In the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, we see a very distressed Arjuna whose mind is confused and full of anxiety. He tells his chariot driver, Krishna, that he doesn’t think he can go into battle and gives many reasons why. He wants to quit his job and professional career as a soldier, renounce his princely title, shirk his responsibilities and is thinking about retiring into the forest as a yogi. Krishna tells him that that is not a good idea, which only confuses him more. His confusion leads him to ask Krishna to explain some things to him about yoga. At this point, Arjuna is suffering, has hit rock bottom, and doesn’t know what to do. He surrenders to Krishna and asks for help. So in the beginning of the fourth chapter, Krishna replies, “Since you asked, since you are my devotee, since you are my friend and because you love me, okay, I will.”
The fact that before Krishna gives the yoga teachings to Arjuna he states why he will be able to embark on the discourse—this is an important point to consider. Only when a student is ready, receptive, and willing to learn can the teacher impart the knowledge. Traditionally yoga teachers do not proselytize; they wait to be asked by the student to teach. In this way, the student gives permission to the teacher to give teachings. It is the student who acknowledges the teacher as a guru.
Two other essential qualifications that enable transcendental teachings to be transmitted are love and respect. Krishna recognizes that Arjuna loves and respects Him by calling him His devotee, because love and respect are virtues found in devotion. When the teacher/student soul-to-soul relationship is mediated by love and respect then wisdom, as well as joy, is able to blossom.
Krishna also sites friendship as a prerequisite. “…because you are My friend you will be able to understand the transcendental mysteries of this…yoga.” Friends like each other, enjoy and feel comfortable in each other’s company. The warm-heartedness of a friend creates an atmosphere conducive for productive communication. A good friend is someone you can trust and who will tell you the truth in a kind constructive manner—someone who has your best interest in mind. Someone who wants to uplift and enhance you—not bring you down. A good friend is not blind to your shortcomings but doesn’t dwell on them, instead artfully finds ways to encourage your good qualities to shine. A good friend is your well-wisher. Certainly, there are good friends and bad friends. Bad friends do not encourage the goodness of your eternal soul to shine forth. Good friends want what is truly good for you. Spiritual friendship is important as it develops the quality of sattva. When both people are friends for the sake of their atman (eternal soul), the relationship grows in sattva—in goodness.
The relationship that Krishna and Arjuna have is presented as an ideal relationship between student and teacher—a relationship that has the potential to enlighten Arjuna—reveal to him his eternal blissful relationship with God, providing him with the means to transcend the material world of birth and death.
Like many of our own relationships, Krishna and Arjuna’s relationship is many-layered. They are connected through family. Arjuna is married to Krishna’s sister, Subhadra. Arjuna’s mother, Kunti is the sister of Krishna’s father, Vasudeva- making them cousins and brothers in law. They work together: Krishna is Arjuna’s driver. They are also close friends, buddies, and confidants, who have traveled together and had many shared adventures. But above all Arjuna sees himself as a student and recognizes Krishna as his spiritual preceptor and asks him to teach him. Arjuna knows that to humble himself and surrender to a teacher will bring exaltation to his soul and he is ready.
Through the reverence one has for their teacher, one’s perception of reality will be purified. By means of this purification the heart will awaken and the obstacles (kleshas) to yoga will melt away in the fire of loving devotion (bhakti). This awakening is the science of yoga and it deals with the remembrance of one’s connection to God. It is the most important purpose of one’s life.
The journey of awakening begins at birth. Your parents are your first gurus. Through respect for your parents, you learn how to listen, how to be humble, how to be receptive—the requirements for learning. This comes in handy when you are at a time in your life when you seek spiritual guidance and look for a guru. In the Vedic tradition of India there is a Sanskrit phrase: mata pita guru devam, which is a teaching that provides a practical method for the best order in which to develop loving reverence for the important beings in one’s life. For yoga practitioners to love and respect our parents (mata: mother, pita: father) is a prerequisite for being able to love and respect a guru, who through his or her teachings, puts us on the path to God (devam). But respect for parents, these days as therapists can attest to, is not in vogue. It is common for an adult person well into their old age to still be blaming their parents for the shortcomings of their own lives. Many people resent the family they were born into and insist that they were innocent victims and had no choice in the matter. The yogic system presents the view that we find ourselves born into our particular family by means of our own past karmas; in other words, we chose our parents before we were even born. Just as we choose our parents, we also choose our teachers.
In our current times, although Yoga is enjoying a rise in popularity, there is a lot of confusion about the roles of teacher and student. Yoga has become a business and it is the exchange of money, not enlightenment teachings, which underlie many of the modern yoga teacher/student relationships today leading to much confusion. It is not considered cool to respect one’s teacher. Reverence has been replaced by criticizing, finding fault, blaming, and complaining. Rebellion against one’s yoga teacher is often applauded as being original and breaking away from the rigors of conformity. Students feel justified in teaching their teachers. Why would a person stay with a teacher they did not respect? These days the most prevalent reason might be money and prestige. The teacher provides them with a job, there is money to be made also the association with that teacher may bring them a certain amount of credibility that they can’t get on their own. Another reason might be manipulation. Some students can be overpowered by tamasic tendencies and derive pleasure or a feeling of self-worth from trying to control or manipulate a teacher. Of course, there are vindicated reasons for breaking with a teacher. Over the past few years, there have been many cases of sexual abuse brought forward. Abuse should not be tolerated. Where there is mutual love and respect, the quality of sattva directs the relationship. A sattvic student/teacher relationship is built on the foundation of a sincere desire for enlightenment – shared by both parties with no other ulterior manipulative motive. Krishna and Arjuna’s teacher/student relationship was not a business deal—it was founded upon love, respect, and friendship.
Love has to come from the heart—it cannot be forced. Respecting someone can help you open your heart so that love will arise. Respect could be seen as a prerequisite to love. The meaning of the word “respect” is to look and to look again—to look deeply. Not to judge someone by face value. Respect enables us to see the good in someone, and allows us to let go of fault-finding. Love and respect are not virtues that someone can demand of another. But when these virtues are present in a spiritual relationship that relationship can easily provide fertile ground for prema to arise and increase. Prema is love for God and it is the highest form of love. When someone is enraptured by prema that love for the divine, that mood or bhava, overflows into love for all beings. In Sanskrit, this is called sarvatmabhava and it is what allows the person to become released from the clutches of avidya. When avidya lifts, the jiva understands that they are not their body or mind, this comprehension, instead of increasing self-importance makes one more humble. Humility is a winning ticket for the soul who yearns for yoga—for enlightenment.
The message is clear, to those who are interested in the science of yoga, it is of the utmost importance to do all you can to develop love, respect, and friendliness towards your parents and teachers. To let a life go by, without attempting to do so, is to waste your opportunity for true happiness—the remembrance of God.