Lengthy Review of the Film "Gurukulam"

Timothy Conway reviews and provides background context for the 2013 film by Jillian Elizabeth and Neil Dalal, as requested by the filmmakers in 2014. 


© Copyright 2014 by Timothy Conway

For anyone who has yearned for or actually experienced the peace and joy of dwelling in one of the traditional-style Indian ashrams, the independent film Gurukulam (Advaita Films, 2013), featuring the erudite spiritual teacher Swami Dayananda Saraswati (1930-2015) and his diligent followers, carries a special resonance and appealing charm.


Talented filmmakers Jillian Elizabeth and Neil Dalal have given us an intimate and endearing collage of vignettes in the daily lives of the disciples and the Swami at a Vedānta camp, held in 2010 at the Arshavidya Gurukulam, the “Sagely Knowledge (aṛṣa-vidyā) Family/Abode (kulam) of the Guru.” This rustic, unpretentious, yet attractive ashram is nestled within lush forest on the slopes of the Western Ghat mountains in the region of Anaikatti within Tamil Nadu state, south India, about 15 miles northwest of bustling Coimbatore city.


With loving attention to the dignity of labor by individuals caringly engaged in ashram life, the film as it progresses increasingly highlights the prose discourse and verse-chanting of Dayananda and some of his followers articulating India’s ancient Vedānta (“Veda-ending”) Truth of Advaita or Nonduality.


The central thrust of Advaita Vedānta is simply, gloriously this: there is only one Reality doing everything and being everyone. This Divine Source Reality or Absolute Self (Brahman / Ātman), is formless, Supra-personal and all-transcending, a purely spiritual Reality—and yet This Divine Self (the I AM THAT AM) paradoxically and nondually (without actual separation) emanates, pervades, animates, witnesses, and hosts all persons, forms and worlds… and then ultimately merges the totality back into formless Reality (such disappearance actually happening moment by vanishing moment).


And so the devotee devoted to the Divine Self is none other than the nondual Self temporarily “masquerading” as personal consciousness in process of awakening to the ever-awake Self or Absolute Awareness. Interestingly, our very word “person” descends from the ancient Latin and Greek terms personare and prosōpa, denoting the “mask” worn by the actor in masquerade. Thus all persons are the “masks” or faces/façades donned for the sake of individual experience and interpersonal relationship by the Supra-personal, Faceless/Formless Divine Self.


A bit of background and lineage for context: India’s Bṛhadāraṇyaka and Chāndogya Upaniṣads, orally transmitted scriptures dating to around 800 BCE (a few hundred years before the Buddha’s ministry), for the first time in human history clearly revealed the truth and nature of this Reality that is our transcendently pristine Source and the omnipresent, sustaining Power—the Self of all selves, the Life of all lives. These old Upaniṣads would be followed by more Upaniṣads (around a dozen “major” and one hundred “minor” Upaniṣads) and other celebrated texts articulating the nondual (advaita) Vedānta message. The other two “canonical” Vedānta texts beyond the Upaniṣads are the poetic, dramatic Bhagavad Gītā and the tersely worded Vedānta/Brahma-Sūtra (both composed circa 200 BCE). Numerous Advaita works arose later during the medieval period, including Yoga Vāsiṣṭha, Avadhūta Gītā, Aṣṭavakra Gītā, Ribhu Gītā, Tripurā Rahasya. And there would be subsequent advaita works composed within nondually-oriented Hindu sects such as Kashmir Śaivism (founded in the 9th-10th centuries), the Vīraśaiva devotional movement of Karnataka (12th century), the long-lived Vārkarī nondual bhakti or sagely devotional movement established by Jñāneśvar of Maharashtra (late 13th century), and the popular north Indian Sant movements also still with us today, initially led by Kabīr, Nānak, Dādū Dayāl, et al. (16th century).


Centuries before these movements, sometime around 700 CE, after 1100 years of Buddhist intellectual dominance in India, the renowned, charismatic young Vedānta monk-sage Śaṅkara, through his teaching tours and prodigious writings and his instituting a set of regional, orthodox Śaṅkarācāryas (teachers continuing the lineages from Śaṅkara), firmly established the Advaita Vedānta among India’s intelligentsia on the authority of the ancient threefold canon. Down through the centuries and right into the 20th and 21st centuries, the Śaṅkarācāryas serve as the most widely accepted “orthodox Hindu” leaders of India (albeit not accepted by all sects), rather akin to “archbishops” as found in the Catholic world.


