By Swati Chopra
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 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.”
Though 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 phenomenon
Along 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 a messenger of God. The most famous exposition of this phenomenon is in the ten avatars of Vishnu, which include human beings, animals and semi-human creatures, most of whom have a messianic saviour responsibility. The active guru role actually goes to one avatar—Krishna—credited with imparting the Sankhya Yoga route out of worldly suffering to his cousin Arjuna in the midst of a stormy battlefield. The Krishna-Arjuna model of progressive self-inquiry, where the latter’s ignorance is systematically demolished by the former through argument and logic, is considered till today to be one of the most effective expressions of the guru-disciple relationship.
At least in Krishna’s case, we can say that he could have been an actual person, and that the battlefield dialogue indicates a self-realised person who was probably deified around the time when his teaching was being recorded as the Bhagavad Gita, centuries after the event actually happened. With the Indian penchant for deification, several gurus have been declared avatars since then, like Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who was revered as an avatar of Krishna in 15th century Bengal. In recent times, more gurus seem to have been proclaimed ‘avatar of the age’ than ever before. Says ‘guru-watcher’ M. Alan Kazlev: “It seems a common tendency among modern-day gurus to claim to be the avatar or the world-teacher (jagadguru, sadguru) of this age. How much of this is due the genuine (whether deluded or valid) belief and/or experience of the guru in his/her own divinity, and how much of it is simply a ‘teaching device’, or even something that it is part of the whole tradition of being a guru, is not easy to determine. It seems that all these factors merge together. But I also feel that many gurus genuinely believe their claim to avatarhood. Who knows, maybe some of them actually are avatars!”
To debate whether they actually are avatars or not is beyond the scope of this article. What is important is to examine the effect proclamations of avatarhood have on gurus’ roles as teachers. Obviously, the claiming of a personal divinity by the guru for himself or herself skews the balance in the guru-disciple relationship. I mean, how can you question what God asks you to do, even if it is something that may damage you? The difference is when the guru proclaims a personal divinity for himself and holds out the same possibility for the disciple.
Says Kazlev: “When a sycophantic disciple said to Sathya Sai Baba, ‘You are God!’ he turned around and said, ‘Yes, but so are you!’ We all have that divine nature within us. Another time he said to a devotee, ‘The only difference between me and you is that I know that I am God but you don’t know that you are God.’
“Likewise, even though Da (Adi Da Samaraj) claims to be the avatar of this age, as one follower pointed out to me in an email, ‘It is not that he is God and you and I are not, it is that when the egoic mind is transcended it can be ‘seen’ that what is true of His realisation, is just as true for you and I as well.’ It is the paradox of reconciling the theistic avatar doctrine (I am God, you are not) with the egalitarian monistic realisation (I am God, but so are you. You just have to realise it).”
Dual vs non-dual
This doctrinal divergence in some measure also accounts for the varying perceptions of the guru one comes across. Dualistic and theistic traditions like bhakti view the guru as an agent of the Divine, who will pull us out of our misery and bring us closer to the lotus feet of the Beloved. To accomplish this, the guru demands complete self-surrender, unflinching loyalty and unquestioning obedience.
In non-dualistic traditions like Advaita and Buddhism, the guru is guide and teacher whose job it is to awaken the true guru that lies within. Rajiv Mehrotra makes this comparison in his introduction to The Mind of the Guru: “In…philosophies that derive from ideas of non-duality (Advaita), the striving is to awaken insight from within oneself, through one’s own efforts, rather than in relationship to an external idea or intervention…. The guru teaches and demonstrates the path. He does not ordinarily transmit some supernatural energy that catalyses dramatic and enduring transformation…. (In) theistic traditions, (the guru is) indicative of someone who has direct communication with God, who is completely intoxicated with the godhead and because of this is perceived as able to perform miracles and is to intervene, changing the course and direction of people’s lives.”
Yet all streams of knowledge flow into one sea, and though their language might be different, all traditions speak of one truth. It might be easy to classify the bhakti guru as an ‘external’ person simply because the path is of love and devotion to embodied divinity, and to label the advaitin guru as ‘internal’ because their philosophy does not allow for any dualism, not even one of guru and disciple. On close inspection, reality is not so cut and dried.
