Reflections on Guru-Disciple Relationship and #MeToo

The concept of the guru-shishya parampara is an ancient and venerable aspect of the Hindu tradition. From a young age, we are taught that the relationship between a teacher and a student is a sacred bond--guru sakshat parabrahma, meaning "the teacher is none other than the divine." It is believed that students will not be able to achieve success in their education without the blessings and guidance of a guru. In the Hindu calendar, the festival of Guru Purnima is dedicated to honoring the numerous teachers that shape our lives.

Yet even as we regard the guru-shishya tradition as a profound spiritual connection, we cannot forget that it is also a social relationship. And as with any social relationship, this connection is deeply conditioned by dynamics of power and questions of inequality. For as long as it has existed, the guru-shishya parampara has been embedded in the realities of gender and caste.

In the recent context of #MeToo, the world of South Indian classical music (Carnatic music) has heard many disturbing stories of gurus who have exploited their positions of respect and authority to take advantage of their disciples. These immoral abuses are intolerable for any spiritually-minded person. Recently, over 500 people signed onto a statement condemning sexual harassment, abuse, and assault in the music community. The Chennai Music Academy, the premier institution of Carnatic music, has made the bold decision to stand with survivors and take allegations of sexual harassment seriously. The Academy has been investigating complaints and has dropped 7 respected musicians and gurus from the December concert season.

How do we look for safety and accountability in the sacred bond between guru and shishya, between teacher and student? Is it possible for Hindus to honor the ideal aspects of this relationship while remaining alert to the realities of abuse and inequality? How do we support and stand with survivors in our own communities? Sadhana asked gurus and students in our community to grapple with some of these difficult questions and share their reflections on this matter.


Sameer Gupta:

Co-founder of Brooklyn Raga Massive (a 501(c)(3) artist collective dedicated to Indian Classical and Raga-Inspired music).

The #MeToo movement in Indian Classical Music is long overdue and I am glad for the multitude of voices rising up to help stop this horrible age old trend of abuse and harassment. We accept Indian Classical music as a profound musical tradition capable of elevating our consciousness towards sacred heights. But the historic and systematic way in which the leaders of our music, our Gurus, are perceived to be closer to 'Divinity' is a problem. When we place any person above another, it opens a door towards injustices like assault and abuse of power and all too often those actions are defended, ignored and sometimes even accepted.

We as a community of teaching artists need to take a critical look at how our music has historically and systematically contributed to patriarchy and misogyny within Indian Classical music. Most importantly we should consider the flaws in how we have built the 'Pillar of Guru-Shishya Parampara." We need to consider if our music is better served without one person ever being seen as closer to the 'Divine.' Do we give our gurus freedom to possibly act in morally questionable ways? Any group that puts a person or group of people in a position of access to the 'Divine' in a way that others are not sadly allows for those individual's gross misconduct and abuse of power among the group at large. Now it is clear that the abuse of power has run unchecked among our communities of Indian Classical music supporters for far too long. It must stop and we are the ones to stop it.

Ma Mokshapriya Shakti, PhD:

Spiritual advisor and certified yoga teacher, Ma Yogashakti International Mission

The relationship between guru and disciple is very special. When a guru takes on a disciple or sishya it is her duty to empower the disciple to learn and grow.  The ancient tradition of guru-sishya as it is practiced in modern times, is not healthy for either guru or disciple. I am positive that the sages of old did not wish this beautiful tradition to be interpreted and practiced in the way it currently is.

Yes, Guru is Brahma. God resides in all!  It is every soul’s desire to return to the source from which we came. This is why religions, cults, and gurus have such powerful influence over humanity. However, each soul came to this incarnation with a purpose or a goal. It is the duty of the Guru to empower the disciple to seek that goal in order to fulfill the desire of the soul. Through meditation and psychic abilities attained through study, practice, and discipline, the guru has insight about what that disciple needs and the path that is the most beneficial.

Now comes the difficulty. The disciple’s intense desire to fulfill the soul’s journey causes her to be willing to hand her power over to the guru. Many times people are insistent upon this because through guru’s grace it seems that they would not need to do all the hard work. The tradition of ishvarapranidhana—bowing down to god or guru—is not done to honor either of these beings. Its purpose is to conquer the ego, which prevents us from attaining our goals. Unless we can bow down to a higher force, spiritual learning cannot take place.

The guru is in a very difficult position. On one hand, she has to empower the student to seek her own path; on the other, she has to discourage the stubborn ego that keeps her from the path. As the students get closer to their soul’s desires, they begin to attribute more power to the guru. This often makes them think that surrender to their guru is needed.

