The Guru and the Disciple in the Integral Yoga

If one looks at traditional paths of yogic practice in India, or similar practices around the world, regardless of the religious or spiritual background, one finds that the relationship between Guru and disciple is of supreme importance and consideration, and there is a specific lineage that develops from Master to Disciple, from generation to generation. Thus, there is always a head of the order or lineage who directs, guides and manages the processes within that line, and from there, individual Guru / disciple relations develop under that framework.

It is thus a question that arises frequently when one turns to the teaching and method of practice of Sri Aurobindo, now that both he and the Mother have physically departed. Who is the head of the order and how does the Guru /disciple relationship function in the integral yoga.

No successor was named, with the understanding that the integral yoga does not actually require a physically present Guru. There is an active Force that guides. For the sincere seeker, this Force provides both insight and corrective directions. Sri Aurobindo left behind a body of written work that directly describes and details all manner of experience, practice and potential pitfalls along the way. This body of writings is unique in its breadth and depth of explanation. Additionally the Mother added insight, and detailed working out of innumerable issues in her talks and writings. There is also the collective yoga that provides support to the seeker. Many have had the experience of active guidance from the subtle physical plane by Sri Aurobindo, with experience of this guidance in dream or in states of deep meditation. Additionally, with the advent of the supramental force in the earth plane, there is a new “truth-consciousness” that opens up the way and the path for the seeker. This is a relatively recent development in the history of yogic practice, and thus, was not generally accessible to past generations of yogins. Finally, for those who actually require the aid of the teacher in physical form, individual relationships develop, in many cases as ‘guru-bhai’ (seekers who are disciples of the same Guru) who support one another in their growth and development. When the need is there, and the seeking is true, the Divine provides the needed guidance in one way or another. It is up to the seeker to ensure the true inward sincerity and dedication to avoid the many potential snares, obstacles and ego-traps along the way.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “It is not usual to use the word Guru in the supramental yoga, here everything comes from the Divine himself. But if anybody wants it he can use it for the time being.”

“The relation of Guru and disciple is only one of many relations which one can have with the Divine, and in this yoga which aims at a supramental realisation, it is not usual to give it this name; rather, the Divine is regarded as the Source, the living Sun of Light and Knowledge and Consciousness and spiritual realisation, and all that one receives is felt as coming from there and the whole being remoulded by the Divine Hand. This is a greater and more intimate relation than that of the human Guru and disciple, which is more of a limited mental ideal. Nevertheless, if the mind still needs the more familiar mental conception, it can be kept so long as it is needed; only do not let the soul be bound by it and do not let it limit the inflow of other relations with the Divine and larger forms of experience.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 12, Other Aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, The Guru, pp. 350-352

The Guru: the Guide for the Spiritual Practice and Realisation

There is one subject that leads to tremendous confusion on the part of a spiritual seeker, particularly in the modern world where there is such an emphasis on individuality, and mental development and a strong emphasis on independence and self-reliance. That is the topic of the “guru”. The term as used in the original Sanskrit is translated with a wide range of meanings, and can represent a teacher of a specific subject, or a spiritual guide to aid a spiritual seeker in both achieving spiritual realisations, and navigating through the confusion of the potential diversions, distortions, confusions, and mistakes that occur as the seeker leaves the safe harborage of the external physical, vital and mental life behind.

In order to overcome the potential obstacles, it is stated that the disciple must surrender to the Guru. This gets particularly confusing to Westerners who have no cultural history to understand and evaluate the Guru/Shisya relationship. This has allowed a certain amount of abuse and manipulation to occur as Westerners became more exposed to teachers from the East. The surrender called for is the giving up of the mental preconceptions and vital demands so that a true evolutionary change of consciousness can occur.

