Today, Hindus celebrate Guru Purnima, a festival in which one pays homage and respect to her guru, or teacher. Traditionally in India, when a child reached an appropriate age, he would move out of his parents’ home to commence his studies at a gurukul.  Here, he, along with a number of other students, or shishyas, would live under the supervision of their guru.  In addition to receiving an education, the shishyas would also participate in the day-to-day chores of the gurukul.  There was no monetary cost for students to attend the gurukul, but at the end of their stay, they offered a guru dakshina, a gift of thanks which could be monetary in form or a task that the guru requests the shishya perform.  In effect, the gurukul was an extended family which gave birth to the guru-shishya parampara, or tradition, which is considered to be one of the most sacred of relationships.

The guru-shishya relationship was based on the trustworthiness and genuineness of the guru and respect, obedience, and devotion of the shishya.  As the relationship developed and strengthened over time, knowledge was imparted from the guru to the shishya until the shishya mastered it.  The importance of the bond between guru and shishya cannot be overstated, particularly with respect to spiritual education where often, knowledge was imparted from guru to shishya through silence or a purely mental form of telepathy/communication.

Some  of the best examples of the guru-shishya relationship can be found in my favorite Hindu epic, the Mahabharat – a saga that questions our sense of right and wrong at every turn.  The obvious guru-shishya relationship in the Mahabharat is that between Arjun (the shishya) and Krishna (the guru).  But I find the one between Arjun and his childhood guru, Dronacharya, to be far more interesting.   Arjun and his four brothers (along with their many cousins) lived and studied in Dronacharya’s gurukul.  Quickly Arjun, who was an innately gifted archer, became Dronacharya’s favorite shishya, and the guru went so far as to promise Arjun that he would make him the greatest warrior of his time.  It is vital to note that the Mahabharat takes place in a time when verbal promises were considered binding by all parties and upheld, almost without fail.  In fact, the Mahabharat emerged because so many such promises were made (and upheld) without enough foresight.  Thus, Dronacharya fully intended to keep his promise to young Arjun.

One day, Dronacharya was teaching his shishyas a lesson outside, and a dog suddenly ran past them.  It appeared that someone had shot multiple arrows around the dog’s mouth to keep it from barking, but the dog was otherwise unharmed.  Dronacharya and his pupils stood up and began looking for the archer.  They eventually came upon a young man who was practicing archery in the woods.  Upon seeing Dronacharya, the young man, whose name was Ekalavya, fell at his feet and asked for his blessing.

Dronacharya asked,  “Are you the one who shot the arrows to trap this dog’s mouth?”

Ekalavya man nodded his head.

Dronacharya said, “You must have an accomplished guru.  Who is your guru?”

Ekalavya said, “You are my guru.”  Then Ekalavya revealed a stone statue he had made in the likeness of Dronacharya.

Dronacharya then remembered this young boy from years ago.  Ekalavya had requested permission to attend Dronacharya’s gurukul, but the guru had rejected him.  As he stood in front of Ekalavya, Dronacharya also remembered his promise to Arjun and realized that it maybe in jeapardy because of Ekalavya’s innate talent and skill.

Dronacharya said, “It seems like you have mastered this knowledge.  Since you say I am your guru, what will be your guru dakshina?”

Ekalavya readily agreed to give his guru anything he wanted.

In a calculated move, Dronacharya asked the young archer for his right thumb.  Without question or hesitation, Ekalavya cut off his right thumb and presented it to his guru, thereby resigning himself to a life without archery.

And therein lies one of the most intricate depictions of the depth of guru-shishya relationship.  Ekalavya dismembered himself because of his respect for and complete devotion to his guru.  Dronacharya took on a huge karmic debt with this request in order to uphold a promise he made to his favorite shishya, Arjun.  Today, we may condemn Dronacharya as cruel and heartless, but at that time, a promise was akin to a man’s honor, and Dronacharya had already made a promise to his other shishya.  The Mahabharat is replete with examples of moral dilemmas existing within the confines of various relationships, and the story above is only one of many guru-shishya incidences in this great epic.

These days, the traditional gurukul system is no longer as popular in India, but the guru-shishya parampara is still highly regarded and respected.  In the West, the term guru has been adopted by the yoga community and loosely applied to popular yoga teachers.   Unfortunately, it discounts the special and revered relationship between a guru and shishya that traditionally existed throughout India and still does in some places.

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