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The Master and the Disciple: The Ancient Indian Ideal

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My idea of education is Gurugriha-vasa. Without the personal life of the teacher, there would be no education. One should live from his very boyhood with one whose character is a blazing fire and should have before him a living example of the highest teaching. In our country the imparting of knowledge has always been through men of renunciation. The charge of imparting knowledge should again fall upon the shoulders of Tyagis.

The old system of education in India was very different from the modern system. The students had not to pay. It was thought that knowledge is so sacred that no man ought to sell it. Knowledge should be given freely and without any price. The teachers used to take students without charge and not only so, most of them gave their students food and clothes. To support these teachers, the wealthy families made gifts to them and they in their turn had to maintain their students. The disciple of old used to repair to the hermitage of the Guru, fuel in hand, and the Guru, after ascertaining his competence, would teach him the Vedas, fastening round his waist the threefold filament of Munja, a kind of grass, as the emblem of his vow to keep his body, mind and speech in control.

There are certain conditions necessary in the taught and also in the teacher. The conditions necessary for the taught are purity, a real thirst after knowledge, and perseverance. Purity in thought, speech and act is absolutely necessary. As for thirst after knowledge, it is an old law that we all get whatever we want. None of us can get anything other than what we fix our hearts upon. There must be a continuous struggle, a constant fight, an unremitting grappling with our lower nature, till the higher want is actually felt and victory is achieved. The student who sets out with such a spirit of perseverance will surely find success at last.

In regard to the teacher, we must see that he knows the spirit of the scriptures. The whole world reads Bibles, Vedas and Korans; but they are all only words, syntax, etymology, philosophy – the dry bones of religion. The teacher who deals too much in words and allows the mind to be carried away by the force of words loses the spirit. It is the knowledge of the spirit of the scriptures alone that constitutes the true teacher. The second condition necessary for the teacher is sinlessness. The question is often asked: “Why should we look into the character and personality of a teacher?” This is not right. The sine qua non of acquiring truth for oneself, or for imparting to others, is purity of heart and soul. He must be perfectly pure and then only comes the value of his words. The function of the teacher is indeed an affair of the transference of something and not one of mere stimulation of existing intellectual or other faculties in the taught. Something real and appreciable as an influence comes from the teacher and goes to the taught. Therefore, the teacher must be pure. The third condition is in regard to the motive. The teacher must not teach with any ulterior selfish motive, for money, name or fame. His work must be simply out of love, out of pure love for mankind at large. The only medium through which spiritual force can be transmitted is love. Any selfish motive, such as the desire for gain or name, will immediately destroy the conveying medium.

It is not easy to be a disciple. The first condition is that the student who wants to know the truth must give up all desires for gain. What we see is not truth as long as any desire creeps into our minds. So long as there is in the heart the least desire for the world, truth will not come. The rich understand truth much less than the poor people. The rich man has no time to think of anything beyond his wealth and power, his comforts and indulgences. I do not trust the man who never weeps; he has a big block of granite where his heart should be. Therefore knowing what prosperity means and what happiness means, one should give up these and seek to know the truth and truth alone. Unselfishness is more paying, only people have not the patience to practise it. It is more paying from the point of view of health also. Love, truth and unselfishness are not merely moral figures of speech, but they form our highest ideal, because in them lies such a manifestation of power. Self-restraint is a manifestation of greater power than all outgoing action. All outgoing energy following a selfish motive is frittered away; it will not cause power to return to you; but if restrained, it will result in development of power. This self-control will tend to produce a mighty will, a character which makes a Christ or a Buddha.

The second condition is that a disciple must be able to control the internal and external senses. By hard practice he has to arrive at the stage where he can assert his mind against the commands of nature. He should be able to say to his mind, “You are mine; I order you, do not see or hear anything.” Next the mind must be made to quiet down. It is rushing about. Just as I sit down to meditate, all the vilest subjects in the world come up. The whole thing is nauseating. Why should the mind think thoughts I do not want it to think? I am as it were a slave to the mind. No spiritual knowledge is possible so long as the mind is restless and out of control. The disciple has to learn to control the mind.

