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A guru (Sanskrit: गुरु) is one who is regarded as having great knowledge, wisdom and authority in a certain area, and who uses it to guide others (teacher). As a principle for the development of consciousness it leads the creation from unreality to reality, from the darkness of ignorance to the light of knowledge. In its purest form this principle manifests on earth as a divine incarnation (saint), a person with supreme knowledge about God and all creation.[1] Other forms of manifestation of this principle also include parents, school teachers [1], non-human objects (books) and even one's own intellectual discipline. [2] Some Gurus ask for unquestioning obedience, but full trust of the disciple is only justified, when the Guru is Brahmanishta Shrotriya [1], Brahma Gyani, the knower of God, a saint which can see God at any time he so desires.

In the religious sense the term is commonly used in Hinduism and Sikhism, as well as in Buddhism and new religious movements. Finding a true guru is often held to be a prerequisite for attaining self-realization. Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion said: "Even if a thousand suns and moons rose, they would be unable to remove the darkness of ignorance within the heart. This can only be removed through the grace of the Guru." [3]

"Guru" also refers in Sanskrit to Brihaspati, a divine figure in Hinduism. In Vedic astrology, guru or Brihaspati is believed to exert teaching influences.[clarification needed] Indeed, in many Indian languages such as Hindi, the occidental Thursday is called either Brihaspativaar or Guruvaar (vaar meaning day of the week).

In contemporary India, Indonesia and the Philippines, the word "guru" is widely used with the general meaning of "teacher". In Western usage, the meaning of guru has been extended to cover anyone who acquires followers, though not necessarily in an established school of philosophy or religion. [4] In a further Western extension, guru is used to refer to a person who has authority because of his or her perceived secular knowledge or skills, such as in business.


Guru is composed of the syllables 'gu' and 'ru', the former signifying 'darkness', and the latter signifying 'the destroyer of that [darkness]', hence a guru is one characterized as someone who dispels spiritual ignorance (darkness), with spiritual illumination (light) -as per Advaya-Tãraka Upanishad (verse 16),

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

The word guru, a noun, means "teacher" or Spiritual Master in Sanskrit and in other languages derived from Sanskrit, such as Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati and Nepali, or influenced by Sanskrit, such as Indonesian.

As a noun the word means the imparter of knowledge (jnana). As an adjective, it means "heavy," or "weighty," in the sense of "heavy with knowledge,"[5] "heavy with spiritual wisdom,"[6] "heavy with spiritual weight,"[7] "heavy with the good qualities of scriptures and realization,"[8] or "heavy with a wealth of knowledge."[9] The word has it roots in the Sanskrit gri ("to invoke", or "to praise"), and may have a connection to the word gur, meaning "to raise, "to lift up", or "to make an effort."Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag. Tag has more than one name associated with reference. Barnhart's "Dictionary of Etymology" compares gravis (Latin: grave, weighty, serious) as cognate with the Sanskrit "guru."[10]

A traditional etymology of the term "guru" is based on the interplay between darkness and light. The Guru is seen as the one who "dispels the darkness of ignorance."[11][12][13] In some texts it is described that the syllables gu (गु) and ru (रु) stand for darkness and light, respectively.[14]

Reender Kranenborg disagrees, stating that darkness and light have nothing to do with the word guru. He describes this as a folk etymology.[15]

Another etymology of the word "guru" found in the Guru Gita, includes gu as "beyond the qualities" and ru as "devoid of form", stating that "He who bestows that nature which transcend the qualities is said to be guru".[16] The meanings of "gu" and "ru" can also be traced to the Sutras indicating concealment and its annulment.[11]

In Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion, Pierre Riffard makes a distinction between "occult" and "scientific" etymologies, citing as an example of the former the etymology of "guru" in which the derivation is presented as gu ("darkness") and ru ("to push away"); the latter he exemplifies by "guru" with the meaning of "heavy".[17]

The Guru in Hinduism

The nearest word in English for guru is "great". in Sanskrit Guruttar and Garishth are similar to greater and greatest. The gravity forest is known as Gurutwa.

