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The Guru-Disciple Relationship


In Ancient Times

According to tradition, Sannyasa is regarded as an external expression—a social form, we may say—of maturity of thought. Sannyasa is not taken at random, at the whim and fancy of any person.

In ancient times, prior to the time of the Manu Smriti for instance, there was no social order of Sannyasa. There was Sannyasa, but it could not be called an order in the sense that it is understood these days. In those days, even during the time of the Upanishads, we had Sannyasins and nuns, but they did not belong to any organisation. There were no organisations, no ashrams of the type that we see nowadays. Though there were ashrams of a Guru or Gurus with one or two disciples, there were no organisations like ours with five hundred disciples or residents. That type of organisation did not exist.

During the time of the Upanishads and a little later—prior to the circumstances described in the Manu Smriti, as mentioned—there were individual Sannyasins, and they served a Guru for years together. Usually a candidate for ordinance into Sannyasa is expected to serve a Guru for at least twelve years—not less than twelve years—and serve the Guru in every way, as if he entirely belongs to the Guru. He is not an independent person at all. The disciple, the Chela, the Sishya, is part and parcel of the Guru himself, and the will of the Guru is the will of the disciple. As a matter of fact, the disciple is expected not to have any individual way of thinking at all. He should not interpret the Guru in any manner whatsoever. He should not even use reason in judging the instructions of his Guru. Whatever the Guru says is the final order, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, reasonable or unreasonable from the point of view of the Chela.

There were occasions when a Chela was tested by his Guru very severely, even to the point of the death of the disciple. The disciple never died, of course, but he was tested to such a point where any weak-minded or rational-minded disciple would have run away from that place. He would not have stayed with the Guru. The Gurus were very able persons; they were only testing, and the test was very severe. After such a test period of twelve years or sometimes even more, the Guru would summon the disciple, and without any premeditation, would initiate him.

In the Upanishads, we have some very interesting anecdotes referring to the type of life of a Chela. In the Chhandogya Upanishad, for instance, there is the story of Upakosala, who served a Guru by the name of Satyakama. Although the Guru did not initiate the disciple even after years and years of service, and it did not appear that he was going to initiate him at all, he took service from him, and very exacting service. Many years passed, and the Upanishad says that even the gods took pity on the Chela. It is very surprising indeed. The celestials saw the arduous life the Chela was living, and took pity on him. They came in certain forms, and initiated the disciple. Then the disciple, who was tending the Guru's cattle in the forest, having received this mystical initiation from the celestials in a mysterious manner, returned with the cattle to the Guru's abode. When the Guru saw the Chela, he said, "How is it that your face is shining today, a thing which I have not seen up to this time, as if you know something which you did not know earlier? Have you learned something new?" The Chela replied, "Yes." "Who taught you?" asked the Guru. The Chela's answer was, "Not anyone that is human. Something other than human taught me." The Guru was a man of insight, and he saw in his vision that the celestials themselves had initiated the Chela. He said, "I have nothing more to tell you. Whatever you have learnt is quite sufficient, and I only confirm it."

There is another instance of the hardships which, in ancient times, disciples were made to undergo by their Gurus. There was a Chela called Uttanka, who served his master for years and years. Not twelve years—he served for twenty, thirty, forty years. It appears that the Guru never uttered a word. One day when the Chela Uttanka was carrying firewood from the forest to the Guru, one of his hairs got stuck in the firewood, and he saw that it was white. He started weeping, "Oh, I have become old." His hair had become white, and he had never even observed it, poor man. He was so devoted to the Guru that he never had time to notice that his hair had become white. He saw it only when it got stuck in the firewood. "Oh God," he said, "I have become old, and still I have not received initiation." He wept and beat his breast. When he went to the Guru in that condition, the Guru took pity on him and initiated him. There are instances galore of this type.

There are also instances of this kind outside India. You must read the work of Professor Evans Wentz of Oxford. He did research in Tibetan mysticism, and wrote an English translation of the biography of Milarepa, a great Yogi of Tibet. You will start weeping if you read about Milarepa's life. You can never imagine that a Chela can undergo such hardships. It was not mere hardship in the ordinary sense; they were actually tortured by the Gurus, but the Gurus had their own reasons for it. Later on, Milarepa's Guru told him why he had tortured him. He said, "I do not want anything from you." He said this a day before Milarepa was about to be initiated. "I have not put you to test or trouble because I want something from you. I have got everything by divine grace. But you have committed several sins, and all those sins had to be expiated, which is why I tested you, put you to hardship, extracted hard labour from you, and never even gave you a proper daily meal." Milarepa was starving, and was actually ill. He could not get up; he was crawling, and even in that condition he was asked to go and tend the cattle, to build a house, and so on.