The bhakti guru’s supreme qualification is that he has merged into the vast ocean of God-consciousness, lost his sense of limited self completely, and so can help others come to the same state. This light of knowing shines through in the words of eighth century poet Rabia-al-Adawiyya: “The one who explains, lies. / How can you describe / the true form of Something / In whose presence you are blotted out? / And in whose being you still exist?” Living in constant awareness of this “true form” is what the bhakti guru enables his student to do.
Says an article in Back to Godhead, a magazine of the ISKCON movement, about their guru’s role: “Srila Prabhupada taught businessmen to do business for Krishna, artists to paint and sculpt for Krishna, and scientists to use their brain power and know-how for Krishna. He taught mothers to raise Krishna-conscious children, actors to perform dramas depicting the pastimes of Krishna, and anyone and everyone to chant Hare Krishna and eat prasada, food offered to Krishna.”
Krishna might be personified as the cowherd of Gokul at one level, but for the supreme bhakta, which is what the guru is, Krishna is all-pervasive consciousness in whose being all exists, as Rabia points out. Isn’t this the Brahman of the advaitin, and in a yet more refined understanding, the shunyata of the Buddhist? That which is nothing and everything at the same time, for only nothing can be everything and everywhere? Terminology varies, but the realisations feel part of the same garland, with the one thread of truth running through all flowers thus gathered together.
Personifying impersonal Truth as an embodied presence is a tool gurus of all traditions, dual and non-dual, have used to help students focus attention and also cultivate positive feelings of love and seva that are important behavioural aspects of the path. In Vajrayana Buddhism, for example, deities are visualised to activate one’s feelings of compassion and kindness. And gurus of non-dualistic traditions demand love and submission from disciples as much as those of dualistic traditions.
Tibetan Buddhist guru Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche explains why: “Devotion is integral to being a Vajrayana practitioner…. It is crucial in Vajrayana to understand that the object of refuge—the guru—is the embodiment of all the buddhas as well as of the dharma, the sangha, and the devas, dakinis and dharmapalas. Basically, all objects of refuge are embodied in the guru…. If you think your guru is the Buddha himself—that is, you don’t imagine it but actually see him as the Buddha in person—then definitely you will receive the Buddha’s blessings. And…if you realise that it is actually your own buddhanature that is manifest in the form of the Buddha or the guru, you will receive the blessing of seeing everything as the Buddha, everything as the guru.”
Finding our guru
The relationship we form with our guru is unlike any other relationship we experience in our lives. It spans emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of our being and is often related with powerful experiences of growth and transformation. In the Tibetan tradition, the root guru, who first initiates one, is looked upon as a mother. This shows how much we rely on the guru, and also the tremendous responsibility the guru takes on when he births us into the spiritual life. And just as a mother becomes a mother because of her baby, a guru becomes one in relation to the student. “Someone becomes a guru only in relation to a disciple. There is no special authority to qualify someone as a spiritual teacher. You are a teacher because you have students,” says the Dalai Lama.
The guru-student relationship is thus one of mutuality, where two individuals become bound together by a pact whereby one teaches and shares and the other learns and grows. Due to the intimate nature of this relationship, it is as important for the guru to find an apt pupil, as it is for the seeker to find an apt guru. They must fit well into one another and be able to operate with synchronicity. As Ramana Maharshi says: “He is the proper guru to whom your mind is attuned.”
For the guru, the apt pupil is one who has a burning desire to learn, and who will practise sincerely and diligently. Advaitin guru Nisargadatta Maharaj says of the student: “The stronger your desire (for freedom), the easier comes the help. The greatest guru is helpless as long as the disciple is not eager to learn. Eagerness and earnestness are all-important. Confidence will come with experience. Be devoted to your goal—and devotion to him who can guide you. If your desire and confidence are strong, they will operate and take you to your goal, for you will not cause delay by hesitation or compromise.” Humility is stressed upon greatly too, as we see in the many Zen stories where only that student who had proved himself sufficiently humble by bearing all kinds of hardships was allowed to even enter the monastery.
