There are several difficulties for a person who plunges into the journey of self-inquiry. The nature of difficulties keeps changing from one stage to another. In the beginning stage, middle stage and mature stage, there are numerous difficulties, confusion, doubts and challenges for the self inquirer. If one has a true teacher – who has gone till the last stage in the path – these difficulties are considerably mitigated. However,
a.) there are very few teachers around who have gone till the end of their path
b.) how does one come to know whether a teacher has gone till the end ? A teacher may claim that he/she has reached the end, but how would you come to know?
c.) You may not have physical access to a true teacher
The beginning phase of my self-inquiry did not pose this challenge because I had taken up the teachings of J Krishnamurti, whose very teachings were anti-authority: to the point of vehemence. Being a youth, and being very anti-authority myself, I was very attracted to his teachings which said, one doesn’t need any teacher or guru to find out the truth. For ten years I worked with Krishnamurti’s teachings assiduously. After that, I am not sure whether I could not make further progress, or I got into Ken Wilber, and from there into Advaita: quite unconsciously. Whatever the reason, I got into Advaita, particularly, into the teachings of James Swartz on the internet.
I got my insight into my true, eternal Self/Brahman/Witness by merely reading his teachings on the internet. I have written about this in my article Self inquiry and insight into one’s true nature/Self in Advaita. Prior to this insight, I had never met him or even corresponded to him in writing. It was only after I had the insight, that I mailed, thanking him for his teachings on the internet, which aided me in getting the insight. A true teacher is a Self Realized person and if one is a qualified student, one can get Self Realization merely by listening to his words. [Though this insight is only the penultimate stage. The final liberation is when this insight completely matures to complete non-dual experience. Please see the page “Stages of Self Inquiry” for all the stages in the path of Advaita for complete liberation]
The Personality of the Teacher vs the Path
I feel that very few individuals on the path of self-inquiry are completely sure or sincere about their end. Though I did not take Krishnamurti’s teachings to the end (the very complex reasons for which, I shall outline in another article), I feel, my readings and intensive study with Krishnamurti created a razor-sharp intellect, passion, dedication and sincerity for self-inquiry. Above and over these things, he created a sense of autonomy in me, which is very crucial for paths of self-inquiry. Unlike the paths of faith and devotion, one is not relying in self-inquiry on Bhakti, or devotion to the guru.
Undoubtedly, there is an element of love, respect, and understanding that is required even in the paths of self-inquiry. But a teacher of self-inquiry, as per me, need not call for devotion to his personality but devotion to the path. The path is not an individual: in self-inquiry, the path is a body of knowledge that serves as a raft for the inquirer to cross the ocean of samsara. A true teacher in the tradition of self-inquiry is devoted to the path as this vehicle. He will always alert the student to the path and knowledge rather than draw attention to himself and his person.
Most seekers, especially in their early stages, are in a state of tremendous vulnerability. They have turned to self-inquiry after having faced suffering and seeking a permanent end to it. Hence, they are easy pickings for spiritual teachers with highly advanced and exaggerated spiritual egos. Some of these egos thrive on swelling numbers of followers. They build huge organizations, write books, do social work, and hobnob with the echelons of political and business class. Instead of helping inquirers become self-reliant, such teachers encourage devotion to themselves. They create a sort of hierarchical relationship, where the students have to adore them, and unquestioningly respect all their pronouncements.
Unconscious Processes that Make Us Choose Teachers and Paths
Since self-inquiry is a path related to the intellect and questioning, by its very nature, it attracts seekers who are not belief oriented. However, even the intellect is not entirely free from devotional tendencies, psychological predispositions, and cultural conditioning. Some time back I wrote an article on the various subtle factors that play in the mind of a reader while choosing a writer to read: The Play of Identities between the Reader and Writer: and the Rise of Self Knowledge I am making some edits and reproducing a part of this article here to show some unconscious thought processes that may play in the minds of seekers while choosing their teachers for learning about truth.
The intent of the Inquirer– Is the intent of the inquirer to get psychological comfort, assurance and emotional warmth from the teacher? Is it that the inquirer wants to gain some extra mundane knowledge to show off and gain popularity? Is it that the inquirer wants some kind of spiritual practice to help him/her function in life (work, family, success) effectively? Does the inquirer want some special status as an enlightened being? Is the inquirer looking for some special powers? Does the inquirer want the permanent end of suffering? Different teachers hold out different end goals/intents for inquirers. Inquirers choose teachers according to their intents
Religious Identity of the Inquirer – Is the inquirer a Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Muslim, Sikh, Christian or Chinese? I have come across many people who choose self inquiry paths only within the religion they are born in, and, who look down on other paths.
