In an age of cyberspace, how valid or relevant is the concept of guru? Will the guru ever be replaced by the wonders of science? Is the guru likely to become obsolete in an era of obsolescence? Every generation may have shared similar fears and asked similar questions. All the while, gurus have been running through the fabric of life, like a golden thread, lighting up the path for the earnest seeker.
Gurus seem to have been with us since the dawn of consciousness. One story about a guru and disciple leads to another, until we reach an age when everyone is busy sharpening flint tools, while one mind is quietly shaping the world's first wheel! In any period in the history of humanity, one person always seems to have known more than the majority. In the dark middle ages, such men and women were stoned to death or burnt at the stake.
At a time in the hoary past when society was on the threshold of awareness, knowledge had to be transferred as a keepsake for posterity. For this purpose, several superior souls in the East became a glorious line of rishis, munis, teachers and masters. In the process some transformed themselves into immaculate beings, for whatever they taught was what they had personally experienced. Others were already of a higher level of evolution, capable of receiving, understanding and disseminating the higher spiritual knowledge.
Several great teachers appeared in Greece, perhaps at a time when the Buddha was giving satsangs in India. Fruits of spiritual contact with India, these masters disappeared without leaving behind foundations for spiritual growth.
The seeds of technology in the collective unconscious seem to have engulfed the nascent spirituality. So, instead of a line of gurus there arose a splendid line of teachers whose energies were directed at the pursuit and refining of arts and drama, language and logic, warfare and its machinery, and even to such an absurdity as establishing the school of sophism!
Maybe their pantheon of gods and goddesses, with similarities to the Indian pantheon, their temples and god King Zeus, comparable to Indra, and their mythology were enough to meet their spiritual needs. Their priests, priestesses and oracles provided a direct communion with their gods and goddesses in much the same way as in Indian mythology. But there was a big difference. In Greece, the high priestesses, priests and oracles provided the link, whereas in India the rishis, munis, saints and sadhus, and even the most ordinary man with spiritual awakening, were linked directly to their ishta devata.
However, the emerging city states were so immersed in drawing up a blueprint for the future of Europe, in evolving the theory of the state and defining the duties of the citizen, that pursuit of spirituality was not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Socrates is a classic example. Like others of his time, he was more concerned with his role as a citizen, because he was a product of political wisdom with no reported spiritual upbringing. If he had a guru in the mountains, no one has ever heard of him. There were no spiritual texts to guide him, not even a beckoning star in the East. Yet Socrates began adopting all the vestiges of a sannyasin. While his contemporaries generally amassed wealth from their teachings, he claimed truthfully that he was only a beggar living on the goodwill of his students. When these students showed signs of becoming his disciples, lesser minds of the time saw the dangers to the concepts of the state and society. If theocracy and democracy were to survive, no one could be allowed to be elevated to realms beyond the state. So Socrates was accused of treason and sentenced to death by poison. The great mind drank it willingly.
If Socrates had a guru at all, it was perhaps his own mind. The strength of its logical thinking, which remained unsurpassed in an age of thinkers, was the kind of mind stuff that could have elevated him to gurudom if he had been blessed with the spiritual guidance of a master. Instead, Socrates delighted in destroying the accepted social and political mores of the time. So great was the strength of his mind that most of his reasonings are valid even today, as valid as the teachings of the Buddha.
Such has been the case with several great souls of the West. Despite being caught up in the miracles of modern times, they have shone like the proverbial light under the bushel in their chosen fields of arts, music and science. Louis Armstrong is a great name in the world of music. Long after his death, he is still referred to as the guru of jazz, but the sobriquet 'guru' is used only to indicate his eminence in the world of jazz. People who had the good fortune to see him perform live still remember the electric presence of the man as soon as he stepped on to the stage. Yet Armstrong never made it to gurudom to the level of Allauddin Khan, the guru of Ravi Shankar and the doyen of gurus in the world of Indian music. He did not even become a guru in the same sense as several Indian music and dance masters of the time. Louis Armstrong boasted of a gold plated wash basin while Allauddin Khan lived in an ordinary house in a village town!
