Once in Finland I sat on the shores of Lake Ladoga with a farm lad. A middle-aged man passed us by and my small companion stood up and with great reverence took off his cap. I asked him after, “Who was this man?” And with special seriousness, the boy answered, “He is a teacher.” I again asked, “Is it your teacher?” “No,” answered the boy, “he is the teacher from the neighboring school.” “Then, you know him personally,” I persisted. “No,” he answered, with astonishment… “Then why did you greet him with such reverence?” Still more seriously my little companion answered, “Because he is a teacher.”
Almost a similar incident happened to me on the banks of the Rhine near Cologne. Again with joyous amazement I saw how some young man greeted a school-teacher. I recall the most uplifting memories of my teacher, Professor Kuinjy, the famous Russian artist. His life story could fill the most inspiring pages of a biography for the young generation. He was a simple shepherd boy in the Crimea. Only by incessant, ardent effort towards art, was he able to conquer all obstacles and finally become not only a highly esteemed artist and a man of great means, but also a real Guru for his pupils in the high Hindu conception.
Three times he tried to enter the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts and three times he was refused. The third time, twenty-nine competitors were admitted and not one of them left his name in the history of art. But only one, Kuinjy, was refused.—The council of the Academy was not of the Gurus, and certainly was short-sighted. But the young man was persistent and instead of uselessly trying, he painted a landscape and presented it to the Academy for Exhibition. And he received two honors without passing the examination. From early morning he worked. But at noon he climbed up to the terraced roof of his house in Petrograd where, with the shot marking each midday, thousands of birds completely surrounded him. And he fed them, speaking to them and studying them as a loving father. Sometimes, very rarely, he invited us, his disciples, to this famous roof. And we heard remarkable stories about the personalities of the birds, about their individual habits and the ways to approach them. At this moment, this short, stockily built man with his leonine head, became as gentle as Saint Francis. Once I saw him very downcast during the entire day. One of his beloved butterflies had broken its wing and he had invented some very skilful means to mend it, but his invention was too heavy and in this noble effort he was unsuccessful.
But with pupils and artists, he knew how to be firm. Very often he would repeat, “If you are an artist, even in prison you shall become one.” Once a man came to his studio with some very fine sketches and studies. Kuinjy praised them. But the man said, “Well, I am unfortunate because I cannot afford to continue painting.” “Why?” compassionately asked Kuinjy. And the man said that he had a family to support and he had a position from ten to six. Then Kuinjy asked him piercingly, “And from four to ten in the morning, what do you do?” “When?” asked the man. Kuinjy explained, “Certainly in the morning.” “In the morning, I sleep,” answered the man. Kuinjy then raised his voice and said, “Well, you shall outsleep your entire life. Don’t you know that from four to nine is the best creative time? And it is not necessary to work on your art more than five hours daily.” Then Kuinjy added, “When I worked as a retoucher in a photograph studio, I also had my position from ten to six. But from four to nine, I had quite enough time to become an artist.”
Sometime, when the pupil dreamed about some special conditions for his work, Kuinjy laughed, “If you are so delicate that you have to be put in a glass case, then better perish as soon as possible, because our life does not need such an exotic plant.” But when he saw that his disciple conquered circumstances and went victoriously through the ocean of earthly storms, his eyes sparkled and in full voice, he shouted, “Neither sun nor frost can destroy you. This is the way. If you have something to say, you will be able to manifest your message in spite of all conditions in the world.”
I recall how once he came to my studio on the sixth floor, which at that time was without an elevator, and severely criticized my painting. Thus, he left practically nothing of my original conception, and in much uproar he went away. But in less than half an hour, I heard again his heavy steps, and he knocked on the door. Again he climbed the long steps in his heavy fur coat, and panting, said, “Well, I hope you shall not take everything I said seriously. Every one can have his point of view. I felt badly when I realized that perhaps you took too seriously all our discussion. Everything can be approached in different ways, and really, truth is infinite.”
And sometime in the greatest secrecy, he entrusted one of his disciples to bring some money anonymously from him to some of the poorest students. And he entrusted this only when he was completely confident that this secret was not revealed. It happened once that in the academy, revolt against the Vice-President Count Tolstoy arose, and as no one could calm the anger of the students, the situation became very serious. Then finally at the general meeting came Kuinjy, and every one became silent. Then he said, “Well, I am no judge. I do not know if your cause be just or not, but I personally ask you to begin your work, because you have come here to become artists.” The meeting was ended at once, and every one returned to the classrooms, because Kuinjy himself had asked. Such was the authority of the Guru.
From where his conception of real Guruship, in the refined eastern understanding arose, I do not know. Certainly in him it was a sincere self-expression, without any superficial intention. This was his style and in the sincerity of this style, he conquered not only as artist but also as a powerful vital type, who gave to his disciples the same broad inflexible power to reach their goal.
Long afterwards in India, I saw such figures of Gurus and I have seen the faithful disciples who without any servile obeisance, but rather with great enthusiasm of spirit, venerated their Gurus with that full sensitiveness of thought which is so characteristic of India.
I have heard a lovely story about a small Hindu who found his Teacher. He was asked; “Is it possible that the sun would grow dark to you if you would see it without the Teacher?”
The boy smiled, “The sun would remain as the sun but in the presence of the Teacher twelve suns would shine to me.”
India’s sun of wisdom shall shine because on the shores of a river there sits a boy who knows the Teacher.
In the same teachings of India it is said: “Blessed are you, India! Because you alone have guarded the concept of Teacher and disciple. The Guru can dispel the attack of sleep. The Guru can raise up the drooping spirit. Woe to him who has dared to lay claim falsely to some one as his Teacher and who lightly pronounces the word Teacher, while honoring himself! Verily flowers that spirit which understood the path of ascent; and he fails who drooped in duplicity of thought.
“One may ask a Hindu boy if he wishes to possess a Guru. No word is needed in reply. Because the boy’s eyes will express desire, striving and devotion. The fire of Aryavarta will glow in his eyes. The stream of the Rig-Vedas will glow on the slopes of the mountains.
“Who can describe in words the entire procession of the Teachers? Either there is the realization of it, as a serpent of knowledge or lacking this, there is darkness, sleep, obsession. There is no need to terrify but one should tell all who have approached Yoga. “Your support is the Teacher. Your shield is devotion to the Teacher. Your destruction is indifference and duplicity.”
“He who smiles alike on friends and foes of the Teacher is unworthy. He who does not betray the Teacher, even by reticence when speech is needed, may enter the step of the threshold.”
Thus speaks Agni Yoga which foresees the splendid future of humanity if humanity will master its possessions.
Not only in India but in the whole East we have the same conception of the Teacher. Certainly in many Eastern countries, now the storm of the coming civilization roars. You can imagine how many misunderstood conceptions may harm this supreme feeling of the hierarchy of knowledge. So many symbols and beautiful signs are swept away through such superficial mechanization of life. And still, even in the most remote places you can distinguish this instinctive understanding of Guruship. How can one express in the customary words the dignity, the noble understanding, of accepting the chalice of knowledge?