The Guru Principle – Georg Feuerstein

The Guru Principle



The guru is Brahma; the guruis Vishnu; the guruis God Maheshvara [i.e., Shiva]. He is the ferry [leading across]

the ocean of existence.

Only the guru, [who is ever] tranquil, is the supreme Condition.

Shri-Tattva-Cintamani (2.36) of Purnananda




Tantra is strictly an initiatory tradition, which means that its sacred and secret teachings are passed on in the age-old fashion of oral transmission from teacher to disciple. In this respect, Tantra is markedly different from Neo-Tantrism, which is all too often prac• ticed and promulgated by enthusiasts who have not been properly

initiated but have acquired their knowledge largely from books. But as the Mahabharata (12.293.25) stated long ago, books are a burden so long as we do not know the reality behind their words. No amount of intellectual learning is liberating. The Yoga-Shikha-Upanishad (1.4) even speaks of the “snare of textbooks” (shastra-jala). In the Yoga-Bija

(9) we can read:

Those who through [their study of] endless logic, and gram• mar, and so on, have fallen into the snare of the textbooks be• come mentally confused.

The Vina-Shika-Tantra (137) points out that books are easy to come by, but the rules for actual practice are difficult to obtain. Without knowledge of the correct execution of the Tantric practices, how• ever, especially mantra recitation, there can be little hope of success. It is, however, also true that the Tantric tradition has produced a large number of texts. Obviously the sadhakas and siddhas who composed them must have felt that the written word might be helpful to other practitioners.

In any case, the Tantric authorities are insistent that only that instruction which has been received directly from the teacher’s mouth is potentiated and can bring genuine inner growth. “Initiation,” declares Shiva himself in the Mantra-Yoga-Samhita (5), “is the root of all victory.” He goes on:

O Goddess! He who is bereft of initiation can have no success and no fortunate destiny. Therefore one should endeavor to seek initiation from a [qualified] teacher.

The Tantric adepts consider initiation (diksha) crucial to one’s progress on the spiritual path. And for initiation to be truly empowering, it must be granted by a qualified Tantric master. Such a master is known as a guru. This Sanskrit word is used both as a noun and as an adjective. Etymologically, it is derived from the verbal root gur, meaning “to be heavy.” Thus the guru is someone whose wisdom or counsel is, by virtue of his or her personal attainment, weighty or of decisive importance to the spiritual process as it unfolds in the disciple. Put more colloquially, the guru is a spiritual heavyweight. Esoterically, the word guru is explained in the Kankala-Malini-Tantra (1.17 – 18) as follows:

The sound gu denotes “darkness.” The sound ra [i.e., ru] denotes “causing the restriction of that [darkness].” Because he removes darkness, he is called a guru.

The letter ga is said to denote “bestowing success (siddhi).” The letter ra denotes “removal of sin.” The letter u denotes Vishnu, the triple Self, the teacher himself.

Her e sin stands for the karmic tendency to perpetuate egoic existence, as opposed to being present as the Self. The guru is the agent who dispels spiritual blindness and through his or he r transmission and teaching safely conducts the disciple to perfection (siddhi). Little wonder that the Tantric scriptures pay considerable attention to the figure and role of the guru.

Another esoteric etymology is given in the Guru-Gita (46):

The syllable gu [means] “transcending the qualities (guna)”; the syllable ru [means] “devoid of form.” He who grants the essence of transcending the qualities [of Nature] is known as a guru.

Nature is composed of three fundamental qualities (guna), representing the principles of luminosity, dynamism, and inertia respectively. Their interplay is responsible for all manifest existence, including our chronically overactive mind. Self-realization, or liberation, presupposes transcendence of these basic forces. The teacher’s great gift to the disciple is the gift of pure witnessing prior to the play of the gunas. In the Shiva-Sutra-Varttika (3.27) of Bhaskara, the accomplished adept is said to wear the qualities like the sacred thread worn by brahmins.

