I thought about writing this post for a long time. The reason I decided to do it now was, in a way, related to many news events centered on allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against many gurus all over the globe. Perhaps this was triggered by the #Metoo movement, or just the way things work in the scheme of things, I do not know. Whether it has come to the forefront or whispered among devotees and students, or with many folks in denial or ostracizing those who talk about this subject, this type of allegation has been there for ages. Perhaps it will also continue. It is not my goal to dismiss or agree with the truth behind them. Rather, my objective is to point out the ever present danger of apotheosizing the guru. This can result in rather unpleasant situations. In extreme instances there is a danger of ‘throwing the baby out with the bath the water,’ thereby denying oneself a chance to benefit from the teaching one gains from the guru.
The first question that rises in my mind is “What is normally understood by the word guru in modern parlance?” It is used in expressions such as Wall Street guru, Investment guru, Internet guru and the like. The other day while I was walking in our neighborhood, I saw a van with the logo ‘Heating and Plumbing Guru’ with a drawing of a man with a long beard sitting in lotus pose! I think that the word guru in context means an expert, equivalent to the Sanskrit term paṇḍita.
This word guru in Indian tradition is commonly used for ‘teacher’ for anyone teaching classical Indian arts and scriptural studies—thus it includes dance, music, architecture, medicine, astrology, yoga, vedānta and other branches of knowledge, secular or spiritual. I use the word to include religious, sacred knowledge, such as the three Freedom Philosophies of India I discussed in my earlier posts at this site.
My objective in this blog is three-fold: (1) to explain the additional expectation implied in the word guru in contrast to common understanding of a teacher. I accomplish by introducing three related Sanskrit words—guru, ācārya and paṇḍita, (2) to discuss the potential for deifying (apotheosizing) the guru and (3) how to forestall this human nature to avoid the possibility of deep emotional hurt when the guru’s behavior does not reflect the teaching he imparted. This hurt can result in throwing away the teaching altogether, thereby missing the benefit from the teaching.
Words paṇḍita, ācārya and guru
This word means teacher. Similar to pandit, this also is used to refer to a caste, rather a family pursuing a specific profession or trade. When I was growing up in India I knew blacksmiths and goldsmiths who were called āsāris, a Tamilized equivalent of ācārya. I was then intrigued as to why and how these artisans came to be called ācāryas.
Also, the main proponents of philosophies of nonduality, qualified nonduality and duality had this epithet attached to their names as well — Śaṇkarācārya, Rāmānujācārya and Madhvācārya respectively. When I came to know of the word guru later, I also wondered why these teachers were not referred to as Śaṇkaraguru, Rāmānujaguru, and Madhvaguru. It thus appears there is a subtle difference between the words guru and ācārya.
This word means a scholar, expert. This has been anglicized as pundit and punditry meaning expert and expertise, respectively. A few of you may remember the word Pandit as a prefix to some names, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijayalakshmi Pandit for example. Here it refers to the family or caste. In olden tradition, almost all dedicated pursuits in any trade or branch of knowledge were transmitted from father to son. Perhaps the family name morphed into a caste name, an occurrence not unusual in India. A paṇḍita need not be a teacher, many great scholars are not teachers but a teacher must be a paṇḍita.
This word also means teacher. One can consider both guru and ācārya to be synonyms, but there seems to be a difference. Vaman Shivaram Apte’s Practical Sanskrit English dictionary lists the word guru as both an adjective and a noun. It lists 18 meanings as an adjective and 12 as a noun. Among the 12, one means teacher. Etymologically guru is derived from the verb gṝ meaning ‘to teach, to praise’. There is also a verse that explains the meaning of this word as it applies to a teacher. This meaning is neither in the dictionary, nor based on etymology. There are a few Sanskrit works (Vacāspatyam, Śabdakapadrumā and others) that are something between a regular dictionary and an encyclopedia. These works refer to verses in their citations including meanings, etymology etc., but I have not any translation of these works. This verse on guru states:
guru comprises two syllables, gu and ru.
Syllable gu stands for darkness (of ignorance)
and syllable ru represents its removal.
Thus guru is the one who removes the darkness of ignorance.
Teacher of religious theologies
or any freedom philosophy
There is a big difference between a teacher of sciences or arts and one who teaches religion or spirituality (I call the latter Freedom Philosophies). One does not care if one’s economics professor is quite ethical, moral, amoral or immoral; one can definitely will learn the topic from the teacher. And, the teacher is respected for his teaching not for his behavior. This is not the case in regard to a religious or spiritual teacher. And herein lie the much-publicized current day issues centered on such teachers.
