On Imitation of the Guru

Swami Anandakumar Saraswati

It is only natural that when a great figure enters our lives and we are very much impressed with the qualities of that person, we should want to imitate him or her. This reaction is very likely the case when we come in contact with a spiritual teacher or guru. The qualities of that person can almost overwhelm us with the desire to be just like that. We realize that we are not, but at the same time we realize that the potential also lies within us to become like that. In our enthusiasm we may find ourselves consciously or unconsciously trying to take on those qualities we would like to have ourselves. And it is a fine line between being inspired to become like that and imitating those qualities, in the belief that we are becoming or even have become that.

This can be one of the most difficult obstacles in the life of a serious and sincere seeker who has taken a guru and is naturally trying to emulate those qualities that we admire and that indeed the guru is trying to awaken in us. However, this can become a real obstacle if discrimination is not exercised; not discrimination of the guru, but discrimination of our own view of ourselves, our hidden motives and more precisely what it is in the guru that we are particularly trying to emulate.

All the very highly evolved souls who have spent time on this earth teaching, guiding, inspiring and uplifting humanity, all seem at some time to express the need to recognize the difference between the divine power, which resides in the guru, which is the guru's hallmark, and the body, the individual nature and personality wherein that divine power resides, because the two are not the same. It's as essential to recognize as the ability to discriminate between the intellect and the higher mind, between fantasy and intuition, between what is subject to change and what is not. So if we were looking for a quality to try to emulate in the guru, it would not be any of those qualities that are an extension of the individual nature. To be sure, in the guru those qualities are brought under perfect control and are used for the upliftment of disciples and seekers. But the oft-repeated refrain, which also happens to be very sound advice, is do not imitate the actions and behaviour of advanced spiritual souls. There is a very good reason for this, because the actions of the guru are brought into play from an entirely different perspective from what we are able to perceive or understand. And to imitate the actions, behaviour, attitudes, style of speech, etc. of the guru without understanding the motive behind them would be a serious mistake and will eventually only bring confusion.

There is a story that Swami Niranjanji often tells. A guru and his disciples came into town. The guru went into a tavern, so his disciples followed him in and when he ordered a drink the disciples also did the same - well, if our guru can do that, then so can we. Next the guru went to a house of ill-repute, and naturally enough the disciples followed - well, if he can, we are his disciples, so can we. On leaving there they came upon a house on fire. There were desperate cries for help from within. The guru immediately went into the house where surely he must be burnt, but he brought the people out one by one unscathed. Only our guru could do something like that, the disciples had reasoned, as they stood back from the fire and did nothing.

But it is natural to want to assimilate qualities we admire and, for example, an imitation of bravery when we are frightened can turn into the thing itself in the course of time; so what to do? A musician, when he or she starts out with a teacher, will follow very closely what the teacher is showing. The musician wants to be as good as his teacher so he plays according to his instruction and does his best to be like that. But if the musical master is bad-tempered sometimes, will it improve the music in the student if he becomes bad-tempered also? And does the musician improve musically if he copies the teacher's mannerisms or by wearing his hat or headgear at the same angle? A time must come when the musician will have to find his own voice and style musically and the teacher will eventually lead him to a point where he can discover that also.

If we are looking for actions, which we see in our spiritual guides, that we would wish to imitate in our lives, then it would be those actions which are a reflection of their teachings, not particular actions designed to teach by awakening something specific in a disciple or group of students.

Many of Sri Swamiji's disciples may recognize that they have found themselves at some stage imitating aspects of his character that are so individual to him and so effective in him, which have impressed and inspired all those who come in contact with him, but which do not translate well through imitation in another. He is a leader through and through; a prince, a king, a monarch of all he surveys, and the problem in copying that is that it requires someone that special to carry that kind of authority effectively. And there is room only for one ruler at a time! And who could follow him into the five fires of panchagni sadhana?

Perhaps there is one example that can be imitated directly as maybe he always intended. If one reads about the life of Swami Sivananda, particularly in the book From Man to Godman (N. Ananthanarayan, Indraprastha Press, New Delhi, 1970), it seems that, while he often acted as a teacher to his disciples, he was principally giving an example that we can all imitate by the expression of those qualities he was always teaching - his service, tolerance, faith in humanity, breadth of vision, but most of all his very real humility.

There are some very beautiful examples in his life, of actions and attitudes that are quite stunning in their simplicity and pure humility through his desire to serve humanity. And that was his message to us, which rings down over theyears through the work of Sri Swamiji and Swami Niranjanji. He gave us a living example of what he meant by service and quite often turned on its head the idea of how we think a holy man sees himself. One example comes to mind, in the following quote from From Man to Godman.

"A small incident that brings home the Master's humility in a telling manner occurred in Delhi at the end of a tour. The Master was staying at the residence of Colonel Murty when a vehicle arrived to take him to the home of one Thirumal Rao. When he got into the car he suddenly remembered that he would not be returning to Colonel Murty's house before leaving Delhi. So from within the car he beckoned Mrs Murty and took leave of her.

When he left Thirumal Rao's place, however, the master instructed the driver to take him back to Colonel Murty's residence. He then alighted from the car, went inside and apologized to Mrs Murty, 'You must excuse me for not taking leave of you properly. I should not have beckoned you from the car, I should have come into the house myself and taken leave of you.' As he got into the car again he said, 'A little bit of "Mandaleshwar-hood" tried to enter me I think.' "

How many of us lesser teachers by far would recognize something like that in ourselves and then take affirmative action to rectify it? Swami Sivananda was always looking for ways to observe and raise his own attitude and behaviour and encouraged us to do likewise. He was a saint who never seemed to recognize the perfection of his saintliness.

There are many instances of Swami Sivananda giving honour and precedence to the lowly. One story has it that while resting outside the car by a river on a long journey he saw a local man washing his clothes in the river. He went down, started talking to the man and then helped him wash his clothes, to the astonishment of his disciples. No doubt this is a neat combination of his own desire to serve and an example both to his immediate disciples, and reverberating powerfully through the years to us, of what an attitude of service really means.

It is actions like these which are examples of the central core of Swami Sivananda's teachings: raise yourself in spirit by putting the needs of others before your own. And of course this is asking much more of us, because is it not easier to imitate the detached aloofness of the guru or the quick show of anger than simply to be ourselves and get down and do what needs to be done regardless of creed, caste, class or character?

Swami Sivananda left behind in the example of his life an exact attitude and manner of behaviour, indeed a whole philosophy of life that it is safe and sure and recommended to imitate. A close investigation may reveal some of the assumptions and presumptions we have made about both our guru and our own attitude and behaviour. Which it must do if we are to move, through the grace of guru, from darkness into light.