Bharatanatyam dancer Rukmini Vijayakumar explains India’s ancient system of passing knowledge from guru to shishya, and shares why this tradition must be maintained even now.
The guru-shishya parampara is often spoken about in various contexts of learning in India. This parampara constitutes a lineage of learning that is transferred primarily in an oral tradition from teacher to student through many generations. The idea of an oral tradition has changed substantially in recent years with writing and then video documentation taking over a large portion of knowledge retention. The ‘guru’ however is not exactly the same as a ‘teacher’. A teacher teaches a particular idea or thought process and enables the student to learn a specific subject within the confines of exact parameters of learning. A ‘guru’ on the other hand shares all the knowledge that she possesses with her student.
The guru-shishya parampara exists in the tradition of yoga and the performing arts in India even today. Students of Bharatanatyam don’t change teachers frequently to try various methods of learning. They commit to one ‘guru’ who has a specific thought process and ideology, and stick with that guru throughout their lives, or until the guru decides to send the student to learn with someone else.
In India, the tradition of teaching and the garnering of knowledge is of the highest value. “There can be no value placed on learning,” is something that my grandmother would often say. Traditionally, we were always meant to offer the best to our teachers in all respects. The best couch in the house, the best plate, the maximum fee that we can afford. We always started a new class with reverence and humility. We touched the feet of our gurus and offered fruit and flowers on our first day of class. We never bargained over a fee, and frequently gave more than they asked whenever we could afford it. The gurus, in turn, took care of students like their own children. They gave without holding back and were keenly interested in the progress of their students more than the paycheck that arrived thereafter.
This mindset has changed in modern India and not just in the students but also in many teachers. I say ‘teachers’ and not ‘gurus,’ because the word has become synonymous to a teacher in most places whether the person embodies the qualities of a guru or not. A guru is someone who shares knowledge with no expectation other than a dedication to the knowledge system. The idea of attachment does not arise as the guru recognises her own limitations and will always send her student to another guru when she realises that the student needs to learn more than what she can offer. Heartbreak and upheaval will therefore not exist in the context of a learning system that truly embodies the guru-shishya parampara.
“As a child, I remember taking plates of fruit, vegetables, sometimes curtains, lamps, medicines, etc., to my teachers’ homes. I have swept, cleaned, washed dishes and waited for hours for a class.”
A shishya, or ideal student must also commit to learning with no expectation other than gaining knowledge, and the boons of this knowledge system are not what the student should stress upon. For example, a shishya of dance will be satisfied just learning dance. He or she will not hanker after performance at the earliest opportunity. The idea of performance is not the reason that the students learn dance. They learn for the sake of the knowledge itself. They also offer guru dakshina to their guru — it represents their gratitude toward the knowledge offered. This guru dakshina is the value that the student places on the learning keeping in mind his or her own capacities. “We must always give the maximum that we can afford,” is what my grandmother had taught me, and what my parents repeatedly showed me by example. As a child, I remember taking plates of fruit, vegetables, sometimes curtains, lamps, medicines, etc., to my teachers’ homes. I have swept, cleaned, washed dishes and waited for hours for a class.
This relationship of guru-shishya has changed over the years. Unhappily, the relationship has become toxic in modern India. Gurus expect students to become dedicated without the guru’s willingness to share everything they know. These modern gurus expect unwavering allegiance even when they have nothing more to offer, often limiting a student’s capacity to grow and flower. Even in the case of students, the modern shishya will come to class to take whatever he or she can and leave with no gratitude. Parents frequently bargain and question the intentions of well-meaning teachers asking for learning outcomes even before learning has begun. Stress is laid on the performance instead of the dance itself. Gurus have stopped sending students to another teacher to further their knowledge, and as a result, students leave with heavy emotional scars. In current times, students don’t change a guru to enhance learning but rather, they change gurus only in extreme circumstances when there is a difference of opinion that can’t be resolved or when one of them physically moves to another city. This is often done with a large amount of emotional upheaval and heartbreak that is commonly associated with a romantic relationship. Learning and knowledge often take a back seat in this drama of emotion and attachment.
But, while there may be teachers and students posing as gurus and shishyas, contaminating the idea of the tradition itself, it is important to understand that the tradition of guru-shishya, in its true sense, is one of the best ways of transferring knowledge systems. The ideal system allows the students to surrender to the guru, knowing that their interests will be taken care of completely. The guru will ensure that the shishya learns all that she can possibly teach while keeping the student’s best interest. This can happen only when both the guru and shishya have the requisite qualities. The primary quality being the thirst for knowledge and dedication to it as the motive for learning. The system may have flaws in modern India as we have moved away from our roots of learning traditions, but it largely retains the essence of this idea, and many students still flourish in this system of learning.
Yoga may have begun to become a slightly more commercial, transactional teacher-student relationship even in India with many students moving to ‘yoga studios’ that have a selection of teachers to shop from, but the classical dance and music traditions in India largely attempt to retain the guru-shishya system of learning. The bond between guru and shishya becomes special through the knowledge that is shared. There are numerous gurus all over India who teach with no expectation. It has become necessary to fix a fee for dance classes as gurus have families to take care of and rent to pay, especially in urban areas. It is impossible that everyone who shows up to learn will have the qualities of a shishya. I, however, know for certain that a very large number of dance teachers in India will happily teach their students for free once the dedication to the art is established.
To call myself a ‘guru’ is presumptuous. I repeatedly try to imbue the qualities of a guru. I aspire to be a guru one day. The prefix of guru is often added to my name, making it Guru Rukmini Vijayakumar, because I teach Bharatanatyam. I often think that we must introduce an additional prefix to that: ‘asp.’ ‘aspiring to be,’ making me Asp. Guru Rukmini Vijayakumar. I am not certain the world will understand what that means, so I leave it as Guru Rukmini Vijayakumar, knowing that my efforts of truly becoming a guru are mindful and honest. I have served my teachers and gurus well, trying to be an ideal shishya at every point, just as my parents and grandmother taught me.
Now as a teacher, I know that I have the best intentions of my students at heart. I willingly send them to learn all that they can in other places of learning and try my best to identify their strengths and build upon their weaknesses. I know with confidence that if they have learned from me all that I can teach, I will willingly send them to learn elsewhere. I have observed that in my case, the relationship begins transactional and grows into one resembling the guru-shishya parampara, as both my students and I begin to trust one another’s intentions. Attachment is the most difficult thing in this context. It is difficult to let go of your students when you have given them your whole heart. They become like your own children as the years pass. However, in my aspiration to be a guru, I find myself learning to let go of my students when they decide to do things that I may not have intended for them. I am often agitated when I know that an alternate option would further their dance. But, I am beginning to learn to accept that I cannot take care of them and ensure their safety in the growth of their knowledge. They must yearn for it and find their own path. The joy that stems from sharing knowledge and watching my students grow is immense. I hope that we begin to see value in this tradition of guru-shishya and not discard it because of the existing toxic and misinterpreted practices.
Rukmini Vijayakumar is a Bharatanatyam dancer, actor and founder of the Raadha Kalpa Dance Company. For more information, visit The Raadha Kalpa Dance Company. You can also follow Rukmini on Instagram on @dancerukmini