By Satyaraja Dasa
The Srîmad-Bhågavatam introduces us to teachers we might expect, and to a few we might not.
Having written about gurus in the last issue, ending with an analysis of how the five material elements can act as one’s guru, I would like to elucidate the remaining nineteen of the traditional twenty-four gurus mentioned in the Srimad-Bhagavatam.
The list of gurus given there is revealed by one King Yadu. The king knew a young renunciant, or avadhuta, who had given up all possessions and worldly responsibilities and had no fixed dwelling. Yadu observed that this unique young man, even though renounced, seemed filled peace and joy. And so Yadu asked him how this was so: “Why are you so happy despite having almost nothing?” The avadhuta responded by enumerating certain truths he had learned from things and people around him, which he called his gurus.
The Moon: After the five material elements, the avadhuta’s sixth guru was the moon. The moon goes through various phases during its monthly cycle, but its fullness or darkness at the beginning or end of each fortnight is deceptive-the moon itself remains unchanged. Similarly, each of us is a spiritual being that essentially remains unchanged, despite the various permutations of the body.
The Sun: The sun evaporates large quantities of water with its potent rays and later releases the water to the earth as rain. The sun thus provides a lesson in detachment: We should not needlessly accumulate wealth but should use it to spread Krishna consciousness.
Another lesson is that the sun is never divided or distorted even though its reflections in many objects make it appear so. Similarly, the soul is unaffected by the various bodies it shines through.
The Pigeon: The avadhuta next spoke of his eighth guru: a pigeon. After building a nest in a tree, the pigeon lived there with his mate for some years. The hearts of the two pigeons were bound together in every way. Naively trusting in the future, as lovers do, they enjoyed their lives as a couple, expecting many years together.
Eventually, the female pigeon became pregnant, and soon her nest filled with eggs. The two pigeons shared their love with their children, taking great pleasure in listening to their chirping. All was good.
Then one day the parents went out to find food for the children. During their absence, a hunter saw the little nest with the baby birds, spread his net over them, and captured them all.
When the adult pigeons returned, the distraught mother cried piteously and rushed toward her offspring. Her judgment compromised by grief, she became trapped as well.
Seeing the plight of his children and wife, who were as dear to him as life itself, the father pigeon lamented without control. The pain was so intense that he lost all will to live. Bewildered by the sight of his family struggling in the net to survive, he lost consciousness and fell into the hunter’s grasp.
The avadhuta concludes from this story that too much material attachment leads to delusion and suffering. Life in this world is full of risk, and one’s attainments will surely come to an end, for even the greatest of material pleasures-love, family, and so on-are temporary and limited, and a spiritual practitioner must constantly be aware of this.
The Python: The ninth guru was the python, which lies quietly for long periods without food. It does not search desperately, like other animals in the wild, but rather waits for its prey to come within range. If nothing appears, it can tolerate hunger. In a similar way, said the avadhuta, we must be able to tolerate inconveniences without being disturbed, focusing our mind and attention on the Supreme.
The Ocean: The ocean teaches us that one should not be disturbed by the thoughts and desires that consistently plague the mind. In the rainy season, rivers enter the ocean without raising its level. And in the dry season the ocean’s level is not diminished. Similarly, a self-realized sage should remain balanced in all circumstances.
The Moth: The avadhuta observed that just as an alluring light draws a moth to meet its death, so do sense objects attract living beings to degradation and destruction.
The Honeybee: The bee goes from flower to flower, taking just a sample of what each has to offer. However, if the bee becomes greedy, enjoying too much honey, it risks being trapped when the sun sets and the flower’s petals close.
Material life teaches a similar lesson. Sense gratification is like salt: Too much or too little spoils a food preparation. One must learn the art of taking just enough, and spending the balance of time for life’s real purpose: self-realization.
The Elephant: The male elephant is defeated by his own desire. In India, wild male elephants were typically captured by using she-elephants to lure them into a hidden pit. The lesson here is that a renunciant influenced by attraction to the opposite sex will fall into the deep well of material life.
The Honey Gatherer: Although bees work hard to produce honey, someone may come and take it all. The lesson here is that renunciants are entitled to live by the hard-earned wealth of householders.
The Deer: Hunters sometimes play a flute or other musical instrument to attract and then kill a deer. Learning from this example, a person on the spiritual path should avoid mundane songs or gossip, which will distract one from the goal and lead to spiritual death.
The Fish: The fish sees the bait but not the hook. Of all the senses, the avadhuta tells us, the tongue is the most difficult to control, even tempting someone who has overcome the pull of the other senses. Therefore, Vaishnava texts recommend controlling the tongue by chanting God’s names and eating only prasada, food first offered to Krishna in sacrifice. In this way one can avoid the fate of the fish.
The Prostitute Pingala: Next comes the story of Pingala, the avadhuta’s seventeenth guru. She is distinct among the Bhagavatam’s twenty-four teachers in that she teaches with words rather than mere example.
Pingala lived in the ancient city of Videha, where she would stand in front of her house watching men as they passed by. Her motive: to determine whether they were prospective clients or not. “Does this fellow have money? That one looks wealthy. Will he be able to pay me?”
One night she found herself without a single customer and gradually lost hope that anyone would want her services. Morose and forlorn, she wondered, “How will I pay my bills? What if I’m no longer desirable and this dry spell continues for many days?”
