By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
Guru Purnima is celebrated on 15th July every year by Hindus around the world, and in France at chateau du Doux, Beaulieu, Altillac the devotees of Pujya Swami Suddhananda availed of the opportunity of his presence – he was conducting a Yoga camp – to honour him on that day last July. This celebration is a tradition which exists only in Indian culture. In common parlance the term ‘guru’ is used to refer to a teacher, usually of Hindi or Hindu culture, and it has been extended to mean someone who is a specialist in a particular subject and goes about lecturing on that subject. This applies especially in the business world where so-and-so is labelled a guru who has written ‘inspirational’ books and gives talks as well.
However, strictly speaking that is not what a true guru is. The term derives from Sanskrit; gu means darkness and ru means to remove. So the guru is the one who removes the darkness of ignorance present in the pupil who comes to him, and replaces it with the light of knowledge – but not any knowledge: it is knowledge of himself, of his true nature or Self-knowledge. This is different from knowledge of the world around him, which he also needs in order to live his life properly. Self-knowledge is about learning that one is not the limited, perishable body, which is born, grows, declines and dies, but the immortal atman which is Unborn, Unchanging, Ever Existing and All-pervasive: sachidananda swarupam.
The guru is one who not only has understood this Truth, but is aware of it constantly and abides in it constantly too: another term used for a person who has reached this stage is that he is a Realised person. It’s as if one sees a beautiful rose and wants to know what it is like to be a rose: for that to happen fully the only way for him is to become a rose, in other words to identify completely with the rose. In the case of humans beings, our ignorance – avidya – makes us identify with the body. In other words we think that we are merely a physical body and nothing else, that is we identify ourselves solely with the body. As I explained in my article of last week about the various aspects of the mind, this false identification is because of our ego.
It is to teach us this Truth that we have gurus, and it takes more that one lifetime to reach that stage of understanding and to become the realized person that a guru is. Such a guru indeed is Pujya Swami Suddhananda, whom we have been privileged to have in Mauritius a number of times, and I was very happy to read the account of the celebration by Swamiji of Guru Purnima by his French devotees, among whom Francine Lacoste. The article she has written in the August 2011 issue of the Self-Knowledge magazine explains in very simple and clear language about Guru Purnima, and it cannot be bettered! The full text is offered for the appreciation of all readers. I am sure they will enjoy it as much as I have done:
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Guru Purnima Day 2011 (French style)
Yoga camp – château du Doux – Beaulieu – Altillac – France
On that Friday morning, 15th of July, a few of us had been for a walk in the surrounding countryside to pick wild flowers of various colours and kinds. We all knew that today India was celebrating the very popular guru purnima day, but except for those among us who had already been to India, many did not know anything about that celebration which does not exist at all in our culture.
Anyhow, everybody felt happy to decorate the lecture hall floor by designing a path of flowers leading to Swamiji’s asana. Then we lit three candles on the mantelpiece, softly illuminating a picture of guru Veda Vyasa that had been placed there. Finally, with profound respect, gratitude and sincerity, we began chanting the first line of the “guru stotram” (though with imperfect pronunciation of Sanskrit) as Swamiji entered. That was our own improvised way of participating in a celebration we did not know much about, that was our own little way to show our gratitude to the teacher, to the one who was passing on to us that teaching.
Now writing down these words, a few weeks later, a thought keeps on coming: isn’t it each moment, each day we are living an occasion to feel grateful? As Swamiji pointed out, in the beginning of life, the Absolute, Immortality cannot be straightaway understood though we are all conscious of the limitations of the body, senses and mind. We also know that whatever our lives are like this very moment, they would not have been possible without our mother and father who enabled this body-mind to exist and experience the creation. As the Tradition says, thanks to our first guru, our mother who sustained us during months in her womb and nourished us through infancy, and thanks to our father who contributed to our sustenance: they are our first teachers.
In the Upanishadic Tradition, if by chance parents did not know about the Absolute Knowledge, the Knowledge of Self, once they had finished teaching the child relative knowledge, they would send him to a teacher, whom we can call a guru. A guru is the one who reveals the Totality, the Absolute Knowledge, God – Isvara to the individual. The guru is not God nor does he replace God, he helps the person to understand his Self and the Self is nothing but the Infinite in each one of us. Then, we can call it Purnam, Infinity, Everything, or Auspiciousness, The Being, Shiva with name and form. We can stay with the formless or make use of forms; both are possible as we are both with the form at a relative level and with the formless at the absolute level.
The teacher, the guru helps us understand this Totality, this Infinity of which we are an inseparable part and indeed for that, every day we must be grateful. We must always remember that mother and father, schoolteachers, friends, the very creation at large have laid the foundation for us to encounter a guru of the Brahma Vidya.
Everything contributed to bring us to a particular point where we felt the need for this Knowledge. When we come to the teacher we carry the burden of our entire past with us, and he is the one who helps us to unload it, so that the burden no longer feels burdensome, because the individuality which was carrying everything goes back to its Source: the Awareness, the Consciousness and our gratitude is enormous! Our whole lives become a manifestation of gratitude expressing itself in infinite ways through our own talents and abilities.
In relative life, we are comforted by being given material things, attention, sensations, affections and so on, thus forgetting ourselves for some time, but that temporary fulfilment does not last and we remain with a sense of emptiness in life. When we get tired of this endless search, we start looking for a permanent solution and a definite answer as to who we really are. When the encounter with the teacher occurs, the teacher does not gives us a thing, a title, a sensation, a hug, a car or a house but he helps discover our Self and the emptiness goes away, leaving us comfortable with everything we come across in life.
When the sense of uncertainty disappears in life, that automatically brings about a sense of gratitude towards the teacher for the teaching. Guru Purnima is celebration of the teacher as a vehicle for the wisdom. Tradition says the teaching is like fire and the teacher is like a lamp. When a lamp is lit up, the fire is perpetuated. Body having its own limits, the teacher will disappear, the lamp will drop out but when the right teacher and the right student meet, the fire is handed over, the fire of Knowledge keeps on burning and the student, also like a vessel will carry on this Knowledge. On such rare occasions as Upanishads say, “Even the gods should celebrate in Heavens!” So there is deep gratitude as much on the part of the student to have found the teacher as on the part of the teacher to have found such a student, deep shared gratefulness.
Guru Purnima is a day dedicated to teachers and the teaching tradition and one of its most beautiful and penetrating symbols is the worship at the feet of the guru. As Bhagavan Shankara says: “One who holds the lotus feet of the teacher, that person is liberated.” Many people not understanding the meaning of this ritual end up worshipping the guru. The lotus stands for knowledge, for the understanding of life and of Reality and when the student is ready for Knowledge, the god Vishnu who has succeeded in uprooting the student from ignorance of his own nature, hands him the lotus thus meaning: previously, this person was rooted in the relative world of money, relationship, body, etc., and is now rooted in Knowledge. Previously, each time a root, a role was unstable, the person was also unstable, and now the person is rooted in Knowledge. So touching the feet of the guru is touching the Knowledge in which he is rooted, and one can only truly touch the guru’s feet when one touches the root that is one’s own Self. How beautiful!
Guru Purnima day 2011 “French Style” was a simple and happy day of sharing and togetherness as Swamiji was passing on to us the light of the everlasting fire of Knowledge. May we all keep it burning in our everyday lives forever and with endless gratitude.
* Published in print edition on 9 September 2011