What is a Guru?

The word ‘guru’ is today loosely used to allude to anyone who calls themselves spiritual and gathers a group of people around themselves. This debasement and misunderstanding of what a guru is is truly saddening.

The word ‘guru’ comes from the Sanskrit roots ‘gu’ meaning darkness and ‘ru’ meaning dispeller i.e. guru is one who dispels darkness. A guru is someone who offers a method or tool for people to realise their ultimate nature. Not every self-realised human being is a guru. There are also for instance, saints, seers, and sadhus who may be enlightened but who do not offer people tools and methods.

The Guru is both external and internal. From the exterior he gives a push to the mind to turn it inwards. From the interior he pulls the mind towards the Self and helps in the quieting of the mind. That is the Guru’s grace. There is no difference between God, Guru and the Self.
– Sri Ramana Maharshi

The physical form of the guru is only for people to be able to gain the right understanding more easily and be guided onto the spiritual path. The ‘sadhguru’ however is One and not physical. It is the one Master in all hearts, the God-Self that guides each soul. The outer manifestations may be many and varied depending on different temperaments of people and textures of life.

The physical form of the guru is necessary because for almost all human beings, the mind needs to hear the right words and the body needs to perform some action so that one’s attention can be turned inward. The guru doesn’t wish to impart a teaching or gather a following of devotees, but only to show the way to realising the Divine within each being.

For one who is very receptive, attentive and sensitive to life, everything can be one’s guru. The Avadhut (one who has cut all attachments and lives in the bliss of the Supreme; see on Avadhut Gita) Dattatreya (also referred to as the Guru of Gurus or the Adi Guru) considered himself to have had 24 gurus: earth, air, sky, water, fire moon, sun, pigeon, python, ocean, firefly, bee, elephant, honey-gatherer, deer, fish, a courtesan called Pingala, sparrow, child, a girl, archer, snake, spider and wasp (bhramara keelaka). However for most of us in modern times struggling with attention deficit disorders, we not only need human gurus who can constantly talk to us to fix our minds and remind us why we’re here, but also do that via easily accessible means like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

How to find a Guru?

As with everything in life, one must indeed use one’s discrimination to seek out the genuine even when it comes to following gurus but to come with a checklist of your own expectations like for example to as-a-rule, expect a guru to confine himself to a little cave somewhere sufficiently inhospitable is an unnecessary projection of the mind that limits the possibilities of life.

One must use one’s logical reasoning and discrimination to identify a true spiritual master who satisfies one’s questioning and probing. In fact when the search for Truth is earnest and pressing, a guru himself appears in your life in some form to guide you.


This article is excerpted from an article I wrote for the LivingWise Project.

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