Though gurus have been an integral part of the ancient Hindu tradition, the celebration of a specific day purnima in their honour in the month of Ashadha has its roots in Buddhism and Jainism. Gurus no doubt got respectful mentions in the Rig Veda (hymn 4.5.6) and in the Upanishads (chapter 4.4 of the Chhandogya) and in chapter 3 of the Taittiriya or in chapter 6 of the Shvetashvatara. Even so, there was no mandate under ‘Hinduism’ to set aside any particular date for guru-worship. Ashramas or pathshalas were the ‘boarding schools’ usually for the entire period of a student’s childhood and early youth, i.e the brahmacharyya phase.
There is no evidence of any fixed date or month on which the student joined – and the only criterion was that they had to be Brahmans. There were, of course, some gurus like Dronacharya, who taught specific skills to other select upper-caste boys from Kshatriya families such as the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The sheer caste bias of education in ancient India is best exemplified by the story of Eklavya, a tribal youth, who had to chop off his right thumb for mastering mastered archery, which was considered ‘illicit’ as he did not belong to the upper caste.
Buddhists, however, considered Guru Purnima the beginning of the season of Varsha, or Vassa as it is called in Pali, when monks, both young and old, had to leave human habitations and seek refuge in distant caves and monasteries. Popularly known as the ‘rains retreat’, this full moon was the definitive day for the monsoons to have reached all parts of India, even though the coastal areas surely receive their rains much earlier. This small but significant practice indicates that the entire subcontinent followed certain common protocols and that there was a definite recognition of the ‘idea of one India’. It also speaks of the principles of ‘adjustment’ and ‘accommodation’ that united far-flung people, separated by vastly differing agro-climatic zones. Where Buddhism and Jainism were concerned, some of the courses were open to other devotees who were interested in pursuing religious studies or select scholastic disciplines or were just keen to meditate.
In a manner of speaking, Guru Purnima marked the beginning of the mandatory 36-week ‘trimester courses’ under the guidance of Buddhist experts. Contemporary Jainism also began their Chaturmaas or four-month period of piety, which some strict Jains continue even today. Jains believe that it was on this very purnima that Tirthankara Mahavira ordained Gautama Swami of Gandhara as his first discipline. There is an equally strong Buddhist belief that a month after receiving his ‘enlightenment’, Buddha delivered his first sermon – called the Dhamma-Cakkappavattana Sutta – to his five former companions on the full moon day of Ashadh at Sarnath and that he spent the first four-month Vassa at Mulagandhakuti. The Sinhalese Buddhists still practise Vas or ‘rains retreat’ though their calendar is adjusted to their monsoons, while the Thais call the period from July to October as Phansa and observe it rather religiously. Other Theravada Buddhists like the Burmese also observe Vassa, and Mahayana Buddhists like the Vietnamese Thiens and the Korean Seons fix themselves to one location, just as the Tibetans are supposed to.
Hindus have been rather adept in adapting the best practices of the other two better-organised religions. After all, these two monastic religions had the benefit of subsided, resident intellectuals – to debate regularly on sacred texts and on social issues. Hinduism was less organised as a religion and lacked a proper definitive structure before Shankaracharya and other great acharyas arrived more than a millennium later. The story of Vyasa Muni came in much later, along with the Guru Gita, a 216-verse ode to gurus. We also have Adi Shankara’s Upadeshas, but historians date it to almost a millennium and a half after Buddha and Mahavira. Other texts that glorify Guru Purnima, like the Varaha Purana, seem to have come even later. But even if Hinduism caught up later, there is enough evidence that Guru Purnima as a festival was in vogue at least three centuries before the arrival of the Christian or present era.
Monastic Buddhism and Jainism realised that it was best that non-producing classes and peripatetic monks stay away from unnecessarily venturing into wet, snake-infested fields and forests during monsoons. The four months of Shravana, Bhadrapada, Ashvina and Kartika could even be trimmed to three months depending on the regional character of the rains and local needs.
The gurus also required economic sustenance for their very existence; the emphasis on the practice of daana or gifts was, therefore, essential. Notably, the Bhakti movement, which was at its peak in north India between the 14th and the 16th centuries, was also led by gurus of all castes. The gurus helped in endearing popular ‘non-Brahmanical’ Hinduism to the masses, and this also led to reinforcing Guru Purnima as a universal festival.
Another utility of the gurukul system was that it nurtured music and dance to a degree that no other educational arrangement could ever achieve. There is no doubt that for almost eight centuries, the differences between Hinduism and Islam were narrowed down as far as dance and music were concerned. Sufi silsilas in India followed systems akin to gurukuls, and their khanqahs, where teachers (Murshids or Sheikhs) taught generations of Mureeds in theology and culture, were often better-organised than gurukuls and less personalised structures. In culture, as distinct from education, the term Ustad is usually the Muslim counterpart of the Hindu Guru or Pandit. This guru-shishya tradition was really instrumental in sustaining and nourishing our musical and performing art traditions – through the vagaries of political and social upheavals. The democratisation of culture that took place in the 20th century after the patronage of nawabs and kings ceased could also never have been achieved without the highly personalised system of gurukuls. It is, therefore, not surprising that while educational institutions have switched to ‘Teachers’ Day’ to honour the teaching community, Guru Purnima is celebrated with greater enthusiasm in gurukuls.
We need to understand the real India that is personified by these gurukuls when on Guru Purnima no difference is made between Muslim Ustads and Hindu Pandits. Both are deeply revered and respected with equal sincerity by their students, who consider them as almost divine.
Another interesting fact to note in the context of gurus is that Indian history is replete with examples of how rakshasas and asuras have periodically disturbed the tapovanas and gurukuls of sages and their students, prompting brave Arya-putras to kill them and, of course, expand their civilisation. Why they needed to court danger is not the point; what is fascinating is how the indigenous people were systematically dominated through such conflicts that usually resulted in the victory of so-called Aryandom. Without gurus and sages venturing deeper into unknown terrains, the kshetras of Sanskritic way of life could not replace the vana-based cultures, in such a determined manner, over several centuries and millennia.
Jawhar Sircar retired from the Indian Administrative Service as Union culture secretary.