What can a guru do for you?

There are many people who would be called by some “gurus”. Certainly, the idea of the “guru” is one that is more suited to the Eastern mind, but increasingly Western people searching for meaning are also turning to gurus. So the question becomes, exactly what is a guru, what is the role of the guru, and, if following a guru is right for you, what is the basis of a healthy relationship with a guru?

Divine light or spiritual coach

In Indian literature, the word guru can be divided into two parts: gu and ru. A combination of two opposites, gu means darkness or shadow and ru means light. Aesthetically interpreted, guru means “the divine light that dispels the darkness of ignorance”.

Within the Indian tradition, for many years, different gurus have existed for different aspects of life: a religious guru (dharmaguru), a family guru (kulaguru), a guru for the kingdom (rajguru), a guru for a particular discipline (vidyaguru) and a spiritual guru (satguru). In spiritual circles, having a satguru has always been something to be proud of. It signifies that you possess wealth, wisdom, total security and a dignified life.

In the West, though, many people hold a very different view. They consider having a guru to be a sign of weakness or lack of self sufficiency. It’s not uncommon for devotees (students) of a guru to be considered as having lost their own way, to have joined a cult or surrendered to someone else’s will.

How can people with these disparaging opinions be blamed? After all, have we not heard of gurus with fleets of Rolls-Royces, Swiss bank accounts and hordes of lost souls ready to surrender their minds, bodies and wallets? However, attitudes towards having a spiritual coach are changing. In the West, we happily accept the concept of needing a coach to improve our skills in any given discipline, such as sports or music. And now it’s becoming more widely accepted for people to extend this coaching experience to their spiritual wellbeing.

Spiritual window shopping

Entering the mind, body, spirit domain can be like traversing a minefield. Open any New Age publication and you’ll see there’s no shortage of paths to lead you to enlightenment. Meditation CDs promise to instantly deliver a more profound experience than those poor Zen monks manage to attain in an entire lifetime. There are animal spirit guardians for your pets. And there are crystal dreaming techniques to take you on a journey of healing and help you develop your personal and spiritual growth. Perhaps these endless choices make it even more challenging to successfully navigate your way onto a genuine spiritual path.

It’s a commonly held belief that a person doesn’t find their guru — a guru finds them. Even if we think we need a guru and start searching for one, it may be that we cannot find one. At least, not until our time for such a relationship has come: “When a student is ready, the teacher appears” is a common Buddhist saying. “I didn’t find my guru,” says Bree Ledgard, manager of Lululemon Athletica. “He found me. I searched for a long time and, when I stopped looking, he found me.”

A touching description of finding, or being found by, a guru lies in Sogyal Rinpoche’s words: “When we have prayed and aspired and hungered for the truth for a long time, for many, many lives, and when our karma has become sufficiently purified, a kind of miracle takes place. And this miracle, if we can understand and use it, can lead to the end of ignorance forever: the inner teacher, who has been with us always, manifests in the form of the ‘outer teacher’. Almost as if by magic, we encounter the guru.”

For yoga teacher Eileen Hall, “It just happened. I found my guru by chance. I was in India when I heard of Pattabhi Jois. I wasn’t particularly in search of a guru,” she says, “but I knew straight away that he was going to become my teacher. It came from a deep quietness that wasn’t connected to infatuation, but to love and friendship. I now appreciate how important it is to spend time with your guru. We’re all going to leave our bodies at some time and, if someone gives you quietness and peace in your life, then it makes sense to spend time with them.”

Emma Terracini, a sales consultant, wasn’t consciously looking for a teacher, either. “But when I met him, I knew.”

Are they genuine?

So, if we decide we can benefit from having a guru and want to find one, where do we start? There are true gurus and there are charlatans masquerading as gurus. There may be some with selfish motives who are using their powers to attract people to their organisation — wanting money or power or popularity — and then there are those who genuinely want to help people.

The Dalai Lama’s advice, when speaking of choosing a guru, is: “Rely on the teachings to evaluate a guru. Do not have blind faith, but also no blind criticism.”

When choosing a guru, it’s useful to observe the environment and atmosphere that surrounds them. Words are spoken through the mouth but spiritual presence emanates through the entire being and affects the whole of the surrounding environment. For instance, it’s said that when someone has entirely dissolved any trace of violence from their being, then violence or any form of aggression simply cannot exist in their presence.

We all have the ability to connect to our sixth sense, which, when we are still and centred, enables us to recognise if someone is feeding their ego or is authentic. You can feel it; you can sense whether there is love or not. And in the presence of a true guru there is typically an enormous amount of love.

The satguru

Although one translation of guru is “teacher”, there’s a subtle distinction between a teacher and a guru. The difference is that a teacher gives shiksha (knowledge), while a guru gives diksha (heightened awareness). Then there’s the satguru, which directly translated means “true guru”. This title is bestowed specifically on enlightened rishis or saints who can guide you along the spiritual path to the realisation of your true self as divinity.

As documented in the Upanishads (ancient Indian texts), there are five signs of a satguru:

1 Dukha kshaya: sorrow diminishes.
2 Sukha avirvhava: happiness and joy well up without any particular reason.
3 Gyana raksha: knowledge flourishes.
4 Sarva samvardhana: all sorts of talents manifest.
5 Samriddhi: abundance dawns.

How does the guru–devotee relationship work?

