Today, there’s a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about the nature of the Guru. The Vedantic tradition tells us that, “The syllable gu means shadows. The syllable ru, he who disperses them. Because of the power to disperse darkness, the Guru is thus named.” —Shukla Yajur Veda, Advayataraka Upanishad 16
What Guru Tattva (the Guru essence or divine principle) is pointing us to is not simply that there is this external person that we are looking to as a teacher or as an enlightened being, but, essentially we are relating to our Guru, our teachers, and our lineage, in such a way that they mirror back to us our own essential, true, awakened nature. The idea being that when we can see something outside, it helps us to see it on the inside.
Since the 1960s, we have seen the influx and influence of many Gurus bringing a variety of teachings to the West and into a culture that was, in many ways, wholly unprepared to understand this. Some students began to blindly follow a Guru, while others when they heard the word “guru,” equated this term with a cult. All of these distortions can happen, not only in the Yoga tradition, but in other traditions, like in the Buddhist tradition, with its practice of Guru Yoga. There are many ways in which we can misunderstand Guru Tattva. For example, this principle can lead us to misunderstand it as some weird type of power dynamic in which we let go of our own innate wisdom and sanity and give that away to some other person, group, or organization. This is not a correct understanding of the tradition, which in fact points to—in its fullest sense—helping us get in touch with our inner wisdom.
The classical tradition of the Guru-disciple or teacher-student relationship, helps us to see, to experience, and to fully nurture the quality of wisdom within us. The external teacher—the outer Guru, as opposed to this inner Guru—is really just the skillful means or catalyst that helps us to access this wisdom within ourselves. In fact, there is no other purpose for the outer Guru than to help us to see and experience the inner Guru. Guru Tattva is something that has taken time for westerners to even begin to understand in the proper context. Swami Satchidananda, the Guru of the Integral Yoga tradition, explained it as follows:
“What is Guru or who is Guru? The conscience within you is the Guru. The one that guides you. The one that enlightens you. As such, there is a Guru in everybody. The external Guru, or the teachings, are to guide you to go within and recognize that Guru within who is constantly guiding us. It’s almost like a mirror showing your face. The mirror doesn’t have a face of its own. It simply reflects your face. Because unfortunately no one has seen his or her own face. Have you ever seen your face? Do you know you have a face? How do you know? Have you seen it? In the mirror. In the mirror you don’t see your face. What you see in the mirror is the reflection. Like that, you are the Guru. You have not seen it. The external Guru is to point out the Guru within you. Guru is not a person. Guru is the omnipresent consciousness which pervades everywhere, which guides the entire universe constantly. But because the Guru is within you, and you have never seen it, you want to see it with a reflection. It is there the external Guru comes. The teaching is the Guru. With the help of the teaching, you will realize your own Guru within.”
The Importance of Lineage vs. Cultural Appropriation
When we reflect on issues concerning cultural appropriation we, in Integral Yoga, want to be very respectful of our tradition and lineage. How do we do this? By paying respect and honoring our Guru and lineage and by staying true to the teachings of our tradition. In many Yoga, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions there is a long history of devotion and offerings to the Guru and the lineage.
There is an annual day, known as Guru Poornima, during which one’s Guru or spiritual teacher is honored. We observe Guru Poornima yearly and we honor our tradition by placing altars with photos of our lineage holders (Swami Sivananda and Swami Satchidananda) on them. Additionally, we honor other faiths and wisdom traditions with placing the Integral Yoga All Faiths Yantra on the altar as well, and photos of the prophets, saints, and sages of many traditions adorn the Satsang Hall at Satchidananda Ashram (and in many of our centers). We also honor our tradition and lineage by observing the birth anniversaries of our Guru, Sri Swami Satchidananda, and our Param Guru, Sri Swami Sivananda (Swami Satchidananda’s Guru). We also annual observe the Mahasamadhi anniversary (the date that a realized master has consciously left their body; often while in a deep, conscious meditative state) of our Guru.
Modern yogis may choose to follow their own paths, unassociated with any particular lineage or Guru. And yet, all practitioners have lineage to thank for the existence of Yoga in the current world. Transmission from teacher to student is one of the cornerstones of Tibetan Buddhism, maintaining a direct, unbroken Dharma lineage from the time of the Buddha. The blessings of the lineage masters are passed along to the student with the authorization to engage in the practice, creating the auspicious interdependence necessary for authentic accomplishments to ripen.
Integral Yoga, which is a classical Yoga tradition, has direct lineage links from Sri Swami Satchidananda to his Guru, Sri Swami Sivananda, to the Holy Order of Sannyas (of Hindu swamis dating back to the 8th century of Sri Shankaracharya, who formalized the Order of Sannyas) as well as Sri Patanjali (mid-2nd century), who synthesized the Yoga Sutras, the foundational Yoga text upon which most of our practices are based (the eight-fold path).
Is the Guru a Person or the Teachings?