In India’s modern era, the scholarly Hindu monk-preacher Swami Chinmayananda (1916-93), a former journalist and freedom fighter who deeply studied Śaṅkara-style Advaita Vedānta from 1947 to 1949 with the illustrious Swami Sivananda (1887-1963, founder of the Divine Life Society based in Riskikesh) and then for a few years with the formidable Tapovan Maharaj (1889-1957) of Uttarkashi, in 1951 began a series of popular lecture tours (jñāna yajñas). These were marked by sacred Vedic rituals and the transmission of sacred Vedānta knowledge to the masses in a blend of orthodox pedagogic format with a greater appeal to the modern sensibility than found in the work of the Śaṅkarācāryas. In 1953 Chinmayananda and followers inaugurated the Chinmaya (“Pure Knowledge”) Mission as a major attempt to widely organize and teach the Advaita Vedānta to India’s mainstream public beyond the elite brahmin-pundit class—especially targeting “the faithless educated class”—through what eventually became over 300 centers, study-groups, ashrams, temples, and children’s schools in his Mission and 95 of his own published writings. His first world tour in 1965 began the globalization of the Chinmaya Mission, which led to dozens of his centers being located in North America, Europe and other parts of Asia. (On another front, in 1964 he helped co-found with ultra-conservative RSS political-party leaders M.S. Gowalkar and S.S. Apte the Vishva Hindu Parishad/VHP, “to organize and consolidate the Hindu society and to serve and protect the Hindu Dharma,” including other “Hindustan” religions—Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and tribal religion. Thus did the VHP align itself with other political-cultural-religious organizations aiming to promote Hindutva or “Hindudom” in India against perceived encroachment by secularist, communist, Muslim and Christian groups.) As part of the curriculum of the Chinmaya Mission, students learned Sanskrit and studied the ancient Upaniṣads, Bhagavad Gītā and Brahma-sūtra (Vedānta’s scriptural canon) through the interpretive gloss of sage Śaṅkara and his orthodox followers over the centuries, including Chinmayananda.


In more recent decades, one of the most well-known and effective teachers of the hallowed, hoary Advaita Vedānta lore and “orthodox” Śaṅkara-style method of Self-awakening has been the distinguished Swami Dayananda, formerly known by his layman’s name Natarajan. Becoming a prominent disciple of Swami Chinmayananda in Chennai/Madras soon after hearing the Swami speak there in 1952, the 22-year-old brahmin-caste young man served as Secretary of the new Chinmaya Mission in 1953. He spent the next three decades helping Chinmayananda open or strengthen new centers (in Madurai, Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai/Bombay, etc.), prepare works for publication, and edit Mission periodicals (Tyagi, Tapovan Prasad). He also continued his own intense study of Sanskrit and classic Advaita Vedanta texts and commentaries under different respected tutors (Swami Pranavananda was especially helpful in bringing him to Self-knowledge) and finally studying on his own for a three-year period in a grass hut in Rishikesh in the mid-1960s. In 1962 he had ordained as a saṁnyāsin monk under Chinmayananda, who gave him his monastic name, Swami Dayananda. (Note: Our Dayananda is not to be confused with another famous Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who back in 1875 founded the Arya Samaj religious movement of Hindu reformation).

Around 1967, Chinmayananda’s declining health prompted the Mission to set Dayananda onto the Indian lecture circuit, allowing him to spread even more widely the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gītā and Upaniṣads over the next few years. He then agreed to conduct a long-term study program at the Mumbai center Sandeepany Sadhanalaya and format a curriculum to systematically unfold the Vedānta view. Between 1972 and 1979, Dayananda conducted one and then another 30-month residential Vedanta course at Sandeepany. (He spoke of the rigorous training therein, “What would take an aspirant in the Himalayas nine years to learn, the students at Sandeepany learned in two-and-half years.”) He inaugurated for students of the Chinmaya Mission in the USA a similar 30-month study program at Sandeepany West, in Piercy, California. In 1982 he returned to India and continued to spread the Vedānta message in his public talks, mainly appealing to middle-class Hindus and lapsed Hindus.


Dayananda, obviously being positioned to head the Chinmaya Mission West, for some reason moved beyond the organization in 1982, evidently preferring the simpler life of teacher and head of his own smaller network of direct students rather than continue as administrator of the vast Chinmaya Mission. His own organization has grown to include four main teaching centers: the Arshavidya Gurukulam founded in 1986 in the Pocono mountains outside Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, a few years later the Arsha Vidya Peetam up north in hallowed Rishikesh (on the site of his old hut in the 1960s), the Arshavidya Gurukulam in Tamil Nadu, south India founded in 1990, and the Arsha Vijnana Gurukulam in Nagpur, Maharashtra. These residential centers conduct long-term courses (such as the 30- and 36-month courses), 1-2-week camps, weekend study programs and family camps throughout the year. The ashrams are distinctive for their academic-cum-spiritual atmosphere, with 30 minutes spent daily in quiet sitting meditation, perhaps up to a few hours in work duties, and most of the rest of the waking hours spent in study of Sanskrit, the ancient Vedānta texts with Śaṅkara’s commentaries, and Dayananda’s own commentaries helping the aspirant directly realize through intuitive knowledge the transcendent-immanent Ātma-Self. He has written or more usually dictated (via his informal talks and formal lectures) scores of booklets and several books, mainly translations and commentaries of classic texts—his magnum opus being a 1,600-page, 3-volume Bhagavad Gītā Home Study. Many CDs and DVDs contain his instruction, on both the introductory level and more sophisticated levels. There is also the impressive Vedic Heritage Teaching Program for children’s education in Vedanta over a ten-year-period.

