The Dangers of Reverence.


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gurūrbrahmā, gurūrviṣṇuḥ, gurūrdevo māheśvaraḥ
gurūrsākṣāt parabrahma tasmai śrī gurave namaḥ

I bow to the noble, radiant Guru, who is Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Māheśvara (śiva), the direct Parabrahmā, the Supreme Reality.

This verse from the Guru Gītā is taught to all students at the beginning of any tutelage. If it is not sung to open a Classical Indian performance, it will surely be recited mentally by the artist. It is the chief prayer to the guru.

The teacher-student relationship is highly revered in India, and is known as guru-śiṣya paramparā.

Paramparā, translated as “tradition,” means a continuous series. A fuller description would be an uninterrupted succession of teachers and disciples. This continuity is dependent, first and foremost, on the authenticity of the guru, which in turn yields the respect, commitment and devotion of the student.

Many years ago, I was drawn to a little-known school of yoga, started by a charismatic, impressive and accomplished yogi. The practice was different from anything I’d come across before; it felt more authentic, improved my practice immeasurably and naturally instilled a discipline in me which had previously been missing.

The teacher and his partner made an exotic couple and had a heady air of unapproachable glamour. The two elements—a new, authentic and inspiring practice combined with the teacher’s own depth of knowledge and fierce charisma—were potent motivators.

The incredible fruits of this new yoga practice and being part of this elite group made it possible—easy, even!—for me to revere them.

In India, the guru-student relationship is common practice. It works not only because it is a custom cemented into the psyche of the people since antiquity, but also because a genuine guru does not charge for what is seen as a duty. The student lives as part of the family of the guru and learns not just through the teachings but also by imbibing every aspect of the guru’s being.

Reverence in India is a natural process. The guru, having once been the student within the same tradition, fully understands the heritage. The guru understands that by bowing to that which is higher, more learned, more accomplished, the student achieves a state of mind more readily able to access higher knowledge.

The act of reverence, therefore, is not for the benefit of the teacher but rather for the benefit of the student.

The ancient texts warn of not enjoying the siddhis, as they are only distractions on the path. Siddhis are super human skills that become available to the adept at higher levels of consciousness. In the same way, the respected teacher is not to indulge in, or abuse, the exalted status bestowed on him by the student. This is not easy, as, like all traps, wrong conduct crawls in almost unnoticed from many angles, and before too long a guru’s indulgence in power can become well-established.

Kriṣṇamacārya said that the guru’s duty is to carefully hold the spirit of the student in his hand, and that the biggest crime was to allow any harm to come to that spirit in his care. It is a big responsibility; the teacher must have conquered his own personal obstacles in order to do this and avoid the trap of enjoying the elevated treatment bestowed upon him by the students.

In the West this is even more important, as the tradition has been imported. This means that if the tradition is not understood in its entirety, it is possible that only parts of the tradition may be employed, leading to demand for devotion without due cause.

It is not easy to see the signs, especially if one is flattered with an invitation into the “inner circle,” where extra teachings are given in exchange for useful tasks.

But at what point do these works transform into exploitation?

In my own case, I had ample opportunity to pick up on warning signs. These included my teachers passing off my translation work of ancient texts as their own teachings and asking me to do unpaid work organizing retreats and workshops. Once they were assured of my loyalty, I was advised privately that the best way to hold a group’s attention was to “rip into” one student publicly so that everyone will fall in line, do exactly as you say.

In hindsight, I can see that it is, at best, not right and, at worst, unacceptable. My “reverence” was based mainly on fear rather than true respect.

Hands up—guilty!

Certainly I was delighted by the depth of their knowledge and the efficacy of the practice. But I can now see I was also drawn in by personal charisma and worldly glamour. I felt part of an elite, well-traveled, well-versed group.

Furthermore, with my own particular skills (Hindi and Sanskrit), I was useful to them, which brought me privileges within this elite community; I was showered with extra knowledge and favors from them.

Until I wasn’t.

Perhaps they sensed that I was losing the unquestioning reverence I’d had for them. There was a sudden 180 degree flip in their attitude toward me, and I was frozen out of their favor—and thus out of the group. They silently removed my administrator status from their Facebook page, the song I had composed for their DVD was discreetly revoked, they didn’t credit me in their book for my translations and told me not to come to workshops or classes for at least a year.

Although I attempted to find out the reasons for my sudden “doghouse” status, they refused to explain. This was after seven years of being their student.

Who was to blame here?

One of my friends said that as I was only there for the knowledge, when the alerts came my “one-track mind” saw them but didn’t scrutinize them.

Partly true, but I think as students, and discerning adults, we all need to take more responsibility for allowing unacceptable behavior(s) to go unchecked and unquestioned.

Out the other end, I can now admit that the things that stopped me from challenging what didn’t quite sit right were the privilege of “inner circle” status and fear of ostracism and loss of friends and lifestyle.

If we, as students, do not expose or address questionable traits, we are party, through silent acceptance, to the teacher slowly losing grip on their faculties of discernment. Then conformity becomes the road of least resistance, and the abuse of power will take over.

Discernment is essential to yield true knowledge, which must also be applied to the guide. If someone is truly a master in their field, they will welcome discriminative scrutiny.

There is a prayer that talks about guru and śiṣya crossing the ocean of existence together. They maintain each other. It should be a beneficent relationship unless we, the student, allow it to become a dictatorship.

Like many Indian treatises, the opening verse has a double meaning. The word sākṣāt, as well as meaning “direct,” or “in person,” as translated above, also means “with one’s own eyes.” This hints at the internal witness in all of us.

The guru to whom we are to bow, then, is and always will be, the one which is inside of us.


