In the effort to understand life and approach death meaningfully, vairagya [non-attachment] and abhyasa [practices] are the responsibility of the seeker. When these two are truly undertaken, another help follows. That help comes in the form of guru and grace, each linked to the other, each so beautiful and comforting, each so powerful. Unfortunately, each is so frequently misunderstood.
Western culture, which has increasingly welcomed and embraced traditions from the East in the last thirty years, has too often understood guru to mean simply a teacher. In the West guru is frequently considered to be merely someone who is trained in philosophy, meditation, and hatha yoga. From this point of view, the guru is expected to share this knowledge with the students, training them in scriptures and various spiritual disciplines. While the western student may become dependent on the teacher and have high expectations about what the teacher should do on behalf of the student, the guru is nonetheless viewed as a teacher only.
In ancient times students received formal education in guru-kulas. The students lived with their guru from an early age and were given not only instruction on an intellectual level, but also were guided in spiritual development and in the maintenance of physical health. Guru had a very close relationship with the students and knew their habits and level of inner strength.
In today’s life there is no spiritual environment in which a seeker can fully concentrate on learning the language of silence in order to find inner fulfillment. It is very difficult for the student not to be distracted by the temptations of the external world. Modern education focuses on memorizing facts of the external world, and ignores the growth and development of the inner being. The Guru-Kula system of ancient times is not practical in today’s world, but a more holistic approach to education can be adopted. Such an approach emphasizes spiritual growth along with the development of the intellectual aspects of the mind, and also includes guidance in how to maintain the fitness and health of the physical body. In the eastern tradition guru is much more than a teacher. He or she represents the special energy that is guiding individuals toward their fulfillment as human beings, toward perfection. Grace is the impulse of that energy.
The word guru is a compound of two words, Gu and Ru. Gu means darkness and ru means light. That which dispels the darkness of ignorance is called guru. The energy and action of removing darkness are guru. Guru is not a person, it is a force driven by grace.
To put this another way, there is an intelligent momentum that pervades the universe that is moving all human beings toward the perfection we call God. Guru is that intelligence. Everyone’s receptivity to that intelligence varies. It depends on preparation, which includes the development of vairagya or nonattachment, and abhyasa or practice. In other words, guru is always there, but the student may not be ready to receive what the guru has to offer. When the student is prepared, the guru always arrives to help the student do what is necessary to progress in removing the veil of ignorance. It is said that when the wick and oil are properly prepared, the master lights the lamp.
Guru is not a person, but guru can be represented in a person. One who has developed his or her own spiritual awareness to a very high level can guide others, and is considered to be guru. Only one who is finely attuned to the inner guide can inspire the awakening of the inner guide in another. Guru is not a physical being. If a guru begins thinking this power is her or his own, then they are no longer a guide. The guru is a tradition, a stream of knowledge.
In India, guru is a sacred word that is used with reverence and is always associated with the highest wisdom. The guru is unique in a person’s life. The relationship between disciple and guru is like no other relationship. It is said that guru is not mother, father, son, or daughter. The guru is not a friend in any conventional sense. It also is sometimes said that the guru is father, mother, son, daughter, and friend all in one; the guru is sun and moon, sky and earth to the disciple.
The truth is that the relationship of guru to disciple is indescribable. The relationship extends to the realm beyond the world, transcends death, and stretches far beyond the limited karmic bonds associated with family and friends. A mother and father help sustain the body of their child, and nurture and guide the child through the formative years of life to adulthood. Guru sustains, nurtures, and guides a soul through lifetimes to ultimate liberation.
The relationship with the guru is based on the purest form of unconditional love. There is complete openness with the guru. The disciple should hold nothing back from the guru. This is why in the tradition, a student goes to the guru and offers a bundle of sticks to burn. The bundle symbolizes that everything the disciple has is offered unconditionally to the guru. Everything is offered to the guru so the guru can do the work of shaping the student spiritually. The disciple comes with full faith and entrusts his whole life to the guru. The guru takes that life and chops it and burns what is not necessary, and then carefully carves what remains into something sacred.
In this chopping and burning, the guru is merciless. The guru’s job is not to hold hands with the disciple and wipe away tears, but to cut into pieces the disciple’s ego and all that stands between the disciple and freedom. The guru does not allow dependence. If the disciple becomes too dependent on the guru, the guru pushes the disciple away, insisting on independence. It is a remarkable expression of the deepest love.