All of a sudden, despite her anxiety she realized she was actually okay with the lack of business. She realized she was beginning to feel detachment, freedom, and even joy. Finally, she broke out into song. The lyrics, as conveyed in the Bhagavatam, reveal the foolishness of prostitution, of sex desire, of the bodily concept of life. She sang of the temporary nature of material pleasure, of how she could now see all this, and of how she was finally privy to the mercy of the Lord.
The Hawk: The avadhuta then told the story of the hawk, or kurara. One day, a flock of hawks went in search of food, and one fortunate hawk caught a mouse. The other hawks were not so lucky, and so they flew after the first one, hoping to usurp his prize. When he saw what was happening, he dropped his prey to fly off and save his own life. In so doing, even though losing his food, he felt surprisingly peaceful. “Accumulation of material things leads to misery,” said the avadhuta. “One who knows this becomes akinchana -someone with the deep realization that nothing is truly his, for everything belongs to God.”
The Innocent Child: The avadhuta said that like a child, he was free to wander the earth free of worry about wife, home, children, and so on. He could live the life of the soul and find love on the spiritual platform.
The Marriageable Daughter: A girl of marriageable age also played the role of a guru. One day, when she was home alone, several suitors came knocking at her door, making their intentions known. Since no one else was there, she herself had to greet them. Although she invited them in, she rushed off into the kitchen to prepare a meal for them. While there, her wrist bangles clanged loudly as she moved the pots and pans. Not wanting to disturb her guests or have them think she was a low-class woman who must cook for herself, she gradually removed her bangles one by one, leaving only one pair on each wrist. Nonetheless, when she cut vegetables, the bangles still made a harsh sound, so she slipped another off each wrist, leaving only one.
The avadhuta concluded that it is best to live alone. Spending too much time with crowds can distract one from spiritual life, and even one associate can still cause a disturbance. Those serious about the spiritual path, he concluded, live alone, or they live with others who are also serious about the path.
The Arrow Maker: The avadhuta once observed an arrow maker who was so absorbed in his work of sharpening arrows that he did not notice a parade passing byhis workshop, even though it included a great king and much pomp and celebration. He was too focused to even raise his head. Similarly, says the avadhuta, a yogi should be so absorbed in the Self that he does not care for anything else going on around him.
The Snake: Here again we learn the importance of living alone, without any fixed home or dependence on anyone. The avadhuta said that snakes are happy to slither in and out of any residence without attachment. Spiritual practitioners should come and go with the same sense of detachment.
The Spider: The spider emits thread from its own body, creating a complex web, and then it draws the thread back into itself. Similarly, God creates the universe out of His own being, and when the work of creation is complete, He draws it back into Himself. Here the twenty-third guru teaches us something about the nature of God rather than about how we should live in the world, but the spider is also an example of detachment for us.
The Wasp: Once, a wasp trapped an insect in its lair. Out of intense fear, the insect took on the mentality of a wasp-for it could think only of its captor and nothing else-and thus it became a wasp in its next life. This teaches us that we attain our future births according to what we fix our minds upon.
Why These Twenty-four?
After enumerating his list of twenty-four gurus, the avadhuta affirmed that he had another guru not previously mentioned, one that allowed him to learn from all the rest. That guru was his own body. “After many, many births and deaths,” he said, “one achieves the rare human form of life, which, although temporary, affords one the opportunity to attain the highest perfection. Thus a sober human being should quickly endeavor for the ultimate perfection of life as long as his body, which is always subject to death, has not fallen down and died. After all, sense gratification is available even in the most abominable species of life, whereas Krishna consciousness is possible only for a human being.” (11.9.29)
After reading about the material elements, natural phenomena, and people that constitute these teachers, you might ask, “Why these twenty-four?” The answer is that these specific twenty-four gurus are examples of how an enlightened soul might see the world around him. The avadhuta came across these spiritual masters, but there can certainly be others. In fact, anyone or anything can serve as a guru if one sees legitimate spiritual lessons in them, under the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master.
The avadhuta concludes his discourse thus: “Although the Absolute Truth is one without a second, the sages have described Him in many different ways. Therefore one may not be able to acquire very firm or complete knowledge from one spiritual master.” (11.9.31)
This is not to say that one must have more than one guru. Indeed, the scriptures declare that a practitioner should have only one initiating guru, even if he may have any number of instructing gurus. That being said, the initiating and instructing gurus are one in purpose. And, further, as we have seen, one may accept certain gurus in nature and from every aspect of life-but all are meant to bring us to the same conclusions, not different ones. They are all meant to bring us to proper Vaishnava siddhanta, to ultimate reality.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, in his commentary on text 11.8.2, clarifies the matter further: “We can learn from the manifestations of nature,” he writes, ” when we see them as manifestations of the spiritual master. [Italics added.] Nature is the creation of the Supreme Soul, who, through it, teaches us lessons about ultimate truth. In fact, only one who sees the guru in all things can truly function as a guru himself.”
Another important point to be drawn from the avadhuta’s teaching is the role that reason plays in our spiritual life, at both the beginning and the end. As the avadhuta himself said: “My dear King, with my intelligence I have taken shelter of many spiritual masters. Having gained transcendental understanding from them, I now wander about the earth in a liberated condition.” (11.7.32)
In the end, the Bhagavatam asks all its readers to become liberated as well, by pursuing spiritual life in earnest under a qualified teacher.