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GURŪ . The word gurū refers to a spiritual master or teacher whose gift or skill bears an esoteric dimension. Though derived from the Hindu tradition, the term gurū has also come to be applied to spiritual masters of other religious traditions, and to masters in other areas of expertise, such as music, dance, and even business. The Sanskrit term gurū was originally used in its Vedic context as an adjective meaning "heavy" or "weighty." In the Upaniads, it came to refer to a person who had reached the highest state of spiritual realization (moka) and who was able to lead others to the same. The gurū may be distinguished from a Hindu sadhu, in that the role of the gurū consists mainly in teaching disciples (shishyas), and from an ācārya or pait in that the teaching of the gurū is based primarily on personal spiritual experiences rather than on traditional religious knowledge. As such, the gurū -disciple relationship represents the Hindu form of the phenomenon of spiritual direction that may be found in most religious traditions. The gurū may be regarded as the Hindu equivalent to the figure of the kalyāna mitra in Theravāda Buddhism, the roshi in Zen Buddhism, or the lama in Tibetan Buddhism. Parallels to the gurū may also be found in the figures of the tsaddiq within the Hasidic tradition of Judaism, the shaykh or pir in Sufism, the starets within the Eastern Orthodox tradition of Christianity, or the novice master and spiritual director in Catholic monasticism. In each case, the spiritual master is believed to represent the highest spiritual realization within that particular tradition, and is expected to lead others to that state both by example and by teaching. All spiritual traditions emphasize the importance of the complete surrender of the disciple to the spiritual master as a condition for spiritual growth. While most traditions regard the master-disciple relationship as only one form of religious observance, often reserved for a spiritual elite, within the Hindu religious tradition the figure of the gurū has come to play a central role.

Traditional Understandings of the GurŪ

The importance of the gurū within the Hindu tradition is directly related to the pursuit of moka (liberation) as the highest and ultimate religious goal. In the Upaniads, this state of moka is expressed in terms of the realization of the nonduality of ātman (deepest Self) and brahman (ultimate reality). The gurū came to be regarded as the embodiment of this state, and as the only means through which it could be attained. Since the experience of moka is considered to be unfathomable in words, it could only be exemplified and pursued through one who had already reached that state.

Thus, the Muaka Upaniad states, "nothing that is eternal (not made) can be gained by what is not eternal (made). Let him, in order to understand this, take fuel in his hand and approach a Guru who is learned and dwells entirely in Brahman" (1:2:12). In the Maitrī Upaniad the disciple addresses the gurū with the following words: "In this world I am like a frog in a dry well. O Saint, thou art my way, thou art my way" (1:4). Thus, the figure of the gurū effectively became, as David Miller put it, the "centre of sacredness" in Hinduism.

As the embodiment of the ultimate state of realization, the gurū came to be endowed with divine attributes. In the Muaka Upaniad it is said that "he who knows that highest Brahman, becomes even Brahman " (3:2:9). There is no higher authority in Hinduism than the one who has attained the knowledge of brahman. The gurū thus came to be regarded as God, and recognition of the divinity of the gurū was seen as a condition for reaching liberation: "If these truths have been told to a high-minded man, who feels the highest devotion for God, and for his Guru as for God, then they will shine forth,then they will shine forth indeed" (Śvetāśvatara Upaniad 6:23). Disciples generally recognize the teachings of a gurū as the ultimate truth. While Hindu gurūs acknowledge the authority of the Hindu scriptures, they are autonomous in interpreting these scriptures. This explains the rich diversity of teaching traditions within Hinduism.

