Sunday, November 20, 2011

Teachers Vs Teachings


This famous Mantra is probably world’s topmost salutation to a teacher.  The Sanskrit Mantra translates as:

The Teacher is Brahma, the God of Creation; 
The Teacher is Vishnu, the God of Sustenance;
The Teacher is Shiva, the God of Annihilation;
The Teacher is the ultimate God;
My Salutation to such a Teacher

This Mantra is often cited by teachers and parents alike to instil respect for teachers, in the minds of students.  Teachers are placed at an equal or even higher position to one’s parents in Indian culture.  This Mantra goes further and equates Guru, the teacher, to the ultimate God, Para-Brahma.

At the outset, this looks like an ideal concept.  Teacher is the one who collates knowledge and provides it to students. All the achievements of a student, as a student, primarily depend upon the quality and efforts of his Guru.  In other words, Guru creates the very human being in his student.  In that sense, Guru is not less than any God!

However, if we look at this concept more deeply, we can perceive the danger of such a position.  One is not expected to challenge God. God is not about enquiry, experimentation or logic- God is all about unquestioning faith.  When we reduce the student- teacher relationship to that of faith, are we knowingly or unknowingly destroying the very teachings of the teacher?  Yes, in my opinion, we are doing precisely that!

What is the importance of a Guru? His function is to gain and then share the knowledge with his student and thereafter help him in enhancing the very knowledge. In that sense, a teacher is performing a function like any other sections of the working force in a society.  We cannot say that one section of the society is more important than other sections.  For example, the farmer, who generates food for our survival is as important as the teacher who provides food for our thoughts.

Let us consider the example of a book.  We often see elders teaching us to respect a book.  By mistake, if a book is fallen from our hands or we touch it with our feet, we are asked to show respect to that book by touching it to our forehead.  During the Saraswati Pooja, books are given an equal status to Gods and worshipped for three days. 

While agreeing to the importance of a book, when we convert it into an on object of respect or worship we are (at least in practise) neglecting or forgetting its very objective.  Shall we be respecting a book or shall we respect the knowledge contained in that book?  My vote is to the knowledge and not to the book.  In any case, we don’t show the same respect to a CD or a Pen drive, even though they may contain much more knowledge than in a book!  That means, we are reducing the respect for knowledge contained in a book into a mere ritual of respecting the book, the medium.

Same is the case of a Guru.  When we place the Guru at such an exalted position, we are goaded into blindly following him and giving up the very inquisitive mind that the teacher struggled to awaken in us.  We forget no teacher has become a great teacher by merely following and worshiping his own teacher.  It is when he went beyond his own teacher and sought the truth that his teachings became valuable to human societies.  In spite of that we fall into the same trap as his fellow students, in blindly following this new teacher.

No teacher is as great as his teachings... When we worship teachers, we lose the essence of their teachings; replacing knowledge with mere faith!

Nowhere else is this apparent as in religious teachings and social reforms.  Take the example of Sri Buddha; in my limited knowledge, the best thinker and teacher in the history of human beings.  His teachings were radical and yet simple and commonsensical and had the potential to change the humanity forever. But his followers, instead of inculcating his great teachings in to their own lives, chose to convert Buddha into a God and worship him!

This is true for all the religions.  Jesus Christ, Prophet Mohammed, Sri Krishna- the greatness of all these teachers is in their teachings as deduced in the Bible, Quran and Gita.  If we look into those teachings, we will see that these Gurus went beyond the existing knowledge and beliefs of their respective times and gave us new thoughts.  Yet, we gave more importance to these teachers than their teachings.  We converted them into Gods or semi-Gods and made anything that questions their teachings into blasphemy, thereby shutting down the doors to further refinement of the very teachings. 

Forget such extreme cases. We have any number of religious teachers turned Man-Gods amongst us.  Sai babas, Ammas and Sri Sris abound in our society even today, transcending their own teachings and attaining the Godly status among their students/followers!

