Saturday, August 15, 2009

Guru - Dispeller of Darkness

During a recent conversation with a yoga teacher, the question of Guru, Swami and Rishi arose. What are the historical differences between each title?

Today, during another conversation with a different teacher, the topic of the selection process in choosing a teacher, guru, swami, etc. came up. What do you think? For instance, if a guru has traditionally been considered a "dispeller of darkness," what associations cast a light upon otherwise dark corners of one's psyche? What are the benefits of becoming a devotee? Is this notion more prevalent in the East than the West? Why?


  1. Or think of it another way, the need for the darkness: Rilke once wrote, "If my devils are to leave me I am afraid my angels will take flight as well." In another metaphor, my former (late) printmaking professor, a printmaking devotee of guru Lasansky, he a Hayter disciple, was once asked how he got his blacks so black. (Printmakers are notorious for black ink recipes.) He, in his serene Zen-like manner, explained that the black was black in contrast to the white of the paper; the contrast, the balance, as in life itself. We need the darkness. It is who we are.
    The other given here that I question is that anyone else can dispel another's darkness. That gives too much authority and power to someone else, relieving us (to varying degrees) of our personal responsibility. A "devotee" as you write instead of a fellow traveler. A more egalitarian approach is how I would prefer to live it. We are all students, we are all teachers. Maybe we are just arguing semantics. Teacher, mentor vs. guru/ swami? Or am I understanding Western definitions and imagining something incorrect in Eastern terminology?

  2. Again and again, we are discouraged against, if not warned about, the hazards of mental Dualism. So much so, that we would probably be well served to devote an entire blog to the subject.

    Through the elimination of Dualistic thinking, we may enjoy greater freedom to intellectually explore, in the words of my first teacher, "one to an infinite number of options" in analyzing and interpreting the world around us. Do we learn by contrasting phenomenon? Of course. Yet, we can learn by comparison, too. Regardless, we need to be cautious regarding absolute dualism, by practicing relative dualism. That is, by seeing similarities and differences when thinksing critically (analytically) about the world around, and within, us.

  3. I'm not clear on this -- contrast and comparison are synonyms in my analogies. Dualistic thinking means being open to other viewpoints, acceptance of paradox (and living with ambiguity) -- is that correct? the opposite of closed mind, authoritarianism, my way or the highway approach?

  4. Good questions.

    I tend to think of contrast as a negative comparison - how are things different rather than similar. Perhaps that is an idiosyncratic notion of the two words. Nevertheless, I agree that they, for the most part, are synonymous.

    As for Dualism, I think what the Indian culture is warning us against is a binary approach to thinking. It is too restrictive. The wisdom teachings have encouraged us to move beyond the "bicameral" ideologies that lead to unresolved battles like the one depicted in the Bhagavad Gita. I have grown to believe that we can aspire to greater existential heights. In other words, there is more to life than classifications, such as good/bad, right/wrong, win/lose...

  5. We would not feel joy as deeply if we never know sorrow. (The beauty of the black ink would not be as rich without the white of the paper, to reuse my earlier metaphor) so contrast is real and necessary. To quote the great poet Wallace Stevens: " Death is the mother of beauty."

    Yes, there is more to life than classifications but we think, define, discuss and write using language. Good/bad, etc. leaves out nuance, the gray areas so yes, that logic, in the most simple of terms, is too restrictive, though we seem to agree that it's far more complex than that.