While a gurū may be regarded as God in the Hindu tradition, the authority of the gurū is still constituted solely by a disciple's recognition of this divinity. It is often said in Hinduism that it is the disciple who makes the gurū. In the Upaniads, a disciple approached the gurū with fuel in the hand, expressing a desire to serve the gurū (by tending to his sacrificial fire). Upon acceptance, the disciple underwent a formal initiation (dīkshā) symbolizing a new birth from the gurū and incorporation within the gurū' s household (gurūkula). Disciples often remained with the gurū for more than a decade, practicing various forms of asceticism and self-abnegation under the guidance of the gurū. In later times, the religious community surrounding a gurū came to be called an āśrama (ashram). Āśramas usually consist of a group of core members who are totally devoted to the gurū and have often taken vows of celibacy and renunciation (sannyāsa), and of a larger group of followers who may come and stay with the gurū for various lengths of time without renouncing the world. However, some gurūs may instead adopt a more itinerant lifestyle and visit disciples in their own villages and homes.

From the outset, each relationship between gurū and disciple has been regarded as unique or irreplaceable. The gurū generally adapts the teaching to the spiritual needs and level of spiritual development of the disciple. This has at times generated an image of the gurū as being unpredictable. Gurūs often act and relate to disciples in ways that defy common sense. Disciples are expected to uncritically accept the particular teaching and discipline imparted upon them by the gurū and to maintain faith in the gurū' s capacities of discernment. Since the ultimate goal of the gurū -disciple relationship is not the acquisition of objective knowledge but realization of the deepest Self (ātman), not only the path, but also the goal of every gurū -disciple relationship is considered to be unique. It is only the gurū who is able to acknowledge the attainment of self-realization in the disciple, since, as it is said, the one who attains it "does not know, yet he is knowing, though he does not know" (Bhadārayaka Upaniad 4:3:30). While the attainment of the state of realization marks the end of the gurū -disciple relationship, Hindus generally maintain a reverence for their gurū throughout their lives.

The gurū -disciple relationship has formed the basis for the development of various teaching traditions (sampradāyas) within Hinduism. Each sampradāya is based on a lineage of teachers (gurūparamparā) in which the authority of a gurū is legitimated by the previous gurūs. In the end, however, it is the capacity of a gurū to generate and maintain a religious commitment from disciples that sustains a tradition. Teaching traditions may disappear and new ones may emerge at any given time.

Different Roles and Functions of the GurŪ

The status and role of the gurū may be variously defined and legitimated within any particular teaching tradition. Certain general characteristics distinguish the conception of the gurū within the traditions of Advaita Vedānta, Bhakti, and Tantrism. Within Advaita Vedānta, the gurū is predominantly regarded as a teacher who imparts spiritual wisdom to the disciple. Śakara (788820), the founder of this tradition, framed the relationship between gurū and disciple in terms of śravaa (listening), manana (contemplation), and nididhyāsana (meditation). High demands are put upon a disciple who must be "a seeker after final release whose mind has been calmed, whose senses have been controlled, whose faults have been abandoned, who is acting as prescribed [in the scriptures], who is endowed with virtues, and who is always obedient" (Upadeśasāhasrī 1:16:72). The gurū, on the other hand, must be endowed with tranquility, self-control, lack of attachment to enjoyments "visible and invisible," and freedom from faults such as "deceit, pride, trickery, wickedness, fraud, jealousy, falsehood, egotism, [and] self-interest" (Upadeśasāhasrī 2:1:6). The gurū must not only be liberated (jīvanmukti) but also filled with compassion and a willingness to share spiritual knowledge with others. Śakara institutionalized the gurū -disciple relationship through the establishment of five monasteries (mahas) in Sringeri, Kanchi, Dwaraka, Puri, and Badrinath. The heads of these monasteries are called jagadgurūs, or "world teachers." These teachers differ from other gurūs in that their responsibilities also include administration and their authority generally extends beyond their own immediate group of disciples.

Within the devotional (bhakti) traditions of Hinduism, the relationship between gurū and disciple is generally of a more affective nature. It is the love and grace of the gurū that is here regarded as the principal means of salvation. The gurū may be regarded as a divine incarnation or avatāra, who has the capacity to remove spiritual obstacles in the disciple. Much of the spiritual practice consists of expressions of loving devotion to the gurū, who is worshiped as a God. In the absence of the gurū, it is customary to worship the slippers, seat, statue, or picture of the gurū.

