Guru: An outdated icon?

Probably one of the most used and abused of the Sanskrit words today is the word guru. …


Though its utterance may still invoke images of a serene old Indian man with a white beard in a saffron robe, its use has become so commonplace today that you’d think one of these masters lives in every city block.

Historically, this title of guru was reserved solely for the highest spiritual teachers of humanity.

This yoga master of lore was the keeper of a repository of mysterious universal secrets.

He/She was one who offered shelter and guidance to those willing to walk the difficult path to self-awareness; one who, on the threshold of nirvana, liberation from this worldly existence, voluntarily renounced that privilege in order to guide others to the gates of freedom.

The term guruh itself means “remover of darkness,” or “one who guides from darkness to light.” These “illuminators of truth” belong to no particular creed or sect, culture or philosophy. Throughout the ages they have been the shepherds of mankind, drawing the devoted and sincere aspirants of truth and understanding under their gracious wings.

The Modern Idea of a Guru

Nowadays this word is used quite loosely, often as a mere substitute for “teacher.” In the West we have certainly seen a real perversion of this term, it now being associated with self-proclaimed experts in anything from relationships, to fashion design, to investment, to gourmet cuisine. It is little wonder that the average person today regards this title with measured cynicism.

I recently saw an advertisement from a yoga school in America, which said “we tell our students you do not need a guru.” This was a startling assertion to me. From my years in the study and practice of yoga I have come to realize, beyond any doubt, that the guidance of an experience teacher is essential.

The attitude put forth by that yoga school, however, is reflective of the typical ignorance that surrounds yoga and spirituality today. The view of yoga can often be so shallow that many modern yoga enthusiasts have a hard time conceiving just what is so difficult about it, and aside from learning how to perform various exercises properly, may wonder what other need exists for a yoga guide at all.

“The disclosure of Divine insight is often painful to worldly ears. (The) master was not popular with superficial students. The wise, always few in numbers, deeply revered him.”

~ Paramahamsa Yogananda

The modern mind also struggles with the notion of authority, which, in my opinion, also underlies the present-day aversion to the idea of a guru.

There is, in some minds, a subconscious view of the guru as an authority figure, with all the same negative associations from one’s past authority figures, such as their teachers, parents, bosses, etc.

This programming keeps them from seeing the guru for what they rightly are — one who, through their infinite love and compassion, selflessly offers their guidance for the understanding and growth of others.

Indeed, sometimes spiritual guidance of the guru is not pleasant and can be difficult to follow. On the path to wisdom, the seeker is forced to take a frank and often painful look into the mirror of truth. In “Autobiography of a Yogi,” Paramahamsa Yogananda made these observations of many of the students of his guru, Sri Yukteshwar:

“Students came and generally went. Those who craved an easy path, that of instant sympathy and comforting recognitions of one’s merits, did not find it at the hermitage.

My master offered his disciples shelter and shepherds for the aeons, but many students miserly demanded ego-balm as well. They departed, preferring before any humility, life’s countless humiliations… [His] wisdom was too powerful for their spiritual sickness. They sought some lesser teacher who, shading them with flattery, permitted the fitful sleep of ignorance…”

The Need for an Experienced Yoga Guide

“One cannot follow the path [of yoga] through logic and reason alone. A teacher in whom one can place complete trust must show the way. Else the attractions of the ‘path of pleasure’ will delude the seeker.”

~ Katha Upanishad

The one who has gone far along the path of yoga is quite familiar with the problems and realities of the inner life. He/she has come to understand, through experience, that the mere possession of “academic intelligence” and “worldly experience” is not enough to create inner, self-transformation.

In order to go deeper and see what the vast array of techniques and practices of yoga truly have to offer, it is necessary to have a spiritual guide who has successfully carried out the experiment of yoga on him/herself.

Though for the higher stages of yoga, an experienced master is essential, I.K Taimni points out in his “Glimpses into the Psychology of Yoga,” that one needn’t be a master in the highest sense in order to be a valuable yoga teacher:

“As disciples are at different stages of spiritual progress and their needs and capacities vary greatly, it is natural that gurus of different degrees of capacities and qualifications should be needed for their guidance.

An aspirant with vague aspirations, superficial interests in his/her spiritual life and very limited capacities, does not need a spiritual teacher of the high order, just as a child does not need a university professor to teach him the alphabet.”

Any yoga teacher, however, still needs to be a committed and disciplined practitioner of yoga. They must have adequate knowledge and experience to understand the problems of those under their guidance, and the capability to guide them through to higher levels of experience and understanding. After all, a yoga guru really is, in effect, the ultimate life coach!

The teacher, however, can only do so much. Ultimately, it is up to each person individually to walk the path to knowledge. If one eventually wants to be able to learn what a great master has to teach, then they must prepare their self to be able to benefit from that guidance.

As Yogacharya Ananda Balayogi Giri remarked to a group of his students, “you must make yourself fit for your ambitions.” It does one little good to seek out some high ideal of a guru, when one is neither ready for, nor capable of benefiting from their wisdom.

As the humblest of wise ones, Nisargadatta Maharaj points out,

“There are so many things that you do not know about yourself — what you are, … what is the meaning and purpose of your life… ? How did you come to live in such turmoil and sorrow, while your entire being strives for happiness and peace? These are weighty matters and have to be attended to first.”

On knowing if you’ve found the right yoga teacher, he said:

“Watch yourself. If you see yourself changing, growing, it means you have found the right guru. He/She may be beautiful or ugly, pleasant or unpleasant, flattering you or scolding you. Nothing matters except the one crucial fact of inward growth. If you don’t grow, well, he/she may be your friend, but not your guru.”

About the Author:

Yogacharya is the director of International Yogalayam,

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