The Mother Divine
Change Font Size
Decrease Font - The Mother Divine
Increase Font - The Mother Divine
His Holiness Shri Shankaracharya Chandrashekharendra Saraswati
Who is a Guru?
Living with an acharya and studying at his feet – such vidyabhyasa is called “Gurukulavasa”. We do not speak of “acahryakulavasa”. One is led to think from this that the acharya and the Guru are one and the same. Note the name “JagadGuru Sankaracharya”. We may infer from this that the same individual can be both a Guru and an acharya. And for the same reason (since the two appellations, “Guru” and “acharya”, are used for the same person) it also seems to follow that the acharya and the Guru are different.

What is the literal meaning of the word “Guru”? We have already defined the word “acharya”; but how do we define “Guru”? “Guru” means “weighty”, “big”, “Right-Honourable” is usually put as “Mahaghanam” in Tamil). Like “Guru”, “Brahman” also means “great” or “big”. How do you call a great man “great”? Is a great man great because he is “big-built” “Mahan” also means a great man. Great or big in what? You call me “Guru”. You call me “Periyava” (“Periyavar”). If your respect for me is a degree higher, you even address me as “Mahan”. Considering my weight, my build, it is not logical or reasonable to call me a “Mahan”. If a man is called by any of these names it means he is “weighty” or great inwardly because of his learning, experience or grace. For the simple reason that the name of Shankara Bhagavadpada attaches to me you are misled into believing that I share his qualities of greatness and call me “Guru”, “Periyava”, “Mahan” and what have you in praise of me.

Altogether, we come to the recognition that “Guru” means one who is very great inwardly. An acharya’s qualities or qualifications are outwardly discernible in his role as a teacher and in his conduct. Although it is true that it is his inner character that is revealed as his outward conduct and although he does not merely pretend to be a man of noble character, his relationship is with the outside world in that he has to demonstrate through his own life the ideals he preaches or places before the world.

What about the Guru? He need not “do” anything outwardly perceptible for the world. He need not be a learned man in any mundane sense, nor need he be so erudite as to have seen the frontiers of shastric knowledge. It is also not necessary that he should, like the acharya, be an example through his life of the teachings of any of the shastras or traditions of any sector sampradaya. Why, he need not open his mouth and teach people or give them upadesha. After all, there have been so many mauna Gurus, or Gurus absorbed in silence.

There may be someone somewhere remaining all by himself, who is alone, who is all “himself in himself”. People who come to recognize the force of his inner light will choose him as their Guru. It is not necessary that he should teach those lessons from the shastras. But the quickness of his anugraha or grace manifests itself in their lives. He may not regard them as his “shisyas” in any formal sense. But those who regard themselves as his disciples will receive that which they seek as a blessing from him.

There have been so many Gurus who were strangers to such things as study or learning – also Gurus who never taught any classes. The very first Guru (Adi Guru) Dakshinamurti never opened his mouth. Also there have been a number of Gurus not bound by the rules of any shastra. Some of them were like ghosts, pishachas, lunatics, madmen who roamed the world as “ativarnashramis” (those who are beyond Varnashrama). The one who was a sky-clad Datta is spoken of in very exalted terms as “Avadhuta-Guru”.

An acharya is one who represents a “system”. He represents a particular shastraic tradition. He must have studied systematically the works belonging to this tradition and questions relating to it. Besides, he teaches them in a systematic manner to others. Above all, he himself must live systematically and set an example to others.

There is no compulsion for a Guru to be like an acharya. His is a world of inner experience or realization. It is because he has realised himself that he is called “mahan”. And it is the “weight” of this inner experience or realization that entitles him to be called a Guru. The Guru is beyond any notion of character and conduct. Do we investigate the “conduct or character” of Bhagavan? The same is the case with a Guru. Gurus need not act according to the shastras. They are jnanins who are one with the Atman or the Brahman. They may be in “touch” with the Great Power called Ishvara or Bhagavan or they may be yogins who, keeping their minds under control, go into Samadhi.

Gurus who, as described above, are great inwardly may, at the same time, be acharyas outwardly who shine with knowledge, teach their disciples, and act according to the shastras. Sankara Bhagavadpada and the acharyas of systems other than his were in this way both Gurus and acharyas.

Although the vidyabhyasa-acharyas of the past did not perhaps go as far as to realise the Self or Ishvara or go into yoga-samadhi, they too were great in respect of their inward life. That must be the reason why learning under them (in their ashramas) was called Gurukulavasa. There were also Gurus who, though not bound by any particular system, gave upadesha on their own or upadesha based on the shastras.

Although during his own lifetime what an acharya taught may not have been known as a shastraic system, later it may have assumed the form of a systematized shastra. It would then be named after him and he himself recognized as its original acharya. Many acharyas who were outwardly associated with this or that system were inwardly Gurus of an exalted character. Also there have been Gurus whose names are not associated with any system.
The “inward” Guru and the “outward” world
A Guru may not want to teach systematically, but he invariably wants to give his blessings (to his disciples and devotees). There may be a mahatma who has transacted this function of the Guru of blessing his disciples who have sought refuge under him. In such cases Ishvara himself will bless them through the Guru for the reason that the disciples who have sought the Guru with full faith in him should not be forsaken.

So even if a Guru does not seek “Gurutva” on his own, when he has a disciple, a relationship is created through the grace he imparts him. In this context another meaning of the word “Guru” will seem to be very apt.

