BG 4.34: tad viddhi praṇipātena paripraśhnena sevayā upadekṣhyanti te jñānaṁ jñāninas tattva-darśhinaḥ
When you offer respect, provide service and asks sincerely formed questions, highly knowledgeable and spiritual teachers will enlighten you with Truth. – Interpretation, Austin Sanderson– Interpretation: Austin Sanderson
Several years ago, my teacher Yogishri Sudarshan Kannan was visiting our yoga shala here in Jersey City. He was teaching several special events that involved spiritual lectures, deep meditations and physic energy transfers. The sessions were so powerful for me that at times it was almost like an out of body experience. On the last evening, Yogishri said he wanted to spend some time with me after the event before he went back to India.
As we sat together he asked me, “Austin, do you have any questions?” The first thought I had was, ‘I don’t want to ask a stupid question’ so I responded, “I don’t think I have any questions.” He smiled and said, “All right”. We talked a little about the event and possible future plans and then it was time for him to leave.
A year later, while I was listening to his weekly YouTube lecture on the Bhagavad Gita, from his home town of Chennai, India, he said to the global satang group, “Please send me your questions? Questioning means that you are curious and engaged. Your questions inform me as a teacher too, what I need to teach…” He went on to point out that in the system of teaching ancient yogic wisdom, the teachings were always in the form of students asking a question and the teacher answering the question. Yogishri pointed out that most of the Upanishads are student-teacher question and answer dialogs. The Vijnanabhairava Tantra is a question-and-answer discourse between the first Yogi Shiva and his consort Parvati. Parvati is asking questions and Shiva, Adiyoga, is answering those questions. Even in the Bhagavad Gita, its eighteen chapters are specific categories of questions and answers about specific subjects pertaining to yoga. Arjuna asks questions and Krishna answers, but Krishna goes a step further by telling Arjuna that respect, service and sincerely formed questions are the students’ keys to obtaining higher wisdom from a knowledgeable teacher.
As soon as the lecture was over, I searched the Bhagavad Gita for the shloka that Yogishri had spoken about. I remember him saying it was in chapter four. I felt a great need to understand just what Krishna, a great Yogic Master, was telling his student Arjuna about asking questions. You will understand my curiosity because as a kid growing up in a middle-class family from the American South with a long line of Methodist ministers and school teachers, students asking questions of the teachers was seen as being precocious, overconfident, self-assertive, and even pretentious. I thought to myself, “Did my white protestant upbringing, where children are to be seen not heard, cast a long shadow on my ability to form and ask sincere questions?” If so, what were the tools I needed to break the bonds of a system that was no longer serving me?
I realized that the first step was to understand that there is no such thing as a ‘stupid question’. When a seeker starts to search for the Truth, they will have many questions. Some of the questions may have simple answers and other questions may even require the teacher to be more thoughtful in offering an answer. But all questions are reasonable.
It is of most importance that we note that my conversation with Yogishri started with him asking me a question: “Austin, do you have any questions?” Questions between teachers and students go in both directions. Some spiritual teachers create discourse by asking multiple questions of students in an inquisitive format to encourage an open dialogue, knowing that many students will shy away from asking them any questions.
While it’s obvious that students can ask teachers questions and a teacher can ask students questions, there is also self-questioning. An ancient proverb says, “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.” The understanding of higher wisdom will come from your questioning not only the external teacher but yourself, the internal teacher, while in deep meditation. It is the self-asked question, “who am I” that starts the process to Self-realization and produces the internal answer of “I-am”. Our questions and answers inform us of where we are in the process of yoga.
The first of the three keys in the student teacher relationship is respect. A wise teacher will see the respect, sincerity and service in a committed student, but it is equally important that the teacher respects the student. Mutual respect sets a tone for higher leaning.
Second, we should try to be of service to the teacher and the institution of learning. It is important to acknowledge the hard work and efforts of our teachers. Think about all the time and effort that is put into teaching us. Showing them that we appreciate their efforts and are willing to help out when we can is just part of being a good and decent human. I know that there have been so many problems in the yoga world with teachers in power positions taking advantage of students, but it is important to recognize that those teachers are not in the majority. Most teachers are professional and care deeply for those they teach. So they recognize that and giving back to those teachers and to the Satsangs they lead. Service is the right karmic thing to do when you are a student of higher wisdom.
Respect, service, and questions keep the relationship of student/teacher learning interactive. They help to create a framework for the process of learning to take place. If we do not have these three elements grounding us as students, we will find that ourselves jumping from this teacher to that teacher, from this yogic method to that yogic method. Without these three elements, teachers will become jaded and start to “phone it in,” so to speak. When we look at Krishna and Arjuna, we see that they have a personal relationship built on respect and service but most of all on a teacher/student relationship where Arjuna can ask questions that are at times neurotic but also thought-provoking, heartfelt, and quite intense; whatever they are, Krishna with great wisdom and love still willingly answers them all.