Also, the disciple must have great power of endurance. Life seems comfortable, and you find the mind behaves well when everything is going well with you. But if something goes wrong, your mind loses its balance. That is not good. Bear all evil and misery without one murmur or hurt, without one thought of unhappiness, resistance, remedy or retaliation. That is true endurance. When my Master, Sri Ramakrishna, fell ill, a Brahmin suggested to him that he apply his tremendous mental power to cure himself; he said that if my Master would only concentrate his mind on the diseased part of the body, it would heal. Sri Ramakrishna answered, “What! Bring down the mind that I’ve given to God to this little body!” He refused to think of body and illness. His mind was continually conscious of God; it was dedicated to Him utterly. He would not use it for any other purpose. Remember also the man on the cross! He pitied those who crucified him. He endured every humiliation and suffering. He took the burden of all upon himself: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Such is true endurance. How very high he was above this life, so high that we cannot understand it!

The next condition the disciple must fulfil is to conceive an extreme desire to be free. No one is desiring anything beyond the body. What is the world but a combination of stomach and sex? Look at millions of men and women – that is what they are living for. Take these away from them and they will find their life empty, meaningless and intolerable. Such are we. And such is our mind; it is continually hankering for ways and means to satisfy the hunger of the stomach and sex. These desires of the body bring only momentary satisfaction and endless suffering. It is like drinking a cup of which the surface layer is nectar, while underneath all is poison. But we still hanker for all these things. Renunciation of the senses and desires is the only way out of this misery. If you want to be spiritual, you must renounce. This is the real test. Give up the world – this nonsense of the senses. There is only one real desire: to know what is true, to be spiritual. No more materialism, no more this egoism. I must become spiritual. Strong, intense must be the desire. If a man’s hands and feet were so tied that he could not move and then if a burning piece of charcoal were placed on his body, he would struggle with all his power to throw it off. When I shall have that sort of extreme desire, that restless struggle to throw off this burning world, then the time will have come for me to glimpse the Divine truth.

Our sole concern should be to know the highest truth. Our goal is the loftiest. Let us worship the spirit in spirit, standing on spirit. Let the foundation be spirit; the middle, spirit; the culmination, spirit. Stand thou in the spirit! That is the goal. We know we cannot reach it yet. Never mind. Do not despair, but do not drag the ideal down. The important thing is: how much less you think of the body, of yourself as matter, as dead, dull insentient matter; how much more you think of yourself as shining immortal being. The more you think of yourself as shining immortal spirit, the more eager you will be to be absolutely free of matter, body and senses. This is the intense desire to be free.

These are the conditions which a man who wants to be a disciple must fulfil; without fulfilling them he will not be able to come in contact with the true Guru. And even if he is fortunate enough to find him, he will not be quickened by the power that the Guru may transmit. There cannot be any compromising of these conditions. With the fulfilment of these conditions the lotus of the disciple’s heart will open and the bee shall come. Then the disciple knows that the Guru was within himself. He opens out. He realises. He crosses the ocean of life, goes beyond, and in mercy, without a thought of gain or praise, he in his turn helps others to cross.

With the teacher our relationship is the same as that between an ancestor and his descendant. Without faith, humility, submission and veneration in our hearts towards the teacher, there cannot be any growth in us. In those countries which have neglected to keep up this kind of relation, the teacher has become a mere lecturer, the teacher expecting his five dollars and the person taught expecting his brain to be filled with the teacher’s words and each going his own way after this much is done. But too much faith in personality has a tendency to produce weakness and idolatory. Worship your Guru as God, but do not obey him blindly. Love him all you will, but think for yourself.

The teacher must throw his whole force into the tendency of the taught. Without real sympathy we can never teach well. Do not try to disturb the faith of any man. If you can, give him something better, but do not destroy what he has. The only true teacher is he who can convert himself, as it were, into a thousand persons at a moment’s notice. The true teacher is he who can immediately come down to the level of the student, and transfer his soul to the student’s soul and see through and understand through his mind. Such a teacher can really teach and none else.

– Swami Vivekananda