Each morning, we begin practice with the chanting of traditional mantras. The first is a prayer giving reverence to the “Guru’s Lotus Feet,” originating from Adi Shankaracharya’s Yoga Tārāvalī, a text on yoga that Pattabhi Jois was very fond of quoting when discussing the Aṣṭāṅga yoga system, and which he mentions in his own work, Yoga Mala.
Chanting this mantra before practice (see below), with awareness of the meaning, brings understanding to the purpose of practice as well as developing great śraddha, or faith, that is based on this understanding. This article offers some of my own thoughts about the power of this mantra.
वन्दे गुरूणां चरणारविन्दे
vande gurūṇāṃ caranāravinde
I bow to the lotus like feet of the Guru,
which have shown us the bliss of our own Ātman
most excellent, acting like the forest doctor
removing the most deadly poison that produces
the delusion of saṃsāra (the cycle of birth and death).
The first line of the mantra lays the foundation for the relationship between Guru and student, stating “I bow (vande) to the lotus feet (caraṇa-aravinde) of the Guru.” (Gurūṇāṃ – plural is used as a respectful form.) For many years, I touched the feet of my Guru with only a limited understanding of its real significance. I focused my attention on my Guru as an individual with all his own qualities, along with a certain amount of attachment to him as a person. There is a lot of merit, of course, in the respect that we have for our teachers as people, but familiarity can easily get in the way of the teachings that we hope to receive.
When we state that we are bowing to the Guru’s lotus feet, rather than to the personality, we are really bowing to the spiritual knowledge that is held in the Guru’s heart, which we hope will transfer to us. The Guru’s lotus feet are synonymous with the Ātman, or soul, which is sat cit ānānda, the highest truth and the source of permanent joy within us. It is this spiritual knowledge that reveals (saṃdarśita.) and awakens (avabodha) us spiritually to the bliss (sukha) of our own Ātman (sva-ātma). In this way, the Guru’s role is well beyond the personal, guiding us toward a direct experience of something within us; something that does not rely on external relationship.
The Bhagavad Gītā describes the Ātman as “indestructible, eternal and immeasurable as well as un-manifest, indescribable and unchangeable” (chapter 2). Without beginning or end, its nature is said to be permanent in all senses, transcending all conditions of time and place. In opposition to this, the corporeal or material world, including our own bodies and minds, are constantly changing, impermanent and subject to death and decay. This is referred to as saṃsāra and clinging to anything in this realm may bring short-term satisfaction, but, ultimately, results in suffering.
The true Guru, having directly experienced and understood the nature of the Ātman, attempts to bring the realization of that same knowledge within the student. This process has been described in some traditions as the Guru placing their lotus feet within the heart of the student. It is said that by touching the Guru’s feet, we are taking the dust from the path that he or she has traveled, leading to their own spiritual awakening. Placing the dust on our eyes symbolically opens them for our own illumination.
A skilled Guru’s personal experience in practice and teaching, as well as his or her philosophical knowledge, brings them the ability to act like a forest doctor (jāngalīkāyamāne), improvise and find the right medicine for each student, and remove the most deadly of spiritual poisons, or hālāhala. This is the poison that causes entanglement in saṃsāra, and the delusion (moha) that covers the spiritual heart, which has prevented us from experiencing the bliss of the Ātman.
There is a poignant verse from the Mahānārāyaṇa Upaniṣad describing this divine presence within us:
dahraṃ vipāpaṃ parameśmabhūtaṃ
yat puṇḍarīkaṃ puramadhyasaṃsthaṃ |
tatrāpi dahraṃ gaganaṃ viśoka-
stasmin yadanta-stad upāsitavyam ||
In the center of the city of the body, resides a small and sinless lotus of the heart, which is the residence of the Supreme. (And) in the interior of this space, there is a sorrow-less ether upon which one should meditate continuously.
Although the sanskrit word śraddha is often translated simply as faith, this is not an accurate reflection of it’s meaning. Breaking the word śraddhā down into its components śrat (satya – truth) and dhā (to hold or possess) helps us to understand it more accurately as holding satya within us. Śraddha is not at all blind and does not come from simply believing in something that we haven’t connected to, but instead comes as a result of a direct spiritual experience. It is this kind of experience that can lead to a firm conviction and determination that we are on the right path—the real meaning of śraddha in the context of spiritual practice.
The role of the Guru in developing śraddha is to give the student a glimpse of the divine within themselves, and to begin the process of opening the lotus of their own heart, inspiring them to move forward on the path of spiritual practice.
Chanting the opening mantra each morning with remembrance of its meaning has a profound effect on the quality of our practice, helping to subdue the unhelpful tendencies of the ego, and bring the focus back toward spiritual heart. Vande Gurūṇāṃ carṇāravinde!
Feature photography by Agathe Padovani