teacher, disciple, knowledge, student, guru, people, swami, lineage, mind, means, seeking, Self-knowledge, Self-realization, self-discipline, truth, faith, life, devotion, Vedanta, world, qualification of a seeker, spiritual path, spiritual tradition, spiritual liberation, meditation, mental control
The Guru-Disciple Relationship
When we talk about the guru, the most important thing to understand is that it is based on a relationship. A guru doesn’t exist by itself. Let’s say you talk about a husband-wife relationship. When you talk about a husband you imply that there is a wife and when you talk about a wife you imply that there is a husband. When we talk about the guru, we are talking about a relationship between the teacher and the student, a relationship based on knowledge.
The word ‘guru’ means the “dispeller of darkness”. Darkness means spiritual ignorance, or not knowing our true nature. The guru is one who dispels spiritual ignorance.
The Search for Truth
The teaching of oneness in consciousness is the highest level of Advaita Vedanta teaching.
Advaita Vedanta says that in reality, everything is one. There is no me and no you. It appears that I am sitting here and you are sitting there. This is a relative reality where we have different bodies, different minds, and play different roles. We call this world of duality, this multiplicity of names and forms, Maya, the cosmic illusion.
We crave to know the truth about ourselves. Because things are always changing, coming and going in our lives. We have feelings of separation, unhappiness, that we are missing something and get disappointed. We feel quite limited, in the dark, not knowing the truth about ourselves or our environment, the reality around us.
When dealing with ourselves, we see that we are changing. In fact, it is the mind that is changing. We feel life is changing and we are changing. There is also something that is not changing, but we are not quite sure what it is. That’s how we become a seeker. The seeker is one who seeks for the truth. That truth is the Truth of ‘I AM’, the Self that is not changing.
Seeking for the truth, you have to seek in the right place. At this time the student seeks a teacher, a guide who points out the right place to seek. The teacher has to be enlightened, not having the same darkness of the student.
The guru tradition is very old, before the time of Adi Shankaracharya (eighth century). Adi Shankaracharya himself was enlightened. When he was just six years old, he knew all the Vedas. When he was only nine years old, Adi Shankaracharya received permission from his mother to take sannyasa, the renunciation phase of life.
Following tradition, Shankaracharya set his heart to finding his teacher. He left home and found his teacher in a cave. His teacher’s name is Govindapada. How long did he stay with his teacher? We do not know but long enough for him to write many commentaries on important scriptures. The teacher then sent Adi Shankaracharya to teach. Following this important feature of the tradition, the teacher decides the time for the student to go on their own to propagate the knowledge.
In the Adwaita Vedanta tradition, Self-knowledge is revealed directly to the seeker of Truth after periods of discipleship, purification, study, and renunciation of ego. The teacher is the classical instrument of spiritual realization and spiritual knowledge himself. The teacher conveys spiritual knowledge not just intellectually but by their own life and example. The student then passes it on to others by their own life and example.
The Tradition of Teachers
This system of transmission of spiritual knowledge is called a tradition of teachers. The teacher passes on the spiritual knowledge to a student who will one day become a teacher. Self- knowledge is alive, eternal. It is the Knowledge of Oneness. The fact that you have this knowledge implies that you must teach others. Why? Because you and ‘others’ are one. Let’s say you are sick. Naturally I will try to find a remedy to help your sickness, because I care about you. In the same way the teacher shows care to their students by imparting knowledge to help them remove darkness or spiritual ignorance.
The Gurukula System
There are different levels of learning. The gurukula is the traditional system of learning where the student lives with the teacher. A six-year-old student would go to the teacher’s house (the gurukula) to learn Sanskrit, scripture, etc., from the teacher. Traditionally, we do not really call that student a seeker. The student prepares for knowledge and the teacher has time to understand the student’s readiness. The word adhikāri means a qualified student. A qualified student implies they are ready to receive spiritual knowledge.
It is said that spiritual knowledge is already within you. You have all the knowledge that you need. However, there are veils that cover your eyes. At this time, you need an external instrument to help you wake up to knowledge. That instrument is the guru.
Young students must prepare slowly. Sometimes it takes more than 10 years, during which time the teacher guides them like a parent. Following this classical tradition, after a certain number of years, the teacher decides if they should continue on the direct path of Self-realization, become a renunciate, or leave the Gurukula and become a householder.
Criteria for the Renunciation Path
The teacher looks to a few criteria to determine if the student is an adhikari, qualified for Self-knowledge, or not.
- The student has the power of discrimination, high intellectual power, to intuit the Truth from the non-truth, the Self from the non-Self.
