Q.349 – Guru’s grace

Q: Do you have any comments on the concept of “guru’s grace” or ‘shaktipat guru’; the idea that some teachers are able to ‘induce’ experience in seekers or ‘transmit’ knowledge or ‘spiritual power’? Numerous reports of this sort of thing abound in the literature, and I myself have experienced something along these lines many years ago from a “mystical teacher” I followed for a couple of years in 1978-1980. I wonder what is actually going on in this sort of incident. Is it just 100% psychology at work, pure self-deception? Such “transmission” experiences can often be the seed or catalyst which spurs further effort on the path. There are so many examples of an aspirant “feeling something” in the presence of a teacher or guru that it seems inappropriate to just dismiss such claims outright.

A (Ted): It is true that some teachers can “induce” experiences in seekers.  The teacher’s ability to do this might be called a “spiritual” power in the sense that is seems both extraordinary – i.e. something most people can’t do – and mystical – i.e. beyond the normal range of mundane or worldly occurrences. The qualitative effect of this energy transmission on the seeker might, as well, be referred to as “spiritual power” in the sense that it powers up one’s mind-body-sense complex – most specifically the subtle body – in the same way that an influx of warm air heats up a room or the blare of dance music livens up a party.

 Mystical and magical as shaktipat, the transmission of “spiritual energy” or the “descent of grace” seems to be, it is fundamentally a phenomenon that is rather commonplace and familiar to all.  It is no secret that energy affects energy, that, for instance, weather conditions affect one’s body or that the mood of someone with whom one is interacting affects one’s own. Indeed, it is for this reason that most – if not all – spiritual traditions advise one to be mindful of the company one keeps, both in terms of one’s own thoughts as well as other people.

 In this sense, examples of shaktipat abound in popular culture.  Sex symbols such as Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Madonna, and Marilyn Monroe incited thousands of fans with emotional reactions ranging from attraction to admiration to unalloyed lust. Power mongers such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung as well as peace warriors such as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela ignited in their countrymen intense feelings of respect, loyalty, and purpose. Spiritual titans such as Jesus, the Pope, the Buddha, and Ammachi are said to bestow blessings upon, invoke transcendental experiences in, and inspire the unwavering faith of countless devotees.

 In more ordinary terms, if you have ever fallen in love, been motivated by someone who believed in you, or had your hurt feelings soothed by a friend, then you have essentially experienced shaktipat.

The shaktipat we speak of in terms of spiritual awakening seems different from these mundane forms of energy transference because it can, depending on its degree of intensity, induce extraordinary experiences, uncommon insights, and/or a sense of expansion that reaches beyond the boundaries of one’s conditioned notions of time and space. As awe-inspiring, powerful, mind-blowing, or beautiful as these epiphanies may be, however, they are essentially no different than any other experience in terms of substance and shelf-life.  In other words, they are nothing more that apparent objects that arise, abide, and subside in awareness. They are transient and temporary, ephemeral and impermanent.  In short, they do not last.

 More significant is the fact that experience itself does not transmit knowledge. Though it can be said that experience is the container of knowledge, most often in the case of spiritual epiphanies one is so entirely overwhelmed by the experience itself that one is rendered incapable of analyzing or inquiring into it as it is happening and so fails to glean the knowledge it has to offer. Furthermore, most often the mind of the one having the experience is still riddled with ignorance concerning its true nature and would, therefore, be incapable of correctly interpreting the experience anyway.

 The bottom line, in light of what has been said, is quite simply the basic fact that no teacher can transmit enlightenment.

 But if the teacher is not transmitting enlightenment, then what exactly is going on, and – perhaps more to the point – how is what’s going on happening?

 The phenomenon of shaktipat involves three essential factors: 1) the teacher’s reservoir of “spiritual” energy, 2) the student’s expectation and/or readiness, and 3) the “group mind” that surrounds the event.

 One’s reservoir of “spiritual” energy – i.e. the amount and quality of the spiritual power one has at one’s disposal – can be cultivated by means of tapas. In the Vedas, tapas refers to both the “inner heat” created by the practice of physical and mental austerities and the ascetic practice itself that is voluntarily carried out to achieve spiritual power or purification. The practice of tapas is intended as a yogic discipline through which one can purify the body in preparation for more exacting spiritual practices that lead to moksha or liberation. But tapas can, as well, be used as a means of developing siddhis or special esoteric powers. There is both external tapas, such as fasting, restricting the intake of food, holding difficult and sometimes painful bodily postures, meditating, and living in seclusion, and internal tapas, such as contemplation, confession, and repentance of sins. Essentially, the practice of tapas calls upon one to conserve one’s energy by harnessing it, so to speak, through physical and mental discipline and refusing its dissipation through any outward expression. Over time, one essentially becomes a highly-charged “spiritual battery” that can energize any instrument – or person as it were – to whatever degree such is capable of conducting that energy. If a teacher has done a great deal of intense tapas during his or her sadhana or spiritual practice through which he or she has accumulated a ready supply of subtle energy, then he or she can, to a greater or lesser degree, infuse others with that energy and give them a glimpse or experience of their own expansive nature at will.

