The Theosophical
Society in Australia

With International Headquarters at Adyar, Chennai, India.

Masters and Gurus

Magazine Article: The Theosophist, October 1982

Theosophical literature speaks about the unfolding of consciousness through the evolution of forms and organisms. When the form is primitive, unorganized and crude in its response to the environment, consciousness is unable to manifest fully through it. As the form evolves, its ability to respond increases. There is greater sensitivity in the sense organs, the nervous system and the brain. Thus better organization of form enables the consciousness to reveal itself more fully.

Man, as he is today, is not the end of the process of evolution. Theosophical writing declares that there is further unfoldment before him. Truth, wisdom, love, bliss, peace and goodness are inherent in consciousness. In the Upanishads, Brahman is described as absolute universal consciousness, perfect in peace, beauty and the other powers mentioned above. In the Adept or Master, these virtues, which are of the very nature of consciousness, have flowered into perfection as his consciousness has blossomed fully in perfect measure, revealing powers as yet latent in the average man. So the Adept is one who is perfect in wisdom, compassion, love and selfless purity. Purity means the total absence of the sense of a separate self. Perfect love implies no choosing, not giving love in return for something else.

It is said that when a man is perfected, he is no longer under compulsion to reincarnate, for he has transcended Karma. It is attachment, selfishness—they are the same—which draws one into birth. Because there is the desire for experience, for stimulation from outside, the ordinary man is caught in the wheel of rebirth. But the Adept who is pure and free from attachment because there is no self in him is under no such necessity. But out of compassion he may remain in touch with the human world. We may say, why does not the Adept meet us? If we invite him to a convention, will he come? But he may not act according to our ideas or in any way that we may imagine. However, when there are people who are ready, the Adept affords opportunities for contacts, guidance, and teaching.

The word ‘Guru’, like many other words, can mean different things to different people. It is said to denote someone who dispels darkness. But often people think the Guru is one who imparts knowledge. Knowledge which is mundane—the lesser knowledge—can be imparted; not so spiritual knowledge. No subjective, inner experience can be borrowed from another. The Vivekachudamani makes it clear that one cannot have a substitute to perform the actions which will bring bodha or awakening in oneself. The awakening has to take place in each individual as a result of his own preparation and work. But very often people think that they do not have to do anything; they have only to attach themselves to a so-called Guru, touch his feet or sit in front of him and then he will take over the responsibility. This is a very convenient philosophy, for it allows people to go on with their worldly life of ambition, jealousy, money-seeking, desire for power and so on.

Because so many people find this way to their taste, there are others ready to play the complementary role. So there are pretenders who call themselves Gurus, who will give a feeling of security to those who ask for it. Turn your thoughts to me, says the self-styled Guru, and you will be protected from all trouble. If you want to indulge in pleasure–it does not matter what kind—go ahead and enjoy yourself, but turn the beads of the mala with my photograph on it and wear the uniform that I prescribe for you. The real Guru, on the other hand, is a true dispeller of the darkness in a person’s mind and consciousness; he will not offer diversions or take away his sense of responsibility for his own actions. One of the ‘Three Truths’ of Theosophy is that ‘Each man is his own absolute law-giver, the dispenser of glory or gloom to himself; the decreer of his life, his reward, his punishment.’

It has been made clear by the Adepts what conditions must be fulfilled in order to receive their instruction, help and guidance. In The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett we are told that only a person’s evolving spirituality can draw him near to the Masters—can ‘force’ their attention—and that wisdom comes only to the one who applies himself to the ‘daily conquest of the self’. He must approach the Masters unconditionally, free from worldly and prudential considerations. But we do not want to go unconditionally. We want to keep our comforts, pleasures and ambitions and, at the same time, reach the world of the Holy Ones.

The Adept, according to Theosophy, never imposes his will on his disciple. He does not tell him what he must believe, because believing has no meaning. He wants the disciple’s consciousness to awaken to the truth, which is something different. There are millions of people who believe that Jesus and the Buddha taught love. But they themselves have no love. Indeed, belief creates rigidity and fanaticism and is productive of harm, not good. In The Mahatma Letters, the Masters point out that religion is too often used as a crutch; but they want people to be self-reliant and free.

One of the greatest of Masters, the Lord Buddha, said, ‘Be a lamp unto yourself.’ He taught: do not make an authority out of tradition, the scriptures, other people, or me; find out for yourself what is the truth. The importance of enquiry (vichara) is emphasized also in Vedanta.

