Published in First City, November 2012
It is with the rise of Buddhism that we hear of sermons, a sage seated under a tree in a park surrounded by thousands of students waiting to hear him speak. Before that, in the Upanishadic texts, we hear of people conversing: sages and kings, husbands and wives, gods and humans. And before that, in the Vedic texts, such as Brahmanas and Aranyakas, we find people busy in ritual, or alone in the forest, each one individually contemplating on the meaning of the gestures and the exclamations and the offerings. And somewhere along the way, in the epics, the Ramayan and Mahabharat, we hear of gurukuls, hermitages, where students stay with teachers and learn about life and skills that will help them go through life. In modern imagery, the gurukul is imagined with a teacher seated under a tree with students around him, as if listening to a sermon, or in a modern day classroom. It is in this imagination lies the flaw in understanding the guru-shishya parampara.
Parampara means tradition, or path. The fundamental difference between modern education system and sermons and the guru-shishya parampara is the notion of objectivity. Is knowledge objective or subjective? Information is objective but knowledge is subjective. To know, you have to understand. To understand you have to interpret what the other says, analyze it, and place in within the context of what you already know and understand. Learning is an extremely complex process, especially cognition. And ancient Indians were aware of that.
Martial arts training demonstrates the Chinese approach at education. It is all about discipline ruthlessly enforced and pushing the boundaries under the relentless gaze of a demanding master. This approach is not the same as guru-shishya parampara.
European education systems were rooted in the Greek and Roman concepts of debate. Arguments between philosophers led to establishment of the truth, either through triumph of one or consensus of all. This truth is then passed on to students in classrooms, often by rote learning. They may challenge it but ultimately have to submit to it. This is the approach followed in modern education, where tests reveal achievement and measure development, where one has to present a thesis and ‘defend’ it successfully to achieve a doctorate. In Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions, wisdom ultimately comes from God; everything else is human interpretation. These three religious traditions are often at odds with Greco-Roman thinking that is often marketed as ‘secular’ systems.
Understanding guru-shishya parampara has been warped by our desire to benchmark it against European models of education and to some degree connect it with Oriental models of education. Both these models have become popular, the first because of missionary schools and colonization, and the second because of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Kung Fu Panda.
The simplest way to understand guru-shishya parampara is to see the ustad-chela model of apprenticeship that still occurs in the mechanic shops and the dhabhas across India where young boys are employed or adopted by skilled entrepreneurs. The chelas are made to work and as they work they learn new skills by observation. The ustad makes no conscious effort to teach. He talks, he comments, as he works and the students absorb what they can. The hunger has to be of the chela. When the chela becomes smart enough to be autonomous, he often breaks free, to do things on his own. This is done in a disorganized ad-hoc manner, where the intentions are often blurred: is it about learning or employment, exploitation or education.
Of course, Brahmanical sensibility will be appalled that the exalted guru-shishya parampara has been equated with street side ustad-chela relationships. And yet we hear stories of guru behavior that can be qualified as exploitative. Dhaumya has three students. The first, Aruni, uses his own body to block a breach in a canal that waters his guru’s farm. The second, Upamanyu, who grazes the guru’s cattle is not allowed to drink the milk of the cows he tends to and so ends up eating poisonous leaves that blind him temporarily. The third, Veda, stayed so long with the guru who just could not let him go that one day he realized he was old, with grey hair.
In the Radhika Santvanamu, an 18th century Telugu manuscript written by the courtesan Muddupalani, we see instructions being given to a man on how to please a virgin and to a woman on how to satisfy an experienced lover. Does this qualify as guru-shishya parampara? Is the mother who teaches her daughter to cook and keep house a guru? Is that not impartation of skills?
The key to guru-shishya parampara is that the teachers learns by teaching and the student teaches by learning. The guru accepts that the subjective reality of the student is different from his or her own. And so each one has to figure out wisdom on his own terms and his own pace. At best, the guru can provoke desire to learn and moments of insight. But ultimately it is the student’s responsibility to learn. The teacher is like a river that the student comes to when thirsty. It is not the teacher’s responsibility to teach; it is the student’s responsibility to learn.
In the Tantrik scriptures, the role of guru and shishya is equated with that of husband and wife. On cosmic matters, Shiva is the guru and his wife, Shakti, is the shishya. On temporal matters, Shakti is the guru and Shiva, the shishya. In Kailas, he gives discourses. In Kashi, she serves the food. Both need each other.
This brings out the power equation that is bound to exist between guru and shishya. Often the guru becomes positioned as the source of knowledge filling the empty cups that is the students. He becomes the alpha who controls the movement of the pack. Hence words like ‘humility’ and ‘submission’ that is demanded of students.
A guru need not be wise; he may be attached to his sons and cruel to students he does not like. Drona of the Mahabharata is one such guru who is obsessed with his son, Ashwatthama, even tries to give him knowledge even though he does not have the capacity or capability to wield it. And he refuses to teach archery to Karna and Ekalavya on account of caste. And the only reason he teaches is because he wants to use the fee to defeat his enemy Drupada who long ago insulted him.
The Bhagavat speaks of the naked sage, Datta, also known as AdiNath, the first guru, whose gurus were plants and trees and elements and people he encountered. The Mahabharata speaks of a monk who learns a lot from a housewife and a butcher. In the forest, Bhima gets a lesson from a monkey, Arjuna from a tribal, Yudhishtira from a stork. Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, flows invisibly everywhere. To see her, we have to first be thirsty, not pretend to be thirsty. The guru can show the way, but the student has to walk the path, and on walking the path realize that maybe the guru was wrong or that his way is very different from the guru’s way, as Ramanuja, the Vedanta scholar realized that the servant of the temple, Kanchipurna, knew much more than his formal guru, Yadavaprakasha.
Learning is about opening (brah) the mind (manas) to receive new data and churning the mind so that patterns can be identified so that data becomes information and information knowledge. What the guru gives is merely Smriti, ideas that can be documented and transmitted. What makes a student knowledgeable and wise, is Shruti, the inner voice of insight, that leads to the ‘penny dropping’, of figuring out things. The modern ‘instruction’ based model does not acknowledge the existence of the inner voice: so there is an obsession with simplifying and repeating information, hoping that will get the information through.
As the guru teaches the student what he knows, he realizes how unique every individual is. He improves his skill of communication. His faith is restored when the student responds. His patience is built as the student is unable or refuses to respond. Thus the teacher learns from the student too.
By diving dakshina to the student or fee, the student breaks free from the rin or debt of obligation. He is now free to enter the next stage of his life, use the knowledge gained before it is time to pass it on to the next generation.