Each of the 108 verses of the Guru Gita is a sutra – meaning it is a highly condensed aphorism, designed with great precision and concise wording.
One way to think of a sutra is like those flat sponges. They are so small when they are new and dry, but put a little water on them – and presto – they expand to much larger than their original size. That’s what each verse of the Guru Gita is really like.
Why are so many sacred texts written in this format? Originally, the sutra motif was invented so the verse could be easily memorized. Remember – this wisdom goes back millennium – way before iPods, CDs, Online Stores or even published books made it easy to carry a verbal teaching away with you. Picture the situation…
A Master could teach an entire complex lesson, then summarize it in a few key words or phrases, thus creating the sutra. As the student, you could easily memorize the sutra, but then as you left the teacher and continued with your life, each time you recited the sutra, you’d be able to easily recall the entire contents of the complete teaching that went along with it. After you listened to a teaching, it became your responsibility to know how to carry that teaching with you, and really your only tool to hold the teaching was your mind.
During the 2009 India Yatra Retreat, Mark Griffin took the occasion to take just four verses from the Guru Gita and ‘unpack’ them for the retreat participants. Taking one verse each day, he spent 1-2 hours discussing what the verse meant and the implications to spiritual development it held. This was a remarkable and profound series of teachings! (The complete transcript is available, if you’d like to dive in for yourself).
Each verse holds this kind of potential. It’s like a suitcase, neatly packed for you. But it’s up to you to unpack it and derive the real meaning of it. Otherwise, it stays in your mind and heart like a dry sponge, in potential form. If you view the entire verse as only being the words you read, you are missing much of what it holds for you. A sutra is a pointer, or placeholder, to much much more.
How do you go about unpacking a sutra? First – through intention and desire. Yearning to know the totality that a verse holds for you is the beginning of being able to unlock its potential. Then – contemplation. Pick a verse this week that calls to you, and begin rolling it over and over in your mind. Drop it into meditation and see what comes up. Think about it just as you fall asleep and see if your dreams pull new meaning out of it for you. Pull out a journal and start writing about it. Pretend you are sitting with Mark and he is talking to you about that one verse – what would he be saying about it? Listen to Mark’s previous talks and see how they relate to the sutras of the Guru Gita. Or try explaining your chosen verse to a friend – see how wet you can get that sponge.
And if you really want to experience the full potential of unpacking a sutra – memorize your chosen verse this week too. Repeat it over and over as the week goes on, and watch how much more deeply your understanding of it becomes.