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On the Guru-Shishya Relationship

A few months ago, I heard Swami Sarvapriyananda of the Vedanta Society of New York recount a story that touches deeply on the relationship between the guru and shishya. The shishya was a novice monk studying under a senior swami at the Ramakrishna Mission. The first day he joined the ashram, the young monk was invited by the other young monks to join them for tea before the evening meditation. He came back afterward to the old swami, who asked him where he had been. When he replied, the swami did not say anything. The next day, the young monk came to the swami without joining the others for tea. The swami asked him why he had not gone for tea. He replied that he had thought about it, and even though the tea was nice, there was a lot of gossip and chitchat and he did not feel like joining them again.

The swami was very pleased at the young monk’s discrimination and judgment and said that had he continued joining the others for tea, he would have been lost. It is perhaps astonishing to think that something as small as an afternoon cup of tea with monks could take one off the path of sadhana onto a tangent lasting years, decades or lifetimes. But this is one of the first things you learn in real sadhana – that in the smallest of moments, the most innocuous of decisions, you are being tested again and again. Just like the great king Bharata, who had become a great renunciate in the forest after turning over his kingdom to his son, suddenly came out of his meditation to rescue a deer and then became so attached to the deer that he had to be reborn again, our lives so easily can take turns in directions we are unable to foresee.

The story Swami Sarvapriyananda told struck a nerve in me. I thought about that old swami and how, had the young monk gone again for tea, it was very likely that the swami would never have said a word. He was watching and observing, testing, but would not interfere. That is the way of many of the great gurus. If they are truly apta kamah (desireless because they are self-fulfilled and therefore have no desires), then they will not impose their ways on others or seek to control them. They will let the play of karma unfold.

I thought about my own relationship with my guru. As a child, reading the little snippets I could find of the Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Srimad Bhagavatam, I was struck by how consistently and uniformly the shastras emphasize the importance of the guru for spiritual progress. More than anything, I wanted to find a guru. When I did find, or rather was found, by my siksha guru and diksha guru, I was so happy and thought I had found the solution to my problems and that the worries of my life were solved.

Indeed, the anugraha of my siksha guru and diksha guru have been the greatest blessings of my life. But there is more to the guru-shishya relationship than simply having a guru. In fact, the very idea of ‘having’ is a fallacy, an inappropriate misconception. Nowadays, among the fashionably spiritual crowd, it has become a status symbol or conversation starter to trade names of one’s guru, as if they are a designer label we wear.

I remember once a very wise gentleman was asked when he would see his guru next. He replied that he did not know if he would ever see him again. It was a simple, perhaps cryptic, response but held so much subtle beauty. He had no expectations, no selfish desire or thought of possession of his guru’s time and did not take for granted a moment of time that he was bestowed by his guru. It took me a long time to learn this – that one cannot take for granted the presence and teachings of the guru, that the question to ask is not whether you have a guru but instead have you qualified yourself to be in a space of adhikara to receive the teachings of the guru. And if you are, then surely the guru will come, in one form or the other. And if not, even if you are constantly in the presence of the guru, even if you are his personal attendant and stay in the same ashram, he will not say a word of import to you, just like that old swami may never have told that young monk to not drink the tea with the others.

I could not help but wonder in my own case, how many decisions have I made, like the monk drinking the tea, that have led me adrift from my sadhana goals, how many lapses of judgment that were observed silently by my guru. How many years have I lost by not having the viveka (discrimination) and vairagrya (dispassion) that the young monk demonstrated on that second day by staying away from the others? I thought about my recent conversations with my guru and how long it has been since he sat with me to meditate or opened a book to read to me a verse or excerpt from the shastras. Even more troubling, all of our interactions recently had been pleasant, smooth, with no sharp words of caution or remonstrances for mistakes I had made. And, surely, I have made many mistakes!

When a guru is harsh with you, he or she has some hope for you. There is some possibility of your being taught and growing, of learning from your mistakes. The more he or she is stern with you, the greater promise you have. The day your guru becomes sweet to you is the day you should truly be worried.

As I reflected on the recent past, I realized that I had grown complacent in my sadhana. One of the greatest dangers in sadhana is plateauing. After having attained a certain level of stability and contentment in practice, that edge of desire, the fervor of the newcomer, is dulled and it is easy to grow stagnant, not making much further progress. Most of us turn to the divine to avoid suffering, out of a place of weakness and pain, and once that is alleviated, we tend to lapse back.

