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Guru (Devanagari गुरु) is a Sanskrit term for "teacher" or "master", especially in Indian religions. The Hindu guru-shishya tradition is the oral tradition or religious Doctrine transmitted from teacher to student. In the United States, the meaning of "guru" has been used to cover anyone who acquires followers, especially by exploiting their naiveté, due to the inflationary use of the term in new religious movements.

Guru (Skt); bla ma (Tib). Spiritual teacher. The Sanskrit word literally means ‘heavy.’ The Tibetan wordbla ma’ (pronounced la ma) means unsurpassed or supreme. A teacher requires specific qualifications to be regarded as a guru. These vary according to the level of practice.


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" in Sanskrit and in other languages derived from or borrowing words from Sanskrit, such as Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Bengali, Gujarati and Nepali. The malayalam term Acharyan or Asan are derivered from the Sanskrit word Acharya. It is transliterated in different ways such as Asaan, Ashan, Aasaan etc.

As a noun the word means the imparter of Knowledge (jñāna; also Pali: ñāna). As an adjective, it means 'heavy,' or 'weighty,' in the sense of "heavy with Knowledge," heavy with Spiritual Wisdom, "heavy with Spiritual weight," "heavy with the good qualities of scriptures and realization," or "heavy with a Wealth of Knowledge." The word has its roots in the Sanskrit gri (to invoke, or to praise), and may have a connection to the word gur, meaning 'to raise, lift up, or to make an effort'. Sanskrit guru is cognate with Latin gravis 'heavy; grave, weighty, serious' and Greek βαρύς barus 'heavy'. All Proto-Indo-European root *gʷerə-, specifically from the zero-grade Form *gʷr̥ə-.

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." In some texts it is described that the syllables gu (गु) and ru (रु) stand for darkness and Light, respectively.


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

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". The meanings of "gu" and "ru" can also be traced to the Sutras indicating concealment and its annulment.

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'

Guru in Hinduism

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.

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.

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.

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.

The guru-shishya tradition

See also: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

Assessing a Disciple

At the beginning of the Upadesasahasri Samkara provides a list of criteria by which the guru assesses prospective disciples. It is clear that Samkara did not regard the examination of candidates as a mere formality. The guru assesses the applicant using the following criteria: the candidate is not attached to anything Impermanent; he has renounced the desire for a son; he has no desire for Wealth; he is at peace with himself, master of his senses and compassionate. In addition, the guru checks the applicant's Caste, behaviour, Knowledge of Veda and even earlier generations of his family.

Knowledge was not regarded as a universal right, as it often is today. Access to Knowledge via the guru was the privilege of a very small minority. It was the norm to transmit Knowledge in the erudite Language of Sanskrit without translation. Mastery of Sanskrit was therefore essential. What was taught by guru was the universal reality of Brahman, but access to this Knowledge was highly restricted. Ultimate Knowledge was founded on the Veda, and the guru followed the instruction of the texts: no one belonging to the sudra Caste was allowed access. Women and foreigners were also excluded.

Classification of gurus

In his book about neo-Hindu movements in (for example Wilmer) the Netherlands, Kranenborg distinguishes four types of gurus in India:

  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.

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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.

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).

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 Mundaka 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:



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 shishya, 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


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.

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. 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:

Best known representatives include Maha MahaRishi Paranjothiar (Kundalini Yoga), 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)

Guru in Buddhism

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." 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.


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. 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.

There are Four Kinds of Lama (Guru) or Spiritual teacher (Tib. Lama nampa shyi) in Tibetan Buddhism:

  1. gangzak gyüpé Lama — the individual teacher who is the holder of the lineage
  2. gyalwa ka yi Lama — the teacher which is the word of the Buddhas
  3. nangwa da yi Lama — the symbolic teacher of all Appearances
  4. rigpa dön gyi Lama — the absolute teacher, which is rigpa, the true nature of Mind

Guru in Sikhism

The Sikh Gurus were fundamental to the Sikh Religion, however the concept in Sikhism differs from other usages.

Sikhism is derived from the Sanskrit word shishya, or Disciple and is all about the relationship between the teacher and a student. The core beliefs of Sikhism are of belief in the One God and in Ten Gurus, enshrined in Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. The concept of Guru in Sikhism stands on two pillars i.e. Miri-Piri. 'Piri' means Spiritual authority and 'Miri' means temporal authority. Therefore, Guru in Sikhism is a teacher-leader. Traditionally, the Spiritual authority in Sikhism has always been the word and which is still preserved in the Guru Granth Sahib. And for temporal authority, as the word passed through 10 mortal bodies and finally into the collective corporate Body known as the Khalsa till eternity, kept changing with finally been vested in the Khalsa when Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Guru, merged into it.