- The student displays the quality of detachment. To detach truly, the student must have an idea, an awareness, of what is the Truth, what is the Self, what is the Atman. They will then not be involved in the non-Truth; they will not be involved in the non-Self. They have some idea but do not have complete realization.
- Six qualities of the mind (Shat-sampat) please see article Six Virtues of a spiritual Seeker
- The last qualification the student must have is mumukshutva — the desire to know. Mumukshutva is an inner yearning for true freedom, happiness, fulfillment, and liberation from suffering. Mumukshutva is the constant desire to know, no matter what. You are continuously seeking, because you have the desire for liberation and you will never give up.
Mumukshutva comes in the form of inner questioning from your desire to know the truth. You want to know the truth from your point of view, not the point of view of someone else; not the point of view of your friends or family. It is from your point of view that you seek to be liberated. The temptation is to settle down, to conform to whatever the world, your friends and family, are saying that you should do. To settle down means you no longer need meditation, yoga, inner seeking, creativity, self-enquiry.
Because Self-knowledge is the knowledge of the Truth, of Enlightenment, you have to do it on your own. You can have many friends on the journey. You can have a teacher on the journey that you can count on. But you have to do it yourself. You cannot conform to anything. People can give you encouragement, but they’re not there to hold your hand all the time. Even your teacher is not there to hold your hand all the time.
It is your own strength of character, your faith, your insight, your own intellect, and your own lifestyle, that allows your intellect to awaken and to be clear. Not to be blind. That you have. But you need to do it yourself.
Qualifications of the Teacher
The spiritual teacher (or guru) is a person that knows the Truth. We invite you to read the chapter on ‘Guru’ in Bliss Divine by Swami Sivananda. In the article, Swami Sivananda says the teacher must have an injunction from God. This is something we need to understand. How can a person have an injunction from God? It means it comes from a very high source. There is a call that you need to teach, that you need to share the knowledge. You know and you need to share.
The teacher must know the ultimate Truth, i.e., the Self. Having consciousness of the Truth, the teacher lives according to the Truth and is not subject to Maya or the untruth. That is the definition of an enlightened person. In all conditions one sees the light and the truth no matter what.
The teacher has already tread the “ABCs” of the spiritual path; and follows the guidance of scripture, has the ethical foundation, knows all the practices, has already struggled on some section of the path. They have done this for a long time. Therefore, they know all the difficulties of the path and they have gone to a place where they can be free from these difficulties. At the same time, they know where they have been and where you are now. From here they can help you.
According to Swami Sivananda, the teacher has double consciousness. What is double consciousness? The teacher has the consciousness of the Truth and also the consciousness of the world, of Maya. Therefore, the teacher is able to bridge our limited consciousness—identifying with our body, mind and senses—with the Supreme consciousness or Self-knowledge. The teacher creates a bridge when you come to a dead-end place, not knowing, and confused. The teacher helps you to overcome obstacles and regain clarity.
The Guru Tradition
The guru tradition is an old tradition from the time of Adi Shankaracharya (8th century) who created the 10 monk orders and four schools or institutions of learning. He installed his four main disciples to be the Shankaracharya or the teacher of these schools.
I have a scholarly book on the teacher tradition, A Tradition of Teachers, Sankara and the Jagadgurus Today” by William Cenkner. I would like to read about the guru-disciple relationship. It says, “To render service to the teacher is a primary obligation of the student, seemingly more important than the study itself.” The student has to do karma yoga in service to the teacher. When you go to a teacher’s home, you have to do service. Why? Through service, a strong bond (strong tuning) is established between the guru and the student.
“The pupil must have intellectual discipline to master the meaning of sacred text, grow in moral discipline, and bring the meaning of the sacred text into the student’s daily life. The qualification of the student must fulfill his consequent duties, gradually it will bring about an introversion, a catharsis and the capacity for greater personal experience.”
The Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center displays two pictures: Master Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda. People get very confused, because one guru is already difficult to understand. How can we understand two gurus? It represents the lineage. Lineage refers to knowledge that is passed down from time immemorial to Swami Sivananda, Swami Vishnudevananda, to Swami Sitaramananda, etc.
What does lineage mean? Lineage is “To store in memory and to transmit the knowledge that leads to Self-realization”. There is a memory, the collective memory in one (the teacher), that stores this knowledge, this Self-knowledge.
Shankaracharya himself always started his teaching with prayers and salutations to the teachers of the past. He praised his personal teacher Govindapada. He wrote that the teachers have awakened those asleep and have completely saved me. He said, “I bowed down to my teacher, or knower of Brahman, who collected for us the nectar of knowledge from the Vedanta, like a bee collecting the best honey from flowers.”
