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The guru-shishya tradition (also guru-shishya parampara or lineage, or teacher-disciple relationship) is a spiritual relationship found within traditional Hinduism which is centered around the transmission of teachings from a guru (teacher, गुरू) to a 'śiṣya' (disciple, शिष्य). The term shishya roughly equates to the western term disciple, and in some parts of India is synonymous with the term chela. In a Hindu context, the term guru signifies one who teaches or imparts knowledge. Such knowledge, whether it be vedic, agamic art, architecture, music or spiritual, is imparted through the developing relationship between guru and disciple. The principle of this relationship is that knowledge, especially subtle or advanced knowledge, is best conveyed through a strong human relationship based on ideals of the student's respect, commitment, devotion and obedience, and on personal instruction by which the student eventually masters the knowledge that the guru embodies.

The word Sikh is derived from the Sanskrit word shishya.

Historical backgroundEdit

The guru-shishya relationship is a practice which has evolved into a fundamental component of Hinduism, since the beginning of the oral traditions of the Upanishads (c. 2000 BC). The term Upanishad derives from the Sanskrit words upa (near), ni (down) and şad (to sit) — "sitting down near" a spiritual teacher to receive instruction in the guru-shishya tradition. An example of this dynamic can be found embodied in the relationship between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita portion of the Mahabharata, and between Rama and Hanuman in the Ramayana. In the Upanishads, gurus and shishya appear in a variety of settings (husband answering questions about immortality, a teenage boy being taught by Yama, or Death personified, etc.). Sometimes the sages are women and at times the instructions (or rather inspiration) are sought by kings.

In the Vedas, the brahmavidya or knowledge of Brahman is communicated from guru to shishya by word of mouth, bringing about the traditional guru-shishya parampara, or lineage.

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 spiritual teacher/student relationship between the guru and shishya.
  • A formal recognition of this relationship, which usually assumes the form of a somewhat structured initiation ceremony. In this process the guru both accepts the initiate as a shishya, and also agrees to assume some level of responsibility for the spiritual well-being and progress of the new shishya.
  • Sometimes this initiation process will also include the teaching of other esoteric wisdom and/or meditation techniques.
  • Gurudakshina - The shishya giving a valuable to the guru as a token of gratitude, often, apart from his services, the only monetary or otherwise fees that the student gives. Such tokens can be as simple as a fruit to as serious as a thumb as given by Ekalavya to his guru Dronacharya.

Guru-shishya relationship types Edit

Amongst Guru-shishya relationships, there is a certain range of variation of the levels of authority that may be attributed to the guru. This level of authority ranges from the highest levels of authority as most often found in bhakti yoga, such as the Sathya Sai Baba movement, to the lowest levels, as found in the Pranayama forms of yoga such as in the Sankara Saranam movement. Between these two ends of the spectrum there are innumerable variations in degree and form of that authority.

Advaita VedantaEdit

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 — literally meaning established in Brahman; must have realised the oneness of Brahman in everything and in himself

The seeker must serve the Guru and submit questions with all humility in order to remove all doubts (see Bhagavad Gita 4.34). By doing so, advaita says, the seeker will attain moksha (liberation from the cycle of births and deaths).

Śruti tradition Edit

The Guru-shishya tradition plays an important part in the continuation of the Shruti tradition in Vaidika dharma. The Hindus believe that Vedas are handed down through the ages from Guru to shishya. The Vedas prescribe for a young brahmachari to be sent to a Gurukul where the Guru (referred to also as acharya) teaches the pupil the Vedas as also the 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 of handing the Vedas down the generations consisted in solely of oral tradition from Guru (teacher) to the Śishya (student). But of late many Vedic scholars make use of books in order to teach the Vedas to their students.[1]

See also: Śrauta

Bhakti yogaEdit

The most well known form of the Guru-shishya relationships is the bhakti guru-shishya relationship. Bhakti (Sanskrit) "Devotion" means surrender to God, gods or guru (sanskrit guru bhakti = devotion to the teacher). Bhakti extends from the simplest expression of devotion to the ego-decimating principle of prapati, 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
  2. The belief that such a guru has transmitted, or will eventually 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

Within the bhakti form of the guru-shishya relationship, a certain type of fixed dependency sometimes develops between the guru and the shishya, that may in some ways be similar to the relationship between a parent and a child.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Prapati Edit

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

  • Deep humility and self-effacement, admission of sin and weakness
  • Total surrender in 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 drilling into his flesh on the 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.

In exchange for such absolute submission to the direction of the guru, the shishya usually expects the guru to provide the spiritual guidance necessary for the shishya to achieve some sort of meaningful spiritual progress. 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, which would be consistent with the deification of the guru that is usually a part of this relationship.

In Buddhism Edit

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. In the Tibetan tradition, however, the teacher is viewed as the very root of spiritual realization and the basis of the entire path. Without the teacher, it is asserted, there can be no experience and insight. The guru is to be seen as Buddha. In Tibetan texts, great 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 (literally "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.

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 shows great devotion to his or her guru, who he or she regards as one who possesses the qualities of a Bodhisattva.

Psychological aspects in a Western contextEdit

Rob Preece, in The Noble Imperfection[2], 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. These are the result of naiveté amongst Westerners as to the nature of the guru/devotee relationship and the consequence of a lack of understanding on the part of Eastern teachers as to the nature of Western psychological makeup. Preece introduces 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." In developing this concept, 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".

See also Edit

Notes Edit

  1. Hindu Dharma,
  2. Preece, Rob, "The teacher-student relationship" in The Noble Imperfection: The challenge of individuation in Buddhist life, Mudras Publications

ReferencesEdit

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