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The relationship between teacher and pupil is partly determined by the type of knowledge sought. The law books reflect a basic parental relationship between teacher and student because obedience to the laws is the basic orientation. In the earlier Upanishads, where knowledge of Brahman or knowledge of the Self is the aim, then a more intimate personal association between the guru and devotee comes about. It is the epics, Puranas and the early bhakti literature which establish the basis for the refined love relationship between guru and shisya (Cenkner, 1983:27), and which belongs to the understanding of the guru-devotee relationship in the movement.
According to Mlecko (1982:40), the epics highlight “another response to the guru besides propriety and obedience; namely, devotion, the paramount dimension of bhakti. The Epics record the attempt to move away from the Brahmanic tradition in two areas: away from ritualistic (Vedic) and philosophical (Upanishadic) forms of worship to divine-human gods, the avataras, with emphasis on their human dimension.”
Spiritual progress in the devotee is seen in all instances of the relationship to be dependent upon assistance from the guru. Even the gods in human form, the avatars, conform to the system, and they themselves become devotees of a guru. In so doing, in addition to effecting their spiritual development within the human order, (again, their need for a guru for this purpose is a matter upon which persons hold differing views), they legitimise the guru-devotee relationship and reveal it as belonging not only to the human but to the divine order. A sadhu explained to the writer, “This is the traditional way that he [Swaminarayan] has accepted…. This is Hindu tradition; the belief that everyone must have a guru. Rama had a guru. The Lord having a guru helps to stress the desirable state of affairs. If the Lord himself had a guru then I too must have a guru.”
The classical model for the guru-devotee relationship occurs in the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna appears to Arjuna in the guise of a charioteer. In guiding and advising him on the right way to think and act, he functions in the role of guru for Arjuna. Krishna is addressed as father, Lord and most venerable guru. Here devotion to the guru becomes indistinguishable from devotion to the Lord (Mlecko, 1982:21).
The Gita’s model, though representing the avatar-human encounter, is also accepted as the divinely ordained model for the guru-devotee relationship.
A leaf, a flower, a fruit or water,
Who presents to Me with devotion
That offering of devotion I
Accept from the devout-souled.
Be Me-minded, devoted to Me,
Worshipping Me, pay homage to Me.
Just to Me shalt thou go, having thus disciplined
Thyself fully, intent on Me.
- Gita IX: 26 & 34, Edgerton 1964:48
In the Gita, Krishna, as avatar-guru, commends this relationship of obedience and devotion not only to himself but also to the human guru (Gita IV.34. Edgerton, 1964:26), “Learn to know this by obeisance (to those who can teach it), By questioning (them) by serving (them).”
That is, the attitude of loving devotion (bhakti), here being encouraged from Arjuna towards Krishna as God-incarnate, is understood to be the attitude which a devotee should show to his guru as the personal and immediate manifestation of the deity.
This humanizing of the concept of God which is strongly evident in the epics (Mlecko 1982:44) was continued in the Puranas and strongly influenced the understanding of the guru. Increasingly, devotion to the guru and devotion to God become indistinguishable. This identification of guru and God at least in the experiential area can also be seen in the Puranas, according to Mlecko (1982:44), “In the comparatively late portions of the Puranas, the devotional attitude towards the deity is shared by the guru. Even more, the guru is often identified with the highest deity of the sect.”
This attitude towards the guru has been a characteristic of bhakti movements in general.
The Swaminarayan sect, the ‘old’ and the Akshar-Purushottam branch, provide evidence to support this statement. Swaminarayan, during his ‘earthly’ lifetime, (1781-1830 A.D.), was apparently regarded as a sadguru. He evidently evoked an adulation and devotion in his devotees which elevated him in their understanding to the level of God himself. After his death, this conviction remained as the central moving force in the ‘old’ movement, focused on the murti of Swaminarayan and on his teaching. In the Akshar-Purushottam branch this continuing presence of Swaminarayan is also experienced as residing in his murti, and in his teaching, but in particular his presence is considered to reside in the guru. Thus for members of the movement the guru provides the most dynamic evidence of the presence of Swaminarayan.
