Hinduism and the Guru-Disciple Relationship


The Indian Teaching Tradition

Hinduism and the Guru-Disciple Relationship


Jacques Vigne


There are beings calm and magnanimous

Who, as spring, are good to others.

They have themselves crossed the awful

ocean of life and death

And, in a disinterested way,

Help the others to cross as well.

Shankaracharya Vivekachudamani, 37

Chapter 1. The Guru in the Hindu Tradition.

The relationship between guru and disciple is the backbone of the Hindu tradition; it ensures its continuity. The cohesion of Hinduism does not come from its dogmas or from its hierarchy, but proceeds from a cluster of practices as well as from its focalization on the guru. Hinduism belongs rather to an ‘orthopraxis’ than to an ‘orthodoxy’. While in other religions continuity in tradition is assured through a public proclamation of faith, Hinduism transmits itself principally through a guru who whispers a mantra into the ear of his disciple. One can look at the over-abundance of Hindu rites, beliefs, philosophies and practices either as a richness or as a confusion—it depends on the point of view of the observer. But one thing is certain: the guru, being the living synthesis of tradition, embodies unity beyond the diversity of appearances.

The Sadguru, the real guru, has by himself searched in different directions and, like the bee, has produced his honey from various flowers. One may refer here to the classical Hindu image that Shankaracharya used concerning his master Govinda: “like the gods, he has churned the great Ocean and has extracted its nectar.”1 Through his spiritual practice which has led him, beyond trials and agitations of all kinds, to realization, the guru is like the God Shiva who presides over the creation of a new world. It is a dangerous process, because the first thing that emerges from the sea of milk is, indeed, poison; but this is the necessary precursor for the emergence of the nectar when Shiva has the courage to swallow it. Through his research and his synthesis of what is best in tradition, the guru has placed the divine in himself, more or less as the poet mentioned by R.M. Rilke says: “In the same manner as that of the bees, he builds God with the greatest sweetness of each and every thing.”2

Hinduism recognizes four aims in human life: the satisfaction of sensual desires (kama), the will of material and social power (artha), the unity with the moral and universal order (dharma) and liberation (moksha). This last aim, liberation, constitutes also a science in itself (moksha-shastra). Parallel to these four aims, there are four stages in human life: the phase of student life (brahmacharya), family life (grihastha), the life of “pre-retreat”, often as a couple, during ancient times carried on in the forest (vanaprastha), and renunciation, solitude and complete independence (sannyas). This fourth stage of human existence is traditionally considered the most suitable for the teaching of the fourth and last of the classical goals, liberation. This renunciation is one of the typical features of India, be it Hindu or Buddhist or Jain.3

The idea of liberation and of union with the Absolute, which is the common basis of Indian spirituality, is especially developed in the Upanishads, “the end of the Vedas”, whose teaching has been further systematized by the Vedanta philosophy. This does not mean that the whole of Indian civilization is mystical or monastic, far from it. Every quest has its own place; moreover, materialism has always been present. According to the materialist, we are on this earth only to have the maximum amount of pleasure with the minimum possible tedium. This school is characteristically labelled lokayata, ‘what people think’… The Brahman, on the other hand, immersed in his tradition, can combine family life with religious practices, even though the latter include many hours of daily rituals.

Since I am not writing a doctoral dissertation, I shall tackle only those aspects of tradition that seem to me to still exist in the contemporary India, and I shall pass over those which have faded away in the course of the centuries. The scholars of Indology, however, will find in the footnotes sufficient bibliographical references for further study of these questions.


From Guru to Guru

The word guru has many meanings. It has the same root as the Latin gravis and, therefore, it has the meaning of grave, serious, that which has weight, prestigious. In ancient Rome, for instance, one spoke of a gravis auctor, in order to refer to an authority among magistrates, especially a senator. This notion of the “heaviness of the sacred” in the West is found again in the legend of Saint Christopher —the further he went while crossing the river, the more difficult he found it to sustain the weight of the Child Jesus.

The Indian traditional society had two poles: the king and the brahman. The first gave the orders and paid the fee for the sacrifice; the second performed the ritual. The Brahmanic class is not without relation to that of the Druids at the other end of the Indo-European world. In a certain sense, all those who perform a ritual deserve to be called gurus by those who benefit from it. Later, ‘guru’ has assumed a more specific nuance, that of a purely spiritual teacher, of a realized being speaking of his own experience (Sadguru), although guruji remains as well a term of respect, very common in the present Hindi language, for any elderly person considered to know something more than the others….4 The Acharya is the religious teacher in the general sense of the term; he gives instructions to people. As regards the pandit, he is a specialist of the texts and customs; he does not have a decisive spiritual responsibility. This clear-cut distinction between pandit and Sadguru, who teaches experiential spirituality, as well as the supreme authority which the latter enjoys, is one of the factors or one of the signs of the spiritual vitality of Hinduism.

From the point of view of the traditional etymology, often quoted by the Hindus, gu means “darkness” and ru means “to destroy, to dissolve”: the guru is, then, the one who dissolves the darkness. In the following two chapters we shall endeavour to deal particularly with the notion of Sadguru, of the guru who leads to being (sat). When the notion of guru is unduly stretched into the intellectual or social domain, it very often becomes an easy label for justifying any authority whatsoever, even any possible authoritarianism. “Abandoning one’s own will” has a meaning only if one is doing it in the hands of a being who has also abandoned his own will, of one who does not have any ego left. Otherwise, it is an authorized exploitation of man by man, either gross or subtle.

The Sadguru, the being who has reached the Absolute, is a very rare phenomenon. In the Upanishads, only a small group of rishis are mentioned as fully realized, such as Yajnavalkya, Angiras, Ashvapati, Kaikeya… Certain schools do not recognize the possibility of liberation in this very life (jivanmukti); they accept complete liberation only at the moment of death. The schools influenced by Yoga, Vedanta and Tantras, accept the possibility of liberation within this very life; the devotional and dualist schools deny it. Perhaps these latter liken liberation to samadhi without the consciousness of the external world, and, therefore, do not clearly see the possibility of a samadhi in the midst of action. As in Christianity, they are careful to maintain the separation between the soul and God—a human being able to become as Shiva (shiva iva bhavati) but not Shiva himself (shiva eva bhavati). Be that as it may, all Hindu traditions recognize the fundamental importance of Sadguru for revealing God, or the Self, hidden in the heart of the disciple. This model, this archetype of Sadguru, remains still today the focal point of the Hindu conscience when this is oriented towards the spiritual quest. I could see, during my field-work, that owing to its structural suppleness, it is not likely to disappear.

One may ask oneself whether having one’s spirit always fixed on a single individual is not a limitation, an impoverishment of the multiple possibilities of the mind. A story of the Puranas, re-told by Ramana Maharshi, conveys the contrary opinion. Shiva, the Supreme God, and his spouse Parvati, were seated on the Mount Kailash with their two children — Ganesha, the God-Elephant, and Subrahmanya. Shiva showed a fruit to the children and told them: “It shall be for the one who will first come back after having done a tour of the world.” Subrahmanya got up running, but Ganesha contented himself with touring around his parents, and it was he who got the fruit. To try to discern what the Sadguru really is and what the Self is, manifested in him, is the noblest of the activities of the spirit, even if it is not the most spectacular one.

This does not mean that Indian tradition is rigidly attached to the flesh and blood presence of a guru as the only source of learning. Dattatreya is famous for having received the teaching from twenty-four gurus, including a bee, a crow, the ocean, a prostitute, and a weaver . One of the first expressions of the Indian spirit’s openness in its acceptance of the teachings from different sources, is this verse of the Rig-Veda: “May the noble thoughts come to us from all directions.” The guru is a help, allowing the disciple to remember his true nature. He is as the minister of the king who traces the whereabouts of the prince who as a child had been kidnapped by the inhabitants of the forest. In order not to frighten him, the minister begins by visiting him in the forest itself; then he invites him to come from time to time to the palace; then he engages him as a helper in the kitchen, then as a valet to the king, until the moment comes when the king himself discloses to him his true nature as a prince.


A Guru for Every Initiation

One cannot speak about gurus without speaking about initiation (diksa).5 As still among the Tibetans today, there was a time in India when one could not start a work, for instance the study of a text, without a previous initiation. In the Hinduism practised in our times, the aged persons and the dying ones willingly take initiation from a guru, since both initiation (diksha) and liberation (moksha) are much interconnected, starting with the similarity of the words themselves.

The first initiation, i.e., the meeting with the first guru (other than one’s parents) is the upanayana, which gives to the children of the higher castes the status of “twice born” (dvija). In ancient times it was given to both boys and girls but now it is with rare exception reserved for boys. It marks traditionally the entrance into the Vedic school (gurukul) traditionally for some twelve years. This is an obligatory social rite, practised in a great variety of manners for many centuries. The children receive in it the Gayatri mantra and there one finds many symbols of “rites de passage“: namely, initiatory death, (the boy is covered by a veil or else has his eyes bandaged),6 imposition of the hands, sprinkling of water, presence of fire around which revolve all the great religious events of the life of a Hindu: initiation, marriage, taking sannyasa and finally death which is followed by cremation. The guru is compared to a second mother:

“The guru puts his right hand on the head of the disciple, keeps him close to his bosom, and on the third day he delivers the embryo.”7

One gives to the person in the process of being initiated a special honey-based food, which is used also for the married girl (whose marriage is considered as an equivalent of upanayana) when she reaches the house of her spouse, and which is given to the god when he “comes down” during the consecration of his statue in a temple.8 The guru is sometimes compared to a father and the mantra to a mother. He establishes a relationship of unity with his disciple:

“Your heart shall reside in my heart, my spirit shall follow your spirit: you will rejoice with all your heart at my word; … your thoughts shall never leave me.”9

It is desirable that the youth or the young adult finds his own guru and approaches him, or her—after a period of mutual observation—, to ask him for an initiation with a sacred formula that the guru will choose for him (mantra-diksha). In this way, he, the disciple, will be tied to a lineage (parampara) and to a sampradaya which represents a group of some thousands to hundreds of thousands or perhaps even millions of persons. The disciple has to be qualified in order to deserve and later benefit from the initiation. In the wider sense of the term, this qualification consists of a sincere desire to come out of suffering:

“I am in servitude; may I become free! He who is thus convinced, whose ignorance or knowledge is not complete, is qualified to study the teaching” (Yoga Vasistha, I;2-1).

The mantra is whispered three times by the guru in the ear of the disciple, while the two protagonists of the initiation are covered with a veil. The mantra has to be kept secret by the one who has received it; sometimes some initiated ones prefer to also keep secret the name of their teacher. It happens, especially in the yoga of knowledge (jnana yoga), that the guru initiates in silence, without giving any mantra, but simply by his own presence or gaze or touch. Ramana Maharshi declared: “If the guru is silent, the mind of the seeker is purified by itself.”

The Hindus think that if a yogi has spoken only the truth for twelve years, he becomes satyavac, that is to say that every word that he pronounces is realized. If it happens that he gives a mantra, this latter has every chance of leading to the realization of the divine. The power of truth is nicely expressed in the image of Yudhisthira, the chief of the “good side” in the Mahabharata. He never told a lie and his chariot had the power of moving without touching the ground. One day, during the battle, he was forced to tell a ‘virtual’ lie for the benefit of the cause. Immediately his chariot started to roll heavily on the ground, like those of all the other warriors.

Theoretically, the mantra is only a vehicle of the spiritual force (shakti) of the guru. This is expressed in the following story: a king learns that his prime minister recites a mantra; he desires to receive from him initiation. The minister answers that he is not a guru and therefore he does not have the power to give it. Since the king does not understand and insists, the minister calls a guard in and commands him pointing to the king: “imprison this man for me!”. The guard does not move. The minister repeats his order a second, a third time; the guard remains fixed where he is. Then the king blasts: “Enough of this comedy, seize this man!”. Immediately, the guard responds and takes hold of the minister. The latter smiles and says: “Do you understand now the difference of power existing behind one and the same word?”