 The student’s own degree of “spiritual readiness” also plays a role in this transmission. Depending upon the level of purity one has cultivated either through spiritual practices undertaken during one’s present lifetime or in previous lifetimes, one will be more or less able to conduct the teacher’s charge and, thus, will have experiences characterized by a greater or lesser degree of intensity, expansiveness, and lucidity. Moreover, one’s expectation indubitably affects one’s experience. Though quite obviously experience doesn’t always accord with one’s intentions, wishes, or assumptions, the more primed one is with expectation the more likely it is that such desire will “project” itself upon or manifest through one’s experience. For particularly “sensitive” individuals, this more or less subconscious imaginative capacity can serve to not only color but also create experience.

 The atmosphere created by the collective attitude or “group mind” can also wield a powerful influence upon the flow of energy between the teacher and the students.  It is a readily observable fact that a field of energy characterized by a specific emotional quality can be established by a gathering of like-minded people holding a similar intention. Hitler’s Nuremburg rallies provide a dark example of this phenomenon, the frivolity of a rock concert a lighter one. Equally apparent is the influence such a collective mind-set can have on an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Such is the basis of peer pressure.

 Shaktipat cannot be attributed solely to some special power wielded by the teacher, nor can it be credited wholly to the student’s imaginative capacity.  Rather, it is a curious mixture of both. Whatever the case, shaktipat is nevertheless nothing more than an object or phenomenon appearing in awareness (which is satyam or real), and is, thus, by definition, mithya or only apparent – i.e. dependently real. And that which is only apparently real and, thus, by nature limited cannot produce something that is absolutely real and, thus, by nature limitless.

 This is not to say that shaktipat has no value.  One’s awakening to the sense that there is something more to life than meets the eye and the inspiration to undertake or continue the journey toward enlightenment and liberation can be initiated or reinforced by such a transfusion of energy from a person who has cultivated a store of subtle power as the result of his or her own spiritual practice. And such, no doubt, is a great stroke of grace.

 There are several potential drawbacks with regard to shaktipat that render its value in terms of sadhana or spiritual practice at best questionable and at worst of no practical value.

 For the student who is enamored of spiritual experience – and who but the most mature seeker isn’t, especially at the point in their spiritual development when he or she is most likely to receive shaktipat and put an inordinate share of stock in its merit? – the allure of such an altered state is irresistible and the penchant to repeat it almost invariably becomes his or her top priority. In no time one develops a vasana for such experiences, and thus, rather than serving to free one from the ultimately fruitless pursuit of object-happiness, the experience has only further enmeshed one in the pursuit of pleasure and bound one ever more tightly to the wheel of samsara, the repetitive cycle of gladness and grief.

 Another drawback is that, harboring the belief that the teacher is source of one’s spiritual experiences, one can develop a dependency on the teacher.  Inherent in this dependency is one of the most prevalent and insidious misunderstandings concerning the teacher’s role in the student’s spiritual development: the belief that the teacher is some “higher” or special being who eat one’s karma, burn away one’s vasanas, speed up one’s sadhana, and deliver unto one moksha. Such, however, is not the case.  The teacher is the teacher. The student is the student. Each is an apparent individual in his or her own right. And no one individual can do the sadhana of another.  Each person has their own karma for which to account, each their own vasanas to alleviate. The teacher can describe the route to self-realization, but the student must trek the path of self-inquiry on his or her own.

 Taking enlightenment to be a particular type of experience and the teacher to be its catalyst, the student dooms him or herself to the same temporary satisfaction that characterizes samsara.  Worse, without knowledge to show for it, as soon as the shaktipat experience wears off one suffers the same feelings of incompleteness and inadequacy and remains stuck in the same state of ignorance as ever.

 Overall, the value of shaktipat is relative and ultimately of little importance with regard to self-realization and permanent freedom. Experience itself does not effect emancipation, and the teacher can’t do it for you.  Moreover, as the scriptures indicate, there are no experiential qualifications for enlightenment.  Knowledge is the result of a prepared mind meeting with a proper means of knowledge. And only knowledge sets one free.