On e way of explaining the function of the guru is to say that he or she plants the seed of enlightenment in the disciple, which then can be made to sprout and ripen through the tender care of the disciple’s daily spiritual discipline (sadhana). This function is what the

Tantras and Yoga scriptures call the grace of the teacher (guru-kripa or guru-prasada). The Shiva-Samhita (3.11 14) contains these stanzas:

[Only] knowledge imparted from the guru’s mouth is productive [of liberation]; otherwise it is fruitless, weak, and the cause of much affliction.

He who makes an effort to please the guru [through his dedi• cation to self-discipline and service] receives the [secret] knowl• edge. In due course he will also obtain the fruit of that knowledge.

The guru undoubtedly is father, the guru is mother, the guru is deity (deva). Therefore one should follow him in all one’s actions, thoughts, and speech.

By the guru’s grace one obtains everything auspicious. Hence one should always follow one’s guru, or else there will be no benefit.

To practice Tantra Yoga without the initiatory grace of an adept amounts to a Sisyphean task; uninitiated seekers are engaged in pushing the massive boulder of their own karma uphill, and what awaits them in the end is either discouragement or self-delusion. Only the graceful intervention of an adept both lessens the weight of the karmic boulder and infuses the practitioner’s muscles with the necessary strength to reach the top of the mountain of inner growth. Because spiritual initiation is not a concept in our modern Western culture, however, few people can appreciate the unique opportunity this rep• resents. Instead they worry about issues of power and exploitation. Their concerns have been fueled in recent years by exposes in the news media about the irresponsible and even abusive behavior of several well-known spiritual teachers. But these frailties say nothing about the tradition of initiation itself, which is as potent and relevant as ever.

Whatever liabilities exists in the guru tradition, these pertain to individuals and not to the initiatory system as such. To illustrate this point, consider mathematics. It is a perfectly valid symbol system. But there are good and not-so-good math teachers, who either succeed

or fail (sometimes completely) to communicate that system and its intrinsic intellectual beauty to their pupils. Once the principles of mathematics are grasped, however, the knowledge can be thought to have been successfully communicated, and henceforth any student of a certain aptitude can master higher levels of the mathematics game.

During initiation, whether formal (in a ritual context) or infor• mal (e.g., by a mere glance), the guru transmits something of his or her own essential nature – as Being-Consciousness-Bliss – to the disciple. Another, perhaps moRe appropriate way of putting it is to say that the guru creates an opening within the pupil through which he or she can more clearly intuit, or become sensitive to, the ultimate Reality. The initiatory process is an initial purification of the disciple’s mind, which must then be maintained and indeed augmented through steady application to spiritual practice. The entire path to liberation can be couched in terms of a progressive catharsis of the pupil’s ordinary being to the point where it is like a clear crystal that faithfully reflects the light of Consciousness. The metaphor of purification is pervasive in the liberation literature of India, as are the purificatory practices themselves.

As with the mathematics example, the spiritual seeker must bring to initiation a certain aptitude. Some people are spiritually gifted; others are less so, depending on the work they have done in previous lives. Thus some initiates experience a major breakthrough at the first moment of initiation, while in others the process unfolds underground as it were. But in each case it inevitably melts down the walls of the ego and creates an increasing resonance with one’s true nature, providing the disciple seriously follows the course of disciplines laid out by the guru. Swami Muktananda remarked:

The initiation performed by the Guru takes place easily and simply. The Siddhas [adepts] state that when the Guru sows the seed of Shakti, the seed develops very naturally into a tree with flowers and fruit.1

Whether initiation will bear the ultimate fruit of liberation in this life depends on many circumstances, chiefly the spiritual maturity of the disciple and his or her application to the given sadhana.