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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 he left the World he designated a new Guru to be his successor and to lead the Sikh community. This procedure was continued till March 30, 1699. In addition to the original ten teachers, the Guru Granth Sahib, their holy book, and the Khalsa was made the eleventh perpetual Guru of the Sikhs. Together they make up the eleven Gurus of Sikhism

Succession and lineage (Parampara)

The word Parampara (Sanskrit परम्परा) 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 (Kalā 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

Western 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 in 1965 which permitted Asian gurus entrance to the USA. 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. 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.

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. 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.

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

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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Gurus and the Guru-shishya tradition have been criticized and assessed by secular scholars, theologians, anti-cultists, skeptics, and religious philosophers.

  • Dr. David C. Lane proposes a checklist consisting of seven points to assess gurus in his book, Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical. One of his points is that Spiritual teachers should have high standards of Moral conduct and that followers of gurus should interpret the behavior of a Spiritual teacher by following Ockham's razor and by using common sense, and, should not naively use Mystical explanations unnecessarily to explain immoral behavior. Another point Lane makes is that the bigger the claim a guru makes, such as the claim to be God, the bigger the chance is that the guru is unreliable. Dr. Lane's fifth point is that self-proclaimed gurus are likely to be more unreliable than gurus with a legitimate lineage.

Typically, their message is of a radical nature, asking that we live consciously, inspect our motives, transcend our egoic passions, overcome our Intellectual blindness, live peacefully with our fellow humans, and, finally, realize the deepest core of Human nature, the Spirit. For those wishing to devote their time and energy to the pursuit of conventional Life, this kind of message is revolutionary, subversive, and profoundly disturbing.". In his Encyclopedic Dictionary of Yoga (1990), Dr. Feuerstein writes that the importation of yoga to the West has raised questions as to the appropriateness of Spiritual discipleship and the legitimacy of Spiritual authority.

He contends that some so-called gurus claim special Spiritual insights based on personal revelation, Offering new ways of Spiritual development and paths to salvation. Storr's Criticism of gurus includes the possible risk that a guru may exploit his or her followers due to the authority that he or she may have over them, though Storr does acknowledge the existence of morally superior teachers who refrain from doing so. He holds the view that the idiosyncratic belief systems that some gurus promote were developed during a period of psychosis to make sense of their own minds and perceptions, and that these belief systems persist after the psychosis has gone. 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.[42] The Belgian Indologist Koenraad Elst criticized Storr's book for its avoidance of the term prophet instead of guru for several people. Elst asserts that this is possibly due to Storr's pro-Western, pro-Christian cultural bias.

Preece introduces the notion of transference to explain the manner in which the guru/Disciple relationship develops from a more Western psychological perspective. He writes: "In its simplest sense transference occurs when unconsciously a person endows another with an attribute that actually is projected from within themselves." In developing this concept, Preece writes that, when we transfer an inner quality onto another person, we may be giving that person a Power over us as a consequence of the projection, carrying the potential for great Insight and inspiration, but also the potential for great danger: "In giving this Power over to someone else they have a certain hold and influence over us it is hard to resist, while we become enthralled or spellbound by the Power of the archetype".

  • According to the journalist Sacha Kester, in a 2003 article in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, finding a guru is a precarious matter, pointing to the many holy men in India and the case of Sathya Sai Baba whom Kester considers a swindler. In this article he also quotes the book Karma Cola describing that in this book a German economist tells author Gita Mehta, "It is my opinion that quality control has to be introduced for gurus. Many of my friends have become crazy in India". She describes a comment by Suranya Chakraverti who said that some Westerners do not believe in Spirituality and ridicule a true guru. Other westerners, Chakraverti said, on the other hand believe in Spirituality but tend to put Faith in a guru who is a swindler.
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Notable scandals and controversies

Some notable scandals and controversies regarding gurus or the groups that they founded are:

The lifestyle of Osho (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) with his 93 Rolls Royces at his disposal (though as a gift from his followers), a bioterrorist attack at The Dalles, Oregon by some of his followers, the group's successful effort to take control of the city of Antelope, Oregon, his unusual teachings that contradicted both traditional Morality and Hindu norms, the group therapy sessions with little restraints, and the liberal sexual freedom that he promoted. The Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinrikyo founded by the guru Shoko Asahara in Japan.

Accusations of sexual abuse and false miracles performed by Sathya Sai Baba that resulted in a front page article in the magazine India Today, questions in the British and European parliaments, and critical TV documentaries produced by the BBC and Danish Radio that were aired in the United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark and Australia. Sathya Sai Baba dismissed the accusations as the mere "cawing of crows.". The Karmapa controversy in which the recognition of the 17th Karmapa of Tibetan Buddhism is contested by candidates having been proposed by different authorities, and there is deep division among followers all over the World, with each side accusing the other of lying and wrongdoing. Lama Osel Tendzin (from the Shambhala Buddhism lineage) had unprotected sex with some of his students while he was HIV positive; one of the young men involved later contracted AIDS and died, after passing the infection on to a girlfriend.



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See Also

Articles containing word "Guru" in title