In the last sub-module we learnt that the word “Guru” means “one who dispels darkness”. In the olden days there wasn’t much confusion as to what the role of a guru was. But with the advent of modern day gurus, it is not clear, especially to westerners, as to who is qualified to be a guru and what a guru really does.
In the context of Vedanta, a Guru is nothing but a teacher who teaches Self-Knowledge. So you won’t go wrong if you substitute the Sanskrit term “Guru” with the English word “Teacher”. So whenever we use the word “Guru”, simply understand it to mean as a “teacher of Self-Knowledge”.
In this sub-module we’ll explore the following topics:
1. What is meant by “gaining knowledge”?
2. Is a Guru really required for gaining Self-Knowledge?
3. Who qualifies to be a Guru?
4. The 3 types of Gurus.
5. The characteristics of a qualified guru.
6. Precautions in the search for a guru.
What is Meant by “Gaining Knowledge”?
Knowledge is never created. The gaining of knowledge is nothing but shedding of ignorance. When I come to know what a cell is like, then my ignorance of cell, to the extent that I know about the cell, is removed.
Ignorance is something one is born with. Knowledge is nothing but the shedding of it. The gain of knowledge is not a creation. The gain of knowledge is only a negation – negation of ignorance.
Knowledge is covered with ignorance. All one does is remove ignorance, then knowledge is gained. Knowledge is not something produced or created. Knowledge always is. Knowledge is what is. By removing ignorance one uncovers knowledge.
The word “Guru” means one who “dispels darkness”. What the word really means is one who “dispels ignorance”. So the guru dispels the ignorance of the student, and thereby the student “gains knowledge.”
Knowledge is valid only when it is true to what is. When it is true to what is, it cannot later be negated. When the word “knowledge” is used, it should be used to mean completely valid knowledge; knowledge that is not subject to later negation.
Is a Guru Really Required for Gaining Self-Knowledge?
If we inquire into it, we find that the human intellect has a number of limitations. It is quite limited when it comes to gaining knowledge of the external world, or even knowledge of its own human body.
Then how is it possible for the human intellect to gain knowledge of a truth which is beyond time and space, which is beyond even the means of perception and inference?
The scriptures talk about these six-fold limitations of the human intellect:
That is why we find that whenever new scientific discoveries are made, we do not understand its full impact initially. But as science advances and more knowledge is gathered, we being to understand more about the theory, and also its limitations.
When we look at our bodies, we understand very little. But when the doctor looks at our bodies, he or she understands much more. That is because the doctor has more knowledge of the human body.
How much you understand depends upon how much knowledge or information you have. As long as we have ignorance or limited knowledge, our way of looking at the world will be flawed, and therefore it can never be the perception of truth.
You can never say that a particular scientific theory is 100% accurate. All the scientist can say is that this is what my observation says. Many scientists today are even raising doubts about the speed of light and the theory or relativity.
We can never be sure about any knowledge we acquire, and therefore human discoveries will always be assailed by doubts.
3. Erroneous Perception
So wrong perception will cause the human intellect to make mistakes.
4. Negligence or oversight
We may consider various factors, but however intelligent and diligent our work may be, there will be hidden factors and variables which the human intellect will fail to see.
5. Being influenced by others
6. Limitations of the sense organs
The human ears can hear only those sounds which fall within a certain frequency range. Dogs and cats have a much broader frequency range. So they can hear sounds which humans cannot.
So the limitations of the sense organs are transferred onto the intellect. In fact if our sense organs were replaced by an animal’s sense organs, then the world we experience would be totally different.
We think what we see or experience is the reality. In fact, what we see or experience is never the true reality. The world we see and experience is as presented by our sense organs.
So how do we know what is out there exactly? This is now a problem the scientists are coming to recognize. Some say we can never know what is really out there.
Because if we have another set of sense organs, the world will coloured by those sense organs. With sense organs we cannot know the truth of the world, and without sense organs we cannot perceive the world. That means we cannot know the truth of the world by ourselves.
So based on these six limitations we come to the conclusion that the intellect is a flawed instrument or means of knowledge.
To learn the truth one should go to a guru
Even for learning simple things like music or dancing, we require a coach. If worldly knowledge requires a coach, it would be common sense to acknowledge that the highest spiritual knowledge will also require a teacher.
