Who’s your guru?

Who’s your guru? June 27, 2011

In my last post I wrote that nothing is all that different about life as a Hindu. But that’s not entirely true. Yes, I have early morning devotions (I read some where that devotions at sunrise were customary). At their core they are not all that different from what I’ve done in the past. There a few other minor things that are different. My altar is different. I don’t let my son touch anything on the altar if he hasn’t washed his face and hands (low level purification standards, but very taxing for a three year old).

One outward thing that has changed is my diet. I’ve been wrestling with whether or not to adopt a vegetarian diet while practicing Hinduism. I have given up eating beef, as the cow is sacred. The cow is a giver of life, providing milk for its young and for humans. As a nursing mother, I can relate! I feel like honoring the cow is honoring the work I am currently doing as a mother of an infant. But what of other forms of meat? And what about other dietary restrictions?

I’ve read that vegetarianism varies in India depending on location and culture. But all the literature I’ve read insists that a yogi/ni or serious spiritual practitioner cannot eat meat and expect to progress on the path to enlightenment. Various Ayurvedic sites suggest giving up this or that (like garlic and onions) according to whether a person is one dosha type or another (vatta, kapha, pitha). Alcohol is often considered a no-no. Some sources for tantra yoga say that meat and wine are acceptable in ritual meals. What’s more confusing is that some gurus expect this and other don’t. But I don’t have a guru. After all, as a friend pointed out last week, this is my own ashram. Therefore, I am my own guru.

That’s an interesting point. Many years ago I used to joke that I was going to baptize myself. Now I’m building my own ashram. Oh Niki, forever doing it on your own! And yet – if I am not my own guru, if I don’t internalize and take ownership of my own spiritual core, no external guru’s wisdom will ever take root within.

But how do I find a guru? In Wales? There is a Hare Krishna community nearby, and while I hope to check it out in the next few months, I have no desire to be dedicated to Krishna. I’m more of a Shakta I’m discovering. Do I really need a guru?

Until recently I didn’t realize that yoga, and many paths of Hinduism, was an initiatory tradition. The guru passes his or her ‘spiritual energy’ to the practitioner through touch, a glance, a word, and sometimes even via distance. This is known as shaktipat. I think most Western yoga enthusiasts just think we follow our favorite yoga teacher to retreats and that’s that. Without the ‘activation’ of a guru, mantras, even Om, are worthless. Reading online I found a couple of discussion boards with people suggesting that we just need to cultivate the guru within. I have several thoughts about this.

Firstly, I think this is true. We do need to cultivate our inner guru. Off the top of my head I can think of many qualities that I would like a guru to have: discernment, brutal honesty, patience, humor, skill, knowledge, wisdom, love and that…. that intangible something that when you meet a wise person you walk away thinking ‘Wow! I want what they’ve got!’ Those are all qualities I’d like to develop in myself.

Secondly, I think a guru is important for beginners. Being our own guru is advanced work. I liken it to writing music: you can’t break the tonal rules if you don’t know what they are! If ‘rules’ is too much of an authoritarian word for you (it is for me), then thinking of the guru as a trusted, honored guide may help. We want some one who has traveled the path, can alert us to possible pitfalls and obstacles, help us through those troubling spots and share the wisdom of the journey.

Thirdly, gurus are a big part of the greater Hindu tradition. This highlights my previous questions: do I need a guru (yes) and where do I find one (I have no idea). Since I’m only doing this for three months it seems a little silly to hunt one down. Many traditions, yoga included, have some form of the aphorism ‘when the student is ready the teacher will appear.’ Perhaps I shall find a guide for my journey this summer. Perhaps I won’t. But I do know that one would be welcome and helpful.

For the time being I shall continue to develop my own inner guru. And I’ll also go vegetarian. I think to fall back on the ‘some gurus don’t require it’ is lazy, and I’m already struggling with laziness in other ways. I admit I don’t want to be vegetarian. I’ve been veggie before, but I don’t wanna be one now, I pout. So until a guru tells me otherwise vegetarian I will be.

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