To be on a spiritual path with a guru is not an easy thing. It is not pleasant. The guru tests the disciples, puts them in the most difficult situations, and creates obstacles for them. All the tests, difficulties, and obstacles are meant to train and expand the consciousness of the disciple.
That is the sole work of the guru. The guru wants nothing from the disciple. Guru is that force moving a soul toward enlightenment. The guru’s actions are from pure compassion. As the sun shines and lives far above, the guru gives spiritual love and remains unattached.
Guru is a channel for spiritual knowledge. Jesus repeatedly reminded his disciples of this. “I have not spoken of myself, but the Father which sent me.” The Father is that stream of pure knowledge. Jesus, as an enlightened being, was attuned to that knowledge.
No human being can ever become a guru. Guru is not a human experience, or, better said, guru is not a sensory experience. It is a divine experience to be a guru. A human being allows herself or himself to be used as a channel for receiving and transmitting by the power of powers. Then it happens. Then guru manifests. To do that, a human being must learn to be selfless, must learn to love. Real love expects nothing. That is how genuine gurus live. Selfless love is the basis of their enlightenment, and the basis of their roles as channels of knowledge.
Guru is not the goal. Anyone who establishes himself as a guru to be worshipped, is not a guru. Christ, Buddha, and other great persons did not set up any such example. Guru is like a boat for crossing the river. It is important to have a good boat and it is very dangerous to have a boat that is leaking. The boat brings you across the river. When the river is crossed the boat is no longer necessary. You don’t hang onto the boat after completing the journey, and you certainly don’t worship the boat.
Many times students come to the guru with a preconceived idea of what the guru should be like. They come with expectations of what the guru is there to do for them. Perhaps the students think the guru should give them much attention, or make decisions for them, or take on troubles they have created for themselves. Sometimes the students think the guru should behave in a certain way. When these expectations and preconceived images are not met, the student becomes upset and may even leave the guru.
This is not the proper way to approach a teacher. A student should not be filled with expectations and preconceived images, but with a burning desire to learn, and with firm determination. Then there will be no difficulty. The guru and the disciple can then do their work accordingly.
The spiritual seeker should not worry about who the guru is, or what the guru will do. The seeker’s first concern is getting prepared, organizing her or his life and thoughts in a spiritually healthy way, and then working toward a way of life that simplifies and purifies. At the right time the master will be there.
Once the guru has arrived, the methods and behavior of the guru should not be the disciple’s concern. The disciple’s work is to act on the instructions and teachings of the master, and at the same time, work toward more and more selflessness, and surrender of the ego. It is the ego that is the principle barrier to enlightenment.
A spiritual master’s ways of teaching are many and sometimes mysterious. To one student the guru may show much attention, spending much time with a student, even doting on a particular student. Another student may be utterly ignored by the master. It doesn’t matter. Each student is getting a teaching, and because of the insight of the master, just the right teaching at the right time. The guru is not in a student’s life to give the student what the student thinks she wants, but rather to give what is needed to progress spiritually.
Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son illustrates this. Briefly retold, a man had two sons. One day one son asked for all the property and wealth that would come in his inheritance. Then he went away and lived a wild, sensory life of rich foods, drink, gambling, and women. When all of that wealth was spent, the son returned. The father ran to his son when he saw him, and hugged and kissed him. He gave him expensive clothes to wear and ordered a feast to be held.
Meanwhile, the other son had remained all this time with his father, working for him and beside him, always respectful and devoted. When the devoted son saw all the attention given to the wayward and reckless son, he asked his father how this could be.
“I’ve been here all these years with you, always serving you, obeying every commandment, and you’ve never so much as given me a goat to throw a party for my friends. Now my brother returns after squandering all that wealth and living a wild life, and you treat him like a king and make a grand celebration for him.”
The father’s response was essentially that the wayward son needed this attention at this time, and the devoted son did not. Each son was given what was right for his spiritual growth at the right time.
The guru does not operate from what seems fair, or outwardly appropriate. He is not constrained to such cultural amenities. He can seem harsh, even brutal. He will put students in situations that make no sense, or are very uncomfortable. He will say things that won’t make any sense for months. He will ask things of students that students think are impossible. Everything the guru is doing is for the growth of the student. The student need only have faith in that fact.