The tradition says that an independent approach to Self-Knowledge will fail. The scriptures uniformly say that to gain Self-Knowledge, one should go to a guru. Only a person with a guru will gain Self-Knowledge, and only the knowledge gained from a guru will be fruitful knowledge.
In the previous sub-module we quoted the Mundaka Upanishad verse which said:
To know That (the uncreated limitlessness), he, with twigs in hand, should go to a teacher who is learned in the scriptures, and steadfast in the knowledge of himself.
Even the Bhagavad Gita says the same thing. And in Adi Shankara’s commentary on the Gita, he says that even the most brilliant person should never try gaining Self-Knowledge independently.
Vedanta cannot be understood without a guru
Vedanta is a means for Self-Knowledge in the form of words, and these words have to be understood by the student. There are lot of words in Vedanta such as “nityam”, “anantam”, “purnam”, etc. which have very subtle meanings.
These words cannot be understood by oneself because they are not words like umbrella, door, table, chair and so on. They have to be analysed and there is a method of teaching involved.
The scriptures tell Brahman (Self) is beyond words and then it talks. It is beyond words but still it has to be conveyed through the medium of words, and it is no ordinary communication.
To reveal what is Brahman we use reality words – words dealing with reality, means our understanding of realities. There is lot of implication involved. For e.g. if I say “whatever you see is not true.” I don’t say it is false, but it is not true. “And the one who is seeing this because of whom the sight is possible, is the truth (Self).” If I say this, then I am creating a situation from where you cannot but recognize.
We need to use words we know, to convey something which is beyond words by implication. That means, a means of knowledge is necessary and it need to be handled in a certain way. Wherever implications are there, context is to be created. A position from where you cannot but see is to be made, and that only a teacher can do, the book cannot.
Vedanta also consists of a number of Mahavakyas or “Great sayings”. Some examples of Mahavakyas are “Tat tvam asi” (You are that) and “Brahma satyam jagan mithya” (Brahman is real, the world is apparently real) and “Aham brahmasmi” (I am Brahman). These Mahavakyas are the essence of Vedanta, and have to be properly understood and contemplated upon by the student. And only a Guru trained in the tradition can correctly explaining the meaning of these short, cryptic statements.
In addition to this Vedanta contains many statements which are seemingly contradictory. The same Vedas talk about duality (Dvaita), qualified non-duality (Vishishta Advaita) and non-duality (Advaita). All of them have support in the Vedas. How is the student to know which is correct?
The more you study, the more doubts will arise. All these seeming contradictions and doubts can only be resolved by a guru. Therefore a guru is required to gain Self-Knowledge.
Then how did Mahatmas like Ramana Maharshi gain Self-Knowledge without a guru?
First of all, we don’t know whether that person had a guru or not. Most of the time, a saint’s life story is based more on hearsay than truth. And even assuming that he or she did not have a guru, it’s only an exception. These are rare people. For the average person, a guru is needed.
Who is ‘Not’ a Guru?
Atma as one’s guru
This is one of the biggest misconceptions. Atma does not have a mouth or an intellect. Therefore Atma cannot do anything, including teaching or revealing the truth.
If Atma is your guru, then you should have gained Self-Knowledge long ago. Atma has been with you not just since your physical body was created, but since you as a Jiva (the 3 Bodies – will be discussed later in the Self Knowledge module) was created. Therefore if Atma could have been your guru, then you would have gained wisdom long before.
The world as a guru
But the problem with this idea is that what you learn from an experience depend upon your own individual perspective. Two people can come to two different conclusions from the same situation.
If what we learn of ordinary worldly things is influenced by our own perspectives, how can we learn of the ultimate truth through our experiences. Therefore the world cannot be a guru, Atma cannot be a guru.
Then Who is a Guru?
And that is why we find in all our scriptures that the teaching is presented in the form of a teacher-student dialogue. Self-Knowledge is always the result of a dialogue.
Every Upanishad is in the form of a teacher-student dialogue. In some Upanishads the names of the teacher and students are provided, and in some names are not provided. But whether names are provided or not, the presentation of the text is in the form of a teacher-student dialogue.
Even the Bhagavad Gita is a dialogue between Krishna (the teacher) and Arjuna (the student).
And a dialogue requires a live guru. Adi Shankara cannot be my guru because he is not alive any more.