When we talk about lineage we talk about traditional knowledge. “Lineage increases the value of the teaching, as it passes through the memory of the ages.” Vedanta proposes a rational understanding of the Self as a prelude to an intuition of the Self. Initiation into a tradition comes from the memory of the past. It is traditional knowledge that stands the test of time. Initiation into knowledge is a familiar point of departure in this Indian tradition. In Vedanta, it extends into lifelong practice of bringing into memory the line of past teachers. For example, I have a direct connection with Swami Vishnudevananda and he has a direct connection with Swami Sivananda. Swami Sivananda has direct connection with his teacher and with the lineage of Advaita Vedanta and Adi Shankaracharya.
Through this connection (the lineage), one taps into the eternal knowledge. That connection is based in seeking Knowledge. My connection with Swami Vishnudevananda is based in my seeking knowledge. I was not even aware that I was seeking knowledge, I was 28 years old. But I knew there is more to this life than the life I was living. And I knew inside there must be something that I was seeking, what I call the 100%. 100% means something that is absolute, something that you can 100% trust, something that you can 100% believe in. I had done a lot in my life until I was 28 years old. But it never gave me the 100%. So, I was never resting, but all the time seeking.
Meeting the Guru is Meeting One’s own Self
When I met Swami Vishnudevananda-ji, it was not the person that I met. Actually, when I met the person, nothing happened. He was a man, an Indian man, small size, who spoke English that I didn’t understand. I could have just walked away when people were making a big fuss about this man. But it is not about the person. It was me that was seeking to meet my true Self through the medium of the person. It is a process. I didn’t have self- awareness. You cannot see yourself because you only see through the eyes of other people, the eyes of society, the eyes of your family, the eyes of books, the eyes of secular teachers in the university and so on. I could not see myself even though I was called a mature person living her life. I held a position in public service but I still didn’t know myself. I still did not know the goal of life.
When I met Swami Vishnudevananda-ji, the teacher (not the body of the person, not even the personality), I was meeting myself through the medium of the teacher. It is a process that is so interesting, to see oneself through the eyes of awareness, through the eyes of the guru that has awareness.
The Process of Self-awareness
Self-awareness is developed slowly. Of course, I was sitting and listening to lectures for years, and I was serving the teacher for years. But something happens also, beyond all these words, beyond all these actions, it is an inner tuning. I remember my mind was full of thoughts, so much junk in my mind. The mind was full. I was a person of the world. I was listening to the news, watching TV or reading the newspaper, because when you are a person of the world, you have to know how the world functions. I had no clue that all this information wasn’t helping me. Actually, all these thoughts clouded my mind and made me more confused and less able to see myself.
When I met with the guru, I did not know that he is a guru. It was just the school that I went to, and the teacher has a lot of prana and knowledge. I had to qualify myself as a student, as a disciple, for a long time, many years. I don’t know exactly. But it takes years for you to realize: “Oh, I understand what a guru means now. I understand that I am a disciple. I understand this relationship of guru-disciple is meant for knowledge.” It does not happen overnight. It is a process of Self-realization.
In fact, you cannot talk of a guruasindependent from the student and at the same time, each student has a different idea of the guru. Swami Vishnudevananda appeared to teach this knowledge a certain way to Swami Sitaramananda. He will appear to teach this knowledge in a different way to Swami Jnaneswariananda and will appear to teach differently to Swami Dharmananda. Everyone steps onto the path of Self-realization in their own unique way. You cannot compare one student to another.
Each Person is Unique
Each person is completely unique. You are learning a unique lesson in this life. You are removing the unique obstacles, unique veils that cover your own eyes. You have your own personality that comes from years and years and lifetimes of learning. You are on your own path. You have a unique position in your journey to Self-knowledge, therefore, the guru will appear to you differently and will teach you differently.
You need to learn the lesson yourself because you are walking on the path yourself, and you cannot just take on someone else’s experience. You can hear their testimony, but you cannot really understand because they have their own unique relationship with the teacher and the lesson to be learned.
The guru-disciple relationship is not a public thing, it is not one size fits all. The teacher, however, can have many types of students, because they have very high knowledge that fits all the different personalities of their students. Some teachers will have a few students, while other teachers will have many. Some teachers will have an international group, multicultural, all ages, different academic knowledge. In this case, the teacher is very advanced to be able to impart the knowledge to so many different types of people.
During my journey with Swami Vishnudevananda I didn’t talk too much with Swamiji nor did he talk too much. However, he gave lectures non-stop. Whatever he said, I thought about very carefully and it always opened something up for my own journey.
