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Living the Yoga Life: The Spiritual Teacher

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A guru or spiritual teacher is someone who gives us a push in the direction of higher consciousness, who teaches us to see farther and deeper than we have before. Sometimes a book does this, and sometimes it is a single word spoken by someone who had no idea it would have that effect on another person. And for those of great good karma it is possible to meet a great soul who can lift them to a higher level of awareness by various means, including their mere presence. But some impetus to awakening is necessary for all of us. Of course, that awakening ultimately comes from within, but since we are so outward-turned it almost always requires an external stimulus of some sort.

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As the yogi goes through life in the maze of this world he picks up a great deal of practical understanding on his own. This is why the company of a seasoned yogi is so valuable. For he knows volumes of wisdom gleaned not from books but from observation and experience, things that could not be guessed at by beginners.

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A worthy teacher can help anyone who wishes to change, for the divine Self is within all, and the moment anyone desires higher life he is ready and able for it. In the lives of great yogis we find examples of every kind of illusion being dispelled by their merciful teaching. What value would they be if this was not the case? The principle is that those who have dug themselves into a hole can climb out if they have a competent teacher. This is true for all. The necessary factor is their intention and will.

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The teacher may show the water in the well, but the student is the one who brings out the water from the well, for it is his own Self that is the well. Certainly a teacher can instruct in the way to access the water, but the student does the rest.

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A true and worthy guru or teacher (acharya) will freely teach anyone who is sincere and willing to follow instruction. He will care nothing about their background or their past. A mentally disturbed man tried to kill Swami Sivananda, who forgave him and asked him to live in the ashram and do sadhana. A man was hired by jealous Brahmin pandits to poison Sri Brahma Chaitanya of Gondawali because of his open attitudes and ways. Knowing that if he refused the offered poison the man’s intention to kill him would be revealed and he would be punished, Sri Brahma Chaitanya took the poison and swallowed it. Seeing this, the man fled in terror. By his yoga powers the saint did not die, but he developed chronic asthma. Such was his love and mercy.

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There was a great spiritual guide (elder) on the island of Aegina in Greece named Ieronim. Once a monk I knew came to visit him. As he prepared to leave, the monk asked the elder to pray for him. “No, I won’t,” replied Fr. Ieronim, much to the monk’s surprise. “I can’t eat or sleep for you and I certainly can’t do what you should being doing for yourself. You pray for yourself and I will pray for myself. Then we will both benefit.” This is true: no one can live our spiritual life but we ourselves. Spiritual growth is a purely personal matter. Others can inspire or encourage us, but spiritual practice is ours exclusively.

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People ignorantly think that a teacher’s body is the guru. This is really only to be expected, because however philosophical we may think we are, we are very body-identified. It is a matter of conditioning from nearly all our previous lives. So of course we will identify a guru or teacher with his body and become dependent and even obsess on it. This is not just a serious obstacle to spiritual life, many “disciples” make it a substitute for spiritual life. What we should be intent on is the wisdom teaching of the guru. We need to listen, learn and apply. And that is all.

If the guru’s body is far away or no longer alive, we will be in no way hindered in our progress. That of course is easy to say, but human beings are addicted to attachments of all sorts, including spiritual attachments. I will admit to you that I wish with all my heart that I could have even just a few minutes again in the presence of the great souls I have known in the past. There is no substitute for the company of the holy, for it can change us in subtle ways we often are not aware of until that company is lost. But since Brahman Itself is “mighty world-destroying Time” and “all-devouring death” according to the Gita (11:32; 10:34), we shall certainly lose the company of the holy, and it is wise to be ready for that. We must strive to embody the wisdom they teach us so that wisdom shall live on in us, and after our death we can ascend to those worlds where such great ones abide.

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A true guru is a living example of what he teaches, and he continues to observe himself all that he teaches to others. You know you are within the gates of a guru-cult when your hear: “Maharaj no longer needs to….” Buddha meditated until the day of his passing from this world, and he followed all the disciplines that even the youngest of the monks observed. He went on the alms-round just like everyone else: no special cook and kitchen for him. Nor did he make his advanced age an excuse for slacking off. The same was true of Swami Sivananda. What he told others to do, he himself did until the last breath.

