Translation: ‘Know that by full prostration, inquiry and service the wise who have realized the Truth will impart Knowledge to you.’ (bhagavad gItA (4:34))
To begin our meditation on this gItA verse, we want to consider the very important phrase, ‘the wise who have realized the Truth’. We are faced with a conundrum right away because, due to the nature of the realization being referred to, we will have difficulty determining who has realized the Truth and who has not, unless we have realized the Truth ourselves.
On this topic of who is wise, Swami Dayananda Saraswati of the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam has said:
There is a statement, though: ‘It takes a wise man to know a wise man.’ If you are a wise man, then you don't need another wise man to become wise; if you are otherwise, you need a wise man, but because you are otherwise, you cannot discern him. So you are in a helpless situation. Therefore, the criterion for a wise man, I tell you finally - the way to find out whether he is wise or not - is if he makes you wise. Then he knows. That is the only criterion, and there is none other because the forms his compassion can assume are very varied, and with all our actions we don't always console people.
To this we could easily reply, ‘But, swami, this begs the question.’ In fact, we have no way of knowing for certain. However, we can assess based on what the Scriptures say are the marks of a guru, and we can rely, for what it is worth, upon our own intuition.
On the topic of the marks of a guru, the vivekachUDAmaNi states that a guru will possess the following qualities:
‘(34) The guru is well-versed in the veda-s; he is sinless; he is not smitten by desire; he is a knower of brahman; he is super-eminent; withdrawing himself into brahman; he is ever at peace; he is like a smoldering fire unfed by fuel.
(35) The guru is an ocean of spontaneous compassion that asks for no reason. He is friend to the pure who make obeisance to him.’ (shrI shaMkara’s vivekachUDAmaNi, with the commentary of shrI chadrasekhara bharathi, Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan, 2008)
Following from the above scriptural citation, the first word we will consider is praNipAtena. As shrI shaMkarAcharya explains in his commentary on this verse, it means, ‘through prostration, by lying fully stretched on the ground face downward, with prolonged salutation’. (bhagavad gItA, with the commentary of shaMkarAcharya, Translated by Swami Gambhirananda, Advaita Ashram, 1984)
This prostration is to be made repeatedly to the guru. The reason for this is that by our prostration we are cultivating surrender, but this surrender is not surrender to someone or something outside of ourselves. It is, rather, the fruit of our own intention to let go of and give up the inner and outer obstacles which are inhibiting our mumukShutva and which are, in fact, manifestations of our avidyA.
Also, about this word swami sivAnanda comments, ‘Mere prostrations alone will not do. They may be tinged with hypocrisy. You must have perfect faith in your guru and his teaching. You must serve him whole-heartedly with great devotion. Now hypocrisy is not possible.’ (The bhagavad gItA, With the commentary of Swami Sivananda, The Divine Life Society, 1982)
If physical prostration is the outer form recommended for approaching the guru, inner faith and devotion is deeper import. As is so often the case, the outer is simply a natural expression of what is within our heart when our intention is genuine.
The next word in our passage that we want to consider is prasNena. It means inquiry - but inquiry regarding what? shrI shaMkarAcharya explains in his commentary on this verse that inquiry is ‘as to how bondage and Liberation come and what are Knowledge and ignorance’.
Importantly, when we encounter a wise person, it is to our benefit to ask him or her questions. This is a very delicate process. We are not asking to refine our opinions. Because our minds are filled with many doubts and confusions, we are asking so that we can listen and then gradually receive the Knowledge the wise person has to impart. This is important since it is not what we already know that will help to remove our doubts and confusions. It is what we can learn. Ultimately, the words of such a wise person are of value not because of what they are but because of where they are pointing.
avidyA is our own lack of realization that we are the Atma. We believe instead that we are our body, our mind, our thoughts and our opinions. vidyA results when we realize that we are not any temporal object. We are the Atma, the pure and purely non-objective Awareness.
Specifically, we will want to know how to replace our avidyA with vidyA. This is expressed through the story of the snake in the rope:
Three brothers are entering their dimly lit house after working all day and one of them, seeing a snake coiled up the corner, warns the others not to enter. As the men are wondering what to do, an old man comes by carrying a lantern. The brothers explain their predicament to him and he holds the lantern just inside the doorway to illuminate the room. All at once everybody laughs, as the ‘snake’ is seen to be nothing more than a rope. The brothers thank the old man as they retire for the evening and the old man continues on his way.
Similarly in a stepwise manner, the guru points out to us that we are the non-objective Atma.
Even though we may approach the guru respectfully and inquire in earnest, this last topic of sevayA (service) is probably the easiest one for many of us to glaze over. But it is nonetheless important. In order for the guru to provide us with wisdom, we must provide the guru with the opportunity to cultivate and to share wisdom. This means that we need to be willing and available to support and assist the guru.
The following passage provides a glimpse of the service that the late shrI Abhinava Vidyathirtha provided to his guru shrI Chandrasekhara Bharathi:
‘There were even times when paramAcharyal would start casting off His clothes and move about unconcerned like an avadhUta. Acharyal would rush spare clothing to Him to prevent a commotion. This apart, Acharyal used to constantly look after paramAcharyal’s needs when the latter was in His moods of seclusion. It is not too difficult to serve the guru in conditions of normalcy but it requires patience, dexterity and tact to attend to the guru’s needs under trying circumstances. Acharyal’s exemplary care of His master is itself sufficient testimony to His boundless devotion to His guru.’ (jagadgurus.org)
It is service, above all things, that opens our hearts and minds to the flow of grace.
Some Concluding Thoughts
A Westerner by birth, I was born to Christian parents and my father was a Baptist minister. I easily understand the value of inquiry, but prostration and service have been considerably more challenging. It has taken time to understand that prostration is not merely to another person, as I learned from my guru in a wonderful way.
Shortly after meeting him, over a decade ago, Guru (as everybody calls him) came by to visit while I was at work. When he saw me, he walked over and prostrated at my feet. I was working at a cafe in the middle of a large bookstore, and a number of people (customers and co-workers alike) were around to see this. I felt like hiding under the floor mat. As he prostrated, he exclaimed in a voice everybody could hear, 'All glories to Nathan Spoon - the yogi.'
To clarify, I was not being treated as special; guru may easily greet any of his devotees in this manner. By doing so, he is invoking what is most true in his devotees and he is providing an example for each of us to do the same. I always hope to inspire this same spirit of invocation in students who are looking to me for a teaching example.
On the topic of service, I would like to tell another personal story.
Shortly after moving to Charlotte, NC, I began visiting a coffee shop across the street from where Jamie and I were living at the time. I was soon introduced to a man who has regularly attended ever since.
Although Jamie and I have moved several miles away, and because I walk if I do not have a ride, this man I mentioned shows up regularly to offer a ride. As simple and repetitive as this action may be, it is a form of sevayA, since I am teaching from the coffee shop at guru’s recommendation. In short, the service of offering a ride more easily allows me to accomplish guru’s wishes. When I visited his ashram in the spring, guru made it a point to tell me that he is very pleased with these efforts.
Finally, we want to consider that these three points of prostration, inquiry and service are like the legs of a tripod. When these legs are firm in relation to the guru, then, in due course, our sAdhana will grow to be firm as well.