Why is it in the form of a dialogue?
Many people go to a guru for various other reasons, like for blessings or favours. The guru cannot – and will not – teach Vedanta to an uninterested person. So the student has to initiate the dialogue by asking the first question which tells the guru that the student is interested in learning.
Then the guru has to systematically teach with the help of scripture. The guru cannot teach his own ideas, because even the guru’s intellect is endowed with the six-fold limitation.
Therefore the guru cannot give his own philosophy, he has to teach from scripture which has come from the Lord (Isvara or God – will be discussed in Self Knowledge module), who is free from the six-fold limitation.
And so, the guru teaches and as the student listens, doubts will arise. If doubts don’t come, then it means the student is not paying attention. Doubts are definite to arise.
And if doubts come, the student is not supposed to blindly swallow the teaching. He or she has to raise the doubts, and then the guru will answer.
As we see in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna teaches, Arjuna raises doubts, Krishna answers again, then Arjuna raises another doubt, and so on. This is the sort of dialogue which should take place between the guru and student. And as a result of this dialogue the student gains Self-Knowledge.
The 3 Types of Gurus
1. Uttama (Superior or Excellent) Guru
Shrotriya derives from the verbal root which means “to hear”. Shrotriya means one who is well versed in the scriptural source of the teaching, one who knows the content of the texts and also the methodology for imparting that knowledge.
To be learned in scripture includes knowledge of the methodology of teaching. A good teacher is one who has learned from his teacher how to teach. An established method of teaching is called Sampradaya, a traditional handing down of instruction.
It is like the difference between a singer and a music teacher. To teach music, it is not enough that one knows how to sing. A singer, untrained in the teaching methodology of music may help you follow his example for a few moments, or he may inspire you to seek the knowledge of music, but he cannot make a musician out of you.
So the guru should have the Sampradaya, the methodology of teaching Self-Knowledge.
Not only must the guru be a Shrotriya, he or she must also be a Brahmanishta, one established in the knowledge. A Brahmanishta is one who has assimilated the teachings and transformed his or her life.
One who is a Brahmanishta knows Brahman (Self) as himself, not as something other than himself. Brahman is derived from a word which means “to grow, to increase”, indicates “bigness” or “limitlessness”. “Nishta” means “steadfastness”. The one who is a Brahmanishta is one who is steadfast in the knowledge of himself as the full, complete, limitless being.
If this teaching is supposed to give happiness, then the guru must be an embodiment of happiness. If the guru looks miserable, and then says this teaching is going to give happiness, then no one is going to believe him.
The guru must be a role model. He should be a living example of the benefits of Self-Knowledge, and therefore he or she should have assimilated the teaching. In short his life and the teaching should be one and the same.
Such a guru is called Brahmanishta-Shrotriya-Guru, one who has studied scripture, knows the teaching methodology, and is established in Self-Knowledge. An Uttama Guru is the ideal guru to whom one should go to gain Self-Knowledge.
2. Madhyama (Mediocre) Guru
Such a guru can be compared to a professor of Upanishads in the philosophy department of an university. He has enough knowledge of the Upanishads to teach, but is not living the knowledge. Such a guru may require more time to assimilate the teachings, so he or she is not yet a Brahmanishta.
But a student can still go to a Madhyama guru because since he is trained in the methodology, he is only going to communicate what the scripture says. He won’t give out his own ideas, so what he teaches would still be proper.
3. Adhama (Inferior) Guru
Previously we discussed how as a general rule one cannot gain Self-Knowledge without a guru. However, as we said, there are exceptions. There are rare spiritual geniuses who gain Self-Knowledge without guru and scripture. Such a person is a Brahmanishta, but not a Shrotriya because he or she has not studied scripture under a guru.
An Adhama guru does not have the methodology to teach, and they themselves never faced problems and doubts of an ordinary person. Because his mind was an extraordinary mind, he cannot understand the problems of the ordinary mind. He does not even have the help of scripture with which he could have taught.
So an Adhama guru neither has scripture, nor has he faced the problems of an ordinary person. And therefore he doesn’t have the tools of communication to teach. Such people are what we call mystics.
All mystics are Brahmanisthas; they have knowledge of the truth, but don’t have the means to communicate this knowledge.