Over the years, Dayananda has trained many hundreds of students, and more than 200 of his male and female disciples, half of them saṁnyāsin renunciates, teach Advaita Vedānta and classical Sanskrit grammar in India and worldwide. A handful of students have gone on to set up other residential ashrams in India and the West with curricula patterned after what Dayananda taught them. The teaching staff at Dayananda’s five dozen major and minor centers not only help train students in Advaita Vedanta based on the ancient texts, but also transmit India’s other time-honored practices such as haṭha yoga, āyurveda healing, and jyotiṣa astrology.


When footage for the film Gurukulam was shot in 2010, the Swami’s physical form was already 80 years old (81 by Asian reckoning). His somewhat frail health requires a helping arm or two as he is seen moving about in his various labors of love for those under his wing—little children in a nearby primary school, resident or visiting students old and young attending his Vedānta camp, longtime ashram personnel at Gurukulam, and villagers facing the challenges of rural life in the vicinity. Swami Dayananda stands as a cheerful, jovial figure. His voice, with its particularly rich timbre, lilting musicality and witty warmth, especially when he speaks English (his native tongue is Tamil), is somewhat like an Indian version of the eloquent diction of the famous old New England actor Monty Woolley.


Filmmakers Elizabeth and Dalal along with editor Mary Lampson have chosen an interesting format to the film, balancing the obvious focus on ashram head Swami Dayananda and his spiritual teachings with an egalitarian focus on numerous persons at Gurukulam, and so the film is aptly titled “Gurukulam,” not, for instance, “Swami Dayananda: His Life and Teachings.” In fact, the Swami does not appear until 8.5 minutes into the film, when we glimpse him elucidating a point on Sanskrit language for a few students in his room, and only at the 14 minute mark is he first heard teaching Vedānta in the big lecture hall to the 100 or so students at the camp (about one-third of them Westerners), and then only brief footage is given. More emphasis on the Swami and his message comes later in the documentary, which runs 108 minutes in length.


The film begins with the pre-dawn activities of various Gurukulam inhabitants, their routines suggesting the wholesome embodiment of Spirit. The tenderly lingering camera and contemplative pace of editing create a strong sense of “you are here,” immersed in the daily lives of the ashramites themselves. The film reveals how traditional Hindus value the dignity of labor and loving attention to detail in the same way that Chan/Zen Buddhist monks and nuns value the “Suchness” of daily functions manifesting the Buddha-nature and Franciscan Christian monastics value the full “embodiment/incarnation” of infinite Spirit within the Divine play of the material world. I’m reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s idea about St. Francis: He did not “love humanity” in the abstract; no, he loved this particular human and that particular human. He did not “love nature”; rather, he loved this particular shrub and that particular animal—all of them giving glory to God in their own way. As sage Śaṅkara and Advaita tradition puts it, “The world (merely) as world is unreal (fleeting, insubstantial, not self-existing). But the world as Brahman is real (as the spontaneous manifestation of Divine Reality on the phenomenal level of experience).”


And so we are treated to some splendidly simple yet rich vignettes from life at Gurukulam (as found in so many other ashrams of India): the old sari-clad Ma in the still-dim light patiently washing the temple steps and then drawing in chalk on the flat stone slabs each morning the customary auspicious rangoli (Skt: rangāvalī, “color rows”) folk-art design; one young man chopping open the gathered coconuts, another man later in the day deftly climbing the tall palm-tree to fetch more coconuts; the aged gentleman who collects the leaves and flowers as offerings to the deity enshrined in the small side temple; an older western saṁnyāsinī-nun (Swamini Ramananda) receiving her regular close-cropped haircut and speaking of her vocation; the dhobi women expertly washing and pressing everyone’s clothes; the assembled ashramites singing bhajan devotional songs or chanting/hearing verses from the Upaniṣads and Bhagavad Gītā as, for instance, when they first assemble in the morning or prepare to eat their meals (and Gurukulam allows some conversation during mealtimes, not enforced silence as found at some stricter places); the workers in the kitchen and canteen who tirelessly serve them. And so on.


