shishya -disciple

If you seek enlightenment from those (Gurus) who have realized the Truth, prostrate before them, question them, and serve them. Only then are you open to receive the teachings of this sacred knowledge. – The Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4:34

Are you ‘ready’ to be a student-seeker ? I have asked myself the same question many times.

When I’m failing in my practice – i.e., reacting instead of responding, arguing instead of practicing silence, judging instead of accepting – realizing that I’m not abiding by the yoga principles of Yama and Niyama; then I wonder if I’m really ready? Of course when everything is going well, my answer is affirmative. Until the next time I fail.

The path to enlightenment is an arduous one. Before embarking on this path, you too, must determine your motives to be sure that this is the right decision for you in order to avoid mistakes and regrets.

Student or Disciple

In Samskritham, the words for student are छात्रा, chhatra, विद्यार्थिन्, vidyarthin; while disciples are referred to as शिष्य, shishya, चेल, chela, साधक, sadhakaThere are many stages of evolution from being a student to transforming into a disciple. Often, it is beyond the ability of a student to determine his or her own stage of evolution and exact needs.

A student is someone who is at the very beginning of a spiritual/yoga quest, still in the process of finding the reason to start such a quest or may not even be aware that there is actually a quest. She or he is exploring an array of yoga classes, selection of practices and variety of teachers; may also be enjoying being a big part of this material world. They appear to demonstrate a lack of seriousness as there is a freedom to schedule or cancel this practice at any time. Being a student is where we all begin.

After a few hard lessons from exploratory practices, a yoga-student slowly transforms into a spiritual seeker; someone who realizes there is something beyond the ego-self that influences —an intangible, nameless, that cannot be explained. While some name this intangible as Spirit, Universe, or God; Yoga Sutras refers to this ethereal as Ishvara, the un-manifested Cosmic Consciousness. A craving to see the unseen, to know the unknown and to name the nameless emerges. This seeker feels an urge to commit to one path, has a longing to find a true guide and a yearning to know this Nameless Absolute. A student-seeker is born, – still with remnants of finite expectations and fastidious demands; who at once has to commit to purification practices.

Preparation to receive a Guru

According to Svami Satyasanganada Saraswati, the first step is to prepare yourself mentally, physically and emotionally; “The best way to do this is to expose yourself as much as possible to Satsang, spiritual companionship, discourses, talks and discussions on all spiritual matters. You must look for people with great wisdom who can interpret the fundamental truths of life as revealed through the scriptures, people who can inspire you to introspect.” I am grateful for the podcasts of Swamis and surplus of books readily available that give me innumerable chances to prepare myself.

Second, you must have a daily yoga practice, Abhyasa. Here, you are constantly reflecting on your strengths and overcoming your limitations and weaknesses to bring clarity to your life’s purpose. I can vouch for that – and can’t begin to tell you what this path of yoga has done and is continuing to do for me. I will be totally lost without Raja Yoga’s tools. Yogis declare that if you feel ready for a Guru;  if you have been following the yamas and niyamas (yoga’s ethical practices) diligently, and have gone as far as possible on the path of yoga without much help– then you should sincerely pray for a Guru.

Third, until meeting the Guru, you should continue learning from a qualified teacher and purifying your conduct. Bob, my teacher, insisted we take classes from peers when I was teaching classes in PA. I didnt realize the value of that until I moved to NJ. It will take time – maybe years to find the right Guru; it depends on the sincerity and regularity of your practice; but you must be prepared to wait. Ultimately yogis assert that your perceptive and intuitive powers will enable you to recognize the Guru suited for you when the time comes.

Paramahamsa Yogananda says unless you have purified yourself through yogic practices, you will not realise the true greatness of a liberated sage or Guru. When he or she appears before you, you will mistake him/her for an ordinary person, finding faults as to why he or she isn’t the right teacher for you. Guru will not do anything for you, until you are fit to receive; i.e. to receive the spiritual instructions with an open mind, devotional heart and work hard to follow them.

Svami Rama said, “We should not worry about who will guide us. The question is: Am I prepared to be guided?  You’ll never meet a bad guru if you are a good student. But the reverse is also true; if you are a bad student, you won’t meet a good guru. Why should a good guru assume responsibility for a bad student? If you are in search of a guru, search within first. Don’t grumble because you don’t have a teacher. Ask whether you deserve one. Are you capable of attracting one?”