I gave you one meaning of the word Guru; the Guru is one who is “weighty” inwardly without relating himself to the outward world. Since his concern is all about the inward life there is nothing that the Guru has to do. What is the other meaning? “Gu” means darkness; “ru” denotes that which banishes (something); thus “Guru” means one who dispels darkness. In Tamil they say “kummirittu” which means utter darkness (“ku” stands for “gu”); here “ku” or “gu” means darkness. We see again that “Guru” means one who removes darkness. “Deva” is one who shines – “prakasharupi”. Darkness is ajnana, ignorance. “Tamaso ma jyotir gamaya”; tamas or darkness is ajnana; jyotir is jnana. It is customary to say that ajnana-maya is darkness, that jnana is light. Jnana and ajnana-maya are not used in the context of the Self alone. Take any subject or topic; ignorance about it is the darkness of not knowing; knowledge or awareness of it is light (buddhi-prakasha). A subject illumined by the Guru is grasped or understood by his student with his intelligence or mind. The Guru is one who sheds light. Most importantly, it is the Guru who gives the illumination of jnana to his disciple towards the close of the latter’s life.

A great man may not have learned the shastras; he may not act according to the shastras; and he may not teach the shastras. But, even so, if one looks upon him as one’s Guru he will dispel one’s darkness within. As a result of this great man’s grace light will be shed even on subjects or vidya-s one has not studied.

When we define a Guru as one who dispels darkness, it means that his function is one of removal of something. His inner strength or greatness now works significantly outwardly. Instead of being by himself, he now relates to another. Giving upadesha orally or through the example of his life or by grace (it may be that he himself does not consciously bestow this grace but does so through Ishvara) he dispels the ignorance of his disciple, ignorance in matters small or in matters big like those relating to the Self.

He who imparts a mantra has come to be called a Guru. A man who is great inwardly becomes a Guru by virtue of his being connected with his disciple. This relationship is established mainly through mantropadesha. It is enough if a Guru gives mantropadesha once. It is not necessary that he should make his disciple sit at his feet and explain the mantra to him. Such long-term training is part of the responsibilities of an acharya. A great Guru may utter a mantra as if accidently and depart. Even so, a link is subtly established between him and the disciple (who is within the hearing of the Guru). Through the mantra the energy of the Guru’s grace starts to work in the disciple (or one might say that the power of the mantra is the source of the grace).

If the Guru is of a lofty character and the disciple himself is mature in mind and ready to receive light, there is no need for any verbal mantropadesha. But there must be some kind of a link between the two. How is this link then created in such case? If the Guru glances at his disciple even once, that itself becomes upadesha and the necessary link. The kataksha (sidelong glance) of the Guru goes into him and works for his enlightenment. The Guru touching the student or placing his hand is also upadesha. But sometimes none of these acts is needed. If the Guru thinks to himself, “This child must be well…. (blessed)”, it becomes an upadesha and a link is created between him and the disciple.
I have described the connection or link created in various forms between the Guru and his disciple through upadesha. In the shastras the term used for it (the technical term) is “diksha”. In Tamil it is “dikkai”. They speak of “initiation”. That which originates from the Guru and is transmitted into the disciple, inspiring him to go on an intense seeking along a particular path or “marga”, is “diksha”. This act on the part of the Guru is called “initiation” since it is the initial impulse for the disciple to enter upon a particular marga or path. But, after the act of initiation, this impulse or power does not spend itself. It helps the disciple all through the way, inspiring him to go higher and higher until he attains the goal and is rewarded with siddhi.

If a Guru keeps even a moment’s link with his disciple, either through a mantra, through a sidelong glance, through touch or through remembrance imbued with grace, the anugraha so conveyed remains a permanent connection. You turn the switch once and the bulb keeps burning by itself. The diksha administered by the Guru is like that. The acharya, by his sthula presence (“sthula” means “gross”), has to keep long-term contact with his student to train him in his studies and conduct. But for the Guru the gross connection need only be momentary or it may not even be altogether necessary. The “sukshma” or subtle contact through diksha will have more than a long-term effect; it will be lifelong. Indeed such contact will ultimately mean the end of samsara for the disciple, the end of his reincarnations in this world. The contact will last until he attains siddhi, liberation.

Administering diksha is believed to be the most important of the Guru’s characteristic functions. “Diksha-Guru”, “Guru-diksha” are terms often used. It is also customary to regard any individual who gives diksha as a Guru. If you refer to the epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Puranas and the poetical works of old, you will find that the father is mentioned as the Guru. Whether or not he (the father) is inwardly great and has the “weight” of the Guru, is he not equivalent to God so far as his son is concerned? Is he not “munnari Daivam”? Because of this, he must have been spoken of in elevated terms. [Similarly, the teacher is also to be regarded as God. There is a saying in Tamil that “the one who teaches the alphabet (writing) is God”. The Vedas exhort the student; “Pitrdevo bhava” (“May your father be God to you”) and “Acharya devo bhava” (May your teacher be God to you”). Such is the Vedic injunction and this must be the reason for the father being raised to the position of a Guru]. There seems another reason for regarding the father as a Guru. What is the first upadesha given to a child (to a jiva)? It is the Gayatri. This mantra is imparted by the father in the rite of Brahmopadesha which is to say the Gayatri-diksha must be given by the father. It is likely that the tradition of looking upon the father as a Guru originated from this practice.

(Excerpt from the book ‘Guru Tradition’ published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan)