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Guru

A guru (गुरू Sanskrit) is a teacher in Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. It is based on a long line of philosophical understandings of the importance of knowledge and that the teacher, guru, is the sacred conduit to self-realization. Till today in India and among people of Hindu, Buddhist, or Sikh persuasion, the title retains its significant hallowed space.

Guru is also the Sanskrit reference to Brihaspati, a Hindu figure equivalent to the planet the Romans named Jupiter; in Vedic astrology, Jupiter/Guru/Brihaspati is believed to exert teaching influences. Indeed, in Indian languages like Hindi, 'Thursday' is called either Brihaspativaar or Guruvaar (vaar meaning period or day).

Guru is widely used in contemporary India with the universal meaning of the word "teacher".

In contemporary Western usage of the word guru, its orignal meaning has extended to anyone who acquires followers independent of an established school of philosophy or religion.

In secular and further metaphorical extension, guru means a person who has the status of an authority because of his perceived knowledge or skills in a domain of expertise.

The importance of discerning between a true guru and a false one is explored in scriptures and teachings of religions in which a guru plays a role. The assessment and criticism of gurus and the guru-disciple relationship is espoused in the discourse about new religious movements by Western secular scholars, theologians, anti-cultists, and by skeptics both in the West and in India.


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Guru in Hinduism

The word guru means teacher in Sanskrit and other Sanskrit-derived languages like Hindi, Bengali and Gujarati. It originated in a Hindu context and holds a special place in Hinduism, signifying the sacred place of knowledge (vidya) and the imparter of knowledge. The word comes from the sanskrit root "gru" literally meaning heavy, weighty. Another etymology claimed in Hindu scriptures is that of dispeller of darkness (wherein darkness is seen as avidya, lack of knowledge both spiritual and intellectual), 'gu' meaning darkness, and 'ru' meaning dispeller.

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)

Another popular etymology claims that the syllables gu (गु) and ru (रू), stand for darkness and light, respectively, providing the esoteric meaning that the guru is somebody who leads the disciple from the darkness of ignorance to the light of knowledge [1] [2].

In the sense mentioned here 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 sishya 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 a jivamukta, liberated soul that achieves 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 Vedanta, 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 Hindu circles, it is believed that the guru could awaken dormant spiritual knowledge within the pupil, known as shaktipat.

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 Aurobindo Ghosh, Shri Ramana Maharshi, Swami Sivananda and Swami Chinmayananda. See also the list of Hindu gurus.

In Indian culture having not having a guru or a teacher (acharya) was looked down upon as being an orphan, and a sign of misfortune. The word anatha in Sanskrit means "the one without a teacher". An acharya is the giver of shiksha, or gyan which means knowledge. Guru also gives diksha (initiation) that 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 to the disciple, through which he progresses continuously on the path of divinity.

The origin of guru can be traced back as far as the early Upanishads, where the conception of the Divine Teacher on earth first manifested from its early Brahmin associations. Indeed, there is an understanding in some sects that if the devotee were presented with the guru and God, first he would pay respects to the guru since the guru had been instrumental in leading him to God. Saints and poets have sung the glory of the guru and the God such as Kabir and Brahmanand:

Guru and God both appear before me. To whom should I prostrate?
I bow before Guru who introduced God to me.
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.

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

Guru Puja (literally "worship of the guru") is a practice consisting of making offerings to 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.

In the Upanishads five signs of sat guru (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 Dr. Georg Feuerstein, the preceptors were traditionally treated with great reverence in correspondence with the perceived identification of the enlightened master with the transcendental Reality and that traditionally, gurus were granted excessive authority and strongly tended to be deified. He writes that, probably to counterbalance this, some Hindu schools began to emphasize that the real teacher is the transcendental Self.

The Shiva Samitha, a late medieval text on Hatha yoga, emphasizes the importance of the guru for liberation and asserts that the disciple is supposed to give his all his property and livestock to the guru upon diksha (initiation).

