Guru-Sishya parampara

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By Shankara Bharadwaj Khandavalli

Guru-Sishya Parampara is the teacher-disciple lineage. Being a civilization that respects experiential knowledge, we hold high respect for the teacher of such knowledge. It is separated from the socio-political structure and spans across social/political divisions since such knowledge is beyond those divisions. This is the institution that kept religion and theological practices and beliefs from occupying place in governance, and also kept the administrative structure from interfering with the institution of knowledge.

Knowledge

Knowledge is of two kinds, deductive and experiential. While the student gets initial guidance and understanding of the subject from the teacher to understand the premises and continue study with his discrimination, experiential knowledge is supposed to be pursued in a different way. Here there is needed an unwavering faith in the teacher, and a determination to follow his word on the path, irrespective of how it sounds to his discriminatory logic. This is a primary difference in the pursuit of sastras and spiritual practice.

Lineage of Gurus

Like any other institution Guru-Sishya parampara is also said to have come from the eternal. Every Guru-Sishya tradition claims its origin in the eternal. In every tradition the lineage of teachers is given a salutation. For instance here is the salutation sloka of advaitins:

"sadasiva samarambham sankaracarya madhyamam asmad acarya paryantam vande guru paramparam"

Meaning: salutation to the lineage starting with lord Sadasiva, with Adi Sankara in the middle and continuing up to my immediate teacher.

Here is another one:

"narayana samarambham vyasa sankara madhyamam asmad acarya paryantam vande guru paramparaam"

Meaning: salutation to the lineage starting with lord narayana, with Vyasa and Adi Sankara in the middle and continuing up to my immediate teacher.

Siva/Vishnu are said to be the first teachers. Veda Vyasa is said to be the first human teacher, who is an incarnation of Vishnu himself. This is the reason his birth day is celebrated in remembrance of Gurus (Vyasa Purnima is called Guru Purnima).

Usually, first guru in any lineage sets the goals and broadly gives paths to achieve those. (Lakshya Nirdesa) The subsequent ones define paths that suit the times, in a way that they lead to the goals set by the first teacher and are not in conflict with the philosophy of the tradition (Marga Nirdesa). Guru, the teacher Teacher is accorded highest respect, and is equated to God. The famous verse goes thus:

"gururbrahma gururvishnuH gurudevo maheswaraH guru sakshat parabrahma tasmai sri gurave namaH"

Meaning: Guru is Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesha, in fact guru is Prabrahma himself, the Brahman, the Absolute. Salutations to such guru.

Guru is treated with such high respect, because it is believed that he imparts that knowledge which cannot otherwise be gained through merely reading books. In spiritual disciplines this applies more, and here is how the importance of teacher is explained:

"dhyana mulam gurormurtiH puja mulam guroH padam mantra mulam gurorvakyam moksha mulam guroH kripa"

Meaning: Guru's murti/idol/body is the object of meditation, his feet the objects of worship, his words the objects of chanting. All this is because in his grace lies the source of liberation.

Guru is said to be worthy of such respect and unwavering trust of the disciple, since he takes the responsibility for molding the disciple into what he should be. The disciple that follows Guru's word with faith, is supposed to be assured of reaching the goals (sometimes irrespective of the personal merit of the teacher).

Upadesa

The Guru accepts disciples that he deems fit for the education that he is imparting. There is scriptural guidance for such qualification, but the final decision on this is of the Guru and no one else. Knowledge is usually not subject to social divisions, but pursuing a subject as a prerequisite for a career is subject to social convention and eligibility of the student. However, the social convention is also only a factor and not the decisive force. The Guru in case he is convinced of the genuineness and qualification of the student, does accept the student with necessary initiation (in some cases by change of the student's Varna as needed in the case). This is how Karna became the student of Drona, who does not otherwise teach anyone who is not from the Royal clan. However the teacher decides what is the amount of wisdom he should impart based on the aptitude, maturity and righteousness of the disciple. This is why, Karna was accepted as a disciple by Drona even though he is not the son of a king because of his aptitude; he was not given Brahmastra because he is filled with negative impulses like hatred. Though there is curriculum defined for any study, the Guru defines what the curriculum is for the qualification and interest of each disciple. And for what the disciple is not eligible, there cannot be any force on the Guru to impart such knowledge. Thus it is not just a matter of curiosity but a matter of social interest where knowledge never goes into the hands of men that can misuse it. And it is the responsibility of every Guru to ensure that no student is deprived of knowledge where he is eligible and no student gains knowledge that he either does not qualify for or he is not mature enough to handle.

Gurudakshina

After acquiring knowledge from the Guru, the disciple is supposed to repay him for the teaching. The Guru's "fees" is called guru dakshina. It is usually offered by the student, then the teacher asks what he wants as his fees and the student pays it. However the student owes to a guru much more than fees. Gurudakshina only gives adhikara on the vidya, that is the student only becomes eligible to use the knowledge he learnt by paying the fees. That does not absolve him of the debt to the Guru. For that to happen he should do two things throughout his life: putting the knowledge to good use and getting good name for the teacher; and imparting and spreading the knowledge by teaching it to subsequent generations of students.

Examples

  • There are many Guru-Sishya paramparas in Sanatana Dharma, which have come down uninterrupted over millennia. All the Vidyas and literature like Vedas, Vedangas, Darsanas and Dharma sastras have come down as Guru-Sishya paramparas. The various flavors of similar knowledge, for instance different branches of Veda have come down as Guru-Sishya paramparas.
  • Various schools of spiritual philosophy such as Advaita and Dvaita, have come down as Guru-Sishya paramparas.
  • All the religions in Bharatiya Civilization, whether the Vedic ones such as Vishnava and Saiva, and also outgrowths like Buddhism, have come down as Guru-Sishya paramparas. Besides, various variants of the religions developed in the same framework of Guru-Sishya parampara. The different schools of practices like Tantra, Smarta are Guru-Sishya paramparas.
  • Sanyasa too contains Guru-Sishya paramparas.
  • The learning of various sastras and vidyas, religious or secular, such as administration and engineering, has many diverse schools that are Guru-Sishya paramparas.

Thus entire knowledge and religious structure in Hinduism stands on Guru-Sishya parampara. This is the institution that caused uninterrupted flow of knowledge over generations, its growth and spreading