11 Dec 2011

‘Silence is the answer to your question’: Hinduism, Yoga & the Guru

I don’t announce to people that I’m Hindu. They tend to just figure it out as things go along. Since I don’t seem to ‘look Hindu’ (I’m not Indian), the most obvious or outward signs of my beliefs would most likely be that my family celebrates Diwali, I often wear rudraksha on my wrists (I’m asked if they are just jewellery or have a purpose), and I practice yoga. Yoga could be the most obvious sign, but it’s no definitive marker nowadays; people of varying beliefs (or none) practice it. But when someone does ask or somehow the issue of religion comes up, one of the subsequent questions is: Do you have a guru? 

This is a loaded question in the west, and the answers ‘yes’ and ‘no’ rarely offer the truth or give people an accurate understanding of what you mean. The very word ‘guru’ has accrued a few vacuous usages to add to its original meaning and developed a number of negative connotations. 

In the more light-hearted vein, the word is used colloquially to describe anyone who offers guidance and gains a following. The author of a new diet book is called a ‘weight loss guru’ or the creator of a fantastic electronic gadget that sells in the millions will be the latest ‘technology guru’.  

But the word, sadly, has darker implications. Starting in the heyday of the countercultural movement in the west, several charismatic and controversial figures arose, some home-grown and others arriving from India, Japan, Tibet and other nations. Many garnered a following, for whom their leader was The Guru par excellence. Among a few of these groups, there were notable scandals and controversies, including accusations of brainwashing, financial misdealing, hypocritically lavish lifestyles, fake miracles, sexual predation, child abuse, mass suicides, the deliberate spreading of HIV infection, and even terrorist attacks. People may have long forgotten the specific circumstances or the names of the individuals or organisations involved, but the sordid air that began to hover around the word ‘guru’ has never entirely gone away. 

Today ‘the Guru’, sadly, is a concept distorted.  So, to say Yes, I have a guru, is either to say nothing or to say too much.

Originally, in Hinduism, the word guru (Sanskrit: गुरु) meant teacher. It can also be translated as preceptor or sage, someone with great knowledge and authority in a certain area of thought or spiritual experience. The guru is not always a person; guru is a principle. God is the supreme guru, parents are gurus, school teachers, a book. Even an animal can manifest the guru principle, a river, a stone, if your interaction with it serves to enlighten the mind or open the heart. For a Hindu, the importance of finding a guru who can impart knowledge (vidyā) leading to liberation (moksha) is emphasised. In the Bhagavad Gita, God in the form of Krishna says to the great warrior Arjuna: “Acquire the transcendental knowledge from a Self-realized master by humble reverence, by sincere inquiry, and by service. The wise ones who have realized the Truth will impart the Knowledge to you.”

For yogins, the guru is the true teacher and guide, and you are his/her śiṣya or chela, usually translated as ‘disciple’. This is a profound and intimate relationship that you must be sure not to initiate carelessly or to distort. Today, many a yoga teacher enacts the role of sage or proclaims him/herself the guru of this or that ‘brand’ of yoga, and many students assume the role of chela unguardedly and without full consideration of what the relationship means or where it is taking them. This could spell disaster – as has been the case in various instances in the past – but it need not happen that way. In a series of talks on the yoga of Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh given by my own teacher’s teacher, Swami Venkatesananda addressed this issue and spoke of just how the true guru-disciple relationship forms in an almost wordless fashion, for the experience is too profound for speeches, presumption and pontification:
When you go round India you will meet dozens of Gurus who say: “I am your Guru”. Gurudev never said that for one moment.

Occasionally he used to say “You are my disciple” or “He is my disciple”; and some of the older disciples here probably have one letter at least where Gurudev said: “I have accepted you as my beloved disciple, I shall serve you and guide you.” But with all respect and adoration to Gurudev, I may tell you that it was meant more as an encouragement to the disciple than as a statement of fact.

