, I was once going to a meeting to commit myself to something potentially dangerous. A man came up to me and said, totally unprovoked: “Are you blind? Can’t you see where you’re going?” I silently drove on. Needless to say, I simply could not commit myself to the deal. Perhaps the guru’s warning, delivered through an unlikely courier, saved me.
To give another example, one evening, I began to kill some insects just to while away time. The table lamp had grown hot. Tiny creatures, which came near the light, would be singed to death if held down by a pin. I felt it would be wrong to take life just for the heck of it. But then I thought, if it’s really wrong, God will tell me. Suddenly, my mother walked into the room and asked sharply: “What are you doing?” Before I could answer, she left the room. I stopped my stupidity immediately, instantly realising that some force had responded to my prayer.
7. Only the guru loves you
All earthly love is tainted by expectation of some return. This love is usually self-centred. The person who is loved is seen in relation to oneself, one’s joys or sorrows. He or she is seldom regarded as an end in himself, but only in relation to our interests and ourselves.
The guru’s love, on the other hand, is impersonal, not related to his ‘needs’ but to our welfare. The guru loves us for our own benefit. This is the purest, most elevating kind of love, without a particle of selfishness in it. The guru, out of compassion for our suffering, urges us towards our own liberation. This love of our welfare for the sake of our welfare is impossible in worldly relationships.
Wherever we encounter such pure love, untarnished by expectation or return, it is nothing but a form of the guru. The guru binds us to himself through this power of love. We bask in its presence, feeling an inner transformation. No words or actions are necessary. The power of love is self-evident.
I experienced such a love the first time I visited Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. When I went to the dining hall, I felt a wave of love pouring out of the Mother’s framed photograph. I felt a surge of emotion in me, as if I was being welcomed home. I understood something that had eluded me for years despite the thousands of pages of writings I’d read on Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. The Mother’s force was love; that was her real action. This was a vast and dynamic force, stronger than words. This force was alive, still active in our world, urging us on to the golden dawn of the supramental. What I couldn’t learn from tomes of philosophy, I realised in that one instant of deep experience.
After years of such experiences, howsoever ephemeral and intermittent, one understands that they are not figments of one’s imagination but actual facts. We may forget everything else, but we cannot forget the guru’s love and compassion.
8. You may forget, but the guru does not forget you
The guru’s action is real and continues way beyond the shedding of his body. Time and space are no constraint to this action. The guru-shishya parampara or the master-disciple tradition is unbroken and never-ending. From the ‘first’ guru, Shiva himself, who took the form of Dakshinamurti, a young man of 16, to enlighten through silence the aged sages, to one’s ‘present’ guru, there is a sure and direct line of the transmission of knowledge.
Suddenly, from being one among the ‘ignorant’ masses, one discovers that one is also a part of this great tradition. From birth to birth, the guru has been watching over one’s spiritual growth, coming to one’s aid in crucial times. Manifest or unmanifest, the guru’s grace and direction have been guiding the course of our lives. Again and again we meet our guru, even though we may forget him again and again.
If it is our nature to forget, it is the guru’s to remind. Having taken responsibility of your spiritual progress, he never abandons you. He shows you how to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. You are not the body, he tells you; why have you forgotten that? You ‘borrowed’ the body. Be prepared to return it. The body isn’t yours, nor are you the body’s. You are deathless, immortal, forever free. Live that.
The shishya, understanding this, himself becomes the guru. He folds his hands in gratitude and says: “Lord, you have made me like yourself, just as the touchstone turns base metal to gold. But you have done more than that because you’ve turned base metal not just into gold, but into a touchstone.”
In gratitude, the shishya worships the guru as the liberator, slayer of ignorance, the luminous, inspiring being, who is above all others. The guru ever raises his hand and says: “My Father blesses you.” His gaze of compassion rests on your face, boring into your consciousness, stilling the waves of thought. From deep within, the ties of karma are loosened. The hold of desire weakens. The mantra given by the guru begins the process of inner cleansing. The cleansed mind and senses begin to perceive the reality. The mere thought of the guru elevates. He has the power to grant shaktipat, the awakening of the inner being. We begin to glimpse the perfection which is already within each of us.
9. Guru and his grace are inseparable
Who is the author of this essay? Who made it possible? How did these ideas come to me? For whom was it written? Which random reader will read its full import? All these questions may have all kinds of plausible and logical answers. But there is a mystery to the workings of grace. The action is subtle, often internal. We may not gauge it by its external results.
Thinking of the guru is grace, remembering the guru is grace, writing about the guru is grace—none of this would be possible without that grace which is identical with the guru. Whatever strengthens our faith, shows us our own higher nature, prompts us to live in higher consciousness is grace. Grace happens because the guru wants to reinforce our inner aspirations. Little acts of grace remind us that he has not forgotten or abandoned us. Bigger acts of grace occur when we remember who we really are and live as that. But the biggest act of grace is when the guru draws us within and leaves us no other support or comfort but himself.
Even those who say that no guru is necessary are able to say so only because of the grace of the guru. The very act of denial becomes an act of affirmation. Like a great chess master, the guru moves the pieces over the chequered board of life. Like a tuner, he finetunes our receivers so that the signals suddenly become clear. With a gentle push, he sets our rocking chair in motion. Ultimately, all attempts to describe the greatness of the guru must be acknowledged to fail. No matter how bright your candle is, it loses its light in the brilliance of the sun.
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