The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







A guru (गुरू Sanskrit) is a Hindu religious teacher. It is based on a long line of Hindu philosophical understandings of the importance of knowledge and that the teacher, guru, is the sacred conduit to self-realization. Till today in India and among people of Hindu or Sikh persuasion, the title retains its significant hallowed space.

Guru is also the Sanskrit reference to Brihaspati, a Hindu figure equivalent to the planet the Romans named Jupiter; in Vedic astrology, Jupiter/Guru/Brihaspati is believed to exert teaching influences. Indeed, in Indian languages like Hindi, 'Thursday' is called either Brihaspativaar or Guruvaar (vaar meaning period or day).

Guru is widely used in contemporary India with the universal meaning of the word "teacher".

In a Western context, the term guru has extended into anyone who promotes a religious or philosophical belief system, sometimes independent of tradition and existing schools of thought, and has followers because of this. Critics assert that some gurus do this with the effect or even purpose of exerting domination or receiving inappropriate benefits. In further metaphorical extension, it means a person who has the status of an authority because of his perceived expert knowledge or skills.


Guru in Hinduism

Origin and understanding of the term Guru

The word guru means teacher in Sanskrit and other Sanskrit-derived languages like Hindi, Bengali and Gujarati. It originated in a Hindu context and holds a special place in Hinduism, signifying the sacred place of knowledge (vidya ) and the imparter of knowledge. The word comes from the sanskrit root "gru" literally meaning heavy, weighty. Another etymology claimed in Hindu scriptures is that of dispeller of darkness (wherein darkness is seen as avidya, lack of knowledge both spiritual and intellectual), 'gu' meaning darkness, and 'ru' meaning dispeller.

The syllable gu means shadows
The syllable ru, he who disperses them,
Because of the power to disperse darkness
the guru is thus named.
Advayataraka Upanishad 14--18, verse 5)

Another popular etymology claims that the syllables gu (गु) and ru (रू), stand for darkness and light, respectively, providing the esoteric meaning that the guru is somebody who leads the disciple from the darkness of ignorance to the light of knowledge [1] [2].

In the sense mentioned here above, guru is used more or less interchangeably with "satguru" (literally: true teacher) and satpurusha. Compare also Swami. The disciple of a guru is called sishya or chela . Often a guru lives in an ashram. The lineage of a guru, spread by worthy disciples who carry on that guru's particular message, is known as the guru parampara or disciplic succession.

In the traditional sense, the word guru describes a relationship rather than an absolute and is used as a form of address only by a disciple addressing his master. Some Hindu denominations like BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha hold that a personal relationship with a living guru, revered as the embodiment of God, is essential in seeking moksha.

The role of the guru continues in the original sense of the word in such Hindu traditions as Vedanta, Yoga, Tantra and Bhakti schools. Indeed, it is now a standard part of Hinduism (as defined by the six Vedic streams and the Tantric Agamic streams) that a guru is one's spiritual guide on earth. In some more mystical Hindu circles, it is believe that the guru could awaken dormant spiritual knowledge within the pupil, known as shaktipat.

Some influential gurus in the Hindu tradition (there have been many) include Adi Shankaracharya, Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and Shri Ramakrishna. Other gurus whose legacy of continuing the Hindu yogic tradition grew in the 20th century were luminaries like Shri Aurobindo Ghosh, Shri Ramana Maharshi, Swami Sivananda and Swami Chinmayananda.

Devotees' views on Guru and God

The origin of guru can be traced back as far as the early Upanishads, where the conception of the Divine Teacher on earth first manifested from its early Brahmin associations. Indeed, there is an understanding in some sects that if the devotee were presented with the guru and God, first he would pay respects to the guru since the guru had been instrumental in leading him to God. To illustrate the elevated status of a guru, some saints and poets have sung the glory of the guru:

Guru Govind Doa khade kake lagun panv
Balihari Guru Apne, jin Govind diyo lakhay
Guru and God both appear before me. To whom should I prostrate?
I bow before Guru who introduced God to me.
Bhagya Bade Sadguru Mei Payo, Man ki duvidha door nasai
Brahmanand charan balihari, guru Mahima Hari se adhikai
It's my great fortune that I found Satguru, all my doubts are removed.
I bow before Guru. Guru's glory is greater than God's.
  • Sahjo Bai
Raam tajun Pei Guru Na Bisaron
Guru ke sam hari ko na niharon
I can afford to forget God but not the Guru. I can not equate God with Guru.
  • Hari Bhakti Vilasa ( 4.344)
Prathamam tu gurum pujya tatas caiva mamarcanam
Kuran siddhim avapnoti hy anyatha nisphalam bhavet
One does not directly worship one's God. One must begin by the worship of the Guru. Only by pleasing the Guru and gaining his mercy, can one offer anything to God. Thus, before worshiping God, one must always worship the Guru.

