Like many Westerners, when I was first confronted with the Eastern tradition of paying tribute to the guru, I looked at it with misgivings. I was grateful to those who shared their wisdom with me, but the elaborate annual ritual of appreciation just didn’t sit well. Eventually, however, I came to understand that Guru Purnima is primarily an expression of gratitude for the teachings of the Vedas and tangentially pays tribute to all of the teachers who hand down this wisdom to subsequent generations. Ten years later, I still chant the 14-stanza mantra, known to me only as gurustotram (“in praise of the guru”), and I never cease to be grateful to all of those who have helped me understand why I am here and how best to proceed. I have taken certain liberties with the translation, for which I beg the scholars’ indulgence.
Guru Purnima is primarily an expression of gratitude.
1. akhandamandalakaram vyaptam yena caracaram
tatpadam darshitam yena tasmai shrigurave namah
To the one who revealed to me what is to be known, That which takes the form of the entire universe, pervading all that moves and doesn’t move, I express my gratitude.
How excited I was when the teacher, at whose feet I sat, unfolded the vision that is Vedanta with a story: A king, it seemed, was in a particularly generous mood one day and called for a chest which was filled with treasures made of gold. He then invited those who were assembled to take an item as a gift. Finally, noticing one person who hadn’t come forward, the king repeated his invitation. “Thank you, Your Majesty,” came the reply. “I shall take you.” For me, this story cut to the quick: I must see beyond the apparent, beyond the objects of my senses and intellect, to the real—That because of which, and in which, all else has its being.
2. ajnanatimirandhasya jnananjanashalakaya
cakshurunmilitam yena tasmai shrigurave namah
To the one who opened my eyes, previously blinded by the darkness of ignorance, with the sword anointed with self-knowledge, I express my gratitude.
The word “guru” means “remover of ignorance.” Therefore, whoever or whatever enables us to understand what is, as it is, is our guru. First, the mind has to be open; only then can we hope to see for ourselves what is to be seen. Often, it is another person who says or does something that makes us open our eyes, if only to the fact that our eyes have been closed! However, one who is steeped in self-knowledge is able to speed up this process in a more profound and all-encompassing way. I count myself most fortunate to have met and learned from such people.
3. gururbrahma gururvishnuh gururdevo maheshvarah
gurureva param brahma tasmai shrigurave namah
I pay tribute to the Creator-Sustainer-Destroyer as teacher, to That in which these have their being.
As grateful as I am to those who have fueled my self-inquiry, I can only surrender my personal self to That which, by definition, is nameless, without attributes and, therefore, indescribable. This distinction needs to be made, I think, if we are not to distract ourselves from the ultimate task at hand. And, yes, I can now bend my head, and even bow down, before all of my teachers in gratitude.
4. sthavaram jangamam vyaptam yatkincitsacaracaram
tatpadam darshitam yena tasmai shrigurave namah
To the one who revealed to me what is to be known, That which permeates all that moves and doesn’t move, all that is sentient and insentient, I express my gratitude.
That which pervades all things, in the broadest sense of the term, needs to be at least acknowledged, call it what you will. When it is not, arrogance and disrespect for nature follow. How gratifying to discover people who acknowledge and accept that which cannot be grasped by the intellect! Just as the eye cannot see itself, so too the intellect has its own realm of vision beyond which it does not and cannot function. In that beyond, however, intuitive wisdom and intelligence prevail.
That which pervades all things, in the broadest sense of the term, needs to be at least acknowledged, call it what you will.
5. cinmayam vyapi yatsarvam trailokyam sacaracaram
tatpadam darshitam yena tasmai shrigurave namah
To the one who revealed That which is to be known, That which is pure awareness and pervades all three worlds made up of the sentient and insentient, I express my gratitude.
To recognize myself as a simple, aware person, first and foremost, is one of the most effective stress reducers I have come across. From here, I can begin to grasp that, ultimately, there is only awareness. This realization has had an enormous impact on my physical and mental health, making it possible for me to relate to people and situations in much more wholesome and helpful ways.
vedantambujasuryo yah tasmai shrigurave namah
To the one who unfolded the wisdom, known as the Vedic crown jewel, enabling it to blossom forth as the lotus petals open to the sun, I express my gratitude.
Just as the light of the sun removes the darkness of night, and flower petals unfold to the light, I too reach toward the wisdom available to all humanity. Surely this is the greatest gift a person can be given. Equally valuable is the distinction the teaching makes between the real gems in life and the fake.