In practice, since Indians are in a good position to understand that perfect gurus are rare, they insist on the role of the practice and of the positive projection of the disciple on the mantra which he recites to compensate guru’s defects : “No matter who has sown the seed of the mantra in you, yours is the responsibility of watering it and making it grow”, said Ma Anandamayi. She was a woman of Bengali origin, practically illiterate, whose reputation as a spiritual master spread beyond the boundaries of India. She passed away in 1982, leaving behind her about thirty ashrams. She belongs to those who have manifested the vitality of Hinduism in our century.

The supreme initiation of Hinduism is the monastic initiation (sannyas-diksha). It frees people from the bounds of family and of caste, from ritual obligations, and, theoretically, from the guru himself. It is the supreme deconditioning, more complete than in the West where the monastic initiation attaches one rather to a community, to one’s abbot, to the practice of the life of the sacraments and of the divine office. “The Master”, in the words of Shankaracharya, the great non-dualist philosopher, “creates equality between the disciple and himself.” During the initiatory ritual, the disciple prostrates himself before the master, and the master before the disciple. The Buddha had received this acknowledgement of equality from one of his two masters, Alara Kalama, who had declared to him: “The doctrine that I know, you know it equally; and the doctrine that you know, I know it equally. You are as I am, I am as you are. I beg you, let us together be the guardians of this group.” The Buddha added: “It is in this way that Alara Kalama, my master, placed me exactly on the same level as himself.”10


The Origins of the Relationship Between Guru and Disciple

With the Family of the Vedic Rishis

Ancient Hinduism was an oral tradition. The rishis (Vedic seers) like the gurus of the time, liked to live in the forest, together with their wives, their children and with a certain number of young disciples, who were treated as members of their family. Gurukul, the name of the Vedic school, indeed means: “family of the guru”. For two thousand years, the Vedas have been transmitted in these schools entirely from mouth to ear. Even after the tenth century when the text started to be written down, the oral teaching continued to be the only means employed for their learning. A trace of such Vedic schools is found today in the Buddhism of South-East Asia, where the young people have to spend about a year of monastic life in a monastery before their marriage.

The learned man (shushruvan) literally means: “he who has heard”. What is paradoxically translated as Sacred “Scripture” (shruti) signifies in fact “what has been heard”, and also the word meant to designate the more recent traditions, where one could believe that the usage of script texts was generalized, indeed means “what has been memorised” (smriti). The students repeat by heart the lineage of the teachers, which goes back to the Brahman, the Absolute, or to the Sun. One asks a disciple to know the name of at least three predecessors of his guru. Besides, one sometimes admits a direct connection with God. In this sense, Hinduism is more flexible than Sufism and its initiatory chains (silsila) which must go back to the Prophet, or even more than Buddhism and its lineages which must go back to the Buddha. Nevertheless, with Tilopa in the Tibetan Buddhism, one finds this notion of a direct connection with the Absolute, with the Buddha. Tilopa, the founder of the lineage of the Red-hat (Kagyupa) in the Middle Ages, did not have any Sadguru in physical form. The spiritual lineage is not less real than the lineage of blood. In the case of the demise of the guru, the inheritance would go to the disciple. This lineage goes back, as we have said, to Brahman (the Absolute) and is embodied in the Brahmanic gurus (the caste specialized in religion), who teach to equally Brahmanic disciples, wishing to realize Brahman, the Absolute. The coincidence of the terms is not fortuitous.11

I was able to visit in Nashik, near Bombay, a big Vedic school under construction but with some of its buildings already completed. The children have to stay there from five to ten years, without holidays apart from exceptional cases. The education is free of cost. Each guru directs a group of about ten students, seated in a circle. He makes them repeat the verses, first together, then one by one. The one who makes a mistake too often gets the cane. Of the two teachers who were operating when I visited, one looked like a good man, the other rather like a dictator. The children seemed neither more nor less unhappy than the children in any other school. There the emphasis is laid upon memorization; the older children have some more general courses about tradition and philosophy. They are destined to become priests in the big temples. These Vedic schools are becoming rare in our times, the parents being more keen, usually, to give their children a general education, which assures them of a wider choice of professions in the future.

The quick recitation of the Vedas is, in the most common tradition, combined with all the students moving their hands in unison according to appropriate mudras (symbolic figures). This produces a great dynamism. In certain cases this recitation is kept secret. For instance, some Brahmins from the South have come to Banaras in order to make some of their colleagues of the North listen to the chants of Sama-Veda, which they did not know. The transmission took place behind closed doors, away from the ears of the lower castes, of women, and of Western students of Sanskrit, who had to remain fasting, deprived as they were of an interesting opportunity to learn…

On the other hand, I met, also in Banaras, another Brahman coming from the South on the occasion of the dedication of a new small temple. From age seven to nineteen, he was in a Vedic school to learn a portion of the Yajur-Veda and the Upanishads associated with it. He never went back to his family but his family came to visit him. From the time he entered that school to the moment I met him he did not sleep more than five hours a night. He had learned what he knows of the Vedas with the same guru for twelve years and this made him say: “You people believe that the Vedas are a book, but for me it is a face, it is an intonation.”

He has an extraordinary energy. He takes only one meal per day. “I do not have time,” he explains, “I have been initiated into a hundred mantras, and it is necessary that I practise them every day.” His friend who received him and saw him in his everyday life, has commented to me: “He is a live wire.” I observed him while he was teaching a passage of the Vedas; he did not hesitate. His eyes shifted laterally, which, according to neuro-linguistic programming, corresponds to the auditory memory. This type of sight is rarely met with in the West, since this kind of memory is rarely used. There is a certain grandeur in this Brahmin who recites and teaches without referring to any book, because all his knowledge is within. Like the Aryan of the Vedic period, he lives in the countryside and owns some horses. He rides them for pleasure. It was the first time that I had met a rider in India. “What I miss here in Banaras,” he added with a rather nostalgic smile, “are my horses…”

The Vedic rishi is a man-god. He compels the gods to come to him by the power of his rituals; he frightens them with his austerities which give him sufficient power to defy heaven. His word, either of blessing or of cursing, is always realized. He knows how to transmute and to balance in himself the psychospiritual forces: “He drinks the poison together with Shiva…. in him all the gods are in harmony.”12 In this sense, the Buddha was well within the Vedic rishis’ lineage when he declared: “Nobody can transform into a defeat the victory of him who has conquered himself, not even a god, neither a heavenly creature, nor the demon (Mara), nor the Absolute (Brahman).”13

This notion of man-god does not belong to India alone: the first chapter of Genesis speaks about the Beni Elohim, the “sons of the gods”, who saw that the daughters of the men were beautiful, and who begot children with them just before the Deluge. Such children were giants (nephalim). The sons of the giants inhabited the country of Canaan when the Jews wanted to enter it (Nb 13;33). It seems, therefore, that the Bible alluded to a race of demi-gods as independent as the Indian rishis, little worrying about the divine wrath; they could even escape the Deluge without having to resort to Noah and his ark. In Greece, mythology speaks about Titans; it is said, moreover, that Empedokles of Agrigento, the pre-Socratic “philosopher”, was crowned like a god and received the cult of the people. He declared: “I walk before you as an immortal god. Millions of people will follow me in order to discover the way leading to salvation.”14

One refers to the Laws of Manu when one speaks about the foundations of Indian society. Therein an entire chapter is devoted to the guru, crystallizing in aphorisms the traditional recommendations on this subject-matter. According to Manu, knowledge cannot be transmitted but to those who deserve it: “It is better that a teacher of the Vedas dies with his knowledge, even in poverty, rather than sowing knowledge in an arid and salty soil” (II;13). They preach the ideal of the renouncer (samnyas) as the crowning of human existence, thus giving a basis to the notion of attaining the status of Sadguru, the liberated one, while alive:

“That he may go alone, without help, to look for perfection; that he may see perfection only in the One, who does not forsake and is not forsaken…. Rejoicing in the supreme Self, seated, indifferent, without desires, with his own Self as his only companion, he, seeking happiness, must exist here” (VI;42,49).

The Puranas (Hindu Scriptures of the Middle Ages period) do not contribute anything fundamentally new to the texts of the origins: the Kurma Purana, whose second chapter is devoted to the guru, indeed, repeats the Laws of Manu.


The Mahabharata or the Blood of the Guru

The Mahabharata is with the Ramayana one of the two great epics of India. It is called the “fifth Veda” because it is supposed to contain, in its twelve big volumes, the gist of the knowledge of its age, that is that of the first centuries of our era. It has as its background the description of a war among brothers. There Arjuna, pushed by his new guru, Krishna, is seen wounding to death his own old guru Bhisma, who was in the opposing party. It has many anecdotes which throw light on new aspects of the guru-disciple relationship. Even before the very beginning of the narration, it describes the sage Vyasa looking for a secretary-disciple who would write down the great poem which he had conceived. Ganapati accepts on condition that Vyasa dictates without any hesitation. Vyasa agrees, but puts another condition in his turn: Ganapati has to understand the meaning of what he writes before noting it down.15 Thus, the first transmission of the teaching of the Mahabharata is presented clearly, neatly and directly.

Another story illustrates well the right way of approaching a guru. Duryodhana, the chief of those who want to usurp the kingdom, and his cousin Arjuna, the champion of righteousness, come to the king-guru Krishna to ask for assistance. Duryodhana, being proud, takes advantage of his position of being the elder in order to enter first and sit down on a throne placed at the head of the bed where the king is sleeping. Arjuna, more modest, stands at his feet. When he awakes, Krishna sees Arjuna first; since he knows that Arjuna is the younger of the two, he gives him the first choice between the two types of help that he can offer: either his armies, or himself, unarmed, as an adviser. Arjuna chooses the second possibility which will assure him of victory in the future. As for Duryodhana, he goes away very happy with Krishna’s armies, not foreseeing that his happiness will be short lived and that he runs towards his ruin.16

Interpreting this story according to the usual symbolism of Hinduism, one may perceive in the sleep of Krishna the evocation of the state of realization of the guru, which is often compared with the persistence of consciousness (the state of witness, turya) even in deep sleep. In this state, mental complications, fears, desires, are as far from him as from a sleeper immersed in a sleep without dreams. Duryodhana, placed at the head of the bed, represents the proud disciple sure of being the strongest, who wants to understand with his intellect and to dictate to the guru what he has to do. Arjuna, who is at the feet of Krishna, is the disciple whose heart is open, and who prefers a personalized relationship with his guru rather than an easy power over his “armies”, i.e., his ashrams, his organization or his other disciples.

Immediately after, in the enthusiasm of the newly established relationship, Arjuna declares that he will fight as well as Krishna has done till that moment. The latter does not get cross about this, but rather encourages him in these terms: “Do you try to enter in competition with me? May you succeed in it!”17 This good resolution will not prevent Arjuna from feeling the greatest fear of his life, just before the beginning of the battle, and asking advice and encourage-ment from Krishna—this will be the topic of the Bhagavad-Gita of which we shall speak again.

Another meaningful episode is also placed just before the battle. Yudhisthira, the eldest brother of Arjuna and chief of the party of the righteous ones, puts down his arms and approaches the ranks of the enemies. The latter rejoice because they think, “The coward! He is afraid and comes to negotiate for the peace at a low price.” But Yudhisthira goes and prostrates himself before his old guru Bhishma, who is in the opposite ranks and asks him for his blessing. The latter gives it to him without hesitation: “You have the righteousness (dharma) on your side. If I am on the wrong side, it is because I am bound by my obligations, but it is you who will be the winner!”.18 That same Bhishma, when fatally wounded by his disciple Arjuna, will not forget his function as guru. He asks to be laid on a bed of arrows and would devote six months on this improvised bed to give out the most philosophical teaching of the Mahabharata as expounded in its twelfth book, the “Book of Peace” (Shantiparva). Only after this, will he give up his soul.