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

The importance of finding a true guru is one of the tenants of Hinduism. Lord Krishna says 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 Gita, c4 s34)

The Advaya Taraka Upanishad states that the true teacher is well versed in the Veda, a devotee of Vishnu, free from envy, a knower of yoga and intent on yoga, and always having the nature of yoga. And the text continues by stating that he who is equipped with devotion to the teacher, who is a knower of the Self and possessing above mentioned characteristics is designated as a guru.

The Mundak Upanishad says to realize the supreme godhead one should surrender himself before the guru who knows the secrets of the Vedas.

The Maitrayaniya Upanishad warns against false teachers who deceive the naive.

The Kula-Arnava-Tantra states that there are many gurus who rob the disciple's wealth and few that remove the disciple's afflictions.

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

  • 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.
  • 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.

According to Kranenborg (2002), the fact that some people follow false gurus is seen in India as due to their bad karma.

In his Encyclopedic Dictionary of Yoga (1990), Feuerstein writes that gurus occasionally exploit their followers because only few gurus enjoy full enlightenment. He further writes that many gurus in traditional Hinduism expect unquestioned obedience and constant service and possibly request hefty renumeration for initiation.

Continuing the work of the skeptic Sri Lankan professor Abraham Kovoor, the Indian amateur magician Basava Premanand (who is a former follower of several gurus) toured around in the villages of India to educate people by debunking gurus, godmen, and fakirs whom he considers frauds or self deceived, especially if they claim to perform paranormal feats, or to possess siddhis, or actively promote belief in miracles. The Ghandian rationalist, physicist, and educationalist H. Narasimhaiah founded The Committee to Investigate Miracles and Other Verifiable Superstitions in the 1970s to investigate the claims of miracles performed by gurus and godmen.

Topics in Hinduism
Shruti (primary Scriptures): Vedas | Upanishads | Bhagavad Gita | Itihasa (Ramayana & Mahabharata) | Agamas
Smriti (other texts): Tantras | Sutras | Puranas | Brahma Sutras | Hatha Yoga Pradipika | Smritis | Tirukural | Yoga Sutra
Concepts: Avatar | Brahman | Dharma | Karma | Moksha | Maya | Ishta-Deva | Murti | Reincarnation | Samsara | Trimurti | Turiya
Schools & Systems: Schools of Hinduism | Early Hinduism | Samkhya | Nyaya | Vaisheshika | Yoga | Mimamsa | Vedanta | Tantra | Bhakti
Traditional Practices: Jyotish | Ayurveda
Rituals: Aarti | Bhajans | Darshan | Diksha | Mantras | Puja | Satsang | Stotras | Yajna
Gurus and Saints: Shankara | Ramanuja | Madhvacharya | Ramakrishna | Vivekananda | Sree Narayana Guru | Aurobindo | Ramana Maharshi | Sivananda | Chinmayananda | Sivaya Subramuniyaswami | Swaminarayan
Denominations: List of Hindu Sects
Vaishnavism | Saivism | Shaktism | Smartism | Agama Hindu Dharma | Contemporary Hindu movements | Survey of Hindu organisations

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

In tantric Buddhism, a guru is essential for the 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'.

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 guru who he regards as possessing the qualities of a Bodhisattva.

See also

Guru in Sikhism

The title Guru is extremely fundamental to the religion of the Sikhs. Indeed, the Sikhs carried the meaning of the word to an even greater level of abstraction, while retaining the original usage, to apply to understanding of imparted knowledge through any medium.

Sikhism comes from the word Sikh, which means a strong and able Guru disciple. The core beliefs of Sikhism are: belief in one God and 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 at his time in India and 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.

The ten Gurus of Skihism:

  1. Guru Angad Dev
  2. Guru Amar Das
  3. Guru Ram Das
  4. Guru Arjan
  5. Guru Hargobind
  6. Guru Har Rai
  7. Guru Har Krishan
  8. Guru Teg Bahadur
  9. Guru Gobind Singh

Types 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 or mantravetta.

