When I first came back to America from India in 1967 I didn’t really talk much about the guru because it seemed so inappropriate for the west. For one thing, there is always a mixed reaction to surrendering to another person. Surrendering in the west is almost always a negative. We don’t like being told what to do, we like to figure it out for ourselves. Surrendering means giving up your power and it usually has to do with the third chakra, ego and power, or with the second chakra and sexual dominance.
The true relationship between the guru and devotee is like Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita, meaning Song of God, is a relatively short piece of the giant Mahabharata epic. It’s a conversation between a warrior prince, Arjuna, and his charioteer, Krishna, who happens to be God incarnate, and takes place in the middle of a battlefield just before a major battle. As Krishna is the charioteer, the driver, and a divine friend and counselor to Arjuna on the battlefield, so the guru guides us through the battlefields of life to higher consciousness.
Through all these līlas of divine ‘play’ the guru keeps reminding us that he [or she] isn’t the human form but the divine One. At the same time there’s the intimacy of a being who knows our hearts from inside. In the eleventh chapter of the Gita, Arjuna asks to see who this God really is, and Krishna reveals his Universal form as the whole cosmos. Arjuna is overwhelmed, and begs Krishna to resume his human form so he can keep relating to him as his friend.
What’s a guru?
Guru literally means remover of darkness, one who can enlighten you. We usually take it to mean a guide or teacher, and certainly the term has infiltrated pop culture, like a fashion guru or a sex guru. A real guru is different from a teacher. If you think of the spiritual path as the road home to your true Self, a teacher is someone standing next to you pointing and giving directions, while the guru is up the road ahead, beckoning to you from your destination. He or she is someone who has already made the journey and knows the lay of the land. In fact, the guru knows it’s all One, that the journey is an illusion and that it’s all right here, and your being is just another face of the One. Their job is to get you to know that, too.
The guru may be called by many names. In the west people might receive messages from their guru and they think of them as angels or astral beings or ascended masters.
In the Vedas, the ancient sources of Hinduism, there are three ways to acquire spiritual knowledge. The highest is direct personal experience. Next is hearing it directly from someone who knows, which is the transmission from the guru. Last and least is reading or studying about it which is what we’re doing now. We have to start somewhere.
Once we catch a glimpse, a darshan, of everything as One, the possibility of becoming One ourselves leads us to seek further on the path. That’s where a guru can help, providing grace to reunite us with the Beloved, to take us into the One. They are the model, they’ve been there, done that, they are there. The guru is someone to hang out with on the inner journey, like an imaginary friend in your mind, not quite as close as your own Self but not distant either. This friend and you are going on a journey within, which is your spiritual life, and your friend just happens to have total compassion, wisdom, peace, love and joy. It’s completely intimate. Your friend may seem be coming from outside yet he manifests inside.
Someone asked Maharaj-ji, “How do I know if someone is my guru?” Maharaj-ji said, “Do you feel he can fulfill you in every way spiritually? Do you feel he can free you from all desires and attachments? Do you feel he can lead you to final liberation?”
Maharaj-ji said, “The guru is not external. It is not necessary for you to meet your guru on the physical plane.”
– Ram Dass