Last night, Steve and I finished the second DVD of the set, Raga Unveiled, on the Indian art music form, raga. Much of this part of the film was about the guru/shishya relationship.
It’s a difficult concept to grasp for those of us in the West, where learning is highly structured, formalized, and regulated. “Total surrender to the guru” is a suspicious phrase for us. Heck, so is the word “guru.”
“Guru” has common usage in English now, usually with vaguely comic overtones, as in this headline from The Globe: “U.S. investment guru says silver a good bet.” Basically, it seems to be used as “a knowledgable specialist who hands out advice in a pompous way.”
I encounter this definition occasionally when I describe Tim as my guru. I use the word in defiance of the English definition (one of the privileges of being a poet) because “he’s my yoga teacher” doesn’t quite cover it. I’ve learned a lot about how to live my life from Tim; yoga asanas are just one part of the whole.
Our ears perked up in the film when the raga masters began describing how improvisation happens in the context of the guru/shishya relationship, and what that means to parampara (often translated as “lineage”).
There are three stages of learning in the transmission of knowledge. In the beginning, the shisha devotes all his/her energy to imitation. The guru must be able to demonstrate, and the student works to replicate exactly the guru’s style.
In the second stage, the student must be able to face a new situation, and be able to answer the question, “What would the guru do here?” They didn’t say this in the film, but I think of this as the stage where knowledge becomes internalized. Being able to perform tasks with not just by rote execution–how–but with true understanding–why. It’s a stage where ownership of the knowledge begins to transfer from teacher to student.
In the third stage, once the student has full understanding of the form, improvisation can take place. One vocalists described it as a lifetime of learning the rules so you can bend or break them. This is how innovation happens, and how new forms emerge.
My mind went immediately to the relationship between Pattabhi Jois and Krishnamacharya. But also to the talks at the 2012 and ’13 Confluences by six senior teachers, to the way they described the guru. They lived with him. They did exactly what he told them to do. Did they learn exactly the way Krishnamacharya taught Pattabhi Jois? No. Do they now teach exactly the way Guruji taught them? No. They learned the form, came to understanding, and now, in a new situation, with new students, each of them innovated. And they innovated in ways that suited the students. To put it in musical terms, Tim’s raga is not the same as Richard’s or Nancy’s, but it’s still raga.
More importantly, it would not be an experience of parampara for me if the student-turned-guru (in my case, Tim Miller) did not innovate in his execution of that knowledge. Exact imitation is only the first stage of learning.
One of the characteristics of a guru in Raga Unveiled is his/her ability to change the method of teaching to suit the student. It’s very clear to me that Guruji taught his small classes by carefully adapting his methods to each of them. They in turn adapt to suit the students they encounter. In this way, the practice of Ashtanga remains a living, breathing tradition.
Posted by Bobbie