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

  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 even have become one, for example Andrew Cohen.
  3. the avatar, a guru who claims to be an incarnation of God, or claims to be God like, such as claiming to be an instrument of God, or who is claimed so by his followers, for example Sathya Sai Baba and gurus from the Sant Mat lineage;
  4. A "guru" in the form of a book i.e. the Guru Granth Sahib in the Sikh religion.

Guru in a Western culture context

As an alternative to established religions, some people in Europe and the USA who were not of East Indian extraction have looked up at spiritual guides and gurus from India to provide answers to the meaning of life and to achive a more direct experience free from intellectualism and philosophy. Gurus from many denominations traveled to the Western Europe and the USA and established a following. One of the first to do so was Swami Vivekananda who addressed the World Parliament of Religions assembled in Chicago in 1893.

In particular during the 1960s and 1970s many gurus acquired groups of young followers in Western Europe and the USA. According to David G. Bromley this was partially due to the repeal of the Oriental Exclusion Act in 1965 which permitted Asian gurus entrance to the USA. In contrast to the situation in India, this was unusal, new and alien for European and American societies and led sometimes to opposition against groups, like ISKCON/Hare Krishna founded by the Hindu guru Prabhupada in 1966 that made strong demands on their followers.

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 them for the existence of the transcendental or because they wanted to get high without drugs. According to Kent, another reason why this happened so often in the USA then, was because anti-Vietnam war protesters and political activist became worn out or disillusioned in the possibilities to change society through political means and as an alternative turned to religious means. See also conversion to NRMs and cults, conversion to Indic religions, theories about joining cults.

Highlighting what he sees as the difficulty in understanding the guru from Eastern tradition in Western society, Dr. Georg Feuerstein writes in the article Understanding the Guru from his book The Deeper Dimention 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.

The American philosopher and sociologist 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. One of his points is that spiritual teachers should have a high standard of moral conduct and that followers of gurus should interpret the behavior of a spiritual teacher following Ockham's razor, using common sense, and not naively use mystical explanations unnecessarily to explain away immoral behavior. Another point Lane makes is that the bigger the claims they make, such as the claims to be God, the bigger the chance that he is unreliable. His fifth point is that self-proclaimed gurus are likely to be more unreliable than gurus with a legitimate lineage.

Gurus who established a discipleship or that were the spiritual leader of notable organizations in Western countries include:

Criticism by Western scholars, Catholic theologians and Apostates

  • The British psychiatry professor Anthony Storr argues in his book Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus that gurus (in new additional meaning of the word in the West) 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 interfere in the private lives of their followers are the ones who are more likely to be unreliable and dangerous and further refers to Eileen Barker's checklist to recognize false gurus. Storr contends that some of them claim special spiritual insights based on personal revelation, offering new ways of spiritual development and paths to salvation. His criticism of gurus include that there is a considerable risk that gurus exploit their followers due to the big authority that have, though he acknowledges the existence of morally superior teachers who refrain from doing so. He holds the view that the idionsyncratic 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 away. 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. The Belgian Indologist Koenraad Elst criticized Storr's book for its avoidance of the term prophet and asserts that this is possibly due to Storr's pro-Western and pro-Christian cultural bias.
  • The American psychiatrist Alexander Deutsch performed a long lasting 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 increasingly showed schizophrenic behavior. Deutsch observed that his mostly Jewish followers interpreted the guru's pathological mood swings as expressions of different Hindu deities and interpreted his madness as holy madness and his cruel deeds as punishments that they had earned. After the guru had dissolved the cult in 1976 his mental disorder was confirmed by Jeff's retrospective accounts to an author. Deutsch also visited the ashram of the guru Sathya Sai Baba in India and noted there that a group of young followers interpreted disconfirming events as tests of faith engineered by the guru or as the guru's divine play, just as Krishna's leelas.
  • The late Jan van der Lans, a professor in psychology of religion at the Catholic University of Nijmegen wrote in a book about followers of gurus commissioned by the Catholic Study Center for Mental Health about dangers that exist when the personal contact between the guru and the disciple is absent. Establishing that the deification of a guru is a traditional element of Eastern spirituality, he argues that detached from the Eastern cultural element and copied by Westerners, the distinction between the person of the guru and that what he symbolizes can be lost, resulting in the relationship between the guru and disciple degenerating into a boundless, uncritical personality cult.
  • In his Encyclopedic Dictionary of Yoga (1990), Feuerstein writes that the importation of yoga to the West has raised questions upon the appropriateness of the spiritual discipleship and the legitimacy of spiritual authority.