The guru–shishya (devotee) tradition is the transmission of teachings from a guru to a student or devotee. In this relationship, subtle and profound knowledge is received by the student through their respect, commitment, devotion and willingness to surrender to the guru’s guidance. And, as this journey progresses, the student gradually learns and eventually masters the knowledge and wisdom the guru embodies.

“He exposes all the obstacles in the way of my spiritual growth and has me look at them with courage so I can grow beyond them,” says Terracini. “It’s challenging as there’s no hiding, but it’s a very, very beautiful thing, the student–teacher relationship. It’s deeply intimate, as the guru knows you completely and he knows how to guide you towards your highest evolution. The connection between you transcends time and space — it’s sacred.”

What can a guru do for you?

Perhaps one way of demystifying the guru is to look at what they bring to the lives of their followers or devotees. They are said to be able to awaken dormant spiritual knowledge in an individual, and this sense of “awakening” is a common theme among devotees of gurus. Ivan Brownrigg, an IBM consultant, has had his own spiritual guru for over 10 years and seems to confirm this experience.

“Anyone who aspires to a more spiritually awakened life will benefit hugely from having an enlightened teacher or guru. The fact that he is called a guru rather than any other title once bothered me, but now I’m fine with it. The incredible benefits of having a guru quickly outweighed any prejudices I initially had around the title.

“Having a guru has brought me a deeper appreciation of life — and of death. I sometimes get the sense that I’ve awoken from a deep sleep. My guru’s teachings have helped me through many life challenges, in particular the loss of my 17-year-old daughter, who died in a car crash. Because a true guru knows and understands the different layers or aspects of our existence at the most profound level, they’re able to help us see what is real and what is illusionary, and it’s very often the reverse of what our Western culture and conditioning would prefer us to believe. I consider myself hugely fortunate to have a guru and sometimes find tears of gratitude on my cheeks.”

This sense of profound gratitude and devotion frequently comes up when devotees share their thoughts on their relationship with their gurus. Simon Shave, an IT consultant, didn’t want a guru when he first came across his. “I was grateful for what I’d learned from him but I only wanted the techniques and was really averse to the idea of having a guru in my life at that time.” Now Shave speaks highly of the whole experience.

“I continued with the breathing and meditation practices that I’d learnt and continued to study his knowledge. And, very quickly, I found myself happier than I’d ever been in my entire life. I feel an immense sense of gratitude towards him and have come to see that devotion towards a guru is nothing other than the expression of this gratitude. What I’ve since realised is that the techniques taught by my guru — yoga, meditation, breathing — are just techniques. The reason they work is the grace behind them, the grace of the guru.”

Robby, a lawyer with a natural disinclination to follow anyone, was surprised to find he had become a strong devotee. “Having a guru means striving to pursue the teachings the master is giving with real commitment and consistency. I believe that having a master, a guru, is incredibly good fortune. It has helped me get on that path and then helped me stay there. It has definitely accelerated my spiritual development.”

And a guru very often inspires the devotee and kindles a desire in them to make a difference to their society. For Janet Ogle, a consultant, “Having a guru has definitely brought a sense of purpose to my life that I didn’t have before. When I first found my guru, I hadn’t really done very much with my life. I was caught up in so many little things. But now my life is beautiful. He has helped me to experience the joy in serving and taking care of other people.

“I remember him once saying that, when you live for others, others will live for you and that, if you only live for yourself, then you must carry all the weight on your shoulders. Hearing that made such an impact on how I live my life and the gratitude I feel towards him is immeasurable. If you’ve ever seen the face of someone who is crying tears of gratitude, then you’ll know what I mean. There’s nothing as beautiful as that on this planet.”

“Since my guru found me, I’ve benefited in ways I never thought possible,” reflects Ledgard, “and I’ve grown tremendously. I have so much more enthusiasm and focus and I know it comes from him. I simply cannot explain it in words — just how much joy and inspiration he brings to my life.”

Aniket Patel recalls: “When I was in India with my guru, I interviewed the chief priest of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. There were hundreds of thousands of people around us, who had all come to see Guruji (an affectionate term for guru). I asked him what he thought about my guru. His response to me was, ‘He is the sun and I am in his light.’ His words resonated so deeply with me. They describe so aptly how I feel when I am with my guru.”

What gurus say about gurus

When asked about the tradition of gurus, Swami Vivekananda replied that there were “many incompetent gurus and that a true guru should understand the spirit of the scriptures, have a pure character and be free from sin. He should be selfless and without desire for money or fame.” Other gurus, like Swami Sivananda, hold the role of the guru as being “the only guarantee for the individual to transcend the bondage of sorrow and death”.

Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion, attributed the guru with similar supreme importance when he proclaimed, “Even if a thousand suns and moons rose, they would be unable to remove the darkness of ignorance. This can only be removed through the grace of the guru.”

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar gives a somewhat simpler portrayal when he describes a guru as being “a window to your Self”. According to Sri Sri, the role of guru is not to make you a follower but to simply show you the divinity within yourself. “Do not follow me,” he says. “You cannot follow me because I am behind you and within you. I am behind to push you forward. Go forward and be free.”


Meggan Brummer is an internationally published freelance writer, corporate wellness consultant and yoga teacher. She is currently channelling her passion for writing into capturing her journey through parenthood. To read more about how she balances heath, happiness and mamma-hood, visit

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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