Many aspiring yogis, and yogic practitioners in various contexts including in the Himalayan Tradition and especially in the ashram in Rishikesh, every morning, and often also in the evening, chant verses which stem from a scripture called “the Guru Gita” .
It is so normal for us to think, chant and feel these verses, that we seldom contemplate them. The Śrī Guru Gītā, is an ancient song, part of the Skanda Purana, which is one of those treasures that belong to all humanity, just as the Bhagavad Gītā, the Bible and many other great spiritual literary works. There are several traditions where devotees chant the entire Guru-Gita every morning as their daily spiritual practice (183 verses).
Śrī Guru Gītā is an ode, or a poem of praise, love and devotion towards the illustrious concept of "Guru". Many songs have been written in praise of the true Guru. But what “he”? It is in the nature of GURU to transcend all ideas of what or who we think Guru is, God is, Truth is. We are aware that the two syllables Gu-Ru indicate that which brings us from the darkness of ignorance to the light of understanding. Hence, his nature is to illuminate understanding.
So, let us contemplate the two verses familiar to us, and see whether our understanding can become “brighter”.
Gurubrahmā gururvisnuh gururdevo maheśvarah
Guru sāksāt parambrahmā, tasmai śrīgurave namah
Guru is Brahmā; he alone is Visnu and the Supreme Lord Maheśvarah. He alone is
Parabrahman, to that Guru, salutations.
The Guru is Brahmā, the Guru is Visnu, and the Guru is Maheśvara. The Guru is actually
the Supreme Divinity, and therefore we bow down to the respected Guru. (Swami Satyananda
To that beautiful and benevolent Guru who is Brahmā, the Creator, Visnu, the maintainer and Śiva, the great Lord through whom all things return to their origin. To that Guru, who is the direct experience of Brahman, salutations. (Swami Veda Bahrati)
Not having grown up in India, nor being Sanskrit scholars, we easily confuse Brahmā and Brahman. Here both ideas merge. Ultimately Gu-ru is Brahman, the indescribable Absolute; that Light of Consciousness, that illuminates all, yet is beyond our ken. Brahmā/Brahman - the Sanskrit root word is 'bra' that means: to swell or to increase. We can say that it was originally used to denote “the power of pervasive expansiveness". In time it became a prayer to activate that power by the priests, similar to our use of repeating a mantra. Priests directed their 'brahmans' (mantras) to objects and deities and through this practise became themselves known
as 'Brahmins'. The Atharvaveda (10.8.25) says that Brahman is "the universal thread of which
the tapestry of existence is woven".
This is fascinating because it describes how the worship of deities evolved. The insight is there first (all pervasiveness/oneness), and then it becomes ritualised (priest), personalised and finally objectified (“God” ), becoming an object to worship outside the worshipper. This is not of just intellectual interest to me, but it shows us the way back.
The verse starts on that level where we can still use our conventional mind to understand; Guru is identified with forms/concepts we can all recognise, he is: Brahmā, Visnu and Śiva.
What do they mean? Each form/name highlights a different aspect of the “power beyond”, the power of “all pervasive expansiveness”. There are many really endearing stories about these three ( will come back to it later; this “threesome” surfaces in Sankhya philosophy as energy types i.e., sattva, rajas and tamas, the three forms of Prakriti/Mahaprakriti). However here, and in most popular places, they are described as: God of Creation, of Maintenance and of Dissolution (including dissolving all concepts!).
Svami Muktananda writes," The Guru is Maheśvara (Śiva) when he destroys the world of concepts, stirring the disciple’s heart; the Guru is Brahmā when he purifies the disciple’s heart and sows in it the seed of highest truth. He is Visnu when he sustains and protects this newly created wisdom of Yoga within the disciple." (Everything that exists is Śiva, p.97)
Guru is these forms and is beyond these forms, in abstraction/beyond all form. On the
highest level, he is Brahman. It is as though God in his compassion gives a choice: Those who can climb to abstract contemplation see him as nirguna, without form, while others worship him as saguna, with form.
But then we use the word Guru yet on another level, to understand Gu-ru as the power of all these three within one particular being: A form, a human being who we recognize as being endowed with the quality of guru (leading from darkness to light).
From some texts we know that this is not even limited to a wise human being, but, as a story in the Shrimad Bagavatham has it, Dadattreya had 24 Guru’s including, amongst them, a spider, a child, a bird...etc. Whatever leads us to divine insight, to remove our ignorance, is Gu-ru.
However we find it easier to stick that label on to a person than to a spider.
As a typical child of my time and culture, I have difficulties grasping the personal level of this concept. It is hard for me to imagine such a powerful person with the integrity to not misuse that power. How can a physical person (the Guru), and a frequency of energy inconceivably pure, occupy the “same space”? How can a body contain such vast power and energy? Isn’t human existence too frail and limited?
