“Tamaso Mā Jyotirgamaya”- Finding a Guru in Modern Times

– Dr. Aparna (Dhir) Khandelwal and Prof. Bal Ram Singh

Knowledge is a supreme reality that is not limited to experience, education, reasoning and practice. It is an awareness, or understanding of facts that helps in awakening the intellect of a person for making one wise, and use that wisdom (बुद्धि) to pursue naturally the purpose of life through चित्त, अहंकार (अस्तित्व), and महत (the supreme mind) according to the Sankhya Darśan. The mahat concept is the gateway to understanding the brahm (ब्रह्म), the ultimate seat of the knowledge. Thus, a journey of this kind requires training, practice, guidance, and ultimately the sākśātkār (साक्षात्कार) or darśan. An important individual who effectively guides in this journey is known as ‘Guru’. Since Vedic era the word ‘Guru’ is well recognised in various texts like Muṇdaka Upaniṣad (1.2.12), Śvetāśvetara Upaniṣad and Advayatāraka Upaniṣad.

Literally, ‘Guru’ word is constructed from two Sanskrit words, gu (गु) and ru (रु), gu (गु) means dark, ignorance, superficial, confusion, etc., depending on the context, and ru (रु) means to break, to remove, to end, deeper/heavier, or enlighten. Guru-Gītā, a Hindu scripture (Guru Gītā is a spiritual text originally constructed by Sage Vyasa, and narrated again in  the Sakanda Purāṇa where the nature of the guru and the guru/disciple relationship is described in the form of a dialogue between Śiva and Pārvatī). Śiva narrated the etymological derivation of the word ‘guru’ that is based on the syllables gu (गु) and ru (रु), and their meanings in different contexts. According to Wikipedia, there are different versions of Guru-Gita ranging in verses from 100 to 400. According to a Guru-Gita following verses are directly defining the term Guru. It is interesting to note that the primary meaning of the gu (गु) as dark and ru (रु) as the remover is retained to describe the concepts of the ślokas. –

गुकारश्चान्धकारो हि रुकारस्तेज उच्यते |

अज्ञानग्रासकं ब्रह्म गुरुरेव न संशयः||33||

‘गु’ शब्द का अर्थ है अंधकार (अज्ञान) और ‘रु’ शब्द का अर्थ है प्रकाश (ज्ञान) | अज्ञान को नष्ट करने वाला जो ब्रह्मरूप प्रकाश है, वह गुरु है | इसमें कोई संशय नहीं है |

 In this translation the physical reality of dark is removed by the physical element of light, and that is then metaphorically used to indicate that the guru removes the ignorance by eating it away (grāsakam), means destroying it permanently.

गुकारश्चान्धकारस्तु रुकारस्तन्निरोधकृत् | 

अन्धकारविनाशित्वात् गुरुरित्यभिधीयते ||34||

‘गु’ कार अंधकार है और उसको दूर करनेवाल ‘रु’ कार है | अज्ञानरूपी अन्धकार को नष्ट करने के कारण ही गुरु कहलाते हैं |

Here the guru is presented as someone who does not allow the darkness to continue, in other words the guru destroys it. Implications are here that the guru is a dynamic personality who can spot, assess, and prevent the ignorance from continuing.

गुकारः प्रथमो वर्णो मायादि गुणभासकः |

रुकारोऽस्ति परं ब्रह्म मायाभ्रान्तिविमोचकम् ||36||

‘गुरु’ शब्द का प्रथम अक्षर ‘गु’ माया आदि गुणों का प्रकाशक है और दूसरा अक्षर ‘रु’ माया की भ्रान्ति से मुक्ति देनेवाला परब्रह्म है |

Here guru is projected as someone who removes confusion from the illusionary māyā. Two points worth noting are (1) gu (गु) here is presented as the promoter of illusion by highlighting its qualities or features; and (2) ru (रु) means not just a remover of the confusion from this illusion but doing this from the perspective of the parbrahm (परब्रह्म), meaning after attaining that status.

Thus, a guru is a very dynamic personality who can provide guidance to his/her disciple (शिष्य) under a variety of natural and artificial (illusionary) conditions of activities to develop wisdom and vivek in the pursuits of the ultimate goals of life.  

The attributes of guru have to be such that such a dynamism in developing the disciple is readily feasible. Some of those attributes are described under stanzas on ‘आचार्यलक्षणम्’ in Śukla Yajurveda’s Advayatāraka Upaniṣad (an ancient Sanskrit text on Yoga), as outlined below.

आचार्यो वेदसम्पन्नो विष्णुभक्तो विमत्सरः ।

योगज्ञो योगनिष्ठश्च सदा योगात्मकः शुचिः ॥14॥

A truly competent teacher is, armed with Vedic knowledge, a devotee of Viśṇu to mean that the guru has full knowledge of the causal world, free from envy/jealousy through the knowledge, devotion, and practice of yoga. This is important for a guru so that there is no envy with the disciple, providing total devotion to the guidance of the of the disciple.

गुरुभक्तिसमायुक्तः पुरुष्ज्ञो विशेषतः ।

एवं लक्षणसम्पन्नो गुरुरित्यभिधीयते ॥15॥

He should be devoted to his own guru, meaning continues to remain a śiṣya in practice, thus being able to develop the camaraderie with his own disciple, is particularly well versed with the knowledge of puruśa and prakriti, the source and expressive powers of the universe, He who possesses various types of  such virtues is designated as a guru.

