Journey between Guru and Disciple

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

You become a disciple when you are able to discipline yourself. What is this discipline? The management of the six ‘friends’ makes you a disciple, prior to that you are only a chela. Chela means ‘jo chalta hai’, one who just tags along and struggles a lot. Such a person can be called by any name – aspirant, jignasu; novice, brahmachari, or aarthi, someone who needs help – but they are all always seeking self-gratification. On the other hand, a disciple is always trying to follow the discipline to acquire that balance and harmony in nature which can only be attained through inner discipline. That is the main difference between a disciple and an aspirant.

There are many aspirants who make the effort, who struggle, who fall and get up again, and who are determined. Maybe one day, when they reach the destination, they can be called disciples. However, that condition and awareness has to develop, it has to evolve.


Certain conditions hinder the spiritual connection of a disciple with the teacher. What are these conditions? The first one is imposing and seeking confirmation of their own ideas instead of trying to understand the guru’s teachings. This creates a barrier and becomes an impediment to absorbing the lessons to be learnt from the teacher. The second one is focusing on self-fulfilment and not on learning, which does not allow open communication between the teacher and the student to take place. The third condition is when the focus is more on the physical personality of the teacher and not on the tattwa, essence, which the person is trying to spread. There are many people who can say, “Swamiji is a nice person.” They focus on the personality. To focus on the essence, ‘Yes, Swamiji has said the right thing and I should make the effort to be like that’, is something only few people can do.

Another impediment is seeking emotional protection from the guru and projecting oneself emotionally on the teacher. One expects the teacher to play different roles in one’s life, sometimes as a therapist, sometimes as a consultant; sometimes as a financial advisor as well as a psychoanalyst at times; sometimes as a cook and other times as a priest. Most people have a muddled and confused idea about the role of the guru and that emotional projection does not allow for clear communication to take place.

Thinking that you are somebody special and so do not need to follow the maryada, disciplines, is another impediment. That feeling of being special comes as a result of attempting to advance your own arrogance and ego. Under such circumstances, how can you discipline yourself?

Expecting only softness from the teacher and always avoiding harshness is another barrier. Nothing is learned while you expect to be patted on the back and to be told what to do. You do not want any harshness to be directed at you because you don’t feel that there is any learning in it. That is one of the biggest flaws. Why would a teacher be hard with you? When he sees a definite flaw. That confrontation with your weakness is avoided by not learning from the harshness of the teacher. Instead you seek to protect your own weakness, so there is no change or transformation.

There is an attachment to your self-image and non-recognition of your weaknesses. Everybody is trying to project themselves as a nice, good person, someone of importance, position, power and who is liked, is close or special. There is no effort to recognize your weaknesses; rather you live a life of hypocrisy. This is another barrier to being a disciple.

Some people are also self-righteous, they criticize others at every given opportunity and are never supportive. “Oh, that person is like this. Oh, this person is like that. Oh, this does not happen like this. Oh, that does not happen like this.” Those who manifest such behaviour, being constantly critical and complaining, become totally isolated. Since there is no support and sympathy from them, nobody will support or sympathize with them either.

Over-thinking and under-application is also an impediment. Thinking a lot but applying little is a big impediment in spiritual life. There are also some people who transfer their worldly attachments onto the ashram environment, that also restricts advancement in spiritual life.

There are some people who are unable to stand on their own feet and they try to make guru their adviser. “What should I do, when should I do, how should I do?” There are many people who come to me and say, “Swamiji, I want to teach yoga.” I say, “Wonderful, do it.” Then I realize that I made a big mistake, because then they say to me, “Where should I open the centre? Can you give me the syllabus? How much should I charge? Can you set me up?” If you want to do something, do it yourself. Why are you asking for syllabus and where and how much to charge and all that? You just want to fulfil your ego through my advice and suggestion. Everybody wants guru to sponsor them to achieve recognition and status in society. That is wrong.

There are some impractical people too, who think of spiritual life only as meditation and negate everything else. So even they become failures in life.

Dharma of a disciple

When we look at these situations which arise due to the involvement with the senses, sense objects and the vrittis of mind, then the question arises – What should be the role, dharma and duty of an aspirant? The first and most important dharma or duty is to imbibe the teachings of the teacher.

I would like to share an experience that I have gone through in my life with my own guru. Whenever I used to meet my master, Swami Satyananda, I always had one thought in my mind: ‘Niranjan, be a sponge, soak in everything that you can.’ In every satsang, in every encounter with him I used to tell myself this, ‘Niranjan, be a sponge, soak in everything. You will not have another chance.’ I lived this thought throughout the entire life that I lived with Sri Swamiji and my aspiration was to imbibe the teaching. The application of that teaching is the real devotion to guru, to spiritual life and to God. Not washing the feet, that is not devotion.

Remember that devotion is never considered to be karmakanda, a ritual. That is only an action, whereas devotion is always application of the teaching. Living that teaching indicates your commitment, sincerity and seriousness in following the spiritual path.

The second effort is to always connect with the positive. That is the second dharma of a spiritual aspirant, whether you are a chela or a shishya. The difference between the two is seen in the words, chela and shishya. Chela comes from the root chal which means to move along and shishya comes from the root shash which means shiksha ko prapt karana, to be educated. So to be disciplined is being a disciple and to follow the whims of the mind is being a chela.

The third dharma of a disciple is to cultivate inner strength and sankalpa shakti, the resoluteness, that ‘if I set my mind to achieve this I shall achieve it’. That sankalpa shakti has to be there in the mind of a disciple.

