Each year, at the time of the full moon of the Indian calendar month Ashadha, yogis celebrate Gurupurnima. This day is set aside to honor the Guru. On the Western calendar, Gurupurnima usually happens in the month of July. It’s an especially important day for yogis because the Guru holds the highest place in our hearts.
What is a Guru?
The word guru is now quite familiar in the West. In fact, we use it quite casually: computer guru, fitness guru, financial guru. The word signifies someone highly expert in his or her field.
However, to yogis, a Guru is more than a mere expert. A Guru is a spiritual master. True Gurus have achieved the highest experience of Self-realization. They are capable of initiating others and guiding them along the path to enlightenment. The Sanskrit term for the true Guru is Sadguru. (from sat = “true, real” + guru = “teacher”)
Why Do We Need a Guru?
We can become experts in some subjects without a teacher. In today’s world, information is plentiful and free. One might ask, “Why do I need a Guru? I can learn all about yoga and enlightenment from books, the Internet, and local classes.” However, spiritual knowledge is a specialized field requiring out-of-the-ordinary instruction.
In a sense, turning to the spiritual path is like a rebirth. Imagine a newborn baby. Human babies are born completely helpless. No other species is as helpless, and for as long, as ours. With parental nurturing, babies grow and develop every day. Through the gentle guidance of their parents, they learn to eat. Shortly after that, they learn to walk and talk—again, with the help of their parents. Eventually, babies become children old enough for formal schooling. They become dependent upon teachers until they can learn how to obtain knowledge without others’ help. It’s a long road to that kind of independence.
When we first turn to the spiritual path, we’re like babies. We know nothing, and we don’t even know how to gain the right knowledge. Newcomers often jump from one teaching to another. In yoga, there are so many options: Hatha, Kundalini, Vedanta, Kashmir Shaivism, and others. Turning to today’s information sources, like the Internet and Amazon, we find more information than can possibly be digested in one lifetime. We don’t know where to begin, and we get very confused.
The spiritual journey is like climbing Mount Everest. Enlightenment is the highest attainment, the peak of our soul’s development. Only a fool would climb Everest without a guide. There are so many ways to fail—crevasses, avalanches, and low oxygen, to name a few. We need someone who knows the way, a qualified guide. The right guide knows the path, has made it to the summit, and can steer us around obstacles.
Ego: The Biggest Obstacle
The biggest obstacle on the spiritual path is our ego. The ego resides and is firmly rooted in the mind. The ego looks out for its own welfare and makes us believe that we’re important. It deludes us into thinking that we’re separate from each other. If we believe in our separateness from each other, then it follows that we are also separate from the Divine.
The ego has been strengthened and developed over a lifetime—or many lifetimes—and is extremely difficult to uproot. Think of the winds on Mount Everest. Those strong winds can easily push us around. They might be deceptively calm from time to time, but then they rush around a corner and flatten us with a blast.
Our guide on Mount Everest knows the route to the top, and he knows how to avoid obstacles and winds. In the same way, a Sadguru leads disciples around obstacles and gives them the foundation to endure the blasting winds of ego. We can’t do this on our own—it’s not possible to kill your own ego. A qualified Guru-guide is essential.
What Does a Guru Look Like?
A Sadguru is not an ordinary teacher. A seeker must sincerely ask: What is a Guru? A Sadguru can be very difficult to recognize. Their outer appearance might be purposely deceptive. There are no rules for how a they should look. A Sadguru might originate from any country and from any ethnic or racial background. They could be renunciants or householders. Sadgurus may or may not be formally educated, and none of them have a “Certificate of Gurudom.”
Remember, Self-realization is akin to climbing Mount Everest. For mountain climbing, you need a guide who has been to the summit and knows the way—a PhD in geology won’t do. Similarly, college degrees in spiritual subjects are a far cry from direct experience.
The following verses, taken from the quintessential text on the Guru, the Śrī Guru Gita, describe some of the characteristics of the Sadguru:
He’s known by six qualities:
Peace, dispassion, potent speech,
Courage, knowledge of the Self,
As well as Self-enlightenment. (172)
He is simple, child-like,
Speaks only when its requisite,
Desireless and free from doubts,
Alone, content within Himself. (174)
Calm and pure of heart is He.
His words are measured carefully.
Free from lust, from wrath and greed,
From sense-enslavement He is free. (271)
The Sadguru has no false thoughts.
He is peaceful and content.
He is independent, calm.
To Him, the same are God and straw. (289)
The Guru knows that He’s divine.
His body-corpse concerns Him not.
Ruthlessly He’s rid Himself
Of lust for pleasure, women, wealth. (294)
How Do I Find My Guru?
There’s a wise saying among spiritual seekers: When the disciple is ready, the Guru will appear.
