In his extraordinary book Guru and Disciple, Swami Abhishiktananda gives a vivid and magnificent account of his meeting with Sri Gnanananda Giri, an Advaitic sage whom he met at his ashram in Tamil Nadu. He regarded this encounter as one of the high points of his life in India, for it was at that time that he recognised Sri Gnanananda as his guru. He spoke of his retreat with him as days of grace, “days of peace and fulfilment … when one was conscious of living at a spiritual depth in which the whole world of outward appearance has been left behind and one has come close to what is Real.” Indeed, he received from his guru the purest teaching of a jnani—which was none other than the timeless message of the Upanishads: Behind the appearance of the phenomenal ego is the Ultimate Reality, the eternal Self of All, which can be directly realised.
Dialogue with Swami Gnanananda – The Guru
ONE morning Vanya awoke about four o’clock and heard a conversation already going strong in the main hall. This meant that people were already speaking with Gnanananda. He got up at once, so as not to miss the opportunity. However, as he strained his ears and tried to catch a few snatches of the conversation, he realised that the Swami’s voice could rarely be heard. It did not take him long to recognise two brahmins from Kumbakonam, disciples of the Shankaracharya of that place, who had arrived at Tapovanam the previous evening. On the pretext of conversing with the Swami they were simply showing off their Vedantic learning to their own great satisfaction. ‘What is the use of going to hear those chatterboxes?’ thought Vanya. He sat down again and meditated alone in his little room.
Two hours later, after his bath, he went up to Gnanananda and made his morning namaskaram. The guru said to him: ‘You did not join us ‘this morning? It was splendid: all the philosophy one could desire – highbrow discussions on the atman and Brahman!’
Vanya replied, ‘I was well aware of what was happening, and for that very reason, after thinking for a moment of coming to listen, I preferred to remain by myself and meditate in silence.’
“How wise of you!’ said the Swami. “All these discussions about wisdom and the so-called knowledge of Brahman are just so much hot air. Dhyana alone leads to the atman which is Brahman. All the rest is merely a childish game.”
There were certainly a good many aspects of Sri Gnanananda’s style of life which Vanya found hard to understand. His idea of the true jnani was naturally derived from Ramana Maharshi, whose darshana he had once or twice during the last year of his life. In those days Ramana usually sat without moving on his couch, apparently indifferent to what was happening around him, enveloped in a kind of liturgical atmosphere. Gnanananda, on the other hand, seemed incapable of remaining still. He concerned himself directly-too directly, in Vanya’s opinion-with the construction work that was going on at that time in the ashram. He allowed people to chatter as much as they liked in his presence, and gave every sign of being interested in what they said. There were also plenty of other things which jarred on our European sadhu. Moreover, a lot all the visitors were as favourably impressed as he was. There were some who thought they could discern on the guru’s face at least a trace of satisfaction when a car turned in and stopped at the gate, especially if someone with a white face got down from it. Others also criticised him for accepting without protest the various legends about his age, his past life, and so on.
Nevertheless, whatever may have been the thoughts at opportune or inopportune moments which passed through Vanya’s head, even so when he came, morning and evening, to pay his respects to the Master, and above all when, alone with him, he listened to his words, he could not help feeling convinced that this man was truly the guru of whom he had for so long dreamed, the one who would enable him to clear the crest, if only he was ready to surrender himself to him with unquestioning faith. It was as if they were communicating with each other at a very deep level. The guru’s words aroused echoes within him as no other man’s words had ever done. It was “as if, deep in Vanya’s heart, profound secrets were then coming into view, secrets which seemed to be buried in hitherto undiscovered depths. What the guru said vibrated throughout his whole being and set off overtones which were quite wonderful.
In addition, Gnanananda’s whole personality radiated a wonderfully pure and tender love, a love which was totally given to each and yet was the same for all. So the joy of feeling oneself loved by him carried with it a high degree of detachment; for we all dream of being loved with a distinct and preferential love. But his love enveloped each one at the same time as if uniquely. You felt that for him all distinction, bheda, was annulled and had vanished. In each disciple it was as if he directly perceived his truest personality, the Self alone, the atman.
All this will doubtless seem pure paradox to those who do not know the secret of the highest wisdom, jnana, and even more to those – European and Indian alike – whose minds are cluttered up with ready made ideas of which they are naively proud. No philosophy indeed will ever succeed in explaining or understanding the continued existence of personality at the very heart of the experience of non-duality or in the non-reflex awareness of being and the self. Indian jnanis themselves, being prisoners of their own mental categories, will often deny it theoretically in the expressions they use. However, their whole life, and especially the gift of their disinterested love, clearly shows that the personality-of whatever else it is called-has lost nothing essential in attaining to the absolute. Deeper than any awareness that he may have of it, the jnani marvellously reflects in himself, as in a mirror that nothing any longer can dull, the very mystery of being, the mystery of himself, the mystery of God; and the Spirit, now given free play, realises through him in the world the secret works known to him alone.
