The Guru-Chela concept is in a way universal and it is the guiding drive behind progress and change from generation to generation. The relationship functions as a moral anchor in the society in that the mentors aim for their wards to excel beyond what is taught and if that happens the mission is considered to have been delivered.
Guru-Chela relationship and its practice have existed in Hinduism, Buddhism and various Eastern traditions. Some people argue against the need or guidance of a Guru because all spiritual experience and learning ultimately comes and should come from within us while others contend that the mystical experiences without a mentor may add to self-knowledge and wisdom but would be little help in our becoming effective teachers.
In the Sikh faith Guru-Chela relationship has been a fundamental principle. The mentor is known as the Guru and the followers have been named Sikh or chela. Gurbani has talked extensively on the relationship between the Guru and the Sikh and the succession of Gurus was a selective process where the incumbent Guru passed gurgaddi to a person that he considered the most deserving.
Best known form of the guru-chela relationship is Bhakti or devotion. It means surrender to God or guru. If the submission of the chela is coupled with an attitude of personal helplessness, self-effacement, unconditional adherence to all commands of the guru, the Bhakti turns to total surrender, the state of of prapatti where haumai is destroyed. [search paraapath, ae, ee] Bhakti places emphasis upon praising virtues of the guru, visualising of the guru and making offerings to the guru. The chela is not permitted to use powers he may develop save in rare and exceptional cases, and never boast of it. Gurbani and other Sikh literature like janam sakhis, writings of Bhai Gurdas and the like refer to similar set of guiding principles existent in the concept of the relationship in Sikhi and the manner of its application in Sikh praxis.
There are two incidents in Sikh history ascribed to Guru Nanak and Bhai Lehna and Guru Gobind Singh and panj pyaras that reflect on the guru-chela relationship. Both of these do relate to transference of roles from one source of authority to the next. The two may seem different but actually are quite alike. In the former Angad became a complete Guru even though his ministery is seen as continuation of the mission [jote], for as a successor Guru he had the freedom to change, innovate, interpret and embellish. If we notice this is what actually happened and transformation not only did take place in the symbolic [and even substantive] both in matters spiritual and temporal through the two centuries of successor Guru’s [who were at one time chelas] stewdarship. Gurus were also exemplars and there life was not limited to preaching.
Tha panj pyare were the precurssors of the Guru Panth expected to seek guidance from Guru Granth in their deliberations. This is not as binding as one may think – guidance seeking/internalization is sensitive to the contemporaneous and seeks answers to issues and problems of the time. The answer comes from within, inspired by guru’s shabad, but relevant to the present and the near term future. The guru within, never grows irrelevant or old. It is the same kind of relationship would seem to apply between Guru Nanak and shabad Guru.
Some Concepts Considered
Guru Nanak says: Shabd is my Guru, whose meditation, I, his disciple, greatly love – Shabd Guru Suret Dhun Chela – Ramkali M I, Sidh Gosit, p. 943.
Shabd in fact is the Guru of all and we all are its disciples. The concept may go beyond shabad Guru and the Gurus hint at it – the relationship of bhagat and Akal Purkh is not one way: meri bandhi bhagat chhutai bandhi bhagat neh chhutai mohe and then the suggestion that the bhagat is liberated meditating on the Divine, what would the Divine do? In fact when Gurus talk of aapai gur chela they are referring to the higher relationship between the Divine and the chela who may be guru, bhagat, sant, sadh, sikh.
Then there is the concept of panj or panch: ‘The chosen ones, the self-elect, are accepted and approved. The chosen ones are honored in the Court of the Lord. They [chosen ones] also look beautiful in the courts of kings. The chosen ones meditate single-mindedly on the Guru – pa(n)ch paravaan pa(n)ch paradhhaan pa(n)chae paavehi dharagehi maan pa(n)chae sohehi dhar raajaan pa(n)chaa kaa gur eaek dhhiaan’ – Japji, Pauri 16
Panj Pyara tradition created by Guru Gobind Singh is an extension of the concept of self elect and the chosen ones. Despite the concept of panj pyaras, they are not considered as Guru of Sikhs. This view possibly needs to be looked into more deeply to grasp some of its intricacies.
