The Tradition of Sat Guru in Hinduism

Guru, a Spiritual Teacher

by Jayaram V

Meditate on the Guru as seated in the crown of the head, surrounded by the sacred mantras, ham and sah, which abide in all beings and that are the cause of the universe.The Guru, the source of the universe, freely chooses to appear in a living form on earth. – Guru Gita


Gurus occupy a prominent place in Hinduism. Almost all the prominent deities of Hinduism act as gurus to reveal divine knowledge or teach specific skills. There is no other tradition in the world where gurus are treated with such respect. It is also true that in today's world, teachers in the academia do not enjoy as much respect or maintain the same ethical standards, while the spiritual teachers who propagate Hinduism or Hindu spirituality have to deal with a lot of public scrutiny and negative publicity.

The tradition of gurus played an important role in the preservation and continuity of various schools of Hinduism. Without them, the tradition would have been lost forever. In the following paragraphs we will discuss the meaning and significance of gurus in Hinduism.

Guru means

Literally speaking “guru” means large, weighty, long, extended, important, prominent. It also means arduous, difficult, intense, venerable, best, excellent, etc. Indeed, all these meanings apply to a spiritual master, a venerable person, a religious teacher or spiritual guide who is known in the religious and spiritual traditions of India as guru.

In the Vedic tradition, a guru was a reputed priest (brahmana) who performed purification ceremonies and initiated young students into the study of the Vedas. In ancient India, spiritual teachers who taught the higher knowledge of the Vedas (brahma vidyas) and liberation (moksha) commanded utmost respect. They came from all castes and backgrounds, and gave instruction in the secret knowledge of liberation as an obligatory duty and a selfless service. Some of them visited the royal courts of kings and engaged in public discussions on religious and spiritual matters.

However, not all gurus were spiritual teachers. There were teachers for other professions and vocations, who charged fees (guru artha). They excelled in various subjects, arts, crafts, and professions. Their reputation and status depended upon their knowledge as well their virtue and integrity. They taught medicine, metallurgy, weapon making, martial arts, taming of wild elephants, wild animals and poisonous snakes, spying, making various types of poisons and deadly potions, hypnotism, casting spells, witchcraft, fine arts, gambling, architecture, sculpting, hunting, lovemaking and so on. Most gurus were men, but some were women also.

Guru symbolism

In Hinduism a guru symbolizes greatness, excellence, size, importance, status, responsibility, etc. The words of a guru (guru vac) are like the words of God (brahma vac). The teaching of a guru (upadesam) is similar to a verbal testimony (pramana). The mantra given by a guru during initiation is known as guru mantram, which has the power to cleanse the mind and body and is believed to act like a boat by which a disciple can pass the ocean of samsara and reach the shore of liberation.

Among the planets, Jupiter (angaraka) is known as the guru. In Hindu astrology an auspicious and favorable period in the life of a human being is known as guru mahadasa. Even the gods and demons have their own gurus. Brihaspati is the teacher of the gods while Shukracharya is of the Asuras. In ancient Indian polity the guru was also an institution. Kings employed royal gurus (rajgurus) who not only helped the children of the royal family learn various arts and crafts but also gave advice to the kings during crucial moments. If necessary, such gurus had to fight on behalf of the kings against their enemies, especially if the guru happened to be a Kshatriya or excelled in warfare.

The importance of Guru in ancient Hindu texts

The importance of a guru is extolled in the ancient texts of Hinduism. The Svetasvatara Upanishad (6.23) emphasizes the importance of reverence for a guru stating that the teachings will illuminate those great souls who have reverence for God as well as for a guru. In the Taittiriya Upanishad (1.11.2), students are urged to treat their teacher a god himself (acharya devobhava). The Guru Gita from the Skanda Purana equates a guru to Shiva himself. In a conversation with Parvathi, Shiva, who is the universal Guru, declares thus, “Apart from the Guru, there is no other Brahman. O Beautiful One, what I say is true, it is the truth.” In the same text he further states, “A Guru is Shiva himself, manifested as a human.” A popular Hindu prayer declares, “The Guru is Brahma, the Guru is Vishnu, the Guru is Siva. Indeed, the Guru is the Supreme Absolute. To that Guru I offer my reverent salutations. “

The qualities of a satguru, the true guru

According to the Katha Upanishad (1.2.8), a guru is indispensable to acquire the knowledge of Brahman, and that guru must know Brahman as himself (ananya prokta). Without him there is no going further (gatir atra nasti). In the invocations and prayers found in the Taittiriya Upanishad, a teacher seeks the following from God or gods. They can be considered the desirable qualities one may look for in a guru, a teacher or an adept.