In India it is usually said that the mother is the first guru. Nevertheless, she is not necessarily a sentimental and easily influenced guru. Take for instance the mother of Duryodhana, the chief of the usurpers’ clan: at the dawn of each of the eighteen days of the battle, her son used to come to ask for her blessing, because he felt that the situation was more and more slipping out of his control. His righteous mother just answered him: “Where dharma is, there is also victory” And on the eighteenth day he was killed.

This same Duryodhana, just before his death, reproached Krishna for all his “tricks”, which he considered acts of treason and failures in the rules of chivalry and in the war conventions: the question of knowing which is the right action to accomplish is not so easy, not even when one is, as Krishna was, a king, a guru and a god all at once…


The Bhagavad Gita, a Teaching for the Time of Distress

The Bhagavad-Gita is the gospel of Hinduism. It was composed near the beginning of our era and represents the balance of the three ways of yoga: knowledge (jnana), devotion (bhakti) and action (karma). The Song (Gita) of the Lord (Bhagavat) is born from the urgent request of Arjuna just before the great battle of the Mahabharata. He sees half of his family, his friends and his old gurus in the opposite camp and he feels his legs shaking at the idea of having to massacre them: “It is better for me to live on alms in this world rather than to kill the noblest of the gurus” (II.5). “My heart is submerged by pity; my spirit is confused about what I have to do; tell me truly what is good for me. I am your disciple; teach me, I took refuge in you” (II.57).

Seeing Arjuna’s distress, Krishna, who had started by “scolding” Arjuna, became milder and began to instruct him “as if he were smiling” (II.10). On a higher level, this situation of conflict between the old and the new guru, presented by the Gita, may represent the necessity of abandoning the human guru in his physical form in order to turn to the interior guru, either if the first passes away or if he is separated from his disciple. Furthermore, Krishna declares that he himself is the same god who, in the beginning, founded a lineage of gurus, which later was lost. But, since the situation is serious, he comes down again upon this earth:

“Every time that justice (dharma) declines and that injustice grows up, I manifest myself. For the protection of the good and for the destruction of the bad, for the establishment of a steady justice, I am born again cycle after cycle (yuga)” (IV.7,8).

These verses are very often quoted in modern Hinduism in order to clarify the reason for the descent of a great sage (avatara), even if the latter did not have a guru. The growing acceptance this word “avatara” has got for centuries has certainly been a sign of vitality in Hinduism, even if sometimes it creates a little confusion when it comes to establishing who is an avatara and who is not. For Hinduism, contrary to the Semitic religions, history is cyclic; it constantly reproduces itself. The coming of the “Saviour” or of the “Seal of the Prophets” cannot be put at a distance as an unique event of the past, and therefore necessarily separated from us, even if one tries to actualise it again through meditation and ritual. A little later, Krishna defines himself as the god-guru able to accept anyone according to the path he walks: “Whatever the way through which men approach Me, I reward them. In any case it is through my path that men proceed” (IV.11). This evokes a significant saying of Ma Anandamayi, when she explained her reactions to some of her visitors: “You shall hear the sound according to the manner in which you will play the instrument.”

The evolution of the Bhagavad-Gita is that of a successful relationship between guru and disciple. At the beginning the disciple primarily sees his guru in his human shape, as a friend, or perhaps as a father. Then the disciple discovers the guru’s divine aspect:

“The non-intelligent man thinks that I, the un-manifested one, am but manifested, not recognizing my supreme, sublime and immutable nature” (VII.24).

This path demands patience and perseverance in the disciple; “Know that you will be instructed in this knowledge by the wise who has seen Reality, thanks to your humble request, your questions and your service” (IV.34). Krishna suggests to Arjuna that the supreme fruit of devotion, either to the guru or to God, is the experience of Unity:

“He who sees Me everywhere and who sees everything in Me, is never separated from Me, and I am never separated from him” (VI.30).

Nevertheless, Arjuna cannot recognize this divine nature of his friend, charioteer and guru, until he himself reveals himself in his universal form. Becoming confused, Arjuna, at that moment, asks for Krishna’s pardon for having dealt with him lightly. The narrative of this pivotal experience of the Gita (chapter XI) is composed of a special type of verse of eleven syllables, sung on a particular kind of melody which one often hears in the ashrams.

The divine Guru does not bother to choose his devotees; it is these latter who recognize him:

“I am the same for every being; for Me nobody is preferable or deserves to be rejected; but those who worship Me with devotion are in Me, and I am in them as well” (IX.29).

The Sadguru who is One with the Self remains steady in his own mystery: “Truly there is only You to know Yourself through yourself” (X.15). “Among the secrets, I am silence; among those who know, I am knowledge” (X.38).

The last word of Arjuna is of gratitude. He thanks his guru for having given him simultaneously the memory of his true nature and a new capacity to act:

“My illusion is destroyed by your grace, Oh Krishna, because I have found again my memory; I am steady, free from all hesitation and shall act according to your word” (XVIII.73).

But Krishna, as a true guru, let Arjuna be free:

“Thus has wisdom, more secret than secrecy itself, been declared unto thee by me; having reflected over it fully, then act as you wishest.” (XVIII.63)


The Upanishads: Seated at the Feet of the Guru

The Upanishads are the basis of a pan-Indian spirituality. One of the many possible interpretations of the term is: “To be seated” (nishad) at the feet of the Guru (upa): that is to say that the Upanishads represent the teaching received at the feet of certain gurus, supposed to have attained Brahman, the Absolute. What these gurus teach to their disciples is simple: “You are That, you are this Absolute.”

In the context of that period, to have a guru was as normal as to have a mother or a father, at least in certain milieus (Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad, IV.12). One sees, for instance, that time and time again gods, men and demons approach Prajapati as a guru (id., 5,1). Divinisation is not applied only to the guru; a famous verse advises: “Be the one for whom father, mother, guru and guest are gods” (Taittiriya Upanishad, I.11). When the guru and the disciple are both gods, their relationship becomes very long; when Indra approached Prajapati in order to receive a teaching, he stayed thirty-two years in his house before the latter would ask him: “What do you want since you have lived thirty-two years in my company?”…(Chandogya Upanishad, VIII.7-3). Then they speak a bit about the Self, and after this Indra waits another thirty-two years before asking a second question. At the end of a hundred and one years he succeeds at last in attaining the supreme teaching. Usually, the period spent together with the guru in his house before receiving a formal teaching from him, was one year usually and sometimes more.

From time to time, the Guru does not hesitate to tell his disciple that he asks too many questions. Thus, Yajnavalkya says to Gargi: “Gargi, do not ask too many questions, lest your head should fall apart. Verily, you ask too many questions regarding a Deity about whom one cannot ask anything more. Gargi, do not ask so many questions!” (Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad, III.6). In another text, a disciple asks a series of six questions about life. The Guru begins by replying that it is too much, but finally he answers him (Prashna Upanishad, III.1 ff).

The tale of Satyakama (Chandogya Upanishad, IV.5 ff) has inspired generations of Indian disciples. His name means “Desire for Truth”; his love of truth caused him to be immediately accepted by his guru, because he had frankly declared that his mother could not tell who his father was among all the lovers she had during that period. Being separated from his guru and later when also sick, Satyakama received teachings from a bull, fire, a swan and a kingfisher and he realised that the Absolute is “life, joy and emptiness.” His guru marvels when he sees him on his return and he says to him: “Verily, my dear disciple, you shine like somebody who knows the Absolute; who, then, has instructed you?” Satyakama did not get proud, but instead asks his guru to confirm the intuitions he had of the Supreme.

In another passage, a guru teaches his disciple the uselessness of ritual action, of spiritual practices and of all mechanical means of attaining the knowledge of the One:

“After watching the worlds raised out of action, a Brahman should attain indifference. ‘That’ which is not the result of an action, in fact, cannot be gained by any action whatsoever. If he desires to have such a Knowledge, he must approach a guru” (Mundaka Upanishad, I.1-2).

Knowledge, being supremely free, finally will not reveal itself but to those it chooses:

“One can obtain the Self neither by instruction, nor by intellect, nor by a vast amount of learning. One obtains it only when one has been chosen by It.”

“The Self reveals itself only to such a person” (Katha Upa-nishad, II.23).

This grace of the Self will later be identified, by Shankaracharya, with the grace of the guru, superior in its efficacy to all the heavy ritualism of the Vedic Brahmanism.

The Upanishads speak several times about “two birds, with similar names, which are strictly associated with one another and are on the same tree. Of the two, one eats a tasty fruit, and the other, without eating, looks at him” (Mundaka Upanishad, III.11). One may interpret this verse in two ways: either the bird who does not eat is the disciple who discovers the state of inner happiness (ananda) in which his Master rests, and of which the latter collects the fruit (maha-bhokta). Simply looking at the Master transforms and enhances him. Or, in the opposite interpretation—that of Shankaracharya in his Commentary,19 —, the bird eating the fruit is the disciple, who has not distanced himself from his desires and his avidity. But, all of a sudden, he feels that he is being watched by the Master, who is also his conscious double in the state of witness (turya, the fourth state of consciousness). And the mere fact of feeling himself being watched changes the disciple.

The guru embodies the existence of he who is beyond paradox:

“Those who adore the not-becoming enter in blind darkness. Those who adore the becoming enter in even greatest darkness. This is what we have heard from the Wise One who has explained That to us” (Isha Upanishad, 12).

The true nature of the Sadguru is not easy to grasp. To confess that it is “That”, that it is the Self, is but a starting point for the meditation of the disciple:

“That moves. That does not move. That is far, and That is near. That is in all, and That is out of all” (Isha, 5).

But to grasp that true nature is liberation itself:

“The knot of the heart is loosened,

All doubts vanish,

And the consequences of our preceding actions (karma) dissipate.

When one sees It, the Support, the Supreme” (Mundaka Upanishad, II.2-8).


The Vedanta “When the Guru and Disciple are but One, Neither Guru nor Disciple are any Longer There”

Vedanta is the systematization of the Upanishadic non-dualism. This non-dualism is directly applied to the guru-disciple relationship. The communion of the sage with the Absolute is of the same ultimate nature as the communion of the guru and the disciple. It is a complete unity, “like the milk poured in milk, oil poured in oil and water in water.”20

Shankaracharya, the principal exponent of Vedanta, is believed to have lived in the 9th century; he died at the age of thirty- two, according to tradition, but in spite of such an early death, had a considerable influence on Hindu religious thought and organisation. Little is known about his personality, nevertheless one may still mention his praise made by one of his main disciples:

“He has given up power and its temptations; the true reasoning has chosen to dwell in him for ever, becoming an integral part of himself. He is calm and serene, because he has uprooted powerful Time, which destroys everything. He has no obstruction anywhere.”21

One should not insist on the opposition of Vedantic practice, which is the yoga of knowledge (Jnana), and the other two paths, devotion (Bhakti) and action (Karma). Some compare them to three fingers , leading to the same palm of a hand, others to three phalanges gradually leading to the goal: from action to devotion and from devotion to knowledge. This knowledge goes far beyond an ordinary intellectual one, as the Vedanta guru is never tired to repeat at length:

“Even if Vishnu, Shiva or Brahma born from the lotus are instructing you, if you do not forget all, you cannot be established in the Self.”22

The fact of seeing the impersonal Absolute in the guru is not a personality cult. Indian tradition plays endlessly on this paradox. The guru is a window towards the divine. One may choose to remain hypnotized by the window-post and the paint covering it, that is to say by the guru’s physical form. But one may also, as is the most natural thing, simply look out through the frame of this window, to see a corner of blue sky and even, perhaps, a ray of sun.

In his philosophy as well as in his organisation of monasticism, Shankaracharya has been influenced by the Buddhists. Nevertheless, a big Buddhist monastery is usually directed by a community of teachers, while the Vedanta guru is alone responsible for his ashram. Generally, however, these Vedanta ashrams are not very large.

If the religious Hindus have developed the idea of compassion less than the Buddhist monks, it is perhaps because on the whole the former were more in contact with people—who were always drawn to the sages by their Hindu customs—than the Buddhist monks, who lived rather isolated in their large institutions. For the Hindu religious people the question of compassion was a reality, a daily necessity which did not need, perhaps, to become an object of special meditation.

