In Praise of the Teacher: the Guru Ashtakam

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Students honoring their teachers at a Guru Purnima function in Udaipur, Rajasthan. Source
This past weekend, many Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains in the Indian subcontinent and around the world celebrated the festival of Guru Purnima. In the book Memory and Hope, Dr. Anantanand Rambachan writes:

“The Hindu calendar, in fact, sets aside a special day each year, Guru Purnima, for remembering one’s religious teacher. It is an occasion for visiting the teacher, expressing gratitude and honoring him with gifts. It is a time also for the renewal of one’s commitment to the wisdom received from the guru.

Guru Purnima, although holding special meaning for the religious teacher, is extended in meaning to include teachers of all subjects. Remembering our indebtedness to teachers is meant to awaken our own generosity to share knowledge with other and to support those who seek and impart wisdom.”

The Guru Ashtakam (“Eight Verses for the Guru”) is a poem attributed to the eighth-century Hindu philosopher and theologian Adi Shankara, who is credited with a number of other Sanskrit texts and devotional compositions. This composition emphasizes the importance of one’s guru in the spiritual journey. Without devotion to one’s teacher, all of one’s achievements, knowledge, and possessions are essentially useless, the text tells us.

Of course, this text suffers from some limitations and caveats that we have to acknowledge today. As with many of Adi Shankara’s other compositions, the Guru Ashtakam is clearly addressed to an upper-caste man. In the third stanza, Adi Shankara mentions that a student may have knowledge of the Vedas and Vedic disciplines. However, at the time of the Guru Ashtakam’s composition (and even today, to an extent), lower-caste men and women would simply not have access to those scriptures. Additionally, in the text, one’s wife is placed in the same category as one’s wealth and fame. Finally, although Adi Shankara exhorts us to be fully focused and devoted to the guru’s feet, we have to remember that today many so-called gurus are shamelessly using religion and spirituality for the purpose of generating personal wealth and exploiting their followers. We shouldn’t let blind devotion cloud our judgment and critical thinking.

To me, the main take-away of the Guru Ashtakam isn’t blind, unquestioning devotion to a guru. Although it emphasizes the importance of the guru, it also outlines the most essential qualities of a student: humility and gratitude. To me, this is what Guru Purnima is all about. After all, as Dr. Rambachan writes, “If we forget that we are receivers [of knowledge], we will not be generous givers.”

Before my Guru Ashtakam translation, I just want to say that this Guru Purnima, I am grateful to all of the teachers and mentors who have shaped my personality, spirituality, and interests:

  • A popular Hindu saying is that “your parents are your first gurus,” and it’s true: I am lucky to have grown up with such selfless and loving role models. 
  • From elementary school to high school, I’ve been blessed to have encouraging and supportive teachers; especially my fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Draper, and the teachers I learned from in my junior and senior years of high school: Madame Hallenbeck, Mrs. Stewart, and many others.
  • I am endlessly grateful to my violin teacher, Raman Iyer, for igniting the initial spark that has now become my passion for Carnatic music.
  • I am so thankful to be where I am right now, halfway through my undergraduate career, at the University of Chicago. I’ve been challenged to rethink previously-held assumptions and to expand my worldview countless times while I’ve been here; not just by professors, but by my friends, mentors, and even employers.
  • Spiritually, I can’t say I’ve found a guru, and my family’s history with certain gurus in the past makes me a bit skeptical about whether I will come across a genuine spiritual teacher in my lifetime. I will say, though, that Dr. Rambachan’s writing and lectures have provided me with a great deal of support and inspiration in the past two years of my life. His scholarship, particularly his book A Hindu Theology of Liberation, has played a crucial role in my decision to continue engaging (and struggling) with Hinduism.

Okay, that’s all. I grew up listening to Uma Mohan’s rendition of the Guru Ashtakam. A translation follows below!


शरीरं सुरूपं तथा वा कलत्रं
यशश्चारू चित्रं धनं मेरुतुल्यम्
मनश्चेन्न लग्नं गुरोरंघ्रिपद्मे
ततः किं ततः किं ततः किं ततः किम्

sharIram su-rUpam tathA vA kalatram
yashashcAru citram dhanam meru-tulyam
manashcenna lagnam guror-anghri-padme
tatah kim tatah kim tatah kim tatah kim

One may have all of these:
An attractive body, and a beautiful wife;
Vast fame and a renowned reputation, and enough wealth to equal Mount Meru;
But, if one’s mind is not centered upon the Guru’s holy feet,
What is the use? What then? What then? What then?

कलत्रं धनं पुत्रपौत्रादि सर्वं
गृहं बान्धवाः सर्वमेतद्धि जातम्
मनश्चेन्न लग्नं गुरोरंघ्रिपद्मे
ततः किं ततः किं ततः किं ततः किम्

kalatram dhanam putra-pautrAdi sarvam
gRuham bAndhavAh sarvam-etaddhi jAtam
manashcenna lagnam guror-anghri-padme
tatah kim tatah kim tatah kim tatah kim

A wife, wealth, sons, grandsons, and more;
A house, many relatives… all these may seem to ensure one’s fate;
But, if one’s mind is not centered upon the Guru’s holy feet,
What is the use? What then? What then? What then?