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A true spiritual teacher does not have the idea, “I am a guru.” He sees divinity within all, equally, and never see them as disciples. Once a vain young Brahmin man went to Rishikesh to see Swami Sivananda. He was one of these “I bow to no one” simplistic non-dualists. He was wondering how he would get out of bowing to Sivanandaji, since others would be doing so. In his egoic dilemma he went into a small alleyway to ponder what to do. In a matter of moments Swami Sivananda entered the alley, came up to the young man and bowed down and touched his feet! He got the message.

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There are a lot of “jewel in the lotus” gurus in India, but there are real gurus that treat everyone like their own family, often to the shock of those that have only been around the “jewel” type. That is why, although he was inexpressibly great, when I speak of Swami Sivananda I can so readily call him “my friend.” One morning in satsang I sat there looking at him and knowing: “If there is anyone in this world who loves me, it is this man.” And I did not mean love in the egoic sense of normal human emotion. He loved the true Me: my Self, not my masks and labels.

Truly: Sivananda was God and God was Sivananda.

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The Supreme Self (Paramatman) and individual Self (jivatman) alone are the “world-teacher,” for the impulse to seek enlightenment comes only from deep within each of us. And it is our will alone that maintains our sadhana.

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No one is to grovel at the feet of a supposed guru–something a true guru would never allow. But if we find a real master teacher we should happily sit at his feet and actually learn–not adore vacuously.

Here is an example from the life of Jesus that applies exactly to the situation: “Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).

Think of all the busybodying “disciples” you know, who are running here and there “serving the guru,” or at least the guru’s organization–which in time will be identified with the guru so that whoever questions or leaves it will be declared guilty of doubting or rejecting the guru. They are selling books and magazines they have never “had time” to read, arranging seminars and world tours, setting up interviews with the rich, the powerful, and the media, immersed in busywork (oops! karma yoga) to avoid facing this utter emptiness–and often with the intention to become a big cog in the guru’s machine and maybe in time be the guru’s successor. Whether the guru is a fake or not is irrelevant. They are so frantically cramming activity into their lives they could not benefit from the greatest of teachers.

On the other hand there are those that sit their bodies and minds down and listen and learn and apply. Wherever their body may be, by always following what they have learned, they never leave the feet of the guru.

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The proof of a true guru is his imparting freely to those around him both awakening of consciousness and instruction in the yoga that bestows liberation. Swami Sivananda Saraswati was such a one. Many of his disciples became great enlightened beings. I met several myself.

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One time Dr. Lewis, the first American disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, went to visit his guru in California. He arrived in the evening at the hermitage in Encinitas and Yogananda cooked dinner for him. He ate the food and talked with the master, then went to his room. But his mind was flying so high in the sky of consciousness that he could not sleep, and meditated throughout the whole night. When he told Yoganandaji about it the next day, Yogananda nodded and said that when he had cooked the food he had been very absorbed in God. A true guru can impart consciousness even in such an unexpected way.

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One time Sri Ramakrishna said to his disciple, Prasanna, the future Swami Vijnananda, “Let’s have a wrestling match.” Prasanna was very athletic and liked sports, including wrestling, so he agreed. Sri Ramakrishna stood against the wall of his room and Prasanna took hold of his wrists. Suddenly a tremendous wave of bliss came from Ramakrishna and overwhelmed him so much that he dropped Ramakrishna’s hands. Sri Ramakrishna smiled and said: “You win!”

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I urge you to obtain and carefully read Sivananda Yoga by Swami Venkateshananda, one of Sivananda’s most advanced disciples, whom I was privileged to meet. In his book he presents what a true guru is and does. The most important is the guru’s ability to communicate his consciousness to another. Sivananda imparted awareness of the Self to those around him. In his light he revealed their light.

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One of Sivananda’s unique characteristics compared to even the great yogis I met was the fact that when I entered his presence I became deeply Self-aware, my mind illuminated with Self-perception. Although Sivananda was glorious and for me God in flesh, yet I tell you that I never for a moment lost my Self-awareness or became absorbed in awareness of him. Rather, by means of my deepened perceptions I could comprehend that his greatness was beyond my comprehension!

