What is guru… where do we go from here?

A guru opens doors, brings light to a practice and knowledge of something beautiful, it could be spiritual, musical or otherwise. He or she needs to pass on the value of their struggle to achieve something of great value. Choosing a guru is a very important life decision, because we may need them to fulfill our life purpose.

Personally, as a practitioner of South Asian raga music for 35 years, I can honestly say that a guru is a life-changing relationship. My favorite quote on this from the great tabla maestro, dancer, and visual artist, Pandit Ravi Bellare who said, “he is a true guru by whose very contact there flows complete joy.” 

Pt. Ravi Bellare, was an amazing personality from whom I learned and performed with while he was here in Los Angeles area.

I love this, because it so validates my own experience as a shishya (disciple) in this music. The deeper implication perhaps is that a guru should not bring undo suffering onto others either. A guru is not your friend, not even just your teacher either, and more than a guide, though a guru may encompass all these things, it's something more and... I think that is where sometimes problems of abuse can creep in. 

A guru doesn’t need your money. If you contribute to a guru financially or otherwise, you must see that support as a gift from your heart not as a contract for services. A contract is limited by words, whereas a guru/shishya relationship is unlimited. In both directions, the flow of love must be unfettered. A guru doesn't need to manipulate or coerce disciples. They should not use their position of power, charisma, or talent in any manipulative ways. No matter how much disciples love, admire and serve their guru, he/she should never exploit them for sex. Sadly, sexual exploitation has become a kind of cliche behavior for gurus. Now, things are slowly changing and thankfully in the 21st century respect for women is finally being uplifted around the world. We must live with the reality that every woman’s mind, body and personal boundaries are worthy of respect and full human dignity. 

A guru is free to accept or deny a shishya but once there is acceptance, the guru should not withhold information, because of bias or preferential treatment or special access. A guru will expect that disciples trust the process and follow the path of learning even when they do not understand why. Think deeply before taking on a relationship of this kind of depth and commitment.  Consider, before you ask a million questions “why this, why that?” or make demands that “I want to do this and I want that…” Do your homework and figure out if this particular guru is right for you. Once you do, and they have accepted you, trust them to take you where you need to go. 

A guru models the humility he/she expects from the disciples. A guru does not tolerate one-upmanship and ego trips to poison the community with competitive confusion that obfuscates any pure motivation to learn. The process of learning may contain criticism which in another context, may be considered harsh or even psychologically abusive. This is a complex process and you may get hurt. A shishya may also hurt a guru by doing something he/she feels is inappropriate. If you're not South Asian, there are cultural things that you may have a limited capacity to understand at first, or you even may never agree with. On top of that human beings are individuals who see things differently and act according to what they think is right, and you may think that thing is wrong. 

My guru-bahin, a young Anoushka Shankar learning from her father, Pt. Ravi Shankar

A guru must be cognizant of the intention he/she brings to their criticism and a shishya must trust that the words come from a place of love and belief in their talent and inherent value. The more you leave your ego at the door the more you will learn. Nobody's twisting your arm to take a guru. Try not to romanticize the relationship. Show respect but try not to put your guru on a pedestal, they are normal people with flaws just like everyone else. It will be easier to speak up if there is a problem. The tradition has problems and we need to face them. They are human problems and we find them in all cultures, in no place should these problems be swept under the rug. That a guru is “divine” should not excuse criticism for very human behaviors and abuses. 

I believe a shishya must be free to express their truth and be free to practice in a safe nurturing space. We must all learn to be better gurus and better shishyas because if you have a good guru you are truly privileged. In some classical Hindu thought guru is akin to God. Think about what kind of god you wish to serve because guruseva (service) is a thing and a common expectation.  

Give thanks, because when we understand the tradition well, we may develop the capacity to contribute to it one day. If we come to it with humility and a kind of clarity and vision, we can expect the best and that provides a higher bar for gurus to maintain themselves and their behavior. If we expect ethical behavior and communicate in a transparent way, the guru shishya parampara (tradition) will continue to evolve and sustain the essence of this precious and beautiful music.  

Gurus will continue to plant the seeds and fertilize future generations of great artists and personalities in all disciplines. We need them. Why? Because they may point the way to some kind of liberation, they can see and hear things that we cannot. Finally, a great guru will strive to make you independent, able to eventually teach yourself things and keep growing and becoming a life-long learner, one who may one day be a guru for the next generation. 

At Cal Arts with the guru I feel closest and most influenced by Pt Rajeev Taranath the inimitable musician, intellectual, social critic.

5 comments

  • David  Livingstone
    David Livingstone
    Great essay Paul, I think it could be even better, however, if you included some personal anecdotes about your own gurus and how they impacted you.

    Great essay Paul, I think it could be even better, however, if you included some personal anecdotes about your own gurus and how they impacted you.

  • Paul Livingstone
    Paul Livingstone
    Thanks man, its a good idea. Ill do it in another post. Lots of stories to tell... and my experience with gurus has been overwhelmingly positive and amazing! I wanted to keep this one mostly impersonal though, especially after hearing a lot of painful things, which were not really personal for me. Nevertheless, I believe in this music, and really any music or art does make us more sensative as human beings and I definitely felt some amount of pain and sadness by proxy.

    Thanks man, its a good idea. Ill do it in another post. Lots of stories to tell... and my experience with gurus has been overwhelmingly positive and amazing! I wanted to keep this one mostly impersonal though, especially after hearing a lot of painful things, which were not really personal for me. Nevertheless, I believe in this music, and really any music or art does make us more sensative as human beings and I definitely felt some amount of pain and sadness by proxy.

  • Nancy P.
    Nancy P. Los Angeles
    Some beautiful reflections, with a very open heart. As one who has had many 'gurus' and 'gurvis' and who makes a distinction between the spiritual guru and other teachers, I find many layers to unpack in understanding my role and my teacher's role. Clean, pure energy is very hard to find. We are all compromised in one way or another...including most 'gurus'. No one is immune from this when in a human body. I have questioned things my teachers have said and done; for me this showed I trusted them. And if something felt wrong to me, I always said something, and watched the response. One of my gurvis said to me recently, "Do not force the feminine, ever. It is a flow and it cannot be forced to bloom." So many teachings and teachers have been influenced by the force of patriarchy and its means of trying to control, to gain something. This happens even within our own bodies. A true teacher will never force, even if they are strong, or harsh, or critical, demanding and hard to aspire and live up to. The difference is very fine; the more we know ourselves, the more we can feel it what is nurturing to us and fiercely protect that when necessary. Let's continue our dialogue, my friend!

    Some beautiful reflections, with a very open heart. As one who has had many 'gurus' and 'gurvis' and who makes a distinction between the spiritual guru and other teachers, I find many layers to unpack in understanding my role and my teacher's role. Clean, pure energy is very hard to find. We are all compromised in one way or another...including most 'gurus'. No one is immune from this when in a human body. I have questioned things my teachers have said and done; for me this showed I trusted them. And if something felt wrong to me, I always said something, and watched the response. One of my gurvis said to me recently, "Do not force the feminine, ever. It is a flow and it cannot be forced to bloom." So many teachings and teachers have been influenced by the force of patriarchy and its means of trying to control, to gain something. This happens even within our own bodies. A true teacher will never force, even if they are strong, or harsh, or critical, demanding and hard to aspire and live up to. The difference is very fine; the more we know ourselves, the more we can feel it what is nurturing to us and fiercely protect that when necessary. Let's continue our dialogue, my friend!

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