A (Sitara): We need to differentiate between Guru’s grace and the intervention of a so-called Shaktipad Guru. As I have limited knowledge of Yoga I cannot say much about the latter. It seems, though, that there are Shaktipad Gurus who have the ability to evoke a kind of awakening experience in a follower who is ready for it. As explained in my reply to question 348, these experiences can be valuable because they are ‘mouthwatering appetizers’ and keep you going. As you put it: ‘Such “transmission” experiences can often be the seed or catalyst which spurs further effort on the path.’ And no, they are not necessarily self-deceptive. Yogic powers can bring about dramatic results, as you may know. They are authentic and impressive.

 Nevertheless they are downright useless as far as Self-knowledge is concerned. It is fallacious to think that such a provoked experience would complete the spiritual journey. Completion of the spiritual path is brought about by understanding, not by any kind of experience. (I guess that in very rare cases the experience can coincide with akhaNDAkAra vRRitti – the recognition of one’s true nature that gives rise to Self-realization. But it is better to forget about this remote possibility – which anyway will only actualize if the seeker is very mature and insightful.)

 Guru’s grace on the other hand is not a yogic power; it is not a skill; it is not a doing on his part. Guru’s grace is the natural outflow of an enlightened being. His ego is sublated so he/she is as good as Ishvara.

 Swami Dayananda points out that grace is always there. In his article “All about Grace” (available at http://www.discover-vedanta.com) he says:

 “Grace is something you have to tap. It is not distributed by God. It is like underground water in that you have to tap it, and the tapping is done by action alone. Grace is always there. It is a possibility like any other possibility.

 “(…) We first identify grace from the original source as Ishvara’s grace. There are subsets also. “

One of these subsets is Guru’s grace. And the action required for tapping Guru’s grace is worship/prayer.”

 In Mundakupanishad 3.1.10 it says: ‘Whatever world a person of pure mind thinks to gain and whatever objects he desires, he gains all those worlds and objects just by a thought. Therefore, one desirous of prosperity should indeed worship the knower of atman.’

 The first sentence clarifies that the one who knows world and himself as Atman/Brahman, is equal to Ishvara because his desires and thoughts are one with what is (= Ishvara). Or put another way: the j~nAnI cannot desire or think of anything other than himself as he knows himself to be all there is. So, ‘he gains all those worlds and objects just by thought’ meaning: just by understanding that they are non-different from himself, i.e. by understanding that they are the Self he knows himself to be, he gains them all.

 As to the second sentence: the ‘knower of atman’ is the j~nAnI. A guru should be a j~nAnI. So by saying ‘one desirous of prosperity should indeed worship the knower of atman’ shruti recommends worship of the guru. One may wonder about the formulation, which almost seems like puffery. Swami Dayananda explains in his commentary that this mantra addresses people who are still used to karma-kanda, “shruti is praising knowledge in the language of karma-kanda”.

 Swamiji continues that by teaching – an act of puNya – the j~nAnI creates a lot of puNya. This puNya does not go to him, as he has no sense of doership anymore. Provided that their own prArabdha karma allows for it, the puNya of the Guru will go to the ones who worship him. This is Guru’s grace.

 Mundakopanishad with commentary of Swami Dayananda is available in two volumes by Arsha Vidya bookstore.

A (Dennis): There is no way that a guru can ‘transmit’ knowledge, other than by expressing his understanding verbally. I think what is really meant here is that, if a guru is actually in the presence of the seeker, the former may be able to pick up on non-verbal clues so as to intuit whether the seeker has understood and rephrase answers as required. But enlightenment has to take place in the mind of the seeker when understanding occurs. There is no scope for mysticism here.

It is because of this element that most (all?) traditional teachers recommend physical presence. Swami Paramarthananda, for example, does not actually condone people listening to his recorded talks unless this is as nididhyAsana after attending the talks in person. My own view is that, providing your level of understanding is already quite high, this IS ok and actually works almost as well as attending personally. The possible proviso here is that you have access to someone who can answer any problematic questions that might arise.

My feelings regarding induced experiences is that it is caused by being ‘inspired’ by the guru’s obvious wisdom, peace, ‘aliveness’ and so on. These aspects can be picked up by someone who is paying attention without the need to resort to mystical powers.

There was an article ‘All about grace’ by Swami Dayananda in the last Tattvaloka. I only very quickly skimmed it. It did not seem to say anything about ‘guru’s grace’ but did make the main point that grace comes as a result of the seeker’s karma, and not as a ‘free gift’. Basically, you ‘earn’ karma as a result of past effort.