The sacred relationship between a disciple and their spiritual guide is fascinating and life-changing. Ancient scriptures are full of references to the importance of seeking and accepting a spiritual guide. These days however, it is often seen as a strange concept as people are not familiar with its spiritual value.
Here are two short stories of spiritual guide-disciple relationships to help inspire and provoke curiosity. In each story we can see how the guide’s initiation was essential for the spiritual evolution of the disciple. The path by which each disciple grew however, differed greatly.
The relationship between Attar and Hazif
We will begin with the story of Hafiz in a town called Shiraz in Persia in the 14th century, at a time when the Sufis were not well accepted. As a teenager, Hafiz was a very poor baker’s boy, and he fell very much in love. He was completely infatuated, but she was the daughter of one of the richest families in the village. Hafiz knew he had little chance of being with his love.
But there was hope. Hafiz had heard talk of a saint’s tomb that had mysterious powers. It was said that if a person prays outside the tomb every night for forty nights and does not sleep, any wish will be granted. So, full of hope and determination, Hafiz went to the tomb.
Even after all this time, the sun never says to the Earth – “you owe me”.Hafiz
Look what happens with a love like that – it lights the whole sky.
Every night he stayed in prayer at the tomb of the saint, and during the day he continued his work at the bakery. Finally, after 40 nights, on the last night, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Hafiz as a messenger of God. He told Hafiz that he will grant him that which he wishes, because of his abnegation.
Overwhelmed by the presence of the angel, Hafiz realised that stronger than his love for the woman, was his love for God; and he now wished only to be shown a teacher. Archangel Gabriel disappeared, telling Hafiz that he will soon discover that which he desired.
“…stronger than his love for the woman, was his love for God”
Only a few days later, Hafiz had a vision in which he was told to visit the local pharmacist, Attar. When he arrived, Hafiz discovered that Attar was not a pharmacist at all, but hidden through a door at the back of the shop, there was a Sufi place of study.
Hafiz decided to begin his spiritual practice under the guidance of Attar. The practice he was given was to compose at least one song for God, every day. As we know, Hafiz wrote a great deal of very inspiring songs!
It was not easy – as Hafiz also married and had children, but he succeeded, even becoming a well-known poet. In the Arabic world, poetry is highly regarded and so he was able to bring the mystical knowledge of Sufism to the general public by encrypting it into their day-to-day poetry.
After forty years, Hafiz began to long for something more, and he knew there was more. He asked Attar for liberation, for realisation, but Attar would not give him any other practice, only telling him, “All disciples will reach realisation in good time…”.
“He asked Attar for liberation, for realisation, but Attar would not give him any other practice..”
So Hafiz realised that he had to again practise great austerities for forty days and forty nights to be granted his wish. This time he drew a circle on the ground, and did not leave the circle for the entire period. But at the end of this practice, nothing happened.
Distraught, Hafiz went to the house of Attar and as soon as he arrived, Attar opened the door, holding a chalice of wine. He took a sip, and invited Hafiz to do the same. And that was the moment of the illumination of Hafiz. Attar gave to Hafiz from his cup. This chalice symbolised the infinite source of God’s Grace with which Attar was constantly infused, and of which Hafiz was finally ready to receive.
This romantic story has many levels. It demonstrates how the master knows the steps of his or her disciples, and how as they come closer to their full realisation, he will support them through their final test, sometimes known as the dark night of the soul. Only after passing this test can the disciple pierce through the levels of spiritual consciousness to illumination.
Sri Ma Anandamayi and Bolanath
The next example we will look at is Sri Ma Anandamayi and one of her main disciples – and her husband – Bolanath. Bolanath was not a disciple of Sri Ma from the beginning of their marital life. In fact, he and the rest of the family were often concerned for Nirmala, as she was then called, because of her strange behaviour.
From a young age Nirmala displayed extraordinary spiritual powers. She did not cry when she was born, and she would frequently enter into deep trances of Samadhi , especially when hearing devotional Kirtan songs, and she would perform complex spiritual practices that she had never been taught.
They called upon doctors and pundits, who assured the family that she was neither sick nor mentally unstable, but that she was Perfect, and infused with God.
When people began to realise that God was incarnate in Nirmala, many would come to her. In her presence they would heal from diseases, enter spiritual ecstasy, and receive answers to their questions.
Sri Anandamayi Ma was extremely generous and kind with those who were open, even inflicting wounds on her own body in order to take away the suffering and sickness of others. She was also extremely strict with those who came to her with selfish motives, setting them back on the right path.
After witnessing so many miraculous things in her presence, and even entering into Samadhi when she touched him on the forehead, Bolanath gradually began to realise that his wife was a true master. Curious, he asked her if it was possible for her to eat many chillies without getting even a tear in her eye. To satisfy his curiosity she ate a huge number of chillies, which had absolutely no effect on her. Bolanath was amazed but soon became extremely sick with a severe fever.
When it seemed impossible that he would recover, Sri Ma came to his bedside and caressed his head, saying ‘Never ever test this body again’, and healed. The fever was not a punishment from her, but a natural consequence of harming someone so pure.
One day, Bolanath finally asked Sri Ma to give him a mantra initiation, after which he became a great practitioner and disciple of hers. Towards the end of his life, Bolanath travelled to the Himalayas for intense spiritual practice, and he himself eventually gained enlightenment.
This fascinating relationship reframes the common conception of marriage. Sri Anandamayi Ma and Bolanath were devoted to the Divine within one another, walking together on their journey towards spiritual perfection. Sri Ma was his loyal wife on one hand, and spiritual guide on the other. And although it was difficult for Bolanath at the beginning of their life together, her perfect example awoke something in him that led him to seek Truth for himself.
These were two extraordinary examples of spiritual guide-disciple relationships. If you would like to learn more, have a look at the rest in our series on this fascinating topic.