Jacques Vigne – Guru Tradition

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The Indian Teaching

Hinduism and the Guru-Disciple


Chapter 1. The Guru in the Hindu

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

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

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

A Guru for Every

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

“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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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”

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.”

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

“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

“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,

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

“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

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

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

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

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

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


for more:

The Indian Teaching

Hinduism and the Guru-Disciple