Inspiration Junkies and Gurus That Go Bump In The Night…

Via Jahnavi Harrison
on Feb 12, 2012
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 My teenage brother has been getting  boxes in the mail. He orders online and  a few days later they drop through the  door…

It’s a thin packet with the word ‘Graze’ on the top. Nothing suspect — it’s  a snack company that delivers specially customized mixes. The website  lists hundreds of different options and invites consumers to browse  through, testing and trying to see which they like the most.

I notice that everywhere these days: everything is about customization  and the endless search for satisfaction. Personalize your cellphone  contract, coffee, Kindle cover, cupcake icing — there seems to be no end  to trying to get things exactly as we want them. Nothing wrong with  that — it’s important to be discerning and to know what inspires us to  live life with the most enthusiasm. The Sanskrit word vivek means just  that, and is a valued quality on the yogic path. A seeker must explore,  taste different flowers, make personal choices about what strikes the right chord within.

But sometimes the act of searching loses its shine. Recently a friend came to me, utterly confused after spending the last few years reading, hearing, traveling, and processing the ideas of a myriad of spiritual traditions. She couldn’t understand why, with such a sincere intent, she wasn’t able to harmonize everything she’d heard into a neat philosophy for life. Or better yet, spot the arms of truth waving eagerly over the chattering crowd of all the rest.

Sachinandana Swami, a bhakti teacher of great depth, described this phenomenon to be like drilling for water in twenty places. If you only dig the ground so deep, the water flowing below the surface will remain elusive. Others describe a bee sitting on the outside of a corked honey jar, licking the glass. To get inside we need get past the transparent obstacle.

Metaphors aside, this is where being a true seeker takes on a different definition. In the Bhagavad Gita, a picture is outlined of the ideal student — one who both seeks the truth, but has found a place to dig. The qualities of this kind of student are pranipat, a feeling of “I can’t do this alone, my search is tiring and confusing and I need guidance;” pariprasna, a desire to understand the truth with full attention and humble questioning; and sevaya, willingness to serve that higher knowledge, not an expectation that it should serve me.

If it all sounds a bit Karate Kid, no worries. If I hadn’t grown up in a community where the word ‘guru’ was part of everyday breakfast chit chat, it would feel pretty foreign too. It’s so easy to become cynical and suspicious of the concept of a great, benevolent teacher, when we probably all have so many experiences of the opposite. But whatever your chosen path in life, it’s hard to get away from the fact that a guide is required.

I saw an ad for a popular brand of yoga pants that said ‘Be Your Own Guru’. It struck me deeply, because the thought was so foreign to me. Yes, we all have the capacity to learn and grow, to be our own catalysts for creating a meaningful life. But there is a glass ceiling on the upward progress, and we all hit it sooner or later. Whilst the word guru has suffered bad press in the past, life coaching becomes more and more popular — same concept, different name.

So how to find one? When you barely have time to do the laundry and cook dinner after work, ‘find a guru’ is probably pretty low on the to-do list. The three qualities mentioned above are relevant both during the search and after finding a teacher. To begin, most spiritual traditions agree that acknowledging our limitations is a must. Humility is the catalyst for all kinds of transformation. Catholic monk and spiritualist, Thomas Merton, wrote, “Humility, therefore, is absolutely necessary if man is to avoid acting like a baby all his life.” Facing facts is the first step on a journey of maturity — I am a traveler with a limited view of the road ahead. A map, or better yet a guide with a flashlight is what I need.

A beautiful prayer from the Vedas describes the gratitude of the student: “I was born into darkness, but with the lamp of knowledge, my teacher has illuminated my life beyond my capacity.” Who is that teacher? How do you know one when you meet one?

Beware of gurus that go bump in the night...

It would be so much easier if there were guru conventions, and all prospective guides could make themselves available for a chat. Kind of like spiritual speed dating.

If only it were so simple.

There are signs to look for though. The word ‘guru’ means heavy with knowledge, like a thunder cloud filled with rain. You could have a guru of cooking, who knows everything there is to know about their chosen cuisine. A spiritual guru, is one who truthfully represents a system of thought and conduct and is only concerned with transforming his own life and the lives of others to align with the supreme Truth.