Is there more to gurudom than mere dakshina and discipleship, like total dedication to one's art, simplicity of lifestyle, ennobling qualities, and humility? Here seems to lie the crux of the problem. The western mind is not willing to pay the price of gurudom. Nurtured by technological comforts at every step, the individual becomes too comfort-oriented. Ridiculously low priority products are developed employing some of the finest brain power available. Then the great wheel of consumerism takes over, and the more society becomes used to such products, the more society expects. The individual gets caught up in the web of technology, as fine and as strong as maya can make it! The most natural activity of kicking a ball becomes a multi billion dollar industry in which super geniuses and super neurotics head for stardom.
Thus from early childhood one is brought up in an environment of success, money, name and power. Who then needs spirituality, self-realisation or gurudom? Who has the time to become a disciple in the first place? However, when we look around, we find that the bogey of materialism is just that. Milarepa's contemporaries, chose materialism at the cost of truth and spirituality, and they craved for the modern things of their time. This is the case in any age. It is for the seeker to balance one against the other.
In a materially advanced country like Japan, the qualities that define masters are those which are applicable to gurus. Masters of traditional arts and crafts are revered and accepted by society as such. On their part the masters reciprocate the expectations of society through a lifestyle that is not self-centred but dedicated to the pursuit and excellence of their art. However famous or rich they become, humility and simplicity of lifestyle are always the hallmark of master status. Even to become a champion sumo wrestler, it is not enough to just defeat everyone else. The candidate's personal behaviour is closely watched before he is granted the title of world champion.
Thus anybody in any part of the world can become a guru. The guru tattwa or essence of gurudom must seep through the cultural mores of society and the individual. The bond between guru and disciple must be strengthened over several lifetimes, for yoga says that guru and disciple are made for each other. Traditionally, it is the disciple who goes in search of his guru; once he finds his guru he stays with him for a minimum of twelve years. What is not generally realised, however, is that the guru is also in search of his disciple, and guru and disciple meet in several lifetimes.
For instance, before the famous Milarepa could reach the guru Marpa's house, the guru had a dream. He saw a dorje, a three-pointed Tibetan yoga symbol, which was slightly soiled. Marpa got up early after the night's dream, dressed and told his wife that he was going to plough the fields. No lama ever tills the fields himself. His students or villagers help him, because the lama is revered as a guru. His wife was also surprised as Marpa had never tilled the fields before. As Milarepa came up from the valley, making enquiries about where Marpa, the great translator, lived, he found a lama pretending to plough the field. Marpa was waiting for his disciple to show up and that's how the guru and his star pupil met for the first time in this dimension or in that lifetime.
The concept of guru in the Indian spiritual and cultural milieu is not an isolated phenomenon, but it is one half of the story. The other half is that of the disciple. Without a disciple there cannot be a guru. And every great guru has a great disciple; examples that come to mind immediately are Marpa and Milarepa, Matsyendrath and Gorakanath, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, Aurobindo and the Mother, and closer to home the trinity of Swami Sivananda, Paramahamsa Satyananda and Swami Niranjanananda forms an unbroken line.
During its golden age, Greece produced a similar trinity Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. However, they were not in the same mould as that of guru and disciple. Theirs was merely a teacher and student relationship, without a strong spiritual bonding. This lack of spiritual bonding could be one reason why the West doesn't seem to have produced a guru of repute, nor disciples who could lift a teacher up to great heights. Let's make no mistake. There are guru-quality minds and disciple-quality minds, but one merely seems to become a great teacher and the other a great student.
There are several gurus of the highest calibre in India; some are mahants heading maths, some are acharyas looking after the affairs of ashrams, and a silent majority are hidden in the nooks and niches of the mountains or behind the simplicity of the householder's garb. However, for every one who is sitting on the throne of spiritual glory, there are hundreds still fighting off their basic instincts. For them, gurudom or even discipleship is still a speck on the horizon.
So how each one faces up to the temptations of materialism will depend on his or her state of evolution, and the nature and scope of his or her mission in life. Technological trappings are just signs of the time or age. One can always be in splendid isolation, shorn of trappings, or be surrounded by computers and fax machines, mobile phones and air conditioners. The guru tattwa, the essence of gurudom, transcends the temptations of the age or clime in which it takes form and remains pure, untainted, niranjan.