Normally, the Vedanta guru gives a teaching at the same time intellectual and spiritual, unlike the Bhakti guru who would tend rather to be more exclusively spiritual. The guru knows the Scriptures, and also knows the Absolute. The triad Guru-Scriptures-Absolute is an important feature of Shankaracharya’s thinking.23


Qualities of Guru, Qualities of Disciple

The word of the guru has an almost creative power: “even if one taught this to a dry stump, branches would come out, leaves would develop” (Chandogya Upanishad, V.2.1). The guru is the spark which arouses the right understanding. He is like the passer-by in the story of the ten children who waded across the river: they ask one another if everyone has safely reached the shore; and one of them, after counting his friends, is very worried because he finds only nine. Another one also finds only nine and looks for the tenth one, until the passer-by, who was watching the scene, points at the one who had just finished counting and says: “That tenth you are looking for is yourself!” The guru does not create liberation; indeed, this state is always present in the disciple. What he does is to fight against the obstacles which keep it at bay. He removes the obstacles on the way to liberation.

For the Vedanta, certain qualities of the disciple are very important; first of all discrimination (viveka), by which one understands the futility of the majority of the objects we covet and the endless complications they bring us. If this discrimination is authentic, the second quality, renunciation (vairagya) will come automatically, after some time without even being an effort. If, for instance, one realizes that one’s bag is full of rocks, it is not really an effort to empty it at the side of the road and to continue one’s trip without this burden. Another major quality of the disciple is his desire for liberation (mumukshutva). This desire is a peculiar one, because it does not create attachment, but makes one free of other desires and attachments. It may also occur that, at a higher level, one will renounce even this desire; but at the level of an ordinary disciple it would be a great mistake to renounce the aspiration towards liberation, when he has not yet even been able to begin to develop it.

The quality of listening in the disciple is an essential factor for a successful relationship with the guru. It is never a banal relationship, even if the guru is one’s own spouse, as in the Yoga Vasistha (a medieval text close to the Vedantic current of thought).

“I shall teach you, Oh royal sage (the king was disciple of the queen Chudala, who speaks in this text), the special character of this knowledge. May you keep my words in your heart! Thus I would not speak in vain like the crow of the story who speaks to the pot! When a master is asked questions only in play and his words are not laid to heart by those who listen to them, whatever he may say is as useless as the power of vision of the eyes in the black night. A child receives the words of his father without asking for justification. It is exactly with this attitude of mind that you should follow what I say. Listen to it first in the same way as you would listen to music, without claiming proofs or reasons. Afterwards you could use your intelligence for appreciating its value!”24

One may say about the Vedanta guru what the assistant of Ma Anandamayi could say of her after having lived in her presence for several decades: “She is beyond good and evil, but rather on the side of good”… Even before the moment of liberation, all virtues have become a second nature in the advanced spiritual practitioner (sadhaka). These virtues, which before liberation were like goals in themselves, later on become only its spontaneous expression.

It is useful for a disciple to meditate on the signs which enable one to recognise an authentic guru, a realised being. In this sense, Shankaracharya talks about three main qualities: the intellectual knowledge of tradition, a childlike mind and silence. The last two virtues were as evident in Shankaracharya himself as in one of his favourite gods, Dakshinamurti. Dakshinamurti was an adolescent son of Shiva who had become the guru of the four sons of Brahma. These had gone to see Vishnu in his mountain in order to beg him for the supreme knowledge. However, when they got a glimpse of him in the midst of his riches together with his wife Lakshmi, dressed in purple, they did not have a favourable impression and left. On their way back, they met Dakshinamurti sitting under a tree. They stopped, sat meditating with him and attained that supreme knowledge for which they were searching.

But, even if he has a childlike mind, nonetheless the guru also has some motherly qualities: he is compared to a wasp which lays an egg in a cell and buzzes around it incessantly for countless days.25 Ashtavakra, for instance, did not lack these qualities; he was a wandering sage whose body, at birth, was deformed in eight ways, hence his name. Once he was recognised as a guru by the king Janaka, the sage began to call the latter “my child”, which, considering the difference of status, seemed somewhat surprising, to say the least.26

The Sadguru has another quality which would astonish our “in-depth psychologists”: he almost does not dream, “because those situations which could form some impressions during his waking state are too weak to create clear and definite dreams. His mind has become so fluid that the objects perceived when awake do hardly leave any mark that may be projected again in a dream.”27

The Vedanta disciple develops himself through a three-fold method, which is indeed perfectly logical. He begins by listening to the word of the Master (shravana) or, failing this, by reading some spiritual texts. Then, in a second stage, he reflects upon them (manana); associating ideas, working out a relationship between this new notion and what he already knows, examining the similarities and the differences. Nididhyasana is the name of the third and last stage where he realizes in a deeper state of consciousness what he is concentrating on or what comes spontaneously back to his memory.

The effort of meditation, even if it cannot lead directly to supreme knowledge, must be made. A present-day teacher of Vedanta recommends four to five hours of daily practice devoted to asking oneself: “Who am I?” and to rejecting all the intellectual and emotional answers, or merely the feelings which may come to mind, and then slowly to developing the feeling of one’s identity with being, conscience and happiness (sadchidananda one of the names of the Absolute in the Vedanta). With this need for time, one can understand how this type of meditation may be difficult to practise for those leading a family life; however, in every walk of life, endeavour is necessary: “If a guru may enlighten an ignorant person without the latter making any effort, why not then a bull, an elephant or a camel?”28

It may be mentioned, since in this domain everything is a paradox, that the grace of the guru is necessary as well, be it in the yoga of knowledge (jnana) or in the yoga of devotion (bhakti). The general tendency of Hinduism is to recommend Bhakti, with some Jnana, to the general people, and Jnana with some Bhakti to the renouncers. In the philosophical sphere, the best representative of this association of Jnana and Bhakti is Madhusudana Sarasvati Sixteenth century). The contemporary sages are remarkable for the ease with which they shift from Jnana to Bhakti, from non-duality to duality and vice versa.


A New Relationship Between Action and Inaction

Vedanta often comes back to the fact that a mere action cannot lead to realisation, that the world is an illusion, a mental construct. Does this mean that the sage is a lazy, egoistic and de-realised being, indeed even schizophrenic? I do not think so.

To begin with one has to understand that when Shankaracharya spoke of “action” (karma), he mainly meant the sacrificial action of the Brahmans of his time. These thoughts that one could force open the door of liberation with the power of rituals accumulated over years of untiring practice. This latter idea was an important trend in Hinduism, and is philosophically expressed in the Purva-Mimamsa. Shankaracharya does not criticize the spontaneous and disinterested action of the sage, which he himself exemplified during his short but intense life. One may quote in our century an example of an active jnani: a disciple of Ramana Maharshi told me that once the latter had attained realisation, he did not stay sitting in his cell the whole day long. He did many small jobs in the surroundings in order to earn his living or to help people. Later, when he was already a famous guru, he could be seen everyday at work in the kitchens of the ashram at four o’clock in the morning. Beyond samadhi without form (nirvikalpa samadhi)—a state of enstasis (ecstasy in one’s own Self) where the body actually no longer moves—there is the spontaneous state (sahaja samadhi) where the realised sage lives and acts normally in the world.

Even if he puts forward the notion of unity with the disciple, the Vedanta sage feels also compassion for him, in the same way he feels for any of his visitors. In the Hindu conception, compassion and grace are as inseparable from the guru as conscience and happiness are from being (sadchidananda). At the beginning, the guru attracts the disciple through his goodness rather than through his spiritual knowledge, not so easy to perceive for a newcomer. The guru teaches through his being. His silence has the inexhaustible force of the origins. Ramana Maharshi says: “The origin of the word is thought, the origin of thought is the ego, and the origin of the ego is silence. It is for this reason that silence is much more powerful than word.”

As an external observer, one cannot know how the spiritual is transmitted. The difference that we make between action and inaction is superficial: “He who sees inaction in action and action in inaction is a sage among men; he is a yogi, and is he who accomplishes all actions” (Bhagavad-Gita, IV.18). Again in this sense Marpa, the Tibetan guru, had made his disciple Milarepa promise that he would not transmit Buddhism “through the usual ways.” Actually, Milarepa passed the greater part of his time alone in some caves, but nonetheless his message has deeply influenced the whole Tibetan tradition.

The action of the guru is like spring; one cannot see spring as such, but one can see its results. An ascetic once was visited by Yama and the sage Bhrigu, who had been his father in a preceding life, but whom he could not recognise at that very moment. He thanks them for their visit in the flowery style of the Yoga-Vasistha:

“The ascetic addressed himself to Bhrigu and Yama with a calm voice, sweet as a flow of honey: “Seeing you both like this I feel an enormous joy. You are as the freshness of the moon and the shining ardour of the sun descended at the same moment on this world. Study, asceticism and knowledge itself were not enough to chase away the blindness of my mind; thanks to your mere presence, it has vanished in an instant. A shower of ambrosia falling in the inner part of the heart cannot equal the joy given by meeting with great souls. Who are you, then, Oh holy persons, whose presence has sanctified this place, as that of the sun and the moon lights up the firmament?” Bhrigu, then, turned to that being who had been his son in a previous existence and told him: “Remember yourself. You are now awakened and liberated from ignorance!”29


“One Needs God When One Has not yet Found the Guru”

When the guru recognises that his disciple is realised, he prostrates himself before the disciple who responds to this prostration and “with the master’s permission follows his path free from bondage. As for the Guru, his spirit immersed in the ocean of absolute knowledge and happiness, he starts wandering; truly, he purifies the whole world, all creative ideas of differences being alien to him.”30 The grace of the guru surpasses even the magical contact with the philosophers’ stone. This one can only transform a base metal into gold, while the Guru has the capacity to transform the disciple into himself.”31

To go back to history, the first (adi) Shankaracharya founded four lineages of gurus in the four corners of India, each guru being called Shankaracharya as well. The one of Kanchipuram for instance, though having responsibilities comparable to those of a cardinal, or even of the Pope in Christian Catholicism, continues to move around regularly with his order’s symbol stick (called samnyasi danda), in order to preach Hinduism among the people, like the founder of his lineage more than a thousand years ago. [Since the publication of the French original, however, he has died, in January 1994, and his successor continues to move, with his stick, all over India on foot or from time to time on a pilgrim push cart pushed by his followers]. These high dignitaries of Vedanta tradition are chosen at about the age of twelve and are directly educated by their predecessor or by his guru who, being older, is more likely to remain in the monastery. Every Shankaracharya, theoretically, gives but one monastic initiation (sannyas) in his life, the one bestowed on his direct successor. When he nears his end, he retires near the tomb of his predecessors and there he peacefully waits for the moment to merge with the Absolute which, for him, is the same as tradition and the lineage of his Masters.

Certainly, the Guru leads to God; it is his function. But the very belief in God, that the Hindu develops from childhood, also leads to the Guru. As told by a Shankaracharya of our century: “There is need of God while the Guru has not yet been found.” This declaration would surely make the Great Inquisitor of His very Catholic Majesty of Spain turn in his tomb… but it is easily understood in Indian context. Ramana Maharshi, for instance, says:

“The Guru is the Self. Sometimes a human being begins to feel frustrated by the existence he is leading and, not satisfied by what he has, he seeks satisfaction of his desires by praying to God, etc. His desire is progressively purified, and he ends up by looking for God more for obtaining his grace than for satisfying his worldly inclinations. Then, the divine grace begins to appear. God takes the form of a guru, shows Himself to his devotee, teaches him the truth and moreover purifies his mind by this association. The devotee then develops his inner energy and becomes able to turn himself toward his inner self. Through his meditation he is more and more purified and remains calm, unmoved by the slightest ripple. This lake is the Self. The Guru is both outside and inside. From outside he pushes the mind to turn inwardly and, from inside, he attracts this mind towards the Self and helps him to calm down. This is the grace of the Guru. There is no difference between God, the Guru and the Self.”32T

Tantra, or the High Technology of Spiritual Transmissionantra,

In the Tantras can be found the most precise and the most elaborated techniques of transmission of spiritual energy (shaktipat) from guru to disciple. The Tantric tradition was developed in India during the first millennium. Owing to Muslim invasions, it is now mainly preserved in its Buddhist form in Tibet. Some Tantric sages, like Matsyendranath or Gorakhnath, are recognised both by Buddhists and Hindus. According to Tantrism, the world is born from desire. Creation is presented as a cascade of heavier and grosser subsequent manifestations (the thirty-six tattvas, the thirty-six levels of reality in Kashmir Shaivism, for example) from Shiva, the Supreme God, down to the manifested world such as people can perceive it. The goal of spiritual practice is to trace this cascade back up to its origin.

