The occasion of Guru Purnima gives us the chance to reflect upon the greatest discourses of all time.
Amongst these great discourses, surely, are the ones delivered in utter silence.
Which is the greatest spiritual discourse of all time? I seriously pondered over this question given the upcoming Guru Purnima celebrations. At the outset, I must say that this is not an attempt to assert the superiority of one tradition over another.
Swami Vivekananda proclaimed in his address at the final session of the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, “If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world, it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written in spite of resistance: ‘Help and not fight,’ ‘Assimilation and not Destruction,’ ‘Harmony and Peace and not Dissension.’ ”
Vivekananda’s speech at the parliament of religions could be a choice for the greatest, for its profound introduction to Yoga and Vedanta to the West. The global spread of Yoga, and the idea of pluralism ultimately owe to this beginning. There are of course many other choices as well, such as Buddha’s first discourse in Sarnath, Moses’ unveiling of the 10 Commandments, Jesus’ sermon on the mount or Prophet Muhammad’s last discourse. The ancient Hindu upanishads are dialogues between the master and his disciples and thus are discourses as well. There are numerous other examples – from Rumi to Ramakrishna, Confucius to Lao Tsu – that have moved and inspired millions.
One obvious yardstick to ascribe 'greatness' might simply be: how many people today subscribe to these teachings? This would ignore the non-proselytising nature of some traditions and factors such as imperial conquests and colonialism that contributed to the growth of others. In any case, there is no new or interesting perspective to be gained. My own ruminations led me to yet another possible criterion, namely whether the discourse was delivered under unusual circumstances. All of the above examples are classic guru-disciple interactions. The teacher either was already revered by his audience or, at the very least, was expected to deliver a spiritual discourse.
Two examples stand out in my mind for being exceptional in this regard – the first for the unusual circumstances in which it was delivered and the second for the unusual manner of delivery.
The first is the Bhagavad Gita. That the Gita is a mighty inspiration to a billion Hindus and others in spite of, or perhaps because of, its situation on a battlefield makes it unusual enough. Many Hindu teachers do see the war in the Gita as a metaphor for the battle within each person. But war and killing are literally present in the text and are inextricably woven into the teachings. The teaching also comes at a point when least expected, at the start of a major war for which both sides have prepared for years. And indeed, the Gita begins with rather straightforward exhortations to fight for revenge, honour, warrior pride etc, before scaling sublime heights of spirituality. The Gita is powerful, extremely famous, and rightly so.
However, by the yardstick of being unusual, another discourse stands out even more. It is the much lesser known tradition of Dakshinamurti and merits focus on the occasion of Guru Purnima. Dakshinamurti is Lord Shiva. As a young yogi, he teaches much older students purely through silence, without any verbal exposition. He is referred to as the Adi guru or the 'first guru'. Shaivite, Advaitic and even many Shakta or goddess traditions of Hinduism consider Dakshinamurti as their Adi guru.
Dakshinamurti illustrates the purpose of the spiritual guru – to calm the seeker’s mind and enable her to realise the self within. He also represents the highest teaching of Hinduism – namely that there is no heaven-hell paradigm, no book whose words are to be simply followed with faith and that the truth about man’s real nature is to be experienced within. This truth cannot ultimately be mediated through texts, words or indeed even thoughts, for what is sought is the thinker herself and not the object of any thought. Dakshinamurti teaches that this is best done through silence, both the practice and the act of teaching. As Shankaracharya says in his famous hymn to Dakshinamurti:
Behold!! the unusual sight,
Very old disciples and a young teacher,
The teacher expounds in silence,
And the disciples’ doubts are dispelled.
But Dakshinamurti is clearly a figure from pre-historic times. Is it really possible to communicate spiritual teachings through silence? Has this ever actually been practised in Hindu history? Well, not only has it been practised, but emphatically and explicitly so. And not just in the puranas or in the millennia past but in the 20th century no less! Sri Ramana Maharshi, the great Advaitic master, was frequently compared with Dakshinamurti for his long spells of profound peaceful silence.
The Maharshi lived his life as a teacher without a shred of privacy for a remarkable 54 years. Until his bodily health started failing, anyone, even animals, could enter the cave or the small hut he lived in at any time of the day or night. His silence was seen to be perpetual, not something assumed from time to time or under specific circumstances. To the limited extent that the Maharshi spoke, he often explicitly and strongly emphasised the virtues of silence (According to one Tamil tradition, Dakshinamurti himself attempted to answer the doubts of his disciples verbally for a year before staying silent).
To a question, as to why he does not go about and preach the truth to the people at large, the Maharshi replied:
How do you know I am not doing it? Does preaching consist in mounting a platform and haranguing the people around? Preaching is simple communication of knowledge; it can really be done in silence only.