It is worth noting that in all sects with a disciplic succession or parampara, both guru and disciple affirm to be servants of the divine.

In the Upanishads five signs of sat guru are mentioned. In the presence of the satguru; Knowledge flourishes (Gyana raksha); Sorrow diminishes (Dukha kshaya); Joy wells up without any reason (Sukha aavirbhava); Abundance dawns (Samriddhi); All talents manifest (Sarva samvardhan).

Importance of the Guru in Indian culture

In Indian culture having not having a guru or a teacher (acharya) was looked down upon as being an orphan, and a sign of misfortune. The word anatha in Sanskrit means "the one without a teacher". An acharya is the giver of shiksha, which means knowledge; Guru gives diksha, which means heightened awareness.

Guru Poornima is the day when the disciple wakes up in his fullness and expresses gratitude. The purpose of the Guru Poornima celebration is to review the year and see in how much one has progressed in life and to renew one's determination and focus on the progress on the spriritual path.

Guru Puja (literaly "worship of the guru") is a practice consisting of making offerings to and requesting inspiration from the guru. Vows and commitments made by the disciple or chela, which might have lost their strength are renewed.

The importance of finding a true guru and avoiding the false ones is one of the tenants of Hinduism. Lord Krishna says to Arjun:

Acquire the transcendental knowledge from a Self-realized master by humble reverence, by sincere inquiry, and by service. The wise ones who have realized the Truth will impart the Knowledge to you. (Bhagavad Gita, c4 s34)

The existence of fraudulent, or incompetent gurus is well known among Hindus. For example, the ancient Panchatantra contains a fable about a false guru. Some influential gurus like Vivekananda have also warned against false gurus.

List of famous gurus

== Guru in Buddhism ==The guru's blessing is the last of the four foundations in Vajrayana Buddhism. In this foundation the disciple can continue in their experiential path on the true nature of reality. The disciple regards the guru as the embodiment of Buddha or a Bodhisattva, and as such he shows devotion and great appreciation toward him.

In tantric Buddhism, a guru is essential for the initiation,practice and guidance along the path. The importance of a guru-disciple relationship, is demonstrated by ritual empowerments or initiations where the student obtains permission to practice a particular tantra.

The Dalai Lama speaking of the importance of the guru, said: "Rely on the teachings to evaluate a guru: Do not have blind faith, but also no blind criticism."

According to the Dalai Lama, the term 'living Buddha' is a translation of the Chinese word 'ho fu'. In Tibetan, the operative word is 'lama' which means 'guru'. A guru is someone who is not necessarily a Buddha but is heavy with knowledge. The term vajra is also used, meaning 'master'.

Guru plays a very special role in Vajrayana (tantric buddhism) as "the way" itself. The guru is perceived as the "state of enlightenment". The Guru is not an individual who initiates a person, but the person's own Buddha nature reflected in the personality of the Guru.

Guru in Sikhism

The title Guru is extremely fundamental to the religion of the Sikhs. Indeed, the Sikhs carried the meaning of the word to an even greater level of abstraction, while retaining the original usage, to apply to understanding of imparted knowledge through any medium.

Guru Nanak, the first guru of Sikhism, was opposed to the caste system prevalent at his time in India. His followers referred to him as the Guru (teacher). Before his death he designated a new Guru to be his successor and to lead the Sikh community. This procedure was continued, and the tenth and last Guru, Guru Gobind (AD 1666–1708) initiated the Sikh ceremony in AD 1699.

For Sikhs, the Gurus were not in the Christian sense “Sons of God”. Sikhism says we are all the children of God and by deduction, God is our mother/father.

The most important is the Guru Granth Sahib, their holiest book.

See also:

"Guru" in a Western culture context and secular views

According to Dr. George Feurstein the traditional role of the guru, or spiritual teacher, is not widely understood in the West, even by those professing to practice Eastern traditions entailing disciple/teacher relationships. Feurstein an author and expert in Yoga studies, argues in his article Understanding the Guru, that conventional folk have always had their problems with spiritual teachers, giving the examples oppression of the Hebrew prophets and the Christian mystics, and the way that Mohammed and Jesus were treated by their own people in their time. He further argues that spiritual teachers, by their very nature, swim against the stream of conventional values and pursuits and are considered controversial.

