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Here a Guru, There a Guru, Everywhere a Guru, Guru...
- Ramaa Bharadvaj

July 21, 2019

This year, as the day of Guru Purnima dawned, I noticed that social media had become unusually cluttered with yesteryear snaps of dancers with their teachers, as well as reminiscences and offerings of gratitude by dancers to their 'gurus'. Amidst all this euphoric enthusiasm, a dancer-friend from the US had posted an observance that caught my attention! She recollected celebrating only Vijayadasami with her dance teachers when she was a student, and wondered how many dance teachers have had the experience of being felicitated on Guru Purnima day.

Having already been amused by the lavish throwing around of the 'guru' title, this question in the aforesaid post got me thinking, and the thinking got me writing!

First of all, we should understand that Guru Purnima is meant to honor the spiritual guru (Diksha guru) and it would be a good thing to keep it that way. It is Vijayadasami that is the appropriate occasion for honoring teachers in art and other fields. It is not necessary to just take my word on this topic; We just need to take a look at the traditions that are practiced on these two days, which themselves bespeak the distinctly differing attributes of these two celebrations.

Vijayadasami is celebrated as a day of feasting and festivities. Students bring gift offerings to their teachers, and return home having learnt something new - even if it is just one movement phrase or musical line. The tools of the trade, which had been placed on the altar on the previous day of Sarasvati worship, are all taken out and put to use on this day.

Guru Purnima, on the other hand, is a day of fasting, chanting, and turning inwards. The focus is on sadhana and contemplation on what has already been studied. In fact, this day heralds the beginning of the Chaturmasya observance (4 months of withdrawing into a quiet space for study, meditation, and silence) that holy men and spiritual aspirants embark on.

The guide that we celebrate on Vijayadasami day is a teacher and a mentor - an Acharya; The guide that we honor on Guru Purnima day is a seer, a spiritualist - a Guru, and there is quite a difference between the two.

Author: Ramaa Bharadvaj; Photographer: Uma Suresh

A Guru is one who is anchored in an inner-world of self-mastery, balance and centeredness, and leads the disciple into Self-inquiry for the purpose of bestowing Self-knowledge. The disciple's quest here is an inward one, and the discovery too is an internal one. It is not the kind of technical knowledge that makes us super adept in singing a keertana, or dancing a thillana. It is that 'knowledge' on gaining which, all questions cease and all quests and pursuits disappear. A Guru (or Satguru) does not have to be master of any art or craft. In fact, they don't even have to be 'educated' in our understanding of the term. With one word or gesture, or even a mere look, they can transform a disciple who is ready.

Anyone (or anything) that opens our inner eye towards a path of Light is capable of becoming a Guru. To saint Arunagirinathar, his sister became a guru, for with just one sentence she created a complete inner transformation in him! We have all heard of the 24 'Gurus' of Dattatreya - earth, air, sun, moon, pigeon, python, bee, elephant, fish, spider, a courtesan named Pingala etc, etc.

Acharyas on the other hand, are proficient in shastras or in a particular art or craft and they are teachers and mentors. The training they impart is in achieving mastery in an external discipline. Here, the student's quest is to learn and discover more and more. Their pursuit and seeking never cease, they only grow! They are apt models for the wise words of the Tamil poetess Avvaiyar:

(Katradhu kaimann aLavu, kallaadhulagaLavendru Utra kalaimadanthai OdhugiraaL)
"What I have learnt is equal to a fistful of sand, what is yet to be learnt is equal to the size of an ocean! So saying, even Sarasvati, the Goddess of Learning is continuing to study and learn".

At this point, I am reminded of a lovely definition of the word 'Acharya' that I read once:
"Aacharati svayam, Sishyebhyascha Aacharam graahayati iti Aachaaryah"
- an Acharya is one who follows the path himself and also teaches the students to follow the path.
Thus, an Acharya is a teacher. In that respect, I think, our dance/music guides and mentors should be rightly referred to as Acharyas only. Of course, there have been able and enlightened Acharyas who have evolved into Diksha Gurus too, but Self-knowledge is an intense subject and not everybody can claim to be capable of guiding us in it.

Another important thing to remember is that, A GURU DOES NOT BECOME A GURU ON HIS/HER OWN! Even an enlightened master remains only an enlightened master. It is a disciple who turns a master into a guru. This can be explained by something Swami Tejomayananda once said. When asked what the difference was between a saint and a guru, he replied, "A saint belongs to the world but a guru is your own." This aphorism-like statement suggests that by following the guru (not physically like a wagging tail, but by following his teachings for Self-Realization and applying them in one's life), it is the disciple who turns the saint of the world into a guru of his own. So, the 'Guru-Sishya' relationship is a personal one and this name-designation is not meant to be thrown around as a generic nomenclature.

Look at the names of some of the greatest enlightened masters of our culture - Shankaracharya, or Ramanujacharya, or Madhavacharya! Even they did not call themselves 'Gurus', but only as Acharyas (because they were teachers). They might have been 'Gurus' to their 'knowledge' seeking disciples, but it seems they preferred to remain 'Acharyas' for the rest of the 'information' seeking world. In fact, being able to call a Master as our 'Guru' is a privilege, and we can earn that privilege only when we commit to applying the Master's inner transformative teachings in our life.

These days everybody calls themselves Gurus (especially dance/music teachers) and there is a huge undeserved self-aggrandization that results. The English dictionaries may carry the word in its pages, listing its casual meaning as "popular expert" and "skilled advice giver". But, we of this culture should sincerely make an effort to know the difference between a Rishi, a Guru, a Satguru and an Acharya, learn the real import of these titles, use them appropriately, and most importantly keep the two sacred observance days - Guru Purnima (for Guru) and Vijayadasami (for Acharya) - separate.

And, that's that for now!

Ramaa Bharadvaj is a storyteller and loves to tell stories both with movements and with words. After 31 years in USA as an award-winning dancer, movement designer, educator, writer, arts advisor & advocist, she returned to India in 2009. She writes, travels, and speaks on the arts for diverse groups and also teaches and co-curates a national performing-arts festival at Chinmaya Naada Bindu Gurukula, Pune. She lives in Bangalore (but works in Kolwan, unwinds in Chennai and refreshes in California).

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