Our Ego Expects the Teacher to Behave in a Certain Way
It is only our ego that expects the teacher to behave a certain way. If the teacher does not behave a certain way and does not give us what we want, we blame the teacher. We do not see that this is our learning lesson. That’s the difficulty. Most of the time we are not ready for the lesson and we struggle. The more difficult the lesson, the more we struggle. When we struggle, and we are under the tutelage of the teacher, we may wrongly attribute the source of our misery to the teacher and oftentimes blame the teacher.
Sometimes I blamed my teachers. I said, “This is complicated, why do you make it so complicated? And I thought, “I just want to live my life. I just want to be positive in my life, who cares about immortality? Who cares about peace in the world?”
Swami Vishnudevananda-ji used to tell stories and laugh all the time. He told stories and stories and laughed. It did not make any sense. I was thinking, “Why does he keep telling stories, oftentimes the same stories? Why doesn’t he tell me all the serious things?”
For example, he told the story of an old couple. This story was in the newspaper. He always taught from the newspaper, from the magazine to give some real-life examples. The newspaper reported the story of an old couple that died on the dance floor. When he told that story, he was laughing. I said within my mind to Swamiji, “Why do you laugh about this? You know, the poor old couple died on the dance floor. You should have compassion toward them. Why do you tell this story in class? And we are laughing about this?”
I thought that Swamiji was not compassionate. It took me years and years to understand that the teaching was really about yourself. The teaching was about you. You need to behave according to your age, according to your maturity. Swamiji was laughing because this couple is old and they want to act like they’re young. They then went and danced on the dancefloor until they died. This is something incredible. The stupidity of the human mind. They don’t mature according to their age. They think that they have to be young and sexy and passionate, forever. This is the stupidity of the human mind.
Swamiji was laughing about it, because that’s the way he teaches, to make you laugh. When you laugh, you learn the lesson better. When you talk about something very seriously, maybe your intellect understands, but there’s something else you don’t understand. That’s why Swami Vishnudevananda-ji always taught with humor.
He was always telling stories. He was laughing all the time. I remember sitting in front of the Satsang and laughing and laughing and holding my belly and rolling. That is how it worked. I was a very serious person and he was able to make me laugh and then I thought about it. It is a laughing therapy. Because you know, you take yourself so seriously, you think that Self-realization is a big serious business. That’s one thing. So, he made you laugh—just to help you laugh at that one thing, but eventually to laugh at everything. I saw that he had that technique of taking everything in humor, so you somehow get it.
The guru-disciple relationship is based on our search for Truth or spiritual knowledge. It is a timeless relationship. As students, we must qualify ourselves to embark on this search for knowledge. The teacher sustains and transmits the knowledge through the lineage. The teacher is one who has walked the path and understands the many challenges their students face. I transmit the teachings in different ways to different people. I can be very serious. I can also tell a story.
The Sivananda organization is known for classical Yoga teaching. It is a monastic lineage that follows a classical system of transmission of the highest spiritual knowledge based on the guru tradition. Most of the senior teachers or acharyas are sannyasis. They are monastics who live by and apply the Advaita Vedanta teachings in daily life. Thus, it is a living tradition, shared by teachers who have dedicated their lives to the teachings and who wish to share this knowledge with the world.
Swami Sitaramananda is a senior acharya of the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers and is director of the Sivananda Ashram Vedanta Yoga Farm, California and the Sivananda Yoga Resort and Training Center, Vietnam. She is acharya of China, Taiwan, and Japan as well. Swamiji is the organizer and teacher of the Sivananda Yoga Health Educator Training (SYHET) program, an 800-hour program on yoga therapy, accredited by the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT).
Swami Sitaramananda is the author of “Essentials of Yoga Practice and Philosophy” (translated in Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Russian), “Positive Thinking Manual”, “Karma Yoga Manual”, “Meditation Manual”, “Swamiji Said, a collection of teachings by Swami Vishnu” in His Own Words. She is responsible for the Vietnamese translation of “Completed Illustrated Book of Yoga” (CIBY) and “Meditation & Mantras” by Swami Vishnu. Many of her video & audio lectures on Yoga life, philosophy, and psychology as well as articles and webinars can be found on this website.
Swami Sita is an ardent supporter of the integration of the Vedic sciences such as Vastu, Jyotish, Ayurveda, Yoga and Vedanta. She is an international teacher of the Sivananda Yoga Teachers’ Training Courses and Advanced Yoga teachers’ Training courses, as well as Meditation and Vedanta & Silence Courses both in Sivananda Ashrams in Vietnam and in Grass Valley, CA.