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A Guru (Sanskrit: गुरू

), is a teacher in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, as well as in many new religious movements. Based on a long traditional line of philosophical understanding as to the importance of knowledge, the guru is seen in these religions as a sacred conduit, or a way to self-realization. The importance of finding a true guru is described in the scriptures and teachings of religions in which a guru plays a role.

"Guru" also refers in Sanskrit to Brihaspati, a Hindu figure analogous to the Roman planet/god Jupiter. In Vedic astrology, Guru or Brihaspati is believed to exert teaching influences. 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, "guru" is widely used within the general meaning of "teacher". In Western usage, the original meaning of guru has been extended to cover anyone who acquires followers, though not necessarily in an established school of philosophy or religion. In a further metaphorical extension, guru is used to refer to a person who has authority because of his or her perceived knowledge or skills in a domain of expertise.

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Wiktionary: Guru


The word guru means "teacher" in Sanskrit, as well as in other languages derived from Sanskrit, such as Hindi, Marathi, Bengali and Gujarati. The word is attested from the Rigveda as an adjective meaning "heavy", its opposite being laghu "light". It derives from PIE *gwrus , cognate to Hindi bari, Greek barus, Latin gravis, all four likewise related to "heaviness".[How to reference and link to summary or text]

The word holds a special place in Hinduism, signifying both the sacred place of knowledge (jnana) and the imparter of knowledge. The adjective meaning "heavy, weighty" is used in the sense of "heavy with knowledge" [1], "heavy with spiritual wisdom",[2] "heavy with spiritual weight",[3] "heavy with the good qualities of scriptures and realization",[4] "heavy with a wealth of knowledge".[5]

A notable esoteric etymology or interpretation of the term "guru" is based on a metaphorical interplay between darkness and light, in which the Guru is seen as the dispeller of darkness[6][7][8]. In some texts it is described that the syllables gu (गु) and ru (रू) stand for darkness and light, respectively[9].

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)

A similar interpretation describes the guru as the one that "removes the darkness of ignorance" is based on the Guru Gītā (literally "song of the spiritual teacher"), a spiritual text describing a dialogue between Śiva and his consort Pārvatī on the nature of the guru and the guru/disciple relationship.

Reender Kranenborg a Dutch religious scholar, dismisses the etymology based on the Upanishads, the Guru Gītā, the Sikh scriptures, the writings of Krishnamurti, and other scholar's opinions such as those of John Grimes, Thomas Murray, and others, by stating that the etymology of darkness and light has nothing to do with word guru and describes it is as "people's etymology".[10]

In the Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion, Pierre Riffard, the author, makes a distinction between "esoteric etymologies" and "scientific etymologies" presenting as an example the etymology of "guru", in which the former is presented as ru ("to push away") and gu ("darkness"), and the latter as "guru" as "heavy".[11]

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 trascend the qualities is said to be guru". [12]

Guru in Hinduism


Adi Shankaracharya, (centre) with the Four Disciples; Sureshwaracharya, Hastamalaka, Padmapada, and Trotakacharya. Shankara placed each of the disciples in charge of a matha (a monastery or religious order), one of which was located in each of the cardinal directions.

The importance of finding a guru who can impart transcendental knowledge (vidyā) is one of the tenets of Hinduism. One of the main Hindu texts, the Bhagavad Gita, is a dialogue between God in the form of Krishna and Arjuna a nobleman. Not only does their dialogue outline many of the ideals of Hinduism, but the discussion and relationship between the two considered to be an expression of the ideal Guru/disciple relationship. In the Gita itself, Krishna speaks of the importance of finding a guru to Arjuna:

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 Gītā, c4 s34)

In the sense 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 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 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 through God-realization.

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 (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 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, along with the mother and the father, as the most venerable gurus (teachers) of an individual.

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 men like Shri Ram Chandra, Shri Aurobindo Ghosh, Shri Ramana Maharshi, Sri Chandrashekarendra Saraswati (The Sage of Kanchi), Swami Sivananda, Swami Chinmayananda and A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. See also the list of Hindu gurus.

