On the auspicious occasion of Guru Purnima, it would be against the spirit of the Indian subcontinent’s guru tradition to offer only platitudes and homilies to the teacher. For, this tradition has long espoused, and flourished on account of, a rigorous process of debate and questioning. Learning by rote might have been the preferred way of transmitting texts like the Vedas, through shruti and smriti – listening and remembering, but it was believed that for the guru to impart the essence of knowledge, the student needed to engage him or her in a process of questioning.
The Bhagavad Gita is perhaps the most famous of such Q&As, as is the Yoga Vasistha. Both are now categorized as ‘scriptures’, but they are in essence dialogues between a guru and student, set in motion by questions that have arisen in the latter’s mind. The Bhagavad Gita is perched at a dramatic crossroads – quite literally at the edge of a battlefield, where a warrior stands with his guru-charioteer, paralysed with doubt. The Yoga Vasistha is no less radical. In it, a young prince, Rama, is beset by ennui, just like another prince, Siddhartha, would be many centuries later. Only, Rama does not need to renounce his kingdom to find answers. His guru, Sage Vasistha, presents these to him in the course of a single conversation.
In both these dialogues, the student starts off as a jigyasu, seeker of knowledge, who by the end has been transformed into a mumukshu – seeker of moksha. This transformation is brought about by the responses of the gurus, who correctly diagnose the dilemma underlying their students’ ennui as being caused by the unsatisfactory nature of worldly existence.
Instead of trying to entertain the students away from their dilemmas, the gurus encourage them to channel these feelings differently, until what starts off as a desire to know, becomes honed and sharpened into a very specific quest for self-realisation.
Milindapanha is another such Q&A text where the Greek king of Bactria, Menander, or Milinda, asks over two hundred questions of a senior Buddhist monk, Nagasena. Through the back-and-forth process of question, answer and counter-question, the two sift through a haze of issues to reach clarity on central elements of Buddhist philosophy. Though they do not speak from the positions of teacher and student, they are in effect so, since Menander has sought Nagasena out to resolve queries that have cropped up in his mind while delving into Buddhism.
It is considered imperative for a serious spiritual seeker to apprentice with a living guru because of this precise reason. For, while information can be obtained through books, and in these days of the internet such sources are innumerable, they cannot respond to questions in a dynamic and meaningful way. A guru you can sit across from and query, and have focus on your doubts and respond to them, is indeed a blessing we all seek this Guru Purnima.