The other day I had two conversations that got me thinking about spirituality, sectarianism, and intensity of practice. One conversation with an old ashram brother and the other was with a new Christian friend. In both conversations, a Sanskrit verse came to my mind.
एको देव एकधर्म एकनिष्ठा परं तपः।
गुरोः परतरं नान्यन्नास्ति तत्त्वं गुरोः परम्॥१६८॥
Eko deva ekadharma ekaniṣṭhā paraṁ tapaḥ|
Guroḥ parataraṁ nānyannāsti tattvaṁ guroḥ param||168||
We used to sing it every morning:
“(Following) One God, one dharma is the greatest austerity. There is nothing greater than the Guru, no principle greater than the Guru.”
It’s from a text called the Skanda Purana. We used to make it mean “OUR path is the greatest path, and one should never stray to another path or follow another guru.” If anyone left our community or stopped following our guru exclusively, or combined our teachings with other teachings, they were considered “lost” or “deluded” or “off” to a greater or lesser degree. Not by everyone in the community – but definitely by many. That path saved my life in many ways and I was among the zealous for sure.
This sort of thing isn’t exclusive to that particular ashram or spiritual path. It seems that nearly all paths have some version of this teaching. “None shall come to the Father but through Me” “The only God is our God” And off go the heads of the infidels. Or the people who begin to question the path are labled “SP – Suppressive Person”, and shunned. If you haven’t seen it already check out Going Clear – a really well made documentary about the Church of Scientology.
The way I read this very ancient and deep teaching has matured as I have walked my path (which has surely been full of great austerity) is that THERE IS ONLY ONE PATH. It’s our path – whatever it is. The “guru” is the path. Not the person sitting beneath the tree teaching us, but the gu-ru principle that is what is meant by guru-tattvam. It’s the power of transformation. It’s the journey from darkness (gu) to light (ru) – from ignorance to knowledge – from bondage to freedom. If we really want to be free that’s what we need to be loyal to above everything else.
Don’t get me wrong – having a guru – a master in your life that can guide you and direct you and embody that “guru principle” is very important. In my case it was essential. But there can be a way that we can lose sight of the principle by getting caught in that relationship – be it with the teacher or the teacher’s organization. Then if we get at odds with the organization or some aspect of the teacher, we can feel like we are somehow going to lose God’s love or sabotage our transformation. And I have found that the same energy that leads us to a particular path or guru or teaching or organization will lead us on to whatever else we need. Sometimes this includes leaving the group or changing our practice all together. Navigating this IS A HUGE AUSTERITY. Following rules and staying in line is kind of an austerity – but really not that big of a deal. Bailing and just quitting when the path gets hard or our ego gets challenged – that’s the easiest. What I’m talking about is when sincere seekers are tuned in enough to recognize when their path has turned, and they have the courage to follow the bend. That is tapasya – that is austerity.
“Param Tapah” is not about fidelity to a church or a path or a tribe or a doctrine – the “highest austerity” is a matter of STAYING ON THE PATH no matter what happens and continuously choosing to move toward our light.