Westerners, who are educated to be individualists, have difficulty in grasping the concept that the guru is not so much a person as a function. Of course, the guru function depends for its performance on a human being, and therefore it always occurs in the context of a particular personality. This is what is the most confusing to Western students, who tend to get caught up in externals. Their difficulty is greatly exacerbated by the fact that most Eastern teachers also have a personality type shaped by their own culture, which can clash quite severely with the Western psyche. These psychological differences prompted Carl Jung to completely dismiss any suggestion that yogic and Tantric practices could be useful for Westerners.2

The guru, as stated in the above quote from the Shiva-Samhita, is to be thought of as father, mother, and deity. Wha t does this mean? Within traditional Hind u society, gurus unquestionably are imbued with parental authority, and male teachers are widely addressed as baba (“grandfather” in Hindi), whereas female teachers are called mata (nominative of matri, Sanskrit and Hindi) or ma (Hindi), both meaning “mother. ” This formality is estranging and sometimes even offensive to independent-minded Westerner seekers. Hindu teachers working in the West have had to make adjustments, and those who have not been able to do so have inevitably encountered problems with their students.

While spiritual parentalism has its intrinsic difficulties when transplanted into a Western context, the equation of the guru with God is still more problematic. Western students, who are conversant with psychology but may not have an in-depth knowledge of Eastern spiritual traditions, are apt to dismiss this traditional equation as ego- inflation and as an open invitation to spiritual tyranny and exploitation. Addressing this issue, His Holiness the Dalai Lama wisely recommended that guru-yoga, which revolves around seeing one’s teacher as the ultimate Reality, should not be engaged by beginners.3 Of course, as a Tantric adept, he fully endorses this traditional practice at more advanced levels.

The guru is God not in the sense of having expanded (inflated) his or her human personality to divine proportions. Rather the guru, having transcended (not obliterated) the personality, is capable of assuming a liberating function in regard to the disciple. In other words, the guru – if he or she is a sad-guru, or “true teacher”4 – is fully capable of suspending personal considerations when it comes to assisting the spiritual awakening of others. It naturally helps the disciple to know that the guru is himself or herself liberated, or enlightened. But even if that is not the case, the disciple is traditionally encouraged to look upon the guru as if he or she were enlightened anyway. Thus the disciple’s faith (shraddha) plays a large role in the success of his or her discipleship.

Of course, it makes sense to choose one’s teacher carefully. If one cannot find a fully awakened guru, then one must at least make certain that one’s teacher possesses absolute integrity and is completely committed to assist one’s own awakening. The reason for treating even an unenlightened teacher as if he or she were enlightened is straightforward: Without this assumption one would constantly question the teacher’s motives, which in turn would only handicap one’s spiritual practice. Moreover, if one can learn to trust the guru’s guidance, even when it greatly challenges one’s personal preferences and perceptions, then one can learn to trust life itself, develop patience, humility, and many other virtues.

For most Western students, guru-yoga is the great stumbling block in their discipleship. Having been brought up to “think for themselves” and “be their own person, ” they confuse obedience to the guru with childish dependency. But the sad-guru is not interested in playing a parental role. The sad-guru’s fatherhood or motherhood toward the disciple is merely one of absolute care for the disciple’s spiritual growth. The teacher in whom the ””guru function” is alive has no other interest in the disciple than, as one contemporary adept put it, to dissolve the phenomenon called “disciple.”5

Unfortunately, not every teacher is a sad-guru, and therefore it is prudent to use one’s intelligence and judgment before approaching a teacher for initiation and discipleship. This has manifestly been an

issue for a very long time. For instance, in the Kula-Arnava-Tantra (13.104 – 5, 107 – 10), composed almost a thousand years ago, the following words are uttered by Shiva himself:

Gurus are as numerous as lamps in every house. But, O Goddess, difficult to find is a guru who lights up everything like the sun.

Gurus who are proficient in the Vedas, textbooks, and so on, are numerous. But, O Goddess, difficult to find is a guru who is proficient in the supreme Truth.

Gurus who know petty mantras and herbal concoctions are numerous. But difficult to find here on earth is one who knows the mantras described in the Nigamas, Agamas, and textbooks.

