Jacques Vigne – Guru Tradition

The Indian Teaching Tradition

Hinduism and the Guru-Disciple Relationship

Jacques Vigne


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 others4 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


for more:

The Indian Teaching Tradition

Hinduism and the Guru-Disciple Relationship


Jacques Vigne