Guru-shishya tradition

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Adi Shankara with Disciples, by Raja Ravi Varma (1904)

The guru-shishya tradition, lineage, or parampara, denotes a succession of teachers and disciples in traditional Indian culture and religions such as Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. It is the tradition of spiritual relationship and mentoring where teachings are transmitted from a guru "teacher" (Sanskrit: गुरु) to a śiṣya "disciple" (Sanskrit: शिष्य) or chela. Such knowledge, whether it be Vedic, agamic, architectural, musical or spiritual, is imparted through the developing relationship between the guru and the disciple. It is considered that this relationship, based on the genuineness of the guru, and the respect, commitment, devotion and obedience of the student, is the best way for subtle or advanced knowledge to be conveyed. The student eventually masters the knowledge that the guru embodies.


Historical background[edit]

In the early oral traditions of the Upanishads, the guru-shishya relationship had evolved into a fundamental component of Hinduism. The term "Upanishad" derives from the Sanskrit words "upa" (near), "ni" (down) and "şad" (to sit) — so it means "sitting down near" a spiritual teacher to receive instruction. The relationship between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita portion of the Mahabharata, and between Rama and Hanuman in the Ramayana, are examples. In the Upanishads, gurus and disciples appear in a variety of settings (e.g. a husband answering questions about immortality; a teenage boy being taught by Yama, Hinduism's Lord of Death) Sometimes the sages are women, and the instructions may be sought by kings.

In the Vedas, the knowledge of Brahman (brahmavidya) is communicated from guru to shishya by oral lore.

Common characteristics of the guru-shishya relationship[edit]

Within the broad spectrum of the Hindu religion, the guru-shishya relationship can be found in numerous variant forms including tantra. Some common elements in this relationship include:

  • The establishment of a teacher/student relationship.
  • A formal recognition of this relationship, generally in a structured initiation ceremony where the guru accepts the initiate as a shishya and also accepts responsibility for the spiritual well-being and progress of the new shishya.
  • Sometimes this initiation process will include the conveying of specific esoteric wisdom and/or meditation techniques.
  • Gurudakshina, where the shishya gives a gift to the guru as a token of gratitude, often the only monetary or otherwise fee that the student ever gives. Such tokens can be as simple as a piece of fruit or as serious as a thumb, as in the case of Ekalavya and his guru Dronacharya.

Parampara and Sampradaya[edit]

Main articles: Parampara and Sampradaya

Traditionally the word used for a succession of teachers and disciples in ancient Indian culture is parampara (paramparā in IAST).[1][2] In the parampara system, knowledge (in any field) is believed to be passed down through successive generations. The Sanskrit word figuratively means "an uninterrupted series or succession". Sometimes defined as "the passing down of Vedic knowledge", it is believed to be always entrusted to the ācāryas.[2] An established parampara is often called sampradāya, or school of thought. For example in Vaishnavism a number of sampradayas are developed following a single teacher, or an acharya. While some argue for freedom of interpretation others maintain that "Although an ācārya speaks according to the time and circumstance in which he appears, he upholds the original conclusion, or siddhānta, of the Vedic literature."[2]

Guru-shishya relationship types[edit]

There is a variation in the level of authority that may be granted to the guru. The highest is that found in bhakti yoga, and the lowest is in the pranayama forms of yoga such as the Sankara Saranam movement. Between these two there are many variations in degree and form of authority.[original research?]

Advaita Vedanta[edit]

Advaita Vedānta requires anyone seeking to study Advaita Vedānta to do so from a guru (teacher). The guru must have the following qualities (see Mundaka Upanishad 1.2.12):

  1. Śrotriya — must be learned in the Vedic scriptures and sampradaya
  2. Brahmanişţha — figuratively meaning "established in Brahman"; must have realised the oneness of Brahman in everything and in himself.[original research?][citation needed]

The seeker must serve the guru and submit his questions with all humility so that doubt may be removed. (see Bhagavad Gita 4.34). According to Advaita, the seeker will be able to attain liberation from the cycle of births and deaths (moksha).

