While looking up guru in the Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary, I discovered many meanings of the word for the first time. Without being a Sanskrit scholar I can say that it must be an unfathomably rich, complex language; in addition to meaning spiritual leader, guru can also mean ‘difficult to digest,’ ‘heavy in the stomach,’ ‘haughty, proud, vehement, violent, excessive, important, momentous,’ and even more. It is also related to the Latin word gravis, root of gravity. In short, it seems like the ancient word guru encompassed far more of what a charismatic leader’s personality promises to be than our rather flat contemporary use of the word to describe anyone at the top of his or her field.
How do you become a guru, and how do you behave in the presence of one? I’ve never met a spiritual leader or spent any time in a spiritual community, so I have no authority to compare, but I’m willing to bet that the reverence among followers is the same for a spiritual leader as it is for a great musician. The dark side of the guru’s world is probably also awfully similar. Having read a little bit about what goes on in spiritual communities, I can safely say that the same shenanigans are at play wherever there is a locus of unquestioned power and a putative connection to a higher power through an enlightened individual. Ergo: difficult to digest for sure, heavy in the stomach: check (and maybe in the heart as well), haughty, proud, vehement, violent, excessive, important, momentous — let’s hope the violence is left aside, but all the other adjectives describe quite a few musical leaders out there.
Classical musicians are born and bred to embrace the guru principle. I remember seeing the film ‘Tous les Matins du Monde’ and discussing it with a college roommate who was a singer. She said she’d always dreamed of having a relationship with a teacher like the one in the film, living in the same house, soaking up the master’s wisdom 24 hours a day. I thought she was a little nutty at the time, but actually, this is how we learn. I’m still glad I wasn’t born into a family of musicians, but it’s obvious: children who grow up in Vienna just know how the waltz or the polka is supposed to sound, kids in New Orleans eat, drink and breathe the blues, and so on. You learn to speak the language around you to varying degrees of mastery, and the better the surroundings, the better your chances of mastery.
Music isn’t something you can read about and someday grasp on your own like mathematical or physical principles, although both math and physics are clearly in practice in music and playing an instrument. Of course there’s a science to the composition and analysis of it, but that’s only part of it. I know a freak genius who discovered the works of Arnold Schönberg when he was thirteen and got all hot and bothered poring over his scores by himself, but even that alone could not have made him a musician. Only direct human contact can serve to transport the emotional expression of musical ideas. Yes, you can hear a piece in your head without playing it and yes, you can learn much more from a score by studying it than by listening to a recording of it, but what you can’t get from notation is what it means to another human being to ascend a fifth, to descend a fourth, to stop short at a deceptive cadence.
This may be what makes us form cults around certain musicians and elevate them to guru status. What is the difference between a teacher and a guru? I’d say it’s the community around that person. A teacher has students. A guru has followers that go beyond his or her conscious circle of influence. We crave gurus because we are several generations removed from some of our most venerated composers and these living individuals seem to have immediate, direct contact to their thoughts and motivations. We question ourselves because this is what we are taught to do from day one in our lessons, and the guru points us toward the answer. The guru is the medium, the guru has breakfast with Bach and Mozart, lunch with Beethoven and Schumann, dinner with Brahms and Bruckner, the guru has worked personally with Shostakovich and Bartok and Stravinsky. There is nothing you cannot learn from the guru.
Except independent thought. If I’m not mistaken, this is why there was a rift in the Catholic church some five hundred years ago. If I can read on my own, why do I need a priest to read to me? It’s a very fine line. We would all be musically poorer without the gurus we’ve encountered along our paths, and yet by celebrating our gurus we reinforce the notion that we are further from the truth, further from the source, than someone else. Doesn’t this put classical music higher up in the ivory tower? Shouldn’t anyone with a decent musical education be able and allowed to have a conversation with Haydn or Purcell? Maybe this leads us to the crux of the guru issue: that classical musicians often get stuck running to gurus for a safe answer rather than turning to the source itself.
I’m not saying we should turn our backs on decades of accumulated knowledge and experience; teachers with these treasures should be celebrated and sought out. At the same time, I think we should cautiously keep in mind some of those less flattering definitions of guru: difficult to digest, haughty, vehement, excessive. As Thich Naht Hahn, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and non-guru, would say: the teacher can point to the moon, but don’t confuse the finger with the moon.