India is perhaps the only country in the world that has a special day celebrating the guru as the spiritual guide, yogi and sage. In many cultures we find teachers honored in various ways with special events. Some would make Guru Purnima into a similar occurrence. While there is a connection, the Indian idea of Guru Purnima goes much further.
The idea of the guru or the Self-realized seer and yogi is the dominant image that India has brought to the world as representing the essence of its timeless civilization.
The guru has been one of India’s main exports to the world, with great gurus from India traveling and teaching worldwide and inspiring millions. The term guru itself has entered into many languages and discourses in the East and West. The importance of the guru is one of the pillars of India’s traditional system of spiritual knowledge, reflecting the need for instruction and practices recommended at an individual level.
Modern India has been blessed with dozens of great gurus, who have appeared in every generation. A number of these great masters inspired India’s independence movement like Sri Aurobindo, Swami Rama Tirtha and Swami Vivekananda. Some taught through silence like Ramana Maharshi and were still able to command worldwide recognition. Some have set up numerous schools and institutions like Swami Chinmayananda; others have preferred to remain unknown. Most gurus are part of long lineages extending back many generations, if not centuries.
The Guru in India and the Geniuses of the West
India’s ideal of a guru is more than a teacher, intellectual or scholar in the western sense of the word. The West’s intellectual icons are eminent thinkers and geniuses in art, science, philosophy, or literature – great minds like Einstein, Voltaire, Darwin, or Da Vinci. No doubt such individuals have contributed greatly to humanity, and must be honored, but they would not necessarily be regarded as gurus in the higher sense of the term.
India’s ideal of a true guru is an individual who has achieved the goal of Yoga as the unity of the individual soul with the universal and transcendent being. Such a state of higher consciousness is not a mental achievement, new theory or idea, or breakthrough in science or medicine. It is a change of consciousness beyond the ordinary human mind to a cosmic sense of self, with a recognition of oneself in all beings.
The true guru teaches a way of inquiry and meditation so that we can transcend the boundaries of our limited human capacities trapped in the body, mind and senses, and directly perceive the true nature of existence beyond all divisions and dualities.
This ideal of a Self-realized sage has no real counterpart in the West, and is not recognized or promoted in western education, where India’s gurus are seldom placed among the great minds of humanity. Achieving the state of a true guru does not require study or research in an academic sense, but an inner spiritual practice that takes us beyond the constructs of the mind.
Need for a New Honoring of the Guru
Yet Guru Purnima is not just about India’s ideal of a guru at an outer level. Guru Purnima also requires honoring our own highest potential of Self-realization. This is based upon an inner contact with the great guru, yogi and rishi as our own highest potential, which cannot be achieved without honoring the gurus outwardly as well.
It is time for India’s intellectuals, academics and journalists – most of whom are trapped in the illusions of the mind - to once more study and honor their own great gurus from the most ancient Vedic times to today. For Indian intellectuals to study the geniuses of the West but not the exalted gurus of their own country demonstrates a deficiency in their understanding of their own heritage, and a lack of development of an inner meditative intelligence.
As a nation, India’s highest role is Vishvaguru, the guru of the nations of the world. This can only occur when India honors its true gurus, ancient and modern, through following their profound teachings and emulating the examples of their selfless lives.