Relephant Read:

What now for the Guru Model?


Author: Natasha Nandini

Editor: Toby Israel

Image: Sheetal Saini/Flickr // Pabak Sarkar/Flickr



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Natasha Nandini

Since 1997 Natasha Nandini has been studying yoga, Indian classical dance, and Indian classical vocal as methods to cultivate the self. In her spare time she studies Tantra, mainly non-dualistic Kashmiri Shaivism and the Shri Vidya, with a focal point on srsti/samhara through sound. She is currently re-working a translation of a Tantric text attributed to Shri Goraknath, the first edition is available as a free PDF download on her website. She has been travelling to Varanasi, India, for the last 20 years to deepen her studies and to host cultural tours with an emphasis on an inside look at the musical and religious lives of the local people. She currently lives in London where she teaches Yoga and sound through song. Her main teachers are Pts. Rajan and Sajan Misra and Prof. Ritwik Sanyal.


5 Responses to “The Dangers of Reverence.”

  1. Joe Sparks says:

    In my opinion, you were completely innocent and vulnerable to this authoritarian figure. You did not do anything wrong and need never blame yourself with what happened. We need teachers who challenge us to independent thinking creatures. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Dear Natasha,

    A mutual friend forwarded me your article which I resonated with on so many levels. Thank you for taking the time to put your personal observations online about the teacher-student dilemma that many of today’s students are unaware of. It has been 15 years since I was “frozen out of favor” by your teacher and the community that follows him, after 20 years of committed study and service. When the relationship was ending, he told me “there are two things you never want to be in life – a soldier or an apprentice”. It took awhile to realize the gift that he gave me, one that is reserved for students who are destined to discover a more personal yogic path, whether they realize it in the moment or not. Your experiences with the shadow side of a charismatic teacher and the type of community that follows such a teacher gives you context for becoming a more authentic teacher, and capable of carrying on the lineage of yoga in a very unique and powerful way, as it was meant to be.

    • Nikki Taylor says:

      Thank you Peter and Natasha…! For sharing your experience in such a kind and insightful way. Hopefully your expression will aid others in deeper understanding!! It's often a long and winding road; a little light along the way can be monumental! Thank you both for the beam…of light!!

    • Dear Peter, thank you for your words of wisdom. In retrospect it is certainly a blessing in disguise and from others who have been in touch with similar stories the common denominator worth holding on to is the gift of freedom. Freedom to make one's own decisions without the fear of being thrown out from the teachings, to choose one's own friends and even to be able to press 'like' on whatever one likes without threatening consequences. Here in the holy city of Varanasi the pandits and sadhus express that love is the true path. Love and freedom are synonymous.
      Best wishes,

  3. andrew daunis says:

    Dear natasha~ your story reminds me so much of something one of my teachers told my yoga class: “Today’s viveka is tomorrow’s advidya”. As a sanskrit scholar that probably means a lot more to you than myself, but it is a saying that continues to speak to me somehow. It has something to do with how today’s perception or “insight” tomorrow is revealed as folly or ignorance, and that it is in ignorance that we fail to see cleary. Also, as you have courageously acknowledged about your own experince in your article, advidya can arise from the seduction of the ego by admitance to the “inner circle” of the the elite and the trappings of self-identification with the guru. Either way, today’s viveka, tomorrow’s advidya.

    Your story reminds me of a tale of sadhaka and guru I once heard a while ago: The tale takes place not in India, for the teachings had travelled west and south into Europe following the path of the invasion of the Huns…
    The students were seated at the feet of the guru, and they had all travelled from far and wide. They had all made a significant contribution to the guru as well, and considered themselves devoted. Therefore, many also desired the favor of the guru and admittance to the so-called “inner circle”.
    In particular, there were two students, one who had already gained favor in the eyes of the guru, and another who had journeyed all the way from present-day Ukraine and was so driven by his hankering for the guru to bestow his individual attention upon him that he wrote a letter to the guru asking why he had not been selected to share chai with the guru during the resting period that daily followed the deliverence of the teachings.
    The other, whose origin I don’t recall, had already found considerable favor under the tuteldge of the guru. As it happens, recognition stoked the need for acknowledgment and validation within this disciple to the point where he felt slighted by the guru, and spoke in hushed tones his dissatisfaction into the ears of some of the other students.
    Finally, after several days of dropping hints, the guru addressed the two students directly. To the letter-writer he said: You came here to learn something from me, and you are busy with your concern that we have not had tea together. So what? That is not for everyone. To drink tea together is not what you came all this way for. Pay attention to what i have to teach you, and work it. And for the next year, take your own letter and read it, every day, and see what it has to teach you.
    Then the guru spoke t the other who had already found favor… but at this point I can’t remember exactly how the dialogue goes and can’t do it justice, but i think i caught the jist.
    Both students were bound up in gaining affirmation and seeking self-identification with the guru, rather than the task of self-cultivation.
    The message for the one who had found favor was essentially “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” and for the letter-writer “some people don’t read their own letters”. The story goes that only the letter-writer, who was chastized at length in front of all the students and not a party to the inner circle went home satisfied and with respect for himself and the guru.

    We often hear of the dangers of ignorance, but not the dangers of reverence, so thank you for your article. While the victimization you endured is obvious, one thing I wasn’t clear about from your article is why when the teacher you revered told you not to come for at least a year you didn’t honor that and see it through (at least that is the impression I got). Although, on the other hand, its difficult to imagine what a student is supposed to learn during a whole year alone without their teacher…

    Anyway, congratulations on your clarity and taking responsibility for discernment. I hope the benefits of your lesson will serve me well, and good luck on the path ahead!

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