This afternoon I’ve been perusing various Youtube videos on Ashtanga Yoga looking for inspiration when all of a sudden I got what I was looking for. I came across this video in which Richard Freeman, a well-known Ashtanga Yoga teacher, is speaking on a panel at the Urban Zen Well Being 2007 Forum. What struck me about that clip was that he was making the point that “it’s no longer the age of the guru;” in fact, a new model is being born in the West in which the relationship of student to teacher is one of “equal partnership on both sides.” In this article, I intend to explore what the traditional guru-disciple relationship was like; how it is no longer valid in this day and age; and what we might replace it with.
The Guru-Disciple Relationship
The role of the guru dates back to the period of the Upanishads, around 1000 B.C.E. Prior to this period, Hindu spirituality was expressed in the act of sacrifice to the gods. The gods were thought to be outside forces that needed to be manipulated in order to maintain order. The Brahmans (priestly caste) were in charge of maintaining the spiritual order in the form of sacrifice.
But by the ninth century, a new revelation began to be expressed. Instead of gods, like Shiva or Brahma, dwelling outside, the gods were considered inner experiences, inner energies that could be met and used for personal transformation. Anyone could, now, have a direct access to the gods. It wasn’t just the Brahmans (priestly caste). The term "Upanishad" derives from the Sanskrit words upa (near), ni (down) and şa (to sit) — so it means to "sit down near" a spiritual teacher to receive instruction in discovering these powers within.
The role of the guru was to illuminate the shishya (disciple) from the darkness of illusion through esoteric knowledge. Gu means to dispel. Ru is the darkness of ignorance. In order for this new revelation to be expressed, the guru’s knowledge needed to be vast. He needed to have been someone who had already awoken from the dream of maya (illusion), awake to the direct experience of the purusa (indweller, soul). Additionally he needed to have been a shishya of a guru, himself and to have received his guru’s blessing to impart the wisdom.
The role of the shishya’s was primarily devotion, commitment, and obedience. In exchange, the guru taught through discourse, through silence, through medicine, and through imparting esoteric practices. The guru offered what he could to illuminate his disciples into the truth, knowledge, and experience within. But the role was hierarchical. The shishya was in the hands of his guru. If the guru took advantage of his position, then that was the risk the disciple took.
In Aṣṭadaḷa Yogamālā: Articles, Lectures, Messages by B. K. S. Iyengar, the author describes the brutality, at times, of his guru, T.K.V. Krishmacharya, how “his moods and modes were very difficult to comprehend and always unpredictable. Hence, we were always alert in his presence. He was like a great Zen master in the art of teaching. He would hit us hard on our backs as if with iron rods. We were unable to forget the severity of his actions for a long time.” (Iyengar, B.K.S. Aṣṭadaḷa Yogamālā: Articles, Lectures, Messages. Mumbai: Allied Publishers Private Limited, 2006. Print. p. 53)
And in an interview I dug up in my files dating back to 1993, Pattabhi Jois says this about his guru:
My guru was a very difficult man…One example of his callousness, which I tell about is this: on the Sanskrit College’s anniversary day a large celebration was staged which the Maharaja attended. We were to give a demonstration on the ground…There was no podium so my guru told me to do kapotasana (an extreme backbend) and stood on top of me for 10-15 minutes giving a lecture. There was a small tree coming out of the ground that had been haphazardly cut several inches from the ground. The sharp end of the stick stabbed into my shoulder and stayed there, penetrating more and more deeply as the lecture went on…After the lecture I stood up and was covered with blood…For 15 days I could not move my arm. ~Pattabhi Jois
Imagine the lawsuits that might have taken place had Krishnamacharya been teaching at the local Yoga studio these days? Clearly, times have changed.
'The Age of the Guru is Over…Now What?' Series
This is one part in a three-part series. In the next posting, we will explore how this relationship is no longer valid in this day and age. In our final posting, I will posit some ideas of what I think might replace it. Be sure to check out these other posts over the next few days, either by returning to this blog or by subscribing to our blog on the upper left corner of this page.