The procedures used by Tantrism are powerful but, like all powerful medicines, have side-effects; they are somewhat dangerous. Even more than in other branches of tradition, the Sadguru here is essential. Tantric texts themselves are often presented in the form of a dialogue between Shiva, both husband and guru, and Parvati, his spouse and disciple. In this way, since its very beginning, Tantric teaching has been closely associated with the guru-disciple relationship. The Tantric Master is invested with a mysterious power. He is the diksha-guru, who gives initiation to practical techniques, as opposed to the shiksha-guru, who merely comments on the sacred texts and who is considered inferior.

This initiation establishes a division between those belonging to an esoteric circle and those satisfied with exoteric teaching. A rather cabalistic etymology will elucidate this aspect of the spiritual Master: “the guru is so called because he assures comprehension to those who can see neither the truth of the Self nor the secrets (guhya) of the Tantric texts, and because he is the form of the god Rudra (ru), the terrible aspect of Shiva.”33 Thus, “guru” evokes, somewhere in the spirit of the Tantric follower, the “terrible guardian of the secrets”.

One detail among others shows the regard due to the guru. When the disciple prostrates himself, he is expected to do it in the direction of the place where his master is supposed to be, even if such a place is far away. The power that the Tantric guru has is illustrated in the story of Gorakhnath meeting the King of Nepal. Gorakhnath spits in the direction of the King’s face: the King automatically steps back and so the spit of Gorakhnath falls on his feet: “Had you not gone backwards”, says the guru, “you would have been the ruler of a great empire. But since you have backed away, you shall remain at the head of a small kingdom.” In spite of this rudeness the Nepali people have not been cross with Gorakhnath since they made him the patron of their country.

Tantric teachers compare the descent of energy (shaktipat) during the initiation of a disciple to the descent of the divine during the consecration of a lingam (a stone symbol of Shiva elaborately washed and dressed according to fixed rituals). Another etymology explains the energetic (to say the least) features given by the Tantrics to the word “teaching” (upadesha): “Because it is intense (ulbana), supreme (para), dear to the divinity (devata) and because it gives the impact of the shakti (energy), one calls it upadesha.”34 Such a transmission of energy does not portray the guru as taking possession over the disciple, as it is sometimes believed. This energy will, in fact, be used by the disciple to free himself from the conditioning of his mind, it stimulates his independence and his power of action.35 Though Tantrism specially insists upon this transmission of energy, one may say that, in all spiritual paths, guru gives an impetus to his disciple to overcome his difficulties. If he does not, he is not a true guru.

Kashmir Shaivism is a synthetic school of Indian thought strongly influenced by Tantra. It developed around the IXth-Xth century in the North-West of the country. This school easily accepts that one may attain spiritual realisation without a guru, through personal experience, be it associated or not by the study of books. But, even in such cases of spontaneous realisation, an initiation and a study of the texts are recommended in order to be more in the traditional current.36 Kashmir Shaivism accepts that gradual awakening as well as sudden awakening may occur. The latter is called nir-upaya-sam-avesha, meaning complete communion or possession (avesha) without intermediaries (nir-upaya). It happens, among other possibilities, also when, before his death, a Sadguru transmits all his power to his successor.

The different types of initiations are called vedha, meaning “pierced”. In Tantrism, energy is supposed to pierce the seven subtle centres (chakras) by rising from the bottom of the pelvis to the top of the head. We may, for instance, quote here the following text of one of the main masters of Kashmir Shaivism, Abhinavagupta, about the initiation through mantra (mantra-vedha):

“The master meditates first on the centre of eight rays (that of the heart)…all shining. Then, through it, he enters in the wheel of the heart of his disciple. This is penetration by the mantra. Or, having established the letter A in his own body in a ninefold way, the Master makes it penetrate by yogic projection in the body of the disciple, where, having become burning hot and inflamed, it looses his bonds and, then, allows him to join the supreme Reality. The Tantra of the supreme initiation explains this method which was revealed to me by my master Shambhunath.”37

We may also note that the top of the head is sometimes called the “centre of the guru”. When energy reaches there, one attains realisation. There are also other types of “piercing” : by sound, by inner resonance, by energy and lastly by the supreme piercing (paravedha):

“When thought has completely disappeared, O Gods’ Queen, one speaks of supreme happiness. Then, there are neither sensory organs, nor breath, nor internal organs, nor thought, neither knower, nor known, nor mental activity. Disappearance of all modes of consciousness, that is what is considered the supreme piercing.”38

Now, we will evoke some qualities of the guru, such as they are presented in the Kularnava Tantra, a reference text on the subject. These qualities will allow us to add some shades of Tantric colour to the portrait of the Sadguru we are progressively composing. The Tantric guru’s behaviour is unpredictable and sometimes baffling. However, to put oneself in the hands of an alcoholic guru is not advisable, for example; or, if one does, one has to know that it is at one’s own risk: “One has to serve as a guru only those who give a spontaneous joy and take away the pleasures of the senses. The others are impostors who have to be abandoned.”39 Curiously enough, it is not recommended to take a priest or a medical doctor as a guru, perhaps because the former has his mind too busy with his rituals and his beliefs, and the latter with his patients and their problems.40 Interestingly enough, one finds exactly the same restriction from the Buddha, who recommends his monks not to practise either rituals or medicine.

The beneficial action of the guru has to be felt: “A good guru is he who speaks of what has never been heard before, of what is true, attractive for the listener and is well-suited to him.”41 “Only he who has been ‘touched’ [initiated through a subtle impact] may touch others; he who has not been touched would seldom be the one who touches. Only he who is liberated may liberate.”42 Tantrics have an almost physical notion of transfer of energy during initiation. It is for this reason that they are not in favour of mass-initiations. The guru must get back his energy between two initiations, like the serpent which has to reproduce its poison between two bites. We specify, here, for the Western reader who may be taken aback and frightened by such an unexpected comparison, that the serpent is nothing hellish in the eyes of a Hindu. In fact, the serpent is, with the bull, one of the favourite animals of Shiva and the symbol of fundamental energy, kundalini shakti, which is precisely the object of the Tantric initiation. And the serpent is an object of worship more or less everywhere in India.

If one has serious reasons for not being satisfied with a guru, one can change him. Since Tantrism is a technical teaching, learning different techniques from different gurus is possible, like the bee which produces honey by collecting nectar from different flowers. The Tantric path, like the other spiritual paths of India, points to Unity.

“Feel that you are one with the guru, that you are not different; and act with compassion towards others as though they would be yourself.”43

We will now give a “technique for becoming the other”, such as it has been described in the Shivaite texts, from the translation given by Helène Brunner-Lachaux.44 This text is addressed, first of all, to the priest performing his worship to the statue of Shiva, but it may be addressed as well to the disciple concentrating on the form of his guru, according to the aphorism of Shankaracharya (Gurumurti, Dakshina-murti) which one can loosely render by “the form of guru is a form of Shiva” (cf “Anthology”, text 2, hymn to Dakshinamurti). The basic principle of this meditation is a bit paradoxical: “in order to actually adore Shiva, one must have already become Shiva.”

The first task is to free oneself from one’s conditioned sensations and from one’s ordinary body-consciousness, belonging to the “old person,” by placing consciousness some fifteen centimetres above one’s head. Then one “builds up” again the body of the “new person” by “installing,” that is, by feeling the mantra, the name of God one is just reciting, in every part of the body. In the following stage, one blows the breath of life into the body which has just been created again, piece after piece, by reciting the Om, the primordial vibration, while concentrating on the successive new body parts. Then, there is nothing left but to celebrate the feeling of the new unity into which one has just penetrated: “Shiva is the one who gives, Shiva is the one who receives and enjoys, Shiva is the whole world, Shiva is everywhere the one who worships — and this Shiva, verily, am I!”


The Jains; Individual Victory

Jainism is a religion which developed along parallel lines to Indian Buddhism. Jain means “conqueror, winner” and the sage is called kevalin, the solitary one. Jains are known for their rigorous asceticism and also for their insistance on non-violence. Because they themselves live up to this ideal of non-violence, they are able to moderate their ascetic ardours: “the sage should harm neither himself nor any other…. He becomes a refuge for wounded creatures, like an island that waves cannot submerge.”45 We will not elaborate much here on the Jain religion, because at present it is not so widespread. This is, perhaps, the reason why I have never met, in my Indian wanderings, Westerners who were following the Jain path.

Nevertheless, one may notice that Jains make a distinction between the solitary sage, (kevalin) and the sage coming back to the world in order to help others, tirthankara. This word means: “he who crosses a tirtha or ford (holy stream)” and thus himself becomes the tirtha (in this sense, meaning the holy pilgrimage place, but also monastery). One finds here again an idea dear to Indian tradition: going to pay one’s respects to a sage is the best pilgrimage. A realized being is not bound to the idea of serving others or a mission as it is understood by popular Hinduism or Christianity. Nobody but the sage himself can take the decision whether to remain solitary or to go on spreading a spiritual message; he is free to decide. In India, being a saint does not necessarily mean to be missionary. However, the supreme stage of Jainism is not a state of internal absorption, of ecstatic immobility. It is the sayogi kevalin, that is, the solitary one who acts. Here one finds again the supreme stage of Vedanta, the stage of union, of enstasis in the midst of action (sahaja samadhi).


Bhakti, the Way of the Opening of the Heart

All Indian spiritual paths do not encourage devotion (Bhakti) towards God, because some of them have done away with the very idea of God, but all of them have devotion towards the guru. As we have already said, one should not suppose an opposition between Bhakti and Jnana. A good bhakta (he who follows the way of the heart, of Bhakti) is a hidden jnani (the one who follows the way of knowledge, of Jnana), and a good jnani is a hidden bhakta. Even in the yoga of Patanjali, one acknowledges the value of devotion, especially towards a man of God. It is an aid to attaining the goal of yoga.

The fundamental idea of Bhakti is to direct purified emotions towards the Divine; for the bhakta, spirituality is not castration, but a powerful sublimation, I would say a transmutation. Ramakrishna used to say that he liked Bhakti because it quickly gave intensity, and intensity is indispensable to making real progress; it is awakened by an encounter: “Without contact with a man of God, true devotion can never be born in the heart” said Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, one of the great masters of the Bengali Bhakti of the sixteenth century. He himself had a conversion experience like that of St. Paul on his way to Damascus, when he met Ishvara Puri, who became his guru, and his own disciples often become attached to him through “love at first sight.” The way of the will (yoga), where the candidate is presented as being like a baby monkey which fastens itself onto its mother, is here opposed, in the Southern tradition of Ramanuja, to the way of love where the candidate is considered like the kitten which mother cat seizes by the scruff of its neck, and which has only to relax when transported from one place to another.

Certainly, gurubhakti (devotion to the guru) has sometimes been excessive, leading to sectarianism, or guru’s pride and disciple’s laziness, even with occasional sexual deviations, when a guru considers himself a bit too much as Krishna and disciples as gopis, the lovers of Krishna in Vrindavan. An example of this is the Sahajikas’ Sect in Bengal, which in any case remains a marginal group. Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh sometimes did not hesitate to speak about “the deadly cancer of guruism.”46

But the Hindus are indulgent toward those disciples who say that their guru is the best, in the same way as one feels for the child who proclaims that his mother is the kindest or his father the strongest. It is a natural stage of development, and if one has not passed through it, one may have a disturbed growth. Perhaps “something somewhere” is missing, as the psychoanalysts would say… This is the current Hindu point of view.