To illustrate, it’s like a person, who because he was wealthy, was able to travel to another place by flight. So he never encountered the problems and pitfalls of travelling by road. So if I want to go to that place, and I don’t have the money to take a flight, this person cannot help me because I have to use the road. I should take the help of a person who has reached this place successfully by road.
Therefore the tradition says never to go to a mystic who gained Self-Knowledge without guru and scripture. If you want Self-Knowledge ideally go to a Brahmanishta-Shrotriya-Guru, or as a last option, go to a Shrotriya-Guru.
Characteristics of a Qualified Guru
A qualified teacher is one who knows the import of the scriptures by direct knowledge/experience and whose mind is resolved in awareness. His mind glows like the coals of a fire deprived of fuel. He can wield the means of knowledge confidently, is compassionate without a reason, unaffected by desires for objects and is friendly to seekers who approach with a proper attitude.
Let’s analyze this verse:
|The guru’s qualification includes characteristics already discussed, such as knowledge of scripture, being established in Brahman, and compassion. But it also stresses that the guru must be free of binding desires. A guru who wants wealth or sexual favours is obviously not free of binding desires, yet many such gurus have succeeded, for a time, in attracting many followers in the West.
|The guru should be the student’s benefactor, not the other way around. The best service one can give the teacher is devotion to the teaching. This involves studying the prescribed writings and asking appropriate questions. If a teacher is unable to resolve our doubts, it may mean that he is not a proper teacher or that we lack the qualifications to be a proper student. If either the guru or student lacks qualification, Vedanta will not work.
|That the teacher’s mind should be like the glowing coals of a fire deprived of fuel provides a vivid image. When a fire is being fed, it crackles and sparks, grows or lessens in intensity and is ever changeable. Such is the constantly changing mind of an ordinary man bound by desires. But the proper teacher’s mind is like a bed of glowing coals no longer consuming fuel: calm, steady, and luminous.
|The guru is also a friend to the seeker. He does not denigrate him, but receives him with kindness. Many self-proclaimed gurus operate in a regal setting where their students act as courtiers, submissive and uncritical. Such gurus sometimes “bust egos,” which can take the form of public humiliation, assumed to be for the good of the student, who is kept in a state of anxiety. Any teacher who generates fear or tension should be avoided. If you don’t genuinely feel your teacher is your friend, then he is not your real teacher. It’s a simple test.
Precautions in the Search for a Guru
Seekers should view all teachers, gurus, meditation masters and their teaching unsentimentally.The more a teacher self promotes, the longer the beard, the more grandiose the claims of super powers, the more suspicions should be aroused. Suspending your critical faculties while searching for a guru can be dangerous.
Enlightenment does not need advertisement. When you have assimilated life’s lessons and sincerely long for liberation, the Self will bring you a respectable purified teacher.
Below is a list of precautions to be taken while searching for a guru:
1. Be sure of your motivations
It is important to love the teacher for the right reasons. Otherwise you will end up enlightenment-disappointed and love-disappointed.
2. Do some background research
A discriminating seeker inquires unobtrusively into the life of the guru to see if his behaviour is consistent outside the limelight as well.
Find out where the money goes. Listen to the gossip with discrimination; often where there is smoke there is fire. Public figures are always suspect. They often suffer low self-esteem and are clever at creating an image of themselves as caring souls, but a healthy dose of suspicion is advised. The more “spiritual” they are, the greater should be your doubt.
Before you place your faith in a teacher, do your due diligence. Check the web for blogs and sites by disaffected students. Look for scandals, if any. Observe the students. What kind of people are they? Are they guarded and cliquish? Are they open and self-reliant? Do they act superior? Do they cower and simper in front of the guru? Many guru are power hungry bullies and egomaniacs.
Do the students think for themselves? Do they have a special language to fit in? Or do they speak normally? Cults usually have their own special lingo.
3. Dharma of the teacher
If an unscrupulous guru can keep you high on “the energy” or distract you with a heavy load of service work, you will not ask questions. If you are wrapped up in your service, the teacher can pursue his of her agenda away from prying eyes.
Trust is good, but knowledge is better. It is up to you to find out what goes on behind the scenes. You can only blame yourself when you discover that you are being exploited in some way. To avoid exploitation and disappointment, you must have a refined appreciation of Dharma.