My Guru’s experience was a perfect example of readiness. As a young child, he was drawn to the spiritual path. He studied spiritual teachings and naturally avoided bad company. As a young adult, he discovered yoga and learned of the importance of the Sadguru. He yearned for a Guru. However, Gurudev believed himself to be unfortunate because all the great Gurus of the time, like Ramakrishna and Yogananda had come and gone. Still, he continued to study and practice their teachings.
Finally, in 1970, Gurudev’s desire was rewarded. By happenstance, he was introduced to Swami Muktananda, a living Sadguru. Gurudev’s discipleship began right after that meeting. Because of his previous practices, and the guidance of his Sadguru, he achieved Self-realization in a very short time.
The point of this story is to show how critically important it is for spiritual aspirants to make themselves ready to be disciples. If the student is not ready when the Sadguru appears another opportunity may not present itself for a long time.
In the yoga tradition, the blessing of a living Guru is essential. Only a living Sadguru can ignite the spark of spiritual awakening. Prepare yourself to be a disciple by increasing your spiritual bank account. Pray to be united with your Sadguru; faith in your path and sincere desire will guide you to that meeting.
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.
We need the Guru more than any other relationship. He is the supreme Master, one’s divine Father and Mother. Without knowing he is no ordinary man where is the reverence and respect? He sets us on our spiritual journey with the compass of discrimination and sadhana and to test what is real and unreal. There are many tests on this path. But if we willingly do as the Guru says, He always knows what is best for us.
“God’s power of grace dwells in him in its fullest glory.”
Thank you for your wise comments, Sue. There is good reason for putting the Guru on a pedestal. No one else can help us in the special way that he does. Namaste.
The analogy of climbing Mt. Everest is a good one. Having a Guru has been and is essential to me. Thank you Svami for yet another uplifting writing. I also appreciate the responses from others and additional input.
I’ve always felt sorry for those who question the need for a Guru. The word may hold some mystery, yet it has such a lovely impact when you’re blessed with his company.
“Gu” denotes great darkness, gloom
“Ru” means that one who removes
He is God without a doubt
Whose light of knowledge quells the dark.
Thank you, Tony. Yes, I know that the principle of Guru is not understood in Western culture. We’re an independent lot, and we don’t want to give up anything we hold dear. Unfortunately, some of things we hold on to (most of them mental) are the very things that cause us grief and pain. It takes someone much stronger and wiser to help us along this path. Your contribution of the Guru Gita verse containing “Gu” and “Ru” is perfect. Namaste.
I love this blog. It made me think that if we are stuck with the mind and ego for the duration, why not fill the mind with good things as much as possible? Also maintain a diligent witness consciousness on the mind as if watching a child on a playground. I need to also help my Guru dispose of my ego. I love these blogs!
Thank you, Mary. I’m glad you’re enjoying Quiet Karma. I like your analogy of watching the mind diligently, like you would a child on a playground. We let our children play, but take care that they’re not hurt — by themselves or others. The same goes for the mind. Good one! Namaste.
Thank you for ‘coming to terms’ with the word Guru for a novice yogi.
You’re most welcome, SG. Yoga is an area where so many people think they know what something means. But “terms” are so much more than “words.” Understanding yoga’s terms are critical to understanding yoga. It takes time and effort to learn those terms. Quiet Karma will try to help, in its own little way. Namaste.
What you’re saying is correct, sincere faith is needed to find one’s Guru, and complete faith is required after finding one’s Guru. Practicing faith is enjoyable, the spiritual path need not be a drag, and I love Quiet Karma. It is so helpful to all spiritual seekers anywhere they are on the path.
Thank you for your comments about faith, Mary, especially noting that the practice is enjoyable. So many people misunderstand the spiritual path, thinking that it’s arduous and severe. I find it so liberating and pleasurable, and it sounds like you do also. … Thank you for your kind words about Quiet Karma. Feedback is always very helpful and much appreciated. Namaste.
This is a wonderful and helpful blog. I have often used the term “guru” in a most casual manner. Your thoughtful, clear, and compassionate words help to guide me in the correct direction.
I so enjoy the writings!
Thank you for joining the Quiet Karma conversation, Karyn. The principle of the Guru is indeed very important in yoga, and I plan to address the subject regularly. I’m also very happy to hear that the site’s content is helpful. … Honoring the Light in you and all other beings. Namaste.
Thank you for writing about the most precious subject … the Guru. Teachers, guides, mentors are the greatest blessings in any area of life. They show us the way and they help us along the journey. I have mentors in all areas of my life, but the Guru is unique. The others help very much, but they do not change my consciousness. Only the Guru has done that.
In the West, the title Guru has developed a dubious reputation. Why? Because false gurus take advantage of the title and we Americans must have our “liberty”. I mean, we can’t let someone else council us on how we should lead or conduct our life (sarcasm). It’s not in our political dna.