In Indian culture, someone not having a guru or a teacher (acharya) was once looked down upon as being an orphan, and as under a sign of misfortune. 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 origin of concept of "guru" can be traced as far back as the early Upanishads, where the conception of the Divine Teacher on earth first manifested from its early Brahmin associations.

Guru and God

There is an understanding in some sects 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.[13][14] Gurus are said to be greater than God because they lead to God.[15] Some traditions claim "Guru, God and Self (Self meaning soul, not personality) are one and the same. In this context, saints and poets in India, have expressed their views about the relationship between Guru and God:

  • Kabir
Guru and God both appear before me. To whom should I prostrate?
I bow before Guru who introduced God to me.
  • Brahmanand
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.
  • Brahmanda Purana
Guru is Shiva sans his three eyes,
Vishnu sans his four arms
Brahma sans his four heads.
He is parama Shiva himself in human form
  • Adi Shankara, widely considered one of the most important figures of Indian intellectual history, begins his Gurustotram or Verses to the Guru with the following Sanskrit Sloka, that is a widely sung Bhajan:
Guru Brahma Guru Vishnu Guru Devo Maheshwara
Guru Sakshath Parambrahma Tasmai Shri Gurave Namaha
This means: Guru is creator Brahma; Guru is preserver Vishnu; Guru is also the destroyer Siva and he is the source of the Absolute. I offer all my salutations to the Guru.

The "guru-shishya" tradition

Main article: Guru-shishya tradition

The guru-shishya tradition is centered around the transmission of teachings from a guru (teacher, गुरू) to a 'śiṣya' (disciple, शिष्य). The term shishya roughly equates to the western term disciple. The principle of this relationship is that knowledge, especially subtle or advanced knowledge, is best conveyed through a strong human relationship based on ideals of the student's respect, commitment, devotion and obedience, and on personal instruction by which the student eventually masters the knowledge that the guru embodies.

The guru-shishya relationship is a practice which has evolved into a fundamental component of Hinduism, since the beginning of 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 in the guru-shishya tradition. An example of this dynamic can be found embodied in the relationship between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita portion of the Mahabharata, and between Rama and Hanuman in the Ramayana. In the Upanishads, gurus and shishya appear in a variety of settings (husband answering questions about immortality, a teenage boy being taught by Yama, or Death personified, etc.). Sometimes the sages are women and at times the instructions (or rather inspiration) are sought by kings.

In the Vedas, the brahmavidya or knowledge of Brahman is communicated from guru to shishya by word of mouth. The word Sikh is derived from the Sanskrit word shishya.

Classification of gurus

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

  • rishi
  • acharyam
  • upadhya
  • kulapati
  • mantravetta

Vaishnava traditions usually categorize gurus as:

  • vartma-pradarshaka guru (any person who first shows one the path)
  • shiksha guru
  • diksha guru
  • sannyasa guru (who initiates one into sannyasa order)
  • caittya guru (God in the heart as Paramatman)

In his book about neo-Hindu movements in the Netherlands, Kranenborg distinguishes four types of gurus in India:[10]

  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, including the Surat Shabda Yoga 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, in correlation with the perceived identification of the enlightened master with the transcendental Reality . Also, that traditionally, gurus were granted excessive authority and strongly tended to be deified. He writes, probably to counterbalance this, that some Hindu schools began to emphasize that the real teacher is the transcendental Self.[16]

The Shiva Samhita, a late medieval text on Hatha yoga, enshrines the importance of the guru for liberation and asserts that the disciple is supposed to give all of his or her property and livestock to the guru upon diksha (initiation).[16]

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

The Advaya Taraka Upanishad states that the true teacher is well-versed in the Veda, a devotee of Vishnu, free from envy, knows yoga and is intent upon it, and always has the nature of yoga. The text continues by stating that he, or she, who is equipped with devotion to the teacher, has knowledge of the Self and who possesses the above mentioned characteristics, may be designated as a guru.[16]

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."

