The Meaning of Guru

Guru or Jupiter is the heaviest planet Photo: NASA/STScI

This profound and mysterious word has many layers of meanings.

In almost all Indian languages it is common to use the word guru to mean teacher. In many villages of India, school children greet their teachers every morning as guruji. In traditional Indian arts a dance or music teacher is also called a guru.

Guru: Translation, Meaning and Interpretation

Sanskrit dictionaries translate the word "guru" in 40 different ways including the planet Jupiter, gravity, heavy, teacher and even pregnant woman! While we are primarily interested in the word guru as a teacher, its relationship to other translations such as gravity, heavy and the planet Jupiter can also shed light on the profound impact of a guru in the life of a student. 

First and foremost, we need to distinguish between three words: translation, meaning and interpretation. The word "water" can be translated as "pani, jal, wasser, and acqua" in Hindi, Sanskrit, German and Italian respectively. This is a translation from one language into another language. This is not the meaning of water. 

The meaning of water would be "a clear, thin liquid that has no color or taste when it is pure. It falls from the clouds as rain and enters rivers and seas. All animals and people need water in order to live." This definition of water has been taken from Collins English Dictionary.

If I contemplate further on this meaning then I come to see that water is far more than just a liquid. Imagine you are in a desert. The hot sun is blazing down upon you on the burning sands. Your throat is parched and your bottle of water is empty. What you would do for a drop of water! As you put the empty bottle into your mouth out of desperation, a last drop of water falls on your dried lips. Then, you know: Water is Life. This is an interpretation. 

We already know some of the translations of the word guru from a Sanskrit dictionary. We also want to understand its meaning and the interpretation of this word.

The Meaning of Guru

The word guru is deep and mysterious. Guru has many layers of meanings. We will explore guru as

  1. an external teacher
  2. an embodied spiritual force 
  3. a stream of knowledge
  4. Pure Consciousness

A guru as an external teacher

In this article we shall not be considering the word "guru" as used for school teachers or in the traditional Indian arts. We are referring to a guru as a teacher of yoga and spirituality.

There are many in the external world of yoga studios and large organizations who claim to be teachers.These teachers have generally acquired book knowledge. Book knowledge is gathering information from different sources and claiming it as your own. Anyone can do an internet search, read books or listen to lectures and quote wisely from these external sources. Such a person has no claim to this knowledge; he has usurped it. To stake a claim on this knowledge, it must be integrated at deeper levels of consciousness and have a transformative effect on the reader. Most of what we have learned in school remains at the level of waking consciousness; this is superficial learning. 

These so called teachers are running small businesses with a spiritual wrapping. Others run large organizations to serve their own egos. Then there are teachers who separate and divide in the name of religion. All these teachers are like fences around authentic teachers. In reality, these so called teachers are also seeking, though for now they are only fooling themselves. We need this fence to protect the true teachers from unprepared students. To meet a genuine and knowledgeable teacher, who is willing to guide you, a sincere seeker must first prepare himself, so that he can pass through the fence.

Upagurus are the many teachers who have taught you and made you the person you are. Parents, school teachers, other persons from whom you may learn valuable lessons of life whether positive or painful are all upagurus. The upaguru can teach you techniques, such as asanas, cleansing and breathing practices but is unable to impart comprehensive knowledge that will eventually lead to a one-pointed mind.

A guru as an embodied spiritual force

So why do you need a teacher or mentor at all? Because the mind is tricky and meditators need guidance in the unfamiliar and potentially danger territory of the mind. Only an authentic teacher having direct experience can guide a meditator. Alny understanding from a book is limited by lack of direct experience. To grasp the deeper truth behind the words of the scriptures, you need someone who can clarify your misunderstandings and interpret the teachings correctly. The greatest problem facing the modern student is incorrect interpretation of the scriptures. 

The teacher or mentor also explains the difference between "shreyas" and "preyas". Shreyas like medicine is that which is good for you. And just like medicine, it is not necessarily pleasant. Preyas, on the other hand, is that which is pleasant but not necessarily good for you, like sweets. The mentor guides the student towards a change in lifestyle and cultivating shreyas in daily life by learning to distinguish between these two.

With a teacher who teaches, you learn. This is an upaguru. With an embodied master you do not learn; you unlearn. Such a guru is called a satguru. Learning techniques and studying scriptures is easy, but the process of unlearning is very difficult. A satguru holds up a mirror and makes you aware of yourself and helps you unlearn.

Revelation is knowledge which can be received only by one who has achieved a high state of purity. This knowledge comes, neither through intellectual ability nor through the conscious mind, but by an act of grace, achieved through self-purification, deep meditation and a one-pointed mind. Revelations are possible only for one who has known and experienced truth directly. Such a person is a satguru. A satguru allows himself to be used as a channel for receiving and transmitting by the Divine. To become a channel one must learn to be selfless. Usually love is mingled with selfishness. You are attached to someone out of need, and you called that attachment love. True love is selfless and unconditional. A satguru cannot live without sharing selfless love, for this selfless love is the very basis of enlightenment. A satguru does not want recognition and prefers to remain unknown. 

