We talk glibly about media gurus, sports gurus, and even gurus of sales and marketing, but uncertainty surrounds the meaning of the term “guru” and many feel wary of it. The ancient Sanskrit word seems to have slid into our modern Western consciousness, losing its spiritual connotations along the way. This is unfortunate because the concept, nebulous as it is, remains a meaningful one in the yoga tradition.
We see the role of the guru described in texts old enough to be called purana (ancient). Among them, the Skanda Purana talks about the guru both as an embodied person and as a presence in inner life. Embodied, the guru teaches, inspires, disciplines, forgives, parents, models, and transmits truths of life. Such teachers are beacons of spiritual accomplishment, although when asked, they often insist that the guru is not so much a person as an inner source of illumination that awakens awareness and transforms the dark places of inner life.
The guru teaches, inspires, disciplines, forgives, parents, models, and transmits the truths of life.
Dramatic encounters with living gurus are preserved in the lore of every tradition. During his training, for example, Sri Ramakrishna (in his own right a towering figure of the 19th century) had a number of gurus. The first was a Bengali saint called simply the Brahmani (the Brahman woman). She arrived in Ramakrishna’s life in 1861 at a time when he was having tremendous difficulty managing psychological turmoil. Many believed him insane. The Brahmani disagreed. Convoking the leading pandits of the time, she argued that far from suffering from delusions, Ramakrishna was a spiritually realized person passing through the early stages of an inner evolution. She lovingly disciplined Ramakrishna’s mind, channeling his intense emotionalism into meditation and other devotional practices.
After three years a second master, Totapuri, appeared, to continue Ramakrishna’s training. Ramakrishna’s description of the pivotal moment in their relationship is still startling nearly 150 years later. Totapuri asked Ramakrishna to withdraw his mind from ecstatic visions and focus on the Absolute. The young man could not. He fell back repeatedly. Finally, he said in despair, “It is hopeless.” But Totapuri, in Ramakrishna’s own words, “grew excited and sharply said: ‘What? You can’t do it? But you have to.’ He cast his eyes around. Finding a piece of glass, he took it up and stuck it between my eyebrows. ‘Concentrate the mind on this point!’ he thundered.” The last barrier fell.
In the 1960s and ’70s, stories like these inspired a generation of Western seekers to look for gurus of their own. Some went to India. Others were rewarded by the sudden appearance of noted teachers in the West. Large followings around these teachers seemed proof of how thirsty many had become for a spiritual guide. But while some students became lifelong devotees of the lineages they discovered, others were disillusioned, found that their ideals required nourishment from other sources, or recognized that they were unprepared for the teacher they had encountered.
The tales of meetings between spiritually ripened students and their guru counterparts are the stuff of sacred history, but the guidance you and I are looking for is likely to be far less epic. We search for a guide to help us move forward from where we are, and much as we might cherish the idea, enlightenment is not the next step on our journey. Humility, continued practice, and a little more wisdom come first. We might wish for a teacher to take charge of our lives, but it doesn’t quite work that way. Instead, we learn to recognize the essence of the guru as an inner teacher, a healer, and a force of hope and unfolding awareness.
Some say that the mother is the first guru, and a mother’s training starts early. Decades may pass before the wisdom of going to bed on time finally sinks in, but we probably heard it first from our parents. They set rules and dole out discipline, and these become the first guidelines for making order out of life’s endless possibilities.
A good schoolteacher can also act as a guru. When we were young, many of us were fortunate enough to have a teacher in whose presence mistakes were transformed from egregious sins into simple errors. Such teachers lovingly revise our blunders, seeing them as steps on the way to maturity. In the yoga tradition, this ideal is expanded. The first stages of yoga, the yamas and niyamas (restraints and observances), act as teachers, offering lessons to be worked out gently under the tutelage of life itself.
When students lean too heavily on the compassion of the teacher, another aspect of the guru’s nature is revealed. Teachers nurture the disciplines of practice. If our dependency becomes too strong, a teacher will often awaken our practice by stepping back. The Buddha put it very simply when he said, “Light thine own lamp.”