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Bullying is a common tool in religion and also in yoga, especially bullying of innocent, trusting people who have wandered into the clutches of a fake yoga cult or fake guru cult. This takes the form of badgering the disciple with dire warnings of the terrible fate awaiting those who “lose attunement with” the guru or “abandon” the guru–and the cult. Fear is a powerful tool of moral and emotional enslavement.

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Vivekananda once asked a very devoted disciple: “If you find a guru who can show you the way to God better than I, will you leave me and follow him?” Without hesitation the disciple said: “Yes.” Vivekananda embraced him and said: “Now I know you are my disciple!”

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The amazing yogi, Sri Yogeshwar Brahmachari, told me that he had been initiated by twenty-two gurus, and had spent a great deal of time with others, including Sri Yukteswar Giri, about whom he told me: “I was simply mad for him!” As a result, instead of spending time with his guru (Tincouri Lahiri, the son of Lahiri Mahasaya), he would go early in the morning across the alley and be there with Sri Yukteswar until late at night. Having all those gurus and association with saints had certainly worked for him.

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The truth that we can reach a level in which external teachers and teaching are no longer needed is unacceptable to nearly everyone who ascribes to the belief in the eternal relationship between guru and disciple. But many true gurus have said otherwise. Many times the great Swami Sivananda would tell a person who had lived two or three months with him: “You now know all I have to teach you. Go and attain everything yourself.” No true teacher cultivates dependence, but rather gives independence. For the only eternal relationship we have is with God, and a true guru shows us the way to recognize and live that relationship, ourselves becoming eternal in that recognition.

When that has come about the guru remains the closest and dearest to the disciple, but the guru is never confused with or mistakenly identified with God. Certainly in relativity there is no one more important to the liberated yogi than the guru. But still he knows the difference between God and guru.

Emotional exaggeration of the guru’s relation to the disciple is not devotion but ignorance and addiction. Yoga cults use it all the time to enslave their dupes. It is one of the most poisonous tools of evil teachers and their henchmen. As Sivananda said: “Emotion is not devotion,” and: “I abhor gurudom.”

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It is not the guru that matters ultimately: it is the realization made possible by the guru’s teaching. So a disciple is one who applies the teaching and attains. As Buddha said, a teacher is a finger pointing at the moon. Once the moon is seen, who looks at the finger? Obsession with personality is just another way of perpetuating the ego.

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I have lived with or spent time in close association with great yogi-teachers, and my memories of them are the dearest treasures of my heart. I am endlessly grateful for their teaching, without which I might not have persevered in spiritual life. But realization is my own to gain, something to which I must ever look forward, and not waste my time looking backward and idolizing those names and forms.

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Onward, Ever Onward, must be the motto of the serious sadhaka. The guru is meaningless if the student does not apply his teachings and progress.

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All institutions hate independent and creative thinking. Most hate any kind of thinking at all. Do not be mistaken: the East is just as lockstep ignorant as anywhere else, it is just that the principles recited robotically are wiser than the stupid stuff that flows out of the mouths of Western religionists.
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Paramhansa Nityananda, who was no standard item, and did not fear or hesitate to speak out the truth as he saw it. For example, someone once told him: “In the Gita Krishna says…,” and he interrupted, saying: “No. In the Gita Vyasa says Krishna said.”

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A true guru shows the way and the disciple attains everything, becoming himself what the guru was before him.

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A true guru never promotes himself or allows his followers do so, either.

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It is a favorite ploy in India to claim that you spent decades doing intense tapasya in the Himalayas. I personally know one Big Baba of Bengal who claims he spent over twenty years in the Himalayas, when investigation easily shows that he was a building contractor in Calcutta all the time!

Swami Sivananda humorously wrote some instruction for these people. First, he said, rent a little house (kutir) in Rishikesh or Hardwar for six months. Arrange to have your food brought to you, and never be seen by anybody. Sit around inside and do what you like, including a lot of sleep. During that time write two or three trash leaflets (his expression) and a couple of bad devotional songs (bhajans). Then at the end of the six months go down to the plains and put it out that you have been living in silence (mauna) for many years way up in the Himalayas, even beyond Uttara Kashi. Arrange for yourself a few meetings where you will talk aimlessly, sing your bad songs, and give out your worthless leaflets. In no time at all you will be a sought-after guru, and maybe even an avatar.