Testing the guru

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

  • The Maitrayaniya Upanishad warns against false teachers who may deceive the naive.[16]
  • The Kula-Arnava-Tantra states that there are many gurus who may rob the disciple's wealth and few who can remove the disciple's afflictions.[16]
  • 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.[17]
  • 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.[18]


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

Main article: Contemporary Hindu movements

The German Indologist Axel Michaels in his 1998 book about Hinduism, called "guruism" a form of modern Hinduism (since 1850) that is Western-oriented and especially active proselytizing form of Hinduism that has recently emerged, founded by charismatic persons with a corpus of esoteric writings of gurus predominantly in English.[19] According to Michaels the best know representatives include Krishnamurti, Maharishi (Transcendental Meditation), Sai Baba, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Balyogeshwar (Divine Light Mission), and Rajneesh (Sannyasis).[20]

Guru in Buddhism

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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 way to the true nature of reality. The disciple regards the guru as the embodiment of Buddha, or a Bodhisattva, and he or she shows devotion and great appreciation toward the guru as such.

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. In the Tibetan tradition, however, the teacher is viewed as the very root of spiritual realization and the basis of the entire path. Without the teacher, it is asserted, there can be no experience or insight. The guru is to be seen as the Buddha. In Tibetan texts, great emphasis is placed upon praising the virtues of the guru. Tantric teachings include generating visualizations of the guru and making offerings praising the guru. The guru becomes known as the vajra (literally "diamond") guru, the one who is the source of initiation into the tantric deity. The disciple is asked to enter into a series of vows and commitments which ensure the maintenance of the spiritual link, being told that to break this link is a serious downfall.

In tantric Buddhism, a guru is essential for 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'.

The 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. In return, the disciple is expected to shows great devotion to his or her guru, who he or she regards as one who possesses the qualities of a Bodhisattva.

See also

Guru in Sikhism

The title Guru (Gurmukhi: ਗੁਰੂ) is extremely fundamental to the religion of the Sikhs. Indeed, the Sikhs have carried the meaning of the word to an even greater level of abstraction, while retaining the original usage, and apply it to an understanding of imparted knowledge 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.

Guru Nanak, the first guru of Sikhism, was opposed to the caste system prevalent in his time in India 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 (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.

Guru Nanak in speaking about God, says:

There is but One God, His name is Truth, He is the Creator, He fears none, he is without hate, He never dies, He is beyond the cycle of births and death, He is self illuminated, He is realized by the kindness of the True Guru. He was True in the beginning, He was True when the ages commenced and has ever been True, He is also True now.

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.

The Gurus of Sikhism


Guru Nanak and other nine Gurus of Sikhism.

# Name Date of Birth Guruship on Date of Death 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 Teg Bahadur 1 April 1621 20 March 1665 11 November 1675 54
10 Gobind Singh 22 December 1666 11 November 1675 7 October 1708 41

In addition to the Ten Gurus of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib was made the eleventh perpetual guru of Sikhs. Together they make up the Eleven Gurus of Sikhism

Succession and lineage (parampara)

Main article: 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.

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

David C. Lane, a professor of sociology, and as of 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 only few gurus have a flawless well-documented lineage and that there is quite often conflict between different disciples claiming to be the only legitimate successor of their guru.[1]

See also Guru-shishya tradition, Gurukula.

Views of "Guru" from a Western culture perspective

Swami Vivekananda in London, 1896

As an alternative to established religions, some people in Europe and the USA who were not of East 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.[21] 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.[22]*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.[23][24] 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.[24] In contrast to the situation in India, these foreign gurus were unusual, new and alien for European and American societies and led sometimes to opposition against groups. One example of a group that faced opposition 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. [25]

See also conversion to NRMs and cults, conversion to Indic religions, theories about joining cults

Gurus in the West

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

  • Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche a lama (Tibetan Buddhist religious teacher)
  • Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
  • Jiddu Krishnamurti groomed to be a world spiritual teacher by the Theosophical Society Adyar but publicly renounced this role in 1929
  • Maharishi Mahesh Yogi now lives in the Netherlands
  • Meher Baba who travelled to the west numerous times in the 1930's and 1950's and had many western followers
  • Muktananda
  • Paramahansa Yogananda settled in the USA and wrote the book Autobiography of a Yogi
  • A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada who founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (the 'Hare Krishnas') in New York in 1965, an organization following the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism.
  • Tirtha Maharaj, the president of World Vaishnava Association.
  • Srila Bhaktivedanta Narayana Goswami Maharaja, Acarya of Pure Bhakti, an organization based on the Gaudiya Vaishnavism sect of Hinduism
  • Bhakti Vaibhav Puri Goswami Maharaj; physician of ayurveda and Indian freedom fighter who became a devoted disciple of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur and founder-acharya of Sri Krishna Caitanya Mission.