If our dependency becomes too strong, a teacher will often awaken our practice by stepping back. The Buddha put it very simply when he said, "Light thine own lamp."
In his book Sadhana, the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore beautifully expresses the way a spiritual teacher offers inspiration in the face of turmoil: “Within us we have a hope which always walks in front of our present narrow experience; it is the undying faith in the infinite in us; it will never accept any of our disabilities as a permanent fact; it sets no limit to its own scope; it dares to assert that man has oneness with God; and its wild dreams become true every day.” Such words remind us of the long view the teaching spirit in us takes toward our failures and tribulations.
Practically, most spiritual lessons are delivered in the midst of negotiations with the mundane world. One of my friends tells of a simple event that changed his outlook on life many years ago. He had been living and working in an ashram, when one day he decided unilaterally that he deserved some free time to read the newspaper. He started down the stairs toward his room, but on the way he met a fellow resident climbing up to attend a group meditation. They greeted one another and my friend continued down, then stopped. As he tells it, the chance meeting on the staircase awakened him. From his perspective, a message from an inner teacher had been delivered and received. He saw that his attachment to the newspaper was just that—a preference, not a mandate. So he turned around and discovered an altogether greater joy in meditating. In serving his inner guru, he had served himself.
The effectiveness of this lesson depended upon my friend’s sensitivity to it. It happened that in the moment on the stairs he was prepared to see his lethargic habits with a fresh and objective eye. Who knows why? But in the process an unproductive pattern was silently confronted, illumined, and changed.
Students who have been anchored in a healthy relationship with a teacher understand that the term “guru” is not so much a title as a word to express an association with the guiding forces of life. They know that the guru is half a relationship. Pure and simple, guru is the means for a student to master the diverse lessons that arise in spiritual life. Because this is a long path and one that thrives on faith, many practices traditionally start with a prayer to the guru. The following prayer is found in the Guru Stotram, composed by the sage Shankaracharya:
Gurur-brahma Gurur-vishnu Gurur-devo maheshvarah Guruh sakshat param brahma Tasmai shri gurave namah
Guru is the Creator Guru is the Preserver Guru is the Dissolver Guru, indeed, is the limitless Consciousness. Homage to that supreme inner Guide.
In this context the word guru, found in each line, is understood to be a mantra, a sound that in itself embodies the ascendancy of light over darkness. The syllable gu means “darkness”; ru means “light.” The guru is the living light that dispels the darkness of spiritual ignorance. When this prayer is recited it becomes a quiet supplication for help and guidance.
According to the Guru Gita, this light is none other than the Self within us:
The guru is the living light that dispels the darkness of spiritual ignorance. According to the Guru Gita, this light is none other than the Self within us.
There is no difference between the guru and the wisdom of the Self. This is the undoubted truth. Therefore, wise seekers should indeed strive to attain the Self.
The veiled knowledge of reality, the illusory world of appearance, identification with the body—all originate out of ignorance. The one by whose grace the Self is realized—that one is known by the name guru.
This same idea is echoed in the Bhagavad Gita (6.5): “One should cause the deliverance of the self by the Self.” Each of us senses that parts of our mind exist in darkness at once familiar and binding, and like a chick driven to hatch from the bondage of its own shell, we are drawn to the ideal of the guru. There, we sense, we will find the right pace for our training, support when we meet with failure, firmness to awaken the bright part of ourselves, and a keen sense of spiritual direction. In the guru, the unknown parts of ourselves find their knower and guide. The guru is life itself, teaching those it holds in its hands.
In India, Thursdays are traditionally honored as the day of the guru, a day to set extra time aside for meditation and spiritual fellowship, or to make an offering to Brihaspati, guru of the bright forces of the universe and the lord of prayer. This remembrance inspires devotion, protects us from acting improperly, and relieves the pain of past mistakes.