Everyone in human form will have weaknesses. When this relationship begins to get out-of-balance, it begins to feed the ego weaknesses of both the student and the guru. The guru feels powerful, and the student feels she must give up her power in order to keep growing. Abuse may, and does, happen frequently. Most gurus did not take on this role to abuse others, it is this imbalanced power dynamic that causes the ego to arise. We must understand the cause, so that we can be aware and correct it.

The guru-sishya relationship is very important and should not be abandoned, but changes need to be made.  A guru is a guide—a human guide that has strengths and weaknesses, but practices and lives the path. The relationship between disciple and guru should be one of respect, and also open to interaction. The disciple needs to understand that knowledge and power is channeled through the guru from a divine source and does not originate within the person. Divine power comes in the forms of love, understanding and acceptance, not through control.

Many times, abused disciples make elaborate excuses for the guru’s inappropriate actions. Both guru and sishya have equal responsibility. My guru, Mataji, once told to me that if God came down and told her to do something that she did not feel was appropriate, she would not do it. We are each responsible for our own evolution.

Students must always have respectful love for the teacher. Through respect, you raise your own consciousness which allows you to receive wisdom both subconsciously and unconsciously. In turn, the teacher must practice what they teach, because teaching comes more through example than words.

In the ultimate reality, each person we meet is our guru, because we learn from every interaction. The sishya who has a guru is very blessed, and a guru who sees disciples growing and blossoming is also very blessed. It is a mutual love that is very special and profound.

The disciple has more power than than she realizes, because she has the ability to carefully choose her own guru. However, the guru has to agree to take each disciple who comes to her. We are all on the journey to self-actualization and self-realization, some of us are further along the path only.

“Oh, if you only knew yourselves! You are souls; you are Gods. If ever I feel like blaspheming, it is when I call you man.” —Swami Vivekananda

Aditi Dhruv:

Dancer, Yoga teacher, MA candidate in Ethics and Society at Fordham University

As a student of dance and yoga, and a teacher of yoga, I'm very distressed to hear about the multiple abuse allegations that have been happening for years. I first need to say that I have the "lucky" privilege of never being assaulted or abused by any teacher/guru so I cannot speak from personal experience as a survivor. I do not presume to speak for them. I support, believe and stand by all survivors of assault and abuse, wherever they may be and in whatever field.

I abhor any person who assumes a certitude of knowledge. As our scriptures tell us, eternal knowledge has always existed and will continue after us. Gurus teach this knowledge to their students and for that we are all fortunate. But a guru’s knowledge does not make her the Supreme Knower. My role as a yoga teacher is not one of knowing the Truth, but rather, a guide to show others the path toward knowledge. I am not so humble as to say I don't know anything about yoga, but I also can admit I don't know everything. I can guide and suggest but it is also my job to stop when the student is no longer receiving knowledge or has surpassed my own knowledge.

When the guru is mistaken for a “Divine Supreme Knower,” hierarchies of power are created and the risk of abuse becomes possible. Hierarchy cannot exist without both players involved - the one with power and the one without. The burden of change is not on the one without power - the responsibility is on the one with power. Power, like any other human construct, can be used for good or bad. The one who holds power has the responsibility to ethically discern how and when to exert this power.

In my opinion, placing our faith in scriptures and texts alone is problematic because we run the risk of taking every word literally. This allows no room for growth in human knowledge and experience. As teachers, people with power, we must be vigilant of how our interpretations of the text are understood. We must not unwittingly perpetrate and perpetuate structures of abuse.

Approaching a teacher as a student, admitting that you do not know something is an expression of vulnerability. Teachers cannot take advantage of this. A teacher making sexual comments, implying sexual activity or brazenly touching in a sexual manner is abuse of power and must be held accountable by law and by social mores. There is no way around that, there is no way to qualify that, and there ought not to be a whispering away of it. Every survivor who has courageously spoken their truth and told their experiences has brought 'dirty' and ‘secret’ interactions to light. Once uncovered and seen, it cannot be unseen. For every survivor who has spoken, I know there are many more who haven't, afraid of backlash and social stigma.  Teachers, those of us in power, must also stand up and speak out in support of survivors. I am grateful for people like TM Krishna and Anita Ratnam but more of us need to stand with survivors. Enough! Time's up!

Ananya Vajpeyi:

Ananya Vajpeyi is an Indian scholar, academic, columnist, and advocate for social justice. In recent years, she has become involved with a campaign to democratize and diversify the classical arts in Chennai; she has been writing about Carnatic music since 2016.

I am an early signatory — a first responder if you like — to the statement mentioned above (even though I am not a practitioner of Carnatic Music).