In the Anthology below I give some poems of the Bhakti movement, which seem to me good illustrations of the topics dealt with in this chapter. Bhakti, though already present in the Svetashvatara Upanishad and in the Bhagavad Gita, was developed especially in the South during the first millennium; then it had numerous representatives in Maharashtra; the movement of Sants (“Saints”) has its origins here. Kabir and Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, were part of it. The Sants wished to free themselves from the Brahmans’ power and to have a direct relationship with God, a devotion which goes beyond divine forms and qualities (nirguna bhakti), and freedom independence from Vedic ritualism. For this reason, they emphasize the mantra as a unique path towards liberation, and, consequently, to initiation.

Bhakti emphasised and developed the notion of avatara, that is, the descent of the Divine, in a human body, to restore the good and fight injustice whenever in human history the cup of iniquity overflows. According to some people, there have been ten avataras, including Rama, Krishna and the Buddha; according to others, twenty-four, and in modern Hinduism every great guru is potentially a kind of avatara,—something that increases further his divine halo.

In the ancient Sanskrit version of the Ramayana of Valmiki, Rama is presented as a primus inter pares, as a hero fighting for justice in the midst of his companions. In the modern version, in Hindi, by Tulsidas seventeenth century), Rama is much more divinised. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is unabashedly divinized by his disciples. One of his first biographers says: “What the Upanishads call Brahman (the Absolute) without second is but the halo of the body of the Lord Chaitanya… The Paramatman, the Supreme Soul (Self) is but a partial manifestation of him.”47 Ramakrishna in the nineteenth century also will soon be divinized by his disciples (cf “Anthology”, text 4); they declare, not without reason, that in so doing they follow the great stream of Hindu tradition.

Few books have influenced India as much as the Ramayana. Hanuman, the Monkey-God, is the ideal disciple, represented half kneeling, ready to jump in order to better serve his Lords, the royal couple of Rama and Sita. He is quick, efficient, intelligent, and moreover he is celibate in order to be able to devote himself totally to the service of his king. All patterns, one could say all the religious and hierarchical stereotypes of modern Indian society, are largely represented in the Ramayana, including the model of guru-disciple relationship. The story is staged at least once a year, in October, more or less everywhere in Northern India, under the name of Ramalila. This Ramalila reaches its peaks in Benares, under the auspices of the Maharaja. The play is shown for a full month, practically every evening in different places. Perhaps one or two thousand people are seated there in the twilight. The Maharaja is present, together with his family. Untiringly, evening after evening, they watch the show from the height of their elephants’ backs. At the end of the scene I saw, Hanuman had come forward to perform the ritual prayer (arati) before Sita and Rama. The crowd stood up, folded hands in the manner of Hanuman himself, while red and then white fireworks were lighting up the bride and the bridegroom. They were worshiped as Gods, kings and gurus at the same time. During this complete concentration of one or two minutes, one could feel the considerable impact of the traditional model of the relationship between the God-Guru and devotee-disciple in the present-day India. The Ramayana broadcast every Sunday morning on TV in episodes for many months was by far the most popular programme in the whole country. Some trains stopped for one full hour in country stations in order to allow passengers to watch the programme.

This does not mean that guru-worship is a personality cult. The meditation method and the mantra given by the guru are more important than the guru himself. At a given moment of the story, Rama, following a complicated plot, was forced to shoot some arrows against Hanuman, his devoted servant. The latter, instead of defending himself or of running away, continually recited the name of Rama, and could not be touched. Conclusion: the name of Rama is superior to Rama himself; the mantra of the guru is superior to the guru. This truth might avoid many headaches for those disciples who have been initiated by imperfect gurus. It may be for this reason that Ma Anandamayi loved to repeat this story.

Even hating Rama is a sort of concentration on Rama and, thus, it finally leads to salvation. The demon Ravana, the chief of the enemies of Rama in the epics, is actually saved because in fact, he did not stop thinking about Rama. Even if the mantra is understood only at the level of the disciple—which may be low—it will, nonetheless, be effective. Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, was a highwayman. One day, instead of robbing a sage who was passing by, he had the idea of asking him for a mantra. The guru told him to repeat “Rama, Rama” but Valmiki interpreted it to his own level, and understood it in the opposite way, so he started repeating “Mara, Mara”, which means “Death, death”. It did not matter after all, he was saved…


The Guru-Gita


Guru-Gita, the “Song of the Master,”48 is a well known medieval text attached to Skanda-Purana. Like other Puranas and Tantras, in its very structure, it implies the guru-disciple relationship because it is the dialogue, on Mount Kailash, between Parvati and her husband Shiva. She asks him: “Which path should a human being take in order to become one with the Absolute? I beg you, who are my guru, initiate me!” (sl.3). Shiva’s answer is the essence of the song. In Indian tradition, guru-disciple relationship is sometimes, as it is the case here, compared to a man-woman relationship, provided that he or she be divinized as the symbol of Shiva or Parvati or at least spiritualised as in the case of Yajnavalkya who, the night before his departure to the forest, instructs his wife Maitreyi (Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad, IV.5); or of the queen Chudala who guides her husband in one of the accounts of Yoga Vasistha.49

The Guru-Gita contains a set of formulas which surely existed before the Song itself was written and which sum up many traditional ideas regarding devotion to the guru. It is a prayer of praise with all the emphasis, the exaggeration and the hyperbole of which the East is capable, but the text includes some verses which are particularly significant and representative for us, so it will be worthwhile to comment on them.

Thus, meditation on the forms of the guru is recommended: the guru “is dressed in white, with his skin decorated with white marks, decked with flowers and pearls; he radiates joy. His companion Shakti (energy) is seated on the left thigh of this god who has only two eyes (Shiva traditionally has three eyes). His face is brightened with a sweet smile; he is an ocean of grace.” One may meditate on his form either seated on the white lotus of thousand petals, at the top of one’s head (sahashrara), or in the heart enclosed in a crystal. It is recommended to meditate ceaselessly on the shape of the guru, and to recite his name as much as possible. The visualization of such details is rather of Tantric inspiration and today it is more practised by Tibetans than by Hindus; nevertheless, the act of constantly meditating, feeling the inner presence of the guru and of continuously reciting in one’s inner being the name of God given by him, is still a fundamental practice of present-day Hinduism.

Let us come now to the most well known verses in all India about the Guru; some masters even give it as a mantra. Its recitation can assure liberation, as maintained, for instance, by Upasani Baba:

“The root of meditation is the form of the Guru.

The root of worship is the foot of the Guru.

The root of mantra, is the word of the Guru.

The root of liberation is the grace of the Guru.”

(verse 76)

In many an ashram, this text is chanted every day, and it is particularly repeated the day of Guru Purnima, the full moon festival of June-July.


“The Root of Meditation is the Form of the Guru”

India has developed a considerable amount of reflection on the relationship between the form and the formless, and on all the different degrees of the “condensation” of the Divine into matter, be it just a carved stone or the body of the Guru. Even today one of the main religious practices of a Hindu is to go to have the darshan of the statues in their temples and of the gurus in their ashrams. For many Indians, it is a part of the life, if not every day at least every week. The noun murti, signifying both “form” and “statue”, is related to the Divine, as a kind of ‘formless materialization’, if one can express it this way. Like butter, which has no form when melted, but assumes one when it gets cold.

One can also perceive a socio-historical reality behind this verse: that of tension among castes. The relationship between guru and disciple was, in general, taken in the network of strict exchanges assuring social coherence—the guru being almost always a Brahman. Louis Dumont has studied the organization of this network in Homo Hierarchicus (Paris, Gallimard, 1966). We refer the interested reader to it. The guru is the only murti, the only form which could be the object of worship without the cumbersome mediation either of a caste of priests or of a temple, which, in any case, is forbidden to people of lower castes. He gives them a specific initiation that can be the equivalent of the “second birth”, the initiation (Upanayana) given only to the children of higher castes. The guru’s words, “roots of mantra”, take the place of the Vedas, also reserved to the superior castes.

This opposition of the murti of the temple and the murti of the guru is vividly expressed by Kabir, who was himself from a lower caste:

“Stony the temple, stony the god,

The pujari (the officiant) is blind, and his cult is vain!

Kabir, they do not approach the Guru,

And they build up an idol of stone,

They adore it without seeking to be instructed and they are incapable (of crossing the ocean of existence).”50

It is said that Ramanuja, on the point of leaving a town where he had lived for a long time, breathed his divine energy (divya shakti) into a statue representing him, so as to give solace to his disciples during his absence. Through the murti, like through the hole in a hourglass, the world of the Divine enters and continually flows out, like the sand, into the world of the Human. The murti is the centre of a remarkable symmetry: it is at the same time the place in which the Divine is condensed and on which the Human is concentrated. The body of the monk (samnyasi) is also considered after his death to be a statue of god, in the sense that it is plunged into the river in the same way as is done in the case of an earth statue as part of a special rite.

To experience dissolution in the formless, in a momentary lowering of the barriers of the ego at the time of meditation, is not so difficult. But mastering this experience of the formless in order to have it actually embodied in form, that is to say in day to day life, is a more delicate matter. To reach that point is to pass from the level of disciple to that of guru. One could say like Kabir, that “‘the drop in the ocean’, that is easy to understand, everybody knows it; but the ocean in the drop, that is a more delicate matter!”51 By considering him a “living and mobile statue of God”, a “walking Shiva”, the disciple gives to his guru a power, a “status” of independence and of freedom, which is the sign of an authentic spirituality. In the eyes of the disciple the murti of his guru will remain unique:

“Diamonds cannot be found in storehouses

nor sandalwood trees in rows,

nor lions in groups

nor men of God in herds.”52


“The Root of Mantra is the Word of the Guru”

A guru worthy of his name does not brain-wash. He gives suggestions that he may not repeat. It is up to the disciple to take them as they are. Several times near Banaras I met an old hermit belonging to the direct lineage of Ramakrishna. One day while he was with his disciples, he told me, with his usual disarming simplicity: “It is not bad to hear or to read about different opinions on spiritual subjects, but, for a disciple, the guru’s word is final.” To take a word of modern psychology, one could qualify as “holographic attention” the kind of attention that the disciple gives to the utterances and gestures of the guru. The whole of him can be seen in each of his intonations and movements if one knows how to see them through this “holographic vision”, which meditation is.

This importance given to the word of the guru also needs to be understood in the Indian context of oral tradition. We have already seen how Brahmanic tradition rests on memorizing the Vedas learnt from the mouth of the guru. The Vedas have been written down late and reluctantly. The Bhakti tradition has been nourished by the songs of the mystics directly taught to the people around and memorised by religious bards who took them along on their pilgrimages. Tukaram’s songs, for instance, are always popular among the pilgrims of Vithal in Pandharpur. As for Tantric tradition, it is based upon some esoteric texts which are purposely cryptic: the exclusivity of the actual transmission has to be kept in the personal relationship between guru and disciple.

In this context the meaning of the following saying is more easily understood: “the root of mantra is the word of the guru.” Beyond all teachings that can be read in sacred texts or in spiritual books, or that may be heard when expounded by preachers, for the disciple the final teaching is that of his guru. Nevertheless, it would be too hasty to conclude on the basis of a few remarks that the current decrease of oral tradition means there is less need for a guru. The opposite may be true: the multiplication of texts at hand about different spiritual paths can make the seeker’s mind even more confused, and, therefore, the help of an experienced guru becomes even more necessary, at least for a while; a guru has done his selection and knows from his own experience what leads somewhere and what does not lead anywhere.


