The Role of the Guru in Sanatana Dharma
Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya
International Sanatana Dharma Society
upadeksyanti te jnanam
(Bhagavad Gita, )
The concept of practicing spiritual life under the guidance of an authentic and qualified guru, or spiritual teacher, has been central to the entire Dharmic world-view from the beginning of time, down to our present day. So important has the role of the guru always been in Vedic culture, that there is no Hindu tradition or sampradaya (school of thought) in all of Sanatana Dharma that does not offer the greatest of respect to the importance of the guru.
upahara-panbm sotriyam brahma-nistham gurum upasrtya tam anusarati
“Just as a person whose head is on fire runs to water, one who burns from the flames of birth, death, old age, and disease in the holocaust of material existence must run to a genuine guru for relief. Such a guru must be fixed in the Absolute Truth and well-versed in the scriptures. One should approach him with all that is needed for sacrifice and submit to him as a disciple, ready to carry out his every instruction.”
In our present era, the term “guru” has become very well known even throughout the non-Hindu world, in addition to being known within Sanatana Dharma. Indeed, the very word “guru” has today become a part of the standard English lexicon with such terms as “computer guru”, “health guru”, “economics guru”, etc. being employed in daily usage. While the use of the word has become widespread, however, the sacrosanct importance of the station of guru is not as deeply understood in contemporary society as it once was. In the following work, I will be briefly explaining the traditional Dharmic understanding of the importance of the guru in the life of the spiritual practitioner, as well as dispelling some of the more common myths often wrongly associated with the principle of guru.
Interestingly, the very word “guru” itself is actually a somewhat generalized term that simply means a competent teacher of any kind. Any skilled expert who is authorized to teach a specific subject can be considered a guru in the most general of senses. Thus, there can be a sitar guru, a martial arts guru, a medicinal arts guru, or a fine arts guru. When the word is used in the overtly spiritual sense, however, then we are talking about a guru of a categorically different nature. The spiritual guru is specifically designated as a “sadguru” or a teacher of Truth. It is the sadguru, the conveyer of Truth, who serves as the underlying model of any and all other types of gurus.
It has always been universally recognized that one can only learn a specialized field of important knowledge from a qualified and well-trained teacher, an expert on that particular subject who has both theoretical knowledge, as well as the acquired experience necessary to bring that knowledge to life. If one were to study to become a medical doctor, for example, it is understood that the only way to truly understand medicine is to go to a recognized school, and learn under the instruction of very experienced professors who themselves are recognized doctors trained and authorized to teach. If we attempt to learn to become a doctor by merely reading books on our own without the benefit of such expert guidance, we will be doing both ourselves and our later patients the greatest of disservices. Rather than curing our patients, in fact, we will most likely harm them due to our not having learned medicine from a living authority.
Similarly, it has been universally recognized in our Hindu tradition since the most ancient of times that if one wishes to understand and make progress in the realm of spirituality, one must also seek guidance under the most able spiritual professionals available. Such a spiritual professional is the guru.
According to the Bhagavata Purana:
jijnasum sreyam uttamam
sabde pare ca nisnatam
“One who is searching for the Ultimate Truth must surrender unto a spiritual master, a guru. A guru knows the inner meaning of the Vedas, is fixed in the Absolute Truth and is expert in the shastra, the revealed scriptures.”
(Bhagavata Purana, 11.3.21)
Of all types of gurus, the scriptures (Shastras) of Sanatana Dharma have recognized the Acharya as the most important form that the principle of guru can take. Acharyavan puruso veda, “Only one who has an Acharya can know the Truth.” (Chandogya Upanisad, 6.18.2) It is only under the guidance of an Acharya who knows the Truth that a seeker can in turn know Truth.
