On Gurus and Disciples

You must be wondering why I chose to write on this topic. Well… I have seen many people fall into the trap of gurU Worship or idolization of their gurU to such an extent that they got into financial hardships, and relationship problems with others and with themselves. Hence it is only fitting for me to share my knowledge of what or who guruis and is not, in hopes that this may help some of you. I will also talk about what or who a disciple or SishyA is.

I will write all the sanskrit words in italics using this transliteration scheme (courtesy of Sadhana School of Arts).

In a world where there are UNIX gurUs, HTML gurus in addition to spiritual gurus who promise salvation (whatever that means), the meaning of the word guru has been lost.

Merriam-Webster Online gives the following definition:

Main Entry: gu.ru
Function: noun
Etymology: ultimately from Sanskrit guru, from guru, adjective, heavy, venerable

  1. A personal religious teacher and spiritual guide in Hinduism
  2. A teacher and especially intellectual guide in matters of fundamental concern
  3. One who is an acknowledged leader or chief proponent
  4. A person with knowledge or expertise

Looking at the meanings given above, we will conclude that a guru is a person with knowledge or expertise and is a leader in his/her field, and someone who imparts the intellectual knowledge about matters of worldly concerns. The first meaning of spiritual guide as given in Hindu tradition, is totally lost and so the proliferation of various forms of gurus. Even this meaning of spiritual guide is somewhat misleading. Does this mean that a spiritual guide only imparts the theoretical knowledge or does something more? Let’s explore that in the following paragraphs.

A Model for the Creation of the Universe

Hindu Philosophy propounds the following model of the universe. I am giving a very simplified model here for the purpose of discussion. All these perceptible and imperceptible universes came from a single source that is, simultaneously, everything and nothing (it is known as a singularity in modern physics). It is called by several names parabrahman, brahman, Self, the Absolute, Being, Supreme Being, Supreme or Cosmic Consciousness, Cosmic Mind, etc. I will use the words brahman and Self, from now on, to describe this source. From this source the whole of this and many universes emerge. This is called lIlA or play of brahman. It is also known as swapna or dream of the cosmic mind.

From this brahman first emerges Sakti which is the dynamic creative force that manifests the innumerable seen and unseen universes and trillions of galaxies, stars, planets in them and then everything on these planets including
human beings. We, human beings, are now so caught up in constant uncontrolled thinking that we forgot our source and are identified with our thoughts and objects that these thoughts refer to, as being the “true us.” Therefore, we address ourselves as “I am an engineer,” “I am a father,” etc., identifying ourselves with the roles we play in our day-to-day life. This is called mAya. In the Bible, this concept of forgetting, who we truly are, is known as falling from grace.

Since everything comes from brahman everything is brahman and the essence of brahman is in everything, as the ever-shining Self, including our human form. Because of this veil or mAya of thought we are unable to realize brahman by ourselves, like the bottom of the ocean cannot be seen clearly because of the incessant waves at the surface. Because of this a need for a guru arises.

Scriptural Views on guru

In the vEdAs and upanishads several definitions are given for the word guru.

  1. According to one definition
    • gu means Darkness
    • ru means Light

    So, a guru is one that dispels darkness of ignorance and leads one into the light of consciousness and wisdom.

  2. The sanskrit root gur means, to uplift.
  3. In the tantrAs,
    • gu means that which gives success
    • ra means that which cleanses all the impurities
    • u means sadASiva or brahman. sadASiva is another name given to brahman and is not the same as the Siva with the form that is often depicted,

    meaning the one that cleanses all impurities and gives success is brahman and is the guru.

  4. In the purANAs,
    • gu means guNAtItA, being beyond all qualities of the manifest nature.
    • ru mean rUpa-varjitAH being beyond all forms,

    meaning the one that is beyond all qualities and forms in the manifest nature, which is brahman is the guru.

Therefore, from the above definitions brahman that cleanses all impurities, dispels darkness of ignorance and pushes us towards success and light of consciousness, and that which is beyond all manifest qualities and forms, is the only guru.

The following prayer to the guru from the upanishads,


gurUr brahmA gurUr vishnuhU
gurUr dEvO mahESwarahA
gurUr sAkshAt parabrahmA
tasmaiSrI guravE namahA

is interpreted as,

guru is brahma the creator, guru is vishnu the protector and guru is Siva the dissolver and guru is parabrahman itself. Oh! revered guru, I bow to you.