In our tradition, the Guru is both a person and he is seen as an embodiment of the teachings, the path, the wisdom of the awakened mind—which we are seeking to wake up to as our essential nature. Ken McLeod, (senior Western translator, author, and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism) clarified this in an interview with Integral Yoga Magazine, when he said,
“I see a teacher fulfilling three functions: to teach a set of spiritual practices, to show the student what it means to be awake and to point out all the things that get in the way of one’s spiritual progress. This is done informally through showing respect and devotion to your teacher. It’s done formally through actual practice. It’s important to understand that this is a form of practice and it is not about taking every single thing the teacher says literally or does as perfect and to be obeyed. In our modern Western society there is the tendency to do just that and it puts the student-teacher relationship at risk. Guru Yoga is an advanced practice for this reason, and it is for students whose spiritual practice has reached the level of maturity and the level of maturity in the relationship with the teacher so as to not be confused by the inevitable family-of-origin projections.
“We must have a proper understanding of what our teacher is, namely that aspect of our experience of awakened mind that is showing us how to wake up. This is a symbolic relationship. Is devotion to one’s teacher important? Yes. This is how we form a connection with how awakening is manifesting in our own experience, so why wouldn’t we be devoted to that? I really don’t see how seekers can do this all for themselves.”
Devotion to the Guru: Bhakti Yoga and Guru Yoga
One of the most powerful, yet misunderstood, practices of Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, and Yoga is Guru Yoga. In Integral Yoga, devotion to the Guru is part of the Bhakti Yoga path, one of the main six branches of classical Yoga we study. Bhakti Yoga and Guru Yoga are not about worshiping a Guru as a human being, but rather seeing the Guru as having divine and awakened qualities that we want to embrace more fully. By devotion and reverence to one’s Guru, we are seeking to transform ourselves, integrating these inherent and potent qualities into ourselves.
Ken McLeod explained:
“With Swami Satchidananda and with any of these highly attained people, they have a field of energy around them. When you come into that field it resonates with you and you wake up. Through these kinds of practices you are making use of that relationship to generate that field in your own experience. At the end of Guru Yoga, when you have done all this praying, you have this powerful devotion and you imagine your teacher in the form of Buddha, and he initiates you through the transmission of light. Your teacher dissolves into you and becomes one with you. That’s a very explicit identification of the Guru’s mind with your own mind. The mind that is awake is your own mind. The purpose of Guru Yoga practice is to use the emotional energy of devotion to come to that experience.”
Ponlop Rinpoche, a leading Buddhist scholar and meditation master recognized as an incarnation of Dzogchen Ponlop, further explained:
“When we connect with our heart of devotion, then, in that moment, we are connecting very powerfully, immediately, and directly with the awakened heart of the Guru and the lineage, as well as our own inherently awakened state. Working with our devotion means that we are not just relying on our own efforts. We are opening ourselves to a source of blessings that is an embodiment and a reflection of our own fundamental nature.”
Sri Ramana Maharshi (the renowned Advaita master, with whom Swami Satchidananda studied) said:
“The outer Guru appears to tell us about the reality of the Self, who is the inner Guru. With our defective vision we cannot see or experience for ourselves that this is true. It is the outer Guru who tells us, ‘Turn within. Put your attention on the inner Guru and let it pull you back into your source.’ In addition to giving these instructions, the outer Guru transmits grace to us, cleans our minds, and pushes them towards the inner Guru, the Self. All Gurus are the Self. All Gurus are formless.”
What Happens When a Guru is no Longer in a Physical Body?
When Swami Satchidananda was asked this, he explained: Gurus or spiritual teachers, when they leave this body, they can still teach you from the astral level. They are not really dead and gone. Only the bodies come and go.”
Swami Krishnananda (brother monk of Swami Satchidananda whom Swami Sivananda appointed as General Secretary of the Divine Life Society) also said: “As distant stars shed their bright rays on the surface of the Earth and condition even our life in this world, the great Gurus or Masters, perpetually operating in a realm beyond sense-perception, send a sea wave of blessing to all people. They are ambassadors of the Spirit.”
Sister Preeti, a nun in the Self-Realization Fellowship and disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, explained the eternal nature of the Guru-disciple relationships when she said, “Precious unchanging love from the Guru is eternal. We hold a secure place in the relationship, incarnation after incarnation. Our Guru watches over us from birth to death. He or she is calling to our souls.”
Ken McLeod shared his experience after the passing of his Guru, Kalu Rinpoche:
“I never felt any separation—then or now. When student and teacher are together in that way, there are many, many things that are transmitted. As far as what is transmitted, well, imagine that you have a lit candle. Then, you use the flame of that candle to light another candle. What was transmitted? Are the flames the same? Is something transmitted or does it just happen if conditions are right? These are extremely difficult questions. If I have a dream of Milarepa and he gives me a transmission, have I received a transmission of Milarepa? When you are in the presence of Swami Satchidananda and something arises in your mind, did you get something from him or did it arise in you? I don’t think it’s important to answer these questions. What’s important is that you had that experience. That’s transmission.”
Source: Integral Yoga International