Osho Rayneesh

  • Prem Rawat, known as Guru Maharaj Ji until the 1980s. Note: Maharaji dropped the title "guru" from his name in 1980.
  • Bhagwan/Osho/Rajneesh settled temporarily in the USA
  • Sathya Sai Baba never went to Europe or the USA but acquired a substantial number of followers there
  • Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev founder of Isha Foundation and the Isha Yoga Centre has a strong volunteer force in India, US and Lebanon
  • Sri Sri Ravi Shankar founder of the Art of Living Foundation.
  • Sri Aurobindo
  • Paramahamsa Sri Nithyananda has a temporary ashram in Los Angeles, California and many followers outside of India as well.
  • Ruchira Adi Da Samraj Born in the US founded the new Tradition of Adidam, based on Guru Devotee Relationship
  • Muhammad Raheem Bawa Muhaiyaddeen was a revered Sufi saint from the island of Sri Lanka who shared his knowledge and experience with people of every race and religion and from all parts of the world.
  • Shree Maa founder of Devi Mandir in USA with followers in US, Europe and India.
  • Shri Mataji Nirmala devi founder of Sahaja Yoga meditation.

According to Kranenborg (1984), Jesus fits the Hindu definition and characteristics of a guru.[26]

  • Rudrabhayananda founder of Soul Searchers and the Atma Sadhana Kendra
  • Mahamandaleshwar Paramhans Swami Maheshwarananda founder of the system Yoga in Daily Life

Assessment and criticism

The assessment and criticism of gurus and the Guru-shishya tradition are espoused in the discourse about cults and new religious movements by Western secular scholars, theologians, anti-cultists and by skeptics.

  • 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.[27] 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.
  • Highlighting what he sees as the difficulty in understanding the guru from Eastern tradition in Western society, Dr. Georg Feuerstein, a well-known German-American Indologist, writes in the article Understanding the Guru from his book The Deeper Dimension of Yoga: Theory and practice:"The traditional role of the guru, or spiritual teacher, is not widely understood in the West, even by those professing to practice Yoga or some other Eastern tradition entailing discipleship. [...] Spiritual teachers, by their very nature, swim against the stream of conventional values and pursuits. They are not interested in acquiring and accumulating material wealth or in competing in the marketplace, or in pleasing egos. They are not even about morality. 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.".[28] 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.[16]
  • A British professor of psychiatry, Anthony Storr, states in his book, Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus, that he confines the word guru (translated by him as "revered teacher") to persons who have "special knowledge" who tell, referring to their special knowledge, how other people should lead their lives. He argues that gurus share common character traits (e.g. being loners) and that some suffer from a mild form of schizophrenia. He argues that gurus who are authoritarian, paranoid, eloquent, or who interfere in the private lives of their followers are the ones who are more likely to be unreliable and dangerous. Storr also refers to Eileen Barker's checklist to recognize false gurus. 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.[29] 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.
  • Rob Preece, a psychotherapist and a practicing Buddhist, writes in The Noble Imperfection that while the teacher/disciple relationship can be an invaluable and fruitful experience, the process of relating to spiritual teachers also has its hazards. He writes that these potential hazards are the result of naiveté amongst Westerners as to the nature of the guru/devotee relationship, as well as a consequence of a lack of understanding on the part of Eastern teachers as to the nature of Western psychology. 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".[30]
  • The psychiatrist Alexander Deutsch performed a long-term observation of a small cult, called The Family (not to be confused with The Family/Children of God), founded by an American guru called Baba or Jeff in New York in 1972, who showed increasingly schizophrenic behavior. Deutsch observed that this man's mostly Jewish followers interpreted the guru's pathological mood swings as expressions of different Hindu deities and interpreted his behavior as holy madness, and his cruel deeds as punishments that they had earned. After the guru dissolved the cult in 1976, his mental condition was confirmed by Jeff's retrospective accounts to an author.[32][33]
  • Jan van der Lans (1933-2002), a professor of the psychology of religion at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, wrote, in a book commissioned by the Netherlands based Catholic Study Center for Mental Health, about followers of gurus and the potential dangers that exist when personal contact between the guru and the disciple is absent, such as an increased chance of idealization of the guru by the student (myth making and deification), and an increase of the chance of false mysticism. He further argues that the deification of a guru is a traditional element of Eastern spirituality, but, when detached from the Eastern cultural element and copied by Westerners, the distinction between the person who is the guru and that which he symbolizes can be lost, resulting in the relationship between the guru and disciple degenerating into a boundless, uncritical personality cult.[34]
  • In their 1993 book, The Guru Papers, authors Diana Alstadt and Joel Kramer reject the guru-disciple tradition because of what they see as its structural defects. These defects include the authoritarian control of the guru over the disciple, which is in their view increased by the guru's encouragement of surrender to him. Alstadt and Kramer assert that gurus are likely to be hypocrites because, in order to attract and maintain followers, gurus must present themselves as purer than and superior to ordinary people and other gurus.[35]
  • 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: “Either you ridicule a real guru and say that it is all hogwash or you do believe in spirituality and then choose for a swindler”[36]

