What is a Guru?

In this day and age, many people are attributed to be guru’s of one kind or another. Some call themeselves black-belt gurus of computer code, others are guru’s of math and trigonometry; still more are hailed as guru’s of cooking or survival on remote islands. What is the origin of this term guru, and what does it mean? Does being a guru mean you cultivate people who are dependent upon you – or do you cultivate independence? What – exactly – is a guru and the origins of this term?


The word guru traditionally meant “one with gravitas”. In recent times, a neo-etymology has become popular where guru is one who takes one from darkness (gu) to light (ru). Different people in different contexts use the word guru differently to refer to different kinds of people.

In the Bhagavat Puran, Krishna reveals to Uddhava the twenty-four gurus of the detached ascetic (avadhuta). Here he includes various elements, plants, animals and life-experiences that give the ascetic insight. Thus, guru is the one who provokes insight. But in Skanda Purana, we find the Guru Gita where Shiva tells Parvati that without a guru, it is impossible for a person to understand the Veda, or gain enlightenment. The former looks at guru as one who acknowledges and enables human independence; the latter looks at guru as one on whom one must be dependent. Both kinds of gurus have thrived since the post-Upanishadic, post-Buddhist period of Indian history.

In popular parlance, the word guru is used casually to mean various kinds of people: teacher (adhyapak), coach (acharya), expert (shastri, pandit, gyani), monks (bhikshu, sanyasi, sadhu, muni), spiritual acolytes (arhat, tapasvee, yogi), mystics, occultists and magicians (jogi, siddha, tantrik), and priest (purohit).


Sage Shuka preaching to an assembly of sadhus. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons]

Increasingly, it is being used to refer to prophets who carry the message of truth for humanity (paigambar), an Abrahamic concept, which is very different from the Hindu concept of a detached hermit who seeks the truth (digambar, shramana, gosain).

Most popularly the word guru is used globally for Indian spiritual leaders who insist they are detached from all things worldly but relish the wealth and power bestowed upon them by their dependent followers who typically express their submissiveness and humility, hence lack of ego, by addressing the leader as master (swami, nath) or lord (maharaj). Eventually, the “guru” becomes more important than God. In this context, the Guru Gita plays a key role. Guru is seen as equal to or greater than father, mother, the gods even. Here, the guru becomes a territory who must be protected as bees protect the queen bee, for without the queen bee the security and nourishment provided by the beehive is gone.

The Veda does not refer to gurus as much as seers (rishi) who observe the world and transmit their knowledge and insights via hymns (mantra) through students. In Upanishads we find students such as Yajnavalkya fighting with teachers such as Vaisampayana, and rishis such as Ashtavakra having conversations kings such as Janaka to discover the truth. There is no concept of a guru as fountainhead of knowledge on whom one must be dependent. Here, autonomy and independence of students matter.

When one reads the Ramayana, we become aware that Vasistha and Vishwamitra, who are called seers (rishi), but pass on various kinds of knowledge and skills to Rama. It is clear they are functioning like teachers and trainers. In Mahabharata, Drona is called guru, but Krishna orchestrates his beheading. This is guru-hatya, a terrible crime. In Puranas, we are told without Brihaspati, devas cannot win a war, and without Shukra, the asuras cannot resurrect the dead. They seem like magicians and occultists. The scriptures refer to gurus who have wives and children (Atri, Agastya, Jamadagni) as well as celibate gurus who gain magical powers owing to their celibacy (Gorakhnath). Datta, son of Atri, is considered by many as the guru of gurus, Adi guru, and visualised as following four dogs (symbol of confidence born of Vedic wisdom), and followed by a cow (symbol of wealth), and sometimes greater than even the gods.

In many ways, 2,500 years ago, Buddha began as a “classical” guru who wanted his students to be independent. But over centuries, we see how his students become increasingly dependent. Buddha democratised spiritual practice, and entry into which had nothing to do with one’s caste (jati). Anyone could join by simply declaring submission (sharanam) to the potential of awakening (buddha), the Buddhist doctrine (dhamma) and the Buddhist community (sangha). But as learn from the Buddhist scriptures (pitaka), as more and more people joined, more and more rules, more and more quarrels, and more and more splits began to manifest. Eventually, there were people who saw Buddha less as a philosopher or teacher, and more as a God-like figure, to be worshipped, and who performed miracles, and who could solve mundane earthly problems if one truly had faith in him.



In history of Christianity also we find such transformations. Jesus, who is first preacher, distinguishes himself from messenger of God, by calling himself son of God, and eventually his followers are convinced he is God on earth. Even his mother becomes venerable, worthy of adoration, though not quite Goddess. Likewise in Islam, importance is given not just to God’s words as revealed in Quran but also to habits of Muhammad, declared to be the last and final prophet by his followers, as documented in the Hadith. In both religions, we find conflicts over doctrines, rules, and splits, leading to violent confrontation.

In Jainism there is a clear demarcation between the Tithankara (the guru of gurus) and the regular monks and nuns who teach and the lay followers who listen to the teachers (shravaka). The teachers are not allowed to stay anywhere for more than a day, except during rainy season. He has to keep fasting and keep moving and shunning all material comforts, even clothes. This was the practice of Matsyendranth, Goraknath and many Nath jogis too, as well as Sufi saints.

As Buddhism waned, in the past 1000 years, many spiritual leaders and scholars of India like Ramanuja, Madhva, Vallabha and Basava established various monastic orders (matha), sects (sampradaya), traditions (parampara) and gymnasiums (akhara), many attached to temple complexes, complete with rules, temples, institutions, much like the Buddhist sangha. They were skilled administrators. They were patronised by kings such as the Vijayanagar kings and the Nayaks of Tanjore.

As Bhakti movement spread and became popular in North India 500 years ago, gurus, pirs and sants established many camps (dera) in the countryside. Today, these have become large institutions. Sikhism, for example, has become a religion. It evolved out of 10 gurus complete with a holy book filled with devotional hymn. Over time, it has divided the spiritual pursuit (piri) from material rules (miri) recognising the tension between the other-worldly sage (pir) and the worldly governor (amir) much like the Vedic tension between seers (rishi) and kings (raja) that often led to confrontation, as narrated in the story of Parashurama.



Today, in New Age guru-doms around the world, we find followers who function much like clans and tribes. Gurus cater to different social classes, some for English-speaking rich folks of the city and the diaspora, and others for the non-English speaking village folks, who feel disenchanted with the state and with organised religion. As their sex scandals emerge, as we find them increasingly serving the vote banks of politicians, in exchange for favours that help them establish vast “spiritual” conglomerates selling “spiritual” products, services and ideas, one is forced to wonder who is a real guru?

It really depends on the follower. For some, guru needs to be “spiritual balm” and never-ending fountain of “positive energy” who solves problems magically, allows them to infantilise themselves, take no responsibility and stay emotionally dependent. For others, guru is one with gravitas, who provokes insight, enables independence and moves on like a wandering avadhut. 



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