If we’re lucky enough to meet a true spiritual master who is able and willing to teach, we should embrace his teachings and follow them.
Thank you, Modesto. I completely agree: If we are fortunate enough to meet a Sadguru, we must take full advantage of it. Your other comments remind me of the introduction to my favorite book on Milarepa, the Tibetan Buddist master. That introduction discusses the difficulty of the Western mind to understand the role and significance of meeting an enlightened master — much less how to behave around one. I’ll make a point of adding that information in a future post. Namaste.
Dear Svami Chityānanda, Our Svami Gurupremānanda has always said to even want to be realize or just to want to improve yourself having an ego is essential. The big trick is not to think you are so grand because of it or not to hold on to your notions and opinions. Thinking and holding onto your notions and opinions can only cause you mental anguish or this sense of self importance. This is why one needs a Guru to help diminish your ego and guide to your higher Self. Thank you for this article it’s nice to read about the meaning of the Guru and Gurupurnima.
Thank you for your wise comment, Nakisa. It reminds me of the Upanishads’ mention of walking the “razor’s edge” of the spiritual path. The Guru is our greatest friend, helping us avoid the pitfalls of wrong thinking. Namaste.
There are many people who know about yoga and scriptures, but who lack the power that seems to emanate from a true Guru, a master who is Self-realized and who wants nothing from his disciple except the extinction of ignorance and recognition of the Self. Thank you for emphasis the unique importance of such a being.
Thank you, Tim. That’s such an important point, that I’m going to repeat it: The Guru wants nothing more for disciples than the extinction of ignorance and recognition of the Self. (Both parties are then successful when this happens.) Namaste.
The Guru Gita also tells us that there are many types of Gurus. Good ones teach,“Everything is fleeting in This sorry world of grief and pain.” Better ones give, “Much Instruction into ‘That thou art.’ For their students, they remove The fascination of the world.”
The GG also says the SadGuru is the best Teacher of all because “He removes the fear of death. He annihilates all doubt. Peace and joy He brings about.” The part about doubt seems crucial.
So many of us have fleeting experiences of God, miracles, bliss…but cannot hold onto them. Doubt resumes and the bliss becomes an outlier and finally fades away. The ‘sorry world of grief and pain’ resumes center stage in the mind.
Thank You for writing about the Sadguru this week, the week of Gurupurnima.
Thank you for your comment, Rob. Doubt is a serious and insidious obstacle on the spiritual path. We get rid of it through spiritual practices, like meditation and chanting. Chanting and studying the Guru Gita is especially helpful to “annihilate all doubt.” I’ll be publishing more verses of the Guru Gita soon. Namaste.
The verses you shared from Sri Guru Gita are absolutely exquisite! Thank you.
About being an expert in some subject without a teacher …. I almost want to say that one can NOT be an expert in anything without an expert teacher. Experience cannot be obtained from the internet.
Thank you, Richard. I’m so happy to hear that you enjoyed my selected verses of the Guru Gita. There are more on the Way! Someone might disagree with you about whether or not it’s possible to become an expert in some subjects via the Internet alone. (Although I don’t consider myself an expert or even highly skilled, most of my writing instruction has been online.) — But in matters of spirituality, an aspirant really needs a Sadguru-guide, a living Guru. The Internet, or even a great Guru who has left his body, can’t get rid of the elusive ego. Namaste.
“Only a fool would climb Everest without a guide. …The right guide knows the path, has made it to the summit, and can steer us around obstacles.”
That must be why it’s so important to fully carry out what the Guru says to do, as soon as he says to do it. Especially since we can’t see wind storms about to blast us from around the corner.
Thank you, Roxie. I like the wind-blasting analogy, because we can’t see those winds about to flatten us — but the Guru can and does. He tries to warn us, but it’s up to us to pay heed — immediately, as you say. Namaste.
Ego, indeed, seems to be the biggest hurdle to realization. Some people hang on to it like a prized possession, I guess believing that their ego defines them. Can one reach enlightenment with an ego, even if it’s small? And if so, why?
Thank you for your question, James. I’m sure others also wonder about this. According to my Guru, only one kind of ego is beneficial — the one that supports you on the spiritual path. That is, an ego that helps you make the right decisions to reach enlightenment. Here’s an example: Gurudev often tells this story from his youth. His friends were smoking cigarettes and offered him some. Gurudev turned them down because he knew that smoking was unhealthy. He wanted to take care of his health, rather than succumb to peer pressure and please his friends by smoking. It was a better ego — one that protected him from making poor decisions. His friends might have teased him about not wanting to smoke, but he didn’t have an ego concerned with pleasing anyone but his good sense (and eventually his own Guru.)
In the end, all forms of ego must be renounced. But we don’t have to worry about the “good” ego and how to renounce it. When the time comes, we’ll be ready to let that go as well. Namaste.