There are numerous historical tales of famous Guru/Disciple relationships. Sri Krishna and Arjuna gave us the Bhagavad Gita. Ramakrishna and Vivekananda led to a revival of the strength and vibrancy, in the modern day, of the Hindu Dharma breaking out of the chains imposed by the Western colonizers of India. Paramahansa Yogananda recounts in his Autobiography of a Yogi his life-long relation with his Guru and the inner spiritual relations that occurred through that confluence. One of the most famous recountings is that of the relationship between the great yogi Milarepa and his guru Marpa. In each case, we can see the difficulties involved in trying to understand, judge and attain a correct and effective relationship between the Guru and the disciple.

The role of the Guru is to first and foremost, create the spiritual atmosphere that opens up the realms of spiritual experience for the prepared seeker in a profound way. The Mahayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism calls this the granting of “gift waves” of psychic energy. The second major role is to act as a guide to whom the seeker can come with his experiences, his thoughts, feelings, emotions, perceptions and gain through the interaction insight into his spiritual status and how to avoid the inevitable obstacles, attacks or misdirections that can take place as the seeker leaves behind the comfortable and ‘normal’ modes of thought and action to take up the spiritual quest and the evolutionary development to an entirely new mode of consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “No, surrender to the Divine and surrender to the Guru are not the same thing. In surrendering to the Guru, it is to the Divine in him that one surrenders — if it were only to a human entity, it would be ineffective. But it is the consciousness of the Divine Presence that makes the Guru a real Guru, so that even if the disciple surrenders to him thinking of the human being to whom he surrenders, that Presence will still make it effective.”

“The Guru is the Guide in the yoga. When the Divine is accepted as the Guide, He is accepted as the Guru.”

“One can have a Guru inferior in spiritual capacity (to oneself or to other Gurus) carrying in him many human imperfections and yet, if you have the faith, the bhakti, the right spiritual stuff, you can contact the Divine through him, attain to spiritual experiences, to spiritual realisation, even before the Guru himself. Mark the “If”, for that proviso is necessary; it is not every disciple who can do that with every Guru. From a humbug you can acquire nothing but his humbuggery. The Guru must have something in him which makes the contact with the Divine possible, something which works even if he is not in his outer mind quite conscious of its action. If there is nothing at all spiritual in him, he is not a Guru, only a pseudo. Undoubtedly, there can be considerable differences of spiritual realisation between one Guru and another; but much depends on the inner relation between Guru and sisya. One can go to a very great spiritual man and get nothing or only a little from him; one can go to a man of less spiritual capacity and get all he has to give — and more. the causes of this disparity are various and subtle; I need not expand on them here. It differs with each man. I believe the Guru is always ready to give what can be given, if the disciple can receive, or it may be, when he is ready to receive. If he refuses to receive or behaves inwardly or outwardly in such a way as to make reception impossible or if he is not sincere or takes up the wrong attitude, then things become difficult. But if one is sincere and faithful and has the right attitude and if the Guru is a true Guru, then, after whatever time, it will come.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 12, Other Aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, The Guru, pp. 350-352

The Role of the Teacher In the Integral Yoga

The teacher, the guide uses the instrumentality of instruction, personal example and his own influence on the seeker of the integral Yoga. This follows the general methodology used by a teacher of any subject, or of other paths of Yoga. The differences arise in the practical application inasmuch as it is not the goal of the teacher to indoctrinate the seeker into a specific set of rules or practices, but to help awaken the seeker to the inner Guide and the spiritual consciousness, following the student’s own nature, capacities and limitations.

Sri Aurobindo details the role of the teacher thus: “He will seek to awaken much more than to instruct; he will aim at the growth of the faculties and the experiences by a natural process and free expansion. He will give a method as an aid, as a utilisable device, not as an imperative formula or a fixed routine. And he will be on his guard against any turning of the mans into a limitation, against the mechanising of process. His whole business is to awaken the divine light and set working the divine force of which he himself is only a means and an aid, a body or a channel.”

He also reminds us that of the three instrumentalities, “The example is more powerful than the instruction: but it is not the example of the outward acts nor that of the personal character, which is of most importance…..what will most stimulate aspiration in others is the central fact of the divine realisation within him governing his whole life and inner state and all his activities. This is the universal and essential element; the rest belongs to individual person and circumstance.”