It is thus very important to understand the critical difference between secular knowledge, be it botany or biology or particle physics, and what I call freedom philosophies. This is best illustrated by an example used by my vedānta teacher, Swami Dayananda Saraswati. His explanation follows: “When you study microbiology, you do not want to be a microbe. But when it comes to vedānta, what you want to be is identical to what you want to know, that is, the object of knowledge is none other than the subject, you!”
In the Freedom Philosophies of India series we saw how, irrespective of the name, vedānta, sānkhya or Buddhism, the object of study and practice is non-different from the subject, you. Freedom is coming to understand that you are already free. This is the core of any spiritual study.
One can extend this to religious theologies as well. Thus, regardless of religious tradition, the focus for teachers of all religious theologies is what you will be after death. This is still centered on yourself, not the guru. This subtle but critical difference, imposes an additional qualification for the guru of being the one of impeccable moral and ethical conduct in thought, word and deed. And for the student who seeks and learns from a guru the conundrum is “What if the teacher is not”?
Ācārya and Guru: Gradation of the guru
Though these two Sanskrit words, ācārya and guru, mean the same, i.e., ‘teacher’, the word guru is more popular worldwide. In this section we discuss the potential difference between these two words ācārya and guru and the implication for the student.
Guru: In the Upaniṣads and the Bhagavadgītā there appears to be a dual qualification for the ideal guru. As a corollary, one can deduce three types of guru based on the presence or absence of the qualifications. I do not find any such stipulation where there is mention of the word ācārya!
For example, Munḍakopaniṣad says:
… to know That (Truth about oneself), one may go to a guru
who is a scholar andis established in the Truth he teaches (Ch. 1.12).
These qualifications mean that the guru is one who not only talks the talk but walks the talk. The same sentiment is expressed in a different way in the Bhagavadgītā:
“May you know that (Truth) by approaching with humility, attitude of service and asking questions to the teacher who is also the seer of this
Truth. He will teach you that knowledge” (Ch. 4.34)
Ācārya: On the other hand, Chāndoya-Upaniṣad simply states
“One who has an ācārya knows.” (ch. 6.14.2)
I have not come across any mention of a dual qualification for ācārya in vedānta literature like that found for guru. I wondered if there is any difference in etymology or other traditional definitions for the word ācārya. This word is formed from the verb car meaning ‘to move, to follow the code of conduct’; with the prefix ā and suffix ya. Based on rules of formation, ācārya can mean (i) one who follows the codes of conduct and also (ii) one who make others follow the codes of conduct called dharma. The need for any religious / spiritual preceptor to have this code of conduct need not be overemphasized since it forms the foundation on which any spiritual system is built on.
Traditionally this word means teacher, though classical connotation indicates a teacher of the vedas, though popularly it applies to anyone practicing and teaching any trade. Thus in the epic Mahābhārata, Droṇa the teacher of archery and warfare is addressed as ācārya. (This incidentally explains why a goldsmith or a blacksmith is called āsāri in Tamil.) Over centuries, a number of verses have been in use that elaborate the meanings of many common words. They explain contextually what these words mean. We saw an example explaining the meaning of guru. I found two such well-known statements in the tradition regarding the word ācārya:
“ācārya is one who teaches the meaning of scriptures to the students, teaches them the right conduct, while practicing what he teaches”
“Due to clarity of understanding the truth of the scriptures
one who treats all things and beings as equal, and
one who is established in yama etc., is called ācārya”
This is the reason that proponents of the three systems, non-dualism, qualified non-dualism and dualism, have the word ācārya appended to their names – they practiced what they taught.
From the foregoing it is clear that the meaning of the word ācārya includes the two-fold qualifications of a guru stated in Munḍakopaniṣad and in the Bhagavadgītā.
Based on the discussion one can think of a gradation of gurus. One can categorize any guru as belonging to Types I, II and III. This is not a grading of any guru but just to highlight the differences. As the guru, they all deserve our utmost respect.
Type I guru is identical to that of an ācārya. That is, he is not just a teacher of spirituality but reflects in his behavior the essence of what he or she is teaching.
Type II guru is one who has the knowledge and ability to communicate the knowledge to the student but himself is either unable to unwilling to follow the teaching. Thus there is a split between what is taught and the teacher.
Type III guru is a walking symbol of the essence of the teaching, but has no ability or choose not to communicate the vision to the potential student. Such a person is popularly known as a mystic. No one can learn from or study under a mystic. Mystics typically do not publicize, market themselves, travel, give talks, nor do they take on students. Mostly they give satsanga, meaning informal discussions with those who come to visit them. Some of them may even practice maunam, silence.
