The guru-shishya tradition, so typical and exemplary of Indian culture, seems to be slowly dying out in modern India. However, there are some people who try hard to keep this tradition alive. This is especially seen in the field of music and dance. All singers and dancers express pride in being shishyas of great teachers. They always owe their success to these great gurus.
Sensational singer Padmashree Hariharan says he is a fervent believer of the guru mantra and the guru-shishya tradition.
What is the secret behind this talent and success?
“Guru Mantra,” says Hariharan straightaway. “It is a philosophy of life that one learns from one’s guru, not just a talent or practice. For me, it has become a way of life.”
“The guru-shishya tradition is centered on the transmission of teachings from a guru to a shishya, which roughly equates to the western term “disciple”. The principle of this relationship is that knowledge, especially subtle or advanced knowledge, is best conveyed through a strong human relationship based on ideals of the student’s respect, commitment, devotion and obedience, and on personal instruction by which the student eventually masters the knowledge that the guru embodies.”
Hariharan bathes in the fact that he has been blessed by two gurus — both different in their ways, thoughts about life as well as teachings. That’s why maybe he is a master of fusion music, making him a versatile artist. A ghazal singer, playback singer and one of the pioneers of Indian fusion music.
The son of renowned Carnatic vocalists Shrimati Alamelu and the late H A S Mani, Hariharan inherited his parents’ talents. He wholeheartedly devotes himself to his first guru – his mother.
He says, “My mother taught me Carnatic music, the foundation and the basics. That embedded music in me in the first place.”
Hariharan’s instructions later in the true guru-shishya tradition came in his relationship with Padmabhushan Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan, where he developed a passion for ghazals and started training in Hindustani music. The committed Hariharan also put his heart and soul into learning Urdu when he decided to become a ghazal singer.
“Yes, I definitely put a lot of effort into learning Urdu and it was my deep passion for ghazals that motivated me to dedicate myself to this language. My guru mantra changes for each performance, stage event and song. The formula varies from song to song as I put unique improvisations and methodology into each song.”
Hariharan perfected his Urdu diction to such standards that even his audiences in Lucknow, the heartland of the language, have been impressed.
The guru-shishya relationship is sacred. In the words of Buddha, “The pupil is also to act as a check, as it were, upon the preceptor, in keeping him steadfast in the faith.”
Drawing from ancient scriptures, Swami Vivekananda also talks of “education” as manifestation of the potential divinity in man, which, he also adds, is unique in each individual. It is the job of a guru to bring out the uniqueness in each disciple.
The bond is deeper and personal, says Hariharan, in regard to today’s new generation shishyas. “It is imperative for India’s educational institutions to start foreseeing a future in which talent imprisoned in the educational institutions breaks forth to enjoy the world beyond the classrooms, under the able guidance of the Guru, who can be more of a mentor. This return, as it were, to the guru-shishya tradition will empower the individual to develop special skills that do not come under the stamp of “regular” qualifications and achievements.”
In 1996, Hariharan and Leslie Lewis formed a band called the Colonial Cousins. They were the only Asian band to perform in the MTV Unplugged show. In 1998, Hariharan won the national award for best male playback singer. All these are true examples of how both his gurus have implanted vibrant talents in their shishya in unique and diverse ways.
However, Hariharan laments the decline of such a precious bonding in the modern world. “Today, the social and commercial environment with thousands of students, probably does not allow the Guru or the disciple to attain such a relationship. It has subscribed to the common belief that success in the classroom or the acquisition of fame or money or a complex skill can be achieved by plain repetition or by reinforcement of identical patterns of response. The learner’s need for an atmosphere of freedom and self-reliance in the learning process and his psychological growth is completely sidelined.”
A guru is the best judge of the disciple, owing to the close relationship that they share. So, a guru can select a mantra from the millions of mantras in Sanskrit texts, which will help in the development of the disciple.
One bright aspect of the Indian culture is its tradition of the soul kinship between a guru and shishya. It is through this tradition that India once had risen to the level of Jagatguru [Teacher of the World]. This tradition also led to the birth of Upanishads. Upanishad = Upa + Nishad, means to sit near and to listen, to absorb. An attentive disciple listened to the teachings and experiences of his spiritual master, assimilated them and then recorded them systematically in the form of scriptures called Upanishads.
Every year on the occasion of Guru Purnima, this tradition is revisited and the ideals are revived, in the belief that it has kept alive the essence of the Indian spiritual quest, that is, the sacred relationship between the two souls [one enlightened and the other seeking enlightenment] and the oath to achieve the ultimate goal of life is clear.
Gurukuls were the universities or centres of learning in olden times, where the guru would teach his disciples in a disciplined and harmonious atmosphere. The disciple or shishya would acquire knowledge on all fields of learning such as geography, mathematics, physics, music, dance and even horse-riding and archery. Those who are familiar with the Mahabharata would understand this concept. And all these fields would be dealt with by the same guru. It is thus evident that the depth of the relationship shared by the guru and shishya was closer than even imaginable today.