Śruti tradition[edit]

Main article: Śrauta

The guru-shishya tradition plays an important part in the Shruti tradition of Vaidika dharma. The Hindus believe that the Vedas have been handed down through the ages from guru to shishya. The Vedas themselves prescribe for a young brahmachari to be sent to a Gurukul where the Guru (referred to also as acharya) teaches the pupil the Vedas and Vedangas. The pupil is also taught the prayoga to perform yajnas. The term of stay varies (Manu Smriti says the term may be 12 years, 36 years or 48 years). After the stay at the Gurukul the brahmachari returns home after performing a ceremony called samavartana.

The word Śrauta is derived from the word Śruti meaning that which is heard. The Śrauta tradition is a purely oral handing down of the Vedas, but many modern Vedic scholars make use of books as a teaching tool.[3]

Shaktipat tradition[edit]

Main article: Shaktipat

The guru passes his knowledge to his disciples by virtue of the fact that his purified consciousness enters into the selves of his disciples and communicates its particular characteristic. In this process the disciple is made part of the spiritual family (kula) - a family which is not based on blood relations but on people of the same knowledge.[4]

Bhakti yoga[edit]

The best known form of the guru-shishya relationship is that of bhakti. Bhakti (Sanskrit = Devotion) means surrender to God or guru. Bhakti extends from the simplest expression of devotion to the ego-destroying principle of prapatti, which is total surrender. The bhakti form of the guru-shishya relationship generally incorporates three primary beliefs or practices:

  1. Devotion to the guru as a divine figure or Avatar.[citation needed]
  2. The belief that such a guru has transmitted, or will impart moksha, diksha or shaktipat to the (successful) shishya.
  3. The belief that if the shishya’s act of focusing his or her devotion (bhakti) upon the guru is sufficiently strong and worthy, then some form of spiritual merit will be gained by the shishya.[original research?][citation needed]

Prapatti[edit]

In the ego-destroying principle of prapatti (Sanskrit, "Throwing oneself down"), the level of the submission of the will of the shishya to the will of God or the guru is sometimes extreme, and is often coupled with an attitude of personal helplessness, self-effacement and resignation. This doctrine is perhaps best expressed in the teachings of the four Samayacharya saints, who shared a profound and mystical love of Siva expressed by:

  • Deep humility and self-effacement, admission of sin and weakness;
  • Total surrender to God as the only true refuge; and
  • A relationship of lover and beloved known as bridal mysticism, in which the devotee is the bride and Siva the bridegroom.

In its most extreme form it sometimes includes:

  • The assignment of all or many of the material possessions of the shishya to the guru.
  • The strict and unconditional adherence by the shishya to all of the commands of the guru. An example is the legend that Karna silently bore the pain of a wasp stinging his thigh so as not to disturb his guru Parashurama.
  • A system of various titles of implied superiority or deification which the guru assumes, and often requires the shishya to use whenever addressing the guru.
  • The requirement that the shishya engage in various forms of physical demonstrations of affection towards the guru, such as bowing, kissing the hands or feet of the guru, and sometimes agreeing to various physical punishments as may sometimes be ordered by the guru.
  • Sometimes the authority of the guru will extend to all aspects of the shishya's life, including sexuality, livelihood, social life, etc.

Often a guru will assert that he or she is capable of leading a shishya directly to the highest possible state of spirituality or consciousness, sometimes referred to within Hinduism as moksha. In the bhakti guru-shishya relationship the guru is often believed to have supernatural powers, leading to the deification of the guru.

Buddhism[edit]

In the Pali Buddhist tradition, the Bhikkus are also known as Sekhas (SN XLVIII.53 Sekha Sutta). In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, the teacher is a valued and honoured mentor worthy of great respect and a source of inspiration on the path to Enlightenment.[5] In the Tibetan tradition, however, the teacher is viewed as the very root of spiritual realization and the basis of the entire path.[6] Without the teacher, it is asserted, there can be no experience or insight. The guru is seen as Buddha. In Tibetan texts, emphasis is placed upon praising the virtues of the guru. Tantric teachings include generating visualisations of the guru and making offerings praising the guru. The guru becomes known as the vajra (figuratively "diamond") guru, the one who is the source of initiation into the tantric deity. The disciple is asked to enter into a series of vows and commitments that ensure the maintenance of the spiritual link with the understanding that to break this link is a serious downfall.[citation needed]