  • Fame (yasah)
  • Radiance of Brahman (brahmavarchas)
  • Intelligence (medha)
  • Immortality (amritasya)
  • Vigorous body (vicarsanam)
  • Sweetness in the tongue (madhumattama)
  • Good hearing capacity
  • Knowledge of the Vedas (sruti)
  • Prosperity and material abundance
  • Students of chaste conduct
  • Pure mind
  • Wealth of knowledge
  • Right wisdom (sumedha)

A spiritual guru should be knowledgeable, self-realized, liberated (jivanmukta), chaste, virtuous, austere, truthful, detached, free from lust and delusion, and dedicated and devoted to God. He should be wise, absorbed in God, selfless, egoless, humble, indifferent, but firm in enforcing discipline through personal example. A true guru practices renunciation in word and deed and remains the same to all the dualities of life. He shuns fame, name, wealth, ownership, publicity, worldly pleasures, luxuries and public attention.

True gurus who have achieved liberation are drawn to teaching and guiding out of compassion or as a service to God rather than to fill their own coffers. Most importantly, they do not promote themselves or attract attention to them or charge money to give you an audience. A true guru, the liberated one, has no interest of his own, no selfishness, no ego and no desire for name or fame. Only that guru should be considered God in human form, who is egoless and whose identity is fully merged into that of Brahman.

In his book, Guru Tattva, Swami Sivananda declares, “Mere study of books cannot make one a Guru. One who has studied the Vedas and who has direct knowledge of Atman through Anubhava can only be enrolled as a Guru. A Jivanmukta or a liberated sage is the real Guru or spiritual preceptor. He is the Satguru. He is identical with Brahman or the Supreme Self. He is a Knower of Brahman.”

He also states, “Possession of Siddhis is not the test to declare the greatness of a sage or to prove he has attained Self-realisation. Satgurus do not exhibit any miracles or Siddhis. Sometimes they may exhibit them in order to convince the aspirants of the existence of super physical things, give them encouragement, and instil faith in their hearts. A Satguru is endowed with countless Siddhis. He possesses all divine Aisvarya, all the wealth of the Lord. The Satguru is Brahman Himself. He is an ocean of bliss, knowledge and mercy. He is the captain of your soul. He is the fountain of joy. He removes all your troubles, sorrows and obstacles. He shows you the right divine path. He tears your veil of ignorance. He makes you immortal and divine. He transmutes your lower, diabolical nature. He gives you the rope of knowledge and saves you when you are drowning in this ocean of Samsara. Do not consider him to be only a man. If you take him as a man, you are a beast. Worship your Guru and bow to him with reverence.”

Frankly, nowadays you will not find many gurus who fit into this description. It is therefore better to consider your personal God your guru and seek his grace and guidance rather than taking risks and waste your whole life in the service of a charlatan, unless you know certainly that the guru whom you have chosen is really a self-realized yogi and perfectly fits into the traditional descriptions of a satguru.

Prominent gurus

India has a very long tradition of gurus which may be 5000 years old or more. In a few cases fathers and grandfathers acted as gurus to their own children and family members and transmitted to them the knowledge of the Vedas or of the Self. Often husbands acted as gurus to their wives and taught them the secrets of lilberation. Some of the most prominent teachers of ancient India were Vyasa, Vashista, Bharadwaja, Parasara, Vishwamitra, Ashtavakra, Uddalaka Aruni, Yajnavalkya, Satyakama Jabala, Angirasa, etc.

Many divinities also acted as teachers. Brahma was the most prominent among them, as the original teacher and transmitter of all the Vedas. The Tantra tradition recognizes Shiva as a great teacher and world teacher. He is the teacher of Parvathi, who in turn transmits the secrets of transcendental knowledge to chosen disciples. Vishnu, Krishna also are considered universal teachers.

Many saints and scholars of ancient India were also great teachers. For example, Makandeya, Shankaracharya, Abhinavagupta, Gorakhnath, Ramanuja, Madhava, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Basaveswara, Raghavendra, etc., were well-known spiritual teachers of their times, besides being great devotees and men of wisdom. In modern times, Veerabrahmendra Swami, Shirdi Baba, Ramana Maharshi, Swami Narayan, Lahari Mahasaya, Yogananda, Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo initiated numerous aspirants into their paths and contributed to the revival of Hinduism.

