Updated: May 3
One of the first prayers or shlokas one learns as a young child in India is:
“Guru brahma, guru vishnu Guru devo maheshwara Guru sakshaat parah brahma Tasmaiy shree guruve namah!”
Trinity of Hindu religion, Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, Shiva (Mahesh) the destroyer are all our teachers and our Gods in heaven, on this earth your teacher (Guru) is your God, we bow to that blessed soul who chooses to teach and bring light of knowledge to us.
Teachers are revered, admired and respected personages in all human cultures, every society inventing and honoring its own system of education. In ancient India, young children who wanted to learn the ways of this world from scriptures and Vedas, were sent to live with a guru in an ashram.
A guru is an ancient and central figure in the traditions of Hinduism, normally a person well-versed in vedas and other Hindu scriptures. As the blind cannot lead the blind, it was and is believed that the guru, he who is a spiritual teacher and who imparts initiation, is essential for spiritual progress. He serves as a counselor, who helps to mold values and models an exemplary life. It is thought that only a Master who knows God, can rightfully teach others about him.
In these guru-disciple relationships, the caste system played an important role. Many a time only the Brahmins were allowed to be a Sishay (student or apprentice) and attend a gurukul (schools as they were known back then). Brahmins are not to be confused with Brahman, which is a metaphysical concept in Hinduism. Brahmin is a varna (caste) in Hinduism, specializing as priests, teachers and protectors of sacred learning across generations: a socially or culturally superior person and a member of the upper classes. Brahmins were in charge of religious rituals in temples and acted as intermediaries between temple deities and devotees.
Stories are told of Eklavya, who wanted to learn from a well-known guru, Dronacharya, who refused to teach him because of his class status—him belonging to lower caste. Guru Sishya relationship is based on utter trust and dedication. At the Gurukul, the working student would study the basic traditional vedic sciences and various practical skills-oriented shastras along with the religious texts. Over the years, some misused this privilege by exploiting the naivete of their followers. In modern times, society has moved further away from this type of relationship.
Thus in modern Hinduism, the term guru can mean something slightly or completely different. For example, today a guru may simply be a spiritual advisor, or someone who performs rituals outside a temple. A guru may alternately be an enlightened master in a specific singular field, whose authority is derived not from caste or class status, but from his experience.
Learning happens when there is a selfless intention of exchanging knowledge. Although a teacher is well learned, there is a higher reason why a particular student ends up with the guru. The student, too, is meant to teach something to the guru: humility, gratitude, selflessness, patience and many other things. This is an energy exchange where the teacher, resulting from his expertise, dedication to sharing his knowledge, experience and patience is looked upon with utmost respect and trust. That is something that should not change.
This tradition of Guru Sishya is very common and still in regular practice in the learning of Indian classical arts such as dance and music. At the end of your years of learning your skills, whatever they be, there is a ceremony where the student surrenders and dedicates his learned skills to his Guru. In kathak (North Indian classical dance form) it is known as Ganda bandhana, and in Bharatnatyam (South Indian classical dance form) it is part of your Arengetrum (graduation ceremony of a solo performance of two to three hours). It is commendable to note that this tradition continues even outside of India.
In this age of political correctness, standing up for yourself and a strong lack of humility, some students forget this. A true guru (spiritual) ultimately can lead you to liberation. Gurus don’t always come dressed in saffron robes. They can be your parents, your friends, clerk at the grocery store…who knows. You would be wise to look at everyone with that respect and reverence. You may just find your true guru!