“The Root of Worship is the Foot of the Guru”

The image is typically Indian and there is no need to go deeply into this for a Western reader who is only trying to understand the function of the guru. It is enough to point out that in Hindu tradition feet are ambivalent; they are impure because in contact with the ground, but also object of care, even of worship in certain cases: one massages the feet of one’s own parents or of one’s guru, one washes the feet of one’s guru or of the statue in the temple. The foot of the guru began to symbolise the guru himself, and its worship (padapuja) represents a link with the entire lineage of gurus, and eventually with the whole tradition. In the same way, a Hindu will never eat the leftovers of somebody’s food, since these are considered highly impure; nevertheless, if he is a child, he can eat his mother’s leftovers, and if he is a disciple, he can eat the remnants of his guru’s food. Then, the food is called “prasada” signifying also “grace”. To bring one’s mind to the feet of the guru is a way of reminding oneself that one can perceive but a very small portion of the Master, and the lowest one. Only the tip of the iceberg can be seen, but, one could say, reversing the comparison dear to psychotherapists, that this is a strange iceberg because its visible tip is below, while the invisible part is above.


“The Root of Freedom is the Grace of the Guru”

Giving grace is not just the function of the guru, it is his very nature. To feel that the responsibility for the outcome of one’s spiritual efforts is dependent on the guru produces in itself a relaxation,—a word whose etymological meaning is “liberation”. Trusting the guru frees a person from the headache of continually asking oneself if one is on the right path; it frees also from the very desire of liberation, which, if too intense, may also postpone—it is said—the actual liberation. According to the image already quoted, in the same way as the kitten, that the mother takes by the scruff of its neck, can relax, so also the disciple who is “taken” by his guru may let himself go. Nevertheless, this does not mean quietism. The sun of the guru brings about a growth of the tree, an upwards breakthrough, even if some disciples do not allow it to act thus, and expose themselves to it only to get a tan. If the root of liberation is the grace of the guru, the trunk of liberation is the effort of the disciple. Its branches and leaves are the capacity of the disciple, once he himself has become guru in his turn, to give shade and to receive and help other disciples. Its fruit is his teaching which, falling on the soil of a receptive new candidate, will in its turn be the root of liberation.

In another verse there is an idea which Guru-Gita likes so much that it repeats it twice (v. 44 and 79):

“If Shiva is angry

The Guru would protect you;

But if the Guru is angry,

Nobody can save you.”

This clearly evokes the image of a fatherly guru with limitless power, either in love or in anger. This passage also evokes the Biblical God, superior to the other gods, and of whom the Psalmist said: Initium sapientiae timor Domini, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God.” At least among the authentic gurus, such anger is a feigned one; behind it, there is compassion: one hand works on the lump of clay while the other supports it. If one cares for a more modern comparison, the story of Nimkaroli Baba may be quoted. He was often angry; one day he asked one of his disciples what impression his anger made on him. The latter answered: “It does not hurt me, it is as you were firing blanks!”

The Vedic rishis were usually quick tempered. We have already seen that their curses were dreadful, because they always came true. One has to bear in mind, however, that they lived in the midst of warriors who did not hesitate to cut off the heads of any Brahmin they did not like. Since they did not have the right to carry weapons, they needed to defend themselves in some way or another, for instance by maintaining among people the belief in their awe-inspiring magic powers.

Behind the fear of guru’s anger, there is the fear of the guru himself, the fear of all that is living, of all that moves, of what may change in a moment. The Absolute is not so cumbersome, it is high up in heaven, so high that it is often forgotten; the statue of the god is not embarrassing either: people are not fools, they can well perceive that it is only a stone. However, the guru may be a problem. In my field-work I have often heard disciples say that being in the presence of the guru is never a common experience. There is always an unexpected risk, a surprise when one is so close to somebody who has condensed in himself so much divine energy: “the sages glitter so much with the brightness and glory of the Lord that it is easier to be in the presence of the Lord himself than in the presence of his Saints; one may stand in the sun, but cannot remain in the burning sands which have accumulated its heat.”53

One can also invert the Western proverb and say that for the Hindu it is more effective to address themselves to the saints than to their God… In Bhakti, devotion to the guru takes the place of the other ritualistic and ascetic practices: sacred baths, pilgrimages, recitation of the vedas, hatha-yoga, breath control and penances of all kinds, whose possible masochistic deviations did not escape the vigilance of tradition. Concentration on the guru represents a simplification, an easy way of normal religious life, while assuring the same results. This is no small factor in its success in the Indian context, where people are often under the yoke of a heavy ritualism.

What is important in the guru is not so much his intellectual teaching as his ability to hand down, through his mere presence, an imperceptible and yet effective knowledge, which is intuitive and yet sure of itself: “He is the sun who makes the lotus of non-dualistic knowledge (Vedanta) bloom… It is enough to remember him to receive spontaneous knowledge… In the same way that a lamp lights another lamp, so the guru imparts awakening, the conscience of this absolute Being who is eternal, imperceptible, devoid of form or attributes” (vv. 68, 69, 109). The guru is the tree of desires, who gives what one wishes to get. The responsibility for choosing exactly what to wish for, is the disciple’s, because it may very well happen that his request be granted.


Common Devotion and Supreme Devotion

It is important to distinguish between an imperfect, normal devotion (aparabhakti) and a purified and supreme devotion (parabhakti), whether it is directed towards God or towards the guru. Such a distinction may help to avoid some confusion. The great risk of an unpurified devotion is sectarianism. Because some people have two or three spiritual experiences in a group with a guru, they believe that he is the only one in the world and go on criticising and disparaging all other groups or gurus. Unfortunately for them, it is not by beheading the greatest number of people that one can make oneself grow even by a single centimetre. Devotion to the guru may, sometimes, border on madness. Such was the case, for some time, with Chaitanya Mahaprabhu after his meeting with his master. But, theoretically, the guru who arouses these symptoms of craziness must also know how to calm them down, if he knows his job properly.

Another criticism that can be made of Bhakti in the usual meaning of the term, is that it represents a superficial spirituality. This risk is especially pronounced in the cult of Krishna, but less in that of Kali, who sums up both aspects of the Divine, peaceful and terrible, protective and destructive. The Sikhs have separated from the mainstream of Bhakti (Tulsidas, Chaitanya) because they thought that it weakens the masses and keeps them away from their political and military responsibilities; instead, they wander about in a kind of spiritual “Disneyland”—that is, the country of Krishna or the kingdom of Rama, where everything is always for the best. This risk of deviation in the devotion to the guru actually depends more on the personalities themselves, than on the paths to be followed or on the gods adored by the guru and the disciple.

The relationship is not so simple. The disciple projects his ego, his non-purified emotions onto his guru, who plays the role of the one who does not understand, of the innocent child swallowing everything; but eventually he conquers the ego of the disciple, and the latter reaches his goal. This is one of the meanings that can be given to the story of Putana, a demoniac female having a poisoned milk who once tried to kill the baby Krishna by giving him her breast. Krishna swallowed the milk. The outcome of this was that the one who was killed was Putana, while the child felt better than ever. Nevertheless, Putana, like a disciple with her spirit poisoned by all kinds of problems, was saved, since she had held the god-child in her arms, —that is to say that she had a direct contact with her guru, though this contact was ambivalent.54

Though the guru often loves his disciple like a mother, his love does not debilitate him. Namdev says: “The love of the guru towards me is tender like that of a mother. By now I am indomitable, I have attained freedom from fear.”55 According to a more psychological terminology, one could speak, perhaps, of making up for the primary affective want, or of the splitting between a good and a bad mother.

A topic less often dealt with in Indian literature is that of the guru’s reaction to the attitude of his disciple, i.e. of his counter-transference, if I may say so. Nevertheless, some hints to it can be found, for instance that dance of Krishna when, at the end of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna shows that he has really understood the teaching of his Master. Jnaneshwar speaks of this as follows: “On hearing these words of Arjuna, Lord Krishna danced, carried away by ecstasy, and said to himself: “I have obtained for myself the most excellent fruit of the universe”56 Sometimes, it also happens that the guru may be helped to overcome his own imperfections, because he feels compelled to adjust himself to the level of the projections that his disciples make onto him; in the same manner, a bad boy would improve if he feels himself loved by a woman of quality. For instance, Tukaram begs God for Realisation in the following way (not without a tinge of humour): “Please grant me Liberation, since people believe that I have already got it.”57 Once he has attained his goal, Tukaram does not give up his disciples. Here is how one of his Liberation songs ends:

“All creatures have become divine to my eyes…

I have transcended space and time…

All that remains of Tukaram,

is for the benefit of others.”58

The Sadguru asks for a complete transference on himself, without side-transferences, psychoanalysts would say. Witness to this are these verses from the Bijak of Kabir:

“He who knows me

I know him.

I do not worry

about what the world or the Veda may say.”59

“I watch you,

you watch him,

Kabir says, how to manage all this:

Me, he, you?”60

“I look at you

you look somewhere else.

A curse on this turn of mind

which is in two places at the same time.”61

Kabir is especially intense at the time of the “signature” of his poems, in his last two verses. He sends back the disciple-listener to himself. When the poem is sung, these last two verses are preceded by a more ornamented melody: Suno, bhai sadho, suno, “Listen, brother monk, listen”:

“Kabir says, I have said and I have said

And I am tired of saying!”62

“Kabir says: what can you say about people

who do not see what they stare at?”63

“Kabir says: the dumb has tasted sugar;

If you ask him, what shall he say?”64

“Kabir says: he alone is free

whom the guru has shaken and awakened.”65

“Kabir says: what you understand

is what you are.”66


Identification of the Guru with God

Now, we shall study the relationship of identity-duality between guru and disciple. We have seen that some Bhakti schools have some difficulty in accepting that a human being could be totally united with God, to be wholly liberated while still alive (jivan-mukta). In this they are more similar to Christianity, concerned with keeping a separation between creature and Creator, than to yoga or Vedanta; the latter schools criticise the position of Bhakti by saying that postponing the possibility of a total liberation till the moment of death or even after, refuting the fact that it would be possible from now on, amounts to leave human consciousness under the yoke of time; In this case, the human mind remains fascinated by the hypnosis of time, the greatest hypnosis that it has ever practised on itself.

Practically, however, the difference between these schools is marginal: Guru and Absolute, Guru and God, Guru and Buddha, are closely related in Indian thought. Jnaneswar says: “God, guru and devotee are united like three merging rivers.” Possibly, he is referring to Triveni, where the Ganges and the Yamuna meet, like the guru and his disciple. But there is more to it in tradition: the presence of Saraswati, a third invisible and underground river, evoking the presence of the Divine. For Jnaneshwar, this Triveni has a special significance; indeed, when his parents came to live together again, notwithstanding his father’s vows of sannyas, they were declared out-caste. In order to atone for their sin, they chose, according to tradition, to drown themselves precisely at the meeting point of the Ganges and the Yamuna. Interpreting this narration with some free association, with the kind of “twilight thought” dear to Indian tradition (sandhya bhasha), one may say that only when the disciple (Yamuna) achieves complete unity with his Guru (Ganges), when the parental images are totally melted away (drowning), does he realise the Divine (the meeting point with Saraswati).

Inasmuch as the guru has renounced all attachment, his disciple can assimilate him to the Divine and so attach himself to him. Tukaram, the Tamoul bhakta, says:

“Attach yourself to the One who has no attachments;

attach yourself to his love so as to conquer all attachment.”67

There is a tendency to make too strong an opposition between dualism and non-dualism. When the teachings of Indian sages are directly studied, one is rather struck by their capacity to quickly shift from a dualistic expression of truth to a non-dualist one, and vice versa. This flexibility of mind actually seems to me a sign of spiritual progress more than a rigid attitude. In the following verses Tukaram has managed to evoke this difference, based on identity; a difference that defies the delimitation of the best metaphysicians:

“With my face up, I murmured endlessly

endlessly these words “I, him’’

which woke up the one without face,

which drove crazy with love the giver.

He offered to me in charity

his knowledge of himself and of his being,

Here I am merged in his nature,

maintaining only our names different.

These two words are a source

of multiple benedictions:

I shall give them in turn

to those who shall come to meet me.

These two words are the path,

always guide the saints.