Gurus who left this world are commemorated both on their birth and death anniversaries. Guru Purnima is a popular Hindu festival, during which God is worshipped as a guru, or gurus are worshipped as God.

Guru in Hindu spiritual tradition

Etymologically, a guru (gu + ru) is the one who brings light and wisdom (ru) into the dark, cavern hearts (gu) of the bound souls. He is the liberator, who illuminates the minds and hearts of the ignorant. In many Hindu traditions a guru is equated to God himself. The Hindu ethical system insists that gurus should be treated with utmost respect, after parents.

A guru’s word is inviolable. He is the door keeper of the secret knowledge, which is hidden in the scriptures. He has the right to choose his students and initiate them into the transcendental knowledge according to his discretion. No one can benefit from his teachings without paying him their dues (guru dakshina).

Paying respects to a guru, touching the feet of a guru, serving the guru and taking care of his personal needs, praising and appreciating a guru, seeking the blessings of a guru, remembering and meditating on the name of a guru are part of Hindu spiritual tradition. Some guru traditions hold that their gurus have the power to wash away sins, neutralize past karma, pass on spiritual energy to chosen disciples, or grant them liberation. Meditating upon a guru's name or guru's image are encouraged in many traditions to seek the guru's blessings (guru anugraha).

Just as in today’s world the reputation of professionals depends upon the school or the university where they study, in ancient India the reputation of students depended upon the gurus who initiated them into the study of the scriptures. No one would become a guru, unless they were chosen by their teachers and given the permission to teach on their behalf. The order in which the instruction of a spiritual teacher passed from one teacher to another through success generations is known as gurukrama. The initiation process and strict discipline among the initiates ensured the purity and continuity of the teachings.

Do you require a guru for your spiritual practice?

This is a difficult question. The answer to it depends upon which sect of Hinduism you follow. In some Shaiva traditions, for example, individual effort (anavopaya) is considered inferior to the grace of Shiva (sambavopaya). Since a guru is considered an embodiment of Shiva, the grace of a guru is equal to the grace of Shiva. In such traditions, the guidance of a guru is considered necessary. In Vira Shaivism emphasis is placed both on individual effort and reverence to a guru and a high priest (jangama).

Thus, in Hindusim the relationship between a guru and his students varies from tradition to tradition. Overtime, the role of a guru has also changed. In olden days, there were no printed texts. If students had to learn anything about liberation or their Dharma or about the hidden teachings of a sacred text, they had to seek the help and instruction of a teacher. Nowadays most of the texts with numerous commentaries are available in public domain and within easy reach. Therefore, to acquire the knowledge of the scriptures, you may not need the assistance of a guru.

However, if you are intent upon liberation or if you lack conviction in your own methods of spirituality, you may need a guru. In that case, you have to find one who is reliable, truthful and a self-realized yogi. Finding such a person in today’s world is a difficult task. Even if you find one, you may not find enough opportunities to meet him personally or receive instruction or initiation from him because he may be surrounded by too many envious people who do not want anyone else to enter his inner circle, or he may be too busy to take care of your spiritual needs.

Your primary goal should be liberation. If you are intent upon it and serious about it, a solution will happen on its own. Instead, if your primary goal is to find a guru so that you will have mental peace, or a psychological crtuch to feel secure, loved and supported, or if you look for a guru to know your future or fulfil your worldly desires, you may run into trouble or may not find what you are looking for.

Therefore, unless a guru manifests in your life, you may consider alternatives and focus your effort on self-purification. You should also remember that if a guru is God in human form, so are you. You are also an aspect of Brahman and possess the same soul and the same potential to achieve the highest wisdom. Hence, your satguru (Shiva) is already in you as your very Self (Isvara). To see him you do not have to cross the oceans or stand in a long queue or pay an entrace feese to listen to his speech. If you learn to contemplate upon him and establish your mind in him, you may not require any external guru.

The tradition says that it is better to have a guru for your spiritual journey, but does not insist that you should have one in physical form. In Hinduism, there is a provision to consider a sacred scripture, a deity or your very Self as your guide and guru and develop a mental and intuitive connection with them. With the help of contemplation, austerities, and self-purification, you can strengthen your faith in your personal guru of the subtle realm and seek his help either to introduce you to a satguru or lead you towards light, knowledge and immortalty. It is also possible that if you have accumulated enough merit in your past lives, you will begin your journey from where you left, as the Bhagavadgita declares that there is no loss in the effort.

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