For most seekers, the process of finding the ‘right’ guru is arduous and understandably so. We lay bare the deepest core of our self to our guru, and we need to know that this person will take good care of us and be of benefit for us. There are several ways to determine this. Insight meditation teacher Jack Kornfield, who has himself studied with several Hindu and Buddhist gurus during his long spiritual journey, advises us to begin with the basics: “In seeking a teacher, we should inquire directly about how they teach. How do they view the path of practice, and what is the goal? What form does their practice take? How do they guide students? Will we be able to spend time with this teacher? Will we actually get their direct assistance? What kind of support does the teacher give to students through the arduous parts of the spiritual journey? What is the sense of the community around the teacher? Then we need to look at what is asked of us. Does what is asked feel healthy and appropriate? What commitments are necessary? What kind of relationship is expected? How much time is required? What does it cost?”
Of course, the first pre-requisite is that the guru himself should have tasted the water that he wishes for us to drink. He or she must be a self-realised individual who perhaps began the journey from a similar place of ignorance as us, and who has through effort and practice come to rest in an undifferentiated reality of being.
We must be able to nose our own way through the woods with the lingering after-whiff of our guru’s presence as guide. Theravadin monk and abbot of Metta Forest Monastery in the US, Thanissaro Bhikkhu says: “A teacher should have experienced the deathless. In dharma, you have to be a good player before you can be a good coach. You have to know where you’re headed and how you got there.”
The experience of studying and being with such a teacher can be profound. Zen master Suzuki Roshi’s student Trudy Dixon says about her teacher: “Because he is just himself, he is a mirror for his students. When we are with him, we feel our own strengths and shortcomings without any sense of praise or criticism from him. In his presence we see our original face, and the extraordinariness we see is only our own true nature.”
This is Trudy’s experience after she had spent time with Suzuki Roshi. What about those of us who are beginners? How do we recognise the guru? We can go by these simple rules Ramana Maharshi lays out for the beginner: “If you ask, how to decide who is the Guru and what is his swarupa (true nature), he should be endowed with tranquillity, patience, forgiveness and other virtues capable of attracting others even with the bare eye, like the magnetic stone, and with a feeling of equality towards all.”
Entering the river
Our relationship with the guru is a kind of spiritual apprenticeship in which we learn as much from the guru’s personal conduct and actions as from his discourses and teachings, especially if we have the chance to live in close proximity of the guru. The big issue at the onset is of trust—how do I entrust myself to another person?
This concern can be addressed by being able to check out our guru to evaluate for ourselves the claims made by him and on his behalf, before we commit ourselves. The Dalai Lama says: “From the student’s point of view it is important not to be hasty in choosing someone as your spiritual teacher. To begin with, you should simply regard your teacher as a spiritual friend and closely observe his or her behaviour, attitudes and ways of teaching, until you are confident of his or her integrity.” Then the trust we feel in our guru will be based on belief, rather something that we are told to do or expected to feel.
Once we have entered the relationship, our guru will expect complete surrender of all arms we have in our arsenal to defend our limited notions of self, our delusions, our conduct—our ego. Demolishing this sense of self that we have so carefully nurtured all our lives is the first task of the guru, since we can begin learning anew only when we have unlearned past learning. This of course does not refer to things like the alphabet or life skills, but conditioning, self-scripts, and all the other stuff our sense of ‘I’ is built with and based upon.
This surrender is often the most difficult thing we have ever had to do. Our guru may have to employ various measures to coax, cajole, or even scare us out of our conditioned mind. Whatever the means employed, they must be fragranced with the guru’s unconditional acceptance of us, and his disinterested yet compassionate effort to help us grow. And all the true guru wants in return from us is passionate involvement in and unshakeable commitment to our own growth.
Ways of teaching
There are as many and varied processes of teaching and transference of knowledge as there are gurus and students. Most gurus tend to teach from their own experience—they lead the student along the same stream following which they themselves entered the vast ocean of understanding. Ideally, the guru must be able to vary the method according to the ability and sensitivity of the student. For instance if a student is burdened with emotional trauma, gentle counselling and direction to help him resolve these might be more helpful than, say, throwing him into intense meditation which might worsen his condition by digging up repressed issues.
In a story from the Buddha’s life, he is explaining the various levels at which students under his care are being instructed. “Students who have an interest in inquiry are gathered there with my wisest disciple Sariputra,” he points out, “and those who are inspired by the practice of monastic discipline are there with Upali, foremost master of the monk’s life. Those drawn by psychic development are there with the great psychic Mogallana, and still others who are naturally drawn to concentration and samadhi are over there with Mahakassapa.” In being sensitive to the students’ needs, the guru is able to help the student move in the direction that is best suited for him at that point.