The importance of finding a guru who can impart transcendental knowledge (vidyā) is emphasised in Hinduism. One of the main Hindu texts, the Bhagavad Gita, is a dialogue between God in the form of Krishna and his friend Arjuna, a Kshatriya prince who accepts Krishna as his guru on the battlefield, prior to a large battle. Not only does this dialogue outline many of the ideals of Hinduism, but their relationship is considered an ideal one of Guru-Shishya. In the Gita, Krishna speaks to Arjuna of the importance of finding a guru:

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. [18]

In the sentence mentioned 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 a śiṣya or chela. Often a guru lives in an ashram or in a gurukula (the guru's household), together with his disciples. The lineage of a guru, spread by disciples who carry on the guru's message, is known as the guru parampara, or disciplic succession.

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 guru is the one who guides his or her disciple to become jivanmukta, the liberated soul able to achieve salvation in his or her lifetime.

The role of the guru continues in the original sense of the word in such Hindu traditions as the Vedānta, yoga, tantra and bhakti schools. Indeed, it is now a standard part of Hinduism that a guru is one's spiritual guide on earth. In some more mystical traditions it is believed that the guru could awaken dormant spiritual knowledge within the pupil. The act of doing this is known as shaktipat.

In Hinduism, the guru is considered a respected person with saintly qualities who enlightens the mind of his or her disciple, an educator from whom one receives the initiatory mantra, and one who instructs in rituals and religious ceremonies. The Vishnu Smriti and Manu Smriti regard the teacher and the mother and father as the most venerable influences on an individual.

Some influential gurus in the Hindu tradition were Adi Shankaracharya, Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and Shri Ramakrishna. Other gurus who continued the yogic tradition into the 20th century include: Shri Aurobindo Ghosh, Shri Ramana Maharshi, Sathya Sai Baba, Sri Chandrashekarendra Saraswati (The Sage of Kanchi), Swami Sivananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Chinmayananda, Swami Vivekananda and A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. See also the list of Hindu gurus.

In Indian culture, a person without a guru or a teacher (acharya) was once looked down on as an orphan or unfortunate one. The word anatha in Sanskrit means "the one without a teacher." An acharya is the giver of gyan (knowledge) in the form of shiksha (instruction). A guru also gives diksha initiation which is the spiritual awakening of the disciple by the grace of the guru. Diksha is also considered to be the procedure of bestowing the divine powers of a guru upon the disciple, through which the disciple progresses continuously along the path to divinity.

The concept of the "guru" can be traced as far back as the early Upanishads, where the idea of the Divine Teacher on earth first manifested from its early Brahmin associations.

Guru and God

Gurus do not appeal to scriptures for their authority, nor are they prophets who declare the will of God. Indeed, there is an understanding in some forms of Hinduism that if the devotee were presented with the guru and God, first he would pay respect to the guru, since the guru had been instrumental in leading him to God.[19][20][21] Some traditions claim "Guru, God and Self" (Self meaning soul, not personality) are one and the same. Saints and poets in India have expressed the following views about the relationship between Guru and God:


Guru and God both appear before me. To whom should I prostrate?
I bow before Guru who introduced God to me.[22]


It is my great fortune that I found Satguru, all my doubts are removed.
I bow before Guru. Guru's glory is greater than God's.

Brahmanda Purana

Guru is Shiva without his three eyes,
Vishnu without his four arms
Brahma without his four heads.
He is parama Shiva himself in human form

Adi Shankara begins his Gurustotram or Verses to the Guru with the following Sanskrit Sloka, that has become a widely sung Bhajan:

Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu, Guru Devo Maheshwara. Guru Sakshath Parambrahma, Tasmai Shri Gurave Namaha. (tr: Guru is the creator Brahma, Guru is the preserver Vishnu, Guru is the destroyer Siva. Guru is directly the supreme spirit — I offer my salutations to this Guru.)