The sadguru is a spiritual teacher. The Acharya, moreover, is considered to be a sadguru who has attained a much higher stage of personal spiritual development, and who thus has more responsibility in the realm of Dharmic leadership. An Acharya is a spiritual preceptor who represents a living lineage (sampradaya) of Sanatana Dharma, and who embodies the teachings of Dharma in his own life, thus teaching the world by his own personal living example. While every Acharya fulfills the function of a guru, not every guru can be considered an Acharya.
More than merely being a teacher in the formal academic sense, however, the Acharya guru is recognized as also being someone who possesses divine qualities due to his own years of practice and inner realization, and who thus perfectly personifies the fruit of spiritual teachings in his own life.
acare sthapayaty api
svayam acarate yasma
acharyas tena kirtitam
“An Acharya is one who fully understands the conclusions of the revealed scriptures. His own behavior reflects his deep realization, and thus he is a living example of divine precept. He is therefore known as an Acharya, or one who teaches the meaning of the scriptures both by word and deed.”
The qualified and authentic guru is not merely someone who teaches the Truth verbally, but who also lives that Truth perfectly, and who then reflects that Truth to his students in a living and dynamic way.
In the present Age of Conflict (Kali Yuga), unfortunately, we often encounter unqualified and self-anointed individuals who claim to be gurus while often falling very far short of the true meaning of this term. Often such unqualified persons do not possess the prerequisite qualities, training, and characteristics necessary to call themselves a guru in the authentic and scripturally-based sense of this term. The scriptures of Sanatana Dharma have given us very clear and unambiguous guidelines of many of the most important qualities necessary in order to recognize whether or not a person is in fact an authentic and qualified guru. Some of these guidelines are outlined in the Bhagavad Gita:
sthita-dhir munir ucyate
(Bhagavad Gita, )
More, the true guru exhibits certain necessary inherent qualities that are a reflection of the fact that he is presencing the Divine in his own life. Again, the Bhagavad Gita gives us several lists of these important transcendental qualities of the true guru, or the liberated sage, including the following important characteristics:
“The Blessed Lord said: Fearlessness, purification of one's existence, cultivation of spiritual knowledge, charity, self-control, performance of sacrifice, study of the Vedas, austerity and simplicity; nonviolence, truthfulness, freedom from anger; renunciation, tranquility, aversion to faultfinding, compassion and freedom from covetousness; gentleness, modesty and steady determination; vigor, forgiveness, fortitude, cleanliness, freedom from envy and the passion for honor--these transcendental qualities, O son of Bharata, belong to godly men endowed with divine nature.”
(Bhagavad Gita, 16:1-3)
In this way, the guru personifies the fruit of a sattvic (spiritually positive) lifestyle and of years of meditative practice.
A true guru is known, not merely by how much charisma they may possess, or by what cheap supposed miracles they seemingly perform, or by how popular they have become with the gullible masses due to well-formulated PR and marketing campaigns. Rather, true gurus are known by whether or not they personify the qualities of a guru that are clearly outlined in the scriptures of Sanatana Dharma. Any person who claims to be a true guru, but who does not exhibit all the qualities of a true guru that are revealed in the scriptures of Sanatana Dharma, is a false guru and must be immediately rejected as a charlatan if the student is going to make any progress toward the goal of transcendental realization.
It is precisely because the true guru both personifies the very highest philosophical teachings (siddhanta), as well as the moral and yogic behavior described in our scriptures that the guru has the ability to deliver us from ignorance to wisdom, from darkness to the light, and from bondage to freedom.
According to our scriptures, when we find ourselves in the presence of such an authentic guru, it is almost as if we are in the very presence of God Himself; because like God, the sadguru has the ability to show us Truth, and to thus set us free. In the Bhagavata Purana, Sri Krishna confirms this in His instructions to His great devotee Uddhava:
na martya buddhyasuyeta
sarva-deva mayo gurum
Further, Sri Krishna explains in the same sacred text that to even view the liberated Acharya as an ordinary man, and to not offer one’s due respects to such an exhalted guru, is considered by Him to be a great offence (guru-maha-aparadha):
jnana-dipa prade gurau
martyasad-dhim srutam tasya
“The guru must be considered to be like the Supreme Lord Himself, because he bestows the light of transcendental knowledge upon his disciples. Consequently, for one who maintains the material conception that the guru is an ordinary human being, everything is frustrated. His attempts to make progress in spiritual life - his Vedic studies and scriptural knowledge, his penances and austerities, and his worship of the deity - are all as useless as the bathing of an elephant who rolls in the mud after his bath.”
