the art of being a student.
Updated: Apr 21
Usually when it comes to eastern arts and sciences, the west is most of the times aiming at becoming “the teachers;” while in the east the focus is on “being a student,” to be able to go to the depth of this vast sciences and arts. So if one wishes to learn a foreign tradition, it is not only about the technique, but it is key to understand these subtle dimensions of the culture and tradition of learning Indian music, and if it doesn’t fit us or our style, one can choose to learn another tradition that suits us better.
It would be also inconceivable in the Indian culture, to call oneself “a representative or torch bearer” of an ancient tradition like Mantra, even for the most senior Maestros – It would be highly incorrect, arrogant and disrespectful to the magnificent power of sound discovered since millennia by the rishis (wise ones) in India, which ultimately comes only and only from God’s creation – and we are just humble “users.”
In India the work for student is Vidyārthi which means “the one who is interested in the true meaning of the knowledge" (science or art.) So as one can see from this word, the focus of the student is totally on going to the depth of certain art or knowledge, rather that becoming a performer, a teacher, or a representative. A student of music or any other art from India knows that it is a matter of years before his or her Teacher will approve him to be able to represent it in the public domain. And when this will happen is only decided by the teacher and not the student. A student trusts the teacher’s wisdom and that’s why they don’t question, they let him decide when he/she is ripe to share their knowledge with others or perform in public.
A student’s ability to be finally able to perform and share is a consequence of years of training, practice and patience; but it is never the goal or the purpose of studying music or another art.
I had heard a story from Osho once, about one of the most famous painter in India, known as Nandlal Bose, who was one of the finest painters from India. The story is that when he was young and learning from his Guru. One time he painted something very beautiful and came to show to his teacher who was sitting with a visitor. The teacher looked at the painting and threw it away across the room, and told the young Nandlal, “what kind of crap painting this is! …even the village people make better paintings on the walls of their huts!” So the young boy was very disappointed and left. Then the visitor told the teacher, that, “the painting was actually very beautiful, why did you throw it?” The teacher had tears in his eyes, and said, “yes, the painting was really beautiful, but because I know the boy’s potential, i don’t want that he stops here and my praise would hinder his progress.”
The system of learning in India is not maybe for everyone. Some people have the ego and the materialistic aspects of their personality too strong, then they are not ready for this type of culture, and the smarter thing to do is to learn something else. It is not coincidence in India that we have this system. Originally all these sciences and arts were transmitted orally – there was nothing written. So only those wise ones who had mastered a technique would be approached to learn from them. In this way, the tradition is protected, the right learning is guaranteed. Courses with “certification” don’t exist traditionally in music, dance, yoga, etc. in India – this is because the study extends along a lifetime... one never gets “certified,” and because people don’t study to “open a course” or with the purpose of “commercializing” what they learn, then the certification also is not needed.
That’s why also a very important element in our culture is the patience and the trust. And aspirants who do not have these qualities should abstain from this culture. I also say this so directly, because my experience is that a very high percentage of people who wish to learn mantra, music, yoga, ayurveda, Harmonium... etc are not learning for its true interest, but to open courses and teach, or even worse perform... so that’s how they start sharing things to people without the right knowledge, which is basically translated into cheating courses, where the affected are the participants, simply because they don't know. Mostly this happens in the so called “yoga-scene” in the west... teaching Indian music, Harmonium, mantra, tantra, etc. without any knowledge.
Once i was talking with a musician from Switzerland, and he was criticising our ancient system, questioning why in India they don’t create music conservatories like in Switzerland, etc. I was shocked to see that although i was talking with a person who was learning an Indian instrument, he still hadn’t understood what the depth of this system is and the richness of this tradition. There is a reason why these arts are passed from master to master... if we would be opening systematic music schools, it would lose the soul of it; the required path that one has to go through to master eastern arts would be mistaken. It would be like opening a school of “spiritual teachers,” it will never work! Just the essence is not that. One can only understand this if one has the consciousness of what one it talking about, otherwise it is hard to explain.
A few weeks ago, I received a request from someone in America, asking for my advise in a project in which he would like to offer the teachings of different spiritual teachers from India, including mine... on an online course. This is unthinkable, unimaginable for us that people can believe that such things are possible. Just because the technology allows to access so much information anytime anywhere, does not mean it will work for certain fields; just like one has to go to the doctor, one cannot visit a doctor online. A spiritual teaching is not just about listening or reading the words of a wise one, but "realizing" - so that requires being in his company for years, watching, following the instructions and guidance sincerely and practicing whatever one has learnt, trusting the master fully even when one does not understand. So this requires a deep connection, a deep bond to the master. How can this whole process be accommodated online? There will be no soul in it. This is one example of how some platforms are born... out of a wish to make business out of anything that could be popular.