A guru who consciously appreciates Dharma and follows it impeccably has an aura of purity and grace. He or she has a clean and straightforward feel. His of her life is remarkable for its absence of conflict. He or she has no agenda. In other words he or she lives the teaching.
4. Money, sexual favours and other agendas
The most common agenda is the idea that you are helping others to enlightenment by helping the guru get more people to enlighten. Ask yourself why should the guru want more people to enlighten when he or she has you to enlighten.
If you feel that a guru needs you for any reason, then there’s a problem. Leave as soon as you can. A true teacher is dispassionate and self-fulfilled and has nothing to gain by teaching you.
5. Fixing your life
6. Creating dependency
A real guru will be happy to see you leave, knowing fully well that life is the best teacher and that you will be back, not necessarily to him, but to the teaching. If the teacher is qualified and the teaching works, you should feel more and more free of the teacher as the teaching progresses.
7. “No ego, no thought” gurus
When the teaching emphasizes surrender to the guru, a red flag should go up. When enlightenment is presented as something you need to experience, the alarms should ring loudly.
8. Eating your Karma
The Karma does not stand in the way of the Self. Before you have Karma you are the Self. The Self only need to be revealed.
Even if some Karma has to be removed to prepare the mind for Self-Inquiry, only you can remove your Karma because it’s in your account. The Guru can only remove Karma standing in his or her account.
9. Avoid cults
The way to recognize a cult is to see whether the teacher is superior or the teaching. In traditional Vedanta the teacher is always subservient to the teaching. Whereas in a cult the guru is praised more than the teaching. A guru who creates a cult has failed in his role as a guru.
You will notice that the teachers around whom cults of personality develop invariably make the mind the enemy. Whenever a doubt happens, you are told that it’s just the “mind” and asked to dismiss it.
If you find yourself with this kind of teacher and teaching, it means that he does not have a valid means of knowledge, and is power hungry or needy.
10. Silence and Experiential gurus
A teacher who teaches experiential enlightenment is not a teacher, because you are always experiencing the Self.
If guru claims that his enlightenment is experiential and that he can transmit it, the enlightenment will be temporary. Only energy can be transmitted, not enlightenment. Enlightenment is the knowledge “I am the Self.”
11. A parent-child relationship
If you have not fully matured as an individual and you meet an authority figure like a spiritual master, you will unconsciously assume the role of a child. You will look up to the guru, submit to his or her authority and quickly become dependent.
If the guru is not mature then he or she will be more than happy to be your parent, because it will be easier to achieve his or her agenda in this role. Usually gurus are not corrupt, but they often still have unresolved conditioning, particularly the desire for fame, respect, power and love.
The ideal teaching style is friendship because there is equal relationship between friends. A friend may know more than you, but he or she does not make you feel as if he or she is doing you a favour by disclosing it. He or she happily shares, with no strings attached.
|The word “Guru” means the “one who dispels darkness”. In the context of Vedanta a guru means a teacher of Self-Knowledge.
|A guru is required because the human intellect has certain limitations which makes it impossible for it to gain Self-Knowledge on its own. These six limitations are: ignorance, doubt, erroneous perception, oversight, influence of others and limitations of the sense organs.
|It is also not possible to learn scripture on your own because many Sanskrit words have subtle meanings, and sometimes proper context has to be created to explain the meaning. Also the Mahavakyas or “great sayings” which are the essence of Vedanta, can only be taught properly by a guru trained in the tradition. There are also many seemingly contradictory statements in Vedanta which can only be resolved by a guru.
|A guru is defined as a live person who communicates the teaching contained in the scriptures to the student. The Self or the world or our life experiences cannot be our guru.
|There are 3 types of gurus:
(a) A superior guru is one who is learned in scripture and teaching methodology, i.e. a Shrotriya, as well as one who has assimilated the knowledge, i.e. a Brahmanishta.
(b) A mediocre guru is one who is learned in scripture but is not a Brahmanishta.
(c) An inferior guru is one who is a Brahmanishta but does not know scripture.
|A guru’s qualifications include knowledge of scripture, assimilation of Self-Knowledge, free of binding desires, being able to resolve the student’s doubts and being a friend to the student.
|In this modern age where there are a multitude of gurus touting their own brand of enlightenment, a seeker should practise extreme discrimination in their search for a guru. Otherwise they are likely to be monetarily and physically exploited if they fall into the clutches of a corrupt guru.