Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Fundamentals of the Bhakti Tradition
in Hinduism

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by Professor V. Krishnamurthy

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Part VI: Guru

Part I Part II Part III Part IV Part V

The inner meaning of every verse of the PAdukA-Sahasram has something to do with the glory of the Guru. In fact the PAdukA of the Divine is equated to the Guru or AchArya. The Grace of the Guru is considered to be more powerful than the Grace of the Lord Himself. We realise that even if we surrender to God we are not able to ingratiate ourselves into the Lord's favour. A Guru actually pleads for us with the Lord on our behalf. In fact there is a saying: 'Shive rushte gurus-trAtA, gurau rushte na kaScana' meaning, 'When the Lord is angered the Guru becomes the saviour but when the Guru is angered, nobody can save.' We need the Guru for this role of his.

Indeed the Guru�s Grace can give us a double benefit. It can give us what we want as well as take us towards the Lord. Scriptures declare the analogy of the dream state to our real waking state. Just as all dream-experience is only a passing show from the point of view of one's waking state, so also the waking state itself, according to the scriptures, is a passing show from the absolute standpoint. But this declaration does not carry conviction with us because most of us have never had the experience of that absolute standpoint. On the other hand we do understand that the dream-state is not absolutely real because we do have the experience of the waking state of awareness. Nobody is able to tell us - or has to tell us - from within the dream that the dream experience is unreal. The beauty of the Guru-concept and the greatness of the Guru stem from the fact that a Guru does exactly this for us in respect of our waking state. From the absolute standpoint this waking state itself is dream-like. He, being a jIvan-mukta (liberated, even while living), knows this as a fact of experience. He is not only a jIvan-mukta who is in that absolute state of awareness all the time but he can also descend to our level of the ordinary mundane worldly �waking state� and tell us from within our �world-dream� that this world is a dream and we must wake up to Reality from this �dream� of ours.

Guru is the one who thus destroys the ignorance of the disciple. He may do it by actual teaching, he may do it by just a blessing, or he may do it by a spiritual fiat. That is why in the 30 verses of Bhaja-Govindam, Shankara ends up by referring to the power of the lotus feet of the Guru to take us upward in the ladder of evolution. 'Guru-charaNAmbuja-nirbhara-bhaktaH' goes the verse. Remember, the Guru himself is the divine feet of God, and it is his divine feet that are praised now, in strict conformity with tradition � as we saw earlier in the case of the story of Ambarisha � namely, the devotee of the Lord is more significant than the Lord Himself. The Guru stands for certain principles of behaviour as well as of wisdom. He not only stands for them but also stands on them, in the sense that the greatness of the Guru goes back to the values of life for which he lived and preached all his life. So the sandals or the feet on which he stands represent the values for which he stood! Therefore the devotion to those feet and to those sandals of the divine Guru, will certainly confer on one the strength to respect and reverberate the same values. The Lord�s �held foot� is the ideal for us to cling close to his ideals and values.

No history of the evolution of Hindu bhakti tradition would be complete without mentioning the 75 Gems of Spirituality most of whom came from the Tamil country. These are the 12 Vaishnava Alvars and the 63 Saiva Nayanmars. They were all apostles of God-intoxication. The last of them lived in the ninth century CE. For all these, religion was a poignant human experience of togetherness with either Lord Vishnu (in the first case) or Lord Shiva (in the second case). Some of them were superlatively gifted singers as well. They have left behind them an imperishable legacy of devotional poetry rarely parallelled in quantity or quality before or after. They revered the Vedic texts, knew the principal Puranas, avocated the recitation of God�s varied names, strongly recommended meditation on his different forms and the mantras associated with Him and literally lived by worshipping Him in the temples all over the land of the Tamils. They give expression to the purest love of God and are most reverently recited in all Hindu temples that have a Tamil origin and by all Tamil Hindu families who believe in worship as an important daily routine.

In addition, the literary value of all this poetry is great, as is shown by the fact that this massive collection of 20,000 verses (4,000 Vaishnava hymns and 16,000 Saiva hymns) outweighs all other literature produced during this period, so much that historians of Tamil literature have taken the liberty of designating this period (6th to 10th century CE) the age of Devotional Literature. In addition to the attractive poetry that this literature contains, the content, which is at the same time impassioned and philosophical, cuts across all barriers of caste and class, and therefore attracts one and all to the faith. This bhakti literature has in no small measure contributed to the establishment and sustenance of a culture that broke away from the ritual-oriented Vedic and elitistic religion and transformed it into a religion of the masses rooted in devotion as the only path for salvation. This resurgence of bhakti came in such a massive way that it may be compared to the Renaissance of the sixteenth century in Europe. It challenged the orthodoxy in its strongest sphere, namely the cognitive, by demystifying the myths associated with the rigidities of the caste system, domination of priestly hierarchy and mindless proliferation of rituals.

While north India produced saints who wrote poetry and sang devotional music like Mirabai, Kabir and Surdas, they were not immortalised in art or worshipped in temples. Saints of the Western world are frequently portrayed in art, but their presence in churches and cathedrals does not seem to be universal. By contrast, icons of these 12 Vaishnava and 63 Saiva south Indian saints were invariably commissioned by the Vishnu and Shiva temples respectively. They were placed in prominent positions and were accorded ritual worship. To this day these saints remain a living tradition. Their images are carried in processions during festivals along with the main deities of the temples. Sometimes there are festivals exclusively for them. Their hymns are chanted in homes and at a variety of ceremonial gatherings including secular performances of dance and music.

Part VII

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012