The thing about Gurus

I just spent the past week, like many other disciples, sadhakas, in the lineage, in remembrance of the Master teachers of my tradition. The period between the 8th & 12th of September is celebrated annually with the Sri Lakshmi-Narayana Mahayajna at the Sannyasa Peeth in Munger. This year, due to the pandemic, the sadhana and aradhana were livestreamed and aspirants were able to participate remotely. The celebration itself commences & ends between two significant dates for those in the lineage – the 8th of September being the birthday of Sri Swami Sivananda Saraswati and the 12th of September is the sannyasa day (initiation into sannyasa) of Sri Swami Satyananda Saraswati.

It was a personal practice – it felt deep, personal, powerful and significant. I am not going to share those emotions here; they’re too personal. However, I will share about one aspect that Swami Niranjanananda presented on the third day’s satsang after the Mahayajna.

He spoke of gurus.

He also didn’t just speak of gurus, he spoke with an intensity that really called out for responsibility and a sense of introspection on who we really were posing to be!

I felt a deep sense of hurt in myself as I listened to the carefully chosen words from Swamiji – words that were meant to be direct, precise and relevant.

If you’re in the Western world, desi or non desi, you would be familiar with a lot of controversy around yoga or spiritual Gurus. India, too, has a abundance of gurus. Let me rephrase that, an abundance of self-proclaimed gurus with a huge following of ‘devotees’ many of them blind devotees too! Yet, in a land of existential esoterism, such unflinching faith often is synonymous with the very essence.

Still, we come back to ‘Guru’ and all the hype and wrath that the word draws – especially in the West. Unfortunately, in the digital age, a lot of that expressed fury is also reabsorbed by the native people – either through capitalism or the sensationalism of media – in both ways, a reconditioning of thought & understanding to align it with a western centric understanding of a principle that in every sense of the word cannot be naturally understood by a western mind.

For one, because it is a not a rational principle. It is not a ‘ touch & feel’ / ‘show & tell’ principle. It is not a, “This is my Guru, who is yours?’ principle.

So who is a Guru, then?

I cringe at my own question…. because I may actually want to ask, “So, what is a Guru, then?” But I’m blogging in English, aren’t I? So the personified Guru should answer to ‘Who?” shouldn’t it?

Actually, to the rational mind, regardless of geographical location, esoteric concepts may sometimes seem like an Orientalised and exotic system. Honestly, these concepts are difficult to understand by many Indians and South Asians too.

It is because the path of discipleship is not undertaken by all. The spiritual path is not lucrative and has no perks (unless the idea is to market & benefit from it, that’s another story). But the spiritual path is a conscious choice to step into a lot of inner mess.

The path of discipleship is not something that every Indian has to take. In some communities, certain rites of passage may form an illusion that a sacrament initiates the child into the path of discipleship. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. This is similar to the sacraments in various religious rituals and sacraments. It is a societal tradition, but not necessarily one where the child is entrusted to a rishi in a gurukul to promote the ancient guru shishya parampara.

Oh and while we cannot deny the social tendency to uphold a patriarchal representation of the guru shishya relationship, it is important to clarify that in the tradition children were sent by their parents to be raised with life and moral values by rishis and rishi patnis (the rishis’ wives) as their parents. To this day, many spiritual teachers in many lineages are women.

The Guru is a different principle altogether.

As I pause in frustration at this blog post, I realise that I am trying too hard. Trying too hard to explain something that cannot be explained in words. It has to be felt. It is like me trying to explain that honey is sweet but not being able to explain to you what sweetness is if you’ve never ever tasted anything sweet before. Sweetness is not honey. Sweetness is the principle and honey (or chocolate or candy or ice-cream is the conduit)

So an individual may be a teacher and for a moment might be the conduit for the wisdom of the principle of the Guru, the Guru tattva, conveyed through the lineage, the tradition, scriptures, (workshops & classes…??). And after their passing from this mortal world, their life and work may be referred to as deeper, powerful, potent works of wisdom. They may be gurus, even…. but that recognition is in their legacy.

However, our penchant for labelling persons, the conduits as the Guru is both misleading and damaging to the whole system – let alone to the ego of the individual. The pressure to conform to the perceived (or marketed) image is immense and the backlash of falling from grace when they err is harsh.

Gurus, today, are centered and platformed as the principle. The tattva is personified to make sense to a population or a group of people who essentially are not able to grasp the concept of the principle. This over simplification leads to all sorts of problems – least of which is connecting the principle to a very mortal, menial, frail human existence of the individual – who for the reasons I just mentioned, has to live up to the ideal of being called a ‘Guru’.

In the process, the gap between the truth of the Guru tattva and the misinformation / mispresentation of what a Guru is (because of how certain people, who either call themselves Gurus or are called a Guru by their followers, behave or behaved) is ever widening.

Here’s the thing, though. Even if we were to posthumously recognise the gift of certain personalities as great teachers, master teachers of the wisdom, in all aspects, while they live they remain human. They goodness is a conscious cultivation, their acts of generosity and a choice they make, their careful compassionate speech and deeds are a means to stay on their path…. And just like that, their flaws are human, the abuse some of them perpetrated is human, any oppression caused is human, all their faults are human. Because they are human.

Call out the abuse, the crimes, the trauma, etc. and call out their actions. If they are alive, they need to be tried in a human court of law for their crimes….

Because they are just human beings – they may have had the opportunity to study and share some wisdom to some people. But that doesn’t stop them from being human and from succumbing to human frailty.

The assumption that any teacher – yoga, spirituality, traditional art & culture, or others from a guru parampara is automatically cleared for ethics is flawed. The assumption that the self proclaimed gurus with mass followings are beyond reproach is blind faith and ignorance.

The patriarchal mess that is left in the wake of a capitalist, reductionist, over simplified, white washed & ignorant approach to an esoteric system of an intangible concept is the root cause of the shame and mistrust of the Guru today.

What do people know of the Guru before they embark oo being wary anyway?

The assumption that teachers are infallible is where the principle of the guru, the guru tattva, is defiled and shamed.

The guru tattva is not a guru – not your guru or mine. The guru tattva is the principle, the essence that is available for all humanity.

The guru is eternal and is an intimate non-personal experience. The teacher is just the channel – maybe momentarily, in many moments, channeling the tattva even, so deserving of gratitude. The wisdom is always through the parampara – from one teacher to the student teacher to the next student teacher….

It is not personified. It cannot be personified.

It cannot always be explained either! To some extent, I feel even this blog post has not completely succeeded in conveying the depth of that feeling because some feelings cannot be expressed in vocabulary (that is limited anyway!)

I close with a lot of gratitude to my teachers who constantly teach and learn themselves staying true to the teachings of the tradition as well as remaining observant to our own shortcomings.

This blog post dedicated to

Sri Swami Sivananda Saraswati,
Swami Satyananda Saraswati,
Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati,
Swami Satyasangananda Saraswati,
Pradeep Sattwamaya,
Swami Yogaratna Saraswati
and
Swami Dharmakeerti Saraswati
for their teachings, mentoring and grace
for which I am very grateful.

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