The Dutch theologist Dr. Reender Kranenborg , distinguished four types of gurus while studying neo-hinduist sects in the Netherlands:

  1. the spiritual advisor for higher caste Hindus who also performs traditional rituals and who is not connected to a temple (thus not a priest);
  2. the enlightened master who derives his authority from his experience, such as achieving moksha. This type appears in bhakti movements and in tantra and asks for unquestioning obedience and can have Western followers. Westerners even have become one, for example Andrew Cohen;
  3. the avatar, a guru who claims to be an incarnation of God, or to be God-like, or an instrument of God, for example Sathya Sai Baba and gurus from the Sant Mat lineage;
  4. A "guru" in the form of a book in the Sikh religion.

Additional meanings in contemporary western usage

As an alternative to established religions, some people in the West have looked up at spiritual guides and gurus from the East to provide answers to the meaning of life and to achive a more direct experience free from intellectualism and philosophy. Gurus from many denominations traveled to the West and established a following, in particular during the 1960s and 1970s.

The original meaning has evolved to a broader one. In more recent usage of the word guru, it means anyone who propagates a philosophical or religious belief system independent of an established school of philosophy or religion and attracts and accepts followers because of this, especially when the veracity of the belief system hinges around the reliabiliy of the guru. Sometimes Christians use the word guru as a pejorative label. On the other hand, Kranenborg accepts the word guru for Jesus. Often, dependent on the teachings of the guru, the followers will see the guru as a prophet, saint or avatar. Gurus often claim that they have achieved enlighment, moksha, that their teachings were channeled or that they have received a revelation.

The term guru has also passed into an even wider metaphorical use. In hacker culture, a guru is an expert of legendary proportions. Nearly synonymous with "wizard", but additionally implies a history of being a knowledge resource for others. Less often, used (with a qualifer) for other experts on other systems, as in VMS guru. (The definition is from Jargon file.)

Criticism and assessment of the guru's authenticity

The guru and guruism labels have acquired a rather negative connotation in Western countries, especially in France, likely due to the prominence of several self-proclaimed "gurus" in the US and during the 1960s and 1970s "New Age" movement, who used Hindu terminology without necessarily having much in common with mainstream Hinduism. Some of these gurus were found to be abusing their status and to be either charlatans, self-deceived, businessmen pretending to be saints, cult leaders or a combination of these. The label has been extended to any leader seeking to exert his domination over adepts of a secular, religious organization or school of thought, or to receive inappropriate benefits under the pretense of promoting among them a certain belief system. Some countries have enacted legislations that protect individuals with specific vulnerabilities due to physical or psychological deficiencies. Critics of these legislations interpret these measures as limitations of freedom of religion. See French legislation on cult abuses.

The British psychiatry professor Anthony Storr argues in his book Feet of clay - A Study of gurus that gurus (in the non-Hindu usage of the word) share common character traits (e.g. being loners without friends) and that some suffer from a mild form of schizophrenia. Storr contends that some of them claim special spiritual insights based on personal revelation, offering new ways of spiritual development and paths to salvation. His criticism of gurus include that the belief system that some gurus hold were developed during a period of psychosis to make sense of their own minds and perceptions, and that these belief system persists after the psychosis has gone away. Storr applies the term "guru" to figures as diverse as Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Gurdjieff, Rudolf Steiner, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Jim Jones and David Koresh. While acknowledging the existence of morally superior persons Storr argues that gurus who are eloquent, paranoid, authoritarian, or that interfere in the private lives of followers, are the ones who are more likely to be unreliable and dangerous and further refers to Eileen Barker's checklist to recognize false gurus.

The American psychiatrist Alexander Deutsch performed a long lasting observation of a small cult called The Family (not to be confused with The Family/Children of God) led by a guru called Baba. Deutsch observed that the followers interpreted the guru's pathological mood swings as expressions of different Hindu deities. After the guru had dissolved the cult his mental disorder (psychosis) was confirmed by a psychiatrist who interviewed him.

The scholar David C. Lane wrote that a charlatan who cons people is not as dangerous as a guru who really believes in his delusions, and that the 'bigger' the claims a guru makes, the bigger the chance that he is a charlatan or deluded. Lane argued in his book Exposing cults: when the skeptical mind confronts the mystical that followers of gurus should interpret the behavior of a spiritual teacher following ockham's razor using common sense and not naively use mystical explanations unnecessarily to explain ordinary or immoral behavior.