To those, who attempted to make a recording of his voice, he responded gently: “My voice is silence. How can you record it?”
Or even more explicitly, on the power of silence:
How does speech arise? First there is abstract knowledge. Out of this arises the ego, which in turn gives rise to thought, and thought to the spoken word. So the word is the great grandson of the original source. If the word can produce an effect, judge for yourself how much more powerful must be the preaching through silence.
Silence is the most potent form of work. However vast and emphatic the scriptures may be, they fail in their effect. The Guru is quiet and peace prevails in all. His silence is vaster and more emphatic than all the scriptures put together.
Silence is the true teaching. It is the perfect instruction suited only for the most advanced seeker. The others are unable to draw full inspiration from it. Therefore they require words to explain the Truth. But Truth is beyond words. It does not admit of explanation. All that it is possible to do is to indicate it.
All of this was not mere theory. The Maharshi lived what he taught. The most prominent characteristic about him, testified to by kings and peasants, Indians and Westerners, atheists and the devout of all religions, was the power of his silence and its ability to quell distress in the minds of ordinary folk, and quieten inquisitive, scholarly minds as well.
On a Shivaratri day, after dinner, Bhagavan was reclining on the sofa surrounded by many devotees. A Sadhu suggested that, since this was a most auspicious night, the meaning of the verse in praise of Dakshinamurti should be made clear. Bhagavan gave his approval and all were eagerly waiting for him to say something. He simply sat, gazing at us. We were gradually absorbed in ever deepening silence, which was not disturbed by the clock striking the hour, every hour, until 4 a.m. None moved or talked. Time and space ceased to exist. Bhagavan’s grace kept us at peace and silence for seven hours. In this silence, Bhagavan taught us the Ultimate, like Dakshinamurti. At the stroke of four Bhagavan asked us whether we had understood the meaning of the silent teaching. Like waves on the infinite ocean of bliss, we fell at Bhagavan’s feet.T K Sundaresa Iyer, Ramana Smrti Souvenir
And here is British journalist Paul Brunton’s recollection of his first meeting with the Maharshi in his best-selling book, A Search in Secret India.
There is something in this man which holds my attention as steel filings are held by a magnet... My initial bewilderment, my perplexity at being totally ignored, slowly fade away as this strange fascination begins to grip me more firmly. But it is not till the second hour of the uncommon scene that I become aware of a silent, resistless change which is taking place within my mind. One by one, the questions which I prepared in the train with such meticulous accuracy drop away... I know only that a steady river of quietness seems to be flowing near me; that a great peace is penetrating the inner reaches of my being, and that my thought-tortured brain is beginning to arrive at some rest... I surrender myself to the steadily deepening sense of restfulness until two hours have passed... Does this man, the Maharshi, emanate the perfume of spiritual peace as the flower emanates fragrance from its petals?
The influence of his silence was not limited to human beings. Suri Nagamma, who lived near the Maharshi’ ashram, wrote the following in one of her many letters to her brother.
One morning about September or October 1945, a devotee from Bangalore, by name Venkataswami Naidu, brought a pair of pigeons and gave them to the Asramam as an offering. Seeing that, Bhagavan said, “We have to protect them from cats etc, is it not? Who will look after them? A cage is required, food must be given. Who will do all that here? It is better for him to take them away.” Mr Naidu said he would make all the required arrangements and requested that they should be kept in the Asramam. He placed the pair of pigeons in Swamiji’s lap. With overflowing affection and love, Bhagavan drew them near him, saying, “Come dears! Come! You won’t go back? You wish to stay on here? All right, stay on; a cage will be coming.” As he thus petted them with affection, they became absolutely quiet, closed their eyes... and stayed on there without moving this way or that… It took nearly an hour for the Asramam to find a cage for them. The wonder of it is, all through that one hour, the pigeons sat in Bhagavan’s lap without moving one way or the other as if they were a pair of Yogis in samadhi... when the cage was brought in, Bhagavan patted them cajolingly and put them in the cage, saying, “Please go in. Be safe in the cage.”
Dakshinamurti is a truly astonishing idea. It is not merely that the seeker obtains the inner experience in silence but that even the communication of the teaching is best done via silence. As the great Tamil saint Tayumanavar said, “Silence is the ocean into which the rivers of all the religions discharge themselves”. When words are made redundant, the physical presence of a guru is no longer necessary. The silence of the Maharshi is still felt in his abode at Arunachala, in Tamil Nadu, just as much as when he graced it with his physical presence. Guru Purnima is the occasion to reflect upon the Adi guru. His is a discourse to end all discourses. That ought to rank as one of the greatest of all time.