Importance of a Guru
In continuation of the Shankara Digvijaya series, we shall examine another episode from Shankara Bhagavatpada’s life that teaches the way of life to be followed by those who desire to follow the path of the Vedas.
Shri Sacchidananda Shivabhinava Nrisimha Bharati Swamigal, the 33rd pontiff of Shringeri Peetham, in his famous Kamalajadayitashtaka Stotram says :
कल्यादौ पार्वतीशः प्रवरसुरगणप्रार्थितः श्रौतवर्त्म प्राबल्यं नेतुकामो यतिवरवपुषागत्या यां शृङ्गशैले |
Lord Shiva, who was requested by the gods at the beginning of Kali yuga to save the world, decided to do so by reviving the path shown by the vedas. He incarnated Himself as a great sannyasin and came to Shringeri.
The words of the Swamigal tell us that Shri Shankara Bhagavatpada is none other than Lord Shiva’s incarnation. The Shankara Digvijaya also tells us :
शम्भोमूर्तिः चारति भुवने शङ्कराचार्य रूपा |
With the understanding that the great acharya is none other than Lord shiva’s incarnation, let us examine a seemingly contradictory incident from Bhagavatpada’s life and the lesson it teaches us.
After leaving home at the tender age of 8, Shankara, the young Sanyasin arrived at the hermitage of Shri Govinda Bhagavtpada and approached the cave in which Shri Govinda Bhagavtpada was residing. He went around the cave 3 times, prostrated at its entrance and sang the praise of the guru. The great guru immediately recognized that the new disciple is none other than the Great God Shiva in human form and was delighted to see Shri Shankara.
Then, in observance of the customary rules for establishing the relationship between the teacher and the disciple, the guru extended his feet through the tiny mouth of the cave which Shri Shankara worshipped with great devotion and ceremony. Through devoted service of his teacher, Shri Shankara learnt all the Shastras culminating in the knowledge of Brahman, the goal of the Vedanta Shastra.
From this episode, it is clear that Shri Shankara Bhagavatpada, being an incarnation of the Omniscient Lord, still chose to approach a qualified guru, serve him and gain knowledge from him.
On the surface, this seems odd and leads us to the the question “why?”. It is understandable that a relatively ignorant person would approach someone with an elevated level of knowledge and learn from him, but what is the need for someone like Shri Shankara Bhagavatpada, an embodiment of that great Lord Dakshinamurthy, who is an abode of all knowledge including Atma Jnana himself, to serve and learn from a Guru ?
What is the lesson this episode is teaching us ?
Since the scriptures are our only recourse to getting the right answers, let us examine what the scriptures say about this dilemma.
Our scriptures emphatically declare the supremacy of the Guru and place him on a high pedestal. Guru is considered equal to the Lord himself as our famous prayer verse indicates :
गुरुर्ब्रह्मा गुरुर्विष्णुः गुरुर्देवो महेश्वरः | गुरुरेव परं ब्रह्म तस्मै श्री गुरवे नमः ||
Guru gita also says “गुरोः प्रसादतो नान्यत् मुक्तिपदं लभ्यते” – Moksha is not possible by any way other than by Guru’s grace. This message is well known to all of us from both our scriptures and also from our tradition.
But what do our scriptures say about the case where a jnani , a jeevanmukta or an incarnation of the Lord himself who has nothing to learn, approaches a guru, serves him, gets teaching from him and pays tribute to him ?
There are many examples in our scriptures that support this case like Shri Rama and his brothers serving and learning from sage Vasishtha and sage Vishwamitra, Shri Krishna and Balarama being taught by sage Sandipani, Shri Hanuman obtaining knowledge from from Shri Surya Bhagavan etc.
The answer is given by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavadgita. He says :
न मे पार्थास्ति कर्तव्यं त्रिषु लोकेषु किञ्चन |
नानवाप्तमवाप्तव्यं वर्त एव च कर्मणि ||
O partha, there is no work prescribed for Me in the three worlds. Nor am I in want of anything, nor have I need to obtain anything–and yet I am engaged in work.
यदि ह्यहं न वर्तेयं जातु कर्मण्यतन्द्रितः |
मम वर्त्मानुवर्तन्ते मनुष्याः पार्थ सर्वशः ||
If I did not engage in work, O Partha, certainly common men would follow My path.
यद्यदाचरति श्रेष्ठस्तत्तदेवेतरो जनः |
स यत्प्रमाणं कुरुते लोकस्तदनुवर्तते ||
Whatever action a great man performs, common men follow. And whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues.
In essence, Krishna is saying that great men – the avatara purushas perform certain actions despite having no need to perform any karma whatsoever, essentially to teach the dharmic path and the vedic way of life to the world and to stand as noble examples for the rest of humanity to follow and draw inspiration from.
Another reason for these mukta purushas serving a guru to obtain knowledge is to emphasize the fact that Jnana should be obtained and one’s own moksha sthiti should be realized only by a guru’s scriptural teaching and grace and not by any other means. One may even have an inborn knowledge of the supreme truth , but it is the dictum of our scriptures that one should be duly instructed in a guru sampradaya.
This also dispels any misconception that Self-knowledge and liberation can be obtained by any other means such as meditation, samadhi, yoga , intuition, mysticism etc. other than by serving and learning from a guru.
Shri Shankara Bhagavatpada himself says so in his Mundakopanishad bhashya –
सास्त्रज्ञोपि स्वातन्त्रेण ब्रह्मान्वेशणं न कुर्यात |
Even if one has the knowledge of all Shastras, without a qualified guru’s upadesa, one should not venture into the realm of Self-Knowledge.
Shri Shankara Bhagavatpada also emphatically declares “He who desires enlightenment should render devoted service to the guru, with reverence, offer personal homage, speak with humility and seek the guru’s grace.”
This is the approach that has been granted by our Shastras and has been followed in our vedic tradition since time immemorial and continues to this date as the only valid means of obtaining enlightening self-knowledge.
Let us follow the path shown by our illustrious Acharyas by and realize the everlasting freedom and happiness, the ultimate goal of human existence.
- Shankara Digvijaya of Madhava – Vidyaranya by Swami Tapasyananda , Ramakrishna Mutt
- Shri Shankara Vijayam of Swami Vidyaranya by T. Shivacharanam , Vyasasramam
- Translation of The Sarva Vedanta Siddhanta Sara Sangraha of Acharya Shankara by Swami Tattwananda, Ramakrishna Mutt