By Swati Chopra October 2004 The guru is an integral part of spiritual life; his are the footprints that we follow in our search for god, truth, reality. the relationship we form with our guru is unlike any other relationship we experience in our lives. for it spans emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of our being and is often related with powerful experiences of growth and transformation God and guru stand before me, to whom should I bow first? The guru, for he showed me God The advaitin guru awakens insight within one; the bhakti guru imparts devotion to God. Ultimately, both roles converge It is unwise to expect the teacher to be perfect, so that when we come across a human flow in him, we are not heartbroken What is the guru’s role in spiritual life? He is guide, mentor, example, mirror, motivator. The fertiliser that ensures the seed will grow, the hand that tends to the tiny sapling, rooting out weeds, watering and nourishing. The guru is the gardener of our inner life—our thoughts and emotions, mind and self, form the soil that he tills. Moreover, the spiritual path has often been likened to the razor’s edge—it is treacherous, full of pitfalls and there are parts of it that are badly lit and others that are in darkness. What’s worse, we may fall into a hole and not even know it. For instance, we read in the scriptures, Aham Brahmasmi, I am Brahman, and immediately begin feeling like the king of the world, lord of the universe. At this point, we need somebody to whack us with the reality that the Aham of the phrase is not I as in Swati, but the vast interconnected consciousness of which I too am a part. The path-pointerThe guru is the finger that points to the moon. This is such an apt and telling metaphor. The moon is there for all to see, it is not a needle hidden in a haystack. Our true nature is ever-present, it is real and clear and luminous. Why then do we need a finger to point it out? Because our eyes, cockeyed and clouded over, may be fixed on the rubbish the world has just projectiled into our yard. Because our hearts, tired and burdened, cannot unite with the moon even if our eyes look at it. And because our mind is so busy with our day’s noise that it cannot comprehend the moon that is simply there, undemanding, undeclaring, unresponsive. Locked within so much pain and noise and wanting, we lose focus. The moon might as well not be there at all, as far as we are concerned. This is the state of avidya, ignorance, and the guru is the catalyst who works with the student in clearing the myopia, perfecting the angle, quietening the noise until the moon appears bright and clear to us in the darkened sky, there to be seen and experienced. Some traditions believe that the enlightenment experience can be ‘given’ by a guru’s grace. This is all too often taken literally as the guru mysteriously injecting the disciple with understanding. What it actually seems to suggest is that the guru points, and the disciple sees, as the second line of Kabir’s famous couplet illustrates: Guru Gobind dou khade, kaake lagoon paaye / Balihari guru aap ne, Gobind diyo dikhaye. (Guru and God stand together, to whom should I bow first? Undoubtedly the guru, for it is he who has shown me God). The guru catalyses the awakening, which still happens within the disciple. It cannot be an extraneously engineered event, no matter how powerful or accomplished the guru. A crucial need on the path is for an enabler and motivator. We might have decided to walk the path, even found our bearings on it, when the subconscious might begin to throw up long-repressed issues and emotions. We are frightened, we don’t know what to do. We feel as if we have failed in our quest, and that there has been no change in us at all. Things have actually gotten worse, we feel, and perhaps it is best to let this stuff be. We do not have the soles for the path, we think, and become dejected and frustrated. At this point, the companionship of a guru or a spiritual colleague might prove invaluable in pulling us out of the morass we have worked ourselves in and show us the way beyond the bend. The guru ultimately presents an example of our own potential, of the realisation we can achieve if we work hard and persevere. In having experienced the path before us, the guru is able to present us a realistic picture of what it takes to walk the way, and how best we can direct our energies. About this role of the guru in the Sufi tradition, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee says in Travelling the Path of Love: “The Sufi path has as its goal the state of union with God. For each traveller the journey to this goal is unique; it is the journey ‘of the alone to the Alone’. Yet there are also stages which all seekers pass through, trials, processes of purification and transformation. It is these stages that the Sufi masters, or sheikhs, have attempted to describe. As guides they have mapped out the path of the