The Vedas describe that the guru should be someone that expresses this inner knowledge not just in words, but in every action — he or she is a living example. He must represent the link in a chain, passing ancient knowledge down as a ripe fruit is handed down from the top of a tree. This chain is called parampara — an unbroken succession that facilitates the preservation and dissemination of wisdom.

Most importantly (arguably), the guru should see himself as a humble student of his own guru. Any fame or success he finds in teaching others is just an offering to his own teacher. That guru is like a pair of glasses – with his guidance, we can see and understand the teachings much more clearly.

I didn’t tell my friend she needed to find a guru. That is for each of us to decide. But I did suggest, as well as reminding myself, that it’s easy to be an inspiration junkie.

Fridge magnets and Rumi day calendars and self help courses and Buddhist retreats — there are endless sources. But the search for knowledge can be a frustrating endeavor, until we become serious students and start to dive deep beneath the surface, where a world of limitless wisdom and rich beauty exists.


About Jahnavi Harrison

I was born into a family of Krishna devotees in London, and grew up in the mansion/temple in the countryside that was given to the Hare Krishna community by George Harrison, still known as "The Manor." Days were filled with devotional music and long hours playing with the cows after school! I was fortunate to have a deep exposure to the philosophy of bhakti yoga – the path to God that emphasises love, service, and kirtan, which is the call and response singing of sacred names. Initially, this was the soundtrack to my life, but as I grew older, I listened to all sorts and collected music I loved. Aged 12, I buried my nose in jazz and blues and got in trouble for making up my own versions of my violin pieces. A dusty freebie cassette from an Indian grocery introduced me to South Indian violin, and it wasn’t long before I switched to learning this style. One BA in Linguistics later, I was touring the world with sacred music group As Kindred Spirits. From Johannesburg to Mumbai, we tried to translate the stories, music, and dance of Vedic India into something fresh and relevant. I now work between New York and London, and try to see all my art as an offering, hoping that it will inspire, nourish and uplift.


14 Responses to “Inspiration Junkies and Gurus That Go Bump In The Night…”

  1. thanks for article, very informative and insightful… i read somewhere that your guru will appear when you are ready for your guru – what is your take on that?

  2. BradYantzer says:

    Beautifully put Jahnavi. In this day where everyone has a certification that they spent 8 weekends on and our out teaching to others, it is refreshing to know that there are clear minded people on the path of truth. I love the paragraph about a guru being a living example also about a true student diving deep. It seems like the lamp of the vedic parampara has never been lit here in america. Thanks for being a flame to help light it. I love how in the ayurvedic texts i.e. Charaka etc that they define what it is to be a physician and a student and a teacher. These qualifications would do a lot of good inserted into our culture. Thanks for your article.

  3. […] Spirituality’s “Featured Today” for fresh articles from new ej columnist Jahnavi Harrison; fresh weather and sound bytes from the Gita by Braja Sorensen, some strick instructions from Tom […]

  4. I like the title, how you've defined "seeker" from "student," a definition that has become a little blurry in recent years…

  5. Tanya Lee Markul says:

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  6. Eric says:

    This is a timely article for me. I was following a Tibetan Buddhist lineage for several years, but it was not right for me. I then found a teacher in Soto Zen, but he has become less available for me and not responsive–so I am again seeking.
    I recently came across the idea of Antaryamin~ "the God that dwells within", in writings by Sri Bhagavan:

    "For the Antaryamin to awaken, all we need is a GREAT PASSION to listen and follow the guidance of the Antaryamin and of course, to some extent, a good bond with (and gratitude for) our God. Antaryamin also gets awakened when we helplessly pray to God for guidance, fully realizing that that is the only guidance left! As long as we have alternatives for guidance, the Lord in our hearts will remain silent."

    just curious if you have heard of this and what your thoughts may be~

  7. Patrick says:

    Thank you for your article Jahnavi. I found myself here through your father’s Vaishnava Voice blog, and am glad I did. I agree with your comments about gurus. Western society has grown increasingly individualistic over the years, and has developed greater scepticism towards many so called ‘gurus’, ‘experts’, and ‘knowledge’ in general. Whilst this has been good in many ways, I believe there is now an over emphasis on individual truth in modern life that’s proving detrimental to society in general. But can anyone really ever be their own guru anyway? Not really. Everyone accepts authority from others in one form or another, be it family, friends, books, T.V, people we admire and so on, so no-one is ever really their own guru, no matter how trailblazing they may see themselves.