The seeker thereby should take up, not the outer forms of action of the guide, but the inner fire of aspiration and the inner light of awareness, make it his own, and let that dictate his own mode of being and acting.

“Influence is more important than example. Influence is not the outward authority of the Teacher over his disciple, but the power of his contact, of his presence, of the nearness of his soul to the soul of another, infusing into it, even though in silence, that which he himself is and possesses. This is the supreme sign of the Master. For the greatest Master is much less a Teacher than a Presence pouring the divine consciousness and its constituting liht and power and purity and bliss into all who are receptive around him.”

At the same time, the teacher in the integral Yoga does not place himself on a pedestal or arrogate to himself pride of place: “And it shall also be a sign of the teacher of the integral Yoga that he does not arrogate to himself Guruhood in a humanly vain and self-exalting spirit. His work, if he has one, is a trust from above, he himself a channel, a vessel or a representative. he is a man helping his brothers, a child leading children, a Light kindling other lights, an awakened Soul awakening souls, at highest a Power or Presence of the Divine calling to him other powers of the Divine.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 1, The Four Aids, pp. 60-61

Human Intermediaries and the Integral Yoga

Sri Aurobindo accepts and supports the validity and potential benefit to the seeker in the relationship with the Avatar, incarnation, Teacher, Guide or Guru. The limitations and difficulties of the egoistic consciousness imply that the seeker should use whatever leverage is possible to effect the transition to the Divine consciousness, avoid or overcome the difficulties along the way, and help keep the focus on the path without distraction. “The Sadhaka of the integral Yoga will make use of all these aids according to his nature…”

He also reminds the seeker, however, not to fall into the trap of the egoistic consciousness while making use of these aids along the way: “…but is is necessary that he should shun their limitations and cast from himself that exclusive tendency of egoistic mind which cries, ‘My god, my Incarnation, my Prophet, my Guru,’ and opposes it to all other realisation in a sectarian or a fanatical spirit. All sectarianism, all fanaticism must be shunned; for it is inconsistent with the integrity of the divine realisation.”

The goal of the integral Yoga is in fact to include, to widen and to integrate the consciousness: “On the contrary, the Sadhaka of the integral Yoga will not be satisfied until he has included all other names and forms of Deity in his own conception, seen his own Ishta Devata in all others, unified all Avatars in the unity of Him who descends in the Avatar, welded the truth in all teachings into the harmony of the Eternal Wisdom.”

The goal is not to worship any particular form of God. The goal is to achieve the Divine realisation: “Nor should he forget the aim of these external aids which is to awaken his soul to the Divine within him. Nothing has been finally accomplished if that has not been accomplished. It is not sufficient to worship Krishna, Christ or Buddha without, if there is not the revealing and the formation of the Buddha, the Christ or Krishna in ourselves. And all other aids equally have no other purpose; each is a bridge between man’s unconverted state and the revelation of the Divine within him.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 1, The Four Aids, pp. 59-60

Avatars, Prophets and Gurus

The sense-bound mind and intellect of humanity always finds it difficult to relate to the abstract, the unseen. It is therefore difficult to direct focus, attention and devotion to the Absolute, particularly in the early stages of the process, when we remain deeply enmeshed in the material world and the objects of the senses. All learning starts from what is near and palpable and moves over time to those things which are further away and thus less tangible to our senses. We see then the necessity for the type of intermediaries that arise to help us focus attention and to guide us toward the spiritual realisations.

We see these intermediaries throughout the world’s various religious traditions as Prophets, Seers, Incarnations of God, World-Teachers and Gurus, or guides. Moses, Christ, Buddha, Zoroaster, Mohammed, Confucious, Lao Tzu, Krishna are just a few of those who illustrate this for us. Unnamed are the innumerable teachers who, having tread the path of the spirit, take on one or several disciples and help them along the way. Sri Aurobindo points out ” The Hindu discipline of spirituality provides for this need of the soul by the conceptions of the Ishta Devata, the Avatar and the Guru.”

