Tasmay Shri Guruvey Namah (I bow down to all my teachers, those who have guided, taken me under their wing and taught me all that I know).
The meaning of the Upanishads is very beautiful – to sit devotedly at the feet of the Guru. The Upanisads are a series of texts that transcribes conversations that various learned saints and seers have with their students. To learn and understand the Upanisads is to hear the “amrut vani” of the seers of long ago.
India is rich with a heritage of Guru Mukhi Vidhyas or Vidhya (knowledge) that is learnt from the mouth of the Guru. What does Guru Mukhi Vidhya really mean?
The last few months have been a personal journey in understanding Guru-Shishya parampara (Teacher-student tradition). I could attend Prof Shastri’s lectures at Gujarat University, but both of us can tell you that it would by no means be as fulfilling or deep as our one-on-one meeting. I could pick up a book on tabla, complete with pictures to show me placement, but my hand will not develop the way it should, nor will my personality be articulate in my music.
If you look at many traditional cultures around the world, knowledge was not transcribed but passed down orally. Why is this the case? Because the essence of knowledge cannot be transmitted in a book. In fact, in India another name for knowledge is shruti, which literally means that which is heard. The essence of the Vedas cannot be communicated through any book or translation, it is through its recitation that its meaning becomes known.
Embarking on the study of knowledge is a difficult task, which requires guidance, supervision and protection. A wrong turn could be disastrous. One easy example – one of Guruji’s students (A) in the States had learnt from one of his older students (B). A would go to B for a few lessons then practice at home for a few months on his own. B tried to best to correct him when he would return and dissuade A from taking such long gaps between lessons, but was not successful. When A met Guruji, under continued supervision, Guruji attempted to fix his hand positioning, but the level of damage was too great. If A wanted to really continue his study, he would not be able to do so unless he started again. So 2-3 years after he began his “training,” he was re started his training, but this time playing tabla with his left hand instead of right (a SUPER challenging task).
The Guru becomes a Guru because of their level of knowledge and experience. Only after intense sadhna and training do they become the trainer. A good Guru holds the keys to the secrets of the art (and believe me each art has its secrets). The ancient arts would not have lasted so long, unless their innermost essence was not shrouded by so many secrets and tests.
A cool example. Every composition in tabla has a pair. When the composer creates a cayda, gat, etc he creates not one but two pieces of music (a jod). The pair serves many purposes. The most obvious being the ability to track theft. If someone claims to be the composer and there is a doubt, the person can be asked for the composition’s pair. Another more interesting purpose its demonstration of a teacher’s trust on a student. A guru is morally bound to their gharana (or family), they cannot teach someone if they do not have trust in them. To receive the jod of a composition is a sign of ultimate trust of the guru on the student. Traditionally, if a student went to another teacher, the latter would ask if the student has received any pairs. Through this test they get an understanding of how much the former teacher trusted the student and can decide whether to take them on as a student or not.
It’s like a video game, you have to pass level one to move onto level two. A book doesn’t have those levels. You flip the page and more information is available, whether or not proper mastery has been achieved or not is not determined.
Whatever the pursuit may be, the fortunate find their guru (or mentor). The person who helps you get your foot in the door, trains you on how to behave and pass on the tricks of the trade.
It is one thing to find one’s guru and another to be a student in the true sense of the word. It is hard to understand what it means to be a student until one actually becomes a student. When I went to Kailash, I had many conversations about what a Guru is etc. An interesting point was made to me. One might take someone to be one’s Guru, but it is another thing for the Guru to take you as a student. The binding of a student to teacher entails the teacher taking on complete responsibility for the student and student taking complete surrender at the teacher’s feet. In the end, the student will become a guru.
To be a student means to enter into a egoless condition with utmost faith, devotion and love. It is surrender to something that is higher than oneself. A student of philosophy recognizes that the knowledge is much more than the oneself and that to learn it, to understand it, one must give oneself completely to its study. Ultimately, it is surrender to the art, to the knowledge and the guru is the key holder.
The Guru holds the future and present of the student. The more willing, the more dedicated the student, the more the Guru can do. Ultimately they (the teacher) are bound to preservation of knowledge, they have the responsibility to ensure that it does not pass into the wrong hands. Many traditional and ancient arts and knowledges are dying out, but you will find the master unwilling to write it down and leave it for the public for this reason only. The belief is that it is better that the knowledge “dies” with the person than go into the hands those who are not ready for it. The knowledge does not “die,” but is lost until it will be time for it to be remembered again.
We live in a day and age where knowledge is not respected or given the value it deserved and consequently its keepers’ too do not have the same position they did centuries ago. Fewer in number, but the teachers do remain. When one is blessed to find such a person, pray that one has the clarity of vision to recognize them for what they are and ability to take as much as possible of their precious wisdom.