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

Other uses of the word 'Guru'

The term guru has also passed into an even wider metaphorical use. In hacker culture, a guru is an expert of legendary proportions. Nearly synonymous with "wizard", but additionally implies a history of being a knowledge resource for others. Less often, used (with a qualifer) for other experts on other systems, as in VMS guru. (The definition is from Jargon file.)

See also

Wikiquote quotations related to:
Guru

External links

Buddhism

Hinduism

Skihism

Other sites

Sites to assess gurus

Critical sites

Bibliography

  • Arjun Dev, Guru, Guru Granth Sahib, Amritsar-1604 AD., Rag Bhairo
  • Aurobindo, Sri, The Foundation of Indian Culture, Pondicherry, 1959
  • 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
  • Brown, Mick The Spiritual Tourist Bloomsbury publishing, 1998 ISBN 1–58234–034-X
  • Deutsch, Alexander M.D. Observations on a sidewalk ashram Archive Gen. Psychiatry 32 (1975) 2, 166–175
  • Deutsch, Alexander M.D. Tenacity of Attachment to a cult leader: a psychiatric perspective American Journal of Psychiatry 137 (1980) 12, 1569–1573.
  • Deutsch, Alexander M.D. Psychological perspectives on cult leadership, an article that appeared in the book edited by Marc Galanter M.D. (1989) Cults and new religious movements: a report of the committee on psychiatry and religion of the American Psychiatric Association ISBN 0–89042–212–5
  • Garden, Mary The Serpent Rising: a journey of spiritual seduction – 2003 ISBN 1–8770590–50–1
  • 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
  • Feuerstein, Georg Dr. Encyclopedic dictionary of yoga Published by Paragon House 1st ed edition (1990) ISBN 155778244X
  • Feuerstein, Georg Dr. The Deeper Dimension of Yoga: Theory and Practice, Shambala Publications, ISBN 1570629285
  • Gurdev Singh, Justice, Perspectives on the Sikh Tradition. Patiala-1986
  • 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
  • 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)
  • Kovoor, Abraham Dr. Begone Godmen published by Shri Aswin J. Shah Jaico Publishing House, Bombay – 1976
  • Kramer, Joel, and Diana Alstad The guru papers: masks of authoritarian power ISBN 1–883319–00–5
  • 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)
  • 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 9023908090
  • Kranenborg, Reender (Dutch language) Neohindoeïstische bewegingen in Nederland : een encyclopedisch overzicht, published by Kampen Kok cop. (2002) ISBN 9043504939
  • Lane, David, Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (1984)
  • Majumdar, Dr R.C., The History and Culture of the Indian People, Vol. VI, Bombay-1960
  • Mcleod W.H. (ed.). The B40 Janam Sakhi, Guru Nank Dev University, Amritsar, 1980
  • Sister Nivedita, The Master as I Saw Him, Kolkata: Udbodhan Office, 1993.
  • 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 0145965772
  • Padoux, André The Tantric Guru, in: Tantra in Practice, Ed by David Gordon White, MLBD, New Delhi
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  • Storr, Anthony Dr. Feet of clay: a study of gurus 1996 ISBN 0684834952
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  • Swami Vivekananda Karma-yoga and Bhakti-yoga (1937)







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