Jagadguru Adishankaracharya. Translation and commentary: Swami Haripremananda Saraswati; psychological comments: Swami Muktananda Saraswati.

Vande gurunam charanaravinde
sandarshita sva atmasukhavabodhe
Nihshreyase mangalikayamane
samsara halahala moha shantaye

The guru shows the path to self-realization and bliss.
He is verily the embodiment of grace.
At his lotus feet I prostrate
to poison worldly delusion and find peace.

The guru is the guide. The exact meaning of guru is 'dispeller of darkness', which is known as avidya or ignorance. When this avidya is removed, the pure knowledge of the self is illumined in all its splendour. Only then will the disciple be able to realise the real self. Therefore, in the beginning of any work, prostrations are always made to guru.

Guru is always gracious. He can see the obstacle or blockage of the disciple and finds a suitable way to overcome it according to the disciple's temperament and tendencies. It can be done in any way, such as by rebuking, beating or advising, and so he prepares the disciple to walk the spiritual path. Nothing is greater than guru. Scripture says that the mantra, devata and the guru are the same. If one pleases his guru by devotional service, then by his grace everything will be easier for him. The identification of oneself with the phenomenal world of time and place, name and form, which bring pain and pleasure to the individual and force him to come again and again into this world in the birth and death cycle, are removed only by his grace. Therefore, after prostrating to the guru, Shankaracharya begins this Yoga Taravali, which in English may be translated as 'Stars of Yoga'.

Scripture says guru is the touchstone. In the beginning, even before creation, there was nothing but Brahma, the supreme consciousness. When he created this universe he kept himself separate in order to return to his original nature. Then he manifested himself in many ways. The part or the consciousness which he kept separate is jagad guru, the touchstone. He is not only the touchstone, but something greater than that. The touchstone can convert stone into gold, a diamond or precious thing, but guru, being a spiritual touchstone, converts the disciple or the stone into another touchstone. In the same way, brahmavid brahmaiva bhavanti means 'the knower of Brahma becomes verily the Brahma'.

In the text it speaks of svatma sukha - what is this self - happiness or pleasure? The Upanishads say that the self is the source of all happiness. Yajna-valkya says that for the self all things - son, wife, husband - seem to give happiness. Actually the self is the source of all happiness. From time immemorial the individual or jiva has been searching for something. What is that something? It may be a nice motor car, television, a beautiful house, one's own wife, son, friends etc. Though these are what he has desired for a long time, after getting them their satisfaction only lasts a little while. Why is it not forever? Because he does not know what he wants or desires. He knows he is searching for something. He wants something which will make him ever contented, ever blissful. Religion gives it many names; it says the target of the search is God, Allah, Jehovah, etc. Whatever the name may be, it is the consciousness of one's self, and here is to be found the end of all this searching. If one establishes himself in the self, then he will be immortal, ever blissful and will enjoy the sat, chit and ananda.

For this the lighthouse, the touchstone, is the guru who knows the way, who is realised and able to guide the disciple in the proper way to reach his destiny. Therefore the guru is always reverenced and salutations are always made to him.

Nihshreyase mangalikamane means embodiment of grace, auspiciousness. Why is he auspicious? The reason is that the guru never expects anything from a disciple. What is the best thing one can give to his guru, who shows the way to self-realization? The self is manifested in the various names and forms of the so-called phenomenal world. All siddhis and all power belong to the self. If one realises the self, siddhis and power follow him like the shadow follows the body. So what can one give the guru who is verily Brahma? The author has written some beautiful lines elsewhere, and some of these lines are as follows:

Who is full, all - pervading
how can he be invited?
Who is the origin and support of all,
what will be the seat for him?
Who is pure,
what will be the bath for him?
Whose abdomen is the whole universe,
what cloth can be offered to him?
Who gives light to the sun, moon and stars,
what lamp can one show to him?

Despite ingratitude or disobedience on the part of the disciple, the guru always does his best to bring light to the erring and unenlightened disciple. If this is so, how can one please his guru? Nothing can be given to him in return for his grace. When Shukadeva went to his guru Janaka to be initiated, Janaka asked for dakshina because after self-realization there will be no guru and no disciple, only sat, chit and ananda. What the disciple can give is his love, his service, his devotion, all his possessions, as a token of his gratitude. How much money one can give to his guru and how much devotion one can show are nothing unless one is able to listen and carry out the command or instruction of the guru. So guru is verily the embodiment of auspiciousness, he always wants to remove or destroy the veil, the illusion of the individual, expecting nothing in return. Therefore, in the beginning of the work, salutations are always made to guru with great reverence.

According to Hindu mythology, halahala is the deadly poison which came out during the churning of the ocean by the devas and asuras. This poison was so strong that nobody could keep his life in front of it, so they prayed to Lord Shiva who gladly drank it. He alone digested it easily. From the effects of this poison his neck turned blue, which is why his name is Nilakantha. He is verily the embodiment of yoga.

The author says that the illusion or delusion of this world is just like the halahala, which agitates mankind and has caused suffering through the ages. Again, the scriptures say that Lord Shiva is the guru of all and resembles every guru. Therefore only the guru will be able to eradicate this halahala or illusion.

What are the illusions of this world which are compared with this poison? These are the wrong identification of oneself with the phenomenal world, name and form, time and place. Whatever is liable to change is not eternal, though it seems to be. Real happiness lies not with the changing thing but with the unchanging thing. This hankering for and running after the unreal causes unhappiness and puts the individual in bondage. This is called 'vasana'. When by the grace of guru, the veil of illusion is removed, then the individual will be able to see his real form, which is pure consciousness, bliss, the eternal.

Psychological comments

Oriental psychology is inseparable from the ways of liberation - yoga, zen, Taoism and so on - with their emphasis on the guru. In the west, where God is an external authority rather than inner bliss, the soul is split from the body and mind. The functions of the guru are split between the religious pastor or father confessor and the psychotherapist.

The psychotherapist, like the guru, provides the techniques that provoke the deeper personality to reveal itself, and the emotional support to sustain the patient through the task of integrating these insights. However, in psychotherapy as in spiritual life, the essential work of confronting the unconscious is all undertaken by the patient. The role of therapist, like that of a guru, is more or less passive - a sensitive response determined by the actions and feelings of the patient.

In traditional Freudian analysis, the therapist is the silent listener to the patient's monologue of memory and fantasy. Like the guru, he intervenes only to shed some light on the patient's psychological blind-spots. It is the guru's habit to accept without judgement all aspects of the disciple's personality and his behaviour, at the same time reflecting this behaviour to show its inconsistencies and irrationalities. This is precisely the hallmark of the Rogerian therapist who provides unconditional support for his patient, while elaborating the patient's assumptions and rationalisations in such a way as to point out his defences and self-deceptions. Just as the guru helps the disciple discover the occult truths embodied in yantras, mandalas and other symbols of the unconscious, so the Jungian analyst guides his client towards integration through the manipulation of dream symbols and personal myths.

As with gurus, so with therapists. It is not the method but the relationship that is crucial. The core of all western psychotherapies is the relationship between therapist and patient; the catalyst to recovery is the unique interpersonal encounter rather than a particular array of techniques. In group therapy, there may be a dozen patients and no leader, but the functions of therapist are spread amongst the group and the interrelationship between its members is of prime importance.

The disciple must surrender to the guru. The patient must be open to the influence of the group or individual therapist. Continued resistance, shutting out, only dooms the relationship and renders any and all therapy ineffective.