Gurus come in many forms


Ram Sriram


This is a reprint of the article that appeared under Culture in Chandamama, U.S. and Canada Edition

Recently, the Carnatic Music Association of Georgia located in Atlanta celebrated the annual Great Composers' Day to celebrate the memories of eminent music composers of India. A most fulfilling outcome of the day was the talent exhibited by young people growing up in this country. Their performances showed the immense interest the youngsters have for our great music and our traditions. Equally admirable is the excellent training and guidance that the gurus have provided to these young people. This experience made me think about the value of the guru-shishya relationship.

The word "guru"means, one who dispels darkness or enlightens. "Gu" means darkness or lack of knowledge and "ru" means one who throws light and dispels the darkness. In simple words, a guru is a teacher; someone who guides an individual to learn something. The learning could be about music, painting, writing or simple values of life. Therefore, an individual would have many gurus during the course of a lifetime and the gurus themselves may come in many forms.

The following story illustrates why we need many gurus and how they come in many forms. Long time ago, a King was passing through a forest followed by his entourage of soldiers carrying arms and his servants carrying jewelry and other ornaments. Suddenly they came upon an old man lying in the middle of the forest, clad only in a loincloth, laughing merrily and appearing enormously happy. The old man had no possessions and yet seemed quite content with life. The King, with all his possessions, had never been this happy and wanted to know the secret of the old man's happiness. The King got out of his chariot and approached the old man lying on the forest floor. The old man took no notice of the King or his entourage. The King, however, did not take the elder man ignoring his presence as an insult. Instead, the king approached the elderly man with respect and asked him, "Why are you so happy? You have no possessions or a comfortable place to live and yet, you seem to be content and satisfied. What is the secret of your happiness? Revered sir! Would you let me know who your guru is so that I can also receive guidance from him on the secret to happiness." The old man turned to the King and said, "Oh King! I have had 20 gurus. My gurus include this body, this earth, the birds, the animals, and the trees. Every thing in the world has taught me something. The good things of the world taught me what to see and how to be good and the bad things taught me what I must avoid." The King saw the wisdom in the old man's words, bowed to him and continued with his journey.

The old man that the king met was none other than the great saint Dattatreya. This is a story that another great guru of modern times, Ramana Maharishi, narrated frequently to his own followers to emphasize the importance of learning and the role of Gurus.

I want to share a personal experience to further illustrate the concept that gurus appear in the most unexpected of forms and learning takes place in the strangest of circumstances. The guru in this case was none other than my dog Misha - ar nine-year old German Shepherd. One day, late in the evening, I returned home from work and drove the car into the garage. Misha came running up to greet me as she does everyday. However on this day, I noticed that Misha's food bowl was turned upside down (this is her way of telling me she does not like her food). She had spilled her food all over the garage floor, which was now being eaten by a swarm of ants. Instead of petting Misha as I normally do, I was upset. After a long day of work, now I must clean the garage. I shouted at Misha and scared, Misha ran and hid behind the car. After a couple of minutes, I felt bad about yelling at her when she didn't really even know what she had done to make me upset. I called Misha's name more softly this time and she came running towards me with her tail wagging and full of joy. All was forgotten and forgiven.

At that moment, Misha became my teacher. She taught me that forgiving people of their stupidity is the best way to get them to realize their own shortcomings. Misha taught me how not to carry a grudge or seek revenge. Rather, she showed me what it was to be humble and loving. She made me realize my own ignorance in being so impatient with her. That night I also learnt that if one is willing to learn, a guru can be found in the most unpredictable places. While the story of Misha illustrates that gurus may come in many forms, it is important to recognize that relationship with a guru can enrich our lives because of the knowledge that a guru can impart.

The English word, teacher is not adequate to define a guru. It is important for us to note the distinction between a guru and a teacher. Anyone with adequate training (e.g. in music or painting) can be a teacher. A guru, on the contrary, goes beyond the subject knowledge and becomes a mentor and a spiritual guide, leading the shishya (disciple). To lead and to be led, both the guru and the shishya need sincerity and a dedication to each other. Because you pay someone $20 per hour to give you piano lessons for one hour does not make for guru-shishya relationship. In a guru-shishya relationship, a disciple (the word originated from discipline) dedicates himself to the guru because of an inner desire to be led. The guru, in turn, takes the shishya as a sesha (an integral person in his life) and considers the mentoring of the shishya as his sacred duty. Only such mutual dedication and attachment makes for a guru-shishya relationship.

The guru and shishya relationship is unique to India and has been cultivated over 2,500 years of Indian heritage. You will recollect that in the last issue when we discussed the history of Hinduism, I referred to the Upanishad, the philosophical texts. The word Upanishad comes from two words - upa and nishad. Upa means sitting nearby and nishad means to listen and learn; literally translated, Upanishad then refers to a dedicated shishya sitting near a guru and listening and learning from the spiritual experiences of a great master. In this relationship, the shisya considers the guru to be God himself and has absolute faith in the teachings and guidance of the guru. For his part, the guru dedicates himself to the guidance of the shishya. There is no competition in this relationship - just mutual respect. Nothing in this world is more satisfying to the guru than the accomplishments of his shishya. Such is the greatness of this relationship. However, for both the guru and the shishya, finding this relationship is as much about chance as it is about ones own willingness to find knowledge wherever it may reside.

The following story also illustrates the importance of the guru-sishya relationship. Over three centuries ago, in Southern India, a great musician by the name of Sonti Venkatramaniah lived. Sonti Venkatramaniah taught music to several students and he was also the principle musician of the King Sarbhoji's court. At this time, the great composer Saint Thyagaraja was just six years old. The young Thyagaraja walked by Venkatramaniah's home every day on the way to the temple. Each time he passed by Venkatramaniah's home, Thyagaraja would stop and listen to the music coming from inside the home. One day, Venkatramaniah posed an intricate music question to his advanced music students and none of them could answer the question. Thyagaraja who is yet to have formal training in music, was standing outside and listening and shouted the correct answer to the question. Guru Venkatramaniah was so impressed by the young Thyagaraja's knowledge, that he immediately took him as his disciple and started teaching him music. After a few years of teaching, Guru Venkatramaniah took the still young Thyagaraja to the King's court and asked him to sing in the august presence of several great musicians. The great Thyagaraja, on the spot, composed the song, Doraguna Etuvanti Seva (Raga: Bilahari). When translated, the song means: "Can anyone get this kind of a blessing? To sing in the presence of my guru - even the Devas (the angels) are not so blessed as I (Thyagaraja)." In response, Guru Venkatramaniah exclaimed, Doraguna Iduvamdi Sishyudu (Can anyone be more blessed than I to get a disciple such as Thyagaraja?). This simple episode illustrates the dedication of a disciple to a guru and the love and admiration of a guru to a disciple.

Learning anything requires discipline and dedication. A guru is an integral part of that learning. If you are sincere and dedicated about learning - whether it is the arts or about life - you will find a guru. As I learned, sometimes gurus can also transcend human form and appear as a furry creature that is always happy to see me. Regardless of the form, if you are open to learning , there is no limit to what can be learned.