As Kabir says in his famous doha, “Dukh Mein Simran Sab Kare, Sukh Mein Kare Na Koye / Jo Sukh Mein Simran Kare, Tau Dukh Kahe Ko Hoye,” (In anguish everyone prays to Him, In joy does none, To one who prays in happiness, How can sorrow come?). Looking back dispassionately and clinically at the past few years, I could see that I had not been putting in my full effort in carrying out my purushartha (pursuit) towards self-realization. It was there as a general aim but not backed up by the specific actions of my day-to-day life, like a New Year’s resolution to be fit without actually doing exercise or changing one’s diet. I could see the momentum that I had lost.

In short, I was disappointed in myself, partly for letting myself down but more so in not living up to all that my gurus have invested in me. Letting myself down was one thing. Letting down those whom I revere so much was not an option.

It is difficult to explain the bhava one has for one’s guru. It is like this. If on one side there lay all the happiness, greatness, riches, fame, glory, victories of the three worlds and on the other there lay just the guru’s blessing, I would choose my guru’s blessing.

One of the most beautiful expressions of guru bhava that I read so many years ago and which left a deep impress on me are these bhakti-soaked words of Sri Umesh from Crest Jewel of Yogis, Biography and Advices of the Peerless Preceptor His Holiness Abhinava Vidyatheertha Mahaswamigal: “I know that whatever I am, is solely because of His grace. I cannot conceive of even a day or an hour without thinking of Him. I know for a fact that even a simple act like drinking water, if I do not dedicate the same to Him or think of Him, my mouth fails to drink. Likewise if I take a book and start running the pages, absolutely nothing is registered unless I think of Him. That is the extent to which He has made an impact on my life.”1

The deeper the relationship with the guru, the humbler one becomes. If I speak in wisdom, it is the guru speaking through me. If I achieve something, it is due to Iswaira anugraha and the guru’s grace. This is not self-negation or low self-esteem. Such surrender can only occur when one’s self-esteem is healthy – ahamkara (the false sense of doership) is altogether different from self-esteem. It is just a more nuanced and perceptive understanding of the self. There is this personality that is the play of gunas, impelled by the force of karma and prarabdha – that is the little self, the one subject to birth and death. The higher self, the one that you are awakened to through sadhana, the teachings of the shastras, the grace of the guru, the blessings of the sages – that self has no identity. It is from this self that all noble and good acts arise. In connection with that self, there is no space for ahamkara, only gratitude and reverence for those who have awakened you to your own reality.

The gratitude and reverence come because the anubhava, the lived and direct experience of sadhana, of communion with the divine, of self-realization, is flavored with what has been transmitted by the guru. I cannot read the Gita or hear the Upanishads without hearing the words through my guru’s voice. That is what makes those words come alive. All that I have learned of philosophy is encoded in the syntax of his parables, personal anecdotes and metaphors; it is his counsel and guidance that has shaped the path that brought me the successes and growth today and in the times to come. Not him as a person, but him as a living link of the parampara, the lineage of transmission that connects us all the way to the rishis and the devas.

It is a Western peculiarity, this fascination for originality and individuality, this need to put one’s own stamp on things. For me, for those of us in the Dharmic traditions, we relish our connections with our teachers, our ancestors, our rishis. We take pride in preserving our parampara and prize is samanvaya, reconciliation and integration with the shruthi and other shastras, over originality. After all, there is nothing inherently new to say or write, only old wine to pour into new bottles to adapt to new times and environments. Adi Sankara, Swami Vivekananda, even Veda Vyasa, did not claim to be composing or discovering anything new – just reintroducing us to what has always existed in the shruthi. Our job is just to be the empty vessels carrying forth the timeless stream of wisdom.

If I write or speak of the shastras, it is my guru’s words and voice flowing through me. And that of his guru and his guru’s guru. The fulfillment that comes of feeling that continuity of transmission, of being bound together with thousands of years of history and tradition, is so many times more meaningful than the delusion of writing or saying anything truly original.
Looking at the years ahead, I know I will not always have the shelter of my guru’s living presence. He will not be there to read my drafts before publication to make sure I have not said something completely wrong. He will not be there to advise me when I face the vicissitudes of life. He will not be there to sit next to me, to simply give me the comfort of his presence, to remind me with his mere presence that there is more to life than the mundane. He will not be there so many times when I will need him. He will not be there to tell me not to drink that cup of tea. How lucky I have been that he has been there for over the past fifteen years, and I will count with gratitude each additional day and year that he is here.

