The Meaning of the Guru

A guru is more than a teacher--he's an instructor who passes on all his knowledge. If you have one, you're lucky.

BY: Shoba Narayan


I have to admit that I have trouble with the whole ‘guru’ thing. Guru means teacher in Sanskrit, but it connotes much more than that. A guru is someone who removes your ignorance, without whom you cannot attain the knowledge you are seeking. In Hinduism, self-realization cannot be achieved without the guidance and blessings of a proper guru. In a sense, a guru is the path to God.

In India where I grew up, gurus are given pride of place, often above God. A famous Sanskrit phrase delineates the order of priorities for a Hindu child. “matha, pitha, guru, deivam (God),” meaning says first mother, then father, then teacher, and only after all of them, God.

In traditional Hindu gurukuls of the past--residential schools where the students learned from a teacher--the code of conduct towards one’s guru was very clear. A shishya, or student, was to treat the guru with utmost respect and devotion. Most students lived with the guru and became integrated into the life of his ashram. Students did chores (like washing clothes and carrying buckets of water) for the guru with great pleasure, because it allowed them to spend time alone with their teacher. Pressing the guru’s feet was considered a privilege since it was assumed that a teacher so massaged and relaxed would pass on pearls of wisdom to the student.

Gurukuls exist in India to this day--my cousin’s son goes to a Vedic gurukul in Kerala. The veneration of gurus, however, is not restricted anymore to traditional gurukuls but pervade throughout Indian education. Teachers--be they college professors or music instructors--are treated with deference in India, especially when compared to the West and more particularly to America. Most students do not “talk back” to their teacher and question his or her authority, since this is considered disrespectful.

I was barely 18 when I moved to America, and I was shocked by the way students treated their teachers. American students called their teachers by first names. They didn’t hesitate to ask probing questions and even argue with the teacher to prove their point. As for carrying a teacher’s bags to prove devotion, forget it. American students joked around with their gurus. American professors expected it--enjoyed it even.

Fifteen years in America changed me: I bought into the American teaching method. I liked and respected my professors, even though I called them “Sam” or “Megan.” I saw the Indian guru-shishya relationship as vaguely hypocritical. In my new frame of mind, Indian gurus demanded respect while American professors earned it. Indian gurus expected deference. American teachers on the other hand, were much more straightforward. They were able to handle a questioning mind; they catered to it even.

Many winds have passed since then. I am back in India now. I have also recently acquired a guru; or as an Indian would say, “I have recently had the good fortune of being accepted by a guru.”

My music teacher is an 87-year-old musician named RK Srikantan. He lives here in Bangalore and is a renowned singer. Twice a week I visit his home. There, in his tiny book-lined study amidst portraits of various Hindu gods, we practice music. I sit on the floor and sing to him. He sits on his wooden armchair and corrects my notes. Through these hour-long music sessions, I am finally beginning to understand what a guru is.

My guru doesn’t demand respect, but something about the dignity of his presence makes me offer it to him freely and without inhibition. Sitting on the floor, I look up to him, literally and figuratively. At the end of each class, I prostrate myself on the floor and touch his feet to receive blessings. In him, I see a man who lives for his art. He is a musician who seems untouched by the rampant consumerism that is slowly overtaking India. He doesn’t care about most of the things that occupy many of my urban Indian (or for that matter, American) friends: salary, square footage, bonuses, latest gizmos, brands, and weekend outings.

Continued on page 2: You'd best hang on to your guru. »

comments powered by Disqus