Who is a Guru? The Traditional, Scriptural View

Article of the Month - Feb 2011

This article by Nitin Kumar

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Who is a Guru? The Traditional, Scriptural View

The science of spirituality is all about knowing one's own self. However, this can never be known in any of the normal ways through which we gain knowledge of worldly subjects. To learn and experience this science, we need to be graced with the blessings of both - guru and God. There is nothing surprising in this. We all know that to qualify in any field of knowledge, we require the guidance of an experienced person who is already qualified in that particular field. Whether it is a doctor, a lawyer or a businessman, all follow this line of action only. Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita:

"It is only one amongst thousands of people who strives for spiritual salvation. Even amongst such seekers, it is only the rare person who gets to know me correctly." (7.3)

This is God's own voice, which makes it clear that it is not easy to gain such a knowledge. Due to our deep-rooted ignorance, there is a wide gap between what we believe ourselves to be and what we actually are. Therefore, the guiding hand of a guru is both necessary and sufficient for progress on the spiritual path.

Some intelligent fools of today do not accept this, rather they oppose it. They are not correct. However intelligent a person may be, it is impossible for him to study the scriptures and experience their essence on his own. Therefore, even one who knows the scriptures should not search for the science of salvation (Brahma-Gyana) independently. He should proceed to a qualified guru to receive the same. The Chandogya Upanishad says:

'Only the knowledge received from a teacher (Acharya) leads one to the goal.' (4.9.3)

'The one who has a teacher will know the truth.' (6.14.2)

The alphabets making up the word guru itself signify its meaning. 'Gu' means the darkness of ignorance and 'ru' indicates the one who destroys; therefore, the one who removes our ignorance (about our true selves) is our guru.

The Qualities of a Guru:

What are the qualities in a guru which make us seek the science of salvation from him? How should we approach such a guru? It is the scriptures themselves which answer this question:

'With sacrificial wood in hands, one should approach a guru, who is both a 'Shrotriya' and 'Brahmanishtha'. (Mundaka Upanishad 1.2.12)

Here the first adjective describing an ideal guru is 'Shrotriya'. It means a person who has not only studied, but also lives and acts according to the scriptures (Shruti). 'Brahmanishtha' means one whose mind is always fixed on the Supreme God (Brahman). There are many who possess only one of these qualities. However, the ideal guru is one who has both; i.e., these two qualities need to be present together in a person for him to qualify as a guru. Such a teacher knows the traditional meaning of the scriptures and therefore does not interpret them according to his own free will. Due to his following the unbroken tradition of our ancient sages, there is no contradiction in his teachings. From his explanations the students not only get answers to all their queries - asked or unasked, but their doubts too get dissolved. If the guru is not a Brahmanishtha, then his discourses are but mere rote, like that of a parrot. Each student harbors different queries and doubts depending on his/her background and Samskaras. Suitable answers to such a variety of questions can come only from the reservoir of experience, not from books. Therefore, it is said in the Gita:

'Knowledge will be given to you by those who are knowledgeable and have seen the Truth.' (4.34)

Here knowledgeable means one having the knowledge of the scriptures. Seer of Truth (Tattva-Darshi) means one who has realized the 'Truth' as it actually is. It is only the teachings of such a teacher that can take one to the desired goal and not that of others.

Such a self-satisfied guru is always happy and content. In the Chandogya Upanishad such a person is addressed as 'Soumya'. Soumya means calm and soothing like the moon (Soma). Not only this, such a guru is so compassionate that he reveals all he knows to his deserving students without keeping anything secret. The knower of God, such a guru is but God himself. Therefore we need to have complete faith in him. In fact, the scriptures also emphasize that it is the duty of such a guru to impart knowledge to his deserving students:

'To the peaceful student who has won over his senses, the wise guru should disclose the essential knowledge which will reveal the Supreme God.' (Mundaka Upanishad 1.2.13)

The Great Shankaracharya says:

Adi Shankaracharya with Disciples
Adi Shankaracharya with Disciples






'A knowledgeable guru should definitely impart knowledge to the worthy pupil who has approached him in the correct manner.' (Commentary on the Prashna Upanishad 6.1)







How to Obtain and Serve a Guru:

The primary reason why we are unable to obtain a guru like this is our inability to understand that there is no other path to Moksha than the one delineated in the scriptures. The Shvetashvatara Upanishad says: 'There is no other path to liberation' (3.8). Only the one free from this delusion is a fit vehicle for obtaining a guru through the grace of God. Indeed, obtaining a guru is the clearest manifestation of God's grace in our life.