Name, Fame and Popularity of the Teacher – Is the teacher famous, well known and respected? How many people read him/her and have read his books? What is the opinion of him/her by other experts and your friends? How many experts have given favourable opinions about him/her? How many followers he/she has?
Spiritual Status of the Teacher – Has he/she realized or not? You try to keep finding this out throughout the text or by comparing his/her realization with another ones? Has he/she described some state of samadhi or spiritual ecstasy or bliss? What is his/her title – Guru, Ma, Acharya, Swami, Mahatma, Muni, Pundit, Yogin, etc. or adds Ananda after his/her name? Is he/she an officiating priest of an esteemed temple/ashram/monastery or a rich temple/ashram/monastery with branches all over the world. Does he/she have an ashram with a sprawling campus? Does he/she wear a saffron robe?
Mystical Status of the Teacher – Has he/she written about his/her mystical experiences? Has he/she performed some miracles? How many disciples have reported mystical experiences in his/her presence? Is she/he able to hold a snake in his/her hand? (You will see this illustration quite commonly in the books of Indian mystical teachers). Does he/she speak of other worlds, astral travel, etc. ? Does he speak of godly visions?
Religious/Philosophical Status of the teacher – Is he/she a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Atheist or Non-Atheist. Which branch of philosophy he belongs to and then which sub-branch of that philosophy and then which sub-sub-branch of that philosophy. For example, if the teacher is teaching some Hindu path; if so, which Hindu school – Vedanta, Samkhya, Tantra, Yoga…etc. If Vedanta is he/she a Dualist, Qualified Non-Dualist or a Non-Dualist. If he is a Non-Dualist, which school of Non-dualism – Bhamati, Vivarna, Ishta Siddhi…….etc. Most inquirers in the beginning stage are not even aware of all this complexity of different schools and paths with their major, minor and subtle variations. These do become an issue in the middle and later stages of the path. Most beginning inquirers just know of the broad religious schools of inquiry like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam,
Psychological image about the teacher – Is the teacher someone who is personally known? Then one has all the images of him as a person who has committed certain acts and omitted certain acts at certain times. There are judgments of these acts as right, wrong, credible or non-credible, which lead to making an image of the teacher. Depending upon these judgments and image formations, one may love the teacher at one point, hate him/her at another; doubted him/her, or completely lost all trust in him/her.
Gender of the Teacher – Is the teacher a male or female? Several fundamentalists abhor the fact that females have or should have any form of intelligence. For example, no significant historically religious books have been written by females in any culture. Does one think of a female teacher with this lens? In a reverse case, I came across a female who abhors the Bhagavad Gita, because Krishna, the dispenser of the words of Gita, had multiple loves.
Nationality/Race of the Teacher – Is the teacher Indian or Western or Eastern. Is he a “black” or a “white”? One’s judgment of the superiority of any, one culture over the other, determines whom you follow. Conversely, there may be a deification of all eastern teachers as those who have true and superior knowledge.
Political and social views of the teacher – If the teacher has political views then does the teacher accept or reject the dominant political and social trends of the society of his/her time?
The True Teacher is Rare
I have come across at least a thousand or more people in my life out of which a handful are taking the journey of spirituality. Of them, perhaps half a dozen have pursued or pursuing self-inquiry to some extent. I may sound elitist when I say this, but I know of only one or two who have pursued or pursuing it till the end. Of those who follow some spiritual path, most are stuck to following the personality and words of their teacher; they are articles of belief for them. They don’t look at the path. There are numerous teachers out there constructing their own paths and teachings. Most of them may have had a few experiences, and then they clobber together words and vocabulary from the ancient paths.
Self-inquiry is about liberating knowledge. Knowledge does lead to a radical re-orientation of experience. But I have found that the experiences vary vastly for individuals. Moreover, a Self Realized being in the highest Non-dual tradition of Advaita knows Self/Awareness as all experiences. Therefore, a true teacher of self-inquiry would wield knowledge rather than just a description of his experiences.
Qualities of a True Teacher
Since I have been a follower of the path of Advaita, I shall speak about the qualities of teachers within this tradition as evinced by the scriptures.
The Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, two of the three main texts of Vedanta are in the form of a dialogue between a teacher and a student. There is a spirit of democratic respect between the teacher and the student. While being an avatar, Krishna is Arjuna’s charioteer, which means Arjuna commanded him – not the other way round. Even after Krishna finishes his whole discourse of Bhagavad Gita, he ends it with
Thus the ‘Wisdom’ which is greater secret than all secrets, has been declared to you by Me; having reflected upon it fully, you now act as you choose.
Bhagavad Gita by Swami Chinmayananda, Chapter 18, Verse 63
A true teacher, in the spirit of Krishna, gives the student intellectual freedom: rather than creating attachment in the student towards the teacher. The student has to study the scriptures under the teacher, but come to his own understanding, not imitate the teacher’s words and personality.
Adi Shankaracharya, the most prominent teacher of Advaita Vedanta, wrote about the qualities of a true teacher in his book Upadesasahasri
“The teacher is one who is endowed with the power of furnishing arguments pro and con, of understanding questions [of the student], and remembers them. The teacher possesses tranquility, self-control, compassion and a desire to help others, who is versed in the Śruti texts (Vedas, Upanishads), and unattached to pleasures here and hereafter, knows the subject and established in that knowledge. He is never a transgressor of the rules of conduct, devoid of weaknesses such as ostentation, pride, deceit, cunning, jugglery, jealousy, falsehood, egotism and attachment. The teacher’s sole aim is to help others and a desire to impart the knowledge.”
— Adi Shankara, Upadesha Sahasri 1.6
“When the teacher finds from signs that knowledge has not been grasped or has been wrongly grasped by the student, he should remove the causes of non-comprehension in the student. This includes the student’s past and present knowledge, want of previous knowledge of what constitutes subjects of discrimination and rules of reasoning, behaviour such as unrestrained conduct and speech, courting popularity, vanity of his parentage, ethical flaws that are means contrary to those causes. The teacher must enjoin means in the student that are enjoined by the Śruti and Smrti, such as avoidance of anger, Yamas consisting of Ahimsa and others, also the rules of conduct that are not inconsistent with knowledge. He [teacher] should also thoroughly impress upon the student qualities like humility, which are the means to knowledge.”
— Adi Shankara, Upadesha Sahasri 1.4-1.5
A reader may note the emphasis Shankaracharya places on
1.) Sruti and Smriti (the scriptures)
2.) Patience of the teacher and his single-pointed desire to impart knowledge. The true teacher does not bully and dominate students. He/she does not create fear and thwart the questions of students indiscriminately.
Conclusion – Teachers who take you till the end
In this article, I have tried to summarize the various issues an inquirer has to face while choosing a teacher for his self-inquiry. My aim was to help genuine self inquirers to make an informed choice on this matter. In summary, it is primarily one’s intent which makes one choose a teacher. It is the internal compass of one’s path.
I have seen it work flawlessly in my journey of self-inquiry. I have changed paths to match my intent. My intent has helped me leave paths when I saw that they had nothing further to teach me or did not teach me what I wanted. My intent has also helped me find individuals who deeply addressed my intent. The depth of one’s intent seeks out depths in teachers. If one’s intent is complete cessation of suffering, one shall not rest with anything less: no matter how much some teachers may tweak their teachings to fall short of this intent.
There are many teachers today, even of traditional paths, who cherry-pick passages and verses from scriptures and bring down the final goal or end of the path. But if a path is claiming to be non-dual, it shall never fall short of one end – ending of mind. Different approaches in Advaita talk about this end differently. The Yoga approaches most widely prevalent in Advaita talk about a literal ending of mind in terms of manonasha/ending of mind and vasanakshaya/ending of latent impressions. But the path of pure Advaita represented by Ajativada of Gaudapada talks about seeing through the fact that the mind/individual never existed, what exists is always Awareness without any subject-object duality. One can find a detailed discussion of all the stages of self inquiry in my page: Stages of Self Inquiry
Thus, if any teacher is not talking about this in a non-dual path, be sure he/she is not going to take you to the end and is misrepresenting the non-dual path by curtailing its end.
My advice to all genuine self inquirers is to get hold of the original scriptures and read them. They clearly state the stages and the end (if the path has one). A true teacher will not dilute anything written in them.
“That which has no parts, the soundless, the incomprehensible, beyond all senses, the cessation of all phenomena, all blissful and non-dual Aum, is the fourth, and verily it is the same as Atman. He, who knows this , merges his Self in the Supreme Self – the individual in the Total”Verse 12, Mandukya Upanishad