To a satguru, the students, whatever their age, even if they are eighty years old, are like children to him. He will care for them, without expecting anything in return. He has no other desires but teaching those aspirants who are prepared. If he doesn’t do this, what shall he do? A genuine spiritual teacher, one who is assigned to transmit the teachings according to the oral tradition, searches out good students. He looks for certain signs and symptoms; he wants to know who is prepared. A student cannot fool a satguru. The satguru easily perceives how well the student is prepared. If he finds that the student is not yet ready, he will gradually prepare him for the higher teachings. The process of preparation can be arduous and painful. This selfless love will singe your ego. Such a compassionate one attracts your attention. You are bewildered because you may not have experienced such selfless, unconditional love before. You wonder, “Why is he doing so much for me? What does he want from me?” A satguru wants nothing but for you to be free from suffering. This is the purpose of his life. He cannot live without doing his selfless work. Such a teacher is a satguru. Such a one is the guardian of humanity. As the sun shines and lives far above, the satguru shares his pure love and remains unattached. If a satguru comes to think that his power is his own, then he is a guide no more. A true teacher will help you if he can. If not, he will say, "I am sorry I cannot help you, you should go to such and such person." 

Parents educate their children in worldly matters, but a satguru trains the student to go beyond worldly concerns and understand the nature of the mind and eventually unravel the mysteries of death and rebirth. Thus, a satguru leads one to the eternal and immortal, to ultimate liberation.

Such an accomplished but humble one will never call himself a satguru. One who attains the library of infinite wisdom knows that he can only be a friend to others and accompany them on this journey. Therefore, a genuine seeker also calls a true spiritual leader or mentor, his friend. Not just any friend, but a revered friend. Thus, "kalyana mitra" or revered friend is another term used for the satguru. The satguru, your revered friend works constantly and selflessly in your interest. The word guru is seldom used by itself. It is used with its suffix, "deva". Deva means "bright being". A satguru is also called gurudeva. 

Kalyana Mitra: A revered friend

The sanskrit word acharya is another word for guru. Going to the root of the word can be very insightful. The word acharya comes from "achar" which means "to walk along, to lead, to guide." Thus an acharya is one who walks along with you and guides you on your journey. He is a spiritual companion and revered friend. Krishna accompanied Arjuna in the battlefield of the mind. He did not fight the battle for Arjuna but he was there when Arjuna needed counsel. It is very useful to have such an external companion, guide and revered friend. Such an authority commands respect; it does not demand respect. A spiritual authority will command your respect, because you will feel in awe in his presence. You do not respect him only because of mere social conventions. A teacher having this power to destroy your ego, can lead you to the Guru within. Mere techniques will not help you. Your parents have taught you to live in society and gave you all the tools to survive in society. A guru will help you to learn to be happy, content, take the right decisions and get in touch with your inner wisdom, that is, Buddhi. However, the word acharya is also used colloquially as the word guru is used, to mean teacher, including a school teacher.

The role of the satguru is to make the student independent. Yet more often than not, it is the students, who become dependent and attached to the satguru. This dependency or attachment is reflected in guru worship. This attachment and dependency is not be mistaken with love, respect or reverence for the guru. Love frees, attachment binds. By hanging on to the external guru, a student limits himself and creates obstacles in his own spiritual development.

The Guru as a stream of knowledge

The word guru also means gravity. Thus, Guru is a force that attracts and pulls you like a magnet, a heavy planet, a massive star or a black hole! The presence of a heavy body de-stabilizes its surroundings. A black hole, for instance, cannot be seen, but its presence is felt by any object that comes too close. 

An satguru is a bit like a heavy planet. He is plugged into the stream of knowledge that is invoked in the Guru Chakra. The mere presence of such an adept has the effect of de-stabilizing our preconceived notions. He destroys old habits when he helps you unlearn these. What is unlearning? You are aware that your bad habits are not good for you. Yet you are not able to break these habits and to unlearn them, especially habits related to thinking patterns. You think you are stupid or good for nothing and make yourself miserable. That is a thinking pattern or habit. A guru will lead you out of this habit pattern and out of your ignorance. This is a difficult, even brutal process. Clearly a guru is nothing for the faint-hearted!

Tradition says that "gu" is darkness and "ru" is light. Thus Tradition says that Guru is that which leads from darkness to light. This is an interpretation and it comes from the Oral Tradition and from direct experience. The Samaya approach understands Guru as the deepest and most profound spiritual force leading from darkness to light. The adepts use the word Guru to refer to the stream of knowledge that pours from the library of infinite wisdom through the Guru Chakra. The Guru Chakra emerges when the mind is completely one-pointed (ekagra). A satguru can invoke the force in the Guru Chakra and can lead the student to this inner Guru. When a student has access to the inner Guru, he does not need the external guru anymore. He respects his satguru but the Guru function is alive in himself. Thus a student becomes an adept and satguru. 

The following verse is not just about honoring the teacher. It honors Guru, the spiritual force as a source of wisdom beyond all deities.

गुरुर्ब्रह्मा गुरुर्विष्णुः

गुरुर्देवो महेश्वरः ।

गुरुःसाक्षात् परब्रह्म

तस्मै श्रीगुरवे नम: ॥


Gururbrahma gururvishnuh

gururdevo maheshwarah |

Guruhsakshat parabrahma

tasmai shrigurave namah ||

Guru is Brahma. Guru is Vishnu.


Guru is Lord Shiva.

Guru is Parabrahman.

We bow to that Guru.

Guru as Shiva or Pure Consciousness

Shiva or Pure Consciousness is the highest perfection. This is not a cold and unchanging ideal of perfection, rather it is vibrant and dynamic. The One Perfect witnesses all of infinity. Experience this infinity within yourself, become a Witness and know Guru.

Guru vs Gugu

Guru is that which leads from darkness to light. But what about the selfish teachers who keep you in darkness? If "gu" means darkness then these selfish teachers who only seek to promote their own business or their egos are "gugus". A selfish person can never become a guru.

You have seen that a small word like guru can have a big impact in your life if you are determined to explore its depths. On this journey you may come across many "gugus", these are like grains of sand on a beach. But a satguru is rare as a pearl. To find one, you must explore your own depths. And keep exploring until you finally come home to the force of GURU within.