« Guru & Disciple »: A Documentary Film on the Vedantic Path of Self-Realization
In 2008, as we were gathering material for a book project, my wife, Patricia Reynaud and I had the opportunity to meet Swami Swarupananda Saraswati who is the Shankarācārya for Northern and Western India in his monastery at Jyothirmath, in the Himalayas. Since then, we came to visit him regularly and that is how the idea of a documentary film about the Master-Disciple Tradition in contemporary India originated.
Advaita Vedānta is arguably one of the most influential traditional schools of Hinduism (traditionally called Sanātana Dharma or the “Perennial Law”). It is not a philosophy in the modern sense of the term, being primarily based on a non-dualist interpretation of the Upanishad, the last portion of the Veda. For Western scholars, the early Upanishad were composed around the 7th or 6th century BC during what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, but for traditional Hindus, they are part of the sruti, of a body of sacred knowledge revealed to the Primordial Seers or rishi at the beginning of the cycle. According to the Upanishad, Brahman is the only Reality. Because of our lack of discrimination, we identify ourselves with the body and confuse reality with the names and forms (nāmarūpa). These names and forms are illusorily superimposed on the One-without-a-second. By listening, reflecting and meditating on the teaching of the Upanishad, ignorance (avidyā) is eventually dispelled and the identity between the self and the Absolute is realized. This state of identity is our true nature and is called Liberation, Moksha, in the Hindu scriptures. It also entails a release from the beginningless cycle of death and rebirth.
One could argue that those seers, mentioned in the Veda, such as Vamadeva or Yajnavalkya, were the first teachers of Advaita Vedānta. Historically however, Advaita Vedānta can be traced back closer to us to Gaudapada, the author of a commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad and to Adi Shankara. For Western scholars, Shankara lived around the 8th century CE. For traditional Hindus, he was more or less a contemporary of the Buddha. Not only did he comment on the Brahmasūtra, the main Upanishad and the Bhagavad Gītā, but he also established four “seats” (matha) or monasteries that still exist day at the four corners of India: in the North at Jyothirmath, close to the holy city of Badrinath, in the West at Dwarka, the mythical city of Krishna, in the East at Puri and in the South at Sringeri. Kanchipuram is sometimes added to the list. At the head of each seat is a Shankarācārya whose lineage can be traced back to one of the four major disciples of Adi Shankara (the “original” Shankara). Although their concrete influence in modern India can be debated, they are the guardians of Hindu Orthodoxy in our age of disorder and confusion, the infamous Kali Yuga of the Purāṇa.
Swami Swarupananda Saraswati is a major spiritual figure in contemporary Hinduism, although he remains largely ignored outside of India. Born in Madya Pradesh, central India, on September 2nd, 1924 he was attracted to religious life from an early age. After studying Sanskrit in Varanasi and getting involved in the Indian independence movement, he became the disciple of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati who was at the time the Shankarācārya of Jyothirmath. In December 21st, 1949 he was ordained Dandi sannyāsin by his guru during a ceremony performed in Kolkata. Swami Swarupananda Saraswati also studied with Uriya Baba, a famous Vedantic ascetic from the North and, upon the death of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, with his disciple Swami Karpatri. Swami Karpatri, whose works have now started to be translated into French and English, was a scholar but also initiated him to the Śrī Vidyā, the worship of the Goddess Sri Lalitā Tripurasundarī. In 1973, Swami Swarupananda Saraswati became Shankarācārya of Jyothirmath, in the North. In 1982, he became Shankarācārya of Dwarka, thus becoming the first Shankarācārya holding two seats.
The documentary was filmed in December 2016. Some of the interviews took place in Varanasi, the holy city located in the North on the banks of the Ganga, others at the Paramhansi Ganga Ashram, an ashram of Swami Swarupananda Saraswati in Madhya Pradesh, in the proximity of a place where he performed ascetic exercises in his younger years. There are many films about some particular guru. Our goal however was not to produce a piece of hagiography. Swami Swarupananda Saraswati is presented in the film as an example of a living representative of a tradition dating back to the time of Adi Shankara. The focus was not on him as a person but on the process of knowledge transmission in a contemporary Vedantic lineage. Knowledge transmission is central to Hinduism in general and in Advaita Vedānta in particular. As Professor Laude explains in one of the interviews, you cannot read in a book and realize the Self or the Paramātman. Sacred Knowledge, because it cannot be reduced to a purely theoretical matter, should be incarnated in the person of a teacher or guru before being passed on to a disciple. That is why also a process of initiation (or dīksha) is involved. Initiation can take several forms, although most commonly it implies the transmission of a mantra. Like a seed (bīja), it will be planted by the guru in the disciple’s heart. Through the spiritual practice or sadhana, this seed will gradually develop, thus bearing fruit over the course of a life-time or many lives.
Ultimately, the goal is one – the realization of the supreme identity between the Self and the Absolute – but the paths are many. We interviewed several disciples. Some are following the path of knowledge (jñāna-mārga), others the path of devotion (bhakti-mārga) or the path of action (karma-mārga). Too often Westerners tend to lose sight of the fact that only a minority is qualified for the path of knowledge and that they may not be ready for it themselves. There is also a religious dimension to Vedānta, based on the worship of the “chosen deities” or Ishtadevatā that some Westerners, who may have rejected their own religious tradition, prefer to ignore. In the film, we tried to balance between different views of Advaita Vedānta, some being more familiar to Westerners than others.
A final question raised by this film needs to be addressed. It is often assumed that, whereas neo-Hinduism welcomes Indians and non-Indians alike, the path of traditional Hinduism is barred to foreigners because of the caste system. This might have been partially true in the past, although Tantric paths always disregarded caste divisions. In contemporary India however, as Indians are sometimes forgetting their own traditions, representatives of the Sanātana Dharma are more prone to accept foreign disciples, provided they are able to demonstrate that their intentions are pure and are ready to follow seriously a sādhana. As Álvaro Enterría observed in the article published above:
“If, from the ritual point of view, a foreigner is practically considered an untouchable, from that of knowledge (jñāna) there is no such limitation, and the latter can be given to whosoever has the necessary qualifications and is worthy of it.”
One cannot also ignore the fact that for traditional Hindus, the Sanātana Dharma is the “Primordial Tradition.” For a Westerner, receiving an Hindu dīksha amounts therefore to a return to the source of all religions.
Renaud Fabbri (originally published in Aditi 1)
Photos copyright Alexi Liotti