Individual seekers respond sometimes to the more abstract forms such as the Avatars, but at other times, it becomes clear they need the kind of personal attention and guidance provided by the living example, the Teacher or the Guru. “For it is only the few who can make the past Teacher and his teaching, the past Incarnation and his example and influence a living force in their lives. For this need also the Hindu discipline provides in the relation of the Guru and the disciple. The Guru may sometimes be the Incarnation or World-Teacher; but it is sufficient that he should represent to the disciple the divine wisdom, convey to him something of the divine ideal or make him feel the realised relation of the human soul with the Eternal.”

The relation between Guru and disciple can be one of leading by example, by personal influence, or by moral guidance; and it may involve a method of helping provide insight and understanding of the path and its many challenges to the seeker. In some cases it seems there is a karmic relationship or bond which lets the Guru and the disciple recognise one another, as we saw in the case of Milarepa and his Guru Marpa. Some traditions point out that the silent inner activation of the spiritual influence is more important than the outer form of the teaching, and some remind us that making the teaching real and alive, “activating” the teaching within the disciple, is the true and deepest role of the Guru.

We thus see a long tradition and history of intermediaries who are there to encourage, exemplify and enliven the spiritual teaching for the next generation of seekers. They play an important, even essential role, given the limitations of the human mentality and the requirements of the spiritual transformation.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 1, The Four Aids, pp. 58-59

The Need For An External Form Of the Divine

The spiritual quest eventually brings the seeker to recognise the Divinity within. This is, however, not usually the first step. Our entire psychology is oriented outwards to the world at large. Our senses deliver the world’s impacts in a way that is virtually impossible to shut out. Our entire growth and development involves interaction with others and the outer environment. The inner reality is also somewhat amorphous and “less real” to begin with than the outer “reality” we experience in our interactions with the world. The spiritual quest begins from the starting point of the human individual living in the world, and thus, for most of us, we need to be able to begin our interaction with the Divine in some form or relationship that we meet with externally.

Sri Aurobindo raises this issue: “But while it is difficult for man to believe in something unseen within himself, it is easy for him to believe in something which he can image as extraneous to himself. The spiritual progress of most human beings demands an extraneous support, an object of faith outside us. It needs an external image of God; or it needs a human representative,–Incarnation, Prophet or Guru; or it demands both and receives them.”

The psychological need also enhances the necessity of some outer form. How shall we relate to some distant Absolute, unmoving, silent and beyond all our human conceptions? “God is the All and more than the All. But that which is more than the All, how shall man conceive? And even the All is at first too hard for him; for he himself in his active consciousness is a limited and selective formation and can open himself only to that which is in harmony with his limited nature. There are things in the All which are too hard for his comprehension or seem too terrible to his sensitive emotions and cowering sensations. Or, simply, he cannot conceive as the Divine, cannot approach or cannot recognise something that is too much out of the circle of his ignorant or partial conceptions. it is necessary for him to conceive God in his own image or in some form that is beyond himself but consonant with his highest tendencies and seizable by his feelings or his intelligence. Otherwise it would be difficult for him to come into contact and communion with the Divine.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 1, The Four Aids, pp. 58-59

The Difficulties Of the Ego In Following the Divine Guidance

The path of a progressive turning and surrender of the egoistic consciousness to the Divine consciousness is the direct way to achieve the consummation of the integral Yoga; however, the path is beset by difficulties both in the beginning and along the way. The difficulties arise due to the fact that we start from the individual egoistic standpoint and consciousness. This starting point implies that we try to judge the action of the Unlimited through the lens of the Limited consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo describes these difficulties in great detail: “But it is difficult for the egoistic consciousness to do this at all at the beginning. And, if done at all, it is still difficult to do it perfectly and in every strand of our nature. It is difficult at first because our egoistic habits of thought, of sensation, of feeling block up the avenues by which we can arrive at the perception that is needed. It is difficult afterwards because the faith, the surrender, the courage requisite in this path are not easy to the ego-clouded soul. The divine working is not the working which the egoistic mind desires or approves; for it uses error in order to arrive at truth, suffering in order to arrive at bliss, imperfection in order to arrive at perfection. The ego cannot see where it is being led; it revolts against the leading, loses confidence, loses courage.”