Then there is the concept of Guru Panth that is the eternal Guru status of the collective of committed Singhs from among the Sikh Panth. It involves the acceptance of collective authority and does not apply to any individual committed Singh. Likewise the concept of panj pyare is applicable to the collective of five elect Sikhs [or Singhs]. The first group of the five was created by Guru Gobind Singh on the Baisakhi day in 1699 and it was this group whom the Guru then asked to administer him the amrit. Individually, a member of such group is not known as a pyara because that is not an accorded status.
Divine as Gur-Chela
Akal Purkh has often been referred to as both Guru and Chela in Gurbani. There are three parts to the relation – the guru, the disciple and the passing of divine knowledge from the guru to disciple. All these three facets are inherent in Akal Purkh as indeed are an infinite number of other attributes. Guru Amardas says: He Himself is the Guru, He Himself is the disciple, and He Himself shows the destination – Aapae Gur Chaelaa Hai Aapae Aapae Dhasae Ghaatt – Gujri ki Var, M III, p. 517. In the same strain Guru Ramdas says: He himself is the true Guru, himself the disciple and himself imparts the teachings – Aapae Sathigur Aap Hai Chaelaa Oupadhaes Karai Prabh Aapai – Sorath M IV, p. 605. You yourself are the Guru, the disciple and through the Guru[in you], I meditate on You – Thoo Aapae Gur chaelaa Hai Aapae Gur Vich Dhae Thujhehi Dhhiaaee – Suhi M IV, p. 758
The quote by Guru Nanak from Sidh Gosti gives the status of Guru to the divine shabd – the Word [The Shabad is the Guru, upon whom I lovingly focus my consciousness; I am the chaylaa, the disciple – sabadh guroo surath dhhun chaelaa – Ramkali M I, p. 943]. Thus understood, the relation between the Guru and Chaylaa is of the Chaylaa in search, so much lost in his commitment to the ideal of the Guru that people may even be referring to him derisively as bhootnaa, betaalaa and others may just see him as chaylaa. Gur Nanak has referred to both in his compositions: koi aakhai bhootnaa koi betaalaa – some call me a ghost and some call me mad [????/] and then he begs: Servant Nanak is called the chaylaa, the disciple of the Guru; O Guru, save the honor of Your servant – jan naanak naam pariou gur chaelaa gur raakhahu laaj jan kae – Suhi M IV, p. 731
The wonderous play
Another metaphor used is: He Lord God himself is the Guru, himself is the disciple and himself plays his wondrous games – Aapae Gur chaelaa Hai Aapae Aapae Har Prabh Choj Viddaanee – Dhanasri M IV, p. 669. The relationship between the guru and chela is not to be viewed lightly. It is not a mere protestation of acceptance of the guru by the chela. The relationship involves a lot beyond that. There is the hint of wonderous play in the quote above. May be what Bhai Gurdas is explaining throws a light on this seemingly wonderous game: ‘Discipleship of the Guru is such a difficult task that only a rare one can understand it. He, who knows it, becomes guide of spiritual guides and chief Guru of Gurus. In this stage the wonderful feat of becoming Guru by the disciple and vice-versa is enacted. Externally the Sikh and Guru remain as they were, but internally, the light of the one permeates the other – Peer Mureedee Gaakharhee Ko Viralaa Jaanai. Peeraa Peeru Vakhaaneeai Guru Guraan Vakhaanai. Guru Chaylaa Chaylaa Guroo Kari Choj Vidaanai. So Guru Soee Sikhu Hai Jotee Joti Samaanai’ – Bhai Gurdas, Var 13, Pauri 15.
This wonderous game of transforming chela into guru can be akin to causing a dried-up branch to blossom forth in greenery again – wondrous are His ways – Sookae Thae Fun Hariaa Keethon Har Dhhiaavahu Choj Viddaanee Hae – Maru M IV, p. 1070.
