Gurus are venerated in Indian tradition, but Guru Purnima is an occasion to acknowledge dedicated students too

Guru Purnima was observed all over the country last week. In the world of Hindustani music, this is an occasion for students to gather together and pay homage to their guru through offerings of music. But it goes beyond this and gains significance as an occasion for bringing the larger music community together. Promising disciples of other gurus are invited as guest performers and the guru presents his star disciples in front of invited audiences that might include other gurus, artists, critics and opinion makers. The celebrations are usually brought to a close with a recital by the guru himself.

In its origin though, Guru Purnima is a day that is observed by spiritual seekers and academics. Possibly originating as a Buddhist and Jain practice, it was taken into Hinduism as Vyasa Puja — a dedication to Veda Vyasa, the systematiser of the Vedas. The organising of the corpus of Vedic mantras, etc, into three collections (the original three Vedas called the thrayee, the Atharva Veda being a later compilation) is credited to Veda Vyasa and he is regarded the Adi Guru in this respect.

Guru Purnima has special significance for sanyasis as the Chaturmaasya starts on this day. Chaturmaasya is the period of four months of rain when sanyasis are required to stay in one place; they are otherwise forbidden to stay in any place for more than a brief period of time, since that would breed attachment.

 Gurus are venerated in Indian tradition, but Guru Purnima is an occasion to acknowledge dedicated students too

Guru Purnima is also an occasion to acknowledge the importance of dedicated students. Reuters

Guru Purnima being observed in other disciplines like music is a relatively later development. In the world of Carnatic music, it has almost no significance. The day set aside specifically for meeting and paying respects to the Guru in the Carnatic world is the Vijayadasami, the 10th day of Navaratri.

Be that as it may, the veneration that a guru is traditionally accorded is remarkable: especially in oral traditions, the guru is set on a high pedestal. To illustrate on a rather mundane level, my grandmother had a mantra for alleviating sprains and muscle cramps, a kind of a folk remedy consisting mainly of a mixture of words and gibberish and some rubbing and massaging with the sacred ash. When my mother wanted to learn it from her, she warned my mother – “If I did teach it to you, you may never again scold me or lose your temper with me since I would have become your guru.” So, my mother declined.

In the serious pursuits of the arts and spiritual practices, the guru has a critical, even irreplaceable role. Stories of how great musicians found their gurus with severe difficulty are legion. Pt Bhimsen Joshi was captivated by the music of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan and ran away at the age of eleven in search of someone who could teach him to sing like that. His journey took him to the Punjab, Bengal, Gwalior and finally, he came back to his own part of the country and learned from Pt Sawai Gandharva, a direct disciple of his hero Ustad Abdul Karim Khan. Flute maestro Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia set his mind on learning from the reclusive but fabulous musician Smt Annapurna Devi. She resisted for three years until he gave up playing the flute on his right side as he had done for many years and switched to the left to demonstrate that he was willing to unlearn everything and learn from her afresh.

Many decades and the IT revolution later, in this age when every information, big and small, is available at the click of a button, what does a guru have that Google does not?

The fact is ragas cannot be described beyond a very superficial level – one cannot capture a raga in notation. It has to be received from a guru and its understanding is strengthened by practice and listening to other great masters.

Traditional arts like Carnatic and Hindustani music are rich in the subtlety of content and mastering these subtleties takes a lifetime. Veteran Carnatic violinist, Vidwan TN Krishnan, remarked at a concert, “I think I am beginning to get a hang of it” – this was with a brilliant career of performances of nearly 70 years behind him.

The guru alone can transmit the deepest secrets, and the subtlest aspects of the art. And this he does not by talking about it but by example, by practice. The startling idea of Dakshinamurthy’s mouna vyakhayana or sermon through silence is an affirmation of this very truth. Just the presence of the guru can give light. This might seem extreme for ordinary persons seeking ordinary skills but even in a discipline like classical music, this experience is sometimes encountered. The guru’s presence itself can lead. We speak of it as “blessings” of the guru, and it is a real thing.
But, the importance of the shishya in this process and her desire to learn is equally significant. Dakshinamurthy gave a discourse through silence because his shishyas were eager and able to absorb it. Unless the disciple has what is called paatrataa or the capacity to receive, it will not work.

Ustad Zakir Husain, in an informal talk on guru, riyaz, etc, published on YouTube, speaks of the importance of dynamics between the guru and the disciple. He says, “In a sense, the student becomes a teacher to the guru. The guru needs light to see how to teach the student.” And that guidance can only come from the student who has to the commitment and the confidence. Commitment to the guru and the learning process, so that his mind is solely devoted to what the guru teaches without any other distractions; confidence to show the teacher what one has so that the teacher can take him up from there. And that connection must stay with the shishya.

The ancient Upanishadic Shanti shloka, saha naa vavatu speaks of the same dynamism between student and teacher. It is a prayer sung by both that they may be nourished together, gain strength together and move towards the light together without animosity, without hating each other. The transmission of an art is an intense process, in which both student and teacher have different but equally important roles to play.

So while we celebrate gurus let us acknowledge that students with intensity and commitment are as much to be valued.

Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician. She writes about the artistic process and the experience of art using myth, story, philosophy, and everything in between. Write to her at

Updated Date: Aug 04, 2018 14:13:01 IST