Gurus sakshat param brahma tasmai Sri gurave namah
As an Indian, this is probably one of the most oft-repeated chants of our childhood and youth. It is not so much a reflection of our religious values as it is that of the cultural values of our ancient civilization. For Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara in this context signify the creation of good in us, its preservation, and the destruction of the evil tendencies respectively. The enablers of these are the gurus, and thus they have always been accorded a status on par with the Gods or even higher as is said in the other well-known Samskrit statement, Mata Pita Guru Daivam (meaning, Mother, Father, Guru and God, in that order of importance).
We are the civilization that gave the world the unique and amazing concept of gurukula, which has enabled us to preserve the best of our religion, culture, philosophy, spirituality, science and arts for hundreds of centuries. Gurus of various subjects have housed disciples for as long as it took, and imparted their knowledge with great care and passion, astutely gauging the ability of each disciple to absorb and preserve the imparted knowledge. Disciples were treated like the guru’s own children. In exchange, the disciples adopted the guru’s household as their own and pitched in the household by performing various chores. By being in the presence of the guru, a disciple not only had the opportunity to learn the nuances of the subject but also see how a guru often exemplified the knowledge he taught or put it to use in the real world. The flow of knowledge was not restricted by time, place or any other considerations. The guru also had the freedom to impose the necessary discipline it required of a student to learn the given subject, while at the same time build a lasting and meaningful bond with him. After all, the bond that is created in the process of sharing knowledge goes way deeper than that engendered by any other relationship. A guru not merely touches the disciple at the intellectual, emotional, cultural, and spiritual levels, but often gives a part of his very core. The selflessness of this act is probably why the guru sthana (position) acquires this level of sanctity.
We love to lament that Indians did not document anything properly, but have we considered that this is applicable only to our more recent history and achievements, and is not true of ancient India? Equally significant is that what Indians in general have considered worth documenting is quite different from say, what the Western world might. For example, Indians have almost never documented the lives of individuals, except perhaps in the cases of the characters in our great epics! Thanks to the uninterrupted and sincere exchange of knowledge between gurus and shishyas, we have however managed to preserve many subjects in their truest forms. For example, we have preserved the Veda-s and other musical chants through the strongest possible oral traditions with not a single syllable out of place, things that need written documentation through manuscripts, and visual arts through their own appropriate methods. How did gurus manage to instill such disciplined learning habits among disciples for several hundred generations but also a zeal to preserve these bodies of knowledge intact, and take them further with their own thought and creativity? These are some of the truly marvelous and remarkable things about the guru-shishya parampara, and worth pondering over even in our times.
Despite many changes in society, the gurukula tradition managed to exist in performing arts until quite recently in a very visible manner. Thanks to part-time, institutionalized and other modern means of learning, this system of learning has almost ceased to exist in the last few decades. In the rare instance that it makes its appearance, it compels documentation as a novel experience!
How does the disappearance of this great system of learning affect our arts today? For starters, are we losing out on the knowledge base? Can a lifetime of hard acquired knowledge, intuition and experience be transmitted in a part-time learning system? Can any one student (I prefer this term for part-time learners in the modern setting) hope to learn a sizeable chunk of this knowledge with accuracy and depth? Can a guru pass on only the subject matter or also the deeply embedded values and wisdom therein? Can a guru teach a student to relish the subject and experience the beauty of its myriad dimensions? Can a guru show by example how to deal with the various challenges that one has to necessarily face in the pursuit of anything for a lifetime? Will a guru be able to establish a meaningful bond with the student such that he carries that precious part of the guru and thereby the golden link to the past with him always? Does the exchange of knowledge for money change the dynamics of the relationship from a sacred and close one to a business dealing in subtle and not-so-subtle ways? Will all this lead to the eventual erosion of the biggest pride of our civilization - our artistic and cultural heritage - within the next few decades?
As we grapple with the fast changing world, our own constantly changing lifestyles and the sudden downpour of modern technology in our midst, the ground realities become clearer - that our knowledge and heritage have to be preserved and transmitted with the clever and sensible use of modern technology. While technology can never replace a holistic and beautifully personalized system of learning like the gurukula, it can provide quick tools that prevent the complete loss of knowledge and wisdom that man-kind has acquired over millions of years.
In the transmission of artistic knowledge, we have a slew of aids today such as recording devices, printed and digital material, CDs, DVDs, web-based programs such as Skype and Facetime that enable classes, and so on. These have come to stay no matter how much one may protest or ignore them! While gurus and students must constantly remind themselves that these are merely aids and not substitutes for face-to-face learning with full attention, responsibility and reverence, it is also time to remember that without these, the scattered diaspora of Indians within India and the rest of the world will have no other way of reconnecting with the best of their roots, or successfully spreading our culture and bringing more people into the fold. How much farther will gurus and students go to make use of technology and recapture the spirit and completeness of the older method of education? Only time will tell!