In At the Feet of the Master it is said that one must listen carefully to what the Master says for ‘He does not speak twice.’ The lecturer on a platform may repeat his ideas, because he wants to make his audience agree with him and think as he does. An advertisement is repeated again and again in order to condition the reader’s mind. But the Adept does not try to impose his ideas; he does not want conformity or blind obedience. He gives a hint, makes a suggestion, in order to help the person’s intelligence to grow. If the student has learned to think for himself, if he has listened carefully, he finds out for himself what is the implication of a statement. If somebody else tells him what to think and believe, he does not touch the depths of the teaching.

The average Guru directs people what to do, what to think, what dress to wear. There are Gurus who like personal worship, who like their feet to be washed, who like being attended upon. There are some who claim to be greater even than the Buddha Himself. On the other hand, the letters of the Masters reflect the humility and the anonymity in which they prefer to remain. Real teachers indulge in no self-publicity or self-glorification because there is no self in them.

So, there is a difference between those who are usually considered Gurus and the Masters as they are described in Theosophical literature. Personal worship, self-glorification, telling other people what to do, making them dependent, teaching them beliefs, imposing ideas on them, collecting money and becoming rich, having swimming-pools and private aeroplanes—all this is accepted as part of present-day Gurudom but it is entirely incompatible with being a true spiritual Teacher or Master.

Ramana Maharshi said once that the real teacher does not consider himself to be a teacher. The teacher sees no difference between others and himself; he does not make a division between the taught and the teacher.

It may be asked what should be the attitude of a member towards Gurus. There is freedom for the individual within the Theosophical Society to be wise or foolish! If he wants to make himself the disciple of a Guru, he is at liberty to do so. But it is a different matter for a Lodge of the Society, for a Lodge is a representative in its neighbourhood of the Theosophical Society as a whole and therefore it cannot have absolute freedom. If it gives itself over to a personality cult, if it proclaims or accepts somebody as the Guru and encourages personal worship, it is certainly not acting in accordance with the character and aims of the Society.

Another question is: Can a Guru give one an experience of Reality? Obviously not. A Guru cannot make another see what his eyes are not capable of seeing; no true Guru will pretend to do it or want to do it.

But a wise man can be helpful if one is receptive. It has been said that when the gods want to punish man, they listen to his prayers. Most people’s wants are foolish. A person may want a Guru to do something for him but it may not be to his spiritual benefit. Trouble comes to us, and we generally would like to be free from it. But everything that comes as a result of Karma brings a lesson with it. Therefore, Annie Besant said, looking back on her past, that while she would willingly let go of the pleasant things, she would not wish to forego any one of the difficulties she had had because she had learned so much from them.

A spiritual man may not, therefore, give the sort of help that a person might wish for. His way of helping might be from a completely different point of view.

J. Krishnamurti pointed to something important when he asked why we think that only the Guru can help? Everything in life can help—the people around us, the leaf that falls from the tree, the beauty that is everywhere—everything can help us if we are sensitive and receptive. Our receptivity must be equal to the Guru’s desire to teach. Einstein’s physics cannot be grasped by a man who is totally ignorant of mathematics. Even the greatest of musicians cannot teach a person who is too lazy to learn. One who plumbs the depths of what a teacher says (which may not be conveyed verbally at all), must be receptive. And it is not possible to be insensitive to life in general and receptive to the Guru alone. Either a man has receptivity or he does not. Again and again those who are not receptive have abused the spiritual teacher; they do not listen to his words; they reject him because they do not recognize him; they crucify a Christ.

How many of us would be able to recognize a truly holy person were he to appear in our midst without a label? Labels may be false. To recognize a holy man, there must be something within us which vibrates in harmony with him; there must be the capacity to respond. If this is lacking, how can we profit from a teacher? A Guru cannot help the man who is not ready to be helped, and it is only when the disciple is ready that the teacher appears. ‘You must light the soul, in order that the teacher may see it.’

Radha Burnier was the International President of the Theosophical Society, Adyar, from 1980 to 2013. She held a M.A. degree in Sanskrit from the Benares Hindu University, lectured extensively worldwide and was the author of a number of books, including Human Regeneration and No Other Path to Go.

Image Attribution: Hindi manuscript "Yogi" Wellcome Collection


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