Resources of the Himalayan Yoga Tradition

The Story of Totaka

Do you know the story of Totaka, one of the first four disciples of the great Shankaracharya, in whose monastic tradition of which we are the swamis?

He was a servant, a dull man, ignorant, unlettered, unable to comprehend anything that went on between the guru and the disciples by way of teaching or listening knowledge. All of his contemporaries were great scholars and philosophers, sitting at the master's feet and imbibing and getting drunk on his wisdom. All that Totaka did was walk around behind the guru and watch where he might be stepping on a thorn or when he might be getting thirsty, when he might need his shawl changed, when he might need his seat fixed.

As a disciple in the service of the guru is supposed to do, he slept only after the guru had retired, and woke before the guru emerged from his night's retirement or meditation, or whatever passes for sleep at that level. And his entire focus was on the guru. An unlettered, dull man, with no understanding of any philosophy.

And one day the guru sent him on an errand to do something somewhere, and Totaka came back, and it was time for the class to begin. All the worthy disciples were gathered, all those who were full of understanding and knowledge, who could out-philosophize any philosopher and who could tear to shreds any argument, pro or con. And the master came to the class and asked, "Where is Totaka?"

The disciples answered, "You sent him to do such-and-such and errand; he isn't back yet."

"Oh. Well, we'll have to wait. We can't hold a class without him."

"But master, why? He doesn't understand anything. He is only your servant. He is not like the rest of us. He is not really a member of the class. Why do we have to wait on him?"

"No, no, no. We have to wait for him."

Totaka, after completing the service he was asked to perform, came back. "Oh yes," said the master. "I was waiting for you, Totaka. I have kept the class waiting."

"For me, sir?

"Yes, for you. Today you are going to teach."

"Me, master? Me? I am going to teach? What do I know to teach.

All these disciples, they are like my own guru. They are so advanced. I know nothing."

The guru said, "Are you disobeying me?"

And the disciples were stunned. The class was shocked. When the master said, "Are you disobeying me," Totaka had no alternative but to actually somehow swallow his lack of pride, for he was made to occupy th guru's seat. "Sit and close your eyes and teach." And he sat on the guru's seat and closed his eyes, and taught. He was one of the first four after the first Shankaracharya to head the monasteries.