What Is A Guru?

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Guru (heavy/venerable)

Guru definition

Guru, meaning heavy in Sanskrit, refers to a teacher. Heavy can be thought of as a figure who has more understanding, more knowledge, and thus, by virtue of their wisdom, is heavy or a heavyweight.

The root, gṝ is used to form words such as gArayate, which means ‘to know’ and ‘to teach’.

guru deep dive

The whole point of having a guru is to one day go beyond your guru, or at least match him… Eventually, a true disciple transitions from the guru outside to the one inside.

Om Swami

Within yoga, gurus and the Guru-Shishya Parampara (teacher-disciple tradition) play a huge role in the development of students’ yogic practices on the path to self-actualization. They are trusted spiritual teachers.

As an oral tradition, initiation from a guru was the only way you could learn the practices of yoga, before yogic texts and manuscripts became widely available throughout the world, as they are today.

a painting of a guru teaching his disciples in a forest
The Uposatha Night”, by Photo Dharma, licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Upanishads stress the importance of the Guru-Shishya relationship in understanding Brahman as the Atman (Self), acknowledging that self-study may be fruitless without their guidance in the practical application of the scriptures.

Gurus have attained deep spiritual insight or are enlightened masters, the source of their wisdom coming from their own realization of witness consciousness.

They help to awaken the innate intelligence and wisdom in their students, giving them responsibility for their own growth. The support of a guru allows students to move toward liberation and away from ignorance.

Though the guru can be living, this is not a requirement. Many gurus are individuals who have left their bodies.

As Ram Dass used to say about his late guru Maharaj-ji, ‘I hang out with my guru in my heart’, still communicating with him and receiving guidance after his guru had passed.

Gurus can appear to you in your dreams, too. I know yogis who have found their guru this way, with the likes of Mahavatar Babaji, Sri Yukteswarji, and Anandamayi Ma revealing guidance to them in their dreaming state.

Every guru will have their own way of revealing themselves to you when the time is right; when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. We don’t have to go in search of one.

This cycle ensures that the guru never truly dies, as the guru will live on in the divinely lived life of their disciples. Each life will be an embodiment of the teachings passed down from one student to the next.

a boy meditating in a field with a white heart on his chest

guru in your life

Do modern-day practitioners need gurus?

There are many who, though immersed in ignorance, yet, in the pride of their hearts, fancy they know everything, and not only do not stop there, but offer to take others on their shoulders; and thus the blind leading the blind, both fall into the ditch.

Swami Vivekananda

There has been much conversation in recent years around the place for gurus in our lives.

Do we need a guru as modern-day practitioners?

Is guru culture dead?

How important are gurus?

As I have already written with regard to the perpetration of abuse from ‘gurus’ such as Bikram and Pattabhi Jois; where there is power, there is always room for abuse of power.

There is, without a doubt, a power dynamic involved in the guru-student relationship. Further compounding this is the fact that, for many, when they arrive at spiritual and yogic practices, they can be in a very vulnerable place and in search of healing.

In the present day, it can feel like we are constantly maneuvering a minefield of self-proclaimed spiritual leaders and self-help gurus that pronounce God-like qualities.

I have even read of some referring to themselves as ‘Bhagavan’ (literally meaning God!).

Do not be fooled by those seeking fame, fortune, or compliments for their ego. Above all, it’s important to trust your intuition. If your teacher does not resonate with you, let them go.

Yet, this does not stop fake ‘gurus’ from using their status as ‘enlightened beings’ and mystic philosophies to deceive followers and perpetrate abuse and violence. For this reason, we all have a responsibility to create transparent and trauma-informed communities.

a follower kissing the feet of his guru in a temple

What we can say is that a guru teaches from their heart and embodies their teachings. They are an embodiment of truth, you could say.

They lead you around the obstacles in your way on the road to liberation. They aren’t the cause of your self-realization and do not believe they are, because the self is already, by its very nature, liberated.

Ultimately, our soul is our greatest teacher and a true guru recognizes this, instead of requiring worship or blind idolization from their followers.

Though it is possible to walk the path yourself, many find huge value in the wisdom of a guru –yet, this is a decision you must make for yourself. Like Arjuna and Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, it’s easier to move through the battlefield of life with a charioteer guiding your way.

Similarly, like hiking in the dark, it is possible to climb the mountain with faith in your own night vision, but it’s likely to be much more straightforward to do so with a head torch!

A guru is this light that illuminates the way with wise instruction, leading you to the power within yourself.

The relationship between the guru and student has the potential to be love and devotion in its most supreme, unconditional, divine form.

a guru with his palm on the head of his disciple
Guru Initiates Shishya”, by AyvmMedia, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

A lesson from the Tao Te ching

If you overesteem great men, people become powerless. If you overvalue possessions, people begin to steal.

The Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion in those who think that they know.

Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.

Lao Tzu – Tao Te Ching, 3

There are so many lessons to be learned from the Tao Te Ching, and I’m sure that you can find your own interpretations of life in this verse alone.

This verse in particular speaks to so much that I think is important in guru culture: a true guru will never try to take away your power by cultivating an over-reliance or glorification on themselves as leaders, juxtaposing their students as mere followers.

Neither will they ever try to convince you to give away your power to them, or anyone else.

Anything in excess, like the over-esteeming of individuals or ‘gurus’ that make us believe that one person or thing has superior value to another, simply serves to distort our reality rather than break down the barriers that prevent us from seeing the truth.

There is nothing a guru can give to us that we cannot already find in ourselves. The role of the guru is to guide us to find this place of wholeness.

As Lao Tzu says, a true master ‘creates confusion’.

Though you may be thinking that you don’t seek the advice of a guru to leave feeling confused, my interpretation of this verse is that confusion takes us closer to our understanding of our essence nature.

A guru leads us to question what we think we know and removes the blinkers that block us from seeing and experiencing the full expression of consciousness.

To observe, embrace, and find solace in both the inherent mystery and magnificence of life. To sit at the center of the complex dance and rest in the flux of it all. Once we can learn to do this, as Lao Tzu says, ‘everything will fall into place‘.

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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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