Someone who talks about semen rising up the spine with yogic techniques is likely to be more venerated today by the establishment than a scientist who disproves this fantasy. Indians have always privileged the guru’s testimony over the scientific method. Today, this has been amplified – as saffron-clad monks are being given greater value by the media than a data-driven peerreviewed scholar. Even courts are stepping in to block the voices of people who speak in favour of science, accusing them of defaming traditional and alternative medical practices.
Most people confuse science with logic. Anyone can be logical, even analytical, in establishing causality. But science is about stepping outside the human mind, relying on measurement, comparison and evidence. The Latin definition of science is ‘nullius in verba’ which means ‘on the word of no one’. This is the opposite of ‘shabda-praman’, unconditional acceptance of the guru’s word.
Acharya or guru
An organiser (shastri), an expert (upadhyay), a teacher (adhyapak) or a coach (acharya) gives you knowledge and skills, and in exchange gets a fee (daksina). But a guru demands complete submission. To him, or her, you outsource all your decision-making. In prayers, guru is eulogised as someone greater than parents, greater than gods even. The guru becomes the master; the student becomes the willing slave.
Such a relationship is widespread in the art world – in music and dance circles. It is also seen in spiritual circles. Nothing moves without the guru’s permission or approval. Of course, the student insists the submission is voluntary. This guru parampara, contrary to popular belief, did not always exist in India.
Challenging Vedic teachers
Two forms of Yajur Veda, black and white, exist due to a dispute between a teacher and a student. Yagnavalkya refused to do what his teacher Vaisampayana asked him to do. So the teacher asked his student to regurgitate all that he had learnt. What was regurgitated out became the black Yajur Veda. Later, what was rediscovered, with the help of the sun god, and organised systematically, became the white Yajur Veda.
In the Prashna Upanishad, six students ask a teacher questions on spirituality. Answers are very clearly given by the teacher. In exchange, they give him payment in the form of a gift and express their gratitude. There is no emotional investment here.
Buddhists speak of Pratyeka-Buddha, or the solitary Buddha, who wanders alone, like the single horn of a rhinoceros, an autonomous teacher, who follows no one, and who does not want to be followed by anyone.
But then in the Mahabharata, we start finding stories where gurus exploit and abuse their students. Apodhaumya refuses to give food to his student Upamanyu, who ends up eating poisonous fruits in the forest that makes him blind. Another keeps his student captive, until the submissive student one day realises he is old, and life has passed him by. Another does the work of an ox in the field. Another uses his body to block the breach in a canal to protect the guru’s fields. Another is asked to fetch the earrings that belong to a cannibal’s wife. Today these tales of abuse are retold by gurus as indicative of a student’s true devotion and unconditional love for his guru.
Around a thousand years ago, we find stories from Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, even Nath-Jogi traditions, where teachers have supernatural powers (siddha). Here, students completely submit to the teacher, who makes them do odd, even dangerous tasks, to check if they are worthy of occult knowledge.
The idea of surrender to the guru amplified itself with the arrival of Sufism in India eight centuries ago. Here the murid (seeker) totally submits to the teacher (pir) who has a direct connection with the divine.
Around the same time, in Hindu Vedantic mathas and bhakti sampradayas, we find disciples submitting to spiritual leaders like Shankara, Chaitanya, Ramanuja and Madhva, usually after losing a debate.
Science may seem combative, as the student demands proof. Ideally, the knowledge is challenged. But invariably, it feels the attack is personal. Feudal orders therefore would never tolerate scientific mindset. However, the purpose of science is not to argue, or debate, or challenge authority. It is to seek the truth which exists outside the human mind (ontology, metaphysics). Truth is identified by experiments and measurements not opinions of scientists.
Activists mimic scientists and think challenging authority leads one to the truth. It’s a perverse understanding of the scientific process. Science is about things, not thoughts and emotions. Material facts are not the same as subjective concepts like property, rights, wealth, justice and equality.
Science demands doubt but relationships are based on trust. A good relationship has mutual trust; an exploitative relationship is about one-sided trust. Gurudoms are lop-sided in matters of trust: everyone submits to the master as worker bees submit to the queen bee. And that is not conducive to the scientific spirit.
India today is in a paradoxical situation. It wants to be seen as the fountainhead of scientific ideas. It wants yoga to be seen as science. But at the same time, it clings to the romantic and glamorous version of the guru, who demands complete submission to his authority.