We see students engaged in their challenging Sanskrit language-lessons; the temple pūjāri (priest) sweetly relating with his wife and little toddler; a band of Indian male youths preserving the ancient Vedas through disciplined chanting, one of the traditions that Dayananda has sponsored in his ashrams; a globe-trotting UN diplomat brought by her husband back for an ashram visit, both of them longtime students of the Swami. We hear reminiscences from one of Dayananda’s longtime male disciples, an engineer who oversees many of the projects in and around Gurukulam. We see some of the old disciples caring for their Swami. And there is ample footage of the Swami enacting several of his many duties of pastoral care, some of which involve sharing a car with him into town or through the rural countryside, visiting little schoolchildren, blessing the rural peasant-farmers in their fields and small shrine-temple and devotees at a large temple-complex.


Even something of the “extraordinarily ordinary” lives of animals and insects is respectfully pondered in J.P. Sniadecki’s and Jillian Elizabeth’s lucid cinematography. And Ernst Karel’s sound editing/mixing brings alive the delicious aural world to match the visuals of this space—suggesting that all sights, sounds and other sensations and perceptions are indeed sacred if only one opens up afresh to the miraculous wonders of each moment.


For how is anything arising at all as a manifestation of intrinsically formless Reality? How is the One Supra-personal Being manifesting as all these individual beings or viewpoints or souls, each with their own personal, subjective experience?


Yet Vedānta foremost would have its spiritual aspirants inquire into the single, Self-evident Self, the true Subject of all subjects. And on this topic, we hear Swami Dayananda gently sharing with students at the camp some essential points of the ancient Advaita Vedānta revelation:


“Enlightenment cannot be an event (a mere temporal occurrence)—it is you…. It is clarity.” He remarks that the question “Are you enlightened?” is in fact the wrong question, “based upon an assumption that there is such a thing as enlightenment. As though there is a problem and then it got solved suddenly.” But there never was a real problem to be resolved by and for the personal consciousness. Instead, one profoundly awakens to the original, Supra-personal Identity and intuitively knows-by-being: “I am the Reality of everything that is here…. I am the whole.” This absolute truth is to be realized even while an insect is biting your body, he jokes. And he insists that, to truly be able to utter this Vedānta truth (not just spout high-flown concepts), one must be able to authentically see this truth, i.e., that there is only one Divine Reality manifesting all beings and situations. He muses, “It looks to me that no jīva (personal consciousness or soul) can be content unless the jīva finds the connection,” the deep connection with Īśvara, “the Divine Source of all knowledge, all śakti (power).” He urges that all aspirants examine the scriptural revelations concerning What I am, Who I am, and realize that oneself and the world eventually merge in God (Īśvara) and then there is awakening unto Īśvara’s svarūpa or intrinsic nature—the limitless Consciousness, which is Brahman, absolute Divine Reality.

The Swami, based on passages from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, speaks of the Self-shining light of Consciousness, by which all else is experienced. And he says, “In that Light is (true) happiness.” “The Self-evident (Self) is Self-existent, and this Truth (satyam) is Consciousness (jñānam).” “The knower of Brahman gains the ultimate, and that is not like anything else [in the realms of mere phenomena]. One knows, ‘I am the Whole.’ That’s what knowledge of Brahman is… Brahma-vidyā. No distance can separate you from your limitless, partless wholeness, your happiness. Consciousness is wholeness.” And he chants the ancient famous hymn from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and other Upaniṣads: Oṁ pūrṇam adaḥ pūrṇam idam pūrṇāt pūrṇam udacyate pūrṇasya pūrṇam ādāya pūrṇam evāvaśiṣyate. “Oṁ. That (transcendent Divine Self) is full/whole. This (the Divine play as cosmic manifestation) is whole. From the whole, the whole comes forth. And from that whole, this whole removed, what remains is whole.”


For those persons not (yet anyway) intuitively, mystically inclined to fathom the sublime Vedānta teaching of nondual Identity, perhaps it will suffice to follow this basic instruction given by the Swami to the little schoolchildren he visits: “Good thoughts make you a good person. Wise thoughts make you a wise person. Angry thoughts make you an angry person. Be very careful with thoughts!”

[Postscript: Swami Dayananda peacefully expired on Sept. 23, 2015]


For more about the film, see www.gurukulamfilm.com. For more about Swami Dayananda, see www.Dayananda.org. On his Arsha Vidya Gurukulam institutions and teachers, see www.ArshaVidya.org. There are also a number of books and papers that focus, in part or in whole, on Swami Dayananda, such as J.T.F. Jordens (1998), Dayananda Saraswati: Essays on His Life and Ideas, New Delhi: Manohar; and Chris Fuller & John Harriss (2005), “Globalizing Hinduism: a ‘traditional’ guru and modern businessmen in Chennai,” in C. Fuller & J. Assayag (Eds.) Globalizing India: Perspectives From Below. London: Anthem Press, pp. 211-236.