Confirmation of these Vedic instructions on the nature of sadguru is found throughout the length and breadth of the Hindu scriptures. For example, in the Padma Purana it is explained that: gurus nara-matir yasya va naraki sam, “One who thinks that the guru is an ordinary man is said to live in ignorance.” In this way, we see that the totality of the scriptures speak in one, unified and authoritative voice on the importance of the guru and the unique role of the guru is the life of one who claims the desire to know Truth.
Later in this same conversation, Uddhava replies to Sri Krishna’s instruction in the same vein:
brahmayusapi krtam rddha mudam smarantam
yo'ntar bahis tanu-bhrtam asubham vidhunvann
acarya-caittya vapusa sva-gatim vyanakti
[Uddhava said to Sri Krishna] "O my Lord! Transcendental poets and experts in spiritual science could not fully express their indebtedness to You, even if they were endowed with the lifetime of Brahma, for You appear in two features - externally as the Acharya and internally as the Paramatman, the Supreme Self - to deliver the embodied living beings by revealing to them your devotional service and teaching them how to approach you on the path of divine love."
In addition to explaining both the nature and the qualities of the sadguru, the scriptures also explain that it is likewise very important to understand the important qualities that must be present in a sincere and qualified student. In the Katha Upanishad, for example, we read the following:
srnvanto 'pi bahavo na vidyum
acharyo 'sya vakta kusalo 'sya labhda
acharyo jnata kushala nushishtam
“Many cannot even hear about the soul, and even after hearing about the soul, many cannot understand it; this is because it is hard to find an Acharya who is a genuine seer of the truth. Such a qualified Acharya is a great soul and is very rare. At the same time, realization of the truth can be had only by those disciples who carefully follow the qualified Acharya’s teachings and become expert in the science of God. Such disciples are also very rare. Thus it is that only a few ever come to know the soul in truth.”
(Katha Upanisad, 1.2.7.)
To find a sincere and worthy student is thus explained as being just as difficult as finding a qualified and worthy sadguru. The highest attainment of transcendent Truth, and the personal spiritual liberation (moksha) that results from such a realization, is the most difficult goal to realize. Thus,
(Bhagavad Gita, 7:3)
When a sincere student and a qualified sadguru finally do find each other, and unite in the eternal process of spiritual exchange – the guru sharing his insight, instruction, and empowering presence with the student; and the student learning and growing spiritually with humility, sincerity, openness and eagerness – we then witness the perfect conditions necessary for the celebration and living of Truth. If you are seeking Truth, then seek the guidance of one who has seen the Truth. Seek the sadguru.
Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya (Dr. Frank Morales, Ph.D.) is an American who has been practicing Sanatana Dharma for over 35 years. He has a Ph.D. in Religious Studies and is recognized by the global Hindu community as one of the leading Hindu Acharyas (Spiritual Preceptors) in the nation. With a large international following of both Indian and Western students, Sri Acharya Ji is especially renowned for his highly authentic approach to Dharmic spirituality, his authoritative and scholarly method of teaching, and his clear emphasis on serious spiritual practice and direct experience of self-realization and knowledge of God. He has lectured on Sanatana Dharma at such prestigious institutions as Harvard University, Columbia, Rutgers, Cornell, Northwestern, as well as for such Fortune 500 companies as Ford Motor Corporation and Lucent Technology. He is the Founder and President of the International Sanatana Dharma Society.
His primary websites are:
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