Living in Ashrams

Coming to the point, the disciple is supposed to live under a Guru for several years for various reasons, one of which is to be psychologically weaned from the atmosphere of home. The idea of father, mother, brother, sister, etc., must go from the mind of the Chela, so he is asked to live with a Guru for as many years as would be necessary to make him free from the obsession of family tradition and family relationship, etc. Twelve years was the usually prescribed period of time, but it was not a watertight period. It could be a little more where necessary or it could be less if it was permitted, though normally it was twelve years.

One reason was that the Chela should be separated from psychological obsessions—the obsession that a person has towards his family, the idea that 'this is mine', and so on. Another reason was to get acquainted with the spiritual way of living, which is different from the family way of living. It will be interesting to understand in what way the spiritual way of living is different from the family way of living. If you want to know, you must live in an ashram; only then will you understand what it is.

We have an ashram, the Divine Life Society, with so many people, friends—very dear friends. He is my friend, I am his friend, and so on. We live like brothers, yet we are not brothers. That is the difference. It is very difficult to understand this. The relationship to a brother, which is a physical blood relation in a family, is different from the relationship to a brother in a spiritual institution. Anyone who lives in an ashram knows that, whether it is an ashram in Pune or an ashram in Rishikesh. It is not a family, though it is a family in one sense.

I will give you a philosophical sidelight to what I am saying from one of the works of Acharya Shankara. There are three kinds of attachment. Shankaracharya says in Sanskrit that these kinds of attachment are called bhramaja, sahaja and karmaja. Ja means born of, originated from, caused by. Bhramaja means that which is born of illusion, the attachment that is caused by sheer delusion. The attachment that is natural to the constitution of one's individuality is called sahaja. Sahaja means normal, usual, natural. Karmaja is that which is caused by the operation of the forces of past actions. These are the three kinds of attachment. If we do not want to use the word 'attachment', we may use a more palatable term such as 'association' or 'relationship'. So, there are three types of association: association born of delusion, association which can be called natural to the very structure of one's individuality, and association which is generated by the past actions of an individual.

Now, what is this attachment or association that is caused by delusion? It is consciousness imagining that it is an individual. This is delusion. Consciousness cannot be an individual, it cannot be located in space and time, and it cannot become an isolated unit because there is no such thing as isolation, division or segmentation of consciousness. Therefore, an idea entering into consciousness that it can be isolated into Mr. so-and-so, Mrs. so-and-so, this, that, and what not, is delusion. The identification of consciousness with this psychophysical individuality, this association, is born of delusion, bhramaja, which is some kind of confusion. It is not clear understanding. The other association is what is called natural to the individual. It is accepted and taken for granted that one is an individual, whether or not it can be metaphysically justified. Acharya Shankara says it cannot be justified because of the bhramaja adhyasa point of view.

Well, whatever it is, if you take for granted that you are an individual—empirically speaking, we shall accept it—then something automatically follows. That which automatically follows is called sahaja, or natural. Because it is automatic, it is called natural. What is automatic? The moment consciousness gets individualised, physical and social consequences spontaneously follow in the form of physical attachment or physical association, and social association.

Many things have happened to us since we descended from God—or fell from heaven, as it is said. There is a very long story of the metaphysical fall of the once-spiritual angel that we were, in a beautiful book called Gods in Exile, written by an Australian gentleman. We are all gods in exile, is what he says. We are exiled from heaven for some reason or the other, and this is explained in different ways in different traditions and theological backgrounds. The association of consciousness with a peculiar medium, which in Vedanta philosophy is termed abhasa, is what Acharya Shankara calls natural association. Abhasa means a reflection of consciousness in the individuality or the intellect of the person concerned. And the moment this reflection takes place, the Universal gets reflected in the particular, the particular gets identified with the body, and we begin to say, "This is my body," or, "The body itself is the I," to go still further down. This is karmaja, or action-born association, because this body is, according to our belief and psychological analysis, not made up of physical elements—not made up of earth, water, fire, air, etc.—though it is so, in one sense. It is made up of the cohesive force of the past karmas of the individual concerned.

You may ask why it is not made up of matter. It is a manner of speaking. Matter is everywhere. Matter is in the wall that I am seeing in front of me. Matter is in the mountain behind me. Matter is there on the ground. But why do I say that this particular lump of earth alone is I, and not this table or this wall? I do not say this wall is I or this table is I. This particular formation of matter alone—the body—is I. How is it? Why do we say that? It is because this body is the shape taken by a group of material atoms on account of the driving impulse of the past karmas of the individual. Karma is like cement. Cement joins together the bricks of the wall; otherwise, the bricks would separate. Atoms are everywhere. But why should they be joined together and held in unison at a particular point in space and be called a body? That cementing element is karma. So this body is also regarded as a form of karma, and when that karma is exhausted and its momentum is over, there is a disintegration of the elements. The mortar is removed, the cement is scraped off, and the bricks fall down. That is the death of the body.

