From a Seeker, to a Guru

krishna-instructs-arjuna
Krishna answers Arjuna’s questions at the battlefield

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.

Anatomy of Awakening

The term “awakening” has long been used to denote the experience of spiritual realisation — of self, reality, God, emptiness. It has been described as a point of transition, where a limited way of seeing and being is altered because of an immense opening up that happens in one’s consciousness.

Conditioning, barriers, perceptions — filters and masks through which one normally responds to the world — are knocked off and consequently whatever one experiences feels raw, direct, deep and true. Distinctions between self and the other and self and the world cease to exist, leading to a profound experience of interconnectedness. There are no thoughts in the conventional sense. Whatever arises naturally subsides without causing the mind to ripple after it. There is peace and stillness, and often, bliss.

The analogy of death is often used to describe an awakening. For the “old” way of being dies forever, one is no longer who one used to be in the moment before the awakening. Something dies so that something new can arise. In the case of awakening, it is the blinkered, afflicted self that dies, even as one is born anew into a radically changed way of experiencing oneself and the world. In some cases, this “death” seems to become mirrored in the individual’s body through physical pain and a loss of control. The mind, shorn of the crutches it used to manoeuvre its way through the world, appears to have collapsed. Mystics have at times been mistaken for madmen simply because they are liberated of the conditioning and social graces with which we “sleepers” operate.

Herein lies a dilemma for the awakened one. How to integrate their awakening with their worldly lives? For, the transformation of awakening appears to be so total that there is no going back to what one was prior to it. It is as if one’s eyes have been blown open and one can never go to sleep, to unknowing, again. Some find the balance in taking on the responsibility of sharing their journeys with others, becoming gurus and teachers. Others might continue to live everyday lives, their awakening informing every aspect of their being and conduct.

What about awakening itself? Is it like a thunderbolt, direct and immediate, or is it gradual? On close examination, one finds that it is really a process, a river that unfolds and undulates through the individual’s experiences. The actual realisation might occur in a flash, but often it is part of a process that includes questioning, perhaps working with a teacher, or self-study, and chipping away at emotional and mental blocks.

Even if an initial awakening happens through a thump on the heart or the activation of the point between the brows by a master, it often needs to be backed up with inner work. At times, the awakening might happen in stages, spread over a period of time, assisted by circumstances and teachers. And while the ultimate realisation might be similar, the paths through which people have arrived to it are myriad and many-hued, as varied as humankind itself.

[This article appeared under the title ‘Be the Awakened One’ in The Asian Age, October 20, 2011.]