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Need For A Guru - Importance of a Preceptor

by T.N. Dhar 'Kundan'

There is a saying in Hindi ‘Guru bin gati nahin – Achievement is not possible without a guru’. This statement needs a detailed analysis and examination, particularly because there have been many great spiritual luminaries who were known to have achieved highest levels without the guidance of a preceptor. On the other hand there have been saints and sages like Swami Vivekananda, who were guided to spiritual heights by their preceptors. In Indian mythology and tradition mention is made of many such spiritual giants, who are said to have surpassed their preceptors. There are instances where some fortunate ones have got messages in their dreams or even otherwise, about the persons, who were going to be their preceptors. Also there are cases where some gurus have got the divine direction to guide a particular person. Thus there are illustrations supporting every possible situation. A seeker can find a suitable guru for himself, someone could be ordained to guide him, he can get an indication about whom he should approach for spiritual guidance or he can go on his own on the path of spirituality. 

Even in the case of mundane and worldly matters one may like to benefit from the advice of the seniors and the knowledgeable, take lessons from the experiences of others or use one’s own wisdom and judgment and experiment with life for one’s own self. In the day-to-day life we see that the so-called educated persons are not necessarily wise or well behaved. Similarly those who are unlettered are not, ipso facto, unwise and uncultured. Life is a great teacher and by its nature it is a series of experiences, which teach us the facts of life and guide us how to conduct ourselves. We are social animals and, therefore, form small groups, communities and societies within the framework of the country in which we live. Our country also models and remodels itself within the global compulsions in order to prove its credentials as a worthy member of the international family. A society learns from other societies, a country benefits from other countries and likewise an individual makes the best use of the experiences of other fellow individuals. Thus in mundane matters there are teachers who guide us either directly or indirectly, either knowingly or unknowingly. The question that arises is whether the same is the case in the spiritual world as well. Do we benefit from other’s experiences?

Spiritual experience and seeking are by the nature of these things strictly a private affair for every one of us. Those who are in the process of seeking may be able to roughly describe the methodology adopted by them but they are completely unable to describe their actual achievements, not even the interim milestones. Therefore our benefiting from the experience of others is absolutely out of the question. Even our preceptors give broad guidelines and tell us how to proceed with our spiritual experience. This is definitely based upon his or her own experience, for it is said that no one can lead us on a path, which he himself has not traversed. Thereafter we have to do the needful ourselves and benefit from our own experiences and experiments. This leaves us with one more question and that is in which cases do we need preceptors and their guidance.

According to the Indian tradition spiritual experience can be of four different types depending upon which of the four ways we adopt for achieving the goal, ‘Jnana’ or knowledge, ‘Karma’ or actions, ‘Bhakti’ or devotion and ‘Dhyana’ or contemplation. A teacher or a guru is definitely needed if we tread on the path of knowledge because there has to be some body knowledgeable, which can impart that knowledge to us. It is then up to us to assimilate that knowledge and also if possible and required, to improve upon it. Similarly a teacher is needed and indeed useful to guide us on the path of action. He can put us wise as to what should and what should not be done. Having selected the action he can again tell us how to go about executing it. Thereafter it is up to us how dexterously we undertake the action and how well we execute it in order to achieve the desired results expeditiously and in full. Likewise for contemplation a teacher is needed to teach us the technique and the methodology. Actual contemplation is for us to undertake. If we are able to perfect the technique we will surely achieve the target and get illumined in the shortest time possible. Of course all these things in these three areas can alternatively be learnt from an in depth study of the scriptures as well. Even when we do take refuge at the feet of a guru, the guidance received from him can further be supplemented by a detailed study of the scriptures. In fact the guru can be instrumental in helping us select and choose the useful passages and portions of the relevant literature from the vast treasure available to us.