So, the questions that arise are: ‘What is the student to do who seeks a teacher to gain knowledge?’ By definition, he/she is ignorant and so, does not have the ability to prejudge a potential teacher to be Type I, II or III. Though one may like to seek a Type I guru, there is no way to assess the guru. And, these days the guru is seeking the students! During these “The World is Flat” days, it is far easier to find a Type II teacher. However, one must must understand that even looking for Type II guru is a bit iffy since the student, being ignorant cannot easily assess the qualifications of the teacher.
So,one can go and watch, or listen to the potential teacher. If what the teacher says makes logical sense consistently, then one can go to study under that teacher. Of course, there is always the additional input from friends one trusts. I don’t even want to go near social media as a source to find a guru. Since the student’s goal is to learn, it is best to go to a Type II teacher to study and it is not the role of the student to judge the teacher as to what type he or she is! As mentioned, this categorization is not a guru grading system.
Guru and apotheosis
Apotheosis is deification of a person and this is a far too common human condition. In my own tradition, there is the well-known epic Rāmāyaṇa. For those few among you who may not know the full story, one important aspect of the story is this: Rāma was the eldest son of the king Daśaratha; he was an incarnation of Lord Viṣṇu, the aspect of the ‘Great Spirit’ protecting the world. But in the current incarnation as Rāma, he says
“I consider myself as a human being, the son of Daśaratha”.
In the story he shows himself to be just a human, subject to all too common conflicts of ethics, emotions of despondency and anger. Rāma chose some paths of questionable ethics of war, got chastised for those actions and lived his life following the path of dharma in the best possible way he could. But now, all over India he is worshiped as a God in hundreds of temples and in great celebrations remembering him conquering his enemy who kidnapped his wife; hundreds of thousands consider him as their favorite deity. I wish that people would also understand the story as highlighting the complexity of leading a life of dharma instead of just elevating Rama to God, thereby letting themselves off the hook for continued ethical compromises they make. I believe that living a life adhering to dharma (ethics) is the core message of Rāmāyaṇa.
Here I have to narrate an incident in my life as a kid in India during the 1950s amidst a social milieu of rampant atheism, anti-brahminism and anti-temple worship. It was not uncommon for these attitudes to seep into public school education though not explicitly. One day my father asked me, “Who was Rāma?” Based on what I learned at school, my reply was “He was a king!” You must have been there to witness the anger of my poor orthodox brahmin father at his first-born who appeared not to know that Rāma was the God after whom he was named! By the way, my given name is Ramasvāmī in Sanskrit which can be resolved to mean one for whom Rāma is God.
This deification also happens to gurus. The Indian tradition elevates the guru to the level of God by citing guru-paramparā. This word means an unbroken chain of teachers. If we extrapolate, this unbroken chain of teachers one ends with God as the first teacher. In fact, Lord Śiva, the destroyer of ignorance and delusion is pictured as a guru, once see this south-facing icon called Dakṣiṇāmūrti in all temples dedicated to
There is a well-known verse extolling the guru
“If both my guru and the Lord were to appear together
in front if me, my first salutation goes to the guru”.
At the āśrama I went to study vedānta we used to memorize and chant daily verses dedicated to the guru. One of the verses extols the guru thus:
“Indeed you are my mother, father, relative, and friend;
you are knowledge, wealth, you are everything, my great Lord!”
It is a common practice in India to ceremonially wash the feet of the guru and offer flowers at the feet on a specific day of the year called Gurupūrṇimā. The reason I cite these parts of tradition is not to criticize. I still chant these verses, follow the tradition on Gurupūrṇimā and agree with my former vedānta students to celebrate the day at my home chanting the set of verses I mentioned earlier. On the other hand, my objective here is not to emphasize the tradition but to highlight the reality of how easy it is to forget the symbolism and hold on to symbols. The idea behind all this chanting and rituals is the ideal, namely the teacher is worshipped because of the teaching. It is easy to forget the symbolism and hold on to the symbols.
If this is not kept in focus, the chanting becomes mechanical and potentially meaningless at best, if not resulting in blind faith at worst. This blind faith and following the masses is ironically the antithesis of learning. Learning is centered on questioning, raising doubts and clarifying them through respectful dialogue between the teacher and the taught. A classic example of this type of learning is seen in many Upaniṣads. In Bhagavadgītā all the chapters exemplify this crucial teacher-student interactive methodology of learning.
One other point that is relevant there is how one’s learning is complete. A Sanskrit verse epitomizes this:
“One learns one-fourth from the teacher, a quarter by independent reasoning and analysis, a third by discussion among
co-learners, and the last fourth only in course of time.”
This is true regarding any learning, secular or spiritual. The part regarding interaction among co-learners is particularly relevant and perhaps central to adult learning.
