By Wes Annac, Culture of Awareness
A ‘guru’ is a spiritual teacher who’s life mission is to show the way to enlightenment. The guru is generally seen as an enlightened figure, but some teachers are imperfect and honest about their imperfection.
They teach that being comfortable with imperfection is an important step to enlightenment, and I’m sure every teacher learns as they teach, no matter how enlightened they may be.
Full-on enlightenment isn’t always required to show the way, and personally, I’d rather study under someone who’s aware of their flaws and willing to discuss them than someone who claims to be perfect.
Here, we’ll hear from various popular spiritual figures on the subject of the guru. We’ll learn what a guru is and why these teachers are important, and I’ll share my thoughts on what we read along the way.
I’d recommend a healthy level of discernment and independent thinking with the material we’ll explore. Rather than taking it at face value, feel free to form your own opinion.
The reverence some gurus enjoy probably doesn’t vibe well with some spiritual seekers, and however cliche this might sound, the true teacher lives within.
The guru’s purpose is to show the way, and not one of them, however enlightened, can get us there by themselves; they can only guide us on a unique, personal journey.
According to Sri Ramakrishna, the guru is a matchmaker between man and the Most High.
“Do you know what the guru is? He is like a matchmaker. A matchmaker arranges for the union of the bride with the bridegroom. Likewise, a guru prepares for the meeting of the individual soul with his Beloved, the Divine Spirit.” (1)
The guru, Paramahansa Yogananda tells us, is appointed by God to help devotees find enlightenment.
“The Guru (or Preceptor) is the living embodiment of scriptural truths and is the agent of salvation appointed by God in response to a devotee’s demands for release from all bondage of matter.” (2)
To ‘attain our highest goal’, he tells us, it helps to have a teacher whom we can follow closely with ‘intelligent devotion’.
“Hence, the first requisite in your spiritual path lies not entirely in going to church services and being a passive member, satisfied merely with listening to sermons, but also in finding your spiritual Guru who will lead you as far along the spiritual path as you wish to go.
“Having found him, follow him closely, obey him with intelligent devotion, and practice what he teaches you: thus ultimately you will attain your highest goal.” (3)
My interpretation of intelligent devotion is to be discerning with the guidance we receive.
Not everyone who studies under a guru foolishly places all of their trust in this figure before knowing whether or not they should, and some people scrupulously evaluate a teacher before they study under them.
In my eyes, to follow a guru with ‘intelligent devotion’ is to be devoted if we feel we should yet willing to intelligently question what we’re told; not for the sake of rebellion, but to learn as much as we can on this path full of infinite possibilities.
If a guru takes offense at being questioned instead of seeing it as an opportunity to help their student grow, they might not be as credible as they want people to think.
I’m sure any genuine teacher would welcome the opportunity to help their student learn more, just like the student would welcome the chance to broaden their understanding.
It’s easier to follow a living man or woman than a scripture, Paramahansa Yogananda tells us, which is why gurus are often preferred over spiritual writings.
“It is more easy to follow a living, breathing, talking man (who lives truth) than a mute scripture.
“If a saint has reached his goal, whether by the shorter Yoga route, or by the longwinded spiritual-prayer way, he experiences actual self-realization. Anyone following him certainly would reach the goal by using either method.” (4)
He also shares something heartwarming his master once told him.
“My Master once said to me: ‘I will be your friend from now until Eternity, no matter whether you are on the lowest mental plane or on the highest plane of wisdom. I will be your friend if ever you should err, for then you will need my friendship more than at any other time.'” (5)
There’s usually a deep bond between student and teacher, and when it comes to a teacher being upset if a student decides to leave them, it’s understandable even though it’s the student’s decision and should be honored.
I’ve heard stories of gurus angrily condemning students who leave, and while it might seem untoward of a genuine teacher, personal feelings could get involved when a teacher and student share a strong bond.