Swami Tripurari states:

At first we shall see Sri Guru as saksad-hari, representing Krsna [God] in general and in this sense non-different from him. Only after some time as we advance will we begin to see him as representing a particular potency of Krsna, and this will be relative to one's developing innate serving tendency. Different disciples may see the same guru as representing different potencies.[23]

The guru-shishya tradition

The guru-shishya tradition is the transmission of teachings from a guru (teacher, गुरू) to a 'śiṣya' (disciple, िशष्य). In this relationship, subtle and advanced knowledge is conveyed and received through the student's respect, commitment, devotion and obedience. The student eventually masters the knowledge that the guru embodies.

The dialogue between guru and disciple is a fundamental component of Hinduism, established in the oral traditions of the Upanishads (c. 2000 BC). The term Upanishad derives from the Sanskrit words upa (near), ni (down) and şad (to sit) — "sitting down near" a spiritual teacher to receive instruction. Examples include the relationship between Krishna and Arjuna in the Mahabharata (Bhagavad Gita), and between Rama and Hanuman in the Ramayana. In the Upanishads, the guru-disciple relationship appears in many settings (a husband answers a wife's questions about immortality; a teenage boy is taught by Yama, who is Death personified, etc.) Sometimes the sages are female, and sometimes the instruction is sought by kings.

In the Vedas, the brahmavidya or knowledge of Brahman is communicated from guru to shishya orally.

The word Sikh is derived from the Sanskrit shishya.[24]

Classification of gurus

According to the Deval Smriti there can be eleven kinds of gurus and according to Nama Chintamani there are ten types.

In his book about neo-Hindu movements in the Netherlands, Kranenborg distinguishes four types of gurus in India:[dubious ][15]

  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 enlightenment. This type appears in bhakti movements and in tantra and asks for unquestioning obedience, and can have Western followers. Westerners can even become one, as have, for example Andrew Cohen, and Isaac Shapiro.
  3. the avatar, a guru who considers himself to be an incarnation of God, God-like, or an instrument of God, or who is considered as such by others.
  4. A "guru" in the form of a book i.e. the Guru Granth Sahib in the Sikh religion;

Attributes of guru

Gurus of several Hindu denominations are often referred to as Satgurus.

In the Upanishads, five signs of satguru (true 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).

According to the Indologist Georg Feuerstein, the preceptors were traditionally treated with great reverence, granted excessive authority, and identified with the transcendental Reality. He writes that partly to counterbalance this deification, some Hindu schools began to emphasize that the real teacher is the transcendental Self.[25]

The Shiva Samhita, a late medieval text on Hatha yoga, enshrines the figure of the guru as essential for liberation, and asserts that the disciple should give all his or her property and livestock to the guru upon diksha (initiation).[25]

The Vishnu Smriti and Manu Smriti regard the Acharya (teacher/guru), along with the mother and the father, as the most venerable individuals. The mother and father are the first "guru," the spiritual guru is the second.

The Mundak Upanishad says that in order to realize the supreme godhead, one should surrender one's self before the guru who knows the secrets of the Vedas.

On the role of the guru, Swami Sivananda asks: "Do you realize now the sacred significance and the supreme importance of the Guru's role in the evolution of man? It was not without reason that the India of the past carefully tended and kept alive the lamp of Guru-Tattva. It is therefore not without reason that India, year after year, age after age, commemorates anew this ancient concept of the Guru, adores it and pays homage to it again and again, and thereby re-affirms its belief and allegiance to it. For, the true Indian knows that the Guru is the only guarantee for the individual to transcend the bondage of sorrow and death, and experience the Consciousness of the Reality."

Some scriptures and gurus have warned against false teachers, and have recommended that the spiritual seeker test the guru before accepting him. Some have given criteria on how to distinguish false from genuine ones:

  • The Advaya Taraka Upanishad states that the true teacher is well-versed in the Vedas, is a devotee of Vishnu, is free from envy, knows yoga and is intent upon it, and always has the nature of yoga. Also that a person who is equipped with devotion to the teacher, has knowledge of the Self and possesses the above characteristics may be designated as a guru.[25]
  • The Maitrayaniya Upanishad warns against false teachers who may deceive the naive.[25]
  • The Kula-Arnava-Tantra states that there are many gurus who may rob the disciple's wealth but few who can remove the disciple's afflictions.[25]
  • Swami Vivekananda said that there are many incompetent gurus, and that a true guru should understand the spirit of the scriptures, have a pure character and be free from sin, and should be selfless, without desire for money and fame.[26]
  • Mirinalini Mata, a direct disciple of Yogananda, said that a true guru should be humble (Self-Realization Fellowship 1978, Cassette No 2402)
  • Sathya Sai Baba said in a discourse (Sathya Sai Speaks, vol I, p. 197) that the hunt for rich disciples who can be fleeced has become a tragicomedy, and said in the booklet Sandeha Nivarini that the seeker should test the guru by assessing whether his words are full of wisdom, and whether he puts into practice what he preaches.[27]
  • Saibaba The Master by Acharya Ekkirala Bharadwaja an in depth study of Shirdi Sai as a guru insists that one must follow the way of reading life histories of saints and it is the saints which will show us the correct guru when we are ready and capable of serving a guru. In Sufi-ism which revolves around Aulias(Saints), a disciple prays a Sufi-saint at his tomb, until the saint appears in a dream to the disciple and shows him the correct and living guru to go and serve. This is claimed as the Most secure way of entering a Guru-Shishya Parampara. Guru Charitra by Acharya Ekkirala Bharadwaja explains it in more detail.


Guru Purnima is the day when the disciple wakes up and expresses gratitude. The purpose of the Guru Purnima (or Poornima) celebration is to review the preceding year to see how much one has progressed in life, to renew one's determination, and to focus on one's progress on the spiritual path.

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

Guru Bhakti (literally "devotion to the guru") is considered important in many schools and sects.

In modern Hinduism

Best known representatives include Krishnamurti, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (Transcendental Meditation), Sai Baba, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Balyogeshwar (also known as "Guru Maharaj Ji", "Maharaji", and "Prem Rawat") (Divine Light Mission), and Rajneesh (Sannyasis).[28]

Guru in Buddhism

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In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, the teacher is a valued and honoured mentor worthy of great respect and is a source of inspiration on the path to Enlightenment, however the teacher is not generally considered to be a guru but rather a spiritual friend or Kalyāṇa-mittatā.

In the Tibetan tradition, the guru is seen as the Buddha, the very root of spiritual realization and the basis of the path. Without the teacher, it is asserted, there can be no experience or insight. In Tibetan texts, great emphasis is placed upon praising the virtues of the guru. Blessed by the guru, whom the disciple regards as a Bodhisattva, or the embodiment of Buddha, the disciple can continue on the way to experiencing the true nature of reality. The disciple shows great appreciation and devotion for the guru, whose blessing is the last of the four foundations of Vajrayana Buddhism.

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."[29] He also observed that the term 'living Buddha' is a translation of the Chinese words huo fuo. In Tibetan, he said, 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'.[30]

Tantric teachings include the practice of guru yoga, visualizing the guru and making offerings praising the guru. The guru is known as the vajra (literally "diamond") guru.[30] Initiations or ritual empowerments are necessary before the student is permitted to practise a particular tantra. The guru does not perform initiation as an individual, but as the person's own Buddha-nature reflected in the personality of the guru. The disciple is asked to make samaya or vows and commitments which preserve the spiritual link to the guru, and is told that to break this link is a serious downfall.

Guru in Sikhism

The title Guru (Gurmukhi: ਗੁਰੂ) is fundamental to the Sikh religion. Indeed, the Sikhs have carried the word to an even greater abstraction, while retaining the original usage, and use it to relate to an understanding or knowledge imparted through any medium.

Sikhism is derived from the Sanskrit word shishya, or disciple. The core beliefs of Sikhism are of belief in one God and in the teachings of the Ten Gurus, enshrined in Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book.

Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first guru of Sikhism, was opposed to the caste system prevalent in India in his time, and he accepted Hindus, Muslims and people from other religions as disciples. 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 Singh (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.

On the importance of guru, Nanak says: Let no man in the world live in delusion. Without a Guru none can cross over to the other shore.

