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The Sanskrit word ‘guru’ has been in use throughout India for many millennia, since the Vedic era. Translated, it means ‘teacher’, but actually represents a meaning beyond the general translation. ‘Gu’ means ‘ignorance’ and ‘ru’ means ‘dispeller’. The guru, thus, is one who dispels ignorance – of all types – and gives knowledge. The original sense in which the title ‘guru’ was used referred to the spiritually accomplished seers of Vedic times who guided the young students living and learning in their ashrams, known as gurukuls. The guru tutored his young shishyas (students) in a variety of spiritual and secular disciplines. In this way the guru fulfilled many roles: as a teacher, counsellor, father-figure, and even as a bridge to the Divine. The guru was principally all this, and more. In this sense, he is an entity which has no exact equivalent in Western culture.
Traditionally, the guru is primarily regarded as a personal spiritual mentor. He possesses not only theoretical knowledge but the experience of the spiritual heights to which he leads his shishyas. The sages of the Vedic and Upanishadic eras passed on this profound spiritual wisdom to their disciples. And the disciples, in turn, served their guru and, later, they too imparted this knowledge to their students.
In this way, the guru-shishya tradition of Hinduism has been nurtured from Vedic times right up to the present day.

The need for a Guru

A question naturally arises: Why not directly serve God. Why is the guru required as an intermediary?
The story of Namdev provides the answer. Once, Sant Jnaneshwar, Namdev and other devotees had gathered at the home of Gora the potter. Sant Jnaneshwar, their leader, said to Gora, “Test the pots gathered here to see whether or not they are well-baked. So, Gora took a stick and began tapping it on the heads of everyone present. No one said a word, except Namdev who protested. Hence, he was declared as the only unbaked pot. This insult offended Namdev and so he went for comfort to Lord Vitthala. But the Lord sided with Gora, saying, “One who does not surrender to a sadguru is an unbaked pot. When Namdev questioned the need for a guru, the Lord replied, that he too, in his avatars as Ram and Krishna had accepted gurus for guidance. Then, the Lord instructed Namdev to seek the refuge of the enlightened Visoba in the mandir of Mallikarjuna and serve him as his guru. Thus, by serving Visoba, Namdev became properly baked and attained enlightenment.
The following incident from the Swaminarayan Sampradaya also reinforces this point. Girdharbhai, nephew of Kothari Gordhanbhai of Vartal, was a genuine spiritual seeker. He searched throughout the Satsang to find a Satpurush, a true guru, as described by Bhagwan Swaminarayan in the Vachanamrut. However, none could quench his spiritual thirst. Eventually, he prayed before the murti of Shri Harikrishna Maharaj in Vartal, which Bhagwan Swaminarayan himself had consecrated. After one month, Bhagwan Swaminarayan appeared before him and directed, “I remain manifest in the Satsang through Pragji Bhakta. Seek his company and I shall dwell forever in your heart.”
Despite this clear instruction, Girdharbhai thought that since Pragji Bhakta was a tailor by profession this was not possible. Again he prayed to Shri Harikrishna Maharaj. Bhagwan Swaminarayan again gave him darshan and repeated his guidance. So, Girdharbhai went to Pragji Bhakta and from the very first meeting he was convinced and accepted Pragji Bhakta as his guru. Under Pragji Bhakta’s guidance, Girdharbhai became a sadhu and also attained the enlightened state.
So, to attain spiritual enlightenment, one must surrender to a guru who is similarly enlightened.

Characteristics of a Seeker

First, let us discuss some of the characteristics of a worthy shishya. A shishya seeking enlightenment surrenders unconditionally to the guru, submitting to his will without question. This is possible only when the seeker understands the true glory of the guru.
The guru may sometimes respond by subjecting the seeker to harsh, stern, unfair, prejudiced or even physically harmful tasks. This is done not to harass or frighten him but to test his resolve and strengthen him spiritually. It is done with the aim of elevating him spiritually and inspiring him on the path of liberation. Those who follow the guru’s commands and tolerate such hardships earn the guru’s blessings and experience the bliss of God.
The more distinguished seekers are able to intuitively understand the guru’s wish. For example, Yamunacharya was a respected elderly guru of the Srivaishnava Sampradaya. He learnt of Ramanujacharya’s outstanding qualities and regarded him as a suitable successor. They had never met, so Yamunacharya sent a disciple to call Ramanujacharya. However, by the time they returned, Yamunacharya had passed away and his body was about to be cremated. Ramanujacharya was disappointed that he was unable to meet Yamunacharya, but accepted him as his guru and felt comfort in at least having had darshan of his physical form. Before the cremation, he noticed that three fingers of Yamunacharya’s right hand were bent into a fist. Other disciples told Ramanujacharya that the guru had three unfulfilled wishes: (1) to write a commentary on Vyasji’s Brahmasutras, (2) to promote the glory of Vyasji, Parashar and Nammalwar and (3) to spread the Srivaishnava philosophy. Ramanujacharya resolved to fulfil these three wishes. As soon as Ramanujacharya had made this pledge, the three fingers straightened. This demonstrated the inner bond between guru and disciple. Ramanujacharya later fulfilled all three wishes.
In the Swaminarayan Sampradaya, also, such intuitive understanding was frequently seen between Gunatitanand Swami (guru) and Bhagatji Maharaj (disciple). This is clearly demonstrated when Bhagatji Maharaj watered the mango trees in the orchard of Sankhdavadar and removed the dead dog to re-start the construction work of the haveli in Junagadh.
A dedicated disciple is one who is so united with the guru that he gives up his own resolves and accepts whatever the guru commands. Yogiji Maharaj often said, “I have always acted according to the wishes of Shastriji Maharaj, but not according to the calling of my own mind. So, Shastriji Maharaj has become extremely pleased. And today he gives darshan and I experience bliss.”

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