Lesson 1: The Guru
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Śūbh Gurupūrṇimā! This very sacred and auspicious full moon in the month of Āśāḍha is known as Gurupūrṇimā because it is the day we celebrate the presence of our gurus – our teachers – and honor the special bond between guru and disciple.
The guru-disciple relationship is one of the most mysterious and special aspects of the dharma tradition, and also one of the most misunderstood. Oceans of literature and songs have been written trying to describe the power of the guru and the nature of this relationship.
Throughout this lesson, we will connect with and learn about the power of the guru through a few different angles and practices. But of course, discussing the guru-disciple relationship is like trying to understand any close, intimate, familial relationship – it is impactful, deeply personal, and complex.
And yet, there are certain aspects and understandings that are shared across the tradition and various lineages, and it is those things which we will be exploring today.
So to begin, what is a guru? Very simply, a guru is a teacher, someone who imparts knowledge or wisdom. A common way to think about it (that is based off of its Sanskrit etymology) is that a guru is the light shining through the darkness. The guru helps you see where you couldn’t before.
The tradition states that one’s first guru is your mother, because she gives you your first mantras and protects and nourishes you until you can survive on your own. These qualities are quintessential hallmarks of the guru in our tradition: we recognize that the guru isn’t just someone who conveys information, but a person who actively nourishes and protects the student from hurting themselves or others.
In the traditional model of education, when children reached 6 or so, and in some cases older, they would start learning with a guru at the guru’s home or ashram. In fact, the guru’s community or school is often called a gurukula, which comes from the word kula (family or community) because joining the school meant that the child would effectively become a member of the guru’s family and household.
In the gurukula system, the children embraced the guru as a second parent – the guru fed them, loved them, taught them, and protected them. The guru not only imparted knowledge and skills, but helped shape their character and sense of self. The guru took full personal responsibility for the health and safety of their students – and kept a close watch at all times, as any parent would. This type of close and intimate personal relationship was true even for teachers of professional or vocational skills, and for various sacred arts.
Hearing all this may give you some insight into the Bhagavad Gītā and what caused Arjuna’s unbearable horror and grief on the day of battle. He looked out at the field and saw his elders, including his beloved guru Dronācārya on the opposite side. He saw the man who had raised him from childhood, like a father, who had taught him how to be a warrior and how to fight – the same man he was now being asked to kill. It broke his heart, and plunged him into deep depression and despair.
Needless to say, the guru-disciple bond is an intimate, relational bond that historically would have begun at a young age. And even if it began later, the disciple would still show up in the space with the humility and trust of a child, and the guru would still show up with the generosity and protectiveness of a loving parent.
This understanding can also can help us see why our traditional model for education is so similar to how a child learns. We encourage watching closely and continuously, observing and bravely copying exactly what the teacher is doing, without shame or fear of feedback, until the skill or knowledge becomes fully internalized.
Another key aspect of our traditional learning system is also similar to what happens in parenting: learning through dialogue. Even our scriptures primarily consist of someone asking a series of questions based on their curiosity, fears, or doubts, and then listening attentively and respectfully as the guru shares wise and compassionate insights that answers those questions.
To be a disciple is to discipline yourself; a guru can not teach something they themselves do not know. Our tradition places great weight on lineage because in order to ask someone to be a disciple the guru also must have gone through – and mastered – the experience of discipleship.
It is often said that a guru is simply the perfect disciple. They have fully absorbed the knowledge of their teacher, and understand the ins and outs of the learning journey. And it’s from that space of perfect discipleship that they are qualified to step into the role of guru and help others receive the knowledge. The added benefit of this is that a guru who has been through the process themselves will naturally have empathy and true insight in a way that a false guru will not.
In the modern world, our educational level (and mastery) is tested and certified by various institutions. In our traditional culture, this testing and certification happens by other authorized and recognized teachers (who would have to come from an intact lineage of teachers). They alone have the power to “certify” their disciples and decide who will be the next gurus, and also, they can vouch for the attainment and skill of other teachers.
For example, even an avadhut, someone who was born enlightened, would not have self-proclaimed their state. They were recognized as such by another recognized teacher. Because of this strict system where no one is a self-appointed master, the community could protect itself (or at least greatly limit) damage caused by false teachers spewing incomplete or harmful teaching.