heart and the mystical states that are experienced along the way…. With the passion and depth of feeling that belong to lovers they outline the stages of this journey and give advice to other travellers…. They share their glimpses of the essential oneness of all life and, with simplicity, directness, and humour, describe the paradoxical nature of this mystical journey.” In traditionsThough we are using the word ‘guru’ which is Sanskrit, wisdom traditions around the world have honoured and acknowledged the centrality of the teacher in spiritual life. In ancient India, the guru was giver of knowledge, dispeller of darkness, source of wisdom. Teachers imparting secular knowledge and spiritual insights were accorded equal respect, and the method of instruction for both was rigorous training in the guru-shishya parampara (teacher-student tradition). The role was accorded added importance because of the initial prevalence of the shruti-smriti (spoken and memorised) way of learning, where you had to have a master to teach you, there were no books or written material. The lively atmosphere of spiritual enquiry that seems to have existed in ancient India along with an inclusiveness that embraced all kinds of interpretations of truth, God and reality led many aspirants to strike out on their own. The sramanas, as these individual seekers were called then, were at the cutting edge of the spiritual world. They were the bravehearts who looked for truth beyond codified belief systems, and dared challenge the Vedic-Brahmanical status quo. Revolutionaries at heart, they subverted ossified religious and social notions in each age, and called for a direct experience of reality. In different times, against different systems, the sramanas have worked and innovated, part of the spiritual underground that bubbled up in the mainstream when their teachings became widely known and followed, and otherwise remained hidden and vanished into the ground. When they passed on to others what they had discovered, traditions and systems formed. The genesis of what became Buddhism lay in the journey and discovery of one individual—Gautama the Buddha. While alive, he walked through north and east India, sharing his insights and refusing to be known as anything but a teacher and challenger of doctrines. Another old Indian tradition, that of the Jains, sources itself in a long lineage of 23 teachers called tirthankaras, builders of bridges to the supreme truth. Each tirthankara was a jina, conqueror of the self, and had enumerated ways and practices through which others could follow in his footsteps. In recent times, the Sikh faith has arisen from the collective wisdom of a lineage of gurus. Individual teachers also seeded the other two major world religions—Christianity and Islam. Jesus and Mohammed began teaching from their personal experience of the Divine, and were soon elevated to suprahuman status. Jesus as son of God and Mohammed as a divinely sent prophet came to be seen as conveyors of God’s word. Actually the convention of teacher as prophet is a very old one, and the Old Testament particularly records the appearance of prophets from time to time to broadcast Divine truth to humanity. If we step even further back into human history, to primeval society, we find an almost magical status accorded to the teacher as one who was privy to the mysteries of nature and the universe. Credited with superhuman powers like the ability to control natural phenomena, teachers were worshipped as interpreters of the natural world to their community, much like shamans of aboriginal cultures. I think this is because human beings have always held knowledge as sacred and power giving. We have striven to know our outer and inner world since the dawn of time, and have tended to view those who do seem to know in awe and reverence. In some societies, this natural accordance of respect came to be exploited by certain classes of people, like Brahmins in India, who proclaimed themselves custodians of knowledge and refused to share it with the entire community. Social power came to be divided according to access to this knowledge, and the least empowered socially were also educationally and spiritually dispossessed. This was recognised by sramana gurus through the ages, and from the Buddha and Mahavir to Kabir and Nanak, part of their teaching effort was to shatter walls of exclusivity in which knowledge was imprisoned, and make the secret of existence and reality available at streetcorners and chai shops. The avatar phenomenonAlong with the subaltern sramana gurus who existed on the margins of society and religion and taught the commonfolk, India has also had a grand tradition of prophet-gurus reminiscent of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. It is expressed somewhat differently though, as the avatar phenomenon, where the avatar is a human incarnation of divinity rather than
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