गुरुर्ब्रह्मा गुरुर्विष्णु र्गुरुर्देवो महेश्वरः
गुरु साक्षात परब्रह्मा तस्मै श्रीगुरवे नमः
Guru is the Creator (Brahma), Guru is the Preserver (Vishnu),
Guru Deva (Divine Being) is Destroyer (Maheshwara)
Guru is the absolute (singular) Lord himself, to that revered (Sri) Guru, I bow.
This Satuday’s coming eclipse falls on the auspicious full moon of Guru Purnima, the birthday of Veda Vyasa, wherein typically Gurus are honored and showered with expressions of gratitude. Given the additional layer of a Ketu-Moon conjunction eclipse, we cannot also remove the fact that this is a time of honoring them by journeying inward and both reflecting and integrating the lessons we’ve learned in our lives. One of my teachers, Dr. Rao from Bangalore, is encouraging that during this eclipse it is a perfect time to dive deeper and invoke with reverence the presence of our teachers, and perform all our spiritual practice with greater zeal.
The past few days have found me in a reflective state, looking back at all the blessings I’ve had with my own teachers (past and present), setting an intention of gratitude and thanksgiving. And reflecting back on the ideal characteristics of a Guru, and a Shishya (the Sanskrit word for student). I daresay, there are times where I’ve tried to follow a teacher and exemplify a teaching, and landed squarely flat on my face, figuratively speaking. That said, blessings and wisdom continue to shine, like the sun, irrespective of one’s own faults or shortcomings. All we need to do is become aware of that.
The word “Guru” in Sanskrit has several meanings. The two syllables “Gu” and “Ru” have been translated in the Upanishads as “dispeller of darkness”. The word Guru as an adjective literally means “Heavy” – the connotation here is that a student requires weight to become grounded. In Astrology, Guru is Jupiter – the planet representing the archetypal force of higher knowledge, inspiration, wisdom, children, purpose and dharma. And of course, Guru also simply means – teacher.
Ultimately here, we refer to Guru in all etymological senses of the Sanskrit word, although we reflect that specifically back to Gurus as teachers, in general. There are two categories of Gurus – shiksha Gurus and diksha Gurus.
A shiksha Guru imparts knowledge to others, and there are many types of shiksha Gurus (academic subjects such as Mathematics, Language, Yoga, Meditation, Astrology, Ayurveda…and so forth). In present Western thought, to become a Guru of a subject (in the shiksha connotation) is usually held in very high esteem, since you are generally perceived as having “all the answers” within the domain of your realm of expertise.
Diksha Gurus, by comparison, lead their students a in a much more subtler realm. Accepting a relationship with them formally will commonly constitute a reciprocation of loyalty in exchange for a spiritual technique or Mantra, to practice regularly. In doing so, one aligns their mindset to the living teaching (not the teacher – important distinction to be made, here), gradually refining their consciousness to deeper, progressive states of awareness.
In the diksha category of Gurus, there are many grades, with the highest ideal being that of a Satguru, a truly enlightened being – bearing a significant task in shifting mass consciousness on a global level. In this category, several giants qualify, like Paramahansa Yogananda, Satguru (Jaggi Vasudev), Mata Amritanandamayi, and Jesus (yes, we can even think of Christianity as the path of followers of Christ), from a traditional perspective of Sanatana Dharma.
Simply stated, a relationship with a Guru is a social contract wherein a person who has walked futher along the path guides a student to avoid pitfalls towards a shared goal.
A real diksha Guru is a rare find these days, and bears a multitude of roles towards their students: that of close friend, trusted advisor, and even a parental figure at times (this list isn't exhaustive). The most important features of that bond are: a) trust, b) friendship, and c) loyalty. If one of these characteristics fall apart, the relationship suffers, often irreparably.
Reflections on the Guru Relationship
For purposes of this writing, I’d like to take a few moments to share a few profound realizations from my own experience (as controversial or imperfect as my opinion may be) on the nature of the Guru-Shishya tradition. These points apply predominantly towards diksha Gurus, but could easily also work towards shiksha Gurus. Please keep in mind, these viewpoints are presented through the lens my own cultural bias and experience, and they are considered as work in progress as I continue to hopefully evolve and grow. Suffice it to state that I continue to reflect and meditate on the light of Vedantic knowledge, and am working with my current teachers to deepen my understanding in this regard. If any of these reflections are helpful towards you, the reader, then I’m grateful.