You’d think part of the teacher’s job would be not to get too emotionally involved, but it might be necessary to be closer than usual with one’s students so they can learn properly.
Some teachers have taken this too far by having affairs with their students and sullying the good name of genuine gurus, but closeness seems necessary in the student-teacher relationship.
Citing the Guru Gita, Swami Chetanananda explains the term ‘guru’.
“The Guru Gita explains the word guru: gu means ‘darkness or ignorance’; ru means ‘destroyer.’ He or she who destroys or removes the ignorance of the disciple is a guru.” (6)
Like I mentioned earlier, the Most High is the true guru and we can only connect with this source of divine guidance within. Our next few quotes will explore this idea further.
Shankara tells us that we find the guru in the Atman.
“In you [the Atman] … We find the guru.” (7)
What exactly is the Atman? Encylopedia Brittanica tells us that it’s the Universal Self, basically equal with Brahman (Brahman is better known as God or the ‘highest universal principle’ according to Wikipedia).
“Atman, ( Sanskrit: ‘self,’ ‘breath’) one of the most basic concepts in Hinduism, the universal self, identical with the eternal core of the personality that after death either transmigrates to a new life or attains release (moksha) from the bonds of existence.
“Atman is that which makes the other organs and faculties function and for which indeed they function; it also underlies all the activities of a person, as brahman (the Absolute) underlies the workings of the universe.
“Atman is part of the universal brahman, with which it can commune or even fuse. So fundamental was the atman deemed to be that certain circles identified it with brahman.” (8)
We find the Atman, and subsequently Brahman, by looking within.
The guru exists as an option for those who want help reaching enlightenment, and even though some people feel that the guru is an exalted instrument of God, we don’t have to study under one to find enlightenment.
We can find it in our own way and our own time, and while it might take longer, it’ll be just as worthwhile for those who prefer to enlighten themselves without extra assistance. I enjoy the little bits of help I receive from spiritual writings, but it pales in comparison to a good meditation.
Ramakrishna tells us that the guru “is all in all. There is no one higher than the Guru.” (9)
While the Most High sometimes uses a teacher to get through to us in the external world, we’re also guided from within.
“God is the Inner Guide. He sees the longing of our heart and the yearning of our soul.” (10)
Our hearts are seen and our struggle is known, and if we can open the mind and look within, we’ll have all the love and guidance we need.
Our creator knows that we hunger for the higher vibration we once enjoyed. This is why so many continuous attempts are made, whether through a guru or not, to get our attention and remind us that we’re universal beings playing the temporary role of limited humans.
Once we see the signs and start to wake up, we kick start the process of spiritual evolution.
Whether a teacher gets us there faster or not, we’ll eventually return to the heavenly realms from which we came. This is why some people are more focused on helping the world than seeking enlightenment; they’re interested in spirituality but aware that they’ll inevitably return to a higher state of consciousness.
For now, they might as well put all of their energy into helping the world.
There’s nothing wrong with focusing more on the problems that plague this world in the here and now than ascending or attaining enlightenment, because the latter two will come at some point no matter what we do.
Even if we fall far off of the path and lose ourselves in darkness (which obviously isn’t recommended), we will return to the light one day. Since our fate is secure no matter what, the best use of our energy in the meantime is to create a better world for future generations.
Ramakrishna tells us that God manifests Himself as the guru to help those who are lost.
“Before you came here, you didn’t know who you were. Now you will know. It is God who, as the guru, makes one know.” (11)
With everything the Most High has done for us, it makes sense that He would also show the way back home. Ramakrishna explains.
“He who is the Lord of the Universe will teach everyone. He alone teaches us, who has created this universe; who has made the sun and the moon, men and beasts, and all other beings; who has provided means for their sustenance; who has given children parents and endowed them with love to bring them up.