The late Dutch professor in psychology of religion Jan van der Lans at the Radboud University Nijmegen has mentioned three dangers when the personal contact between the guru and the disciple is absent.

  1. it increases the chance of idealization of the guru by the student (myth making and deification);
  2. meditation should be performed under personal support by the guru to keep emotions under control and to prevent psychological harm;
  3. it increases the chance of false mysticism. Mysticsm and critical thinking should go together.

According to van der Lans, the deification of a guru is a traditional element of of Eastern spirituality, but detached from the Eastern cultural element and copied by Westerners, the distinction between the person of the guru and that what he symbolizes is lost and the guru-disciple relationship degenerates into a boundless, uncritical personality cult.

According to the Bible, Jesus said that one should judge a prophet by his fruits. Some Christians believe that this rule of the thumb can also be applied for assessing teachers and not just for prophets. [3]

The Indian skeptic Basava Premanand toured around in the villages of India to educate people by debunking gurus and fakirs whom he considers frauds or self deceived.

Non-Hindu gurus

Other Uses of the word 'Guru'

See also

External links




Other sites

Critical sites


  • Arjun Dev, Guru, Guru Granth Sahib, Amritsar-1604 AD., Rag Bhairo
  • Aurobindo, Sri, The Foundation of Indian Culture, Pondicherry, 1959
  • Brown, Mick The Spiritual Tourist Bloomsbury publishing, 1998 ISBN 1-58234-034-X
  • Deutsch, Alexander M.D. Observations on a sidewalk ashram Archive Gen. Psychiatry 32 (1975) 2, 166-175
  • Deutsch, Alexander M.D. Tenacity of Attachment to a cult leader: a psychiatric perspective American Journal of Psychiatry 137 (1980) 12, 1569-1573.
  • Deutsch, Alexander M.D. Psychological perspectives on cult leadership, an article that appeared in the book edited by Marc Galanter M.D. (1989) Cults and new religious movements: a report of the committee on psychiatry and religion of the American Psychiatric Association ISBN 0-89042-212-5
  • Garden, Mary The Serpent Rising: a journey of spiritual seduction - 2003 ISBN 1-8770590-50-1
  • Gupta, Dr. Hari Ram. A Life-Sketch of Guru Nanak in Guru Nanak, His Life, Time and Teachings, Edited by Gurmukh Nihal Singh, New Delhi, 1981
  • Gurdev Singh, Justice, Perspectives on the Sikh Tradition. Patiala-1986
  • Isliwari Prasad, Dr. The Mughal Empire, Allahabad-1974
  • Jain, Nirmal Kumar, Sikh Religion and Philosophy. New Delhi- 1979
  • Kapur Singh, Parasarprasna or The Baisakhi of Guru Gobind Singh (An Exposition of Sikhism), Jalandhar-1959
  • Kovoor, Abraham Dr. Begone Godmen published by Shri Aswin J. Shah Jaico Publishing House, Bombay - 1976
  • Kramer, Joel, and Diana Alstad The guru papers: masks of authoritarian power ISBN 1-883319-00-5
  • Kranenborg, Reender (Dutch language) Neohindoe´stische bewegingen in Nederland : een encyclopedisch overzicht, published by Kampen Kok cop. 2002 ISBN 9043504939
  • Padoux, AndrÚ The Tantric Guru, in: Tantra in Practice, Ed by David Gordon White, MLBD, New Delhi
  • Majumdar, Dr R.C., The History and Culture of the Indian People, Vol. VI, Bombay-1960
  • Mcleod W.H. (ed.). The B40 Janam Sakhi, Guru Nank Dev University, Amritsar, 1980
  • Sister Nivedita , The Master as I Saw Him, Kolkata: Udbodhan Office, 1993.
  • Singh, Jaideva, (Ed.), ¤iva S˙tras, The Yoga of Supreme Identity, MLBD, Delhi, 1979
  • Storr, Anthony Dr. Feet of clay: a study of gurus 1996 ISBN 0684834952
  • Lans, Jan van der Dr. (Dutch language) Volgelingen van de goeroe: Hedendaagse religieuze bewegingen in Nederland, written upon request for the KSGV published by Ambo, Baarn, 1981 ISBN 9026305214
  • Swami Tejasananda, A Short Life of Vivekananda, Kolkata: Advaita Ashram Publication, 1999.

Last updated: 06-02-2005 13:33:37
Last updated: 08-27-2005 06:15:10