In the Tantric tradition, the role of the gurū is concentrated in the imparting of dīkshā, or initiation. It is here that the idea of the indispensability of the gurū reaches its highest expression. A disciple cannot conceive of the possibility of liberation without receiving a mantra and the transmission of power (shaktipāt) from the gurū. In the tradition of Kashmir Śaivism, this power is believed to awaken the spiritual energy (kualinī) in the disciple, transforming him or her from within. Here, the gurū is often regarded as superior to God. The refrain of the Gurū Gītā, a text widely used within the Tantric tradition, states, "There is nothing greater than the gurū. "

All three functions of the gurū teaching, initiation, and imparting love and gracemay be found to various degrees in any particular gurū. While some gurūs may be clearly situated within one or the other tradition of Hinduism, most combine elements from the different Hindu traditions and even from other religious traditions within their teachings and practices.

Because of the absolute authority of the gurū, the Hindu tradition has always been conscious of the possibility of abuse of this authority by false gurūs or pseudo-gurūs who exploit disciples for their own purposes. In the Muaka Upaniad, one is warned of "fools dwelling in darkness, wise in their own conceit, and puffed up with vain knowledge, [who] go round and round staggering to and fro, like blind men led by the blind" (1:2:8). This is why many Hindu texts enumerate in great detail the various qualities that characterize a real gurū. Among these, complete freedom from desire and from conceit plays a central role.

The gurū is of central importance in Sikhism, which is based on a lineage of ten human gurūs, from Sikhism's founder Gurū Nānak (14691539) to its tenth leader, Gurū Gobind Singh (16661708), after whom gurū ship became enshrined in the collection of hymns known as the Gurū Granth Sāhib, or Sikh scriptures. God is considered as the "Gurū of Gurūs ", and some Sikhs also believe in a living gurū.

Modern Developments

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the concept of the gurū has undergone a number of changes. While the function of the gurū was traditionally limited to the spiritual sphere, gurūs have become increasingly more active in the political and social realm, contributing to Indian nationalist movements and causes. Figures such as Swami Dayananda Saraswati, founder of Ārya Samāj, formulated an ideology in which spirituality was inseparable from national identity. The combination of spiritual and political authority was also evident in a figure like Mohandas Gandhi. Many Hindu gurūs are actively involved in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the religious or ideological branch of the political Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP). While gurūs traditionally focused on individual and purely spiritual relationships with disciples, these gurūs have developed more public roles as advisors to political leaders and advocates of political agendas.

A second development has been the internationalization of the mission and following of Hindu gurūs. The popularity of a number of Hindu gurūs (Rāmakrishna Paramahamsa, Aurobindo Ghose, Ramana Maharshi, Paramahamsa Yogānanda, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Muktānanda, Krishnamurti, Bhagavan Shree Rajneesh, Sathya Sai Baba, etc.) has led to the development of āśramas and centers in many countries outside India and to new challenges of tending to the spiritual needs of disciples from very different cultural and religious backgrounds, including many who live a great distance from the gurū. While most of the more famous gurūs have come to spend much of their time traveling throughout the world visiting disciples who gather in large numbers to receive their darśan (vision), others remain in India and have disciples from all over the world visit them there. The international outreach of some gurūs and the increase in funds and material support has also led to new styles of teaching through high-tech means of communication. This has led to shifts in the traditional concept of the gurū -disciple relationship. Whereas a personal relationship with the gurū was traditionally regarded as an essential dimension of spiritual growth, such intimacy and personal guidance has come to be replaced by very brief moments of nonverbal exchange. In most cases, however, the belief that the gurū knows each disciple personally and attends from a distance to his or her spiritual needs has been preserved. Another result of the internationalization of Hindu gurūs is the rise of non-Indian disciples to the status of gurū. This may occur through appointment and succession within an established lineage of gurūs, or through independent forms of imitation of the Indian gurū -disciple relationship. Such developments have raised questions regarding the traditional understanding of Hindu identity.

