Depending on how immersed you are in the yoga world, it’s very possible that you’ve heard the word “guru” tossed around a few hundred times. It’s a beautiful concept in its original meaning, but unfortunately, the way it’s often used in conversation can get away from this. And that’s where the introduction of Sanskrit terms into our every day speech can get tricky – so it’s important to check in once in a while and get back in touch with the actual definitions and original intentions.
The word itself is often said to mean “grave” or “weighty one.” Breaking the word down to its parts, “gu” is said to mean darkness, and “ru” light, or “destroyer of darkness.”
Reverend Jaganath Carrera who directs the Yoga Life Society feels that there’s been a lot of confusion around the term as it’s moved into the West. Guru, he says, can mean “teacher, guide, trusted and divinely inspired spiritual mentor. Or unquestioned ruler of gullible seekers. Either or both images may spring to mind when we hear the word “’Guru.’” Of course, the latter one is not exactly what the term is about.
As Rev. Jaganath says, the term more traditionally means someone who’s there to guide you on a spiritual path, in yoga and in life. And even more than to educate by giving a person information, he or she is more there to “strip away” ignorance or unknowingness. This is an interesting way of thinking about spiritual growth – that it’s more about revealing what you already know than gaining information about how to be. Essentially, then, the guru helps you reveal what’s already going on inside – that deep “gut” knowledge that we all have, but are reluctant to believe in.
Jaganath says that “the Guru Gita, a scripture that presents the essential teachings regarding the Guru, defines ‘Guru’ as ‘the remover of darkness.’ The darkness spoken of is the ignorance of our True Nature. We are caught in the illusion that we are simply a mind encased in a body. This illusion keeps us living in a universe where separation, fragmentation, and limitation seem to be natural. This mistaken notion is the source of suffering in life.”
But since it’s hard to direct yourself along a path of spiritual or psychological growth, it can be good to have someone to help out. Friends and family can be crucial in this, but it’s even better if it’s someone who’s made a study of philosophy, human nature, psychology. “The Guru is not the body, not the mind, not even the intellect,” says Rev. Jaganath. “It is the Self, or God, that is the Guru. As such, the Guru exists within us all.”
And if you’re unconvinced of this more spiritual explanation of “guru,” think about it this way. Science has shown us again and again that social contact is a nonnegotiable part of life – humans need to be surrounded by people, not only to feel human, but to be happy and healthy, mentally and physically. Our social networks are essential to our well-being and to our psychological and cognitive development. And beyond this, the people with whom you chose to surround yourself show you an awful lot about yourself and about life. Jaganath agrees that this is exactly what a guru does – and in this sense, they’re everywhere.
“This need for guidance and direction, one human being to another, is even more true in spirituality. The one in whom you perceive the presence of the Self, who inspires you, who teaches the intricacies of the spiritual path, and who guides, supports, cajoles, challenges, and corrects, is the Guru.”
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.