Devotion, however, is a different cup of tea altogether. Once we are deep in love with our chosen beloved and have unflinching and unwavering faith and confidence in him, we really do not need any teacher. Meera and Surdas, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and their ilk did not need any Guru. In fact this chosen beloved can be our preceptor itself. Once we are madly in love like the Gopis were in love with Shri Krishna, where is the need for a teacher? Love is not a thing that can be taught, faith is not a thing that can be created and confidence is not a thing that can be dictated. All these traits either we have or we do not have. We may not have these but may imbibe in course of time. Devotion in fact is needed in all the different paths adopted by different seekers for their spiritual elevation. We have to be devoted to the knowledge that we seek in the path of ‘Jnana’ or knowledge. This devotion will take us nearer to the Supreme Truth. We have to be devoted and committed to the actions and deeds that we undertake. The devoted actions only will illumine our spiritual path. Devotion in contemplation will ensure concentration and hasten the entire process for the spiritual elevation. Without due devotion no path will lead us to our desired goal.

Devotion presupposes love, faith, confidence and complete surrender. Even those seekers, who take to other ways of seeking God, reach a point where they have to surrender. This surrender ensures the grace of God without which fructification of no effort is possible. Spiritual seekers treading on the path of knowledge and action use their faculties of reasoning and logic, which give them power of discriminating between transient and eternal and take them a long way towards their goal. Thereafter they have to take recourse to faith, which takes them to the goal itself. While in the first leg of their spiritual journey they may find taking someone as their guru useful and beneficial, in the second leg no guru would be needed. Guidance of a guru is needed in the first instance but later no guru is required. Love is actually in the nature of an instinct. It chooses its beloved itself and then sacrifices everything including personal comforts for his sake. A seeker walking on the path of devotion or ‘Bhakti’ surrenders before his beloved from the beginning of his spiritual journey, which travellers on other paths have to do in the end. Goal, however, is common for all of them as Pushpadanta says in his ‘Shiva Mahimnastotra’: ‘Riju kutila nana pathajusham nrinam-eko gamyah tvam-asi payasam-arnava-iva – For people treading different paths, straight or crooked, You (Shiva) only are the goal just as the ocean is the goal for all rivers flowing into it’.            

Having said that, we cannot deny that a guru may not necessarily be required to guide or lead on the path of ‘Bhakti’ or devotion, yet it cannot be completely ruled out that he can be a source of inspiration in this case also. There have been cases where a person, an ordinary worldly person, has reached a turning point in his life from where the direction of his life has taken an about-turn with the result that his life has changed altogether. At this point something or someone has definitely inspired him, visibly or invisibly. There has been change in the life of Valmiki, Tulsidas and host of other great men and they have taken to a life of highest spiritual character, after this change. We see, even in the contemporary times, great orators addressing gatherings of thousands of people and narrating the stories from Ramayana, Shrimad Bhagawat and other sacred texts. All the assembled persons, men and women, listen to these stories with devotion and many of them are inspired to take to the path of ‘Bhakti’ in all seriousness. If these noble men are able to inspire some people in these collective gatherings, certainly preceptors can influence and inspire individuals also in their private sittings to tread on the path of devotion.

Devotion is a straightforward affair. It needs no technique or methodology. It only needs unflinching love, dedication, trust and confidence coupled with complete surrender. On this path the ego, the notion of ‘I’ vanishes. The devotee realizes that the Divine only does whatever takes place and he remains devoid of the notion of doer-ship ‘Kartritva’. The devotee understands that the Divine only enjoys whatever he seems to be enjoying visibly and thereby he shuns the notion of enjoyer-ship, ‘Bhoktritva’. Similarly he believes that the Divine only possesses whatever he is seen to be possessing and thus he gives up the pride of possession and ownership, ‘Mamatva’. Whenever he offers anything to anyone he utters this statement in all humility, ‘Tvadiyam vastu Govinda tubhyam-eva samarpaye – O Lord, this is all yours and is being offered to you only’.

Guru is a Sanskrit word, which can mean a teacher, a guide, an elder, an enlightened one or a preceptor. Some scholars have interpreted it as a word combining two syllables, one meaning darkness and the other remover. They conclude that a Guru is one who removes all the darkness of ignorance. Be that as it may. A question is often asked whether a Guru is a must and whether every one of us needs a Guru. Our experience in both mundane and spiritual fields shows that there have been people, who were very knowledgeable but with the guidance of one or the other Guru. Also there have been equally enlightened persons without any Guru or what we call self-made persons. Thus to give a clear cut answer to this question about inevitability of having a Guru is well nigh impossible.