And yet, I witness the Divine presence in human Beings simply expressing as enormous love. Furthermore Swami Rama of the Himalayas said: “I am a messenger, delivering the wisdom of the Himalayan sages of my tradition. My job is to introduce you to the teacher within.” This points not only to exceptional beings as a Guru, but takes it one step further by saying the very same quality of guru is in each and every one of us!
I stayed in a retreat centre with many high Tibetan Lamas in the foothills of the Himalayas and also met some powerful spiritual Beings elsewhere. Meeting them I felt this power that almost involuntarily brought me, this Western intellectual woman, onto my knees! Furthermore the power unleashed when these beings chanted or performed rituals was enormous and instilled awe, and maybe even a sort of fear, in me. However, that fear is without object, more a sense of awe of such greatness, of realising the enormous 'power of pervasive expansiveness', and, at the same time, awareness of my own insignificance.
Who is this me that shrinks when faced with the Divine? Who is this me, which is afraid?
The ‘pure I' cannot be afraid, for it would melt into that power, recognising itself, for it knows 'I am it', ‘I am That’. So, it must be the ego that is afraid. Why? There is a sense, a fear, “of being exposed”, found out. Found out for what? My estrangement! Found out of how far I have grown separate from whom I really am?
There is the other dimension: When meeting the awesome power of Gu-ru, I feel transparent, as though I do not exist. In that presence, I am so still, there is nothing and no one! Is my mind just unable to digest the presence of Brahmā, Vishnu and Shiva, the awesome powers at the root of Existence? It reminds me of Nelson Mandela, when he said in his inaugural speech, that we are afraid not of the darkness but of the light. Am I / are we - afraid of our own light, afraid to own our power of divinity?
By recognising the light in ourselves, by recognizing the teacher in ourselves, the divine wisdom and light of consciousness in ourselves, we can lose all fear and grow in love. If we allow the inner Guru to unfold in us, we can indeed become beings of love and light!
The outer Guru, the personal Guru is a mirror through which we can grow to recognize our own greatness, via the reflection he grants us, which in turn enables us to recognize the light, the divinity in Him/Her.
Only by fully realising that there simply is the 'power of pervasive expansiveness' in All existence, in Him and in ME, can I become aware of 'the universal thread of which the tapestry of existence is woven.': All One! Didn’t the Atharvaveda speak of Brahman, as that woven tapestry of the universe? Awareness of the weave then becomes itself a reflection of the Divine beyond; the Ultimate Guru; the Absolute; Brahman, or as That power is also called Parama-Śiva.
In fact the Guru Gītā is the teaching of Śiva as ultimate Guru to his consort, Parvarti, who is here as his student.
Parvarti or Shakti is the energy of creation and its manifestation. In a way, She is like us, with form, and She struggles just like we do to understand why even Śiva, her Guru, bows in worship.
Śiva’s answer to her is that the Guru-principal has three levels of expression, in ourselves, as our own inner wisdom teacher; as the form within the beloved Guru and Master that teaches us ; and as the Divine Absolute, that is the reason d’etre of the universe and beyond.
In the second verse that we recite, of the Guru Gītā, this highest level of Guru is considered:
Akhanda mandalākāram vyāptam yena carācaram.
Tat padam darśitam yena tasmai śrī gurave namah
Like an unbroken circle, the Guru has permeated the animate and the inert world and it is he who reveals this supreme state called, Brahman, to that Guru salutations are offered.
He is the cause of the entire circle of existence. He is the means by which arise distinctions of movable and immovable objects. He is the intuitive vision of the syllable 'That'. Therefore, we bow down to the respected Guru. (Swami Satyananda Saraswati)
(That which) pervades the entire unbroken form of the circle (of creation)moving and unmoving. To that beautiful and benevolent Guru through whom that state was revealed (to me) , salutations. (Swami Veda Bharati)
That ultimate Guru, to which even Śiva bows, as we have seen, is Guru beyond the limitations of our mind, and thus beyond the limitations of our perceived world of movable and immovable objects. He pervades everything including our mind. We invoke the presence within us, by which all divisions and delusion in our minds that lead to separation, and that see existence in separate parts and identifies with them, become whole again.
It's fascinating to realise that it is our mind which “breaks” (we call it analyzes) the world into separate bits, and makes the world, ( i.e. what is known to each of us or collectively) as small or as big as our minds can think. Looking back through history, it is quiet fascinating that on the material, analytical level, the universe expanded with the expansion of science.
Once our mind had perceived another galaxy, we could invent the instruments to see, to measure, to describe what was newly discovered.
