The Legend of Rajgurus

This article is part of the latest book by U. Mahesh Prabhu – Kautilya: Understanding the Colossal Genius. The book is available on

When Alexander ‘The Great’ was in Aryavartha (as India was known), he had just defeated Puru (corrupted as Porous), the ruler of a small kingdom on the subcontinent’s north-western border in Punjab. During his march through this conquered kingdom, he saw ascetics clad in nothing but simple loin clothes. They had nothing to call their own, yet weren’t looking hapless. On the contrary, they appeared blissful and content. To the King of Macedonia, who wanted to win all the world’s kingdom to satisfy his appetite for power, this was rather bizarre! ‘How can these paupers be happy without owning anything or commanding anyone’ he must have thought, before summoning a group of ascetics to his tent.

Alexander asked them, through his interpreters, why they lived so despicable and yet felt so happy and content. One of the ascetics, who was a Vedic sage named Dandamis, replied, “O King, every man can possess only so much of the earth’s surface as he can stand upon. You are a mere human like rest of us, except you are always busy and up to mischief, traveling many leagues from your home, becoming a great nuisance to yourself and to others, taking an army along with you. Ah well! You will soon be dead, and then you will own just as much of this earth as will suffice to bury you. The reason we are supremely happy is that we know this fact whereas you, by the delusion of false pride and power, have thought of happiness to be outside yourself.”

What Dandamis said, according to Greek historians of the time, humbled the great world conqueror. He introspected profoundly. How much he brooded none can tell, but that the “powerful King of Macedonia” never killed the sage ascetic is a fact. Why was this so? Anyone who had spoken words contrary to the wishes of the King had been laid to rest for eternity.

Rajguru Rishi Vashishta, in his wisdom to Ram, declared, “I have no love or hate. My mind does not entertain craving, but is peaceful and balanced. I behold the one common substratum in all things (a piece of wood, a beautiful woman, a mountain, a blade of grass, ice, fire and space) and I am not worried by thoughts like ‘what shall I do now?’ or ‘what I shall get tomorrow?’ I am not bothered by thoughts of old age or death, or by longing for happiness, nor do I regard some as mine and others as not mine… I am disturbed neither by prosperity nor by adversity when they are granted to me, as I regard them with equal vision (even as I look upon my arms as arms). Whatever I do is untainted by desire or the mud of ego-sense; thus, I do not lose my head when I am powerful or go begging when I am poor; I do not let hopes and expectations touch me and even when a thing is old and worn out, I look upon it with fresh eyes as if it were new. I rejoice with the happy ones and share the grief of the grief-stricken, for I am the friend of all, knowing I belong to none and none belongs to me…”

Vedic kingdoms from the times of Ramayana and Mahabharata until the Mauryas are replete with stories and legends of such ascetics with ‘mystical’ powers to humble even the mightiest of kings. Often, these kings were trained by ascetics in their ashrams (hermitages). Ashrams, where people went to learn supreme wisdom, were also known as gurukuls. At gurukuls, sons of mighty kings had to shred their loyal clothing and live like any other youths of the time. There were no monetary fees, let alone hefty donations for their gurus. Gurudakshina (tributes to a guru) were often something shishyaas could get on their own through the application of the knowledge they had got from their gurus.

Often, when princes became kings, they continued to seek guidance from these gurus who were addressed by kinsmen as ‘Rajguru’ – the guru of the raja (king). These rajgurus were most often the most influential people. And, why not? A person who had the complete full attention of kings had every reason to be powerful. Yet, these gurus seldom let themselves be touched by power or any of its manifestations, including money. They were far from being corruptible, probably why kings cherished their advice.

Bhartrihari, a king who became an ascetic by choice, says in his work Vairagya Shataka, “I am not an actor; I am not a courtesan; I am not a singer; I am not a buffoon; I am not a beautiful woman; what I have to do with royal palaces? You are a King, I am only but a hermit. Your riches are celebrated; I don’t even believe in fame. Thus, O King, there is not a great connection between us. You may turn your face from me, but I have no desire for anyone’s, let alone your favor.”

Given the fact that they had neither the need for riches nor fame (unlike modern-day self-styled gurus) what possible rationale could kings have in seeking these ascetics and hermits? The answer is wisdom.

Wisdom was revered by Vedic people. They believed that “Wisdom is truly the most beautiful ornament that a person can possess. It is a thing of value and must be carefully watched, for it brings things much beyond food, fame, and blessings. Wisdom is like a friend to a man who travels to distant lands. It is honored by the king even more than wealth, and the man who lacks wisdom is but an animal.”

Kautilya in Arthashastra advises kings to “… Cast away your pride in the presence of those who are rich in the inward treasury of wisdom; they cannot be robbed by thieves, but their treasure, which is continually increasing, becomes even larger when they share it with the needy and it will not perish even at the end of the world…”

This article is part of the latest book by U. Mahesh Prabhu – Kautilya: Understanding the Colossal Genius. The book is available on

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