Our Gurus, Our Teachers

By Shyama Parui

“Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu, Guru devo Maheshwara, Guru sakshat Param Brahma, Tasmay shri guru ve namah"

“A Guru is Shiva himself, manifested as a human." A popular Hindu sloka (i.e. prayer) declares, “The Guru is Brahma, the Guru is Vishnu, the Guru is Shiva. Indeed, the Guru is the Supreme Absolute. To that Guru I offer my reverent salutations.“

Ancient India

This well-known Sanskrit shloka indicates the elevated status gurus have been granted in Hindu philosophy. In ancient times, when knowledge was transmitted not through written or printed material, but orally through words, it was of utmost importance to gain spiritual knowledge from teachers who were guides for life. In terms of Hindu Vedic tradition, a guru was a reputed brahmana, who performed rituals considered to be purification ceremonies and initiated young students into the study of the Vedas. It was believed that a true guru was one who had knowledge of the Vedas and was self-realized. In addition to spiritual leaders, there were gurus or teachers who offered instruction on various professions in exchange for fees, referred to as “guru artha". They were respected subject matter experts. For the disciple, the guru's mind was like a treasure trove that held knowledge and was filled with maps that led to the path of success. Students were forever indebted to such a teacher, who was often the sole source of vital information. At the end of their training students owed the guru his or her dakshina (an offering to the teacher). The guru was not questioned or criticized. The disciple's skill was perceived as a reflection of the guru's reputation. Kings persuaded the best of gurus to train their heirs in the art of warfare and statesmanship. In the field of dance and music too, the guru was revered.

During admission and graduation season conversations related to education came up frequently and that inevitably led to the topic of teachers. This month, I wanted to share some deliberations about our modern-day gurus, who offer academic training.

My India of 20+ years

Although, education is not imparted the way it was hundreds of years ago, the guru-shishya (teacher-disciple) relationship is still critical to successful learning. As a culture, Indians living in India or abroad, still hold their teachers or gurus in high esteem. Or do they?

When I was a student in Mumbai my goals were few and simple. I had to go to school, complete homework and assignments and get good grades on every test. Fairly typical for my generation. Extra-curricular pursuits such as sports and art were acceptable if they didn't interfere with our studies. Students were expected to respect and obey the teachers in the classroom. I don't recall my parents entertaining any of my complaints about school. They reminded us that education was a gift from Maa Saraswati (the Goddess of Learning). If I didn't particularly “like" a teacher or subject, my only option was to grin and bear it. Most of us realized directly or indirectly how teachers deeply influenced our love for a certain subject. My high school English teacher was one of the reasons I enjoyed literature and writing. I still remember Ms. Teresa, with her beaming smile, neat bun and perfectly draped cotton sarees. She had a wicked sense of humor, but she used it to build up the students rather than break them down. Over the years, she must have surely nudged many students toward careers related to language and literature or inspired them to become teachers. Looking back, I feel fortunate that I personally, did not encounter any toxic experiences with teachers although in all my years of academic pursuit, I had my fair share of good, great, and forgettable teachers.

However, I wonder if many students suffered because of incompetent or abusive teachers. There is a downside to having blind faith in educators. If the person in charge of the classroom shuts down relevant discussions or discourages questions, learning takes a backseat. Corporal punishment in schools has likely traumatized many children. In fact, the abuse of athletes by coaches speaks to the demerits of unconditional followership.

My US of almost 20 years

As a graduate student in the US, I observed a relaxed approach in the classroom setting. Little things, such as eating in class, having casual conversations with professors were to my surprise, the norm. I enjoyed the open dialogues and discussions that were built into the instruction. It was okay to blurt out your answer, but due to my built-in politeness, I rarely got an opportunity to speak. As a teaching assistant to a class of college freshmen, it was not unusual for my students to ask for higher grades even when they did not meet the expectations of the assignment. Their inflated self-regard and sense of entitlement was perplexing and contributed to the culture-shock I had experienced on campus. It was easier for me to come to terms with the rare instances of stringent evaluations, because my school and college teachers in India didn't exactly hand out A+ like candy. Instead of taking it personally, I scrutinized the feedback so that I could ace the next assignment. A teacher's critique was not an attack on my abilities; instead it was information that pushed me to do better.

Watching my children grow as learners in this country has been an educational experience for me too. A few years ago, the Principal at my children's elementary school remarked that he and his staff were impressed by how respectful Indian and Indian American students were. As I chatted about some of the cultural differences, he requested that I share more information with the school's teachers to provide some cross-cultural knowledge. During the presentation, I saw a lot of head nods and “aha" moments as they were able to understand the context behind the behaviors.

One of the best features about the US is compulsory education. Nothing with the term compulsory sounds good, but in my humble opinion despite its imperfections, education provides an opportunity to level the playing field. On the flip side, state sponsored education is also affected by politics. Teacher pay, selection and training become the subject of public scrutiny and endless debate. Often, when discussions and decisions regarding teaching are made, the opinions and ideas of teachers are overlooked. Interference by helicopter parents and over-confident students, not only aggravate teachers but they also corrode the importance of fair teachers in the eyes of students. It undermines the value of countless teachers who do an exceptional job under very trying circumstances.

Ruminations on these cross-cultural experiences compelled me to ask myself these critical questions:

Our children spend a large part of their waking hours in schools and receive instruction from individuals who have the power to influence them at an impressionable age. Wouldn't you want those individuals to be the best in their profession?

Stepping into parenthood made my husband and I, teachers by default and we know that fear is not conducive to learning and neither is complete conformity. In our experience the best environment is that of mutual respect. Shouldn't we commit to hiring teachers who deserve respect and treat their students as worthy individuals?

Isn't it time we put our money where our mouth is? If we want our children to excel in education to pave the way for a successful adulthood, then we must make recruitment and retention of competent teachers a priority.

Skepticism about the prestige of famous universities, that were citadels of learning, has arisen due to bribery scandals. The value of traditional college education itself is being challenged. Isn't it critical that we identify what education truly means to us?

On our part, let's vow to respect and value our worthy teachers and gurus.

Reference: www.hinduwebsite.com/hinduism/concepts/guru.asp

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Shyama is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: shyamashree_parui@hotmail.com