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What is a Guru?

By Devon Pryor
Updated May 23, 2024
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A guru is a spiritual teacher, someone who leads a disciple to wisdom and self-realization, imparts knowledge on the disciple, or guides the disciple to divinity. The word is commonly used in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh traditions to indicate a religious teacher. The word originates in Sanskrit, and is formed by the syllables gu and ru. Gu indicates darkness, and ru indicates destruction. Thus, when translated directly, guru means "dispeller of darkness." This simple etymological explanation is supplemented by the postulation of numerous texts discussing the nature and role of a guru. A popular example of such a discussion would be that of the etymology of the syllables gu and ru to indicate the juxtaposition of light and dark, where ignorance is dark and knowledge, particularly spiritual knowledge, is light.

The notion of the guru dates back to a collection of ancient Indian texts known as the Upanishads. Other ancient Indian texts that discuss the concept include the Bhagavad Gita, a section of the Indian epic, the Mahabharata. The Guru Gita and, less directly, the Ramayana are other ancient Indian texts addressing the person's role, and the disciple known as the shishya. In these texts, the ideal guru-shishya relationship is exemplified in the characters. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna plays the role of guru to the warrior prince Arjuna, guiding him through his uncertainty regarding morality and duty. In the Ramayana, the relationship is demonstrated through the hero Rama and the monkey deity Hanuman. In the Guru Gita, Lord Shiva is the guru, while his female consort Parvati is the shishya.

Within the Hindu tradition, reverence for a guru can range from a deep respect, to the assertion that he or she is an embodiment of a god on earth. In most cases, the guidance is considered essential in reaching moksha, or spiritual devotion and liberation, which is the final of four main goals in the schema of traditional Indian life. In the Hindu tradition, a guru will likely give the disciple a mantra, a powerful sound or statement, as one of the many devices necessary in approaching enlightenment. He or she will guide the disciple in religious rituals and ceremonies with the goal of awakening the sleeping snake of shakti, or spiritual knowledge. In many cases, the guru is revered above the god, as he or she is the one who leads the disciple to the encounter with the god.

In the Buddhist tradition, the guru has a similar identity to that of the Hindu, although the teachings imparted are obviously different. Buddhist gurus are inspirational, highly respected teachers in the path to Enlightenment. In some branches of Buddhism, he is considered the embodiment of Buddha, a being known as a Boddhisattva. Tibetan Buddhism asserts that, without the guidance of a guru, there can be no true insight or experience — and certainly no enlightenment. The concept in Sikhism, while retaining the identity of the person as a spiritual teacher, also abstracts the idea to relate to knowledge imparted by any means or medium.

In the west, the concept of the guru is looser, and extends beyond teachers of spirituality and religion. Anyone who acquires followers and who is considered an authority in their arena may be called by this name. Many westerners, however, do retain the religious association with the concept. Well-known gurus in the west include Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Paramahansa Yogananda.

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Discussion Comments
By anon203353 — On Aug 05, 2011

why would anyone want to listen to a dispeller of darkness? guru, your relationship needs to be with the heavenly father and creator and to listen to the teacher and counselor his Holy Spirit whom sent to be with us.

By StormyKnight — On Sep 30, 2010

@wesley91: Here is some more info for you:

He spent 25 years preaching. Many of his hymns were written during that period. During his teachings, he studied Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. His mystic system seemed to reverse the trends of the prevailing religions.

After those 25 years, he settled as a peasant farmer in a village in the Punjab. He died in 1539.

By SnowyWinter — On Sep 30, 2010

@wesley91: Guru Nanak Dev ji was born in 1469 in a village in the Sheikhupura district called Talwandi. His father was an official in the village. Guru Nanak not only knew the regional languages, he also learned Persian and Arabic.

When he was 12 years old, his father gave him 20 rupees to try to teach him how to do business. Nanak dev ji took that about bought food and distributed it among the poor and the saints.

He was married in 1487 and had two sons. Despite the hazardous travel conditions during those times, he did five tours all over the country. He visited most of the famous centres of worship. One of his famous sayings is “riches cannot be gathered without sin and evil means”.

By wesley91 — On Sep 30, 2010

I have to do a project on guru Nanak Dev ji but have not been able to find much info on him. Can anyone help me out?

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