Arthur Osborne has observed in the biography of Raman Maharshi that ‘the term Guru is used in three senses. It can mean one who, although he has no spiritual attainment, has been invested (like the ordination of a priest) with the right to give initiation and upadesa. He is often hereditary and is not unlike a family doctor for spiritual health. Secondly, the Guru can be one who, in addition to the above, has some spiritual attainment and can guide his disciples by more potent upadesa (even though the actual practices enjoined may be the same) as far as he himself has gone. But in the highest and truest meaning of the word, the Guru is he who has realized Oneness with the Spirit that is the Self of all. This is the Sadguru.’ He has quoted the Maharshi as having described a Guru as follows:

“The Guru or Jnani (enlightened One) sees no difference between himself and others.     For him all are Jnanis, all are one with himself, so how can a Jnani say that such and such is his disciple? But the un-liberated one sees all as multiple, he sees all as different from himself, so to him the Guru-disciple relationship is a reality, and he needs the Grace of the Guru to waken him to reality. For him there are three ways of initiation, by touch, look and silence.”

In reply to a query whether he had a Guru or not, the Maharshi is reported to have said that ‘Guru is God or Self. First a man prays to God to fulfill his desires then a time comes when he does not pray for the fulfillment of a desire but for God Himself. So God appears to him in some form or other, human or non-human, to guide him as a Guru in answer to his prayer.’ On yet another occasion he is said to have clarified that ‘a Guru can be outside yourself or within yourself. Two things are to be done, first to find the Guru outside yourself and then to find the Guru within.’ These statements assert that there can be a Guru, who may not be in any human form and yet may give initiation and Upadesa to his disciple. 

We know from the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita that three things are needed for us to benefit from a Guru. These are ‘Pranipata’ or submission, ‘Pariprashna’ or enquiry and ‘Seva’ or service. As regards submission, Arthur says that ‘submission to this Guru is not submission to any outside oneself but to the Self manifested outwardly in order to help one discover the Self within.’ He has quoted the Maharshi as having remarked thus: ‘The Master is within; meditation is meant to remove the ignorant idea that he is only outside. If he were a stranger whom you were awaiting, he would be bound to disappear also. What would be the use of a transient being like that? But as long as you think that you are separate or are the body, so long is the outer Master also necessary and he will appear as if with a body. When the wrong identification of oneself with the body ceases the Master is found to be none other than the Self.’

The philosophy behind all this discussion is that the Self, the Preceptor and the God are actually one. This stands to reason when one believes and perceives that God pervades everything and that everything is the manifestation of the God. This is the high point of ‘Advaita’ or non-dualism. We have a rich heritage of saints and sages. If we go through their lives on this planet earth we come across divergent situations and happenings. There are instances where some of them did not have a Guru as such in a human form. Those who had too present a variety of pictures. In some cases a Guru has travelled miles in search of his disciple and having found him has initiated him and given him upadesa. In other cases a disciple has traversed long distances and has run from pillar to post in search of his Guru. After finding him he has surrendered and prostrated before him and sought spiritual guidance. Some luckier ones have chanced to come by a Guru, who has readily taken them into their tutelage. In many cases a Guru is reported to have tested the acumen, sincerity and resilience of the disciple before accepting him as his ‘Shishya’, or disciple. In some cases even the disciple has examined the competence and the spiritual level of his Guru before handing over the reins of his spiritual journey to him. There are a few odd cases where a disciple was refused acceptance by a reputed Guru and yet the disciple made him his preceptor in absentia and received initiation by connecting with him through his conscience.

