Lesson 5: The Practice of Gurudakṣiṇā
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If you have been following along with our courses throughout the year, you may have noticed that each course features some sort of Ayurvedic prasāda offering. And yet, for Gurupūrṇimā, there isn’t one. Why is this? Is there still a traditional offering?
Yes, there is! The offering that we make on this sacred day isn’t prasāda for our pūjās, our altars, it’s an offering we make directly to our gurus. On Gurupūrṇimā, we offer dakṣiṇā to our gurus in a practice known as gurudakṣinā.
In the old days, people generally used to study with their teachers at a young age and even go to live with them like family, something we discussed in Lesson 1 of this course. Gurus generally did not charge any kind of fees for teaching – instead, the disciples would offer their seva, their loving service, around the ashram or guru’s home where they were living and studying as a way of helping out. The guru would cover any expenses and provide for your food, board, and shelter, and train and guide you in whatever knowledge they had.
Later, once you had graduated and started to earn a living, the understanding was that you would give back to your guru and your school out of gratitude for what you had received, and also so that future generations could learn and receive the same blessings as you did. This cultural context is helpful to understand the origins and purpose of dakṣiṇā practice.
Each year, Gurupūrṇimā is the day that many people historically (and currently) set aside as the day to make their gurudakṣinā offering, and by doing so, it is also a chance to connect with and spend time with their gurus. Through this practice, the flow of wisdom, and the cycle of giving and receiving was maintained and honored.
In this system, each person is only expected to give what they are able to at each stage of their learning journey. A student can offer service, and commit to learning. The guru offers knowledge, love, and protection. The matured disciple practices that knowledge out in the world, and then shares the abundant fruit of that effort with the guru and new students. Finally, the guru appoints amongst his best students one or more new gurus, who takes on new students, and the wisdom stream continues to flow forth. As each person honors their dharma, everyone is sustained and nourished.
This was true for all gurus – whether you taught specific professional or trade skills, or even sacred art gurus who taught things like singing or dance, and also for sadgurus, who impart the knowledge and experience of God itself.
Dakṣiṇā is a financial offering made to the guru – nowadays, it generally always takes the form of money. However, in the old days, dakṣinā might have also included goods that would have been bought with money, or had monetary value, and could be used to help provide for everyone at the gurukula.
For example, along with money, gold, silver, or other precious metals, dakṣiṇā might also include huge sacks of various types of grain, or wool, silk, or other fabrics that could be used for clothing. Spices, nuts, incense, fragrant oils, and sandalwood could also be part of the dakṣiṇā offering.
In fact, when you start to envision the things you could offer to the guru out of gratitude, an entire caravan of offerings comes to mind – beautiful, nourishing, and abundant gifts, shining with profound gratitude and great love… and all ensuring that the teachings could continue on for future generations.
The underlying principle in selecting dakṣiṇā offerings is that it’s either a financial gift, or something that would help to feed and clothe the guru and the others in the gurukula. And generally this is thought of as “both/and” when it comes to money and other gifts, not “either/or”. The experience of giving dakṣiṇā is one of joyful and abundant giving, not a miserly counting and strategizing for what constitutes sufficiently polite gifts! 🙂
A good teacher is constantly and generously imparting wisdom that not only shapes who we are, but protects and nourishes our entire life. So when we are giving, we want to also give with similar generosity and abundance – giving without any expectation of personal gain and with great enthusiasm, the same way our teachers shared their wealth of knowledge with us.
This is where the sweetness of this practice lies, and why it is a sacred practice. The guru-disciple relationship is built on and sustained by this pristine trust and faith in each other – a generous and mutual giving and receiving.
Another common Gurupūrṇimā practice is to host or provide for a feast or special meal for the guru and the gurukula as an expression of gratitude. It is a way to say – “Thank you so much for abundantly nourishing me all these years – and today, I would love to feed you, if you would give me that blessing and that honor”.
Now, in a world where we are constantly fighting and negotiation and scrambling after money, this type of loving relationship to money seems completely unfathomable to us. Unfortunately, as we have moved away from these old ways, we have also lost many of these giving practices that sustained these traditional schools and ways of learning.
Just as fake gurus violate their dharma by hurting and cheating a student, students who expect to be taught for free, and who have no gratitude, respect, or humility towards the guru and the teachings are also violating their sacred duty. It is true that the gurus did not use to charge fees because it was understood that you would give back, that you would want to give back.
Think of someone or something who has really given you something precious or saved you from a difficult situation – doesn’t it feel like no matter how many times you say “thank you!”, it’s never quite enough? It is the same with dakṣiṇā – we get to keep expressing our gratitude each year – there isn’t a finite point at which our “debt” so to speak is paid off, and dakṣiṇā isn’t even about that! It is a wonderful practice for opening our hearts and connecting with how much we have received.
And that brings up another good question – is Gurupūrṇimā the only time we can offer gurudakṣiṇā?
Of course not! We can offer it whenever we like, and as much as we like. Sincere gurus do not abuse this practice; ideally, our offering dakṣiṇā comes out of our natural desire to give rather than a specific injunction or command from the guru (although there are notable examples of the guru demanding payment in mythology that we can discuss in future courses)!
And, even if you live in the modern day, and have a guru who charges regular fees, there is something special about making an offering of gurudakṣiṇā on Gurupūrṇimā, even if it is a small gift. If you treat it as a sacred practice, the gift ends up being for you: you get to step into thousands of years of tradition, into the experience of gratitude and humility, and into a deeper understanding of the sacred relationship between guru and student.
Teacher: Shivani Hawkins