One has to also understand, that in Indian arts it is difficult many times to even be accepted by a teacher, or a school (Gurukul, the school of a Guru.) In the same way, the new-age trend where anybody is offering anything in the west (like asana teachers becoming performing musicians, which would be unthinkable in India) forced me to also start being strict when people come to ask me if they can learn with me. First I ask what is the intention, why they wish to learn… and you will be surprised, but it is not unusual to hear statements like, “I want to lead mantra-evenings in my yoga center, I want to teach, I want to perform in public, etc.” So to these type of aspirants, I tell them, “then you don’t need me because you are in a hurry, and you will misrepresent.” I have a lot of students around the globe (some learning online) and hardly time to add more, so I look carefully, who is ready to learn. I don’t want people who are already starting with the wrong attitude to lose their time: the wish to perform, the wish to stand out, the wish to commercialize – because I already know these are the people who end up misleading the tradition; this is not what all this is about. Students of asana don’t need an asana teacher to sit in front of a Harmonium, playing wrong and singing or pronouncing wrong! – furthermore, this is not the role of a asana instructor anyway, it needs proper training, years of dedication and learning a whole new language too. This is the second typical excuse: “through the music, I want to make a better world, i want to bring peace,” so I tell them, “right this is not so, but if you want to please that thought, then, play a CD of one of the qualified Indian singers in a high resolution speaker!” Any participant of a gathering will appreciate much more to have music played from a good CD than a presenter who has no idea of Indian music misguiding a whole group in technique, pronunciation, music knowledge and style. Same happens with Harmonium, which is being taught wrongly massively in the west (even Harmonium importers are teaching Harmonium and they never studied Indian music – that is just hilarious.)
So “good intention” and “making a better world” are just self justifications, used by lots of people just to please their own mind; they are smart-ego-made phrases or excuses, but are in reality not true. Actually, these people will do everybody a favor not teaching the wrong way, because then those mantras or music styles they show to others will be ineffective, will misguide the true essence and hinder the learning process of true potential seekers. Indian music is revered as one of the world’s most complex musical systems and Sanskrit language one of the most difficult languages to which one must dedicate a lifetime to master. One must be ready to learn an art from India - it's not fast-food.
Going back to the learning process of eastern arts, sciences and traditions, those who really love it and are genuinely interested to learn more about them, are never going to have a goal in mind when they start learning. They will just enjoy the process, at the most they will be happy to rehearse and sing in the intimacy of their personal sadhana, meditation, practice or special space at home. And this shows the true interest of a student. Patience, trust in the teacher and no expectation are key qualities for any student of Indian arts.
Indian arts like music have always been transmitted primarily through oral tradition; that’s why you will find little written material about it. Central to this system has always been the guru, an individual whose role goes beyond that of a music instructor. The guru as an authority permeates Indian history and all realms of Indian religion, philosophy, and expressive arts. Since the time of the Vedas, there have been prescriptions for the qualities of an effective guru. The guru guides the disciple from ignorance to light. In this context, teaching involves not just the transference of techniques, but creating in the mind of the student, the fullest awareness of the subject taught… in all life's dimensions.
Note that the guru fulfills not only a musical role in the life of his disciple, but also serves as a spiritual and personal guide, as an example. There are many qualities required for the elevation to the status of a guru, like devoted practice, distinctive musical style rooted in tradition, service to the gharana (musical lineage), and respect for sadagi, a simplistic lifestyle. Disciples are completely devoted to their guru and don't question the guru’s actions or instructions (this not considered repressive or authoritarian, because the disciple actively chooses the guru and feels deeply lucky to have been able to be part, to have been accepted in the guru’s school and circle.)
Many people in the west are not comfortable with this concept of Guru, and of trusting a teacher without questioning during the process of learning, maybe because it clashes with their conditioning, but then, that could also be an indication that Indian arts and sciences are maybe not meant for them, and they should seek another culture with a different approach that suits them better (like gospel, pop, etc.) I have had some students that are desperate to get new material fast, though they still haven’t learned properly the past given material… so this is an indication that they are not ready for Indian music, so I tell them I cannot teach them any more because they have the wrong attitude for this. Likewise, in India no student will perform in the public domain until the teacher tells him to, and this may take more than a decade of intense learning and hours of daily practice! But the student will never dare to question the guru when he/she can perform. This is the strength of the trust in this system, and this is how our music is so amazing and gave birth to so many amazing talents along hundreds of years.
Traditionally, it is impossible for one to gain access to the world of Indian music and instruments without a guru. The guru is the sole transmitter of musical knowledge and tradition; furthermore, the guru is needed to develop the musician as an ethical human being, as an interpreter of musical knowledge, and as a stage performer. The guru is responsible for the musician’s interaction and musical identity in the society as a whole.
There is an old couplet from Kabir which translates as, “A Guru is like a pot maker, he will check for every weak area. Although from outside he will be hitting the pot with one hand, with the other hand he will be supporting it from inside.” So, this is how a student-teacher or a guru-disciple relationship is looked at in India, and this is what really makes a student mature.
TRADITION IS NOT THE WORSHIP OF ASHES
BUT THE PRESERVATION OF FIRE.
Manish in the picture with Ashit Desai, a master singer and composer from India.
This subject and more are featured in Manish Vyas' directed documentary-film "The true world of sacred music from India and Mantra," the following teaser is related to this subject, illustrating it in a practical way.