Many times Vanya questioned Gnanananda about the role of the guru. But his replies always referred only to the definitive guru, the one who appears at the moment of the darshana of the atman, of the guru who is the very light which shines from the atman when it is finally discovered. ‘The guru is akhanda. indivisible. He is advaita, non-dual. It is only this guru that can make you take the plunge; he appears and is manifested only at the moment when you do plunge. The other kind is the guru-murti, the guru in a visible form, the one who can only show the way.’
And that is why disciples never got what they wanted when they asked the guru for the kind of help that would spare them the need for personal effort. The self is only visible to the self, and the true guru is only ‘yourself’ within your own self.
Vanya one day asked Gnanananda, to whom one could or should communicate this teaching on dhyana.
‘Certainly not to everyone: the Swami replied. ‘You have to start from the beginning: prayer, ritual worship, japa or continual repetition of the divine name … in a word, bhakti. You can only introduce people to the royal road of dhyana when they are capable of it.’
‘Yes indeed,’ said Vanya, ‘but my question is just this: Who are capable of it? What are the signs by which you can recognise those who should be invited to commit themselves to that path?’
‘The shopkeeper must be able to recognise the things he is selling. If he cannot distinguish pepper corns from mustard seeds, or rice from millet, what is the use of his having a shop? Both salesman and customer would be bound to suffer. It is the same with the guru. He must be capable of discerning what is suitable for each disciple. If not, why does he meddle in such things?
‘Now I am going to explain to you what a guru is,’ he continued. ‘Suppose you are following a road, going straight ahead beside a river. Suddenly you find yourself face to face with a sheer cliff. No way out. On either side the road is blocked. There is nothing for it but to start climbing. But the cliff is so steep that you are unable to do this. You try and try, but every time you fall back. Then you shout and call for help: appa, amma. appa, amma. Daddy, Mummy! just like children do. That is bhakti, the way of devotion, when you call upon the Lord who can do everything.
Then, while you are crying out and bemoaning your fate, you suddenly realise that something has brushed past you. You look round. It is a rope, which has been let down to you from the top of the cliff. There is someone up above you, someone who has already reached the top. He is holding one end of the rope. He shouts down: “Hang on to it, hold tight!” He is the guru. All you have to do is take a good grip and, whatever happens. not let go – sraddha … faith … But the guru must have sturdy arms and a strong back, or else the disciple’s weight will drag him down, and both will come a cropper,’ he added with a smile.
Vanya interrupted him, saying: ‘But, Swamiji, you are always telling me that the guru only appears at the moment when the atman has finally been discerned.’
‘Yes, of course; that is the jnana-guru, the atma-guru, who then reveals everything. He says, Look, see! – and then all is seen, and there no longer remains either disciple or guru … only the one who deep down utters the tat twam asi. Thou art That. The other guru of whom we are speaking is the karana-guru, the instrumental guru, in whom the real guru begins to take shape as the disciple becomes awake.’
Another time he said: ‘God has four kinds of client. The first are those who from time to time wake up from their sleep, think about him for a moment, murmur “Lord. Lord”, and in no time forget about him and fall asleep again.
‘The second are genuinely pious. They visit temples, offer pujas, take part in pilgrimage after pilgrimage, sing hymns, practice japa, minister to sadhus – but it is all done with a view to obtaining material blessings, like health, wealth, or social position.
‘The third kind are the true bhaktas. They do all that the second kind do, but they do it purely in the hope of obtaining spiritual blessings. Nothing else in this world is of interest to them. They only want God, and God alone.
‘Finally there are those who no longer pray or ask God for any thing-not even for God himself. They have no concern even for God himself. These are the jnanis.’
‘But if that is so, Swami,’ asked Vanya ,’then what difference is there between the jnani and the nashtika, an atheist or materialist? He also has no desire or need for God.’
‘There is none the less a difference, and an important one,’ he replied. ‘The difference is that the jnani has no desire, either for God or for anything else at all, while the nastika wants everything except God!
‘There are the people who want everything except God, others who want everything and also God, others who want only God, and yet others who, having recognised themselves in God, are no longer capable of any desire, even for God.’
Those who no longer have any desire,
who are freed from all desire,
whose every desire has been fulfilled,
whose sole desire is for the Self;
those whose hearts have been Set free
from all the desires which dwell there,
who have become immortal,
who have attained to Brahman;
those in whom have been cut
ail the knots of the heart here on earth!