7. caitanyah shashvatah shantah vyomatito niranjanah
bindunada-kalatitah tasmai shrigurave namah
To the one who revealed that our essence is pure awareness, perpetual pure peace, beyond time and space, beyond the vibrational and seed stages of existence, I express my gratitude.
Once I began to reflect on pure awareness as the essence of what I am, I understood that everyone and everything—including time, space, thought, and feeling—arise out of and fall back into this fundamental awareness, just as all sound rises out of and falls back into silence. This realization freed me to pursue the human potential within us all in ways that no belief system devised by the human mind could possibly do. How blessed I am to have had the way pointed out to me by those who knew that I must then inquire into the nature of reality for myself.
8. jnanashaktisamarudhah tattvamalavibhushitah
bhuktimuktipradata ca tasmai shrigurave namah
To the one who is well grounded in the wisdom that is our ultimate strength, who is adorned with the garland of Truth and bestows the joy of liberation, I express my gratitude.
Only those who aspire to and delight in the Truth can function as a true guru for us as we make our way from ignorance to a more enlightened understanding.
The teachers who appeared for me did not tell me “what” to think; instead, they suggested that I listen with an open mind and heart, then think over what was said and discuss my doubts and questions with them. They understood that true power resides in a clear mind, able and willing to think for itself, regardless of who else thinks what. Only those who aspire to and delight in the Truth can function as a true guru for us as we make our way from ignorance to a more enlightened understanding.
atmajnanapradanena tasmai shrigurave namah
To the one who pointed the way to the self-knowledge that burns away the chains of innumerable births and their accumulated causes and effects, I express my gratitude.
Karma is a word much bandied about these days. However, thanks to the patient unfolding of the more serious aspects of this universal law, by those who have considered the matter deeply, I now happily engage in a life that is far less likely to accumulate unnecessary psychological baggage. My purpose is much clearer—to continue peeling away the layers of ignorance that inhibit understanding. I don’t know if I’ve lived countless lives, and I accept not knowing. All that I need to do is to live with awareness, moment to moment, and what I need to know will surely be revealed.
10. shoshanam bhavasindhosca jnapanam sarasampadah
guroh padodakam samyak tasmai shrigurave namah
To the one who exudes the vision of the Upanishads, from whom flows the perennial wisdom that dries up the ocean of mundane existence, and who reveals the essence of all wealth, I express my gratitude.
11. na guroradhikam tattvam na guroradhikam tapah
tattvajnanatparam nasti tasmai shrigurave namah
Because there is no knowledge more valuable than the ultimate Truth, no pursuit more purifying than seeking the Truth, I express my gratitude to the one who points me to It.
12. mannathah shrijagannathah madguruh shrijagadguruh
madatma sarvabhutatma tasmai shrigurave namah
To the one who reveals to me that the essence of the universe is the essence in me and in all beings, I express my gratitude.
I count myself most fortunate to have had teachers who are established in the wisdom available to humanity. This, in the midst of a world that seems to prefer flying in the face of its own intelligence, is a great blessing. The contrast makes it very clear to me where true joy and wealth reside. For this, I am very thankful.
13. gururadiranadishca guruh paramadaivatam
guroh parataram nasti tasmai shrigurave namah
I bow down to You, the beginning and the beginningless, the Ultimate without equal, the One without a second.
Just as the ocean’s waves are all water, the teaching, the teacher, and the student are essentially the Source.
Here we see most clearly that the praise of a teacher is actually in praise of the Source of the teaching between which there is no real difference. Just as the ocean’s waves are all water, the teaching, the teacher, and the student are essentially the Source, no matter how separate or limited we may take ourselves to be.
14. tvameva mata ca pita tvameva tvameva bandhushca sakha tvameva
tvameva vidya dravinam tvameva tvameva sarvam mama devadeva
You are my mother, father, relative, and friend. You are all wisdom and wealth. You are indeed my All.
This closing verse resonated with me from the moment I first heard it. Because I sense that, as a human being, I am a child of the universe no more or less than the moon and stars, the words wash over me like a breath of fresh air. Essentially, however, we are also That from which we come. How can I not honor those who helped me see these ever-so-crucial facts?
Beverley Viljakainen is a grassroots health care advocate and shiatsu therapist who shares her knowledge of yoga with those who are finding their way back to health.