Tonight marks one of the most pervasively resonant of the Hindu religious observances – that of Guru Purnima. It is an occasion wherein we honour, as the name should imply, our Gurus and other Teachers. Those who have so enriched our world through the bestowal of that most precious of gifts – their illumination of that world, through their time and effort going into our education and edification.
It is, you might say, an exercise in reciprocity. We ‘give back’ in some small way, to those who have given us so much.
Even if one is not part of the religion – one can easily see why it’s such a good, cool, and useful concept. We think back most easily to this or that teacher we might have had at school – how much, how immeasurable a contribution they may have made to our life’s course. Or perhaps we think of some other figure within our life’s ken of vision who has similarly reshaped in such a fundamental way both who and what we are through their guidance and support.
I am biased here, of course, coming from a family that seems to feature more than its proportionate share of teachers – but I really do sincerely believe that this role … that of empowering and lifting up others around us through radiating that which enables or facilitates understanding … is amongst one of the most important things a human can do for those around us.
It is, in no small part, part of what makes us human. And, at the same time, is us acting in emulation of the Divine.
Now, in Hindu terms – there are some additional layerings of metaphysical impetus to the whole thing. In a proper initiatory relationship, the Guru does not simply hand out kernels of disincorporated information like some form of factoid-vending-machine (your experience of reading my posts may, of course, vary).
But rather, there is an actual ‘investiture of essence’ that comes accompanying that. Something which really does establish a ‘linkage’ between two people – and the associated initiatory lineage.
Which brings with it some risks for the Guru doing the imparting – to use a bit of a shorthand metaphor, it is almost as if they are giving a piece of soul. And hence, yes, can become quite the taxing thing – particularly if the would-be devotees then behave improperly, accruing a detrimental karmatic imposition that then flows back up to the Guru in train.
So, in this sense, it is not hard to see why we have this additional reasoning for Guru Pournima. Not merely because our Gurus impart to us and empower to us with knowledge and insight – but because they impart to us and empower us using themselves in certain measure as the medium.
We are therefore doubly grateful. And doubly honour-bound to offer up our thanks and provide some meaningful measure of ‘reciprocity’ for those who have done so much for us in this particular way.
Now before I get too carried away … a brief point upon the associated (mytho-)linguistics.
Guru ( गुरु ) in Sanskrit is a fascinatingly multifaceted term. Every speaker of English has perhaps run across it – and in the ‘downstream’ sense wherein it means a ‘Teacher’.
This is not incorrect. However it is incomplete.
The actual archaic and underlying sense to ‘Guru’ is ‘Weight’, ‘Heaviness’. This is what its PIE forebear – *gʷréh₂us – has as its impetus.
And we might feasibly illustrate it further via recourse to its Latin cognate – ‘Gravis’, whence our modern English ‘Grave’ (in the sense of a serious matter); or, for that matter, Latin and later English ‘Gravitas’.
A ‘Guru’, then, is One Whose Words Have Weight – Whose Words We Take Seriously.
One Who, we may similarly etymologically / mytholinguistically suggest, to be able to exert a ‘Gravitational’ influence upon us and our world.
In a sense, anyway.
We are also rather enamoured with evocative ‘folk etymology’ style description given within the Advaya Taraka Upanishad – “the syllable ‘Gu’ [signifies] Darkness. The syllable ‘Ru’ [signifies] the Destroyer of that Darkness. By reason of the ability to destroy Darkness, He is called a Guru”.
Which, even though it may be somewhat different to what the science of linguistics has traced for the roots – is nevertheless an interesting and valid, and quite aptly ‘illuminating’ perspective upon the Guru, their role and saliency for us.
We also encounter ‘Guru’ used as a shorthand to refer to the Graha (‘Influencer’ – although it should be noted this is not a cognate; its actual root, *gʰrebʰ- , is coterminous with the ancestor for modern English ‘Grab’) Brihaspati … that is to say, the Planet Jupiter.
We have detailed elsewhere the mythological situation for the Vedic Brihaspati – observing that this , as one ought expect , lines up rather well as a ‘facing’ for the Indo-European Sky Father. And, most intriguingly, with a suite of mythic conceptry that we find succinctly expressed in the Ynglinga Saga for Odin.
That being Odin’s utilization of a most Weighty set of Words indeed in order to liberate the ‘stolen wealth of kine’ (to dip back into RigVedic translation there) – to bring forth and bring home the Cow. But also, Odin’s role in instructing the Priests of the archaic, mythic Nordic-Germanic sphere.
To quote from the Laing translation:
“When Odin of Asaland came to the north, and the Diar with Him, They introduced and taught to others the arts which the people long afterwards have practised. Odin was the cleverest of all, and from Him all the others learned their arts and accomplishments; and He knew them first, and knew many more than other people. But now, to tell why He is held in such high respect, we must mention various causes that contributed to it. […]
Another cause was, that he conversed so cleverly and smoothly, that all who heard believed him. He spoke everything in rhyme, such as now composed, which we call scald-craft. He and his temple priests were called song-smiths, for from them came that art of song into the northern countries. […]
Odin knew finely where all missing cattle were concealed under the earth, and understood the songs by which the earth, the hills, the stones, and mounds were opened to Him; and He bound those who dwell in them by the power of his word, and went in and took what He pleased. From these arts He became very celebrated. His enemies dreaded Him; His friends put their trust in Him, and relied on His Power and on Himself. He taught the most of His arts to His priests of the sacrifices, and they came nearest to Himself in all wisdom and witch-knowledge.”
Now that , we may say, is a Guru.