Notable scandals and controversies

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

  • The lifestyle of Osho/Bhagwan/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 parliament and European parliament, critical TV documentaries produced by the BBC and Danish Radio that were aired in the United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark and Australia.
  • The lifestyle and legacy of Buddhist guru Chogyam Trungpa who drank heavily, smoked, and slept with students; his behavior, and choice of Osel Tendzin as a Dharma heir, sparked on-going controversies. [37]
  • The recognition of the 17th Karmapa of Tibetan Buddhism is mired in controversy, with two candidates coming forward, and there is deep division among followers all over the world, with each side accusing the other of lying and wrongdoing. [2]

See also

References and notes

  1. Tirha, B. B. A Taste of Trascendence, (2002) p.161, Mandala Press. ISBN 1-886069-71-9

    "Guru: a spiritual master; one who is heavy with knowledge of the Absolute and who removes nescience withe the light of the divine."

  2. Lipner, Julius J.,Their Religious Beliefs and Practices p.192, Routledge (UK), ISBN 0-415-05181-9
  3. Cornille, C. The Guru in Indian Catholicism (1991) p.207. Peeters Publishers ISBN 90-6831-309-6
  4. Hopkins, Jeffrey Reflections on Reality (2002) p.72. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-21120-0
  5. Varene, Jean. Yoga and the Hindu Tradition (1977). p.226. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-85116-8
  6. Grimes, John. A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy: Sanskrit Terms Defined in English (1996). p.133. SUNY Press. ISBN 0-7914-3067-7

    "The etymological derivation of the word guru is in this verse from Guru Gita: 'The root gu stands for darkness; ru for its removal. The removal of the darkness of ignorance in the heart is indicated by the word guru'" (Note: Guru Gita is a spiritual text in the Markandeya Purana, in the form of a dialog between Siva and Parvati on the nature of the guru and the guru/disciple relantionship.)

  7. Ibid.

    "Guru: remover of darkness, bestower of light'"

  8. Krishnamurti, J. The Aweakening of Intelligence (1987) p.139. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-064834-1
  9. Murray, Thomas R. Moral Development Theories-Secular and Religious: A Comparative Study (1997). p.231. Greenwwod Press

    [...] the term is a combination of the two words gu(darkness) and ru (light), so together they mean divine light that dispells all darkness"

    "guru is the light that disperses the darkness of ignorance"