Therefore, consciousness subsequently gets identified with the body also. Not only that, it goes further into society and says that this is my husband, this is my wife, this is my son, my daughter, my daughter-in-law, my brother, my brother-in-law, and so on. We have gone still further, beyond this body. That we have entered this body is bad enough, but we have gone still further and say, "That is so-and-so," or, "That person is mine." What a pity! We do not allow others to be in peace. This is karmaja association.

These have to be cut at the root by the gradual elimination of contributory factors to this sort of thinking, which can be done only in an ashram. Therefore, we go to ashrams. Here also we say that so-and-so is our friend, or that he is our assistant. Even if we say that, there is a difference between saying it in an ashram and saying it in our house. "He is my brother." A great difference is there, and each one knows for oneself what that difference is. If anybody dies here, we do not weep, but if anybody dies in our house, we beat our breast for days together. If anybody in an ashram dies, nobody will weep, though we are brothers.

This is a very interesting point. Why should we not weep when a brother dies? It is because bhramaja is cut off here. That bhramaja association, that original psychological attachment of ours, is cut off. We have physical associations, social associations, psychological associations, but not that original thing which ties a brother to a brother, or a son to a father, and so on. That is severed. We are internally independent beings, though outwardly we are associated with a group. That is why, in the ashram, we do not weep if someone dies. Hence, these refinements of personality are to be acquired by a new type of educational career that is provided for in ashrams.

Association with the Guru

The third point is: association with a Guru is a blessing by itself. I speak from my own personal experience of how we have been blessed by the personal association that we had with Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj. This is purely a personal feeling that I am expressing. I have never seen a person like him, nor do I hope to see another, at least in this life. He was superb impersonality in personality—impersonality seen in a personality. He was a person like anybody else in the sense that we could see him; but he was an impersonal being. When he came, one could never feel that a man was coming. Usually, the idea of male-female is there in our minds, and so we would say that a male is coming. But when Swamiji came, we could never feel that it was a male. This male-female idea never entered our heads. That is, he would radiate a force around him which would be wholly impersonal. Impersonality has no gender. There is no male-female differentiation in impersonality; and that impersonality was in him. He was neither a man nor a woman. At least, that idea would not enter our heads when we saw him. It was something very strange. The person who saw him would simply be possessed by some new kind of feeling at that time. He would be overpowered, overwhelmed by a new force.

These are the Gurus. They have spirituality in them; the soul works through them. It is not the mind and the intellect that work through the Gurus. Gurus never speak through the intellect. That is why the Chela is not supposed to use his intellect when the Guru says something. When the soul speaks, the soul alone has to respond. The intellect, the reason, a scientific attitude, etc., should not be applied. It would be an anomaly, and the Chela would be a misfit. The Guru is a soul and not a body.

Now I am coming to another, more interesting point about the Guru-disciple relationship. Because the Guru is a soul, he never dies. We will never say, "Our Guru died; we have nobody now." This is not intelligible to us. The Guru can never die, because the Guru is not the body. Nor is the Chela a body. Now we come to the other side of it. Neither is the Chela the body, nor is the Guru the body, and the relationship between Guru and Chela is not a bodily relationship. So even if the Guru is a thousand miles away, the Chela is happy. He is not bothered. He will not cry, "Oh, my Guru is far away. I have nobody." Distance is wiped out in the spiritual field. There is no distance in the world, really speaking. Distance is only a spatial concept. When even television and radio have wiped out distance, do you think that consciousness—the soul—cannot wipe it out? It can, and it does. Though this is a very advanced state, it is the truth of things. The disciple and the Guru are related in a mystical manner, and that relationship continues even after the death of the body.

In the Chhandogya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads, we have an example of this. It is said that when a sadhaka—a very advanced soul, not an ordinary sadhaka—quits this physical world, his soul advances further and further and passes through various stages of experience. It does not directly reach the Absolute. Though there is a path which directly contacts the Absolute, it is another subject altogether. Normally speaking, there is progressive salvation, as it is called—krama mukti. Krama mukti is the gradual salvation of a soul from the bondage of individuality. This gradual liberation takes place through various stages. At least fourteen or fifteen stages are mentioned. At the tenth or eleventh stage, says the Upanishad, the soul reaches the point of losing personality-consciousness. There the soul cannot go further on its own, and somebody else comes to lead it. 'Amanava purushah' is the term used in the Upanishad: a superhuman being comes. Amanava means superhuman, not human. Someone who is superhuman comes and takes the soul by the hand, as it were, and directs it onward. The traditional exponents of the Upanishad say that it is the Guru who comes. The Guru himself comes. He was not dead; he was alive. It is not a social relationship, it is not a physical relationship, and it is not even a psychological relationship of the type that Freud describes in his psychoanalysis.