This is no idle allegation. Once in Rishikesh I was stopped and grilled by a fairly well-educated sadhu who begged me to tell him how to get to America and make a splash. On another occasion in holy Naimisharanya a monk told me that if I would spend a few hours with him each day for a week, “I will show you how to get the people of America in the palm of your hand.” That is how these people think.

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Excusing a guru’s materialism on the ground that “for him these are just toys” or “he is showing us an example in how to deal with them/it” is nonsense. Get straight and get honest. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck, it is a duck–not a guru or an avatar whose advent has ushered in the Satya Yuga.

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It is not unknown for those that set themselves up as spiritual teachers to teach what they think will sell, and keep the worthwhile knowledge to themselves. This is often the case with meditation teachers. One world-renowned meditation teacher claimed the practice he peddled was the highest and best, having been given to him by his guru, a truly great master. But to me he admitted that he had invented the method and the way he initiated people into it. I know of at least two other teachers with followings around the world who just looked through some books and then made up what they hawked as ancient tradition. The practices of all three of these charlatans actually harmed many, but it was the money that counted. They led others into the jungle of harm, themselves being the beasts of prey that lived off of them.

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No one can build an empire on real yoga, for that is against its nature. But they certainly can build one on false yoga. And it does not matter if the yoga “does things.” It is possible to wander for lifetimes in the psychic regions opened by false (or misapplied) yoga. One of the reasons for this is the sad fact that Jesus revealed when he said: “Men loved darkness rather than light” (John 3:19). False seekers desire false teachers. I have seen people going from one fake to another while refusing to even listen to or read the teachings of a true teacher.

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In India there is a great deal of fussing about the yoga powers (siddhis) and how they must be avoided and how wrong it is to use them. But nearly all the biographies of those the authors consider master yogis or siddhas are little more than a string of accounts of their miraculous powers.

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When my friend, Dr. Mukherji, met his guru, Swami Purnananda, a disciple of Mahavatar Babaji, he asked to become his disciple. “No,” said Purnananda, “you do not know me. First you must get to know me thoroughly.” For three years Dr. Mukherhji spent as much time as possible at Purnanandaji’s ashram. Then he became his disciple–a true disciple of a true guru. I wish you could have met Dr. Mukherji. He lived in the highest consciousness, yet was so loving and approachable. His personal knowledge of yoga practice and experience was vast. The hours I spent together with him generously sharing his bounty were among the most blessed and happy of my life.

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A worthy teacher first of all knows the royal road himself and never holds any knowledge from his students. Those who do less must be prepared for the karmic consequences.

Then there are those teachers that dribble out their teaching, especially those that have a series of “initiations” to impart an ascending series of techniques. Since nothing they teach really works, they keep their students in anticipation of the next “higher” technique that surely will begin doing what they promised at the beginning. This is sheer trickery, but what else can they do, since they really know nothing?

But those who do know something worthwhile share it freely, openly and completely right now, for the future certainly is unsure, but karma is not.

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There are two levels of guru: primary and secondary. The primary guru is God himself, human gurus being only secondary and temporary. (They are called “upagurus” in yogic tradition.) A human guru shows us the way to know God and then his work is done. But the Guru God abides with us forever. Paramhansa Nityananda said that a third class aspirant thinks he needs initiation to begin spiritual life, a second class aspirant gets himself a human guru, but a first class aspirant turns to God and becomes His disciple, for as the Yoga Sutras (1:26) say about Ishwara: “Being unconditioned by time he is guru even of the ancients.”

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Commenting on the Yoga Sutras, Vyasa says: “It is yoga that is the teacher. How so? It has been said: ‘Yoga is to be known by yoga. Yoga goes forward from yoga alone. He who is not careless [neglectful] in his yoga for a long time, rejoices in the yoga.’”

Yoga truly becomes our teacher, revealing to us that which is far beyond the wisdom of books and verbal instructions. Moreover, it is the practice of yoga that enables us to understand the basis and rationale of its methods and their application. The why and wherefore of yoga become known to us by direct insight. In his commentary on Yoga Sutra 2:28 Vyasa says: “From practicing yoga, illusion [ignorance] is destroyed and perishes. When it is destroyed, there is manifestation of right vision. In proportion to the practice done, illusion is dispelled. In proportion to its destruction, the light of [spiritual] knowledge increases correspondingly. This increase is an experience of increasing refinement up to the realization of the true nature of the purusha [spirit].”