In light of the preceding discussion, it is clear that the above prayer is not referring to the physical form of the human guru, but to the transcendental brahman that is shining through that physical form.

Since everything in existence is brahman, the guru can manifest in any form. For example, Sri Ramana Maharshi said that Mount Arunachala (in South India) was his guru. When this light of consciousness shines forth incessantly and consistently through a person, that person is also called a guru. However, the physical form should not be mistaken for the consciousness that is shining through. For an enlightened person, there is no difference between the two. For such a person, there is also no difference between him and the others. For a non-Self-realized person, however, the duality still exists and that’s where the problem starts. We think somehow the guru is different from us. That he (for ease of discussion I will use he, but there are also female gurUs) has something that we do not. There are genuine gurus, though very rare. If not careful, one will mostly fall into the trap of false gurus who exploit the gullibility of the innocent seekers of the Truth.

It is said that when the suffering of the seeker intensifies and prays incessantly for guidance from God (I regard this term as being synonymous with brahman) because he does not know how to know the Self or brahman, the Self itself appears as a guru with an external form. The external guru pushes the seeker to look inward, whereas the internal guru, the Self, pulls the seeker inward for Self-realization. So, one should not confuse the external form of the guru with the brahman. Even while looking at the form of the guru one should remember the essence behind that form. The external form is not the guru but the all-pervading indwelling Self is the only guru. When the seeker truly starts looking inward, the internal guru will take over. At that point, the necessity for the external guru will diminish and he may automatically vanish from the seekers external life.

Characteristics of a True guru

How does one know if a guru is a genuine one? SAstrAs or scriptures say that a disciple should be very discriminative while choosing a human guru.

In tirumantiram, Sidda tirumUlar describes the characteristics of a true guru.

  • He has inclination to teach and impart wisdom of the tradition.
  • He is silent within and without, meaning he has achieved self-realization.
  • He feels indebtedness and gratitude to his own gurUs that he wants share his knowledge with his disciples.
  • He has genuine compassion and love for everything in existence.
  • He has no greed. He does not demand money or other worldly possessions.
  • He leads his disciples by example.
  • He does not encourage idolization and worship of him.
  • He gently, but sometimes swiftly, guides his disciples to look inward.
  • He treats his disciples as his equals, because he sees no duality between himself and others.
  • He will not promote in his disciples, any attachment to himself, and encourages them to look inward for answers.

Characteristics of a True SishyA or Disciple

In tirumantiram, Sidda tirumUlar describes the characteristics of a true disciple.

  • He will not idolize or worship the physical form of the guru for he knows that the true guru is within. Even if he does, he keeps in mind that he is not praying to the physical form but the essence behind it.
  • He knows that the self-realization comes from within and not without.
  • He exudes self-confidence.
  • He is compassionate and honest.
  • He will not burden his guru by requesting answers for simple, mundane day-to-day problems.
  • He will practice the techniques given to him by his guru with interest and focus, for they help him to look inward for guidance.
  • He will perform introspection, self-examination, meditation and pursue right attitudes, to resolve his internal conflicts.
  • He will not shop around for techniques and remain just a collector of techniques instead of becoming a master himself.

A true guru will aid a true disciple in clearing and stilling the surface waves of thought so that Self deep within can shine forth unencumbered. That is the true meaning of yOgA. A true guru will make sure that the disciple is transformed to another master and not remain a disciple forever.

4 thoughts on “On Gurus and Disciples”

  1. Through meditation. As stated in the article, Guru is the infinite indwelling self (see also my latest article: Self-Mastery and Enlightenment Demystified). However, listening to our higher self with all the mental clutter, it is difficult. So, an external guru will appear to you, when you are ready. If you want to find your external guru, then meditate or pray asking the question, “Who is my guru?” If your desire is intense, then you may get visions or dreams with symbols or faces guiding you to your guru. You may get guidance externally as well, through synchronous external events or people. Remember a true (external) guru will want you to be independent, practice the techniques given and not be sycophantic. S/he will treat you as equal. Also remember that an external guru need not be embodied, meaning need not have a physical form (e.g., Jesus Christ, Sri Krishna, Mahavatar Kriya Babaji Nagraj). Once you make contact with your inner self and are able to listen to the guidance, then guru will send you away to work on yourself independently. Let me know, if I can be of further help.

    -Desika

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