The name ‘Swaminarayan’ itself carries the conviction of the whole sect that their founder was the holy man, the ‘Swami’, in whom the ultimate divinity, Narayan, was manifested. Members chant the name as a mantra in public and private worship, and at other times in the life of the temple, notably at meal times before commencing to eat. The chanting affirms the belief that their founder was the human manifestation of the divine, and, as is the purpose of mantras, is believed to induce consciousness of God.
In the Akshar-Purushottam group the name has an additional meaning. It indicates that their guru is the ‘abode’ of God. Swami indicates the guru and Narayan the Lord. The guru is Akshar in whom Purushottam manifests, the Swami in whom Narayan is encountered.
A further similarity of the guru of the movement to the guru of the Puranas, is that the guru is not required to belong to any particular caste. The emphasis is upon the spiritual level of the individual rather than a traditional caste role. According to Mlecko (1982:44), in the period of the Puranas, “Religious authority was significantly shifting from orthodox Brahmans who knew the Vedas to the guru whose devotion and knowledge of Tantra led him to liberation.”
Pandit (1963:388) emphasizes the influence of the Tantra in the guru tradition. He says, “It is the Tantra that has given firm shape to the tradition and worked out in minute detail the dynamics of the guru-sishya operation… In the tradition of the Tantra, the guru is the central pivot on which every movement in spiritual life turns. He is not just a learned man who can teach. It is profane to look upon him as human. He is much more; in fact, he is looked upon as the Divine, even the very Divine Himself.”
Mlecko (1982:57) makes the observation that in the Tantra the personalization of the deity moves to another level. He points out that there is a change in emphasis from the avatara, ‘god descending’, to the guru as ‘man ascending’ into divinity. Here, the guru, as jivanmukta, has attained freedom from karma and its limitations whilst still living physically. However, the belief in the movement is that the guru, as Akshar, has not needed to ‘attain’ the state of jivanmukta in order to grant release. With him, as one sadhu explained, “There is no question of development.” The belief is that he is, by his very nature, ‘eternally beyond maya’.
The association of guru and deity appears to reach its height in the Tantras. McMullen (1976:22), extracts the following statements showing the understanding of the guru from a number of Tantric sources, “There is no god higher than the Guru…. He walks on the earth, concealed for bestowing grace on the good disciples…. The worship of the Guru yields infinitely more merit than any number of observances, gifts, rituals, sacrifices, pilgrimages, mantra, japa, etc…. In this world all holy actions are rooted in the Guru…. Even when god Shiva is angry, the Guru is the saviour, but when the Guru himself is angered there is none to save. Ruin follows from the anger of the Guru, bad death from the criticism of the Guru, catastrophes from the displeasure of the Guru.”
The guru has here become the dominating influence in spiritual life. All activity, book learning, ritual, must be “energized by the personality of the guru. It is only those acts that are inspired by the guru that yield bhakti and mukti” (Pandit 1963:388).
In the movement it is only obedience to the ‘agna’, the command and will of the guru that constitutes liberating action. Things which seem good in themselves are necessarily beneficial for the devotee; they need to receive the sanction of the guru’s command.

1. Cenkner, W. 1983. A Tradition of Teachers. Delhi: Motilal Barnarsidas.
2. Dasgupta, S.N. 1927. Hindu Mysticism. Delhi: Motilal Barnarsidas.
3. Edgerton, F. 1964. The Bhagavad Gita. New York: harper Torch Books.
4. Gonda, J. 1965. Change and Continuity in Indian Religion. The hague: Mouton.
5. Griffiths, Bede. 1982. The Marriage of East and West. London: Collins.
6. Laird, M.A. 1971. Bishop Heber in Northern India. London: Cambridge University Press.
7. McMullen, C.D. 1976. The Nature of Guruship. Delhi: I.S.P.C.K.
8. Mlecko, J.D. 1982. The Guru in Hindu Tradition. In Numen. Vol. 29, July, 33-61.
9. Pandit M.P. 1963. Guru-sisya Tradition. In Prabuddha Bharata. vol. 68, July, 387-393.
10. Tyagisananda, Swami. 1964. Svetasvataraopanishad. Madras, Shri Ramakrishna Math.

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