  10. 10.0 10.1 Kranenborg, Reender (Dutch language) Neohindoeïstische bewegingen in Nederland : een encyclopedisch overzicht (En: Neo-Hindu movements in the Netherlands, published by Kampen Kok cop. (2002) ISBN 90-435-0493-9
  11. Riffard, Pierre A. in Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion Faivre A. & Hanegraaff W. (Eds.) Peeters Publishers( 1988), ISBN 90-429-0630-8
  12. Gurugita v. 46

    gukāram ca gunatitam rukāram rupavarjitam gunatitasvarupam ca yo dadyātsa guruh smrtah

  13. Ranade, Ramchandra Dattatraya Mysticism in India: The Poet-Saints of Maharashtra, pp.392, SUNNY Press, 1983. ISBN 0-87395-669-9
  14. Mills, James H and Sen, Satadru (Eds.), Confronting the Body: The Politics of Physicality in Colonial and Post-Colonial India,pp.23, Anthem Press (2004), ISBN 1-84331-032-5
  15. Hexham, Irving, and Poewe, Karla, New Religions as Global Cultures: Making the Human Sacred, pp.106-7, Westview Press, (1997), ISBN 0-8133-2507-2. "Gurus are not prophets who declare the will of God and appeal to propositions found in a Scripture. Rather, they are said to be greater than God because they lead to God. Gurus have shared the essence of the Absolute and experienced the oneness of being, which endows them with divine powers and the ability to master people and things in this world."
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 16.4 16.5 Feuerstein, Georg Dr. Encyclopedic dictionary of yoga Published by Paragon House 1st ed edition (1990) ISBN 1-55778-244-X
  17. Swami Vivekananda Karma-yoga and Bhakti-yoga (1937)
  18. Sathya Sai Baba Sandeha Nivarini: Clearance of Spiritual Doubts available online published by Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust (undated) ISBN 81-7208-010-7
  19. Michaels, Alex "Hinduism past and Present" (2004) Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-08952-3, translated from German "Der Hinduismus" (1998) page 46
  20. Michae, Alex Michaels] "Hinduism past and Present" (2004) Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-08952-3, translated from German "Der Hinduismus" (1998) p.22 and p.46. Alex Micahels bio
  21. Bromley, David G., Ph.D. & Anson Shupe, Ph.D., Public Reaction against New Religious Movements article that appeared in Cults and new religious movements: a report of the Committee on Psychiatry and Religion of the American Psychiatric Association, edited by Marc Galanter, M.D., (1989) ISBN 0-89042-212-5
  22. Nugteren, Albertina (Tineke) Dr. (Associate professor in the phenomenology and history of Indian religions at the faculty of theology at the university of Tilburg)Tantric Influences in Western Esotericism, article that appeared at a 1997 CESNUR conference and that was published in the book New Religions in a Postmodern World edited by Mikael Rothstein and Reender Kranenborg RENNER Studies in New religions Aarhus University press, (2003) ISBN 87-7288-748-6
  23. Kranenborg, Reender (Dutch language) Zelfverwerkelijking: oosterse religies binnen een westerse subkultuur (En: Self-realization: eastern religions in a Western Sub-culture, published by Kampen Kok (1974)
  24. 24.0 24.1 Kent, Stephen A. Dr. From slogans to mantras: social protest and religious conversion in the late Vietnam war era Syracuse University press ISBN 0-8156-2923-0 (2001)
  25. Barrett, D. V. The New Believers - A survey of sects, cults and alternative religions 2001 UK, Cassell & Co. ISBN 0-304-35592-5 entry ISKCON page 287,288
    ”Devotees don’t have such an easy time. They who choose to live in the temples – now a very small minority -chant the Hare Krishna mantra 1,728 time a day. […] Those living in an ashram – far fewer than in the 1970s – have to get up at 4am for worship. All members have to give up meat, fish and eggs; alcohol, tobacco, drugs, tea and coffee; gambling, sports, games and novels; and sex except for procreation with marriage […] It’s a demanding lifestyle. Outsiders may wonder why people join."
  26. Kranenborg, Reender (Dutch language) Een nieuw licht op de kerk? Bijdragen van nieuwe religieuze bewegingen voor de kerk van vandaag (En: A new perspective on the church? Contributions of new religious movements for today's church), the Hague Boekencentrum (1984) ISBN 90-239-0809-0
  27. Lane, David C., Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (1984)
  28. Feuerstein, Georg Dr. The Deeper Dimension of Yoga: Theory and Practice, Shambhala Publications, released on (2003) ISBN 1-57062-928-5
  29. Storr, Anthony Dr. Feet of clay: a study of gurus 1996 ISBN 0-684-83495-2
  30. Preece, Rob, "The teacher-student relationship" in The Noble Imperfection: The challenge of individuation in Buddhist life, Mudras Publications
  31. Palmer, Susan, article in the book NRMs in the 21st century: legal, political, and social challenges in global perspective edited by Phillip Charles Lucas and Thomas Robbins, (2004) ISBN 0415965772
  32. Deutsch, Alexander M.D. Observations on a sidewalk ashram Archive Gen. Psychiatry 32 (1975) 2, 166-175
  33. Deutsch, Alexander M.D. Tenacity of Attachment to a cult leader: a psychiatric perspective American Journal of Psychiatry 137 (1980) 12, 1569-1573.
  34. 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 90-263-0521-4
  35. Kramer, Joel, and Diana Alstad The guru papers: masks of authoritarian power (1993) ISBN 1-883319-00-5
  36. Kester, Sacha “Ticket naar Nirvana”/”Ticket to Nirvana”, article in the Dutch Newspaper De Volkskrant 7 January 2003
    1. REDIRECT Template:Cite web