षडंगादिवेदो मुखे शास्त्रविद्या
कवित्वादि गद्यं सुपद्यं करोति
मनश्चेन्न लग्नं गुरोरंघ्रिपद्मे
ततः किं ततः किं ततः किं ततः किम्

Shad-angAdi-vedo mukhe shAstra-vidyA
kavitvAdi gadyam su-padyam karoti
manashcenna lagnam guror-anghri-padme
tatah kim tatah kim tatah kim tatah kim

The Vedas, their six disciplines, and the knowledge of other scriptures may be on one’s lips;
One may compose fine poetry and prose;
But, if one’s mind is not centered upon the Guru’s holy feet,
What is the use? What then? What then? What then?

विदेशेषु मान्यः स्वदेशेषु धन्यः
सदाचारवृत्तेषु मत्तो न चान्यः
मनश्चेन्न लग्नं गुरोरंघ्रिपद्मे
ततः किं ततः किं ततः किं ततः किम्

vi-desheShu mAnyah sva-desheShu dhanyah
sadA-(a)cAra-vritteShu matto na cAnyah
manashcenna lagnam guror-anghri-padme
tatah kim tatah kim tatah kim tatah kim

One may think,
“I am honored in foreign lands, and am prosperous in my homeland,
In righteous conduct, nobody surpasses me.”
But, if one’s mind is not centered upon the Guru’s holy feet,
What is the use? What then? What then? What then?

क्षमामण्डले भूपभूपालवृन्दैः
सदा सेवितं यस्य पादारविन्दम्
मनश्चेन्न लग्नं गुरोरंघ्रिपद्मे
ततः किं ततः किं ततः किं ततः किम्

kshamA-maNDale bhUpa-bhupAla-vRundaih
sadA sevitam yasya pAdA-(a)ravindam
manashcenna lagnam guror-anghri-padme
tatah kim tatah kim tatah kim tatah kim

Emperors and rulers from all over the world
May constantly praise you and worship your feet,
But, if one’s mind is not centered upon the Guru’s holy feet,
What is the use? What then? What then? What then?

यशो मे गतं दिक्षु दानप्रतापात्
जगद्वस्तु सर्वं करे सत्प्रसादात्
मनश्चेन्न लग्नं गुरोरंघ्रिपद्मे
ततः किं ततः किं ततः किं ततः किम्

yasho me gatam dikshu dAna-pratApat
jagad-vastu sarvam kare yat-prasAdat
manashcenna lagnam guror-anghri-padme
tatah kim tatah kim tatah kim tatah kim

One may think,
“My fame has traveled in all directions, through my philanthropy and penance;
As a result, all things in this world are within my grasp.”
But, if one’s mind is not centered upon the Guru’s holy feet,
What is the use? What then? What then? What then?

न भोगे न योगे न वा वाजिराजौ
न कान्तासुखे नैव वित्तेषु चित्तम्
मनश्चेन्न लग्नं गुरोरंघ्रिपद्मे
ततः किं ततः किं ततः किं ततः किम्

na bhoge na yoge na vA vAjirAjau
na kAnta-mukhe naiva vitteShu cittam
manashcenna lagnam guror-anghri-padme
tatah kim tatah kim tatah kim tatah kim

One’s mind may have turned away from physical delights, Yogic practices, worldly possessions*
One may neither be attached to their beloved’s face nor to riches;
But, if one’s mind is not centered upon the Guru’s holy feet,
What is the use? What then? What then? What then?

*literally from vAjin, meaning “horses”

अरण्ये न वा स्वस्य गेहे न कार्ये
न देहे मनो वर्तते मे त्वनर्घ्ये
मनश्चेन्न लग्नं गुरोरंघ्रिपद्मे
ततः किं ततः किं ततः किं ततः किम्

araNye na vA svasya gehe na kArye
na dehe mano vartate me tvanarghye
manashcenna lagnam guror-anghri-padme
tatah kim tatah kim tatah kim tatah kim

One may think they have achieved the highest detachment:
“My mind doesn’t think of the forest or the home, or of what is yet to be accomplished;
I am neither concerned with this body, nor with priceless treasures.”
But, if one’s mind is not centered upon the Guru’s holy feet,
What is the use? What then? What then? What then?

गुरोरष्टकं यः पठेत्पुण्यदेही
यतिर्भूपतिर्ब्रह्मचारी च गेही
लभेत् वांछितार्थ पदं ब्रह्मसंज्ञं
गुरोरुक्तवाक्ये मनो यस्य लग्नम्

guror-aShTakam yah paThet-puNya-dehI
yatir-bhUpatir-brahmacAri ca gehI
labhet vAnCHit-Artham padam brahma-samjnam
guror-ukta-vakye mano yasya lagnam

Whoever studies and recites these verses in praise of the Guru,
Whether they be an ascetic, king, student, or householder,
Such a person would attain the ultimate goal of union with Brahman
By remaining devoted to the teachings of the Guru.


As always, any corrections/suggestions to my translation would be greatly appreciated! (Source 1, source 2)

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2 thoughts on “In Praise of the Teacher: the Guru Ashtakam”

  1. Nice that you posted this on July 10th (“Silence Day”).

    The musical rendition, though surprisingly orchestrated in an east-west meld, is bewitchingly lovely – mainly due to the qualities of the Sanskrit singing.

    Like

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