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