Role of the Guru in spiritual life is indisputable. The spiritual path is an esoteric path. Everything cannot be learned from scriptures and talks. Even if we understand a subject intellectually, it is not easy to put it to practice. One needs to undergo an inner shift to grasp the subtle truths about life and the creation. An external agent is required to help us through this change, which can be painful at times. When a larva wants to become a beautiful butterfly, it has to undergo various stages of transformation. That is a challenge. When we are ready for this challenge, the role of the Guru begins.
The word Guru commonly means ‘the Teacher’. But in sanskrit, the word Guru has a deeper significance. It comes from two sankrit roots – ‘Gu’ which means darkness and ‘Ru’ which means light or the remover of darkness. So the word Guru can be roughly translated as the remover of darkness. Guru is the one who takes us from darkness to light and from ignorance to knowledge.
In life we have many teachers. As we grow up, we learn from our mother, our father, friends and our teachers at school. For learning special skills like dancing, music, etc we approach teachers specialized in those areas. Apart from that, we also have ability to learn things on our own. In fact, every situation of life can teach us something, if we are open to it. There is a story in the scriptures, where Lord Dattatreya describes his various Gurus. Dattatreya was an avadutha, who always remained in an intoxicated state, fully established in the Bliss of Supreme Consciousness. He had accepted 24 Gurus from his observation of nature and life. He learnt something from the five elements of nature like earth, water, fire, etc. He learned from birds and animals like the pigeon, the elephant, the deer, the spider, etc. He learnt from various people like the arrow maker, the maiden, etc. This story shows that if one is open to all experiences, life itself can be our teacher.
Even though we can learn from life around us, there are instances when we feel that an external human teacher would have helped, to speed up the learning process. Also there are some areas or subjects where an external human teacher is absolutely essential. “Moksha” or the Liberation of the Soul is one such subject. We are embodied souls who go through the cycle of birth and death repeatedly. We will continue in this cycle till we learn all the lessons that we came here for. The day we have learnt all the lessons, we won’t need a human body again. This state is called Self realization or the attainment of Moksha. This process is very difficult and full of obstacles. The help from a living spiritual master is absolutely essential. Such a spiritual master who can take us across the ocean of Samsara (or the world of delusion or Maya) is called a ‘Sadguru’. A Sadguru has already gone through this process earlier, either in this birth or in past births and is now ready to guide others through this difficult path. Such a Sadguru is rare and is a precious phenomenon.
Scriptures say that one should approach such a Sadguru with reverence and humility. The disciple should select a Guru with caution. Unless the Guru is a realized master, he cannot guide others to the ultimate goal. A disciple can test the Guru in the initial stages. But once one is convinced, he or she should surrender to the will of the Guru to get the full benefits.
Kabir, a saint who lived during the 15th century, compares the Guru to a potter and the disciple to the raw clay from which he shapes the pot. A potter first mixes the clay with water and makes a paste out of it. Kabir says that potter makes the pot with one hand inside the pot (for support) and the other hand constantly hitting the outside of pot to give it the shape. This is exactly how a Guru treats the disciple. The guru is the embodiment of compassion, yet he is strict. The inner support of the Guru keeps the disciple going on the path, but he is subject to strict and harsh treatment from outside to remove his negative traits. These negative traits are called ‘Vasanas’ or our inborn tendencies, which are obstacles to Liberation. These vasanas pull our mind to the external world and prevent us from realizing our inner reality. When the Guru works on these traits, it can be very painful. The disciple will feel like running away from the master. His ego is hurt again and again. But the Guru will never abandon the disciple. The Guru will shower his compassion during such times of distress and lead the disciple further on the path. This process will go on, till the disciple’s ego is fully deflated and he reaches the goal of human birth or God realization.
A real Sadguru does not expect anything from the disciple. It is the disciple alone who is the ultimate beneficiary. The Guru is like a catalyst that speeds up the evolution of the disciple. The Guru gains nothing from it. In the scriptures, such Gurus and mahatmas are called “Apta Kama”, which means “fully satisfied in life”. They have nothing to gain from this world. They are maintaining the body just for the sake of the world, out of compassion. With this true understanding, one should surrender to the will of the Guru.
In the scriptures, Lord Shiva is considered the first Guru or the ‘Adi Guru’. He is said to have taught the science of liberation first to the ancient Rishis or the Sages. The Rishis in turn taught it to their disciples, thus starting the Guru-disciple tradition.
India has seen a long history of Gurus and Acharyas who revived this science from time to time and made it available in every age. This tradition exists even today through contemporary spiritual masters. Thousands of seekers continue to be guided through this ancient and eternal tradition or Parampara.