Guru Sishya Relationship in the Indian Tradition.

Without a Guru there is no spiritual progress

“Why do you need a master?” asked a visitor of one of the disciples.

“If water must be heated it needs a vessel as an intermediary between the fire and itself,”was the answer.

(De Mello, Anthony. One Minute Wisdom. Anand, Gujarat: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 2009, p.46.)

Some initial observations and critique of the Guru/shishya relationship within Indian traditions. 

The seers say that the Master/Guru arrives when the disciple is ready. According to one of the more popular hymns of Hinduism, the devotee equates her/his guru as equivalent to Brahma (the Creator aspect of the Godhead),

Varaha Avatara

Vishnu (the Sustaining aspect of the Godhead) and

Maheswara

Maheswara (the Destructive aspect of the Godhead)[1]. We read in the multi-volume life of

Paramhamsa Sri Sri Ramakrishna & His Disciple Swami Vivekananda

Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa (1836-1886) that he stressed the fact that it was only the Guru who can in a moment cleanse the soul of the seeker/sinner/devotee. In fact, the Desert Fathers maintained that only a fool depends on himself for spiritual guidance: a spiritual mother/father was an absolute necessity if one were to progress in the spiritual life (see the Penguin edition of Benedicta Ward’s masterful translation of the sayings of the Desert Fathers)[2]. In the Sufi tradition of Islam we have the various silsilas which have at their helms either a woman or enlightened man guiding the group. In the Buddhist and Jaina traditions too we find either a lama or an acharya/muni guiding the seekers after jnana. I refer to all these religious traditions to bring home the point that India has a long tradition of pluralism and yet all these various schools of thought/religions all ultimately rely on a very human Master/Guru to communicate to the seeker the Ultimate Reality about the Godhead. Within Hindu paradigms the Guru was someone who initiated the Brahmin seeker into the path of Brahman ( the Godhead) and in spiritual terms gave new life to the seeker. After this initiation, the seeker was known as a dvija, a ‘twice-born’. Henceforth the Hindu seeker, who traditionally received this initiation very young from a much older Guru had to serve in the Guru’s household till the completion of his studies. This was done a long time ago and is no longer practised in lived-Hinduism. The reality is that the caste-system has ossified and now there are traditional Brahmins who hardly care for gurus or their injunctions. Truth is, the average Hindu Indian today sees god-men as Gurus are now called in jest after being caught peddling God for money, sex and power. These corruptions are shared by all religious leaders in our country. So this author sees hardly any merit in the guru-shishya relationship today. Anthony de Mello sj, the witty Jesuit seer, once said a Guru is one who teaches the disciple to get rid of the Guru. It is recounted of one of the Desert Fathers that when another younger aspirant to the life-ascetical asked him of what traits a person should possess to become a Master; the former lifted up his right hand in blessing and his five fingers turned into tongues of fire. This fire which can set aflame the hearts of disciples is the hallmark of the Guru. Ancient Indian sages envisaged this ideal for the Guru when they spoke of him in the various Upanishads. Now we need to turn our attention to the disciple.

A very Upanishadic interpretation of the Guru/Shishya relationship and a note on the seed mantra in the Tantra tradition.

A very well known hymn in the Taittiriya Upanishad has the following verse which sets the dynamics of the guru-shishya relationship:

AUM saha navavatu, saha nau bhunaktu

Saha veeryam karvaavahai

Tejasvi naa vadhita mastu

maa vid vishaa va hai

AUM shaantih, shaantih, shaantih.

Let us together (-saha) be protected (-na vavatu) and let us together be nourished (-bhunaktu) by God’s blessings. Let us together join our mental forces in strength (-veeryam) for the benefit of humanity (-karvaa vahai). Let our efforts at learning be luminous (-tejasvi) and filled with joy, and endowed with the force of purpose (-vadhita mastu). Let us never (-maa) be poisoned (-vishaa) with the seeds of hatred for anyone. Let there be peace and serenity (-shaantih) in all the three universes.