Another example is that of the single most important social reformer of Kerala, Sri Narayana Guru.  The Guru, who successfully challenged the caste system in Kerala and gave wonderful one-liners that contained the very essence of good social behaviour and equality among human beings, has now been reduced to yet another God and a communal Leader!

Sri Narayana Guru gave us thought provoking pearls like:

One Caste, One Religion, One God for Man”

“Ask not, Say not, Think not caste”

“Whatever may be the religion, it suffices if it makes a man better”

“Liquor is poison - Make it not, Sell it not, Drink it not

Narayana Guru even went on to install Hindu deities, though such an act was reserved only to the highest caste among Hindus, i.e., Bhrahmins, till then.  He not only broke the existing glass ceilings but even revolutionised the very concept of temple worship by installing a simple mirror in one of the many temples that he consecrated. 

Today, the Guru is reduced to a leader of one of the backward castes in Kerala, namely Ezhavas.  The leaders of the organisation that is supposed to spread Guru’s teachings are known for their activities in liquor business! His fight against the very caste system in now reduced to a means for organising and strengthening one of the castes, in the society!  Today, in every corner of Kerala you find temples with Narayana Guru’s own busts as the idols!

This tendency is also prevalent among the political class.  We do not worry any more about what is Gandhism or Gandhi’s teachings; but we worship Gandhi and get easily offended if anyone questions, even slightly, his semi-God status.  In almost all political parties, anyone who questions the established positions of the existing leadership is considered as rotten eggs to be thrown away at the earliest opportunity.

In this background, I think we need to inculcate among us and our children, an attitude that questions the teachers and their teachings.  We must respect teachers like we must respect any other human beings.  But we must not worship them or blindly put our faith in them.  Human beings can only make progress, spiritual or material, with an uncompromising quest for more truth.  We must remember the ultimate truth has not yet been spoken.  We must not sacrifice our quest for the larger truth in our eagerness to worship our teachers!

Finally, a word to teachers.... Please do not expect to be worshipped by your students.  Do not fall for the temptations to attain status of a God or to continue the hegemony of the ideas that you preach/teach.  Instead, teach them to question the very ideas that you are teaching them.  That is when you will become the real creators of a progressive society and better human beings.


  1. For 100's of years the tradition of unconditionally submitting yourself to a spiritual teacher, has been a remarkably effective method of helping people break free from the confines of chronic self-contraction. However, the practice of surrendering to a Guru has largely been seen as anathema to the modern West (some of us included), mostly due to the important cultural contributions of rational individualism and postmodern egalitarianism—in this sense, traditional Guru Yoga is behind the times. Triggered by our 'questioning/curious bent of mind"

    So, perhaps the challenge now is to find a way to re-conceptualize the Guru, include evolutionary advancements in perspective so that we can honor the achievements of the modern and post-modern minds, to craft a new form of "Spirit in 2nd-person" for the 21st Century?:)

    In our scriptures you have rightly pointed out that the Guru is made of the Holy Trinity “Brahma, Vishnu, Maheswara" the primordial being, the cause and effect of creation. It is bit difficult to digest, a bit beyond the ordinary comprehension. This theory had made many to believe irrationally whereas many really knowledgeable Masters had been dismissed without question. Still life is evolution, from a tiny baby to a wise person and the wisdom keeps growing. Life unfurls from within, but the process is mostly guided

    The theory of having a Life Guru is seeding deep in the West - as most professionals there believe - as we open our mind, the less resistance our ego offers and we benefit from varied personalities. Some of them(gurus) leave an indelible mark on our life rising truly as our "friend, philosopher and guide".

    And ofcos in India there is the Sadguru and a Guru...and I dont have the faintest clue what a SadGuru is all about...perhaps something you may want to explore too?:D

  2. Cannot agree more. Blindly following emotions have been our forte. Sadly.

  3. awesome as usual, specially liked the book-cd-pendrive part :D

  4. You have said it right! A teacher should make a student inquisitive and make him question the teacher. And the best teacher would be the one who slowly transfers his knowledge and makes the student outgrow the teacher.

    But such teachers are rare to find these days..