BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day
10th July 1998
What is the connection between forest fires in Florida and yesterday’s observance by Hindus of Guru Purnima – the day to honour one’s guru?
The answer is a devotional hymn by a 17th century Bengali saint, Visvanath Cakravarti, in which the metaphor of dousing a raging forest fire is used to explain the role of the guru in transmitting spiritual knowledge. The fires in Florida that have destroyed nearly half a million acres were the result of freak weather conditions and are a salutary reminder of our vulnerability in the face of nature.
The US has spent about 100 million pounds in the fire-fighting effort. Even with the latest technology and methods, the people of the Sunshine State are still left hoping that nature will be kind and send a persistent rainstorm.
That is the basis of Visvanath Cakravati’s song. We may be confident of our ability to handle life’s little problems, but there are some things which are beyond our capability to change. Visvanath particularly identifies the cycle of samsara – the process that takes us from birth, through old age to death and around to a further birth and so on. It is not within our personal power to break free from that cycle, but it can be achieved with help from above.
In the same way that a forest fire is extinguished by a deluge from the clouds, so our material conditioning may be overcome by spiritual enlightenment showered upon us. In the forest fire analogy, the cloud that delivers the rain is the spiritual master, or guru.
Unfortunately, the term “guru” has suffered bad press. We tend to think of some long-bearded mystic offering advice on everything from universal truth to double-entry book-keeping – and all for a price to fund his jet-setting lifestyle.
Charlatans aside, “guru” means “teacher”, “one who is heavy with knowledge”. In whatever field gurus specialise – art, medicine, politics or spirituality - the title implies that they have received training within a wisdom tradition, that they have realised the message, practise it and are able to impart it to their students.
The Hindu scripture, Bhagavad-gita, recommends that if we want to understand spiritual truth, we should approach someone who has seen the truth. But, Visvanath’s song is a reminder that the guru (indeed, any representative of God) is not the actual source of knowledge and grace. In his words, the cloud receives the gift it bears from the “ocean of mercy”.
We may have labelled the world’s seas for geographical purposes, but there is really only one ocean. That one ocean gives rise to innumerable clouds – all of whom pass on a benediction for human society.
© BBC This script was commissioned by the BBC for broadcast as “Thought for the Day” on the Today programme Radio 4.