The scriptures inform us how we have to serve and venerate the guru. We should offer him the wood used in Vedic Sacrifices (samidha). This wood is a representative of karma. The one searching for Moksha recognizes that performing karma does not serve any purpose for him. He wants to receive the fire of knowledge from his guru, which will burn down all his karma, symbolized by the wood. This is why he carries to the guru this piece of wood. Lord Krishna says:

"Like fire consumes wood, so does the fire of knowledge burn down all karma." (Bhagavad Gita 4.37)

The Puranas and histories (Itihasa) are full of instructions informing us how we have to act towards the guru with fear, devotion and humility. Not only that, the Gita also tells us how to approach our guru for removing our doubts:

"You should gain knowledge by prostrating before your guru, asking sincere questions for clearing your doubts, and by serving him" (Bhagavad Gita 4.34).

The Manu Smriti elaborates on the method of prostrating before the guru:

Dandavat Pranam
Dandavat Pranam






The guru's feet should be touched with hands crossed, i.e., the right hand should touch the right leg and the left hand should touch the left (2.72).





Here prostration indicates complete surrender on part of the seeker. Such an act is known as Dandavat in Sanskrit. Like a stick which falls flat on the ground in the absence of a support, we too stand nowhere without the guru's support.

Our questions too reflect our humility. Even after this, for the successful culmination of the knowledge obtained from the guru, it is imperative that we serve him. In fact, prostration and questioning both may be feigned, however, the service we are able to offer to our guru is the sincerest reflection of the genuineness of our commitment.

Further, fundamental to obtaining knowledge from the guru is our faith, called in Sanskrit as 'Shraddha'. Shraddha means having complete faith in the Word - both of the scriptures and of the guru. The word Shraddha is made up of two constituents - 'Shrad' means truth, and 'Dha' means bearing. Thus, the necessary (and sufficient) condition for bearing the truth is Shraddha. The Gita too says:

'Shraddhawan labhate gyanam - Only the person of faith can gain knowledge.' (4.39)

A Warning:

Consider for a moment that a seeker accepts an undeserving guru by mistake. When he slowly comes to know that his guru, even though he is a knower of the scriptures, is neither preaching nor living according to them, then the student should leave that guru immediately without fear. The Mahabharata says clearly:

'The one who doesn't know what is right and what is wrong, and is leading an unrighteous life, that person is to be discarded, even though he may be a guru.' (Shanti Parva 5.77)


References and Further Reading:

  • Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Foundations of Dharma. Bangalore 2008.
  • Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Lectures on Vedanta at Ayodhya (40 MP3 Files).
  • Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Vedanta Prabodh: Varanasi, 2010.

This article is based almost entirely on the teachings of Param Pujya Swami Paramanand Bharati Ji. However, any error is entirely the author's own.

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  • Very good article. Here in the western hemisphere there are so many undeserving self-appointed "Swamis" and "Gurus", that, for a true seeker, it is almost impossible to identify a real Guru.
    Heinz May 23, 2015
  • soy de Aregentina, hablo español y me gustaria poder leer los textos en español ya que no sé Inglés
    alejandra February 26, 2011
  • Each month I am looking gladly and with excitement forward to the next article; thank You so much for that good mental and spiritual food; the Guru article is very clear and puts it in the right place of devotion , development and honesty , washing away all decadence and misunderstandings the Guru concept had to suffer; its really a sign of Gods grace to have the luck to meet ones Guru; With warm regards and thanks Namaste
    Siegfried Gutschmidt February 19, 2011
  • This new insight on GU/ darkness of ignorance and RU / one who destroys was enlightening for me.Thank you for expanding my knowlege bas. Now when I hear GURU tossed around, I have knowledge to share, too.
    janusmareeea February 16, 2011
  • I read this wonderful article that I received today via email. It deeply touched my heart and answered many of the questions I had about guru and seeker. I have recently become a member of Vedanta Society and have learned so much from our Swami here. I have felt so very grateful for the teachings. This article has helped me tremendously in the next steps. All the articles sent out by exotic india are so informative, worthwhile, and enlightening. Thank you so much.
    KK Hannegan February 16, 2011
  • Thank you very much it is very good article enjoyed very much.
    Chauls February 15, 2011