In the ancient world, in Sanskrit, words for teaching-learning, pedagogy-discipline, nurture-mastery, education-submission, all spring from the same roots. While the bond between teacher and student is indeed special and close, I think the recognition of power being embedded in and structuring of this relationship is quite clear in the etymology itself. Also, while occasionally you find narratives of teacher-student dyads that break caste rules, it’s not easy to find narratives about women who are either teachers or students in the patriarchal and brahminical universe of Sanskrit literature (female intellectuals are sometimes mentioned, but very rarely).

Nonetheless women today are very much a part of the entire educational system of modern India as well as of the practice and pedagogy of the so-called classical arts. While they like men are trained with the guru-sishya ideal in mind, how exactly that is to work across gender difference is not specified either by traditional protocols (which have little or no reference to women anyway), or by the rules of the modern academy (where, as we are discovering, gender discrimination, patriarchal domination and sexual harassment are rampant). The shocking revelations from the Carnatic Me Too discourse of the past few weeks / months surely show up the complicity, silence and sexism that hide in the light of the guru-sishya parampara. Girls and women — across caste and class — are exposed and vulnerable to coercion, abuse and violence in the name of obedience to the guru.

Ranajit Guha long ago identified Hindu cultural values like Bhakti and Seva as responsible in some measure for creating the conditions for colonialism: it’s a disposition, if you like, marked by devotion and servitude that then has grave economic and political consequences. Autonomy, swaraj, is hard won in such a scenario and this extends all the way from politics to the arts. The Self-Respect movements in the South throughout the 20th century were about flattening out hierarchies in the social sphere but somehow the status of women got left out or marginalized even in these powerful transformations that have ushered in political modernity.

Arguably the path to liberation in the metaphysical sense is open to all in Hindu thought, women can be seekers and can find spiritual and existential emancipation and enlightenment. But it is living here and now in this world, embedded and enmeshed in the realities of social relations and institutional power structures, that we need to find greater room, greater participation and greater justice for the female half of humanity. A quest of this kind will only strengthen our arts and sciences, not undermine them.

It’s crucial to recognize that while there is naturally a flow of knowledge from the teacher (who knows more) to the student (who knows less); while this flow is directional and based on a the fact that the teacher and the taught DO NOT stand on the same plane, they ARE at different — unequal — levels of aptitude, competence, expertise and so on — this practical disciplinary inequality (usually underscored by a generational difference) does not obviate other kinds of equality that must be assumed and observed in a modern democracy which guarantees equal citizenship, gender parity and universal human rights. Being a teacher is no license to take advantage of students and young people who come to you to learn. Learning cannot happen where violence exists between teacher and taught.

I could not be who I am or do what I do without my teachers: men and women. But I have been fortunate to relate to my teachers as falling somewhere between beloved parents and close friends. All around me women have not been so lucky (and this is true even of the West, not just India). Sexual exploitation in ALL spheres of activity has to be called out and halted, reparations and reconciliation must occur, equality and respect must be negotiated, and we have to move forward into a new set of norms and values regulating our pedagogical spaces.

Anonymous, Carnatic musician and sociology scholar:

I feel uncomfortable answering the question as it is framed and believe we should take a more intersectional approach. Many castes have been historically denied the ability to even claim discipleship through the guru-sishya tradition. Today we see how many communities are systematically excluded from studying Carnatic music and the classical arts. So I believe these questions around the guru and sishya relationship limit our ability to think about who the real victims of this system are. I think we should use this opportunity to talk about how our glib assumptions about who is a sexual predator might be loaded with class and caste biases. The middle class and upper-caste woman is always depicted by our society as being in danger of being assaulted by rural, lower-caste, and lower-class men. The recent allegations at the Chennai Music Academy challenges us to seriously question these assumptions. We need to examine why sexual assault gets more visibility when it happens to an upper-caste middle-class woman. When we consider questions of power in relation to the guru-sishya parampara, we can’t avoid thinking about the ways it has enabled exclusion and caste hierarchy in our communities.

V.V. Raman:

Emeritus Professor of Physics and Humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a member of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science

I have never been a guru to anyone, nor am I writing this as a guru. Invoking ancient frameworks which gave us solace and feelings of cultural superiority may not be the best way to confront this sad situation. What we are witnessing is not an aberration but a revelation of thus far cleverly hidden truths about male (mis)behavior over the ages in all cultures. We need to move forward with fresh enlightened resolutions and visions never more to engage in such deplorable behavior, not try to hang on to old paradigms which have been infected over the centuries. We need to recall and revere the wisdom teachings of our ancestors, and act upon them, not just experience cultural pride while whitewashing some of the horrors that have emerged in our history. This is the task of people of all cultures and creeds. Humanity is in dire need of an enlightened resurgence.