In Vajrayana (tantric Buddhism) as the guru is perceived as the way itself. The guru is not an individual who initiates a person, but the person's own Buddha-nature reflected in the personality of the guru. In return, the disciple is expected to show great devotion to his or her guru, who he or she regards as one who possesses the qualities of a Bodhisattva. A guru is regarded as one which has not only mastered the words of the tradition, but one that with which the student has an intense personal relationship; thus, devotion is seen as the proper attitude toward the guru.[7]

The Dalai Lama, speaking of the importance of the guru, said: "Rely on the teachings to evaluate a guru: Do not have blind faith, but also no blind criticism." He also observed that the term 'living Buddha' is a translation of the Chinese words huo fuo.[8]

Psychological aspects[edit]

Rob Preece, in The Wisdom of Imperfection,[9] writes that while the teacher/disciple relationship can be an invaluable and fruitful experience, the process of relating to spiritual teachers also has its hazards.

As other authors had done before him,[10] Preece mentions the notion of transference to explain the manner in which the guru/disciple relationship develops from a more Western psychological perspective. He writes:

In its simplest sense transference occurs when unconsciously a person endows another with an attribute that actually is projected from within themselves.[citation needed]

Preece writes that when we transfer an inner quality onto another person we may be giving that person a power over us as a consequence of the projection, carrying the potential for great insight and inspiration, but also the potential for great danger.

In giving this power over to someone else they have a certain hold and influence over us it is hard to resist, while we become enthralled or spellbound by the power of the archetype.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Bg. 4.2 evaṁ paramparā-prāptam imaṁ rājarṣayo viduḥ - This supreme science was thus received through the chain of disciplic succession, and the saintly kings understood it in that way..
  2. ^ a b c Satsvarupa, dasa Goswami (1976). Readings in Vedit Literature: The Tradition Speaks for Itself. S.l.: Assoc Publishing Group. pp. 240 pages. ISBN 0-912776-88-9. 
  3. ^ Hindu Dharma
  4. ^ Abhinavagupta: The Kula Ritual, as Elaborated in Chapter 29 of the Tantrāloka, John R. Dupuche, Page 131
  5. ^ Thurman, Robert A. F.; Huntington, John; Dina Bangdel (2003). Beginning the process: The Great Masters and Selecting a Teacher - The Guru-Disciple relationship; in: The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art. London: Serindia Publications. ISBN 1-932476-01-6. 
  6. ^ Dreyfus, Georges B. J. (2003). The sound of two hands clapping: the education of a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 61–3. ISBN 0-520-23260-7. 
  7. ^ Gross, Rita M. (1998). Soaring and settling: Buddhist perspectives on contemporary social and religious issues. London: Continuum. p. 184. ISBN 0-8264-1113-4. 
  8. ^ "The Teacher - The Guru". 
  9. ^ Preece, Rob. "The teacher-student relationship" in The Wisdom of Imperfection: The Challenge of Individuation in Buddhist Life, Snow Lion Publications, 2006, ISBN 1-55939-252-5, p. 155 ff. At mudra.co.uk (author's website): Part 1, Part 2
  10. ^ (Dutch) Schnabel, Tussen stigma en charisma ("Between stigma and charisma"), 1982. Ch. V, p. 142, quoting Jan van der Lans, Volgelingen van de goeroe: Hedendaagse religieuze bewegingen in Nederland. Ambo, Baarn, 1981, ISBN 90-263-0521-4
    (note: "overdracht" is the Dutch term for "transference")

Further reading[edit]

  • Besant, Annie Wood (2003). The Path of Discipleship. Book Tree. ISBN 1-58509-216-9. 
  • Eugene Milne Cosgrove (2004). The High Walk of Discipleship. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. ISBN 1-4179-7918-6. 
  • Evans-Wentz, W. Y. (2000). Tibetan Yoga and secret doctrines, or, Seven books of wisdom of the Great Path, according to the late Lāma Kazi Dawa-Samdup's English rendering. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-513314-5. 
  • McLeod, Stuart. "The Benefits and Pitfals of the Teacher–Meditator Relationship" in Contemporary Buddhism (ISSN 1463-9947), Vol.6, No.1, May 2005, pp. 65–78. Web version (PDF) at thezensite
  • Neuman, Daniel M. (1990). The life of music in north India: the organization of an artistic tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-57516-0.