The problem with apotheosis of the guru
Whether one grows up in an Indian culture or imbibes that culture of apotheosizing by association, the fact remains that it affects not just our relationship with guru, the teacher, but co-students and the teaching itself. Unfortunately for us, nowadays the teacher himself, either deliberately or otherwise perpetuates this apotheosis. So, it is relevant to understand why this problem occurs and how to avoid it while being a student as well as for the rest of the student’s life.
Why does the apotheosis happen? As I mentioned, the first factor is the culture of worship of guru due to the natural human tendency of putting the person whom we respect on a pedestal. The commonly happens with any person of great influence, power, or wealth. The psycho-social milieu of the students, especially those who stay in an āśrama with the teacher, promotes this idolization of the guru. The third and important factor is the irony of setting aside the quizzical eye that prompted the student to come to study with the guru; the longer one stays and studies with the guru, the easier it becomes to set aside the very discriminating, analytical mind that is necessary to learn. Thus the students, instead of using their mind to think, become devotees, followers of the great master who cannot be wrong.
In short, the problem is that we often find ourselves projecting the ‘ideal guru’ on the person who is our guru. And, in many an instance this projection does not stand up to reality and we suffer the consequence. This is not the fault of the guru alone.
How to avoid the ‘side effect’ of apotheosis? If one imagines ignorance to be a disease and seeking knowledge is the means of ending the disease, this apotheosis is not dissimilar to the phenomenon of iatrogenesis (treatment caused complications) in medicine. Extending the analogy of medicine, one prevents medicine-induced-complications by being very alert to a medicine’s side effects and taking preventive steps. The prescribing doctor may not be aware of the potential for iatrogenesis in a patient.
Regarding avoiding the “side effects” while studying with the guru, the student should keep the focus on the objective and be aware of the need to separate the teaching and the teacher and not to idolize the teacher. This is difficult, but it is necessary to avoid a very natural apotheosizing. With such a razor-sharp focus on learning, one may be able to observe the faults of the teacher even while still learning from the teacher. If, after leaving the āśrama the student learns of misbehavior by the guru he may not be swayed by the news or become emotionally distraught to dismisses the entire teaching.
One of the foundations of spiritual wisdom is based on a good analysis of human nature – understanding impulsive actions driven by cravings for, or aversions to things or living-beings and to cultivate the ability to master them. Certain basic values any spiritual aspirant must hold dear and practice include compassion, understanding and forgiveness. With these one avoids reacting to things one hears, knows or believes regarding moral and ethical lapses of any human being, including gurus.
Discrimination and objectivity are invaluable long after the study is complete and the student is leading his life in the world. If one does not hold onto these traits, the undesirable side-effect of apotheosis, that is, rejecting the teaching can manifest decades later if bad behavioral issues of the guru come to light. If you make the guru an idol, and he starts to behave badly, the students often question or reject the teachings rather than the teacher’s actions.
The following story exemplifies this point of point of keeping an open mind without idolizing the teacher. This is a story of the sage Dattātreya in Bhāgavata-purāṇa. When asked by a king as to how the sage was so carefree and at ease with himself despite having no possessions while he, the king, is full of concerns. The sage replied how he learned from 24 ācāryas. The sage went on to list them, and all were centered on observations of the world around. His main thrust was that one learns both from the positive and negative sides of a teacher. Thus, one of his teachers was the honey-bee. Its prime focus is nectar in a flower, unmindful of, and unconcerned by the beauty of the flower or the environs in which it grows. Dattātreya learned to have this focus towards his objective, freedom. The other lesson he learned from the same bee is how not to be in life. The bee collects and stores in a beehive only to be chased away by humans (or bears) that rob the honey. This taught him not to hold on to things. Those of us who studied vedānta remember the dictum ‘āgate svāgatan kuryāt, gacchantam na nivārayet, welcome whatever comes to you, do not hold onto things’, be they fame, money, power, etc.
The most important thing for the student of any heaven-centered or freedom-centered study (both are called theologies by academicians) is to learn what is needed from a competent teacher. The objective is not to use that knowledge to assess the teacher’s ability to reflect the teaching in his behavior, or to judge anybody else. As the story of Dattātreya amply illustrates, such a behavior, if true, only enhances the role of the teacher! The guru also teaches one not to be what he is, in addition to the actual teaching of the spiritual topic of freedom.
If this objective to learn is kept clear during the study, there will be lot less of idolization but a greater degree of respect for the teacher for the teaching he or she imparts. After the study, it is the role of the student to be what the teaching says one already is. I may conclude this stressing the fact that the teacher is respected for the teaching the student receives.