Today is Guru Purnima day, i.e. a purnima or pournami in which the guru is given importance. Not only do we offer worship to our guru but also to the guru parampara. We do so because our guru enjoys his status because of hisguru; his guru enjoys status because of his guru and so on. Ultimately the guru less guru is none other than the Lord himself who is the adi guru. So on this occasion we offer worship to the guru parampara beginning with the adi guru up to our immediate guru.
A guru can be worshipped from various angles because he has a multifaceted personality. But on Guru Purnima, we worship the guru primarily as the giver of knowledge which is the primary meaning of the word ‘guru’ – one who imparts the knowledge of atmatathvam. The book ‘Gurugeeta’ gives many definitions of ‘guru’. A popular definition states that the letter ‘gu’ indicates andhakara or darkness and the letter ‘ru’ indicates the remover of andhakara, i.e. the light principle. Joining these two letters, ‘guru’ means the lamp of knowledge that dispels darkness.
Darkness is of two types – external and internal. External darkness is the well known darkness we experience. Internal darkness is ignorance. External darkness can be dispelled by a mere lamp. But internal darkness cannot be dispelled by external light. A sloka says let a hundred suns rise outside, let a hundred moons rise outside, but all those suns and moons cannot remove internal darkness. Gnanam or knowledge alone can remove internal darkness. And the guru is the one who lights up the inner lamp to remove the internal darkness.
To understand the significance of a spiritual guru, we should have a picture of what gnanam consists of. Any knowledge takes place in the intellect – be it the knowledge of mathematics, economics or physics. If this principle is extended, atma gnanam must also take place in the intellect. So if material knowledge is an intellectual process, so is spiritual knowledge. Spiritual knowledge cannot take place in the physical body or the atma. So spiritual knowledge or self knowledge is intellectual knowledge that takes place in the intellect alone. Whenever the intellect is involved, logic or reasoning is involved. Without logic the intellect will not be convinced because reasoning is the only language the intellect can understand. So self-knowledge requires the intellect and reasoning – buddhi and tarka.
But here a serious problem arises. How can we say that spiritual knowledge depends upon buddhi and tarka because we are always reading that atma is beyond buddhi and reason? The Vedas assert that the mind (meaning intellect) cannot know the atma. This means the atma does not involve the buddhi. So it is clearly nonintellectual knowledge. Yet we are saying that atma gnanam requires the buddhi and reasoning. This is one of the biggest confusions in the spiritual field.
Sankaracharya very clearly and beautifully resolves this confusion in his commentary on the Brahma Sutras. Both the buddhi and reasoning are of two types – the buddhi and reasoning that is based on perceptual (nonscriptural) data and the buddhi and reasoning that is backed by scriptural data. Sankaracharya says (not only in this commentary but in his other works also) that whenever we say atma is beyond the buddhi or atma gnanam is beyond thebuddhi, it means it is beyond non scripture-backed buddhi. So we do require a buddhi or intellect to know the atma. And what type of buddhi is it? It is scripture-backed buddhi. In his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita,Sankaracharya says in the second chapter that the only instrument that can give atma gnanam, is the buddhi. The Upanishads also point out that with the help of the mind alone must atma gnanam be gained. This subtle atma has to be known by the buddhi alone.
Is reasoning required for the vedanta? Sankaracharya points out that reasoning is very much required because the buddhi cannot receive anything without reasoning. The intellect will not accept that which is irrational to us. Therefore Sankaracharya says we can never give up reasoning because the buddhi accepts only that langauge. Sankaracharya also clarifies that whenever we talk about reasoning, it is not the reasoning of the tarka shastra because it is not backed by shruti. So if any guru tells us to drop our intellects and reasoning, he is a non-traditional guru. A traditional guru will ask us to retain our buddhi and reasoning. And for how long must we retain these faculties? Until the end. With the buddhi and reasoning supported by the scriptures, we have to gain atma gnanam That is why he say gnanam is gained by shastra vichara or enquiry. Shastra vichara has three aspects. Vichara conveys the importance of buddhi and tarka (logic). So the three aspects are shastra, buddhi and tarka. Knowledge is an intellectual process that happens because of shastra vichara.
But there is a problem. We are ready to use our buddhi and reasoning to acquire the knowledge of the shastras. But the shastras do not communicate directly to us however talented we may be because the shastras have their own method of communication. We do not have the ‘key’ to open the shastras. Without the ‘key’, not only will we not get any benefit, we may also misunderstand the shastras. In one of his commentaries, Sankaracharya says that nobody should study the scriptures independently. We must go to a person who has the ‘key’. The ‘key’ is called mimamsa or sampradaya. The person who has the ‘key’ is called as sampradayavith. So the shastras are important,buddhi is important and reasoning is important. All the three put together is called shastra vichara. But what is even more important is the person who has the secret key to open the secret shastras. He is the guru.
Since the shastras and the key are both important, the shastras are useless without the key and the key is useless without the shastras — just like a record player and a cassette — each needs the other. The guru and the shastrasare complementary because without one, the other is meaningless. So on Guru Purnima, we worship both equally but the guru is given an extra focus.
How did the guru get the key? He got the key from his guru. How did his guru get the key? He got the key from his guru and so on. In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a significant portions is taken up just to enumerate the guru -sishya parampara. Just as we are grateful to our forefathers without whom we could not have taken birth, so also we are grateful to the guru-sishya parampara.
We are especially grateful to two gurus who play very important role in transferring the key- Vyasacharya (Vishnu Avatar) and Sankaracharya (Siva Avatar). How did they help us. One made a mini key and the other made a maxi key. The Upanishad is the box in which gnanam is contained. Vyasacharya’s key is Upanishad condensation (mini key) and Sankaracharya’s key is Upanishad’s expansion (maxi key). One condenses the Upanishad, the other expands it. The condensation is called Upanishad sutram and the expansion is called Upanishad bashyam. Vyasacharya’s condensation is known as Vedanta (Upanishad) Sutras and Sankaracharya’s expansion is known as Vedanta (Upanishad) Bhashya.
Why do we require these two keys? Any learning is complete only when we have the capability to condense it and expand it. We must be able to express it succinctly and also elaborate upon it.
Since Vyasacharya crystalize the sampradaya and presented the Vedanta shastra and also because Vyasacharya is senior to Sankaracharya in the parampara, Guru Purnima is called Vyasa Purnima.
Guru Purnima is also the beginning of Chaturmasya of sanyasis. A sanyasi is supposed to move constantly. However Chaturmasya being the rainy season, moving about may be difficult. A sanyasi may step on the insects that come out during the seasons. So an exception is granted and sanyasis are expected to remain in one place during this period. In whichever village they may be, the village people invite them – please stay here and teach something to us. The sanyasi accepts the invitation and on the auspicious Guru Purnima day invokes the guru-shishya parampara and begins the teaching. So today is an important day not only for sanyasis but also for mumukshus (seekers of liberation). So on this auspicious occasion let us all invoke the grace of all the acharyas for our spiritual fulfilment.