Strictly speaking, the guru is not directly responsible for bringing about the realization of truth in a disciple. The knowledge arises from within. This is often referred to as sadguru (literally “a good teacher”). The real Self is prior to the idea “I am” which is the beginning of all of the apparent manifestation. As the levels of mistaken understanding are whittled away, this truth is able to reach out, as it were, and clear away the final barrier of the ego itself. The Yoga Vasishtha says:
Self-knowledge or knowledge of truth is not had by resorting to a guru (preceptor) nor by the study of scripture, nor by good works: it is attained only by means of enquiry inspired by the company of wise and holy men. One’s inner light alone is the means, naught else. When this inner light is kept alive, it is not affected by the darkness of inertia. (Ref. 38)
John Wheeler makes this point even more strongly:
There is no teacher outside and independent of us who “has the understanding,” has awakened, is enlightened or what have you. This kind of assumption leads to mistaken beliefs that just cloud the simplicity of what is being pointed to. There are a couple of problems with this way of thinking. First, the idea that teacher “so-and-so” is realized has the implicit assumption for most of us that “therefore, I am not.” Thus the belief in the sense of separation from our own presence is subtly strengthened. Second, talking about teachers who have it (or not) re info rces a belief that what is being pointed to is outside of ourselves - again emphasizing a sense of separation. Third, the teachers being discussed are usually not in our immediate environment and we are simply spinning in conceptual thought about people that are figments in imagination in that moment. Even if there were such a being as an enlightened teacher, if you approached them, the most you would find is a physical form composed of matter, chemicals and cells - which are just transient appearances in awareness. So the whole notion of beings who are awake or have the understanding is a complete fiction when looked at head on…
At best, a teacher is simply a sign post that can point back to what is real and present within you. There is no enlightened sign post. There is only the fact of being-awareness itself. As soon as we begin to talk about others who have it or not, we overlook the fact that it is fully present and shining as our own real nature here and now. (Ref. 270)
There is a story in the Yoga Vasishtha that explains how it can be that a guru is needed yet is not actually the cause of the enlightenment (if it should arise) in the end. It concerns a miser who loses a small coin whilst he is walking in the forest. Worried that the loss of this will incur further losses through inability to invest it, he spends three days searching for it. He fails to find it but, instead, finds a jewel. Clearly it was the miserliness of the man and his determination to recover this small coin that led to his finding something truly valuable. In the same way, it is said that the disciple, having been instructed by the guru, spends all his time searching for something. He thinks that the search is for something for himself – peace of mind, meaning in his life or whatever. But he fails to find this. Instead, if he perseveres, he finds something of much greater value – his true Self. This cannot be found directly as the result of anyone’s teaching. Nevertheless, had it not been for the guidance of the guru, he would not have continued looking.
Alexander Smit († 2000) warns about the dangers of pursuing a path such as Advaita without the guidance of a guru, by simply reading:
The objection to books about Advaita, including the translations of Nisargadatta’s words is that too much knowledge is given in them. That is an objection. People can use this knowledge, and especially the knowledge at the highest level to defend and maintain their self-consciousness. That makes my work more difficult. Knowledge, spiritual knowledge, can when there is no living master, be used again to maintain the “I,” the self-consciousness. The mind is tricky, cunning. And I speak out of my own experience! Because Advaita Vedanta, without a good living spiritual master, I repeat, a good one, can become a perfect self contained defence mechanism. It can be a plastic sack that leaks on all sides, but you can't find the leak. You know that it doesn’t tally, but it looks as if it does tally. That is the danger in Vedanta. Provided there is a good living master available, it can do no harm. But stay away from it if there is no master available! Provided it is well guided Advaita can be brilliant. (Ref. 267)
There are many teachers of Advaita in the west today – over 200 are listed in Appendix D, with links to their websites – and many more in India . But there are few well-known ones of the stature of Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj or Atmananda Krishna Menon. And it is certainly the case that many seekers are not actually interested in Self-realization as it is understood by Advaita. Rather, they are concerned with finding peace in their lives, minimizing psychological stress and so on. Vamadeva Shastri (David Frawley) points out that:
Only great disciples can have great gurus. Ordinary disciples, such as most of us are, require ordinary gurus. Today, good disciples are harder to find than those who claim to be great gurus. We want instant enlightenment, preferably without having to do any practices or give anything up. We want both God and the world, enlightenment and all the good things of life. This causes us to select teachers who tell us what we want to hear. (Ref. 268)
The traditional guru-disciple relationship involves total surrender on the part of the latter and this is not something that can be accepted by most westerners. The casual basis of satsang attendance means that there is not usually any commitment on the part of either so that the fundamental basis of the association is lacking. Even the idea of “guru” has negative connotations, being linked with cults and malpractice.
Alan Jacobs , former chairman of the Ramana Maharshi Foundation in London , who has vast experience of many teachers through hosting their visits, has this to say:
The Contemporary Teachers often adapt their teaching to psychotherapy to meet their audiences’ demands, as they earn their livelihoods by itinerant teaching wherever an audience may be found. They marginalize Self Enquiry, as being too difficult, or ignore it. At the best it is given in an attenuated form. They do however, succeed in undermining the sense of personal doership and teach “surrender” by sleight of hand through terms such as welcoming, embracing, being ok, accepting “what is” etc. These terms strip the teaching of its necessary Devotional implications such as are felt as “God “or the “Real Self. Devotion is essential to open the Heart. Intellectual understanding alone is arid and leads nowhere except as a precursor to necessary sAdhana. To imply “all is only consciousness so do whatever you like,” is a truncation of the Maharshi’s great Teachings. The injunction to give up spiritual practice is dangerous, as it allows the vAsanA-s full permission to indulge, and leads to a dead-end of Hedonism, or at best a parking space until the next “satsang fix.” There is no Grace without effort. One either wants an illusory but comfortable self-calming quietness, or one wants Enlightenment. (Ref. 269)
The psychological bias is understandable. I already know that I exist (sat) and I know that I am conscious (chit) so that what is lacking is the realization that I am happy. We are searching for happiness outside of ourselves in the belief that we are lacking this. We look to the guru for help. Anything that he or she can do to assist will be seen as successful. In fact, the true function of the guru is to bring us to the realization that our own nature is happiness. We are already perfect and complete.
There is more on this subject in the last chapter, comparing Teaching Methods.