Sri Subbu Venkatakrishnan
We are continually learning since birth, even though we may not be aware of it. The baby learns the basis of language from his mother's ridiculous cooing, the infant points out her physical features when told by her parents, and the toddler walks following a rhythm his father has set. Further we learn to ride a bike, to add and multiply, to spell, even what and when to say certain things to certain people. Most of these simple but crucial activities are based on accumulating knowledge. And for each, we require a specific instructor - chemistry from the chemistry teacher, physics from the physics teacher, and so on. This is clear enough. But when it comes to spirituality, the equation changes. I suddenly become an overnight genius, a scholar in a field about which I know almost nothing! The very idea of having a teacher to teach me spirituality seems absurd. After all, who is going to teach me, about me, better than me?
Many have heard the expression: “Life is a death-long discipline.” Well, what happens when that discipline becomes our major? What happens when that mortality, which we have held away so forcibly, grips us with its inevitability? What happens when we can no longer sleep over our death, when our accomplishments and errors, our triumphs and falls, are exposed as ultimately transient? We may be paralyzed with the fear, we may curse and howl in anger, we may even come up with philosophies to celebrate it. But we cannot escape it. We find ourselves as fragile things, and that same “me” that was so sure of itself is now a husk, a wisp. It is at this point, at this existential crossroad, at this moment of total insecurity, that we truly become aware of the need for a guru. And it is at this same point that the guru appears before us.
The Chandogya Upanishad provides perhaps the most beautiful and accurate depiction of this moment. Suppose there is a man, walking cheerfully on his way. He is suddenly accosted by a group of thieves. They beat him black and blue, and steal all his possessions. Not only that, they blindfold him, drag him into the most desolate region of the forest, tie him up, and leave him for lost. The man is utterly alone. He doesn't know where he is, and he doesn't know how far from home is. All he can do is cry out, with all his heart. Yet just then, by some inexplicable miracle of reality, a soul of infinite compassion passes near this man, this near-nothingness. That graceful soul removes his bonds, takes off the blindfolds, and tells him the way home. And then he disappears. The man follows these directions faithfully, ensuring at every village that he is on the right road, and in time, reaches his home in profound peace.
So the value of the guru, the need for the guru, is truly manifest only when we have looked deeply into the impermanent nature of things, and when we have no other objective but, as the Upanishad says, to find our way home. We also come to know from this story, how the guru works. He does not come to introduce us to a new way of thinking, or convince us of an entrepreneurial scheme. We are past that point as it is. The guru comes, as the personified voice of redemption, to remove our primal blindness – i.e. the ignorance of our own true nature. If our faith were perfect, then we would not even need to reach home. The forest, the whole world, would become our home. But we are yet unprepared, and the guru is so compassionate. He gives us the directions, He points out the way, so that our faith may grow with every step.
But the story also addresses the issue of how to stay focused on one’s spiritual endeavors even when the guru isn’t physically around. This is perhaps the most difficult of lessons - one that all of us are most eager to learn. We are liable to lose our faith and fall into old habits when our guru isn’t around us. “What if that person is another thief? Maybe he's just directing me to the leader of his gang. See, you should never trust people who smile too much,” and so on, and so on. Hence the Upanishad says that the man checks to see at every village if he is on the right path. These villages serve as satsangs, providing continuous fellowship with good people and good thoughts. The seeker is refreshed by these pit stops. They reinforce his mental strength as well as tap into his own unexplored depths of compassion - for he sees that the members of the satsang are just like him. He sees his own mortality, his desires and fears in them; they become his friends. He shares with them as they share with him, in an open intermingling way that’s devoid of all superficiality. The guru is thus guiding His bhaktas, even in what appears to His absence.
In truth, the guru is always with us when we have faith. This ‘faith’ is not of a concept, it is not a ‘belief’. It is the byproduct of authentic experience, of being trussed up and tossed about in the storms of life, and remembering that singular ray of light that brushed against us in our deepest darkness. This faith is born from our need, our fundamental recognition of death and our search for transcendence. We have to live as bare mortals to appreciate the necessity for the teacher and His teachings. How the guru comes to us, we cannot explain. Yet She is there, the very embodiment of compassion, and we are here, lost in the forest of ignorance. But listen - what is She asking us? “My beloved child,” she asks, “where have you gone that you ever needed to come back?”