When a Guru becomes greater than the God…

गुरु गोबिंद दोऊ खड़े, का के लागूं पाय।
बलिहारी गुरु आपणे, गोबिंद दियो मिलाय॥

In one of his popular couplets (dohe) Kabir wonders, “Both my guru and my god stand before me and I wonder who I should salute first” and answers his question with, “I salute my guru first as he was the one who showed me my god.”’

In the Indian tradition, we find that a guru is held higher up even above the almighty, as he is the one who leads his/her students towards the path of enlightenment. (In Sanskrit, the syllable ‘gu’ means darkness and the syllable ‘ru’ means to drive away).

God, Guru & Shishya and their magical relationship

There is an endearing story that illustrates the magical relation that exists between god, a guru and his disciple.

In the temple town of Thirumazhisai near the ancient Pallava city of Kanchi, lived an Alwar saint. The Alwar was an ardent devotee of Vishnu, who was the presiding deity at the local temple. Vishnu’s idol in the temple is in a reclining posture and the lord is seen lying on the coils of Shesh nag immersed in his Yoga nidra.

The Alwar had a disciple named Kanikannan, who was his most favourite. Kanikannan was as illustrious as his guru, and one day, he happened to see an old hunchback lady deeply engrossed in cleaning the temple. Impressed with the lady’s single-minded devotion, Kanikannan touched her back and lo! by magic, her bent back straightened out and she turned into a beautiful young lady that she had once been. Although deeply grateful for her physical transformation, she, however, decided to continue her life in the services of her lord, Vishnu, at the temple.

Hearing about the miracle performed by Kanikannan, the ageing king of Kanchi approached the disciple and requested that his youth too be restored so that he could indulge in worldly pleasures once again. Not surprisingly, Kanikannan refused to help saying that youth had no use for somebody who only wanted to indulge in the base pleasures of life. Angered by his response, the king ordered that Kanikannan be banished from his kingdom. Kanikannan was more than happy to comply with the order.

But what’s a guru without his pupil?

So, when the Alwar got to know about his shishya’s fate, he decided to follow suit and leave the kingdom as he didn’t want to be away from his favourite disciple. But, he also had deep love for the lord of the temple, whom he had tirelessly served for long. Not wanting to leave his lord behind, he commanded Vishnu to gather his serpentine mat (Shesha nag) that he was lying on and leave the city along with him.

And, what’s god without his devotee?

So, Vishnu implicitly obeyed the Alwar’s orders. Gathering Adisheshan’s coils, he set out along with the Alwar to leave Kanchi. Soon, the three of them – god, guru and shishya – left the city and reached its outskirts where they decided to halt for the night.

Meanwhile, the city of Kanchi descended into darkness and misfortune, as Lord Vishnu, when he vacated the temple, had taken his consort, Shree (Goddess Lakshmi who lived in his bosom), along with him. As a result, all the city’s riches and wealth took flight and the kingdom soon became derelict of prosperity.

Terrified by the turn of events, the Pallava king at once rushed to Lord Vishnu, who was camping on the city’s outskirts, to seek forgiveness and begged him to return to Kanchi. But the good lord replied that he had no choice in the matter and it was really up to his devotee, the Alwar to take a decision. Disappointed by the lord’s response, the king then approached the Alwar and requested him to return to the city along with the lord. But the Alwar threw up his hands saying that he had no say in the matter and if his disciple Kanikannan was willing to return to the city, he too would gladly do so. So, the king was left with no choice but to approach Kanikannan and seek forgiveness for his own thoughtless act.

Approached by the king himself, Kanikannan relented, and decided to forgive him and return to Kanchi. The guru, of course, did not want to be left behind without his disciple. So he too decided to return. Having decided thus, he commanded his dear god to once again fold up his serpentine bed and return to Kanchi along with him.  

The trio thus returned to the city of Kanchi, and so did Shree (prosperity) along with them!

If the Alwar was an exceptional guru truly devoted to his disciple, Cheethalai Chattanar, a Tamil poet, took his commitment to his pupils to a different level.

The guru who punished himself for his pupils’ mistakes

Cheethalai Chattanar was the poet who is believed to have composed ‘Manimekalai’, counted among the five great Tamil epics and also considered the sequel to Silappathikaaram, the epic story of Kannagi.

Folk lore has it that for every mistake his pupils made, Chattanar would punish himself by striking his head with the stylus that was used for writing on palm leaves. So his head was seen perennially bruised with pus and blood covering it. It is said that he derived his name from the punishment that he gave himself, ‘Chee’ meaning pus and ‘thalai’ meaning head in Tamil.

With time, Chattanar’s students, for fear of punishing their guru, began to learn their lessons diligently and perfectly!

Both Alwar and Chattanar were indeed extremely dedicated gurus who had an uncommon relationship with their disciples.

Here’s the story of two unlikely gurus – a devoted wife and a butcher who instructed a brahmin.

Two uncommon gurus

Our scriptures have always held that a guru is someone who opens one’s eyes to the truth, irrespective of who he or she is. So, it was not mandatory that a guru had to be a man or a Brahmin or anyone from the higher caste.

Here is the story of how a Brahmin sage acquired wisdom from a devoted wife and a virtuous, as told in the Vana Parva of the Mahabharata.

According to the story, one day, deep inside a forest, a Brahmin monk sat in deep meditation. Unfortunately for him, his deep deliberations were disturbed by a crane perched on the tree above him  that defiled his head with its droppings. In a fit of anger, he burnt the bird with his mere look, using his yogic powers.

Shortly after this, he came to a household begging for alms to feed himself.  But the lady of the household was busy attending to her sick husband and asked him to wait till she was free to give him alms. Heckled by being made to wait, the monk threatened the lady of the house to use his yogic powers against her. But the unperturbed lady shot back saying she was not a crane who could be burnt down by him and that he must learn to keep his composure. Hearing her response, the monk was shocked.

How had the lady come to know of the happenings inside the forest? The lady replied saying that she did no austerities like the monk, but had acquired the power to read his mind by simply doing her duty to her husband. Her unflinching and unwavering commitment to her duty vested her with miraculous powers.  

Her response humbled the monk who realized he had a lot more to learn in the world. The lady then directed him to an enlightened butcher, Dharma Vyadha, in Mithila who could instruct the monk on the aspect of dharma.

Surprised and initially unconvinced over what a lowly butcher could teach him, the monk nevertheless approached the butcher and asked him how he could have achieved enlightenment by doing such ‘filthy, ugly work’. To which, the butcher responded saying, “no duty was ugly or impure, but the manner in which the work was done decided its worth.”

The detailed discourse between the butcher and the monk is referred to as the Vyadha Gita and has valuable insights on swadharma (one’s duty), detached performance (nishkamya karma) and on virtuous conduct.  

For more stories from the epics, click the link below:

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