Gurus are human beings, and such, play a dual role of being human (carrying out their existence on this earth plane), AND divine teacher. Challenges can invariably ensue when we, as students, project upon them an image of perfection, thus deifying them. Whether the Guru is living, or if they have passed on where we are following the image of the Guru’s life, really doesn’t matter here. When we learn to accept this truth, and see the whole being, both human and divine – we can surrender to the idea that an infallible image of a Guru simply doesn’t exist. We need to shatter each of our paradigms, eventually, if we are to adopt a universal or cosmic one. As one recently wrote: “The Guru is the image of Shiva. But not Shiva Himself.” More on this, below…
The shisya’s trust in the teacher is a sacred covenant which cannot be compromised, under any circumstance. Countless stories also abound in current clime and time wherein sexual abuse allegations arise towards leaders of spiritual communities. This is unacceptable, and to be shunned. If this sacred trust is compromised, it not only causes irreparable damage to the Shishya, but also to the community, and the institution of Gurus, in general. Sadly, I’ve seen this happen with devastating results. Similarly, if the teacher operates from a higher plane of ethics and works to foster trust in the student, the relationship flourishes in ways unimaginable, and the Guru’s positive influence on the Shishya’s life will be noticed by others.
Due to the power dynamic between teacher and student (involving trust, and surrender), the institution of Gurus is a ripe breeding ground for narcissism and “false Gurus”, which can sadly result in extreme toxicity (see #2, above – as sexual misconduct is often one of the most notable offences). Ultimately, when the seeker is drawn towards a teacher, discrimination on the part of the student is required to determine the teacher’s hidden motives and intentions. If they are simply enjoying a leadership role to mask their own insecurities, or if you get a strong impression there is a “cult of personality”, they are not worth the time.
There are, of course, a few helpful litmus tests one can perform to determine whether a teacher is authentic…
Sampradāya – belonging to an established or authentic lineage, tracing its origins back through the elder Gurus of that tradition. If the Guru is self taught, or the lineage cannot be traced back historically, please exercise caution.
The level of knowledge of the Guru – this goes without saying. A Guru is not only someone who knows knowledge, but is able to radiate that wisdom through the example of their own lives.
The ability of a Guru to open up your own intuition and learning, without necessarily filling your head with their own preconceived bias, or dogma. If a Guru starts projecting their preconceived notions onto you, please run in the opposite direction.
Observing the actions and words of their closest followers. Have they transformed themselves through the arena of their own experiences in integrating these teachings? Or do they seem submissive, and operating out of a place of false ego, or fear? Christ said it best, here: "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruit. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them." Matthew 7:15–20
The Guru’s highest responsibility is to not “give you their power nor impart shakti” nor demonstrate their greatness. This is serving their ego, only. Rather, the true value of a Guru lies within his or her ability to awaken the latent power within yourself, to witness yourself as you truly are. In other words, through the example of the Guru, and their teaching as manifested in your own life, you gradually awaken to the divinity that already existed within yourself.
A real Guru will meet you wherever you are at your present phase of development, and take you from there. A real Guru will remain humble and thank you in circumstances where you are able to reciprocate that role of teacher towards them. And a legitimate Guru will never demand anything of you, other than exercising your own will to put into practice the techniques and teachings they impart.
Due to a number of factors worthy of a separate blog post, some cultural barriers exist between Eastern and Western mindsets and values towards the Guru-Shishya paradigm. In my own experience, these differences are by no means irreconcilable, if one approaches any conflict openly with mutual humility and understanding. Again, please see point #5…a Guru will meet you wherever you are.
An authentic Guru enforces and encourages through love (sometimes tough love, admittedly), and nothing else. And they respect your space when they feel it is needed. They provide the space to become a perfect mirror on your journey to see yourself and face your demons. They become a cheerleader, and can lead with some discipline at times, but it is usually accompanied with levity, depth, love, and at times...humor. The eventual result stemming from right attitude from both parties is a deeply satisfying and rewarding venture, sometimes enduring lifetimes.
To all my teachers, Gurus, and my Satguru Paramahansa Yogananda, I humbly pay my thanks, and hope that I can continue to attempt to carry forward the light which they’ve shone on me. On this special occasion of Guru Purnima – and henceforth.