Guru Sold Separately

Guru included
Note: Let truth guide you, not us. Our humble disclaimer.

Indian education is pretty rigid by American standards. There are uniforms, lots of rote memorization, and a culture of undue deference to the teacher. The uniforms and deference squash independent thinking and the joy of learning. The memorization just wastes everybody’s time. A deeper critique is left for others, like the handful of Indians unschooling their children.

I blame the gurukul system for the rigidity.

I love the gurukul system, which basically stresses passing down knowledge directly from teacher to student in an unbroken line. Those who have knowledge guide those who do not, and in the process any misconceptions are quickly nipped in the bud. But I also blame the gurukul system for India’s current educational morass. The system, embedded deeply in the minds of Indians, disenfranchises the learner and creates a strict hierarchy of knowledge.

I’m an educational cowboy, so I frequently butt against this deference to guru and scripture.

Questioning is baked into my DNA as a self-directed learner who didn’t go to school, both because there were no teachers who claimed authority and because questioning the school system got me wondering what else should be questioned. Challenging and verifying truth myself, no matter the source, has always been my modus operandi.

This is perfectly aligned with Vedanta in theory. Vedanta fundamentally empowers each person to question and find truth wherever it may be found, taking nothing on faith. If a group of unschoolers got together and made a religion, it would be Vedanta.

But then there is the gurukul system and India’s rigid hierarchies of knowledge. The guru is always right, and we must defer to our teachers. Truth can be challenged, but only by those who are saints. The deepest knowledge came from men who experimented and questioned, but now we defer to their scriptures as the final word. What a let-down.

Or so it seems if you visit India and embrace its religious traditions in toto—if you become an Indian Vedantin.

The trick is separating truth from culture and individual need. Whenever we encounter an idea, we must tease out its essential truth and ignore the cultural and individual elements that also are a part of the idea. Truth is only useful if it can be applied, and the application of truth requires wrapping it in a layer of culture, which in turn is wrapped in the specifications best suited for the person using the knowledge. This process of wrapping the general in the specific is great for making truth useful, but it sucks for passing truth from person to person, culture to culture, age to age.

Truth gets muddied, littered with cultural and personal artifacts.

Vedanta partially avoids this challenge by anticipating the issue. It separates knowledge into that which is general and that which is specific. Teachings about the fire ceremony nobody needs anymore go in one book, generalized teachings about profound truths go in the other. Vedanta basically is the series of teachings that focus on the generalized, profound truths.

Divorcing ourselves from culture and our own particular needs is pretty hard, though, kinda like true objectivity. Which leads us back to my struggles with scriptural authority and the gurukul system.

The gurukul system and its legacy of rigidity is part of the Indian cultural experience. But I am not. Vedanta is not, even though it came from India; as truth wrapped in the thinnest possible cultural artifact, it stands above the cultural experience of its creators. There are more ways to reach God than those taught in India, although ironically that is apostate to many Vedantins here in the Subcontinent.

Standing apart from the gurukul system while living at the monastery and learning from Indian wise men is a challenge. Only the wisest here will accept the process of me taking apart every idea, filtering out the Indian culture and personal outlook of the teacher, then reclothing it in American garb. The spiritual practice sounds a little different when it has become American. The very process with which I find truth is different—there’s lots of do-it-yourself self-directed learning and only a touch of guru or scriptural authority in my ways.

But the truth is sound. I keep telling myself that fact every time I get nervous. Take the idea, remove the culture and the individual’s imprint, and what’s left is truth. It is a process that has stood me in good stead and enabled me to learn from and accept even the most alien of cultures. This is the skeptical American’s way of finding truth, and it is valid.

But not everybody is comfortable with my methods. I understand this. Culture is in play again, American culture as well as my particular culture as an unschooler.

So for those who would rather have scriptural authority on this matter, not self-discovered knowledge, I give a verse from one of Vedanta’s holy books, the Katha Upanishad:

This Self cannot be known through much study, nor through the intellect, nor through much hearing. It can be known through the Self alone that the aspirant prays to; this Self of that seeker reveals Its true nature.

In other words: “The meaning is that to a desireless man who seeks for the Self alone [God], the Self becomes known of Its own accord,” writes renowned 8th century Vedantin über-scholar, Shankaracharya.

This of course doesn’t matter as much as the truth it represents. But sometimes it is good to keep a little scriptural authority in your back pocket. Just in case.

1 Comment

  1. by Mae

    On February 6, 2012

    You are right: separating truth from culture is hard. In real life, rather than the ideal, I would even dare to say it’s impossible to truly ever separate truth from culture, because not matter how hard we try we cannot escape the cultural lens through which we see the world. To me, that cultural lens takes the form of context; I cannot make sense of something, at least initially, without connecting it with other things. Humans are connecting creatures; we understand the world by connecting the known with the unknown. I’m not sure it is possible to truly escape that.

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