Hari Nott:

Hindustani Classical singer, teacher and student based in Brooklyn, NY

Abuse of power is unacceptable in any walk of life.  I am glad that Music Academy has taken a bold action to do right. I am glad that as humanity we have finally(!)) come to point where we can speak up and hold people to account.   I find Indian philosophy, beliefs and actions advanced in some areas and regressive in others.  There have been people who have been preaching love, understanding and universality for many millennia.  But this is also a society that carries out, tolerates, defends, explains away egregious acts of violence, intimidation and suppression.  There are bad actors everywhere, but in India in the name of tradition they have gotten away with murder.

Indian classical music has not escaped this phenomenon. It is rooted in a highly refined foundation of aesthetics and tradition, like the guru-shishya parampara - I mean what a way to experience learning.  A good Guru not only teaches music, but fills your heart with love, awareness and oneness with nature.  He / she holds your hands and leads you down a path of self discovery and glimpses of divine.  When true, there is no bond stronger between that of a guru & sishya.  I am not surprised that even this tradition has its share of bad actors.  I am not sure what force of nature and reasoning would allow a person to act in ways that interminably hurts another soul, and that too of a person who has placed trust on them.  That person cannot be a artist.  Art without a soul is no art.

Bertie Kibreah:

Tabla drummer, Bengali folk musician, PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago

Of the most momentous aspects of #MeToo is its ability to draw critical attention to longstanding issues regarding sexual harassment and assault, allowing not only for exceptional candor and camaraderie in the process, but across a pervasive range of fields including media, fashion, finance, government, sports, the military, the church, and the entertainment industry. With regard to time-honored forms of South Asian pedagogy, #MeToo also reminds us that the venerable tradition of guru-shishya-parampara not only continues to be sabotaged by disturbing breaches of authority with regard to issues of gender and caste, but also that these issues are not limited to particularly Hindu or particularly classical worldviews of music. Indeed, the most vital aspects of guru-shishya-parampara—its dimensions of intimacy, deference, commitment, and austerity—are found through the Indian Subcontinent, or wherever the traditional arts of South Asia are disseminated and flourish. As such, the sexual transgressions which defile guru-shishya-parampara are not limited to the negotiations of Hindu gurus and their disciples, but those of any religious persuasion involved in the tradition, which also include other virtuosic musical forms in South Asia, such as a range of vernacular arts, where this didactic custom similarly thrives.

My own research on folk and devotional music performance in Bangladesh has been both a rewarding and challenging experience and, while I have certainly faced many personal obstacles, I recognize my ability to traverse deep rural pockets of the country for all-night song programs has been partially accorded to me by my position as a male observer-performer in a Muslim-dominated region. This privilege, however, has also led me to realize that professionalized artists-practitioners of devotional music in Bangladesh, such as the baul and boyati communities, while themselves members of beautifully egalitarian traditions, are no less affected by the betrayal of authority which guru-shishya-parampara can propagate.

The larger network of baul musicians in Bengal advocate a particularly humanistic form of regional devotionality and mixed-gender ritual worship that has long enamored littérateurs and the bourgeoise alike, ultimately helping to define Bengali-ness in pivotal moments of modern history. The boyati community, tied to the institutions of Sufism, have developed a penchant for open-ended, dialectical performance which has instigated, amongst other things, the inclusion of female Muslim performers on traditional regional outdoors stages, which had hitherto been unheard of. With irony, both communities have developed art forms which are critical and self-aware of the very acts of impropriety which fester in their own learning environments.

To be sure, while each community has advocated their own idiosyncratic language and style, both are very much tied to guru-shishya-parampara through tactics of musical preservation, and this highlights an even more complicated and dangerous power-gender dynamic which #MeToo cautions. The baul, while embracing deeply Hindu constructions of metaphysics and theology, is not a member of a Hindu devotional tradition at all. The female Muslim boyati may discuss Muslim or Hindu arguments on the performative debate dais, but may not be subjected to issues of caste themselves. While this positionality may seem freeing, both can experience other kinds of personal violations which many performers surely must, as they prepare for long and fruitful stage careers.

Beyond both the Indian classical music domain, or intrinsically Hindu notions of knowledge access, guru-shishya-parampara is a double-edged sword because it signifies a bond that dispassionately fosters the kind of rigorous immersion required for mastery of South Asian aesthetics, yet can unfortunately tolerate grave wrongdoings through its formidable dynamics, which espouse confidential and exhaustive training. Regardless of how one might perceive the guru with regard to divinity, guru-shishya-parampara in any tradition has to reinforce the agency given to both guru and disciple in the process, which ought to maintain respect while demarcating lines of behavioral acceptability from the beginning of the journey together.

(Cover image source: Times of India)