The teacher-student relationship can be an intimate and demanding one, especially when the two parties herald from different cultures. Birjoo Mehta studied with Guruji, Shree BKS Iyengar, since he was a young child. Now, in the first day of his conference on the Maha Bhutas, he began by contextualizing his teaching with a classic metaphor. We can no longer study at the feet of our guru, , but we can invoke the light of his teachings. Just as the sun illumines everything around it, the integrity of Guruji’s practice paved an approach to self-study that sweeps the cobwebs out of the most remote corners of the body and mind. It is now for us to internalize these teachings and call on the Guru Tattva within each of us.
Guru is like the sun, when he is around, all of us can benefit from his benevolence. Guru is one who makes the darkness light. Guru Tattva, essence of Guru, we see the light through the benevolence of the Guru. For we cannot see the essence of the Guru, we see his light through his teachings. The moon does not have the essence of the Guru, for the moon is a reflector. We can bask in the glory of his moon, his teachings, the reflection, or we can go to the stars and study through the essence of the Guru Tattva. – Birjoo Mehta
Let me explain. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is based on a cosmology rooted in the Samkhya system. One of six principal Darshanas, Samkhya is a philosophical interpretation of the laws of nature, the root of suffering, and the means to overcome suffering. Tattva literally means a “thatness”, truth, or principal. I might interpret/view the Tattvas as the yogic parallel to our modern day physics, except that the root of everything in Samkhya is consciousness. Hence, the Tattvas evolve from an all-encompassing Knowing through the most subtle form of mind out into the world of earth, water, fire, air and either that we then see, hear, taste, feel and smell through our sense organs. Classically, there are 25 Tattvas. Birjoo poetically suggested a 26th, the Guru Tattva. How appropriate!
After Guruji’s passing, many people asked what would happen to the Iyengar lineage, the teachings, and who would take the helm. Geetaji, Prashanti, and Abhijata, the immediate members of the family well known to most of us, already teach amazingly insightful classes, meditations and wisdom practices. Those of us embedded in the Iyengar system have no doubt that the study will evolve. But of course, when the pole star disappears, there is a period of soul searching. Birjoo encapsulated these times with his words and teachings.
What an image: his suggestingthat we should now reach to the stars, each our own pole star, and invoke the essence of the Guru Tattva Then, he introduced one of my favorite slokas from the Bhagavad Gita:
What is night for the ordinary person is day for the yogi, and what is day for the ordinary person is night for the yogi. – BG 2.69
As noted above, we experience reality through our senses of perception, and through the mind that interprets and relates everything to our internally created sense of order. This sloka implies that our “ordinary” reality is like night, or ignorance, to one who is truly awakened. It is even difficult for me to imagine what this awakened state might be like, much akin to explaining the smell or color of a rose to one who can neither smell nor see. Metaphors abound. The awakened state is akin to being the ocean rather than a drop in the ocean, or to how salt dissolves in water. The salt and water merge completely into an undifferentiated whole. This is the insight of the awakened person. This transcendence is the light of the Guru Tattva.
My take away from Birjoo’s opening welcome was to remember that Yoga is about the story of the soul. While we may practice to reduce the pain in our back, to build community, or to appease emotional suffering, ultimately Yoga is a path to freeing ourselves of all the distractions that shield us from the glory of being truly alive. I have no words to even point to what that means, for I am still in the Ru (darkness) of appearances and invoke the Guru Tattva in my daily life. Jai Guruji!
Launching the conference with this explanation, Birjoo was free to introduce his experience with the Maha Bhutas -the elements of earth, water, fire, air and space. Guruji rarely referred to the bhutas in practice, as he felt that we needed to first master how our limbs and breath worked. Birjoo relied on his own practice and a few pointers that Guruji gave in 1995 to develop his material. The conference was truly amazing, and perhaps even more so as it showed how a senior teacher has called forth the light of the Guru as the “remover of darkness” moves on. May we all practice with such integrity, and become lights unto one another.
Most Iyengar teachers begin their classes with the invocation to Patanjali. Sometimes I add that we give thanks for the wisdom in the Yoga Sutras, and for anything and anyone who brings some insight into our lives. These are small Guru Tattvas. Those who were not graced to have known Guruji personally can study the reflection of his light through his works and his words, and can embrace every insight that remove darkness, the Guru Tattva.
My next post will explore how Birjoo delineated the story of the body, the sensations and feelings, and the greater story of the soul.