And yes, before somebody asks – there is no contradiction between an Odin-as-Brihaspati resonance and that more familiar one of Odin-as-Rudra. The Black Yajurveda’s Taittiriya Aranyaka, I 10 1 makes such a Brihaspati – Rudra linkage for us, for a start.
And Rudra Is Dyaus. (Jupiter – Dyaus Pitar – Zeus Pater, etc.)
We ought also, however, hail that most august Son of the Sky Father – Lord Ganesha – Who has also, it would appear, inherited such a station. As we had frequently detailed afore, RV II 23, in the RigVeda a Brihaspati Hymnal, has supplied one of the most prominent of the Ganesha Mantras in-use today.
That being the ‘[Aum] Gananam Tva Gana-Patim Havamahe […]’ which we had gone through and translated in the course of our fairly recent ‘A Well Armoured Lord of Prayer – Ganesha’.
Now there is more we could say upon the figure of Brihaspati that is known from the Puranas – but I think we shall, perhaps, leave that for another occasion.
Instead, we shall – again, but briefly – turn our attentions to another celestial figure.
That being the Centaur, Chiron. (Rather fittingly played by one Pierce Brosnan in the (first) Percy Jackson film which came out some years ago)
Now, there is an Asteroid by that name which some modern (Western) Astrologers configure into their calculations. There is also at least one of the ‘Great Constellations’ that is said to be this luminary amidst the Heavens. Although there is some disagreement as to just which of two possibilities – Sagittarius or Centaurus – is actually intended to be He.
What we would, however, observe with some interest – is that in both myth and astrology we find a strong ‘Archer’ resonancy.
Apollo and Artemis are associated with Chiron in the mythology (Both, famed Archers – and in the case of Apollo, a further Roudran resonancy); and in the Heavens? Well, Sagittarius is, after all, a ‘Horse-Archer’ of a rather more … literal variation than many are accustomed to. And One Whom we hope to be rendered in possession of such glorious illumination of insight.
The Hindu perception of the constellation (as a Solar sign – we tend more to use Lunar Nakshatras for the brief typological shorthand for our character that Sun signs fulfil in the Western astrological perception) asserts it to be ‘Dhanu’ ( धनु ) : and entirely unsurprisingly, we find this Sign to be under the rulership of Jupiter (Brihaspati).
And, of course, each of Rudra and Brihaspati are also famed Archers. ‘Wisdom’, it seems, comes with a long arcening (or, if you prefer and in Sanskrit – Arka -ening ), as well as a suitable ‘Humkara’ sound (this is a double meaning – हुंकार can also refer to the ‘twang’ of a bowstring’s fire); doubly fitting considering just what the Bowstring of Brihaspati’s Mighty Weapon in fact Is (Rta Itself).
It is therefore, perhaps, eminently appropriate that this fine painting by the Greek artist, Ioannis Doukas, should depict Chiron instructing the young Achilles in the best use for the Bow.
He is, after all, the Guru – the Instructor and Educator, the Empowerer of Heroes.
So, this Guru Purnima – as has occurred from time to time – I have been in receipt of thanks and some generous offerings from persons out there who feel that they have benefitted from the radiance (bhasa) of knowledge and understanding which I seek to put out into this world of ours, or otherwise from support rendered unto them over the preceding … however long it has been.
I do not seek to claim the status of a ‘Guru’ – but I do seek to claim the status of one who is rather grateful for such things. Not only the thanks (and seriously – the knowledge that we are improving and uplifting the thinking, the engagements, the mindsets of people out there is in large measure the actual ‘payment’ we get for these endeavours) … but perhaps more pointedly, one who feels a considerable gratitude that I am able to help out in this way.
Phrased more succinctly – if you’re one of those who’s written in or otherwise approached me to say something positive for the occasion in this light (and even if you’re not) … thanks for the opportunity to help people to learn.
It is for that which I am truly grateful.
Along with – and this cannot be under-emphasized – the long hours and vital instruction I have received over the year and the years from those various sources (whether human or Divine – or, in some cases, I am fairly sure, both at once, particularly in certain senses) who have either taken it upon themselves, or been approached by me, in order that I may learn from them as well.
Some of whom are also, curiously enough, those that I also teach.
Learning, as it happens, can ever so often be quite the ‘team effort’.
As it should be.
There is a very great concept that I encountered within the works of the late Terry Pratchett – that of ‘Extelligence’. It is, in a certain way, the ‘opposite of intelligence’. Insofar as ‘intelligence’ is that which we have in us … and ‘extelligence’, meanwhile, is something shared out amongst a civilization. Indeed, in large measure, it is precisely what makes a civilization … a civilization. I shall not fully explicate the concept here – this is supposed to be a conclusionary remark !
Guru Pournima, then, is the spirited exaltation of that which enables such ‘extelligence’ to propagate itself and to flourish – and therefore, ourselves to do likewise, flowing along with it in fairly direct consequence.
In terms of human Gurus – I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge some figures in particular (although I shall not, perhaps, embarrass them by naming them here directly) – and this is because these are rather extraordinary men (and women) who have enabled me to more meaningfully participate in a ‘civilizational sphere’ other than that which I was more immediately born into.
And in terms of Divinities … well. We shall carry out our customary forms of piety in thanksgiving to Them also for Their beneficence, accordingly.
Many are familiar with that famed remark of the alchemist (and occasional amateur physicist) Sir Isaac Newton:
“If I have seen further [than others] it is [only] by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
In my own case – well, what can I say. We are blessed to be enabled to Stand upon the Shoulders of our Gurus !
Hail unto Them for the privilege !