Many of us must remember a teacher who has had a special influence on our lives. The teacher who saw our potential and pushed us in the right direction. I remember mine. Which is why Guru Purnima is a day close to my heart. A day dedicated to our gurus, our teachers.
The tradition of the Guru is as old as India itself and lies at very heart of the Hindu culture. A teacher holds a special place not just in the heart of the disciple or the student, but in Indian society.
In the absence of a founder, it is the guru-shishya tradition that has played a key role in preserving and sustaining Hinduism in all its diversity.
In the olden days children were sent off to a gurukul( house of the guru) in the forest, to live with their teacher, where they spent years learning the scriptures, the arts and the skills to lead a noble and fruitful life. When they were ready to step into the real world, they returned home and assumed their respective roles in society.
Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore once pointed out that while the ancient Greeks and Romans built great cities, India’s was a forest civilisation. Not that there were no great cities in ancient India but that the essential continuity of culture happened in small communities living close to nature.
It was in this tradition that he set up Shantiniketan, a gurukul in modern times, where students could learn in a natural setting. Shantikentan continues to be a much revered institution even today and is a premier institute for higher learning in India.
Rabindranath Tagore with Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba Gandhi at Santiniketan in 1940.
Swami Amritananda Saraswati writes beautifully about the tradition of the Guru in the Bihar School of Yoga Magazine. He explains…
The vedic tradition is not an organised institution or system and it does not depend on any one guru or philosophy. It is a process of discovering the Truth. From time immemorial, the wise men of India have all taken part in this discovery. Each one of them had his own way of thinking and contribution to make. From this tradition emerged the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, Gita, Bhagavat, Yoga Vashistha, and later the Ramayana, Ramacharit-manas, Mahabharata, etc.
There were also the philosophical traditions of Charwaka, Jaina, Samkhya, Nyaya, Vedanta, Bauddha and others taught by the illustrious rishis and masters such as Vishwamitra, Vashistha, Jamdagni, Farashara, Vyasa, Atri, Bharadwaja, Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Buddha, Mahavira and Guru Nanak.
So, the tradition of the guru has no beginning and no end. During the course of evolution, gurus come and go as the cosmos evolves.
A guru is considered to be a form of the Supreme Brahman, the Godhead of all knowledge.
गुरुर्ब्रह्मा गुरुर्विष्णुर्गुरुर्देवो महेश्वरः ।
गुरुरेव परं ब्रह्म तस्मै श्रीगुरवे नमः ॥१॥
Gurur-Brahmaa Gurur-Vishnu-Gururdevo Maheshvarah |
Gurureva Param Brahma Tasmai Shrii-Gurave Namah ||1||
1.1: The Guru is Brahma, the Guru is Vishnu, the Guru Deva is Maheswara (Shiva),
1.2: The Guru is the Para-Brahman (Supreme Brahman); Salutations to that Guru.
Traditionally in India there were many types of gurus. They differed according to their own individual nature as well as their field of expertise.
They taught everything from farming techniques, to martial arts and the use of weapons to the scriptures, literature, performing arts and dharma.
To this day Indian classical dance and music is taught through the guru-shishya tradition where the teacher practically adopts the student and takes responsibility for nurturing his or her talents.
But above all was the teacher who took care of our soul, who guided us from the darkness of ignorance into the light of truth. He was the sat-guru. When we come in contact with a sat-guru, we begin to develop our conscious awareness.
In the Western world, the term ‘guru’ has come mostly to mean this last category. Where the master is a stereotypical, saffron robe wearing caricature who practices mystical mumbo jumbo. And often dodgy ‘guru’ types have exploited this perception.
But a true spiritual master stands apart from such theatrics, shinning brightly as the sun.