The guru also teaches without words or actions. As the disciple learns to surrender and move the ego out of the way, and grows more selfless, the ability to learn intuitively from the guru grows. The student learns in the cave of silence. It is like tuning into the guru’s frequency or plugging into that stream of knowledge. The guru is always working from there. The disciple’s role is to gradually learn to also work from that place. The disciple learns this by doing all duties with love, by being unattached, and by surrendering. The disciple should always be striving to purify and prepare for more and greater knowledge. Then God will say, “I want to enter this living temple that you are.” Remove the impurities and you will find that the one who wants to know reality is the source of reality.
There is also the activity of grace. Grace is the impulse or the impetus of the energy to dispel darkness. There is the grace of the scriptures, from the wisdom that has passed down from others. There is the grace of the teacher, who imparts that wisdom and helps bring it to life in the student. There is the grace of God, or pure consciousness, that is alive and ever present in everyone’s life. Integral to these three graces is the grace of oneself, having the will to undertake a purposeful journey in life, to do the spiritual work of life, and to prepare oneself.
How do we get this grace? It comes of its own when a seeker has made maximum effort. When all efforts have been made, and all efforts have been exhausted, then grace comes.
A Sanskrit word for grace is shaktipata. Shakti means energy, and pata means bestowing. Shaktipata means “bestowing the energy” or lighting the lamp. Sometimes shaktipata is translated as “descent of power.” A power comes from above, of its own, to a vessel that is cleaned, purified, and is prepared to receive it. When the instructions from the guru have been completed, the seeker has become strong in selflessness and surrender, and the samskaras have been burned, grace comes.
In my own life, since I was a small child I was raised and guided by my master. I had done all that he asked of me. Grace had not come and I grew frustrated. So one day I went to my master and said, “You have not done shaktipata for me. That means either you don’t have shakti or you don’t intend to do it.”
I told him, “For so long now I have been closing my eyes in meditation and I end up with nothing but a headache. My time has been wasted and I find little joy in life.”
He didn’t say anything, so in my exasperation I continued talking.
“I worked hard and sincerely,” I said to him. “You said it would take fourteen years, but this is my seventeenth year of practice. Whatever you have asked me to do I have done. But today you give me shaktipata or I will commit suicide.”
Finally he said to me, “Are you sure? Are you really following all the practices I have taught you? Is this the fruit of my teaching, that you are committing suicide?”
Then he waited a moment and said, “When do you want to commit suicide?”
“Right now,” I said. “I am talking to you before I commit suicide. You are no longer my master now. I have given up everything. I am of no use to the world, I am of no use to you.”
I got up to go to the Ganges, which was near, and was prepared to drown myself.
My master said, “You know how to swim, so when you jump in the Ganges, naturally you will start swimming. You’d better find some way so that you will start drowning and not come up. Perhaps you should tie some weight to yourself.”
“What has happened to you?” I asked him. “You used to love me so much.”
I went to the Ganges and with a rope I tied some big rocks to myself. When I was ready to jump, my master came and called, “Wait. Sit here for one minute. I will give you what you want.”
I did not know if he meant it, but I thought I could wait at least a minute. I sat in my meditation posture and my master came and touched me on the forehead. I remained in that position for nine hours and did not have a single worldly thought. The experience was indescribable. When I returned to normal consciousness I thought no time had passed.
“Sir,” I said to my master, “please forgive me.”
With that touch my life was transformed. I lost fear and selfishness. I started understanding life properly. I wondered if this experience came about because of my effort or my master’s.
His answer was simply, “Grace.”
“A human being,” he explained, “should make all possible sincere efforts. When he has become exhausted and cries out in despair, in the highest state of devotional emotion, he will attain ecstasy. That is the grace of God. Grace is the fruit that you receive from your faithful and sincere efforts.”
Grace is only possible with a disciple who has gone through a long period of discipline, austerity, and spiritual practices. When a student has done these practices and followed the teacher’s instructions with all faithfulness, truthfulness, and sincerity, then the subtlest obstacle is removed by the master. The experience of enlightenment comes from the sincere effort of both master and disciple. When you have done your duties skillfully and wholeheartedly, you reap the fruits gracefully. Grace dawns when action ends. Shaktipata is the grace of God transmitted through the master.
Guru is the disciple’s guide through life, through the mysterious terrain of the spiritual heart, and into and beyond the realm of death.