The Guru gives upadesa and initiates the lucky one whom he takes into his tutelage. It is believed that there are three modes of initiation, by touch, by look and by silence. A bird that needs to sit on its eggs in order to hatch them denotes initiation by touch. A fish, which needs only to look at its eggs to thatch them, represents initiation by look. A tortoise typifies initiation by silence, as it needs only to think and the eggs get thatched. We have come across a variety of different ways of initiation by touch. A Guru may put his hand on the disciple’s head. He may touch his forehead or his cheek. He may strike him with his toes gently. He may touch an item and then make the disciple touch the same or cause him to touch the same item and the process of initiation is complete. The initiation by touch is also known as Shaktipat or descent of power. Initiation by look is a straight eye contact whereby the Guru transmits the spiritual light to his Shishya by looking into his eyes. In this case the latter is mesmerized as it were and for a moment goes into the state of trance. In the case of the initiation by silence what happens is that the Guru and the Shishya both come on to the same wave length of thought and a spiritual connection is formed.

Every one of us refers to himself as ‘I’. He has three aspects, being (Astitva), doing (Kartritva) and enjoying (Bhokhtritva). His being is called Sat in our scriptures. This is his existence, which he is required to recognize. His doing has to be for the good and benefit of all and for that his Chit or consciousness is there to guide him. Then there is his enjoying this has to be detached as has been rightly and explicitly stated in the Upanishad, ‘Tena tyekhtena bhunjeethah – thus you must enjoy everything with an attitude of ‘Tyaga’, which has been defined as not worrying about the fruit. This will give him Aananda or bliss. The three together ‘Sat, Chit, Aananda’ form the description of the Supreme God. These three correspond to another set of three words describing Him, i.e. Satyam or certitude, Shivam or benevolence and Sundaram or aesthetics. Certitude denotes existence (for only that which exists can be true and certain), benevolence refers to noble actions and deeds and aesthetics causes bliss. Now it is the guidance of a Guru that shapes these three aspects in us, viz. our personality, our deeds and our bliss.

It would be interesting to narrate some known facts here about various preceptors and how they approached or were approached by their disciples. Take the case of Pandit Krishna Kar. He was ordained by the goddess to guide Rishi Peer. He went to his house and not finding him there (he had gone to Hari Parvat), smoked from the hubble-bubble kept at his house. He left a word with his mother that Rishi Peer should smoke from the same smoking implement. When he came home, he did as was told and got the upadesa. Alakheswari Roopa Bhawani had her own father as her Guru, who not only gave her lessons in scriptures but also led her on the path of supreme enlightenment, which she has referred to as ‘Parama Gati). Similarly Shri Rama Krishna was approached by his would be Guru and initiated as ordained by the goddess. He, in his discourses, used to liken money with fire. In order to test his statement Narendra Nath, before he became Swami Vivekananda, hid a currency note under the seat of Shri Rama Krishna. When he came and took his seat, he immediately stood up shouting ‘fire, fire!’ Then smilingly, he revealed that this must be the handiwork of Narendra. Anandamayi Maa was initiated by her Guru and in due course after that she initiated her own husband. Shri Raman Maharshi said that a Guru could be impersonal as well since he believed that the Self, the Guru and God, all were one and the same. Bhagavaan Gopinath, when asked about his Guru, referred to the Bhagavad Gita and said any one of the seven hundred and odd Shlokas of it could be the Guru. Naturally, therefore, he was also referring to an impersonal Guru. 

After giving it a thought we feel that every seeker is a disciple in his own right and has a Guru, personal or impersonal. The guru evaluates his acumen, capacity and spiritual level and accordingly suggests a path for him to tread upon. The disciple also seeks a Guru as per his tastes, liking and inclination. It makes easier for him to chalk out a suitable path for himself. There have been cases where a disciple has changed the course of his journey midway after realising that the path he was on was not suitable for him, was difficult for him or was more time consuming. Some seekers progress step by step and rise by stages. For them Shri Gita says, ‘Aneka janma sansiddhah tato yanti paran-gatim – these people seek perfection life after life and then attain the supreme status.’ Others jump over many stages and reach the destination in lesser time. According to Kashmir Shaiva Philosophy there comes a stage when they realise that the seeker and the sought after are one and the same. Even then there is an element of dualism at that stage too since the seeker and the sought after are considered as two different entities. They raise themselves further up and get merged with the Supreme and then alone the stage of perfect non-dualism is reached.

T. N. Dhar Kundan's Articles


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