The choj in Gurbani refers to many such opposing bestowals by divine like guru:chela, dataar:bhikharee, dukhi:sukhi, day:night, genuine:counterfeit etc
Attaining to Guru-hood by Humans
The real disciple is a rare one though there can and are millions who seek to become the disciples of the Guru. This involves internalization of the teachings of the Guru as is very well explained by Bhai Gurdas: Through teachings of the Guru many become disciples, but it is the rare one who becomes like the Guru. The one who internalizes the Shabd and Surt only can attain the status of Guru-God. Such a disciple is focused on the teachings of Guru (and lives by them) and becomes a likeness of Guru. He concentrates reciting shabd and merges in the satsang. His Guru-mantra is Vahiguru, whose recitation erases egotism. Losing egotism and merging into the qualities of the supreme Lord, he himself becomes full of qualities – Gur Sikhahu Gur Sikhu Hai Peer Peerahu Koee. Sabadi Surati Chaylaa Guroo Paramaysaru Soee. Darasani Disati Dhiaan Dhari Gur Moorati Hoee. Sabad Surati Kari Keeratanu Satisangi Viloee. Vaahiguroo Guramantr Hai Japi Haoumai Khoee. Aapu Gavaaay Aapi Hai Goun Gounee Paroee – Bhai Gurdas, Var 13, Pauri 2.
The real Guru then obviously is rare. Guru helps in removing the veil of ignorance and moves us from its dark alleys to the light of spiritual wisdom. People cannot recognize the spiritual worth in others. Guru Nanak says: some call him a ghost; some say that he is a demon. Some call him a mere mortal; O, poor Nanak – Koee Aakhai Bhoothanaa Ko Kehai Baethaalaa Koee Aakhai Aadhamee Naanak Vaechaaraa – Maru M I, p. 991
Gurbani does make reference to so many who take to guruhood as a vocation. So are the many who become disciples of such Gurus looking for a vocation and a means for living, subsistence. This obviously is not intended to be the purpose of being a guru or a chela: The disciples play the music, and the gurus dance. They move their feet and roll their heads. The dust flies and falls upon their hair. Beholding them, the people laugh, and then go home. They beat the drums for the sake of bread. They throw themselves upon the ground – vaaein chaelae nachan gur pair halaaein faeranih sir oudd oudd raavaa jhaattai paae vaekhai lok hasai ghar jaae rotteeaa kaaran poorehi thaal aap pashhaarrehi dhharathee naal – Asa M I, p.465
Another scene describes the futility of nearness to the guru as of no use other than to help the chela feed on the food provided by the guru until the day dawns when the chela may get the understanding about God: ‘Out of love for bread the disciple comes to dwell in the home of the Guru and feeds on him. If one were to live and eat for hundreds of years, only that day would be auspicious, when he recognizes his Lord and Master – guroo paasahu fir chaelaa khaae thaam pareeth vasai ghar aae jae so varihaaa jeevan khaan khasam pashhaanai so dhin paravaan’ – Asa M I, p. 349
The True Guru-Chela
The truth is that the genuine Guru and the genuine seeker are actually one. This is the way the divine system of continuity in life has been structured. These continuities are of an infinite variety but the continuity of the Guru and disciple relation is one of the divine mysteries, little understood. Guru Nanak says: ‘Prays Nanak, I share the mysterious secrets of God. The Guru and His disciple are joined together! One who eats this food, this medicine of the Teachings, has the wisdom of the six Shaastras – pranavath naanak agam sunaaeae gur chaelae kee sa(n)dhh milaaeae dheekhiaa dhaaroo bhojan khaae shhia dharasan kee sojhee paae’ – Ramkali M I, p. 877.
