In India where I grew up, gurus are given pride of place, often above God. A famous Sanskrit phrase delineates the order of priorities for a Hindu child. “matha, pitha, guru, deivam (God),” meaning says first mother, then father, then teacher, and only after all of them, God.
In traditional Hindu gurukuls of the past--residential schools where the students learned from a teacher--the code of conduct towards one’s guru was very clear. A shishya, or student, was to treat the guru with utmost respect and devotion. Most students lived with the guru and became integrated into the life of his ashram. Students did chores (like washing clothes and carrying buckets of water) for the guru with great pleasure, because it allowed them to spend time alone with their teacher. Pressing the guru’s feet was considered a privilege since it was assumed that a teacher so massaged and relaxed would pass on pearls of wisdom to the student.
Gurukuls exist in India to this day--my cousin’s son goes to a Vedic gurukul in Kerala. The veneration of gurus, however, is not restricted anymore to traditional gurukuls but pervade throughout Indian education. Teachers--be they college professors or music instructors--are treated with deference in India, especially when compared to the West and more particularly to America. Most students do not “talk back” to their teacher and question his or her authority, since this is considered disrespectful.
I was barely 18 when I moved to America, and I was shocked by the way students treated their teachers. American students called their teachers by first names. They didn’t hesitate to ask probing questions and even argue with the teacher to prove their point. As for carrying a teacher’s bags to prove devotion, forget it. American students joked around with their gurus. American professors expected it--enjoyed it even.
Fifteen years in America changed me: I bought into the American teaching method. I liked and respected my professors, even though I called them “Sam” or “Megan.” I saw the Indian guru-shishya relationship as vaguely hypocritical. In my new frame of mind, Indian gurus demanded respect while American professors earned it. Indian gurus expected deference. American teachers on the other hand, were much more straightforward. They were able to handle a questioning mind; they catered to it even.
Many winds have passed since then. I am back in India now. I have also recently acquired a guru; or as an Indian would say, “I have recently had the good fortune of being accepted by a guru.”
My music teacher is an 87-year-old musician named RK Srikantan. He lives here in Bangalore and is a renowned singer. Twice a week I visit his home. There, in his tiny book-lined study amidst portraits of various Hindu gods, we practice music. I sit on the floor and sing to him. He sits on his wooden armchair and corrects my notes. Through these hour-long music sessions, I am finally beginning to understand what a guru is.
My guru doesn’t demand respect, but something about the dignity of his presence makes me offer it to him freely and without inhibition. Sitting on the floor, I look up to him, literally and figuratively. At the end of each class, I prostrate myself on the floor and touch his feet to receive blessings. In him, I see a man who lives for his art. He is a musician who seems untouched by the rampant consumerism that is slowly overtaking India. He doesn’t care about most of the things that occupy many of my urban Indian (or for that matter, American) friends: salary, square footage, bonuses, latest gizmos, brands, and weekend outings.
He is a strict teacher. A wrong note brings an automatic frown on his face. He expects me to sing to the rhythm of the song without fudging it. He spots errors in the tonality of my voice immediately. “You need to practice,” he says about ten times during each lesson. “Perhaps if you spend the next five years practicing hard, you’ll make something of yourself as a singer.”
We started my lessons with a sankalp (or intention). Most Hindu rituals are started with a sankalp. The first thing my guru asked me was: What did I want from our music lessons. Did I want to sing on the radio, ontelevision, to give concerts, to sing for a living? I told him that I wanted to be able to do free-flowing alapanas--the most creative and rigorous part of Indian music. So be it, he said. That can be your sankalp. He then made sure that I was a serious student, one who would attend his classes regularly and practice often at home before agreeing to take me on.
Most of the world’s greatest teachers are this way of course: gifted, creative, wedded to their art, and extremely discriminating about who they pass it on to. In order to learn from a gifted teacher, you have to prove yourself worthy of his time or her energy. In India today, there are many instructors--but very few teachers. There are many who teach music, art, or sports on a schedule without investing themselves into a student; people who charge by the hour without worrying about the student thereafter. There are many teachers in India, but very few gurus left.
There are gurus in America too, but I didn’t find them in the so-called ‘usual’ places: yoga and meditation centers where Eastern philosophy flourishes. In my mind, high-school coaches are the closest equivalent to an American guru. By turns shrewish and cajoling, these men and women are deeply invested in their players. The best of these coaches don’t merely teach a sport; they teach students about life. And they are unforgettable.
My mother, a devout Hindu tells me that it is purva-janma punyam, or good deeds from your past life that will bring a guru into your present one. In order to find a guru, you have to be extremely lucky or pray really hard, she says. Only then will the right guru appear. He or she will teach you what you need to know and help your soul to evolve to the next level.
My dad has been a lifelong teacher. He retired as an English professor and tirelessly taught legions of students. I think it is his good karma that has passed on me, for I’ve always been blessed with good teachers. My sculpture professor in Massachusetts, for instance, was not a guru in the traditional Indian hierarchical sense, but he was, in essence, a guru--someone who guided, who invested in his student.
My music teacher is also this way. Even though I used to think it corny when I heard my mother say things like, “Oh, I am so blessed to have a guru,” I can now understand what she meant. Gurus--the right kind--are hard to find. Such gurus don’t just pass on skills and talents. They teach you philosophies of life, they guide without stifling your individuality, they exemplify the best in their craft or art. If you are lucky enough to find a guru, whether in a football field, chess class, music conservatory, or yoga-school, you’d best hang on to them.