In fact, another common guideline for a guru in most lineages is that they (and their teachings) must follow śāstra, the scriptural lineage and also traditional codes of dharmic conduct. In fact, you can see this principle actually visually represented in the iconography of Dakṣiṇāmūrti in Lesson 2. This also helped ensure that there was no distortion of the larger wisdom stream, and both students and teachers were protected.
Amongst the human gurus, there is one particularly revered and cherished type of teacher: the sadguru.
Whereas your parents may have taught you basic life skills, and other gurus taught you things that helped you work and make money, a sadguru is a fully awakened being who teaches you what the Truth (sat) is about life, self, and reality itself.
A sadguru has fully awakened to the knowledge and unbroken experience of the highest truth. They have the ability to impart not just the idea of awakening, but the actual mystical state of full union with divine truth. They have moved beyond the bondage and suffering of the human condition, and have both the power and knowledge to free their students as well.
As with all gurus, once we commit to discipleship, we are fully under the loving protection of our sadguru. And we learn spiritual knowledge in a similar manner to everything else in the tradition: by asking questions, by listening deeply, by following our guru’s guidance, and by trusting in our guru’s protection and love.
To take initiation with a sadguru is like a full death and rebirth at whatever age it happens – and this is often why a sadguru may also give the disciple a new name at the time of initiation. There is so much more that can be said about this truly mystical relationship, but the main thing to know is that of all the types of guru-disciple relationships, the bond with the sadguru is the most significant and impactful.
That said, not everyone finds a sadguru in this lifetime – it just may not be be the right time for it. And also, several dharmic lineages don’t believe in having living masters. For example, many Vaiśnava lineages take a symbolic guru-disciple initiation from Śrī Kṛṣṇa and experience that he is the only – and eternal – sadguru. Like Arjuna, they experience that Śrī Kṛṣṇa is guiding them and protecting them through the challenges of life.
In many Śaivite lineages, the understanding is that the guru is one of the inherent powers/embodiments of Lord Śiva, of God himself. These lineages maintain that all gurus and all knowledge flows from God, and that Śiva is the ādī-guru, the primordial guru. He is worshipped in this form as Dakṣiṇāmūrti, who you will learn more about in Lessons 2 and 3. In this system, the guru is an extension/embodiment of God’s divine grace and blessing. Here, the function of the guru – whether it’s experienced on a cosmic divine level or interpersonally on a human level – is to uplift suffering by revealing the Truth.
Lastly, many traditions also maintain that the voice of the guru can be found within one’s own heart, within one’s own wisdom-mind. According to these systems, the inner guru, the human guru, and the divine guru are emanations of the same power and serve the same purpose.
In fact, if you’re having a hard time connecting with any one of these, you can turn to the other two forms of the guru to help you become unstuck! However, as you can see, this teaching about the guru being within doesn’t really apply if we are using it to rebel against the guru in the form of our human teachers, God, or the path itself.
On Gurupūrṇimā, it is traditional to honor the guru by doing pūjā to them directly, or to their pādukā, their symbolic sandals. The pādukā represent, amongst many other things, the location of their blessing power (their feet). We humble ourselves and bow our heads low, receiving those blessings. The guru’s sandals also represent the physical, tangible presence of the guru and the lineage of gurus that have walked this earth… the footprints that grace is a real, living presence here in our world.
On this holiday, it is also traditional to offer gurudakṣiṇā, a practice you can learn about in depth in Lesson 5. It is also customary to spend time under the moon in quiet meditation or reflection.
The guru’s blessings are potent on this day, so no matter what, we spend our day remembering, thanking, and practicing for the guru and all the different ways the guru’s presence has shown up in our life.
Whether you are honoring the guru in the form of your sadguru, a deity you consider to be the guru, your other human teachers, or even your mom – step into your discipleship. Become like a child. Take a moment to reflect on how the knowledge you have received has shaped you, protected you, and nourished you. Recognize who you would be without the guru’s love and protection, and also recognize who you are because of it. Let gratitude and humility wash over you. As the ancient Vedic prayer sings: may we, guru and disciple, be one.
Teacher: Shivani Hawkins