That which I can do is to make him proud, to live up to his teachings and all that he has invested in me, to reflect over the snippets of wisdom imparted over the years, in car rides to the airport, in temple canteens over paper platefuls of prasad, in phone calls and emails, in silent observance of how he carried himself and lived his life, to not let a day go wasted without sadhana, without bringing me closer to Krishna. And that is what I have resolved to do. At the end of my life, looking back, I will not measure my success by wealth, fame or glory. I will measure it by this.

One of my favorite stories goes as follows. Once, Narada was on his way to see Narayana. Along the way, he came across an old sannyasin who stopped Narada and told him to ask Narayana how much longer he had to wait to attain moksha, as he had already been doing sadhana for so long. Narada agreed to do so. After some time, Narada came across a young man dancing and singing. Narada decided to ask Narayana about him, too. After having darshan of Narayana, Narada returned and told the old sannyasin, “You have three lifetimes left.” The old man got so angry that he threw away his mala and books, complaining that it was not fair and he had not expected this of Narayana. Narada then went to the young man and told him that Narayana had said that he would have to be born as many times as there were leaves on the tree under which he was dancing.

Hearing this, the young man was so ecstatic that he danced and sang in joy and gratitude. “So soon?” he asks, disbelievingly. “There are so many trees in this world and so many leaves…only this tree and these many leaves?” And he asked Narada to convey his gratitude to Narayana the next time he saw him. At that very moment, the young man attained moksha.

The point of the story is that it is one’s attitude that matters. Life and progress on the path spiritual cannot be measured quantitatively or mechanically, by the slope of the path or detours one’s life takes. It is moment to moment. As Swami Vivekananda writes in his eloquent Song of the Sannyasin, “Thine only is the hand that holds / The rope that drags thee on. Then cease lament! / Let go thy hold…”2 At any moment, moksha is possible. We are already ever free, ever conscious, ever blissful. We just need to realize it. We need to drop the rope that we ourselves are holding. And, if in a moment, we can lose years or even lifetimes of sadhana, then conversely, in a moment, we can leapfrog it all, too. The razor’s edge of sadhana is to live day by day, wary of the pitfalls along the way yet not despairing, confident in reaching the destination, yet not complacent, with adamantine willpower and single-minded focus.

Fifteen years ago, I had knelt in front of Jagannath Puri, one of the greatest and most powerful temples in our land, and I had taken a simple and impulsive vow, to always listen to and follow the words of my guru. I did not know then what a sankalpa was or the formalities of such things – it was just a sincere, heartfelt prayer. For fifteen years, that little vow has protected me and kept me on the straight and narrow so many times when I may otherwise have fallen off the path of sadhana. That is the power of vows, especially those made at consecrated sites.
And that is ultimately what occasions like Guru Purnima are intended to do – to honor and respect those who have taught us, to resolve to develop the adhikara to truly receive and realize the teachings they impart and to dedicate ourselves to keep alive the parampara and carry forward the living wisdom they have vested in us, to keep alive for future generations all that we have been blessed with.

Ultimately, the guru is not a person. It is about being in a state of receptivity, of humility, of lowering the ego to take in the wisdom that is surrounding us always. As stated in the Rg Veda,

आ नो भद्राः क्रतवो यन्तु विश्वतः
“Aano bhadra krtavo yantu vishwatah” (Let noble thoughts come to me from all directions).3

Just as Dattatreya had twenty-four gurus, including the humble pigeon and the moth, if we are open to it, teachings will come pouring in from all sides at every moment. It is just that we have to make ourselves fit to receive.

Today, I bow down to all my gurus. To my siksha and diksha gurus; to my parents, my first gurus; to all my teachers, secular and spiritual; to the Puranas and Itihaasa; to the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads; to the Bhagavat kathas and Vedanta lectures heard in temples and on YouTube; to my elders; to the acharyas, rishis and sages; to Veda Vyasa, the guru of gurus; and to Narayana, from whom all else emanates.

सदा शिवसमारम्भां शङ्कराचार्य मध्यमाम्।
अस्मदाचार्य पर्यन्तां वन्दे गुरु परम्पराम्॥
sadaaSiva samaarambhaam Sankaraacaarya madhyamaam |
asmadaacaarya paryantaam vandE guru paramparaam ||

Beginning with Sadashiva, through Adi Shankaracharya in between and up to my own preceptor, I bow with reverence to the entire tradition of preceptors.

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