The most common way for gurus to teach is through discourses and prescribing personal practices to individual disciples. Jnana is often combined with karma and bhakti to meet disciples’ need for intellectual stimulation along with adoration and guidelines for action. Some gurus might rely more on one aspect than the other. J. Krishnamurti, for instance, would ask those who came to him to arrive at truth on their own through logical questioning—a modern example of the old path of the Buddha where contents of self and consciousness were examined analytically and their inherent emptiness contemplated upon to arrive at the true nature of ourselves and reality. As the analyst, the guru takes on the role of therapist, encouraging the student to dive deeper into his mind to understand his true self.
Gurus that occur within a lineage will often teach according to their tradition. Lineages are the ‘brand names’ of the spiritual world, pointers that tell the seeker what to expect. They are valuable as containers of wisdom and preservers of old knowledge, which still need dynamic gurus to keep them alive and relevant to the times they find themselves in. The Navnath Sampradaya (tradition of the nine Nath yogis) is an old spiritual lineage with historical roots in ninth century Nepal. Its powerful teachings gradually made their way to west India where its last two gurus, Siddharameshwar Maharaj (1875-1936) and Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1981), lived and taught. The latter was exemplary in his teaching life, and though placing greater emphasis on personal effort than lineage, said of his tradition: “It (Navnath Parampara) is like a river—it flows into the ocean of reality and whoever enters it is carried along.” When a starstruck disciple wanted to know if he could be initiated a ‘Navnath’, Maharaj was scathing in his response: “Please your word-addicted mind! The name will not change you…. The Navnath Sampradaya is only a tradition, a way of teaching and practice. It does not denote a level of consciousness.”
Initiation by a guru is indeed an area of mystery for many of us, so one can understand the starstruck disciple’s curiosity. Gurus reputed to be siddhas (possessor of psychic powers or siddhis) particularly work this kind of initiation, also called shaktipat, wherein the master is said to transfer his energy into the disciple, opening his energy channels, causing spontaneous experiences of ecstasy and visions. The disciple feels overwhelmed, as did Lama Ole Nydahl after his first meeting with the 16th Karmapa, believed to be a great siddha: “We stood in front of the Karmapa and he put his hands on our heads. We looked up, and suddenly he became greater than the whole sky, incredibly vast, golden and luminous… The power of the Karmapa has entered our lives.”
Gurus who transform their disciples through energy transmissions believe that the latter’s energy fields undergo rapid transformation under their influence. This, they maintain, is a quick way of effecting radical shifts in consciousness. The trick is not to get stuck in the seductive world of energy experiences, but to move beyond these too, onwards towards our true goal. This is one trap the guru must warn us of and if necessary, extricate us from.
In this regard, the story of Sufi master Irina Tweedie is interesting. She studied for several years with her Kanpur-based pir, Guru Bhai Sahib, who said of his teaching method: “We do not teach, we quicken. I am stronger than you so your currents adjust themselves to mine. This is a simple law of nature… If you let flow an electric current through two wires, side by side…the stronger will affect the weaker. It will increase its potency. It is so simple.” Guru Bhai Sahib was himself a householder, who lived a simple life and hardly gave any ‘teachings’ as it were. He expected his students to learn by being with him, observing him, and being ‘quickened’ by him.
Teachers like Guru Bhai Sahib are the silent revolutionaries who are not ‘known’ beyond their small group of students, as they prefer to impart a holistic understanding of life rather than specific teachings. They just are, living lives that are outwardly unremarkable in mofussil towns, often with spouses and children, running shops and selling beedies (like Nisargadatta Maharaj did) for a livelihood. Such gurus are unknown and unsung, difficult for most urban seekers to find. But for those who do have the opportunity to learn from them, they are compelling examples of realisation in action, and the transcendence that is accessible right here, right now for followers of the path.
Snares and snags
As in any field of human endeavour, the institution of the guru has also been misused for self-promotion, power and money. The veneration and unconditional surrender that is integral to the relationship opens up the possibility of exploitation by unscrupulous individuals. At some point or another, we have all heard of xyz guru using his position to milk his followers for money or for sexual abuse. That there exist charlatans in the garb of gurus is a reality that seekers cannot ignore.
Following the steps outlined earlier under the subhead ‘Finding our guru’ might help us gather more information about the guru before we enter into a relationship.
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