One of the most remarkable developments of the twentieth century was the emergence of female gurūs. While women were never explicitly excluded from the possibility of assuming spiritual authority in Hindu texts, and while a number of women have been recognized as important Hindu saints in the course of history, women did not assumed roles of spiritual leadership until the beginning of the twentieth century. One of the first renowned female gurūs was Ānandamayī Mā (18961982). Though a wandering ascetic, she came to be widely sought out for spiritual direction and advice. Numerous other female gurūs have since gained popularity and fame, including outside India. Some of these female gurūs were appointed as successor to their own male gurū. But some became recognized purely on the basis of their own spiritual power and authority. Though female gurūs are generally considered to be beyond gender, they are more often identified with the goddesses of India, and their affection for disciples is often expressed in explicitly nurturing gestures (such as touching or hugging). Female gurūs may be found in all strands of Hinduism, from the contemplative and nondualist traditions and the Tantric schools to the more devotional traditions. They continue the long Hindu tradition of the importance of personal spiritual experience and realization, and enrich that tradition with a distinctive form and flavor. The figure of the gurū thus remains at the heart of Hinduism, even as this religion and its concept of the gurū continue to change over time.

See Also

Ashram; Avatāra; Bhakti; Brahman; Gurū Granth Sāhib; Kualinī; Mantra; Moka; Nānak; Sanyāsa; Sikhism; Tantrism, overview article.


The first systematic treatments of the figure of the gurū in Western languages may be found in Louis Renou's introduction to Hinduism (New York, 1962) and in Jan Gonda's Change and Continuity in Indian Religion (The Hague, 1965). The theme of the absolute centrality of the gurū in Indian religion is developed by David Miller in "The Guru as Centre of Sacredness," Studies in Religion 6, no. 5 (19761977): 527533. More specialized studies of the role of gurū in particular schools or traditions of Hinduism may be found in William Cenkner's A Tradition of Teachers: Śakara and the Jagadgurūs Today (Delhi, 1983), which discusses the gurū in the tradition of Advaita Vedanta, and in Daniel Gold's books The Lord as Guru: Hindi Saints in the North Indian Tradition (New York, 1987) and Comprehending the Guru: Toward a Grammar of Religious Perception (Atlanta, 1988), which focus predominantly on the Hindu Saint tradition. The dynamics of the gurū -disciple relationship has been approached from a psychoanalytical perspective in Richard Lannoy's book The Speaking Tree: A Study of Indian Culture and Society (London, 1974) and in Anthony Storr's Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus (London, 1996.) For a brief discussion of the role of the gurū in Sikhism, see W. Owen Cole's The Guru in Sikhism (London, 1982).

Cross-cultural comparisons of the figure of the spiritual master and the religious appropriation of the category of the gurū within a Christian context may be found in Catherine Cornille's The Guru in Indian Catholicism: Ambiguity or Opportunity of Inculturation? (Louvain, Belgium, 1991) and in M. Thomas Thangaraj's The Crucified Guru: An Experiment in Cross-Cultural Christology (Nashville, 1994). Numerous books offer devotional and/or historical accounts of particular gurūs. Among these, works of scholarly interest are: Lawrence Babb's Redemptive Encounters: Three Modern Styles in the Hindu Tradition (Berkeley, Calif., 1986), focusing on the Radhasoami Faith, the Brahma Kumaris, and Sathya Sai Baba; and Lisa Lassell Hallstrom's Mother of Bliss: Ānandamayī Mā (Oxford, 1999).

On the topic of female gurūs, a volume edited by Karen Pechilis, The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States (New York, 2004), offers a collection of studies of the figures of Gauri ma, Sita Devi, Ananadamayi ma, Jayashri Ma, Meera Ma, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, Karunamayi Ma, Shree Maa, Mata Amritanandamayi, and Gurumayi.

Catherine Cornille (2005)