Further reading

  • 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
  • van der Braak, André (2003). Enlightenment Blues: My Years with an American Guru. Monkfish Book Publishing. ISBN 0-9726357-1-8
  • Garden, Mary The Serpent Rising: a journey of spiritual seduction - 2003 ISBN 1877059501
  • 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
  • Holtje, D. (1995). From Light to Sound: The Spiritual Progression. Temecula, CA: MasterPath, Inc. ISBN 1-885949-00-6
  • 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
  • Majumdar, Dr R.C., The History and Culture of the Indian People, Vol. VI, Bombay-1960
  • Mangalwadi, Vishal World of Gurus by India's Vikas Publishing ISBN 0-940895-03-X (1977) excerpts
  • Mcleod W.H. (ed.). The B40 Janam Sakhi, Guru Nank Dev University, Amritsar, 1980
  • Mehta, Gita Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East Simon and Schuster, New York, NY, first published in 1979 ISBN 0-679-75433-4
  • Sister Nivedita, The Master as I Saw Him, Kolkata: Udbodhan Office, 1993.
  • Olsen, G. (1999). MasterPath: The Divine Science of Light and Sound, (Vol. 1). Temecula, CA: MasterPath, Inc. ISBN 1-885949-01-4
  • Padoux, André The Tantric Guru, in: Tantra in Practice, Ed by David Gordon White, MLBD, New Delhi
  • Singh, K. (1999). Naam or Word. Blaine, WA: Ruhani Satsang Books. ISBN 0-942735-94-3
  • Singh, Jaideva, (Ed.), Ïiva Sútras, The Yoga of Supreme Identity, MLBD, Delhi, 1979
  • Swami Tejasananda, A Short Life of Vivekananda, Kolkata: Advaita Ashram Publication, 1999.
  • Swami Satyananda, Devi Mandir, "Shree Maa:Guru and Goddess" (ISBN 1-887472-78-9 )
  • Tarlo, Luna The Mother of God, SCB Distributors (1997) ISBN 1-57027-043-0


  • Understanding Hindu Traditions Educational Video Network, Inc. (2004)
  • Origins of India- Hindu Civilization Educational Video Network, Inc. (2004)
  • Meditation & the Thinking Machine Krishnamurti (2004)
  • Short Cut To Nirvana (2004) directed by Maurizio Benazzo. Featuring encounters with some of India's most respected holy men and exclusive footage of the Dalai Lama.
  • Dalai Lama on Life and Enlightenment (2004)]
  • Guru Busters documentary directed and produced by Robert Eagle (1995)
  • Mysterious Miracles, Aliens from Spaceship Earth, A Spiritual Odyssey, directed by Don Como (1977)

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