# Name Date of birth Guruship on Date of ascension Age
1 Nanak Dev 15 April 1469 20 August 1507 22 September 1539 69
2 Angad Dev 31 March 1504 7 September 1539 29 March 1552 48
3 Amar Das 5 May 1479 26 March 1552 1 September 1574 95
4 Ram Das 24 September 1534 1 September 1574 1 September 1581 46
5 Arjan Dev 15 April 1563 1 September 1581 30 May 1606 43
6 Har Gobind 19 June 1595 25 May 1606 28 February 1644 48
7 Har Rai 16 January 1630 3 March 1644 6 October 1661 31
8 Har Krishan 7 July 1656 6 October 1661 30 March 1664 7
9 Tegh Bahadur 1 April 1621 20 March 1665 11 November 1675 54
10 Gobind Singh 22 December 1666 11 November 1675 7 October 1708 41
11 Guru Granth Sahib n/a 7 October 1708 n/a n/a

In addition to the Ten Gurus of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib, their holy book, was made the eleventh perpetual guru of the Sikhs. Together they make up the Eleven Gurus of Sikhism. And today Sikh children are sometimes named Guru (Guru Darshan, Guru Mundir, etc)

Succession and lineage (parampara)

The word parampara (Sanskrit परमपरा) denotes a long succession of teachers and disciples in traditional Indian culture. The Hinduism Dictionary defines parampara is "the line of spiritual gurus in authentic succession of initiation; the chain of mystical power and authorized continuity, passed from guru to guru." In Sanskrit, the word literally means: Uninterrupted series of succession.

The Guru (teacher) Shishya (disciple) parampara or guru parampara, occurs where the knowledge (in any field) is passed down undiluted through the succeeding generations. It is the traditional, residential form of education, where the Shishya remains and learns with his Guru as a family member. The domains may include spiritual, artistic (kala कला such as music or dance) or educational.

David C. Lane, a professor of sociology, and, since 2005, an ex-member and critic of Radha Soami Satsang Beas, argued in 1997 that based on his research of the Radha Soami movement that few gurus have a flawless and well-documented lineage, and that there is quite often conflict between different disciples claiming to be the only legitimate successor of their guru.[1]

Views on gurus from a Western cultural perspective

As an alternative to established religions, some people in Europe and the USA who were not of Indian extraction have looked up to spiritual guides and gurus from India, seeking them to provide them answers to the meaning of life, and to achieve a more direct experience free from intellectualism and philosophy. Gurus from many denominations traveled to Western Europe and the USA and established followings. One of the first to do so was Swami Vivekananda who addressed the World Parliament of Religions assembled in Chicago, Illinois in 1893.

In particular during the 1960s and 1970s many gurus acquired groups of young followers in Western Europe and the USA. According to the American sociologist David G. Bromley this was partially due to the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act (United States) in 1965 which permitted Asian gurus entrance to the USA.[31] According to the Dutch Indologist Albertina Nugteren, the repeal was only one of several factors and a minor one compared with the two most important causes for the surge of all things 'Eastern': the post-war cross-cultural mobility and the general dissatisfaction with established Western values.[32] According to the professor in sociology Stephen A. Kent at the University of Alberta and Kranenborg (1974), one of the reasons why in 1970s young people including hippies turned to gurus was because they found that drugs had opened for them the existence of the transcendental or because they wanted to get high without drugs.[33][34] According to Kent, another reason why this happened so often in the USA then, was because some anti-Vietnam war protesters and political activists became worn out or disillusioned of the possibilities to change society through political means, and as an alternative turned to religious means.[34] Some gurus and the groups they lead attracted opposition. One example of such group was the Hare Krishna movement (ISKCON) founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1966, many of whose followers voluntarily accepted the demandingly ascetic lifestyle of bhakti yoga on a full-time basis, in stark contrast to much of the popular culture of the time. [35]

According to Kranenborg (1984), Jesus fits the Hindu definition and characteristics of a guru.[36]

Gurus in the West

Gurus who established a discipleship or who are/were spiritual leaders of notable organizations in Western countries include:

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