What Is Guru Shishya?

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गुरु शिष्य

Guru + Disciple

Guru Shishya Definition

The Guru-Shishya tradition, or parampara, is the teacher-disciple lineage. This is a custom throughout many religions and cultures, from Hinduism and Jainism to Sikhism and Buddhism.

Guru Shishya deep dive

The Sanskrit phrase is often seen in full as Guru-Shishya parampara, the first part of its translation is ‘student of a guru’ whilst parampara means an ‘uninterrupted series or succession’. Therefore, it’s an uninterrupted lineage passed down from teacher-student.

Cultures that practice this tradition have the utmost respect for the teachers that came before them and the knowledge and wisdom that they hold. Much of the Guru’s passing on of teachings is done orally, and thus it is an oral tradition.

It is a traditional based on trust, love, and reverence with a student having to earn the trust of the Guru to be seen as worthy of their time and teachings.

The parampara is of great cultural significance, holding much of the responsibility for passing down many of Hinduism’s most important spiritual teachings and India’s heritage.

Various schools of philosophy have come down as Guru Shishya paramparas, such as Advaita and Dvaita.

image of guru shishya tradition

The Meaning of Guru

The word Guru is often said to mean ‘dispeller of darkness‘, with gu meaning darkness or ignorance, and ru meaning dispeller. Although, the actual translation of the term ‘guru’ means heavy.

Their job is to guide their students through the process of spiritual development having attained self-mastery themselves.

Gurus are figures who have experienced firsthand the realizations of the yogic path and have likely reached moksha or bodhi. They are enlightened spiritual masters who guide the Shishya back to their true nature.

They pass two types of knowledge on; deductive and experiential. Deductive is the initial guidance that is passed down from the Guru to guide the student in the right direction and help them with their self-study.

The second is experiential, the knowledge that is gained from the student’s pursuit of life following and embodying the teachings of their Guru.

It is one thing to intellectually understand what you are being taught, but it is another extremely valuable thing to experience the teachings for yourself; this is how the Shishya becomes wise.

Through this knowledge, in time, the Shishya will become the master to their own disciples and hence the cycle continues.

Guru-Shishya Examples

1. Dronacharya and Arjuna

An example of this can be seen in the great epic, the Mahabharata, in the relationship between Dronacharya and Arjuna.

Dronacharya, the Guru, provided specialist guidance, support, and knowledge to Arjuna, the Shishya, who reciprocated with great determination, discipline, and devotion. Under the Guru’s supervision, Arjuna became an extremely skilled archer.

2. Ramakrishnan and Swami Vivekananda

The meeting with Swami Vivekananda’s Guru, Ramakrishnan, was a huge turning point in his life. Over the course of the relationship, the pair started the Vedanta Movement, or the Ramakrishna Mission, sharing the teachings of Hindu philosophy and the ideals of Vedanta.

Vivekananda considered his Guru to be an incarnation of Brahman, or God himself. In a speech he stated:

All that I am, all that the world itself will someday be, is owing to my Master, Shri Ramakrishna, who incarnated and experienced and taught this wonderful unity which underlies everything, having discovered it alike in Hinduism, in Islam, and in Christianity.

Swami Vivekananda

3. Sandipani and Krishna

The Guru of Sri Krishna was Saint Sandipani. The Guru is thought to have taught his Shishya, Krishna, about important spiritual topics including all the Vedas, astronomy, and Gandharva Veda (the Vedic science of sound such as music and mantras), amongst many other things.

guru shishya in buddhist tradition

Guru Shishya in your life

Giving thanks

Yoga was discovered, not created, and for millennia, yogic knowledge was passed down through the Guru Shishya parampara.

If it was not for the Guru Shishya parampara, we would not have the yoga we know today and would most certainly not have access to beautiful teachings filled with deep insight and unique perceptions of the world.

It’s important that we show gratitude for the Guru Shishya lineage. If you speak or hear someone speaking yogic wisdom, whether that’s in Satsang or in a yoga class, it’s likely that it’s wisdom that has been passed down through a Guru (directly or indirectly).

The Guru Shishya parampara has kept alive the timeless wisdom and science of yoga and Ayurveda through an unbroken lineage.

This is a massive feat, especially considering the systematic undermining of India’s culture and history following the colonial oppression by the British Raj. We know that the tradition in Indian culture was oppressed and began declining with the advent of Britain’s colonial rule. 

For thousands of years, this tradition has held a safe space for the inner growth of students who are realizing their true nature and passing this insight down, continuously raising the consciousness of the planet and being the catalyst for freedom and enlightenment.

We are so privileged to have access to these teachings and we must not forget this.

Every time we encounter yogic teachings, we can remember the journey the teachings have been on and the sacrifices individuals have made to pass this message on and keep the tradition alive.

We can honor these sacrifices by showing thanks to our teachers, Gurus, lineages, and the teachings themselves which have stood the test of time.

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves. www.elizabethburns.co.uk

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