The real chayla of guru in Sikhi is the gurmukh. Bhai Gurdas makes it clear: The disciple who obeys the commands of the Guru is called gurmukh. The actions of the gurmukh are awe-inspiring and their glory is indescribable. He considers creation as form of the Creator and feels to be a sacrifice unto it. He feels the world a guest house and his self a guest init. Truth is his real Guru whom he speaks and listens to. Like a dhaadhee, at the guru’s doors, he recites Gurbani. For him the holy congregation is his link to connect with the omniscient Lord. His consciousness remains absorbed in the graceful true Word. True court of justice for him is this one door and he envisions its true identity through the Word – Gur Chaylaa Paravaanu Guramoukhi Jaaneeai. Guramoukhi Choji Vidaanu Akad Kadaaneeai. Kudarati No Kurabaanu Kaadaru Jaaneeai. Guramoukhi Jagi Mihamaanu Jagu Mihamaaneeai. Satigur Sati Suhaanu Aakhi Vakhaaneeai. Dari Ddhaaddhee Daravaanu Chavai Gurabaaneeai. Antarijaamee Jaanu Haytu Pachhaaneeai. Sachu Sabadu Neesaanu Surati Samaaneeai. Iko Dari Deebaanu Sabadi Siaaneeai – Bhai Gurdas, Var 3, Pauri 3
The Making of Chela
Woman loves man and man also loves woman. In this world worthy and unworthy sons are born by the union of husband and wife. Those who remain absorbed in the male of all the males Lord God are the rare pure ones. The male (the creative principle) is produced from the primeval Lord, in the same way as the true disciple of the Guru is created by reflection upon the Word. Philosopher’s stone produces another philosopher’s stone i.e. from Guru emerges disciple and the same disciple eventually becomes a virtuous Guru. The gurmukhs belong to the lineage of the super swans i.e. they are most sacred. The Sikhs of Guru are benevolent like sadhus. The Guru’s disciple keeps fraternal relationship with fellow disciples and they salute one another with the word of the Guru. They have renounced other’s body, other’s wealth, slander and ego. I am sacrifice unto such holy congregation (which brings about such transformation) – Naaree Purakhu Piaaru Hai Purakhu Piaar Karayndaa Naaree. Naari Bhataaru Sanjog Mili Pout Soupoutu Koupoutu Sainsaaree. Purakh Purakhaan Jo Rachani Tay Viralay Niramal Nirankaaree. Purakhahu Purakh Oupajadaa Guru Tay Chaylaa Sabad Veechaaree. Paaras Hoaa Paarasahu Guru Chaylaa Chaylaa Gounakaaree. Guramoukhi Vansee Paramahansu Gurasikh Saadh Say Paraoupakaaree. Gurabhaaee Gurabhaaeeaan Saak Sachaa Gur Vaak Juhaaree. Par Tanu Par Dhanu Paraharay Par Nidaa Haoumai Parahaaree. Saadh Sangati Vitahu Balihaaree – Bhai Gurdas, Var 39, Pauri 18
The gurmukh getting up in ambrosial hours of the early morning takes bath in the sacred tank. Reciting the holy hymns of the Guru, he moves towards gurudvara, the central place for Sikh. There, joining the holy congregation, he lovingly listens to Gurbani, the holy hymns of the Guru. Effacing all doubt from his mind he serves the Sikhs of the Guru. Then by righteous means he earns his livelihood and he distributes the hard-earned meal among the needy ones. Offering first, to the Sikhs of Guru, the remainder he himself eats.
