The Guru-Disciple Relationship

This is Part 2 of a three part series. Part 1 is here and Part 3 is here.

Pictured below is Swami Sivananda Saraswati and student.



Some people ask if it is of benefit to go on pilgrimages to holy places. In terms of the Guru-Shishya relationship I believe it is. The essence of going to sacred places is to remind ourselves that great beings exist – not as super-heroes but as examples of what it is possible to experience in this precious human life.

Of course we can be uplifted and inspired by such beings. Some people call this a nostalgia for enlightenment. I see it as a deep longing of humans to merge with the ultimate. This longing is very, very powerful and, in our earthly life, can lead us to seek relationships to fulfil this deep desire to merge with the source of love. This longing, if understood, can open a door to many things and can fuel enormous creativity. Great works of art, great musical compositions, incredible feats of bravery can be fuelled by this longing to merge.


The Heart Yearns

This yearning of the heart is the pivotal point of the Guru-Shishya relationship in which the value of this longing can be utilised by an accomplished teacher for maximum benefit for the student.

In the initial stages of the relationship, the privilege of the spiritual path and the futility of seeking permanent gratification in worldly life is accentuated. This is the time when the Guru and Shishya fall deeply in love with one another. If the Guru is accomplished he/she will direct that love to the Shishya’s highest enlightenment – if not, then all kinds of aberrations can eventuate which we will not go into here.

However, even if the latter occurs, all is most definitely not lost for the disciple. Devotion in action is to trust in cause, condition and event. This is very scientific actually – if you cook an egg you need a certain cause and condition – you need a pan, a source of heat etc. If there are no unexpected obstacles, the egg will cook – there is no doubt – you can trust this process which has been carried out for millennium; the simple act of cooking an egg.

This is the process of trusting in cause, condition and event and it is simple science in action. In the same way the Guru-Shishya relationship can be viewed from a similar scientific perspective in trusting in cause, condition and event.

The Disciple’s Longing Opens the Door

The love and/or trust that is imbibed by the disciple creates (is the cause for) the conditions by which the disciple’s longing opens the door to stepping onto a path, or commencing a spiritual practice or sadhana, that will, undoubtedly, lead to the disciple attaining self-knowledge and then self realisation. Simple science.

The complications only arise when spurned, scorned or disillusioned disciples throw the baby out with the bathwater and stop walking on their own path, stop practising their sadhana when the Guru-Shishya relationship is challenged, falters or fails. Unfortunately a tendency of the disciple is to equate the path or sadhana with the love of the personal aspect of the Guru at such times, and, like in messy regular relationship break ups, turns away or denounces all things related to the person.


Serious Karma

I remember talking with one of my Teachers and him saying that students taking the teacher so seriously is the greatest proof that karma exists. This took me back for a moment because at that time I believed it was imperative, for my entire devotional life, to take the relationship very, very seriously.

He went on to say that some of his disciples, particularity from the West, were so sophisticated and educated and yet had become sycophants in their relationship with him. He said that this proved they had a lot of karmic debt with the teacher and part of this was that they would go on believing in every common word of the Guru.

I thought this was a very interesting take on karma and started to explore that idea in my other relationships. I came to understand it from the Teacher’s perspective after the following experience.

I was on a bus just sitting, being very still and inwardly focused. A man got on at a stop and sat next to me. At one point in the journey I happened to glance his way and caught his eye and then looked away. It was absolutely fleeting and yet 15 minutes later the man was crying and telling me that I was his healer and liberator and had saved his life! I had done nothing at all and yet this man was having a transformational experience. It would have been a huge mistake for me to take any credit at all for what the man was experiencing, in fact what he, himself, had generated from his own well spring of healing potential.


The Middle Way for the Guru-Shishya

I understood why the Buddhists talk about the middle way. The very trust that catalyses the Guru-Shishya relationship to be fruitful also has an underside because it can become blind faith.

At the same time curiosity and scepticism, although very good learning traits, can lead to not practising anything due to analysing all the time. It sounds simplistic but striking an empowering balance between these aspects of discipleship is the challenge.

Many bhaktas (devotees) say that all they have to do is love and everything will be OK. Great sentiment – and my advice is to know when you are loving the Guru or Teacher from the same place as bhakti or prema (love) originate, their source, and when you are “loving” from the wounded self that craves as opposed to yearns, grasps as opposed to releasing into a greater and self/Self actualising Lover/Beloved relationship. Big difference and big topic – more another time.


The Disciple makes the Guru a Guru

I went back to my Teacher and told him of the experience. He laughed and said, “Now you see what I mean. I receive 1,000s of notes from people thanking me for helping them when they were in danger or illness and honestly I wasn’t thinking of them at all; sometimes I don’t even remember who they are!”

With regard to the man on the bus, some people may say that the act of me sitting in a non-judgemental space created a vortex for him to step into which precipitated a healing experience. However, what I am saying is that it is the disciple who makes the Guru.

This is very, very good news in terms of understanding that we can all be empowered in Teacher-Student relationships. We are not at the mercy of them at all. As much as outwardly the student appears to be the “weaker” and the teacher “powerful” this is not necessarily true. Students may choose to take all the teacher does so seriously, however, yogic philosophy tells us that everything is a projection and interpretation of the mind. And who, ultimately is in charge of your own mind? You are.

Having said that, imagination, as an aspect of mind, is very powerful and yet within imagination there is fantasy and reality. And this is where the Guru-Shishya relationship gets very interesting because usually a guru will inspire a student along a path, say the path of yoga, in which equanimity of mind is developed, loving kindness is accentuated, health of body mind and spirit is cultivated and the ego is challenged – this is the path.



But when we talk about everything as a manifestation of consciousness or awareness, as a sadhana, we are approaching it all as ultimate truth – when approaching life in this way we are not talking about a path – when we talk about a path we have to talk about a student’s character, right and wrong action, being discerning, what needs to be abandoned, what needs to be upheld in the relative world etc etc – and this harks back to being in a relationship with a Guru (as compared to questing for enlightenment).

But when we talk about everything as consciousness or awareness we are talking about ultimate truth/enlightenment. My interpretation of enlightenment may be a little different from classical representations of beams of light piercing the third eye etc. Enlightenment to me is being able to stay and being awake in that staying; not needing, or trying, to escape the present moment and being fully awake to it while staying in it. Being in the presence of someone like this is like diving into a vast ocean of presence.


The Third Option

Getting back to the character and consciousness comparison; a good example – a woman who desperately wishes to have a baby dreams that she is pregnant and has even given birth. She feels such elation in the dream. However, within the same dream the baby dies and the woman feels devastation.

Upon waking, the happiness of having the baby and the pain of death are gone. What does she feel? What she feels is something else in which to not have the baby, and to not to not have the baby no longer exist. From the yogic perspective this is the third option and this is what the Guru-Shishya relationship is for – to understand and experience that third option.

The tantric-based Guru-Shishya teachings add to this by saying: you can have the baby or not have the baby – the transcendence/transformation is attained by seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting that we are experiencing totality always, without the merest hint of inherence.

Continue reading Part 3.