The fourth involves shraddha, faith. Don’t confuse shraddha and faith with emotional projections. Emotional projection is not shraddha. Shraddha is a sentiment of reverence, respect and honour, it is cherishing something which is dear to you. If that is the feeling for the guru, it should not become an emotional projection. This is where most people fail. They do not see the distinction between faith and the emotional associations that we put on the teacher, yet they are two completely different things.

Another important aspect is to overcome the ego – to overcome envy, jealousy, hatred. Try to free yourself from envy and jealousy of your guru brothers and guru sisters. In every family, there is a craving to be recognized. Every child wants to be recognized by their parents. In the same manner, every individual wants to be recognized by the teacher. Keen competition is natural, however it should express your creativity and not your envy and jealousy. Falling into envy and jealousy also leads to failure as a disciple.

Another dharma of a disciple is to be aware of the guru’s dharma, and to be aware of the guru’s expectations, not one’s own. ‘What does guru expect of me?’ Not ‘what do I expect from my guru’. A disciple should ask ‘What does the guru expect of me? How does he want me to live? How does he want me to be?’ and then make the effort to live up to that expectation. If the guru expects support and cooperation with a smile, then live that; if the expectation is service and hard work, then live that; if the expectation of the guru is that you meditate and perfect yourself in sadhana, do that. Be aware of the expectations of the guru, rather than being only focused on your own expectations. Try to live up to the expectations of the guru as well.

Do not expect grace, rather make the effort yourself. A disciple should never expect any form of grace. When you make the effort, then you realize that in making the effort you have had full grace. There should be no expectation of grace, instead there should be reliance on your own abilities. A disciple must always walk the path of dharma and nyaya, justice. If a disciple commits adharmic acts or anyaya, injustice, there is no inner discipline.

The guru’s duty and role

These are the qualifications of a spiritual aspirant defined by the scriptures. Then, just as there are qualifications and duties of a disciple, there is also the duty of a guru as it is the same disciple who eventually, by overcoming the six ‘friends’, gradually steps into the shoes of the master. It is the same disciple, the same aspirant, the same individual who started off with all the good and negative things in the package. With the effort made to empty the negative from the package and put in the positive, he continues to walk along the path and eventually finds that he has overcome the influence of the six friends. He is now stepping into the shoes of a guru and becoming the inspiration and the teacher. So, it is the same individual, who has travelled the path, who adopts the natural role of the teacher.

The guru has three roles: the first one is teacher, second is advisor and the third is inspirer. As a teacher, he gives you specific techniques, processes and systems which you can apply to improve your conditions in life. As an advisor, he gives advice on the sequence and progression of the student’s efforts and sadhana. He keeps you motivated to walk the right path: as a teacher when he is nearby; as an advisor when he is far away; and as an inspirer after the disciple has gained the ability to be independent.

These are the three duties of a guru, nothing more than that. What other role can there be? Any siddhi is a personal achievement, it is not the duty, role or dharma of the teacher or guru to express that. When we look at the classical examples of guru, we see these three roles.

One of the functions of the guru is to empower you as the disciple to take responsibility for yourself with wisdom, clarity and understanding. This is the natural condition in life which should appear after you have overcome the limitations of your own mind. Guru is a reminder and helper to point out, ‘Listen, this is what you have to achieve. You have to take responsibility with wisdom, clarity and understanding’. The teaching of the guru is to ensure that you follow the path of your dharma – a soldier should be a soldier, an engineer should be an engineer, a doctor should be a doctor, a plumber should be a plumber – and to ensure that we all walk our dharma, that we all live our dharma in the best manner possible with happiness, joy and peace.

Sometimes gurus also take the negativity of other people upon themselves because they have the strength to manage it, though this only happens in very rare cases when there is total empathy between two people. Those people who have seen Paramahamsaji would know that many times when people came to him with their problem, two days later they would be well and that problem would appear on his body.

Once one lady had a big boil on her foot and could not walk. She was pleading to Paramahamsaji, saying, “Heal me so that I can walk.” Paramahamsaji said, “Put a little bit of Ganga jal on your foot,” and he walked away. Ganga jal became the medium to convey his grace. The next day, the lump on the lady’s foot had gone down by eighty percent and a huge lump had appeared on Swamiji’s foot in the same spot. He had to give a program and he could not walk, he had to be carried there. This happened in Bolangir, Odisha, and people from Bolangir are witness to that incident. In two days’ time, when the foot of the other person was healed, the full swelling had come on the foot of Paramahamsaji and it took two days to disappear. He took on the pain and suffering because he had the strength and he was able to help that lady. This is an ability which develops through inner purification.

While guru is definitely not trikaaladarshi, someone with knowledge of past, present and future, he applies wisdom in life. With the application of wisdom, he can assess the past, present and future. These are natural conditions of mind which awaken when you have overcome the six friends.

To overcome the six friends, we have to think about changing our lifestyle. Asana, pranayama and meditation will not take us there. This change can only happen by trying to identify the good, virtuous and positive in life and applying these qualities, one at a time. That is the purpose of yama and niyama. That is where the guru intervenes and tells you that to manage the six friends, you have to develop this state of mind, this condition of mind, and overcome cravings, desires and needs. By living manahprasad and just by being happy, you will discover that your needs reduce only due to the simple fact that you are happy.

The role of guru in life is to make us connect with the virtuous and the positive, to experience and enhance our own beauty and to connect with Satyam, to experience Sundaram and to be Shivam. That is the journey between guru and disciple.

Guru Poornima, 30 July 2015, Paduka Darshan, Munger