The Guru - Shishya Tradition in Indic Culture

Sri Ramakrishna and disciple Swami Vivekananda
  • This article tells you about India’s unique and rich Guru-Shishya tradition.

Anantha samsara samudhra thara naukayithabyam guru bhaktithabhyam,

Vairagya samrajyadha poojanabyam, namo nama sree guru padukhabyam.”


This first verse of Adi Guru Shankaracharya's Guru Paduka Stotram is the ultimate tribute that one can pay to the lotus feet of Guru. Bharatha has a very hoary tradition of Guru Vandana as Guru Mahatamya holds an important place in a Sanatani Hindu's life. The Guru is the one, who acts as a torchbearer for those who want to traverse through the path of spiritual journey and Guru assists them to attain the destination of enlightenment of Brahman.


The Vedic Seers can be considered as the initiator of this quintessential convention which was founded on the tradition of Vedic Shrutis and then Smritis. But the paramount Guru is the Lord himself, whose Jnana of spirituality is the foundation on which stands the strong building of Dharmic culture and philosophy.


Be it in the Vedas, Upanishadas or the Ramayana, Mahabharata, the Lord himself comes forth and becomes an embodiment of Guru and bestows the beautiful Jnana of the oneness of Atman with the Brahman. Bhagawata Gita is the epitome of this supreme knowledge, where Lord Krishna pacifies the queries of Arjuna and his dilemma. It is the pinnacle of transcendental knowledge pertaining the unity of Atman and Brahman.


The crux of the preeminent Jnana of the Upanishadas, has been transferred to us in the form of Guru- Shishya samvad. The Upanishadas contain umpteen illustrations of such samvad taking place and eventually derives the philosophical insights, the ultimate aim of the life of the followers of this culture.


Advancing this parampara, Bharatha has witnessed the classic knowledge of Buddha or Mahavira on spiritual awakening. Taking the cudgels to defend the Sanatan Dharma, came the doctrine of Adi Shankaracharya's Advaita Vedanta. Shankaracharya championed the cause of the rejuvenation of the almost doomed spirit of the ancient culture and philosophy of Bharatvarsha.


Shankaracharya, himself an incarnation of Lord Shiva, was aware of the importance of the sanctity of Guru Parampara, thus moved from Kaladi (his birthplace in Kerala) to Omkareshwar, in order to see a perfect teacher and lastly finds Guru Govindbhagvadpaad.


Carrying forward this tradition, Shankaracharya himself becomes Guru to several distinguished disciples, among them four are prominent namely Padampada, Sureshwar, Totakacharya and Hastamalaka.


Padampada, one with lotus feet is the archetype of the ultimate wisdom of Vedanta transmitted by Guru Shankar. Similarly, Sureshwaracharya, Hastamalaka and Totakacharya aided their Guru in propagating the divine perspicacity of our age-old scriptures.

Sankara, Mandan Mishra with Ubhaya Bharti in the centre.

Sureshwaracharya, previously called Mandan Mishra, was the distinguished teacher of Poorva Mimamsa School. His much acclaimed debate with Adi Shankar is widely known. Not only does Shankaracharya defeat him in the debate but also makes him his disciple along with his wife Ubhaya Bharti who resultantly becomes the foremost Vedant- Jnanis of their times, the self-effulgent atmans. This example holds a place of utmost sanctity in the classic parampara of Shashtrarth in our culture.


In the same tradition, Totakacharya is the greatest of the disciples of Adi Shankar, who created Totakashatkam in reverence of his preceptor Adi Shankaracharya.


Likewise, Hastamalaka too is one such disciple of Adi Guru who was established in self, since his childhood.


कस्त्वं शिशो कस्य कुतोऽसि गन्ता

किं नाम ते त्वं कुत आगतोऽसि

एतन्मयोक्तं वद चार्भक त्वं

मत्प्रीतये प्रीति विवर्धनोऽसि १॥

हस्तामलक उवाच

नाहं मनुष्यो देव-यक्षौ


ब्रह्मचारी गृही वनस्थो

भिक्षुर्न चाहं निजबोध रूपः २॥


‘Who are you? Whose child are you? Whither are you bound? What is your name? Whence have you come? O Child! I should like to hear your reply to these questions.’ Thus spoke Sri Sankaracharya to the boy, Hastamalaka, who replied as follows.


I am neither man, God, Yaksha, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya, Sudra, Brahmachari, householder, forest-dweller, nor Sannyasi; but I am pure awareness alone.


This meeting between Hastamalaka and Guru Shankarachrya proved to be a momentous one when a young boy of thirteen years gives a very prompt reply to Shankar when on being asked about himself. This event is simply the repetition of history as the responses which Hastamalaka gave were the same which Adi Shankar gave to his Guru Govindbhagvadpaad.


The comprehensive knowledge that the boy possessed was sufficient enough to prove that the boy was an illustrious soul. His profound Knowledge on the subject of Advaita dazzled Acharya so much that Acharya asks his father to hand-over the boy to him and so Hastamalaka became the chief disciple of Adi Guru Shankar besides Padampada, Sureshwar, Totakacharya.


In the later tradition of Guru-Shishya Parampara, one significant example is of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa and his illustrious disciple Swami Vivekanand. Sri Paramhansa profoundly influenced the thoughts and ideas of Vivekanand, who became the chief proponent of Vedanta during those turbulent times when Sanatana Dharma faced colonial and Western onslaught, very different from what it had faced during early invasions. Swami Vivekanand proved be a worthy student and shared the beauty of Hinduism and its philosophy-culture as few others ever had.  


In this way, the ancient tradition of Guru Parampara holds a paramount place in our culture, which encompasses a wider sphere of Guru being a teacher who is responsible for providing not just narrow mundane knowledge to an individual but also for the transcendental ascendency via superior knowledge of Scriptural wisdom.


Here it is worthwhile, to quote a verse from Totakashatkam, by Totakacharya where he reverentially makes salutations to his Guru Adi Shankaracharya.


Viditakila Sastra Sudha Jalathe Mahitopa Nisatkathi Tarthanidhehrdayekalaye Vimalam Saranam Bhava Sankara Desika Saranam||




Author is a practicing Sanatani Dharmic Hindu who has obtained M. Phil and Ph. D. in History. She has published articles on a variety of historical, Dharmic and Samskritic aspects.


Also read

1 Pictures of Omkareshwar Jyotirling

2 Kalady, birth place of Adi Sankara

3 Key Ideas from Swami Vivekananda’s 1893 Chicago Speech

4 Debate between Sankara and Mandana Mishra

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