“The Lord has done so many things – will He not show people the way to worship Him? If they need teaching, then He will be the Teacher. He is our Inner Guide.” (12)
Contradicting what I wrote before about a guru being comfortable with his or her imperfection, Ramakrishna tells us that the guru can only show the way if he’s understood as a flawless embodiment of God.
“It is Satchidananda that comes to us in the form of the guru. If a man is initiated by a human guru, he will not achieve anything if he regards his guru as a mere man.
“The guru should be regarded as the direct manifestation of God. Only then can the disciple have faith in the mantra given by the guru. Once a man has faith he achieves all.” (13)
This is another area in which we’ll want to think for ourselves. While faith is important, I don’t think we should put all of our faith in any spiritual figure, however enlightened they seem, because we all have a shadow side.
Some teachers have worked through their shadow side and are as enlightened as one can be on this planet, but I think we should be cautious in claiming that someone is divine or one with God.
We all have a spark of creator light in us, and we can all find enlightenment should we choose to focus on it. If we decide to study under a teacher, we can do so consciously rather than going purely on faith or assuming they’re God incarnate simply because we’re supposed to.
It probably helps to have faith in one’s teacher, but I think we should reserve most of our faith for ourselves and what we can achieve with the evolution of our soul.
If a man or woman successfully awakens our consciousness, Ramakrishna tells us, we can then be sure they are God in human form. Once we attain enlightenment, we no longer distinguish between teacher and student.
“Satchidananda alone is the Guru. If a man in the form of a guru awakens spiritual consciousness in you, then know for certain that it is God the Absolute who has assumed that human form for your sake.
“The guru is like a companion who leads you by the hand. After the realization of God, one loses the distinction between the guru and the disciple. … The relationship between them remains as long as the disciple does not see God.” (14)
Various distinctions will continue to exist as long as we feel separate from a higher consciousness. When we evolve into the understanding that everything is one, however, we see the value of a living teacher while realizing that the Most High, accessible within, has been our teacher all along.
The guru provided a bridge between the inner and outer world and helped us unlock states of consciousness that would’ve been difficult to attain without them, but they led us to something we can access at any time if we’re willing to do the necessary inner work.
It’d be more difficult and require more work since we’d be on our own, but it’s entirely possible to access these things without a teacher if we know our true power. The guru s intended to make us aware of our power, and if we don’t look within often, we could have the best teacher but make little progress because we aren’t relying on ourselves.
Once we shift our reliance from the external world to the internal, our inner wellspring of consciousness and awareness comes pouring to the surface. We can not only find enlightenment as a result, but create art that inspires and uplifts this lost world.
Some spiritual seekers find it necessary to have a teacher, while others prefer to walk the path without any guidance or direction.
What really matters is our dedication to our life purpose, our spiritual path and the higher consciousness within our reach. Guru or not, we can all evolve if we passionately engage our evolution and try to help the world in the process.
(1) Swami Chetananda, They Lived with God. Life Stories of Some Devotees of Sri Ramakrishna. St. Louis: Vedanta Society of St. Louis, 1989, 270.
(2) Paramahansa Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ. Three vols. Dallas: Amrita Foundation, 1979-86, 1, 8.
(3) Ibid., 11.
(4) Ibid., 9.
(5) Ibid., 6.
(6) Swami Chetanananda, God Lived with Them. St. Louis: Vedanta Society of St. Louis, 1997, 114.
(7) Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher lsherwood, Shankara’s Crest-Jewel of Discrimination. Hollywood: Vedanta Press, 1975; c1947, i.
(8) Encyclopedia Brittanica: “Atman” – http://www.britannica.com/topic/atman
(9) Swami Vivishananda, The Saga of a Great Soul. Glimpses into the Life and Work of Mahapurush Maharaj Swami Shivananda, a Great Disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1986, 20.
(10) Swami Nikhilananda, trans., The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1978; c1942, 112.
(11) Ibid., 359.
(12) Ibid., 80.
(13) Ibid., 292.
(14) Ibid., 217.