Guru Purnima: Finding the Teachers Around Us and Within Us

by Sadhana member Hari Venkatachalam 

Guru: Dispelling Darkness through Action

The syllable Gu indicates darkness, the syllable Ru means its dispeller,

Because of the quality of dispelling darkness, the Guru is thus termed.

- Advayataraka Upanishad

                  The word Guru has become a universally recognized term. In English, it has become a passive term, referring to an individual who carries with them a great deal of knowledge. This is illustrated by its common use in many expressions, such as “business guru.” Even Forbes Magazine releases lists of influential “business and management gurus” across the world.

                  I can appreciate words entering foreign languages and molding themselves to take on unique meanings in their new social and cultural context. However, I do feel that there has been an aspect of the original Sanskrit term that has been lost in translation. Not just in translation from Sanskrit to the various Indian and non-Indian languages, but in translation over years of time from its original meaning to its modern usage.

A Guru is not just a passive personality; They are a “doer.” The word Guru was described in ancient texts as one who removes (“-ru”) the defect of ignorance (“Gu-“). The active definition of this word carries with it rich meaning: A Guru is a warrior of the human conscience and a champion of our principles.

In many ways, we all already know this is what a Guru is. As we dig into our past and we consider the names of the teachers who stand out from the crowd, rarely do we think of passive figures. We think of those who seized our minds with their words, who lived their truths through their actions, and who shared their worldview in such a convincing manner that it became our worldview.

On this Guru Purnima, I want you to consider the characteristics that make use see certain individuals as our “Gurus.” Can we describe characters from our scriptures as our Gurus? What about our parents, our friends, and our actual teachers? What about ourselves?     

Eklavya: The Self as a Guru

Who is better able to know God than I myself, since He resides in my heart and is the very essence of my being? Such should be the attitude of one who is seeking.

- Katha Upanishad

                  One of the most well-known teachers in the rich tapestry of Hindu literature is Drona. He is so highly regarded that his name is molded with Sandhi to form his widely recognized name: “Dronacharya,” meaning “the teacher Drona.” While Dronacharya’s wisdom and might are highly regarded in Hindu culture, he also faces a great deal of criticism, especially when it came to his treatment of the character Eklavya.

                  In the Mahabharatha, Eklavya is a young archer who is rejected as a student by Dronacharya due to what Drona perceived as his inferior lineage. Not deterred by this rejection, Eklavya built a statue of Dronacharya from mud and taught himself archery. At one point, Dronacharya comes across the skills of Eklavya and realizes that Eklavya’s skills surpass those of any other archer. Dronacharya, worried of the repercussions of such a skilled archer, demanded Guru Dakshina, or a fee. For his fee, he requested Eklavya’s right thumb. Eklavya, humble and dutiful, offered his thumb to Dronacharya and therefore disabled his archery skills for the rest of his life.

                  When I first read the story of Eklavya, I was filled with indignation. Hindu epics are filled with many individuals whose virtues and faults left them as gray-shaded characters, distinct from the dichotomies of “hero” and “villain.” At that moment, all of Drona’s teachings of Dharma, or righteousness, of responsibility, were reduced to dust by his pettiness and cruelty. Drona’s actions themselves find condemnation in the scriptures. Folklore abounds with tales of Goddess Saraswati cursing Drona with a shameful death for failing to perform his duty as a Guru.  

                  What also bothered me was that Dronacharya had no right to even claim “Guru Dakshina” from Eklavya. Dronacharya, as a passive figure who possesses knowledge but refuses to share it, is a Guru in many ways like the modern usage of the term Guru. In terms of Eklavya’s training in becoming a great archer, he is just a statue. He does not perform his actions as a teacher; he dispels neither darkness nor ignorance.

                  But in Eklavya’s story, there is a figure that performs the role of Guru. This figure performs the role with such prowess that Eklavya’s skills outstrip Arjuna, the most famous archer in Hindu literature. The Guru is Eklavya himself.

                  Coming from a rich heritage of Guru-Sisya, or teacher-student relationships, it is often easy to forget that sometimes we have much to learn from ourselves. There are lessons we can learn from our mistakes, from our conscience, from our sense of humanity, from our core beliefs. Some of the greatest activists of the past 100 years did not necessarily act under the instructions of others.  Rosa Parks, Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, and Malala Yousafzai all may have been inspired by the works of others, but in many ways, they acted as their own Gurus, shaping their own destinies.

Seeking Gurus Outside One’s Self

The mark of wisdom is to discern the truth
From whatever source it is heard.

– Kural 423, Thirukkural

                  From the countless adults who supported me, taught me, and shaped me when I was growing up, there is one man that specifically stands out in my mind. He was a Hindu religious teacher who used to run a local community group called “Story Hour” in my small central Pennsylvanian community. He was our beloved Storyteller.

Every other week, we would all gather in the basements of various homes throughout my community. I still remember how the sounds of socialization and children playing would fade as he closed eyes and began chanting Sanskrit mantras, indicating that it was time for him to begin his stories. Over the years, he would share countless stories from the Hindu scriptures with my family and other families in my hometown. His knowledge was immense, and he performed his role as a storyteller with grace. He weaved jokes into his tales leaving the children in giggles, but also incorporated stories from his life and his experiences; including the horrors of Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujurat, and the heroism of rare common folk who stood up against the violence.

                  His role as a “Guru” stuck with me over the years. I turned to lessons that he had shared from my childhood when I faced obstacles in my life. Not surprisingly, years later when I came out of the closet to my family and my community, he was one of the first people that I reached out to. It was a difficult time in my life, and I often felt weighed down by the heaviness of cruel words and cutting accusations.

                  During that time, I didn’t need the passive figure of a Guru; I needed a Doer. In that way, his support during that time was invaluable. It built my confidence to face adversity. It removed the darkness of loneliness. 

Honor the Gurus Who Teach Through Action

Let a man learn thoroughly whatever he may learn,

and let his conduct be worthy of his learning.

– Kural 391, Thirukkural

These Gurus, whether they be Eklavya or my storyteller in my home town all share one important characteristic. They live the definition of the word "Guru." Today Hindus all across the world will honor their teachers with gifts. I hope you celebrate this holiday, not with hollow gestures, but with introspection into your past and into your holy books.

Remember those people who were not just conveyors of knowledge, but who inspired through their actions, and acted with that knowledge. Don’t forget to consider how the most important Guru may rest not outside us, but in our hearts.

To all those Gurus, my Pranaam. For all those Gurus who have shaped the lives of others, even if it is just one life, I’ll leave with one last quote. It is from the Saint Tyagaraja in one of his famous Pancharatna Telugu Krithis “Endaro mahaanubhavulu, Andariki Vandanamulu.” “To all the many great men of the world, my salutations.”