Nitya Teachings

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A Sect is the Mausoleum of the Guru


We of the Narayana Gurukula are currently confronted with a age-old problem calling for expert finesse and delicate handling. With the death of Guru Nitya last year, it has suddenly become important for us to clarify our relation to him, and to reassess how we treat him when speaking with those who never knew him but are nonetheless interested in the philosophy he so ably expounded. In other words, how do we properly deal with the passing away of our own guru, both internally and in relation to others? This is one of the times in life when what appears to be obvious can be deceptive, and our best intentions can produce unfortunate consequences.
Almost with Nitya's last breath our position was irrevocably changed. And yet it takes time to realize that we need to adapt ourselves to a new situation and make some alterations in our orientation. In some ways it is as if we have been thinking it is sacrilegious to touch anything of what once existed. But this is a misunderstanding, which needs to be dealt with as soon as the grieving period has passed. Those who cling to the memory of one who embodied the guru principle, even with the best intentions, are in fact building a mental crypt to hold the dry bones of a once-living philosophy. Moreover, it is impossible for a group focused on the past, no matter how glorious it might have been, to avoid becoming exactly like a cult or a minor religion. That is why Kabir Das' son and disciple said, "A sect is the mausoleum of the Guru." Jesus said the same thing: "Let the dead bury the dead." So how do we pay due homage to our fond memories of Guru Nitya, while avoiding the pitfalls which have undone so many before us?
To me, the question hinges on one point in particular. Up to now we have been indulging ourselves in a false notion, because it was pleasant and had no visible negative ramifications, that this friend of ours who recently died was the guru. No matter how often he insisted that the guru was a principle which could occasionally be expressed through people and things, but was really independent of them, we smiled and nodded and went on deceiving ourselves. We knew we were in the presence of the guru, and we began to think this man before us was what was meant. Perhaps we even intellectually reminded ourselves that the guru is merely the educational principle of the universe that can manifest in various ways, but deep down in our hearts we began to believe it was this person sitting there.
Now that that person is no longer sitting there, where has the guru gone? Is it buried under the ground as a decaying corpse? Has it entered another person? Has it become just a memory of what it used to be?
The unfortunate truth is that at this point, following the death of the one we respectfully called Guru, many of us have enshrined the memory of that material representation and bow before its memory in our minds. The living guru may be tapping us on the shoulder, so to speak, but we are focused so much on where it once was we are not open to where it is.
As Narayana Guru has made very clear in Darsanamala, such superimpositions as this, where the immanent is mistaken for the transcendent, can bring us ample confusion. But they are also relatively easy to cure, once we take a good look at them. The death of one who embodies the principle of the guru is precisely the time for us to strip away our wrong notions and remind ourselves of the truth, that the guru is not any particular person or icon or idea, but a living light which leads us through our lives, teaching and guiding us. It never goes away through the vicissitudes of life, but is with us all through. It is in some way in everything. But if we identify it with a material object, it can turn to dust and leave us.
This not only cuts us off within from the living sap of life, it detracts from the value to others of the person who once embodied it. For us to truly represent the teaching of our own lineage, now is the time for the spark of light within ourselves to be gently fanned into a bright flame. If instead we seek to teach others only how great and wonderful this man we knew was, we will become no better than a cult, and no one will any longer seek the magnificent teachings which we have been privileged to hear from a great teacher.
When a group of disciples shifts their focus from the person who kept the flame of the guru alive within himself to the memory of how wonderful that was, and dedicate themselves to sharing that memory with others, they have become the gravesite of the guru. With the best intentions, and the deepest delusions, they have helped kill off the spirit of whatever was true and valid in their teacher. And this is indeed a tragedy.
How often have we visited temples and shrines dedicated to departed preceptors and holy men? All that remained was a building, perhaps beautiful, perhaps in ruin, and maybe a sense of peacefulness, but nowhere was there anyone who could present the wisdom of the long gone glory days when the temple was built. At some a concessionaire might sell a few tracts, or a historian might sketch a few details, but the temples are really nothing more than statements that "The Guru was once here, but has gone elsewhere."
The art that we now have to practice is to embody the meaning of the teachings we have been given but not to stay stuck on the forms. Then alone will the Narayana Gurukula avoid the tendency to become a crypt and remain a living center of philosophy. We have the best examples of this already before us. Both Nataraja Guru and Nitya taught Narayana Guru's philosophy, but they also brought it to life within themselves. They gave it their personal stamp. They never thought of the Guru as having departed with his own truth, but as one who opened a door for anyone to walk through, forever. Their role was to share this with their contemporaries in the language of the times. When they spoke of their predecessors it was not with sentimental affection, but to make a point more clear by example. And they were very careful not to appear overly enthusiastic about the Guru with people who might not yet share their feelings.
It is truly hard for those of us who loved Guru Nitya to separate out all we learned from him as a personal experience from what we learned from him as training in universal values. In us they are inextricably mixed together, since his personal charisma affected us so deeply. And there is nothing wrong with gathering occasionally to reminisce about that wonderful, talented fellow we once knew. But those who never knew him will be put off rather than drawn to such reminiscences. They will most likely feel they are on the outside of a cult, and quickly move on. Speaking avidly about the particulars of a person will drive them away, whereas speaking of valuable ideas might pique their interest. It is very important we separate these two distinct elements, the universal and the personal, so that those who ask us, "Who was Narayana Guru? Nataraja Guru? Who was Nitya?" don't get merely a sentimental tale of everyday interactions, but receive a transcendental presentation of the meaning of three of the great teachers of the modern world. It won't do to just say they were great. It must be demonstrated by a living presentation of the excellence of their insights, by teachers who are not merely bowing to the past but alive to the present.

Scott Teitsworth

rsteitsworth(at)yahoo.com