(Brihad-aranyaka-upanishad 4.4.6,7; Katha Up.6.14,15)
The desires referred to here are by no means abstract or imaginary, but the very concrete and particular desires which at every moment beset the human heart: the desire for a caress or for a good meal, the desire to meet a friend or read a book, the desire to enjoy a marvellous ‘heaven’…
Another of Vanya’s questions was whether the jnani is still has an awareness of his sharira. The Indian word sharira refers to everything in us which is not the atman (at least as a preliminary definition, and to avoid falling into the western distinction between the material body and a spiritual mind). Sharira includes both body and mind together, the mental faculties as well as the bodily senses. As for the Tamil word, here translated as ‘awareness’, its precise meaning is ‘memory’, ‘recollection’ .
‘Yes, he does have that awareness,’ replied Gnanananda, ‘but in the atman, whereas other people have the recollection of themselves in their mind, their manas. In addition, the jnani’s recollection in the atman is of all beings. In fact his sharira is no longer peculiarly his own. Nothing belongs to him-but at the same time there is nothing that is not his.
‘The same prana, breath of life, permeates all beings, In the same way the atman is everywhere, and everywhere it is uniquely itself. The jnani breathes this “breath” … inhaling and exhaling it in each created being. Nowhere is there any difference. Everything is felt by him as “his own”.
Vanya then raised the difficult question: ‘Why does the jnani always act well?’
No sooner had he asked the question than his mind clearly told him the answer. The reason is that in the jnani all ahamkara, all centering-on-oneself-in-isolation, all egotism, has disappeared. And egotism is truly the root of all sin.
However, the guru replied with the traditional paradox: ‘For the jnani there is no longer virtue or sin, good deeds or evil deeds. Sin, virtue, good, evil, are all matters which concern the sharira, the ahamkara, the consciousness of oneself-in-isolation. Differences and contradictions only appear to those who see duality. Whereas the jnani is aware of things only in the non-duality of the atman. So in an awareness like his, on what could the perception of good or of evil be based?’
In the course of the conversation Harold, who had returned that day, asked: ‘Some people say that reincarnation takes place immediately after death. Others maintain that the discarnate soul has to remain in that condition for a hundred, five hundred, a thousand years, before assuming another body. What should we believe about this?’
This provoked an animated discussion on the subject of reincarnation. As soon as Vanya could get a word in, he admitted to the gum that to worry oneself about past or future births seemed to him a futile and indeed frivolous occupation. He personally saw no sense in the theory of reincarnation.
‘I quite agree with you about not worrying,’ replied Gnanananda. “But even so, how can one say that there is not a succession of births? There has to have been a cause for our present birth. What reason can there be apart from a previous life, which alone can explain both our return to this world and the particular circumstances of this return?’
‘Very well,’ said Vanya, ‘but what was the cause of that previous birth?’ ‘The one before it, and so on successively.’
‘That is all very well, but there must have been a first coming into this world, How can that be explained’!’
‘Who has ever been born?’ Gnanananda then replied. ‘There never has been such a thing as birth and never will be-and it is the same with death. Hands, feet, eyes, breath, all these have a beginning, and everything that begins certainly comes to an end. But I myself? Even when the breath departs, does not the I remain?’
The one who knows dies not, nor is he born,
From where would he come? What would he become?
not-born, eternal, primordial, for ever himself!
If the killer thinks that he kills,
if the one who is slain thinks himself slain,
nothing have they understood, either of them;
no one kills, no one is slain. (Katha Upanishad 2)
The immortal cannot become mortal,
nor can the mortal become immortal.
There is no decay, no growth,
no bondage, no setting free,
no prisoner, no candidate for release;
such is the final truth! (Gaudapada. Karikas)
Questions and answers followed each other without a break between the Swami and his visitors. Vanya was listening somewhat absent-mindedly. His thoughts were on all that he had seen and heard in recent days, and the problems which this was bound to raise.
All of a sudden Sri Gnanananda began looking intently at one of the visitors in the comer to his right near the door, and without any connection with what was being said at that moment, addressed him sternly: ‘You are busy searching in every direction-this religion, that religion, this master, that master. Stop making such a mess of your life. Confine yourself to the teaching of our rishis in the Upanishads. To them truly Reality was revealed. It is all there. Useless to go elsewhere.’
One evening after supper Vanya sought out Gnanananda in order to talk a little more freely with him. He was sitting on the big stone bench beside the well. Facing him, seated on the ground, was a young man who was speaking with great feeling. It seemed that he was talking about some people who had cheated him and had extorted money from him on the pretext of offering pujas, reciting mantras, and other such things. Sri Gnanananda was trying to soothe the lad, but he repeatedly returned to the attack. This went on for a long time.
When he finally departed, Vanya went up to Gnanananda, and this is what he said: ‘Hinduism is a hotch-potch of superstitions and money-making. Everyone makes use of it to deceive his neighbour. Yet there is in the Hindu religion something that you can search for everywhere else in vain: the knowledge of Brahman, the vision of the atman, true wisdom!’
From Guru and Disciple, passim, ISPCK, India, 1990.