When a physician is to heal a mentally ill patient through the psychoanalytic method, the patient is introduced into a particular condition of mind where the will of the patient is made subservient to the will of the physician. The will of the physician becomes the will of the patient, and the will of the physician directs the will of the patient in such a way that the patient loses personality-consciousness in one sense. But that losing of personality-consciousness is morbid; it is not spiritual.

Some psychologists in the West have a doubt in their minds whether the Guru-disciple relationship is not that kind of obsession which is to be cut off—because the patient is not supposed to cling to the physician always. When the mind is healed, when the person is cured of his mental illness, the obsession is taken away. No more does the patient cling to the will of the physician. So, is the Chela's devotion to the Guru also a kind of obsession? This question was raised by certain psychoanalysts. Can we regard it as healthy, or is it an unnatural clinging which should not be?

The answer is that it is not an obsession. This is something difficult for ordinary psychologists to understand. It is the longing of the soul for its wider dimension. Only people who have trodden the spiritual path will know what it is. We cannot find all this explained in textbooks. It is highly mystical, very deep—and secret, I should say. There are great secrets which are not published in books, and that is why even the Upanishads are not supposed to be imparted in public. In some Upanishads it is mentioned that we should not shout the Upanishads to people. The very word 'upanishad' means a secret guidance that is given to the soul of the individual for its onward march. It is not to be broadcast over the radio or a loudspeaker. The Upanishad is not spoken like that; it is a very great secret. Why is it a secret? Because it will not enter the mind of the non-initiated. If geometry is taught to a buffalo, what will the buffalo understand? Even if the buffalo is told again and again that three angles of a triangle make two right angles, it will just make some sound and go away.

Therefore, let us not teach geometry to a buffalo. It will not make any sense. Sometimes not only does it not make any sense, but it is misconstrued. "The soul is immortal." This statement was heard by some Chela, and he went on killing fish in the river and eating them. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahsmsa said, "Look at this fellow. He has misunderstood Vedanta." The soul is immortal, and therefore we can eat fish—does it mean that? Is this the outcome of Vedanta? Well, that is also one kind of Vedanta. "The soul is not killed, so why should I not eat fish? I am eating only the body of the fish, not the soul." So Sri Ramakrishna used to say, "Look at these Vedantins!"

This is the sort of Vedanta we have these days—which is very, very bad. We should not teach Vedanta when the mind is not receptive. It will misconstrue. First of all, it will not understand; and even if it understands, it misunderstands. Therefore, mystical teachings are not to be imparted in public over loudspeakers and microphones. They have to be imparted only to the select disciple who is well matured.

Electric current only passes through high-tension wire. It does not pass through bamboo or plantain stem. It is said there are three types of disciples: plantain stem, firewood and gunpowder. Gunpowder will immediately catch fire. If a match is struck and put on gunpowder, it immediately explodes. These are high-class aspirants. Once they are told, it is sufficient; they do not need to be told a second time. Their minds catch the teaching like gunpowder catches the fire. The second class of aspirants is like firewood. We have to go on blowing air, and only then does the wood catch fire. If we simply light a match and try to set the wood on fire, the first match gets extinguished before the wood catches fire. The third type of disciples is like plantain stem. It will never catch fire. However much we may throw it into fire, it will remain cold. "Oh, I didn't understand what you were saying. I am going back." So the disciples should be at least second rate, not third rate. And we should not shout first-rate instructions to second-rate disciples, and so on. The art of teaching is a science by itself. The teacher should be a wise man, not a fool. He should not go on saying truths which are not to be uttered at that time.

The presence of the Guru is a great influence upon the mind of the Chela. Whatever we are today, in our own humble capacity, is entirely due to our personal association with Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj, and not due to the books that we have studied or the texts that we have mastered or the lectures that we have heard. These are nothing; they are a husk. It is due to the force of Swami Sivananda that we somehow or other imbibed—by his grace, I should say. Sivananda was everything for us—father, mother, brother, everything. When he passed away, sometimes it looked as if the earth itself was giving way, cracking under our feet. We had nobody; everything went off.

Anyway, he is working still. Some spiritual force is working, from where our strength comes. Otherwise, this asthmatic body cannot do so much work. I have asthmatic complications; I cannot eat, and have to take so many medicines. Necessity is the mother of invention. When necessity arose, strength also came, perhaps. The Guru's strength is spiritual strength; it is God's strength. Guru and God are regarded as identical. Gurur Brahma Gurur Vishnu Gurur Devo Maheshwara Guru Sakshat Parabrahma Tasmai Sri Gurave Namah. We do not regard the Guru as a human being, and he is not supposed to be regarded as a human being. Hence, he is not a body; and therefore, he does not die. The immortal Guru maintains an immortal relationship with the Chela, who is also an immortal part, a spark, a ray of divinity.