Teacher’s Day in Nepal: Guru Purnima Festival on Full Moon

GuruPurnima CelebrationⓒKailash K Shrestha, Artudio

Guru Purnima, which literally translates as the day for the teachers, is a unique festival celebrated in South Asia on full moon. The full moon, the time when our natural satellite emanates its most vibrant and luminescent energies, has special significance. This unique festival is not only linked with teachers but also the social obligations we each should perform in our lifetimes. Since the festival is celebrated according to the lunar calendar, the date according to the Gregorian calendar changes. In 2019 it falls on 16 July.

Ancient Hindu texts claim that every human is born with three debts, or tri rin, they must pay in their lifetime. These three debts are Deva rin, Pitri rin, and Guru rin, respectively debt to the gods, debt to ancestors, and debt to sages or gurus (who in ancient days were regarded as teachers). The religious texts also prescribe methods of repaying these debts, which ultimately leads us to the path of salvation or moksha. By fasting, praying, and performing rituals to gods and goddesses, one can pay back the Deva rin. The Pitri rin, the debts to our ancestors, are repaid through unconditional love, nurture, support, and respecting our parents, taking care of them in their old age, and performing rituals for their salvation after they pass on. This is the reason most people in Nepal still live in joint families: the responsibility to take care of their parents in their old age weighs heavily. 

The third debt, Guru rin, the debt to teachers, is the topic of this article. In ancient times schools as we know them today were non-existent; education was instead conducted at gurukuls (the gurus’ residence) through the Guru-shishya (teacher–student) relationship utilizing the shruti-smriti (listening and remembering) technique. In this system, the students, or shishya, resided with the teacher in the same premises, learned from him, and helped him in his day-to-day life, including carrying out mundane chores like cleaning, washing clothes, cooking, and so on.

GuruPurnima CelebrationⓒKailash K Shrestha, Artudio

Many students lived together learning good conduct, discipline, respect for each other, good brotherhood, and the ethics of humanity, along with academic education. At that time there were no fee structures for education. At the end of the student’s studies, they made an offering, Guru-dakshina, to the teacher. These offerings were gestures of gratitude, acknowledgment, and respect, made in kind or through special tasks the guru wanted the student to accomplish. 

The special festival of Guru-Purnima was observed to celebrate the teachers and repay the debts to them. In modern times this festival is still celebrated all over Nepal, in ways different than in days of old. Our education systems have changed, and so have our ways of celebrating festivals. What is important is that the reverence, respect, and gratitude for teachers remains. Students from schools and colleges perform dances and talent shows, entertaining the teachers. Sometimes they raise funds to organize refreshments for the teachers, and may offer gifts too. 

This tradition of respecting teachers is not limited to schools and colleges: adults in various professions often visit their teachers, bringing fruit and flowers to honor them on this special day. Teachers are not only those who teach us in academic institutions: those who implant in us knowledge of various types are also regarded as teachers. It is a day when teachers are made to feel special and motivated. Such socio-cultural festivals decorate our culture and motivate us to be better human beings; their continued observance, even in today’s societies with their twists of modernity, is most vital.