#182 The meaning of Guru Ashtakam (8 verses about the importance of a guru)
The word Guru, can only be used for the one who removes the ignorance of the self –
गुकारस्तुअन्धकार् रुकारस्तन्निवर्तकः अन्धकारनिवर्तित्वात रुरित्यभिधीयते
Guru Ashtakam – a set of 8 verses that revolve around the guru written by Jagatguru Adi Shankaracharya. I thought that it might be nice to offer our pranaams to the guru Parampara by dwelling on this stotram. As some of you know, 13th August this year is Guru Purnima Guru Pūrṇimā, also called Vyāsa Pūrṇimā, is dedicated to the great sage Bhagavān Veda Vyāsa and occurs on his birthday, the full moon day in June/July, the Hindu month of Āṣāḍha.
Bhagavān Veda Vyāsa codified and assembled the Vedas – Ṛg Veda, Yajur Veda, Sāma Veda and Atharva Veda. Not only that, he wrote the Mahabharata, the 18 Purāṇa-s (glories of specific deities through the teachings of dharma and Mokṣa with stories) and finally the Brahmasutras, an analytic work presenting the purport of the entire śāstra. He did this to re-establish the glory of the Śruti and passed it onto his students, who passed it on to their students, who passed it on, which then became the teaching tradition or what is referred to as the guru-shishya parampara.
Coming back to Guru Ashtakam, one would assume that the verses would speak about the guru just like Mahalakshmi ashtakam is in praise of Mahalakshmi.
Strangely, the stotram does not say anything about how the guru should be, the guru’s gender, how much the guru should have studied, what siddhis the guru should have. Nothing.
Then what are these verses about? About discovering the shishya, student in you. Although the knowledge is about the self, the Atma, it is discovered in a relational way through a dialogue between the teacher and student.
Guru Ashtakam highlights the qualities of Viveka and Shraddha as necessary to study shastra. Viveka is born when we see that all our accomplishments have no meaning without moksha and hence our life has no meaning without a guru.
Listeners from a primarily Western culture, struggle with the idea of a guru because the culture one grew up in emphasises self-reliance and independence. On the other hand, listeners from India and Eastern traditions are a lot more at home with interdependence and respect for elders and gurus.
And so, we will do well to recognise the influence of the culture we grew up in, on our frameworks of learning, the pursuit of learning and the role of a teacher. Either way, the Vedic tradition resounds with the declaration that a guru is indispensable to self-knowledge, even if the guru teaches in the West.
In the tradition we recognise that three kinds of blessings, krpa are required for moksha pursuit – Guru krpa, Ishvara krpa, Atma krpa.
Let’s say Ishvara krpa, the blessings of Ishvara are there. You finally found a guru. Atma krpa, your blessings toward yourself is there since you learnt the nature of the moksha pursuit. With Guru krpa one knows the truth because the means of knowledge or the words of the Shaastra have to be handled by the guru. I have seen this in my life, my guru ‘s life and so on.
Let’s say Guru krpa is there but atma krpa is not there – the person will resist the guru. Some of you say ‘But I can’t find one’. In today’s world no one can say this, after exploring. There are far too many options. If you say so, what you are saying is the Guru does not fit into your idea of perfection, your idea of what a guru should be. So the person will struggle more.
In the verses of the Guru Ashtakam, Ishvara krpa and Guru Krpa are both there. Meaning the blessings of Ishvara and the blessings of Guru are there but there is not enough atma krpa.
Whatever you are committed to, your attention flows to it. Wherever your attention flows your mind goes. Why? Because there is a value for whatever that is, be it your pursuit of wealth, fame or pleasure.
Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya recognises that the shraddha and samadhaanam, one-pointedness required for the study of Vedanta sets one free.
He recognises that there may not be enough focus and commitment to the Guru. Why?
Because there is no commitment to the moksha pursuit. Both feed into each other.
Why not enough commitment? Because of a lot of responsibilities. No. There is not enough viveka – a clear understanding born of discriminative enquiry about what is nitya, eternal and what is anitya, temporary in my life.
And so, the refrain in the second line of the shloka is –
गुरोरङिघ्रपद्मे मनश्चेन्न लग्नं