Guru (, UK also ; Sanskrit: गुरु, IAST: guru) is a Sanskrit term for a "teacher, guide, expert, or master" of certain knowledge or field. In pan-Indian traditions, a guru is more than a teacher. In Sanskrit, guru means the one who dispels the darkness and takes the student towards the light, traditionally a reverential figure to the student, with the guru serving as a "counselor, who helps mold values, shares experiential knowledge as much as literal knowledge, an exemplar in life, an inspirational source and who helps in the spiritual evolution of a student". Whatever language it is written in, Judith Simmer-Brown explains that a tantric spiritual text is often codified in an obscure twilight language so that it cannot be understood by anyone without the verbal explanation of a qualified teacher, the guru. A guru is also one's spiritual guide, who helps one to discover the same potentialities that the guru has already realized. In the Tagalog language, Indonesian and Malay the word simply means teacher.
The oldest references to the concept of guru are found in the earliest Vedic texts of Hinduism. The guru, and gurukul – a school run by guru, were an established tradition in India by the 1st millennium BCE, and these helped compose and transmit the various Vedas, the Upanishads, texts of various schools of Hindu philosophy, and post-Vedic Shastras ranging from spiritual knowledge to various arts. By about mid 1st millennium CE, archaeological and epigraphical evidence suggest numerous larger institutions of gurus existed in India, some near Hindu temples, where guru-shishya tradition helped preserve, create and transmit various fields of knowledge. These gurus led broad ranges of studies including Hindu scriptures, Buddhist texts, grammar, philosophy, martial arts, music and painting.
The tradition of the guru is also found in Jainism, referring to a spiritual preceptor, a role typically served by a Jain ascetic. In Sikhism, the guru tradition has played a key role since its founding in the 15th century, its founder is referred to as Guru Nanak, and its scripture as Guru Granth Sahib. The guru concept has thrived in Vajrayāna Buddhism, where the tantric guru is considered a figure to worship and whose instructions should never be violated.
In the Western world, the term is sometimes used in a derogatory way to refer to individuals who have allegedly exploited their followers' naiveté, particularly in certain cults or groups in the fields of hippie, new religious movements, self-help and tantra.
The word guru (Sanskrit: गुरु), a noun, connotes "teacher" in Sanskrit, but in ancient Indian traditions it has contextual meanings with significance beyond what teacher means in English. The guru is more than someone who teaches specific type of knowledge, and includes in its scope someone who is also a "counselor, a sort of parent of mind and soul, who helps mold values and experiential knowledge as much as specific knowledge, an exemplar in life, an inspirational source and who reveals the meaning of life." The word has the same meaning in other languages derived from or borrowing words from Sanskrit, such as Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Odia, Bengali, Gujarati and Nepali. The Malayalam term Acharyan or Asan is derived from the Sanskrit word Acharya.
As a noun the word means the imparter of knowledge (jñāna; also Pali: ñāna). As an adjective, it means 'heavy,' or 'weighty,' in the sense of "heavy with knowledge,"[Note 1] heavy with spiritual wisdom, "heavy with spiritual weight," "heavy with the good qualities of scriptures and realization," or "heavy with a wealth of knowledge." The word has its roots in the Sanskrit gri (to invoke, or to praise), and may have a connection to the word gur, meaning 'to raise, lift up, or to make an effort'.
Sanskrit guru is cognate with Latin gravis 'heavy; grave, weighty, serious' and Greek βαρύς barus 'heavy'. All three derive from the Proto-Indo-European root *gʷerə-, specifically from the zero-grade form *gʷr̥ə-.
Female equivalent of gurus are called gurvis. The wife of the guru is the guru patni or guru ma. The guru's son is guru putra, while the guru's daughter is the guru putri.
गुशब्दस्त्वन्धकारः स्यात् रुशब्दस्तन्निरोधकः।
अन्धकारनिरोधित्वात् गुरुरित्यभिधीयते॥ १६॥
The syllable gu means darkness, the syllable ru, he who dispels them,
Because of the power to dispel darkness, the guru is thus named.
A popular etymological theory considers the term "guru" to be based on the syllables gu (गु) and ru (रु), which it claims stands for darkness and "light that dispels it", respectively.[Note 2] The guru is seen as the one who "dispels the darkness of ignorance."[Note 3][Note 4]
Joel Mlecko states, "Gu means ignorance, and Ru means dispeller," with guru meaning the one who "dispels ignorance, all kinds of ignorance", ranging from spiritual to skills such as dancing, music, sports and others. Karen Pechelis states that, in the popular parlance, the "dispeller of darkness, one who points the way" definition for guru is common in the Indian tradition.
In Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion, Pierre Riffard makes a distinction between "occult" and "scientific" etymologies, citing as an example of the former the etymology of 'guru' in which the derivation is presented as gu ("darkness") and ru ('to push away'); the latter he exemplifies by "guru" with the meaning of 'heavy'.
Guru is the spiritual preceptor in Jainism, and typically a role served by Jain ascetics. The guru is one of three fundamental tattva (categories), the other two being dharma (teachings) and deva (divinity). The guru-tattva is what leads a lay person to the other two tattva. In some communities of the Śvētāmbara sect of Jainism, a traditional system of guru-disciple lineage exists.
The guru is revered in Jainism ritually with Guru-vandan or Guru-upashti, where respect and offerings are made to the guru, and the guru sprinkles a small amount of vaskep (a scented powder mixture of sandalwood, saffron, and camphor) on the devotee's head with a mantra or blessings.
The Guru is an ancient and central figure in the traditions of Hinduism. The ultimate liberation, contentment, freedom in the form of moksha and inner perfection is considered achievable in the Hindu belief by two means: with the help of guru, and with evolution through the process of karma including rebirth in some schools of Hindu philosophy. At an individual level in Hinduism, the Guru is many things, including being a teacher of skills, a counselor, one who helps in the birth of mind and realization of one's soul, who instils values and experiential knowledge, an exemplar, an inspiration and who helps guide a student's (śiṣya) spiritual development. At a social and religious level, the Guru helps continue the religion and Hindu way of life. Guru thus has a historic, reverential and an important role in the Hindu culture.
In Vajrayana Buddhism's Tantric teachings, the rituals require the guidance of a guru. The guru is considered essential and to the Buddhist devotee, the guru is the "enlightened teacher and ritual master", states Stephen Berkwitz. The guru is known as the vajra guru (literally "diamond guru"). Initiations or ritual empowerments are necessary before the student is permitted to practice a particular tantra, in Vajrayana Buddhist sects found in Tibet and South Asia. The tantras state that the guru is equivalent to Buddha, states Berkwitz, and is a figure to worship and whose instructions should never be violated.
The guru is the Buddha, the guru is the Dhamma, and the guru is the Sangha. The guru is the glorious Vajradhara, in this life only the guru is the means [to awakening]. Therefore, someone wishing to attain the state of Buddhahood should please the guru.
In various Buddhist traditions, there are equivalent words for guru, which include Shastri (teacher), Kalyana Mitra (friendly guide, Pali: Kalyāṇa-mittatā), Acarya (master), and Vajra-Acarya (hierophant). The guru is literally understood as "weighty", states Alex Wayman, and it refers to the Buddhist tendency to increase the weight of canons and scriptures with their spiritual studies. In Mahayana Buddhism, a term for Buddha is Bhaisajya guru, which refers to "medicine guru", or "a doctor who cures suffering with the medicine of his teachings".
The Sikh gurus were fundamental to the Sikh religion, however the concept in Sikhism differs from other usages. Sikhism is derived from the Sanskrit word shishya, or disciple and is all about the relationship between the teacher and a student. The concept of Guru in Sikhism stands on two pillars i.e. Miri-Piri. 'Piri' means spiritual authority and 'Miri' means temporal authority. Traditionally, the concept of Guru is considered central in Sikhism, and its main scripture is prefixed as a Guru, called Guru Granth Sahib, the words therein called Gurbani.
As an alternative to established religions, some people in Europe and the USA looked to spiritual guides and gurus from India and other countries. Gurus from many denominations traveled to Western Europe and the US and established followings.
In particular during the 1960s and 1970s many gurus acquired groups of young followers in Western Europe and the USA. According to the American sociologist David G. Bromley this was partially due to the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1965 which permitted Asian gurus entrance to the USA. According to the Dutch Indologist Albertina Nugteren, the repeal was only one of several factors and a minor one compared with the two most important causes for the surge of all things 'Eastern': the post-war cross-cultural mobility and the general dissatisfaction with established Western values.
According to the professor in sociology Stephen A. Kent at the University of Alberta and Kranenborg (1974), one of the reasons why in the 1970s young people including hippies turned to gurus was because they found that drugs had opened for them 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 some anti-Vietnam War protesters and political activists became worn out or disillusioned of the possibilities to change society through political means, and as an alternative turned to religious means. One example of such group was the Hare Krishna movement (ISKCON) founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1966, many of whose followers voluntarily accepted the demanding lifestyle of bhakti yoga on a full-time basis, in stark contrast to much of the popular culture of the time.[Note 6]