When Swami Sivananda said: “I have accepted you as my beloved disciple,” you felt that you had a claim over Swami Sivananda, you could write to him more freely. That is what he wanted. The next sentence is: “I will serve you.” You have never heard of a Guru serving a disciple, the disciple is supposed to serve the Guru! So in that formula itself he has cancelled this Guru business. He never regarded himself as a Guru. It was for us, not for him.

It is the disciple’s experience that is the Guru, and the Guru need not know when that experience happened to you. You may say, “You are my Guru”; it is not for the Guru to say, “I am your Guru.” I can go to the Guru and say, “I am your disciple,” when I am prepared to do exactly what he tells me to do.

And not till that stage is reached can I boldly say: “I am your disciple, you are my Guru.”

Another example of this preferred un-spoken nature of the guru-disciple relationship is in the Yoga Vasistha, which recounts the discourse of the sage Vasistha and a young Prince Rama. In it, Vasistha speaks of the true teacher as the one who helps you achieve atma-jnana (Self-realisation or the knowledge of your Oneness with God). Such an experience is, by its nature, paradoxically personal and universal. It is universal in that anyone – no matter your age, race, gender, sexuality, class, caste, nationality, background, profession – can achieve Self-realisation, the ultimate goal of life. But the experience of attaining atma-jnana or spiritual liberation is something you must undergo, not something you can ever fully impart in speech in any meaningful way: it is experienced, not described. At one point in Vasistha’s instruction to Rama, Rama asks a question and Vasistha simply remains silent. Rama becomes irritated, demanding to know:
“Can’t you answer this question I am asking? Why have you suddenly become silent?”
Vasistha says, “It is not because I could not answer your question that I became silent, but silence is the answer to your question.”

So when I’m asked about my faith and my yoga, what I believe and whether or not I have a guru, I find I’ve developed the habit of lingering for a moment in the silence the question evokes, rather than falling headlong into a verbal trap that might invoke who-knows-what notions in the mind of the questioner. And then I nod and speak of my teacher and of what she teaches, what (I hope!) I’ve learned, and I speak of her teacher and the lineage and tradition they embody and sustain:
Disciple means discipline. What does the word ‘discipline’ mean? Not an army drill, but study. The teacher gave you some information which produced a form within you; and now you wish to study this. The teacher said that happiness is in you, that it is not in the object of pleasure—but that is not your experience. You have experienced pleasure from that object and in its absence you are miserable.

So what do you do? You are studying this inner structure, studying the workings of the mind, the arising of the self, the ego. But it is not clear... Therefore in the course of the study of oneself an extraordinary discipline arises.

It is not a discipline which is imposed upon you by others, it is not a discipline which is goal oriented, but it is a discipline born of intense search. When this discipline manifests itself in your heart you will naturally find your Guru. You go and stand in front of someone and ... that’s it.

You don’t need to exchange a word.


  1. I so enjoy reading your posts! Beautifully written:-)

    Om Shanti!

  2. Dear T.A.H.,

    I didn't realize the question, "Do you have a Guru?" was so complex. Thank you for explaining some of its intricacies.

    Much love,


  3. Thanks, Toni. I didn't realise it either until I started to write this piece, lol! It's amazing how much can go on, mentally and emotionally and historically and spiritually and... in those few seconds in between a question and an answer.

  4. "Hinduism and Buddhism offer much more sophisticated worldviews (or philosophies) and I see nothing wrong with these religions."

    ---Richard Dawkins

  5. "Religious faith in the case of the Hindus has never been allowed to run counter to scientific laws, moreover the former is never made a condition for the knowledge they teach, but there are always scrupulously careful to take into consideration the possibility that by reason both the agnostic and atheist may attain truth in their own way. Such tolerance may be surprising to religious believers in the West, but it is an integral part of Vedantic belief."

    ---Romain Rolland

  6. "A millennium before Europeans were willing to divest themselves of the Biblical idea that the world was a few thousand years old, the Mayans were thinking of millions and the Hindus billions."