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The Yoga Vashishtha says it clearly and truly: “God Consciousness is not achieved by means of the scriptures, nor is it achieved by the grace of your Master. God Consciousness is only achieved by your own subtle awareness.” When Gorakhnath asked: “Who is the Guru that leads to the Goal?” Matsyendranath told him: “Nirvana itself is the Guru that leads to the Goal.” That is, the liberated condition of the Self, though presently buried beneath the debris of lifetimes of ignorance, is itself the inspirer and guide to the revelation of our eternal liberation.

Next in Living the Yoga Life: Subtle Anatomy

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About to Living the Yoga Life–Perspectives on Yoga

Living the Yoga Life–Perspectives on Yoga

Living the Yoga Life–Perspectives on Yoga: Introduction

    1. Living the Yoga Life: Climbing the Ladder of Consciousness
    2. Living the Yoga Life: Sanatana Dharma, Sanatana Yoga
    3. Living the Yoga Life: The Atman/Self
    4. Living the Yoga Life: Bhakti and Jnana
    5. Living the Yoga Life: Brahman
    6. Living the Yoga Life: Ishwara
    7. Living the Yoga Life: Breath
    8. Living the Yoga Life: India and Sanatana Dharma
    9. Living the Yoga Life: The Importance of Independence
    10. Living the Yoga Life: The Intelligent Path
    11. Living the Yoga Life: The Internal Life
    12. Living the Yoga Life: Japa and Sound (Shabda)
    13. Living the Yoga Life: Japa with the Breath
    14. Living the Yoga Life: Jnana
    15. Living the Yoga Life: The Jnani
    16. Living the Yoga Life: Karma and Karma Yoga
    17. Living the Yoga Life: Kundalini
    18. Living the Yoga Life: Liberation
    19. Living the Yoga Life: It Is All Up To Us
    20. Living the Yoga Life: Madness, Divine and Worldly
    21. Living the Yoga Life: Manas (Mind) and Buddhi (Intelligence/Intellect)
    22. Living the Yoga Life: Buddhi Yoga
    23. Living the Yoga Life: True Masters (And Not)
    24. Living the Yoga Life: Maya
    25. Living the Yoga Life: Meditation
    26. Living the Yoga Life: Prana
    27. Living the Yoga Life: Raja Yoga
    28. Living the Yoga Life: Reincarnation
    29. Living the Yoga Life: Religion
    30. Living the Yoga Life: Samadhi
    31. Living the Yoga Life: Sadhana
    32. Living the Yoga Life: Dedication to Spiritual Life
    33. Living the Yoga Life: Self-realization
    34. Living the Yoga Life: Shivashakti
    35. Living the Yoga Life: Spiritual Experience
    36. Living the Yoga Life: The Spiritual Teacher
    37. Living the Yoga Life: Subtle Anatomy
    38. Living the Yoga Life: The World
    39. Living the Yoga Life: Worship
    40. Living the Yoga Life: Yoga, the Body and the World
    41. Living the Yoga Life: Dharma and Adharma
    42. Living the Yoga Life: Yoga–The Supreme Dharma
    43. Living the Yoga Life: Yoga Nidra
    44. Living the Yoga Life: The Yogi
    45. Living the Yoga Life: Some Advice to Yogis
    46. Living the Yoga Life: Qualities of a Yogi
    47. Living the Yoga Life: This and That
    48. Living the Yoga Life: Touch Not
    49. Living the Yoga Life: The Gita Speaks To The Yogi
    50. Living the Yoga Life: How It Is Done
    51. Living the Yoga Life: Use your mind
    52. Living the Yoga Life: Some things it is wise to avoid
    53. Living the Yoga Life: Things you should definitely do and have in your life
    54. Living the Yoga Life: Spiritual Reading
    55. Living the Yoga Life: Gorakhnath Speaks To The Yogi
    56. Living the Yoga Life: And A Final Word From Me
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