गुशब्दस्त्वन्धकारः स्यात् रुशब्दस्तन्निरोधकः ।

अन्धकारनिरोधित्वात् गुरुरित्यभिधीयते ॥16॥

The syllable gu (signifies) darkness. The syllable ru (signifies) the destroyer of the darkness. By the reason of the ability to destroy darkness he is called a guru.

गुरुरेव परं ब्रह्म गुरुरेव परा गतिः ।

गुरुरेव परा विद्या गुरुरेव परायणं ॥17॥

The guru alone is the supreme absolute brahm. Guru alone is the supreme way. Guru alone is the master of parā (as opposed to only aparāvidyā. Guru alone is the supreme and last resort.

गुरुरेव परा काष्ठा गुरुरेव परं धनं ।

यस्मात्तदुपदेष्टाऽसौ तस्माद्गुरुतरो गुरुरिति ॥18॥

The guru alone is the limit of all knowledge. The guru alone is the ultimate wealth. He is the teacher of the non-dual reality. Therefore, he is the ultimate guru.

The tradition of spiritual relationship and mentoring, where teachings are transmitted from a guru to a disciple, is known as guruśiṣya paramparā. This guruśiṣya relationship has evolved in Indian tradition since Upaniṣad era where guru and śiṣya developed resonance of thoughts and then guru transmits his knowledge to the person who respectfully sits down near him with śraddhā, in the quest for knowledge. A guruśiṣya relationship are beyond age, gender, and battlefield, as the guru can be Yama to a teenage boy Naciketā, lord Kṛśṇa to warrier Arjuna, or sage Yājñavalkya to his own wife (Gārgī / Maitreyī).

The concept of guru and Guru Purṇimā is quite old, the oldest being celebrated as the birthday of Ved Vyāsa, on the day of Aṣāḍa Purṇimā. The latest revival of Guru Purṇimā festival was done by Mahatma Gandhi in honor of his spiritual guru, Rajchandra. In its true tradition a guru does not expect anything in return from a śiṣya, and performs the imparting of knowledge as a karmayoga.  

With time, people started observing guru as a mentor, counsellor, advisor, who inculcates values in his disciples by sharing knowledge and his own experiences, and who cares about the wellbeing of his disciples. A guru, however, in its true tradition will dedicate his/her life caring about disciples spiritually, and educating them in accordance with their nature. Thus, he is an inspirational source for the spiritual evolution of the disciple. The tradition of guru runs deep in India. The entire Sikhism concept is laid down based on the the teachings of Guru. Its main scripture is called Guru Granth Sahib and the words therein called Gurbaṇī.

In present society too, we have come across many such gurus. Like Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Swami Vivekānanda, Swami Dayānanda Saraswatī, His Holiness Dalai Lama for Buddhism, ISKCON founder A. C. Bhakti Vedanta Swami Prabhupada for Bhakti Yoga, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar for Art of living, Radha Swami, Swami Rāmdev Bābā for Yoga, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for Spirituality, and many others in such tradition. Their disciples usually refer to them as Gurudev! These spiritual leaders are kind of role models and sometimes preferred by people as an alternative to established religions to know more about divinity.

In olden days, the school or pāṭhśālā ran by guru was known as gurukula, later on in modern times they are called as āśrama, although the gurukula system of education is still in practice. Both of these are residential places of learning, without requiring any fees. Guru treats disciples or followers as part of their own family. In gurukula, students received complete knowledge of Vedic scriptures, philosophical-spiritual-medicinal-political, etc. along with various art forms, whereas in āśrama followers received spiritual preaching from their guru. Ultimately these are concentrated on such education that helps in revealing the purpose of life. While pursuing teaching or preaching, guru focuses on self-discipline among learners that result in inner perfection leading to liberation in the form of mokṣa.

Guruśiṣya tradition superficially still is observed in modern educational institutions, at least in traditional ones, where students in general pay respect to their teachers on occasions of Guru Purṇimā. Sometimes these occasions are observed in United States by Hindu groups, such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad America, and American teachers really appreciate such a devotion. The devotion to teachers, no matter where they are, is always beneficial to students, as śraddhā is critical for earning knowledge.

श्रद्धावान् लभते ज्ञानं तत्पर: संयतेन्द्रिय: |

ज्ञानं लब्ध्वा परां शान्तिमचिरेणाधिगच्छति || Bhagvadgita 4.39||

Those who are devoted and who are ready willing to control their mind and senses attain knowledge. Through such knowledge, they quickly attain everlasting supreme peace.

Thus, in Indian tradition the position of Guru is more or less same as Deva, the lord. One should be devoted to his Guru just like he is devoted to his Deva.  

यस्य देवे परा भक्तिः यथा देवे तथा गुरौ । Śvetāśvetara Upaniṣad 6.23

Will this system ever return, is it the right time for its return, can this system adapt to the modern time, can it compete with modern educational system, and will it be allowed in a time when education itself has become an over $6 trillion business? Only time will tell, but one thing is clear with forced adaptation during the Corona time, that the bluff of traditional system of institutional classroom has largely been called out! With the cost of education spiraling out of control at all levels throughout the world, the educational practices adapted during the Corona lockdown may in fact have provided the needed pause for pondering.

A trillion dollar question is whether gurus are ready to take their place! Let’s hope the answer would be YES by the next Guru Purṇimā!!

Worthy Gurus are absolutely needed!

– Dr. Aparna (Dhir) Khandelwal, Assistant Professor and Prof. Bal Ram Singh, Director, School of Indic Studies, INADS, Dartmouth, USA