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The Guru Tradition In Hinduism (Part 1)


The following is an excerpt from the
PhD thesis accomplished by Dr Brian Hutchinson in 1988, titled ‘The Guru-Devotee Relationship in the Experience of Members of the Akshar-Purushottam
Swaminarayan Sampradaya’.

In its general sense the term guru has been applied to any person, even one’s father, who is in a position to provide some aspect of the education of the individual in Hindu society (McMullen, 1976:13). A more specific meaning applies in the case of the traditional family guru to whom a boy would be given for training in the Vedic lore once he had reached the age of twelve.
According to Ramesh Dave, a prominent householder scholar of the movement, in conversation with the writer, the family guru who acts more in terms of the priest is fast disappearing, whereas the guru-sampradaya tradition is continuing at greater intensity.
The guru, independent of the subject matter being communicated, is seemingly always ‘more’ than the message which he communicates. In other words, he enters into the process to such a degree that he himself becomes part of the message. Cenkner (1983:184) uses the image of the ‘catalyst’ [aiding change in other bodies without undergoing change in itself] for the guru. He says, “He is not only the teacher of doctrine but also the sacred center of a socio-religious institution, around which people gather to worship the gods and pursue liberation paths. Faith experience is engendered within the context of the sampradaya; this always occurs, however, in direct relationship to the living guru [that is, the individual relates not so much to the group as to the guru himself].”

According to Padhye (1946:102), evidence from the Mohenjo-Daro excavations suggests that the institution of the guru is as old, or perhaps older than the Vedas. Mlecko (1982:21) says that the guru-shishya relationship was first recorded in the Vedas, “Here the guru was usually a Brahman, a priest-teacher of the Vedas. At the very least, he was god-like. He embodied the Vedas and was given the same respect as the Vedas perhaps, thereby, laying the foundation for the later, intense devotion directed towards the guru.”
Respondents interviewed occasionally quoted the Vedas and other scriptures in their discussion of the guru-devotee relationship. They do not regard the relationship they experience with their guru as an innovation of the movement – though their guru is considered to be superior to those of other movements – but they understand the relationship to be that which is supported by scripture and tradition, and which is here being experienced in its most pure and true form.
Dasgupta (1927:16), reinforces the importance of this understanding with his comment that, “No change, no new idea could be considered right or could be believed by the people, unless it could also be shown that it had the sanction of the Vedas.”
Here Dasgupta follows the convention of including the Upanishads in the Vedas.

The very term ‘Upanishad’ implies the centrality and existence of the guru in its meaning of ‘sitting down near’. In other words, the term may specifically refer to the method by which spiritual truths were communicated, that is, by a teacher or guru whose pupils gathered around him to receive instruction.
The Upanishads present the guru as essential to the attainment of the higher wisdom, knowledge of the Self, which is the primary goal of the Upanishads, cannot be attained without the guru.
“Only by knowledge received direct from the guru does one attain to the most beneficent. It is only he, in whom that knowledge is alive, that can communicate to the seeker” (Pandit, 1963:388).
The Katha Upanishad 2, (quoted by Pandit, 1963:388), has, “Unless told of Him by another, thou canst not find thy way to Him; for He is subtler than subtlety and that which logic cannot reach. This wisdom is not to be had by reasoning; only when told thee by another, it brings real knowledge.”
Sacrifice is insufficient to attain it, “The highest wisdom, which is the supreme stage, cannot be reached by sacrifice. One must go in a proper manner to a guru and discover from him the imperishable Man, the supreme reality” (Gonda 1965:409).
This belief in the importance of the guru is held so strongly that even the avatars, Bhagwan Swaminarayan included, have conformed to this pattern and have themselves had their own gurus.
The relationship between the devotee and the guru begins in the profound respect felt towards the teacher. Not only on the basis of the knowledge which he is understood to have, but for what he is in himself.
“The esteem given to the guru in the Indian tradition grows out of this initial conception of the teacher as both a knower of Brahman and a dweller in Brahman” (Cenkner, 1983:9).
It seems that such profound respect can easily merge into that of the love that is characteristically felt for the guru, not only in the bhakti movements, but in all guru-devotee situations, even where the teaching matter stresses mainly intellectual attributes.
The grace of the guru receives more emphasis in the later Upanishads, there, according to Cenkner, “liberation is virtually impossible without the knowledge and grace of the guru” (1983:10).
In these Upanishads there is a theistic emphasis, and ultimate reality is seen to consist in personal terms. The idea of impersonal Brahman is superceded. The most prominent of these is the theistic Svetasvatara Upanishad, which served as one of the main sources of the later doctrine of bhakti and to which tradition the movement belongs (Griffiths 1982:79). In the Svetasvatara (VI.23), (Tyagisananda 1964:136) devotion to the guru and to God are placed on an equal level, “These truths, when taught, shine forth only in that high-souled one who has supreme devotion to God, and an equal degree of devotion to the spiritual teacher. They shine forth in that high-souled one only.”



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