    Your words have resonated with me personally as many signs in my own life are pointing to the wisdom you have shared. Like your friend I have spent many years searching for the truth in different religious scriptures and spiritual practices, and realise that after all this time I have only been scratching surfaces. Whilst I have learned much with this approach, I have to concede that I am still more a seeker than student. Moreover, I have concluded that continuing this process, immersing myself in each religion, honestly reviewing all the beliefs and practices, could conceivably take lifetimes!

    I have been involved in practicing Krishna consciousness on and off for many years, and it’s the yardstick by which I measure other spiritual studies and experiences. However, I have mostly been a ‘fringie’, never fully committed, practicing Christianity, Buddhism, and New Age beliefs alongside studies of the Vedas, and a little chanting and singing. As it resonates with me the most, I feel the time has come for me to study Bhakti yoga in greater depth, and confront the obstacles that have prevented me from digging deeper in the past. So yes, I realise that I need to place greater emphasis on being a student rather than a seeker, and will be spending more time studying the Vedic scriptures, asking questions, chanting, and associating with devotees, the last of which I haven’t done for years, and which I know is important. I saw you and your family play devotional music on channel 4 last year which I enjoyed, it was part of what’s been making me re-evaluate where I have been going; hopefully we will meet on the path someday and I can hear you play live.

    So thank you again for your inspirational words Jahnavi, and I hope positive responses like mine and those above will encourage you to keep writing excellent articles.

    Best Wishes


  8. […] careful what you think you understand, be careful of “being your own guru,” because you could be really wrong: even if you’re being good and kind and patient, […]

  9. jahnavi says:

    Thanks Patrick for your inspiring thoughts – I am so encouraged to know that you liked something you read here, and that it has been a small part of a catalyst for you to study bhakti yoga more deeply. I definitely feel like whatever effort I make to learn and share with others has a transformational effect on my own life that convinces me to keep delving into this tradition. Having grown up with it, my experience is often multilayered – learning something doesn't always feel like learning it for the first time, but nevertheless, the need for a guru/guide is extremely evident. Best of luck on your journey and I do hope we meet sometime too!

  10. […] The holy man replied, “I have taken shelter of twenty-four gurus: the earth, air, sky, water, fire, moon, sun, pigeon and python; the sea, moth, honeybee, elephant and honey thief; the deer, the fish, the prostitute, the kurara bird, the child, the young girl, the arrow maker, serpent, spider, and wasp. By studying their activities I have learned the science of the self.” […]

  11. Patrick says:

    Thanks for your well wishing Jahnavi. I can quite imagine that being brought up with bhakti yoga as an everyday part of life gives you a very different experience. When I read your description of growing up, lots of devotional music, playing with cows and so on, it seems idyllic to me, and I’m sure it was, but I can imagine that it didn't feel like this all the time, such is life. It’s great that you are still committed after so many years; it would definitely be good to meet up and hear more about your experiences growing up with the tradition. I have long wanted to visit The Manor, especially due to the George Harrison connection (I’m a big Beatles / George fan), at some point this year I will have to do it, when I do I’ll get in touch and if you’re around hopefully we can meet then.

    I’m very glad you’re so encouraged by my reply. Tuesday turned out to be a very strange but good day. I live on the university campus here in Leeds, and after posting my response to your article I went out for some fresh air. Within a few minutes I was surprised to see two devotees distributing books. Not an everyday occurrence round here by any means. Amazed by the timing of this “coincidence”, I then popped into the local newsagent to buy a paper, and saw George’s face smiling back at me from the cover of ‘Uncut’ magazine. I decided to go over and talk to the devotees right there and then. Within a few hours I was clapping and singing, dancing with some guy I hardly knew, and finished the evening taking prashadam with a garland round my neck! I enjoyed it, but as it was the first time I’ve been properly involved for years, how it all came together freaked me out a little bit – but it’s good because I consider it as meant to be. So, I’m moving forward with a cautious enthusiasm, but I would say that the process of delving deeper has definitely begun!

  12. STARMAN says:

    radhe radhe !!!

  13. Subhash says:

    I have been a proud follower of Jahanvi ji and have listened almost all compositions and songs,all the time felt more inspiration and contentment of my soul. Long live