Even the greatest of souls must face these difficulties as we find from the legend of Milarepa, Tibet’s great Yogi, who worked to achieve liberation in one lifetime, a feat virtually impossible to accomplish! At one stage he became totally discouraged when he saw his destined teacher giving others the secret teachings, while he had to do hard physical labor of constructing (and taking apart) various buildings. He got to the point where he was ready to commit suicide as he felt, in his heart, that he was destined to fail in his attempt and he had lost faith in everything, himself, his Guru, his destiny, his spiritual seeking. Thereafter he eventually was set straight, undertook the difficult teachings that were vouchsafed to him, and today he is revered as the greatest yogic practitioner in the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist tradition.

The Divine support and guidance remains active, but without the active support and effort of the individual, things are slower and more painful. Sri Aurobindo points out the further dangers that can arise from our inability to see and remain focused on the Divine Presence guiding us: “As in the world, so in ourselves, we cannot see God because of his workings and, especially, because he works in us through our nature and not by a succession of arbitrary miracles. Man demands miracles that he may have faith; he wishes to be dazzled in order that he may see. And this impatience, this ignorance may turn into a great danger and disaster if, in our revolt against the divine leading, we call in another distorting Force more satisfying to our impulses and desires and ask it to guide us and give it the Divine Name.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 1, The Four Aids, pp. 57-58

The Inner Guide and Master Of the Integral Yoga

Sri Aurobindo clarifies for us the living Guidance that leads the seeker through the transitions and transformations that take place in the course of the yogic practice. “As the supreme Shastra of the integral Yoga is the eternal Veda secret in the heart of every man, so its supreme Guide and Teacher is the inner Guide, the World-Teacher, jagad-guru, secret within us. It is he who destroys our darkness by the resplendent light of his knowledge; that light becomes within us the increasing glory of his own self-revelation. he discloses progressively in us his own nature of freedom, bliss, love, power, immortal being. He sets above us his divine example as our ideal and transforms the lower existence into a reflection of that which it contemplates. By the inpouring of his own influence and presence into us he enables the individual being to attain to identity with the universal and transcendent.”

From this description it becomes clear that the inner Guide is not the voice of reason, of desire, of conscience, or of the social and moral training that has been inculcated in us through the society’s norms and institutions. It is important to reflect on this, to avoid the pitfalls that can arise from accepting the justifications that surround the ego’s appropriation of the various drives and desires that arise within the being on an unceasing basis.

The issue of finding and following the true Guidance is one that all paths of Yoga try to address, whether through requiring adherence to certain rules of conduct, avoidance of various temptations and situations, or through coming under the control of an institutional programme or a recognised outer teacher or guru. In Raja Yoga, for instance, the preliminary practices of yama and niyama are set forth as essential in order to bring calm to the outer being and bring a sense of control and distance from the rising up of the forces of desire. There is a concern that without these practices as the foundation, the rising up of forces within the being through the practice of Yoga would lead to potential disaster, the inability of the vessel to hold the divine Energy.

The voice of the divine Guidance must be found within. For most, to begin with, it is like a gentle prompting, or a feeling of knowing what one is called upon to do. For many, it is a very quiet voice that does not have the insistence of the vital impulsions of desire, and does not argue as the mind of reason or intellect may be prone to do.

When we reflect deeply on Sri Aurobindo’s description, we are struck by the self-evident nature of the guidance. The predominant characteristics are light, overwhelming clarity and an ever-widening and heightening sense of increasing knowledge, and the impact this has on our entire being and action. A result will be the transition away from the bondage to the ego and the outer life of desire, and an increasing sense of Oneness with the entire existence, as well as a transcendence that takes us beyond these forms and forces.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 1, The Four Aids, pg. 55