Gurus who rob their disciples of their wealth are numerous. But, O Goddess, difficult to find is a guru who removes the disciples’ suffering.

Numerous here on earth are those who are intent on social class, stage of life, and family. But he who is devoid of all concerns is a guru difficult to find.

An intelligent man should choose a guru by whose contact the supreme Bliss is attained, and only such a guru and none other.

The Tantras list additional qualities to be looked for in a true teacher. To cite the Kula-Arnava-Tantra (13.70, 86, 88 – 89) again:

O Beloved, he whose vision is stable without object, whose mind is [equally firm] without support, and whose breath is stable without effort is a guru.

He who really knows the classification of the principles of existence (tattva) from Shiva down to the earth element is deemed a supreme guru.

O Beloved, he who really knows the identity of the body (pinda) and macrocosm (brahmaanda), [the secret about] the head, and the number of bones and hairs is a guru, and none other.

He who is skilled in the eighty-four distinct postures such as the lotus posture and who knows the eightfold Yoga is deemed a supreme guru.

The “guru function” primarily consists in constantly and faith• fully mirroring the disciples back to themselves, while at the same time strengthening their intuition of the ultimate Reality, the transcendental Self. Because of this dual aspect, the guru’s work with disciples is both a demolition job and a rebuilding. From the disciples’ perspective this is difficult but also rewarding. In his book Secret of the Siddhas, Swami Muktananda mentions how when he finally received the initiatory mantra from his teacher, the great Bhagavan Nityananda, it produced in him both “inner heat and the coolness of joy.”6

The egopersonality, fortified by multiply reinforced habit pat• terns, is singularly resistant to change, especially the kind of radical change envisioned in Tantra. Therefore, in addition to strong faith in the teacher, in the process, and in themselves, disciples also must embrace self-transformation through diligent discipline. The guru can lead his or her disciples to the eternal fountain, but cannot make them drink the elixir. Both grace and self-effort are needed to attain liberation.

Faith in one’s teacher deepens into love (bhakti). Whenever Swami Muktananda, who was himself a great adept, spoke of his be • loved guru he would inevitably break into grateful praise and poetry:

Only when I lost myself in the ecstasy of Nityananda did I realize who he was. He is the nectar of love which arises when everything, sentient and insentient, becomes one. He is the beauty of the world. He pervades all forms, conscious and inert. He is the luminous sun, the moon, and the stars in the heavens. He frolics and sways with love in the blowing of the wind. His consciousness glimmers in men and women. There is only Nityananda, nothing but Nityananda. He is the bliss of the Abso• lute, the bliss of the Self, the bliss of freedom, and the bliss of love. There is only love, love, nothing but love.7

To arrive at such a realization, Swami Muktananda had to release the grip of the conventional ego-personality. Only when one is willing

to drop all egoic barriers can the “guru function” do its transformative work. Then the guru, as Being-Consciousness-Bliss, increasingly manifests in oneself. This is why Kshemaraja in his Shiva-Sutra-Vimarshini (2.6) speaks of the “teacher as the means ” (guru-upaya, writtenguru- paya). This reminds one of the famous words of the founder of Christianity who, according to the Gospel of John (14.6), declared: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

The goal is not being swallowed by the teacher’s personality but merging with his or her true nature, which is the singular Reality that also is one’s own true nature. In other words, when the guru has succeeded in dispelling one’s inner darkness, the distinction between teacher and disciple, path and goal, and even liberation and bondage fades. There is only the all-encompassing blissful Reality. As the Maha- nirvana-Tantra (14.116, 135) affirms:

One enjoys liberation when one knows that the Self is the Witness, the Truth, the Whole (purna), all pervasive, nondual, supreme, and though abiding in the body, is not body-bound.

Knowledge of the Self (atma-jnana), O Goddess, is the only means to final liberation. He who knows it is truly liberated in this world. There is no doubt about that.

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