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Relevance of ancient Indian scriptures: The art of learning

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It’s good to interject sometimes with stories that are relevant to the topic, okay? This particular story is about this learned professor who goes to a great Zen teacher and introduces himself, “Sir, I’m so and so, and I am a learned professor. I have studied this, I have studied that and so on.” The he asks, “Can you please give me Zen; the experience of satori, the experience of illumination?” The Master says, “Sit down and have some tea.” The Master pours the tea into the cup, and he pours, and he pours, and he pours. The cup is soon full, and the tea begins to overflow on to the tablecloth. After a while, the professor cannot keep quiet, so he shouts, “Sir, the cup is overflowing.” Then, the Zen Master turns to the professor and says, “Your cup is overflowing, so how can I give you Zen?”

If the Master had taught him anything at all, it would have overflowed without filling because there was no space inside the professor for it to occupy. So, one requisite for understanding anything new is to have space; and ‘space’ means to set aside what you have learnt for the time being and say “OK, this is what I know about this but maybe there is something else coming. So, let me be free to learn and understand, let me be clear and empty to receive.”

Is the guru the most important? Or is the guru merely a teacher who is imparting you knowledge?


This kind of defines the word ‘Upa-ni-shad’. Bringing all the three syllables—‘Upa’, ‘ni’ and ‘shad’—together means the teacher and the student, or the speaker and the listener sit together with the intention of moving closer to the supreme truth. This is accomplished with complete humility on both sides and with complete intent to listen and understand, putting away all the obstacles to listening.

Now, we come to the question of the teacher, because there is so much. I am sure you know this. The innumerable gurus today; I am sure there were many gurus before, but there are also many today—so many of them that I usually get confused trying to figure out who is who. That’s a big list. Some teach yoga, some teach meditation, some teach Vedas, some teach—I don’t know what. So, what do the Upanishads think about the concept of guru? Is the guru all-important? Is the guru the most important? Or is the guru merely a teacher who is imparting you knowledge?

In this context, I will explain to you the way the word guru is handled in the Upanishads. I think, it was a later invention that the guru is the most important and whatever he says must be accepted on faith; that you cannot disobey the guru or you will go to hell and so on and so forth.

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