Saved, saved, are these people

and many others by such a faith.”68

At a certain stage of his evolution, Jnaneshvar, meditating on Krishna, the blue God, began to see everything blue: not only the sky, but the universe, nature and food; everything had become blue, even the Absolute.69 There was a unity of colour, although the forms remained different. He saw everything in the same colour.

It is said that when Narada went to see the god Krishna in his palace at Dwaraka, he caught sight of him adoring the statue of his most devoted devotees. “What? exclaimed Narada, how can you, who are god, adore human beings?” Krishna answered: “I adore these devotees who are the image of my God.”70

In Indian philosophy one can number about fourteen types of identity-difference between the soul and God; and these may also give a basis for a reflection about the types of identity-difference relation-ship between guru and disciple. We can quote, for instance, the identity of substance between the air in a pot and that outside the pot; the identity of transformation as it exists between clay as a lump and clay in the shape of vase; the identity of conjunction as between water and milk when mixed, the identity of affection between two friends, etc.71

Whatever subtleties philosophers may say about this subject and however interesting their arguments, once more I prefer to leave the last word to Kabir, the illiterate weaver:

“If I say one, it is not like this.

If I say two, it is slander.

Kabir thought on this point

It is as it is.”72


Sikhs: From the Community of Disciples to the Disciples of Community

“Sikh”, the same as the Sanskrit or Hindi shishya, means “disciple”. Originally, the Sikhs were the community of the disciples of Guru Nanak, a sage who lived during the fifteenth-sixteenth century mainly in North-West India, in the Punjab. The tenth guru of this community, Guru Gobind Singh, decided to transfer his power to the community itself in the year 1699. He declared: “The guru is the community, the community is the guru.” In this way an uncommon event occurred in the history of India, with the exception, perhaps, of early Buddhism: the members of a community of disciples became the disciples of a community.

Guru Nanak was a man of paradox: to begin with, he himself did not have a guru, though his writings are full of the traditional idea that one cannot attain God without a guru. Nevertheless, even if he does not call them gurus, he seems to have greatly benefited from meeting certain people, as he writes in one of his poems: “I got happiness from meeting some men of God. I have obtained exactly what my soul wished. Day and night I am in ecstasy due to just meeting some saints.”73

Second paradox of Guru Nanak: although he passed twenty years of his life far away from his wife and children on the roads in order to meet yogis and sufis of all kind, he forbade his disciples, starting with his own son Shri Chand, to follow the path of renunciation. All of a sudden, his son left him and his brothers did the same. This would not have been without pain and tears, because they are described by Bhai Das, the first biographer of Nanak, with some bitterness as follow: “His sons have not obeyed him; they were treacherous rebels and deserters. In their place he has named Angad as his successor.”74 The Udasins, a group of renouncers bound to Shri Chand and near to Sikhism, were rejected by the third Sikh guru, Amar Das.

Nanak, and his successors even more, wanted to give to the community an integration in the world and to use social, political, and even military means to realise the ideal of the Bhakti movement: his was a society free from the Vedic caste system from Brahmanic power, yet at the same time equally independent from the Mughals rulers of Delhi. In order to carry out this project, they needed a centralised leadership. On the other hand, they could not be burdened with full-time mystics, like the Udasins. These would not have been satisfied for long by the simple religious truths taught by Guru Nanak, and, sooner or later, they would have needed a personalized contact with a spiritual Master. Nanak’s successors, who quickly assumed quasi royal responsibilities, had no time for this and, on the other hand, could not accept in the core of their community the counter-power of other gurus.

Nanak’s personal choice of his own successor was not so normal among the saints of this period. Kabir and Chaitanya, for instance, did not have appointed successors, but simply a certain number of disciples who spread their Master’s teachings more or less independently of each other. In a certain sense, Nanak’s decision was in contradiction with the traditional Hindu system in which a disciple has to choose his own guru.75 It was not even in keeping with the democratic ideal of a community which should be able to choose its chief; but Nanak strongly desired the continuity and the unity of his work. From the fourth guru onwards, the title became hereditary. The successors of Nanak started wearing two swords: one representing spiritual power, and the other temporal power. They were named the “true emperor” in opposition to the Mughals of Delhi. They received duties, recruited an army, and enlisted mercenaries for the greater glory of God…

The traditional, family-type guru devotion is replaced by a military style obedience, sometimes even with retaliations against those who do not want to fight, as was the case of those who abandoned Guru Gobind Singh during a difficult stage of his wars in the 1680s. In order to maintain the political and religious cohesion of the group, the gurus laid stress on their unity with the founder, Nanak: when they write, each of them, generation after generation, signs only “Nanak”. From the fourth successor, Arjan, the idea of the Book as guru begins to dawn on them. A compilation of hymns, especially from Guru Nanak, is put together. Among other things, Arjan wanted also to assure his legitimacy vis-à-vis his brother who was plotting against him to seize power. He also felt, perhaps, that he could no longer properly care for the guidance of the souls of his numerous disciples, and it would have been more suitable to refer to a Sacred Scripture to answer their questions and fulfil their spiritual expectations. One may also add that Islamic influence can be seen in the very necessity felt by Sikhism to become a religion of the Book, with even the addition of Mul-Mantra (“root-formula”) to take the place of Fatiaha at the beginning of Koran. The very Book (Granth) itself is honoured with the title of Guru: it is called the “Guru Granth Sahib”. A cult, in many points resembling the idols’ cult in a Hindu temple—however without the water, milk and oil baths…—is organized around it.

In the year 1699, the tenth guru, Gobind Singh, took the risk of handing down his guru power to the community. I call it a risk because a community without a living guru is not natural in Indian ethos. This was forced upon him for various reasons. Perhaps, he already felt the abuse of power when he was demanding from his disciples the absolute devotion or: such as the one reserved to a purely spiritual Sadguru, while his primary activity was politics and war. Furthermore, he became a guru by birth and not directly because of his mystic qualities, although he also had these. From another point of view, he possibly felt the danger for the community of depending on a single leader. His father, Teg Bahadur, died in Mughal prisons, his two sons were murdered, and he himself had been the object of an assassination attempt. It was more prudent to pass the temporal power to the whole community, so that it would be difficult to wipe it out overnight; and to pass the spiritual power to the Book, the Guru Granth Sahib, could help the Sikhs to establish a direct communication with the Divine, without a living guru, as Nanak had established for himself in his time.

The following anecdote seems to me to illustrate this move from being a spiritual movement centred on the guru, to a military style organisation: Gobind Singh passes by the tomb of a saint, Dadu; as a sign of respect for this saint, whose teaching he admired, and according to the custom of the period, he lowers his sword. The soldiers of his escort bring to his notice that, according to the new rules, a Sikh must not lower his sword before anybody. Since Gobind Singh has already established that “the Community is the Guru”, he is forced to submit himself to the fine laid down for such cases.

For several years at the beginning of the nineteenth century, under Ranjit Singh, the Sikhs had their dream of an independent State fulfilled. After this, they have continued to defend their individuality against Islam, Christianity and Hinduism, even if, because of this, they have sometimes fallen into a rigid orthodoxy. A sub-sect of Sikhism clearly shows in its extremism the risks of a stubborn militarism. These were the Kukas, the “shouters”—so called because they entered into a trance as they danced while reciting the Name of God. The following anecdote is the most tragi-comic story about the sacred cow that I ever heard in India: the Kukas loved sacred cows… They loved them so dearly that they decided, with a full military logic, that the best way to protect them was to kill all the butchers who killed their beloved cows. Many times during the 1870s the devotees of the cult of the Kukas organized, therefore, a mass killing of butchers, as documented by Niharranjan Ray, a well-known scholar of our century.76

Sikhism could not be integrated in Islam: the latter had such a well defined dogma that there was little chance of mixing it with this sect of Indian origin. It could not be influenced by Christianity, which came from too different a world. But, orthodox Sikhs had always had a great fear of being integrated in the multiform octopus of Hinduism, from which they kept separate with difficulty. In order to maintain their precarious politico-religious individuality, they have denied the possibility of new living gurus to arise from the heart of their community. This would be too risky, because gurus generally have a certain independence of mind, speak with their own authority and have a dreadful tendency to syncretism—dreadful at least in the eyes of the orthodox. This ban on living gurus has certainly favoured a politico-religious cohesion, but at the same time has limited the spiritual vitality. Even Theravada Buddhism more or less acknowledges, in practice, the function of guru, which is shared among the elders of the monastery.

But history did not stop there; in India gurus are never far away. Numerous lineages of spiritual teachers have been formed mid-way between Hinduism and Sikhism, therefore continuing the general movement of Sants, to which at the beginning Guru Nanak belonged. The better known lineages are those of Radha Soami Satsang. 77,78 They have a great number of devotees in North India and abroad. Sant Kirpal Singh, for instance, leader of one of the branches of this movement till his death some years ago, is said to have initiated a million people. I was able to meet Satpal Maharaj, the guru of another lineage of sants. His organisation is called Manava Dharma, “the human religion”, and seems to number at least some hundreds of thousands of people. His teaching is simple: “All religions worship the same God; he is inside yourself. Establish contact with him through meditation and through the initiation of the guru.” Like some other Hindu gurus, he has a rather well defined programme of political and social action. Since the French version of this book, he has become a minister in the United Front Government. Actually, it is more difficult to speak about present-day Sant movements than about Sikh orthodoxy, because the Sant doctrine as well as their social impact, are more broad and more general. They do not dream, either, of establishing a kind of State within the State. Although politically more discreet than the Sikhs, nevertheless, they represent a considerable religious vitality in present-day India.

Returning to Orthodox Sikhism, we find that it speaks constantly about the guru; the fact that Nanak did not have a guru, and that the community has not had any since the beginning of the eighteenth century, does not seem to trouble them in the least. Nevertheless, from a psychological perspective, in this cult of the absent guru can be sensed, as I understand it, a touch of nostalgia. A psychological fixation is made on the absent. Even the vocabulary is contaminated by the word guru: already the Punjabi alphabet itself is called gurmukhi, the temple is called gurudwara, the group of disciples is called guru panth, a kind of truism since by definition a panth is a gathering of devotees around a guru and his lineage. The official decisions of the guru panth are called gurumattas, the Sacred Book is, therefore, the Guru Granth Sahib in which are kept the gurubanis, the words of the guru. The Sikhs call themselves the gurubhajas, those who worship the guru, in contrast to the Hindus whom they call dehbhaja, those who worship the “body”, that is the statue of a god in a temple. The good disciple has his face turned towards his guru (gurumukh) contrary to the ordinary man who is hypnotized by his own mind (manmukh). The Mool Mantra, the Sikh three lines profession of faith, ends with the declaration: “God is known by the grace of the guru.”

Hinduism also has its cult of the gurus of the past; but this has the function of preparing people for their meeting with living gurus. In Sikhism, however, as the possibility of a living guru is excluded, it is not very clear what such a cult can be preparing for. Its function is, possibly, to centre the institution, to remind it of its glorious past, and to make more accessible the divine that everyone has at the bottom of his or her heart, by labelling it Sadguru. The history of Sikhism resembles in many points the constitution of the early Christian Church: an apostolic succession, the elimination of parallel teachings, a resistance to established power, the cult of martyrs, and a devotion concentrated on the Founder. The trilogy Founder-Book-Community also recalls the three jewels of Buddhism, the founder Buddha, the Dharma proclaimed by him and transcribed in the Sutras, and the Sangha, the community of the faithfuls. The evolution of Sikhism is different from that of the Hindu sects, which generally, after the death of the first guru, branch off into a series of lineages relatively independent from one another.

Sikhism has been successful in making a synthesis of Hinduism and Islam in a period of troubled relationships, if not of open war between the two great religions. It has privileged the institutionalization, then finally the interiorization, of the notion of Sadguru. It had a true social success, but the limitations of its system of spiritual teaching with the prohibition of living gurus have favoured the development of parallel lineages of spiritual Masters who continue the movement of Sants without bothering about any orthodoxy, either Hindu, or Muslim or Sikh.