The Significance of the Guru

All About the Hindu Spiritual Teacher

Framed portraits of spiritual leaders in the Sarcelles ISKCON temple.
Philippe Lissac /GODONG / Getty Images
"Guru is Shiva sans his three eyes,
Vishnu sans his four arms
Brahma sans his four heads.
He is parama Shiva himself in human form"
~ Brahmanda Puran

Guru is the God, say the scriptures. Indeed, the guru in the Vedic tradition is looked upon as one no less than a God. "Guru" is an honorific designation for a preceptor, or teacher, as defined and explained variously in the scriptures and ancient literary works, including the epics; and the Sanskrit term has been adopted by English, as well.  The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines a guru as "Hindu spiritual teacher or head of religious sect; influential teacher; revered mentor." The term is well known around the world, used to refer to a teacher of particular skill and talent.

More Real Than Gods

Scriptural definitions aside, gurus are quite real—more so than the gods of mythology. Basically, the guru is a spiritual teacher leading the disciple on the path of "god-realization." In essence, the guru is considered a respected person with saintly qualities who enlightens the mind of his disciple, an educator from whom one receives the initiatory mantra, and one who instructs us in rituals and religious ceremonies.

The Vishnu Smriti and Manu Smriti regards the Acharya (teacher), along with the mother and the father, as the most venerable gurus of an individual. According to Deval Smriti, there can be eleven kinds of gurus, and according to Nama Chintamani, ten. Depending on his functions, the guru is categorized as rishi, acharyam, upadhya, kulapati or mantravetta.

The Guru's Role

The Upanishads have profoundly underlined the role of the guru. Mundak Upanishad says that to realize the supreme godhead holding samidha grass in his hands, one should surrender himself before the guru who knows the secrets of Vedas.

Kathopanishad, too, speaks of the guru as the preceptor who alone can guide the disciple on the spiritual path. Over time, the guru's syllabus gradually enlarged, incorporating more secular and temporal subjects related to human endeavor and intellect. Apart from usual spiritual works, his sphere of instruction soon included subjects like Dhanurvidya (archery), Arthashastra (economics) and even Natyashastra (dramatics) and Kamashastra (sexology).

Such was the ingenuity of the all-pervading intellect of the ancient Acharyas that they included even shastra, like thievery. Shudraka's celebrated play Mricchakatikam tells the story of Acharya Kanakashakti, who formulated the Chaurya Shastra, or the science of thievery, which was further developed by gurus such as Brahmanyadeva, Devavrata, and Bhaskarnandin.

From Hermitages to Universities

Gradually, the institution of Gurukula, or in-forest-hermitage became a system in which where disciples learned at the feet of guru for long years. The great urban universities at Takshashila, Vikramashila, and Nalanda essentially evolved from these tiny gurukulas tucked away in deep woods. If we have to believe the records of Chinese travelers who visited Nalanda at that time, around 2700 years ago, there were more than 1,500 teachers teaching various subjects to more than 10,000 students and monks. These great universities were as prestigious in their time as Oxford or MIT universities are today.

Legends of Gurus and Disciples

Ancient scriptures and literary works make many references to gurus as well as their disciples.

The most popular legend, found in the Mahabharate, is the story of Ekalavya, who, after being rejected by the teacher, Dronacharya, went into the forest and made a statue of his teacher. Treating the statue as his guru, with great devotion Ekalavya he taught himself the art of archery, soon exceeding the skills of even the guru himself.

In the Chandogya Upanishad, we meet an aspiring disciple, Satyakama, who refuses to tell lies about his caste in order to get an admission in the gurukula of Acharya Haridrumat Gautam.

And in the Mahabharata, we come across Karna, who did not bat an eyelid while telling Parashurama that he belonged to the Bhrigu Brahmin caste, just in order to obtain the Brahmastra, the supreme weapon.

Lasting Contribution

Over generations, the institution of the Indian guru has evolved as a means of passing along the various basic tenets of Indian culture and transmitting spiritual and fundamental knowledge—not only in India but to the world at large. Gurus formed the axis of the ancient educational system and ancient society, and have enriched various fields of learning and culture by their creative thinking. The guru tradition has had lasting significance in the betterment of mankind.

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Your Citation
Das, Subhamoy. "The Significance of the Guru." Learn Religions, Feb. 8, 2021, Das, Subhamoy. (2021, February 8). The Significance of the Guru. Retrieved from Das, Subhamoy. "The Significance of the Guru." Learn Religions. (accessed June 2, 2023).