So, the traditional understanding of the guru-shishya relationship within Hindu paradigms is very clear: it is an invitation for both together to undertake an amazing journey within the very crucibles of their own true selves. It is an interior journey which does not wish ill to anyone but nonetheless a necessary salvific/moksha seeking journey. It is only the Guru who can transport the seeker from samsara/this world of vanity to the world of no-return/Nirvikalpa Samadhi. It is said of Swami Vivekananda that the very touch on him by the feet of his Master, Sri Ramakrishna, transported him into Samadhi and thus propelled the latter to begin his own journey to become the Swami Vivekananda. In Mahanirvana Tantra we learn that Tantric powers, or the rituals of Shakti (power) worship were to be handed down from solely the Guru. The Guru, as it were, planted the seed-mantra or vija-mantra into the disciple who was never to reveal it to anyone ever. This secrecy is not cultic in nature but rather symbolic: the relationship between the shishya and the Guru was to be intimate and the soul’s progress as hidden as the progress of a tryst ( see the life of Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Purana):

Studies of religious sects in India led by renouncer gurus show the signal importance of mantras in initiating neophytes into a given lineage or tradition of renouncers. This initiation is the mantra-diksha. The guru whispers the mantra in the disciple’s ear, and with that the disciple is ushered in as one of the group. All members of a given devotionalist order share the tradition’s mantra, but it remains unknown to outsiders. The mantra in a guru-shishya (teacher-disciple) lineage or sampradaya serves to distinguish insiders from outsiders and bind the insiders together in a common bond of knowledge and practice. [3]

                                    Thus in ancient India we see an emerging pattern of the guru’s relationship with the seeker. In short it had to be based on confidence in the power of the Guru to transform the seeker’s very essence ( see the conversation of Nachiketa and Yama in the Kathoponisad), of the transformative power of what is passed on from the Guru to the disciple (see the Tantras, for examples):

These esoteric doctrines and practices are not transmissible by means of the written word alone; they can be realized by the aspirant (shishya) only in the context of study with a master or guru , and full transmission of the Tantric insights occurs only in this context. Not surprisingly, the role of the guru is central in Tantric practice, and the guru— shishya relationship is of the first importance. Once the shishya has been accepted by the guru, the student must submit entirely and unquestioningly to the teacher’s direction, however harsh or perverse it may appear. The guru will gauge theshishya’s progress towards the goal, will suggest suitable practices, and will gradually unfold the deeper Tantric mysteries as the shishya becomes fit to receive them. (For an analogous attitude to the master—student relationship, and of face-to-face transmission of doctrine, cf. the essays on the Zen thinkers Dogen and Hakuin.) The relationship of Milarepa to his guru Marpa is the most famous example of such in Tibetan thought. It will be no surprise that all the leading thinkers in the Tibetan tradition have the title ‘guru’ or ‘great guru’, as is the case with Padmasambhava.[4] and of the need of the disciple to pay obeisance to the Guru (Guru-dakshina) and finally in some cases the need for the shishya to be chaste during internship with the Guru ( see the Codes of Manu for these chastity-injunctions). All these are today thought to be redundant in a globalized India where one can hardly trust anyone as the Guru for the latter often look out for gullible disciples to be conned ( see The Guide by R. K. Narayan).

Contemporary understanding of the Guru/shishya relationship within Indian lived Hinduism.

When this writer was a child, his family (kula) Guru visited his parents and both of his parents first washed their Guru’s feet and drunk that water as nectar- of- the- feet or Charana-amrita. Then they paid obeisance to him by prostrating at his feet and touching  his feet with their fore-heads. Today’s scenario has changed. Indian tradition is not a static entity. Now we have the same obeisance but not in this highly ritualized manner. the contemporary Indian Hindu, at least, in Eastern India no longer believes in this binary. The highly adaptive Indian traditions has now pointed out, after Foucault and Zizek, that such power dynamics may be in fact too lopsided to be effective as promoters of self-actualization. Rapid globalisation and opening up of the Indian markets has perforce steered the secular Indian Hindu to opt out of the trappings of the past including what is often idealised as the guru/shishya relationship.[5]


[1] Guru Brahma Gurur Vishnu

Guru Devo Maheshwaraha

Guru Saakshat Para Brahma

Tasmai Sree Gurave Namaha…Guru Stotra.

[2] See Ward, Benedicta. The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

[3] Maya Warrier, Hindu Selves in a Modern World: Guru Faith in the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005), 55.

[4] Diané Collinson, Kathryn Plant, and Robert Wilkinson, Fifty Eastern Thinkers(London: Routledge, 2000), 181.

[5]India has rapidly progressed from an under-developed nation to one of the most quickly booming nations of the world. See Kothari, Rajni, D. L. Sheth, and Ashis Nandy, eds. The Multiverse of Democracy: Essays in Honour of Rajni Kothari. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1996, to understand this rapid development and secularization of values in our nation.

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