    ---Carl Sagan

  7. "Land of religions, cradle of human race, birthplace of human speach, grandmother of leagacy, great grandmother of tradition. The land that all men desire to see and having seen once even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of the rest of the globe combined.

    It is a good and gentle religion, but inconvenient."

    ---Mark Twain

  8. Interesting quotes all. Particularly the Dawkins, since I didn't know he had anything good to say about any faith.

    I find Twain's "inconvenient" comment hillarious :)

  9. Well written, soul-warming.
    Hari Om Tatsat.
    May Ishvara Bless You!

  10. Namaste Jeet Bhargava -- thank you! You're very kind. And warmest blessings to you.

  11. T.A.H., love you.

    Just a point on the responsibility of Guru about his disciple. In Hinduism, a Guru is the lifelong guardian of his disciple that can be seen in various lives of the enlightened souls e.g. Vivekananda, Swami Rama, Great Sivaji Maharaja, Paramhansa Yogananda and so many more Guru-disciple lives. Thus once a Guru, always a Guru and savior.

    We know the definition of a Guru as expounded in our scriptures -

    "Gurur Brahmaa Gurur Vishnu,Gurudevo maheshwaraa;
    Guruh saakshaata param Brahmam, tasmaiva Sri Guruvai namah."

    If we proclaim the Guru of such a Highest order, then the responsibility of a Guru leaves us very little to doubt or discuss.

    Enjoyed the blogpost as well as all the comments including the ones from Richard Dawkins and 'inconvenient Mark Twain'. God bless

    Dr. O. P. Sudrania

  12. Just in passing T.A.H.,

    I know only one Accidental Hindu (in his own words) and his name is/was our revered Pandit Nehru who by his accident, converted all the other Hindus in the current world into morosed morons. Hinduism is passing through its historical anvil test.

    You could be any accident because you were destined as a Hindu. As Sri Satya Sai Baba once explained that our births take place for three causal effects.

    (1) The vast majority like me are born out of their 'Karma' theory by the 'Praarabdha' from our last birth 'Cause and Effect' philosophy.
    (2) People likes of you and other so many enlightened souls all over the globe in various societies, who are enlightened but sharpen their hones by penance in this world and gain some degree of Sainthood to enlighten others on the Godhood Principle. These are few and counted once whom The Father sends from time to time in various places.
    (3) This is a rare birth when the Lord Himself incarnates on the earth when the second Saints fail to redeem the society from its accumulated malaise and dross. In Hinduism we call them Avataars as you very well know.

    Thank you for publishing my earlier comment.

    With loving regards,

    Dr. O. P. Sudrania

  13. Sorry for one serious erratum for my fault T.A.H.,
    "You could be any accident because you were destined as a Hindu."

    Please read, "You couldn't be any accident as a Hindu because you were destined as a Hindu."

    Sorry for inconvenience.

    Thank you and my loving regards,
    Dr. O. P. Sudrania

  14. Hello Dr Sudrania,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I didn't notice the typo at first, and fully understood what you meant, so no worries there. I am just so touched by what you have shared and the kind words you'd said about what I've put together here on this blog. Keeps me encouraged to keep going with this project.

    I had only heard about Nehru's 'accidental' Hindu comment last week, after I'd already named my blog. What an interesting statement he made! I'm intrigued by your sentiments about it and him. My own blog name was a bit of a jokey reference to a popular film title from years ago, The Accidental Tourist... but it's good to know of the Nehru quote and that others may have that in mind when they read my blog.

    Again, you have my thanks for all you've shared and for your encouragement!

  15. Never heard of the word discipline explained so beautifully. This was a great read. Inspired me to seek Hinduism even more. Please write more ;)

  16. Jivanti,

    Thank you. Great to wake up this morning and read your note. I'm so pleased. And, yes, absolutely :) there will be more. Keep reading (please!).

  17. hi there, this is a really nice post. i enjoyed reading it. =)

  18. Thank you, BasiL, for reading and commenting (& liking :) )