We have been able to discover more species of plants and animals than ever before, and yet we live in a way that extinguishes them faster than ever before. We perceive through our senses ever more parts but have lost awareness of the underlying whole, and furthermore of the millions and millions of interconnections! We have found some threads, and delighted in cutting them into strings, but do not realize the synergy, that the tapestry is more than a few threads. We segregate and illuminate some aspects, and loose the whole. We look at brush strokes and don’t see the picture. The reason for this is reliance on our thinking mind, which governs by sense-input, and sees only “bits”. Once we become aware that doing so is mis-perception, we seek refuge in that power which pervades all, which now and forever reveals itself as holding all threads in a beautiful design (mandala). In the Mandala of existence there is no division; it is one complete whole; creating and dissolving simultaneously as one.
The Christian mystic, Meister Eckhardt said: From all eternity, God lies on a maternity bed giving birth. The essence of God is giving birth, (Med.p.88)
Giving birth, always, simultaneously, starts the process of decay. There is no division. It appears only as life and death to our mind that separates and does not see the whole! Inside is like outside, and outside like inside. To be aware of consciousness within ourselves is to find the Divine, the Guru and the whole universe within ourselves as one beautiful Mandala. One.
The Guru resides as consciousness in us, in our extended mind, in our heart. He is the noble and beautiful wisdom, knowledge, from whence to restore this original wholeness.
And once we discover that He is that wholeness, there is no division. He is the one that reveals and at the same time is the One that is revealed. He is knower and the known; any further description would be a limitation.
Ultimate consciousness comes forth, awareness, knowledge arises like a beautiful sound, if we allow that vibration of knowing, that beautiful ‘sound’ to arise and don’t allow our limited ego-minds to interfere. Brahman/Guru/Shiva arises in within us.
When "We allow", is that not the limiting doing of our mind again creeping in? We can use the mind to undo the mind. Use mind energy to control the mind, to silence the continuous chatter of the mind that attaches its energy to images our senses and our ego chooses. Focused silence might be rewarded with the intuitive awareness of that state which pervades the entire sphere of this universe: Pure consciousness, pure universal mind, or to phrase it differently, it might be rewarded with Śiva himself.
When Śiva reveals himself, the Ultimate Guru, a state of awareness is reached, that in the scripture is often simply described as “That”, for mind cannot fathom it. It says here:
Tat padam, referring to Him, the Guru who has showing me that level, that awareness which is Tat (That!), to Him I bow. And yet he is no person, he is that vibration, that sound, that vibrating energy, that “Spanda”, which pervades the entire universe, permanently creating and dissolving, which we in the context of the Guru Gītā call Śiva, the ultimate Guru, yet which equally can be called “that force, that interior sound which is the concentration of the vibration of all the mantras.” (SVB)
To that Śrī Guru, we bow. Śrī gurave namah.
In this verse, another level is discovered. Because that Gu-ru, (Gu, darkness, ru, remover) who removes darkness, does that via the presence of the force (manifesting energy) called Śrī. Śrī is an honourific female address; here it addresses the energy of Śiva.
He himself being pure potential, that very energy of sound and vibration is his active principle, his consort. And it stands for benevolence, for beauty and divinity. It is feminine power, it’s the Divine Mother’s beauty and She is radiant light!
Remember I said earlier, there are many stories told about the three forms of the God: Brahmā Vishnu and Śiva. Ultimately they are said to exist in the heart of the Divine Mother: She sings them to sleep, she rocks them in the sky-cradle chanting the mantra Ohm that pervades as the original sound of the universe.
Śrī refers to Her, the Divine Mother.
Oneness here shows yet another angle! (But don’t forget Onness has no parts no angles). It is us, struggling to express insights and revelations of a state beyond division, beyond description.
In the Lalitashasranam (A scripture with a thousand names for the Mother/Goddess), one of her names is Śiva: She and He are One. Referring to that ONE, is referring to that state, that womb from where all emerged. Ultimately we have no words to describe that which is Brahman/Shiva/or the Great Mother/Hiranyagarbha (the eternal womb/or golden egg).
To that indescribable state, to That namaha (we bow, we surrender). “Into that one I merge all my exterior beings and say of them not mine, not mine, not mine. Not mine the body, not mine the limbs, not mine the organs, not mine the senses, not mine emotions, feelings, sentiments. Not mine, intellect, intuition, doubt, resolution, not mine. Intent, declaration, statements that “I am”, not mine. Unto that One I surrender all my claims of ego. Namaha. The last ma, ha sound. The release of energy. May I through that surrender find in myself that release, the release of that energy which I have kept blocked and because of which I have felt blocked in my life, in my endeavours, in my undertakings. I was blocked because I had not surrendered my mind. Having surrendered my mind I say namaha. This is the nature, this is the meaning of my surrender, my homage, my prostrations.....” (Swami Veda Bharati ; 2002)