. In this Dark Age, illumined by such feelings, the disciple becomes Guru and the Guru disciple. The gurmukhs tread on such a highway (of religious life) – Gurasikh Bhalakay Outd Kari Anmrit Vaylay Saru Nhaavandaa. Guru Kai Bachan Ouchaari Kai Dharamasaal Dee Surati Karandaa. Saadhasangati Vichi Jaai Kai Gurabaanee Day Preeti Sounandaa. Sankaa Manahu Mitaai Kai Guru Sikhaan Dee Sayv Karandaa. Kirat Virat Kari Dharamu Dee Lai Parasaad Aani Varatandaa. Gurasikhaan No Dayi Kari Pichhon Bachiaa Aapu Khavandaa. Kalee Kaal Paragaas Kari Guru Chaylaa Guru Sandaa. Guramoukh Gaadee Raahu Chaladaa – Bhai Gurdas, Var 40, Pauri 11
The Ceremonial Recognition
Nanak built the true fortress on the strongest foundations and established the kingdom. He installed the royal canopy over Lehna’s head who chanting the Lord’s Praises, drank in the Ambrosial Nectar. The Guru implanted the almighty sword of teachings to illuminate his soul. The Guru bowed to his disciple, while Nanak was still alive. The King, while still alive, applied the ceremonial mark to his forehead – naanak raaj chalaaeiaa sach kott sathaanee neev dhai lehanae dhharioun shhath sir kar sifathee anmrith peevadhai math gur aatham dhaev dhee kharrag jor paraakue jeea dhai gur chaelae reharaas keeee naanak salaamath thheevadhai sehi ttikaa dhithos jeevadhai – Var Ramkali Satta Balvand, p. 996
Lord Himself is the Guru, Himself the disciple and Himself the Performer of wondrous frolics. Says slave Nanak, he alone unites with God, whom He Himself chooses over all others – forsaking all others, him alone the Lord likes – Aape Gur Chela Hai Aape Aape Har Prabh Choj Vidani. Jann Nanak Aap Milaiy Soaee Har Milsee Avar Sabh Tyag Oahaa Har Bhaani – Dhanaasari M IV, p. 669.
The Guru bowed down to His disciple, while Nanak was still alive and the King applied the ceremonial mark to his forehead – Gur Chaelae Reharaas Keeee Naanak Salaamath Thheevadhai || Sehi Ttikaa Dhithos Jeevadhai – Ramkali ki Vaar, Satta & Balwand, p. 966
This was demonstrated by the Guru by first giving the holty amrit to the panj pyaras as a guru and a leader and then accepting the same from them as a disciple or a chela.
The Guru has made Gur sangat [the collective of Guru oriented] as his own, the Khalsa, while the self willed are kept far from the Guru. Wonderous! Wonderous! Gobind Singh. He is the Guru and the disciple! – Gur sangat keenee khalsaa, manmukhee duhaylaa Waho Waho Gobind Singh, aapay gur chayla – Vaar 41, Varan Bhai Gurdas II [though attributed to Patshahi Dasveen, it is said to be written by Bhai Gurdas II at the end of 18th century]
The concept of Gur-Chela is quite fundamental to the relationship inherent in this paradigm. Its acceptance is in a way universal and sets one of the moral anchors of the society. It also is the guiding drive behind progress/change from generation to generation. If the mentor is not prepared to accept the possibility of any ward excelling possibly beyond what is taught then there must be a flaw in the mission itself.
The incidents ascribed to Guru Nanak and Lehna and Guru Gobind Singh and panj pyaras actually are quite alike. In the former the Guruship of Angad was complete and though it is seen as continuation of a mission [jote], the successor Guru had freedom to change, innovate, interpret and embellish. If we notice that is something that happened and the transformation in the symbolic [and possibly even substantive] both in matters spiritual and temporal did take place through the two centuries of Guru’s [who were at one time chelas] stewdarship. Gurus were also exemplars – not limited to preaching.
Tha panj pyare were the precurssors of the Guru Panth expected to seek guidance from Guru Granth in their deliberations. This is not as binding as one may think – guidance seeking/internalization is sensitive to the contemporaneous and seeks answers to issues and problems of the time. The answer comes from within, inspired by guru’s shabad, but relevant to the present and the near term future – that is the guru within, never growing irrelevant or old. The same kind of relationship would seem to apply between Guru Nanak and shabad Guru. The concept may go beyond shabad Guru and the Gurus hint at it – the relationship of bhagat and Akal Purkh is not one way: meri bandhi bhagat chhutai bandhi bhagat neh chhutai mohe and then the suggestion that the bhagat is liberated meditating on the Divine, what would the Divine do? In fact when Gurus talk of aapai gur chela they are referring to the higher relationship between the Divine and the chela who may be guru, bhagat, sant, sadh, sikh.