Guru-Shishya, Disciple Relationship

Yogis suggest that for most student-seekers, a living Guruthe highest spiritual teacher is a must; so that the ego does not get in the way, and doubts about the instructions will be instantly clarified. The seeker should stick to one Guru for the same reason. Constantly changing Gurus will only cause more confusion and doubt. When you have made a commitment to a Guru, have pledged your loyalty to him or her, and dedicated your life to the study of the Divine, you have crossed over into the realm of being a Shishyadisciple.

Still, the Guru-Shishya relationship relies more on the faith of the disciple than just the skills of the Guru. Here is a great story from the spiritual epic, the MahabharataDronacharya, the Guru to the royal princes in the story, refused to accept a young boy named Ekalavya as his disciple. Undaunted, Ekalavya created a clay image of guru Dronacharya, and completely surrendered to him. Everyday, he sat in front of this clay image, meditated upon his Guru. Receiving his guidance intuitively, Ekalavya performed the practices – daily – with discipline, dedication and devotion. Soon, Ekalavya mastered all that Dronacharya could teach, without any physical contact with his Guru. Isn’t this fascinating and inspiring?

Paramahamsa Yoganandaji has given the assurance that, after his passing he would still guide faithful students. He stated, “When I am gone the teachings will be The Guru. Through the teachings you will be in tune with me and the great Gurus who sent me.” However, nothing pleases the Guru more than seeing the shishya, disciple stand on his or her own two feet; at some point the disciple must continue the practices alone, to reach the final goal of freedom from bondage. The sequence is to find the Guru, obey, learn and love the Guru, and then leave the Guru.

Qualities of a Shishya, Disciple

There are two types of disciples;

  • the renunciate like the monks and swamis
  • the lay disciple like the householder

A desire to become a disciple is wonderful; still to become a perfect disciple requires a cleansing of the ego through service. Are you ready to make an effort to cultivate the qualities listed below to be a perfect disciple?

A Disciple…

  1. Is a resolute spiritual seeker, committed to delve deeper to find answers to those unanswerable questions
  2. Maintains an attitude of openness and humility to inner promptings
  3. Evaluates life according to yogic/spiritual disciplines and applies it effectively to life without being distracted by the worldly temptations
  4. Recognizes the body as the temple of the Nameless Absolute, and is empowered to observe thought, word and deed as an act of prayer
  5. Embraces all differences with humility; does not boast about one’s practice or look down on others practices
  6. Engages in work and service while allowing time for rest and Sadhana, personal spiritual discipline
  7. Is committed to living a monastic, ashram life, surrendering the ego to the Guru
  8. Is engrossed in the strict practice of austerity, self-analysis and devotion

Adi Shankaracharya (788-820 AD) in his book Tattva Bodha dictates the requirement of four qualifications for a disciple. And, Patanjali’s (approx. 120 BC-400 AD) Yoga Sutras details the steps this disciple-seeker must take in order to attain the highest goal, Kaivalya, freedom from bondage.


Remember that the Guru may not look the way you expect and may not be accessible for your convenience. Svami Satyananda says although the Guru’s sincere wish is your emancipation; but don’t expect the Guru to bend over backwards for you. The effort to learn must come from you.

You will be tested to find out how deep is your longing, how strong your commitment and how many excuses you create for your practice. Your dedication to sit daily at your Guru’s feet, your sincerity in listening and following the teachings with reverence is crucial for your progress.

“I am always ready to help you,” said Svami Sivananda. “I will radiate joy, peace, and thought-currents of love to you. I will inspire you. But I cannot do the work for you. You will have to do the work. The struggle and exertion must come from you.”

Sometimes I do wonder where I fall on the continuum of transformation from student to disciple. Then again, if I can wake up each day with renewed enthusiasm to persist on the path of Raja Yoga, I am grateful.


Further Reading

  2. Saraswati, Satyasangananda Svami; Light on Guru-Disciple Relationship.1983. Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, Bihar, India.
  3. Shankaracharya, Adi Sri; Tattva Bodha.2005. Commentary by Swami Tejomayananda, Chinmaya Mission Trust, Langhorne, PA
  4. Patanjali; Yoga Sutra. Many commentaries available

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