Role of a Guru in Self-Knowledge

Chandrasekharan Raman

(Dedicated to my Guru Dr. S. Yegnasubramanian)


The scriptures in our tradition point out that all our sufferings and the ensuing misery is fundamentally due to ignorance of one’s own Self. We misidentify ourselves with our body-mind-sense-complex and superimpose the problems associated with the body and mind upon ourselves. This leads to suffering, since the body and mind are never free from defects and ailments. This is a universal problem faced by every self-conscious human being in this universe. So, we require a universal solution to this problem and our scriptures provide this solution. According to the Śāstrā, the only way of permanently getting out of the endless cycle of pleasure and pain is to know one’s own true nature.

Although we can claim to know ourselves, we miss our essential nature because the knower is constantly looking outward, as it were. The usually employed means of knowledge – perception by sense organs and various other forms of inference, take the subject, the knower for granted and focus on the object of knowledge. For example, if a scientist needs to understand the nature of a chemical crystal, he may use a microscope to observe certain patterns, and use his inferential knowledge to study the compound. But, he cannot use the same microscope to study the microscope itself! In the same way, we cannot use our usual instruments of knowledge – the body, mind and sense organs – to know our true nature. As human beings, if we use our own instruments of knowledge, we can know of things that can only be “objectified” by those instruments. But how can a person, the subject, know the truth of himself by simply using such means without objectifying himself? If all the conventional instruments are rendered useless, what should one do? These are crucial questions that every serious seeker of Self-Knowledge has to confront. Let us analyze this aspect further and also discuss how the Śāstrā give us an ingenious way of obtaining this Knowledge.

A simple analogy can be used to illustrate the problem and the solution. Let us assume that a person has very beautiful eyes, and everyone praises her that she has beautiful eyes. However, this person feels disappointed because she can see every object in this world around her, except that she cannot see her own eyes! The only way for this person to look at her own eyes is to look into a reflecting surface like a mirror. Even though it may seem that the eyes are turned outwards, the eyes are not just seeing the mirror. The eyes are seeing themselves!

With regard to Self-Knowledge too, we need external support or aid. However much we independently try to gain this Knowledge, we can never succeed, like a person with powerful eyes refusing to use the mirror to see her own eyes. The words in the Vedantic scriptures, the Alaukika Śabdāḥ, act as special mirrors called Śāstra Darpaṇaḥ. When we study the Vedantic scriptures and employ words from the Vedantic scriptures for Self-Enquiry, it may seem as though we are engaged in an extrovert pursuit. But, it is very similar to looking into a mirror. Even though we are looking outwards into the mirror, we are in fact seeing our own eyes. Similarly, when we study the Vedantic scriptures, in fact we are enquiring into our own Self. Therefore, there is no difference between Vedantic Scriptural study and Self-Enquiry. Scriptural knowledge is synonymous to Self-Knowledge. The study gives us a clear knowledge of the Self, like the mirror gives a clear reflection of our own eyes. The more clearly we look into the mirror, the more clearly we see our own eyes. The Vedantic scriptures are just verbal mirrors, Śabda Pramāṇam. We can use it to know our own real nature.

When we enter into the scriptures, especially the Vedantic scriptures, we face some fundamental problems. This knowledge being unique, the scriptures use peculiar methods to convey this knowledge and special methods to communicate. If we try to study the scriptures by ourselves, we will never be able to successfully extract the knowledge ourselves, as the scriptures are seemingly full of contradictions! For example, the Taittirīya Upaniṣad says,

अग्नयश्च स्वाध्यायप्रवचनेच। अग्निहोत्रं च स्वाध्यायप्रवचनेच।

प्रजा च स्वाध्यायप्रवचनेच। प्रजनश्च स्वाध्यायप्रवचनेच।

(One must perform Yagnās with Agni, daily rituals like Agnihotrā etc. One should beget progenies, grand children.) But, the same Upaniṣad says,

न कर्मणा न प्रजया धनेन त्यागेनैके अमृतत्वमानशुः।

(Not by Karmā, or progeny or wealth, but only by renunciation can one attain immortality.)

The scriptural words have to be employed in such a way that it gives us this unique knowledge. We do not have the key to open the scriptural words and extract the knowledge. Only if a wise person or a Guru handles the scriptural words, he will be able to show the scriptural words as a mirror in front of us. The words coming from the mouth of a Guru will serve as a subtle mirror, which will help us discover this Knowledge. If we ask the wise person how he learnt the method of using the mirror, he will say he learnt from his Guru. His Guru would have learnt it from another Guru and so on. The Vedantic scriptures, along with the key have been passed on as an oral tradition over many generations and they are supposed to be used in a proper manner. Otherwise, it will not reveal anything and in some cases, may even lead to false knowledge! Thus there is a specific method of using the scriptures to reveal the true nature of Self. The key is with the Guru. When the Vedantic scriptures and the Guru come together, we get a unique mirror. The Guru without the Vedantic scriptures is useless, as much as the scriptures without the Guru. When the Guru uses the scriptures, he knows how to handle the unique Śabdā, by which we get the Knowledge that can never be gathered by external scientific methods. Thus, Guru Śāstrā Upadeśa serves as the mirror to reveal one’s true nature. For this reason, one of the traditional definitions of Guru is

गुकारस्त्वन्धकारो वै रुकारस्तन्निवर्तकः ।

अन्धकारनिरोधित्वाद् गुरुरित्यभिधीयते ॥

(The Guru is one who eliminates the darkness of ignorance.)

The systematic study of Vedantic scriptures wherein the Guru unfolds the teachings over a length of time is called Śravaṇam. This involves the systematic exposition of Tat pada (the Jivātmā), Tvam pada (the Paramātmā) and the Asi pada (the Aikyam). The Guru is also necessary to clear all doubts. This clarification of one’s own doubts is also important and is called Mananam. It is for this reason most of the Upanishads are in the form of dialogue between the Guru and the disciple. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna systematically teaches Arjuna about the Self. If there were alternative methods available, Lord Krishna would have used that for Arjuna, as the battlefield is the most inconvenient location to impart Self-Knowledge.

We should note that a Guru is not optional for a seeker of Self-Knowledge, but is mandatory. There are many misconceptions that Self-Knowledge can be gained if one refines the mind enough, and the Ātmā will reveal itself! Some believe that the Ātmā can act as a Guru; or some invisible force can be developed within oneself and that can act as a Guru. The Ātmā can neither be Guru nor be the disciple! There are also other kinds of Guru, who can give Mantra Dīkṣā or inspiration. Such Gurus are needed only once, and once a person is initiated into the Mantra Japa, the Guru is not needed anymore. But, such Mantra Upadeśa is not sufficient for Self-Knowledge. A consistently available Guru is absolutely essential for gaining Self-Knowledge.

Finally, a prepared mind is necessary to gain Self-Knowledge. Even though a clean and shining mirror may be available, one cannot clearly see the eyes if the eyes are not able to see properly. Similarly, if a prepared mind is not available, Self-Knowledge is not possible. If all the three necessary ingredients – the Vedantic scriptures, a qualified Guru and a prepared mind – are available, Self-Knowledge will take place, ignorance will be destroyed along with the problems due to ignorance.

(Compiled from lectures of Swami Paramarthānandā, Chennai.)

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