09 Guru Tattva:
The Essence of Guru


The concept of Guru is highly misunderstood in the West, mostly as people in the west want a simplistic definition for everything. But yoga comes from a Sanskrit speaking culture that works with conceptual thinking, the word guru is a concept that must be understood, not a word to be defined. Take a minute to let go of previous definitions and open to the full potential of the guru.

Often people translate guru as the remover of darkness; this is a metaphysical meaning coming from the break down of the aksharas (letters) in the word. ‘Ga’ stands for darkness and everything that gets in your way, ‘U’ stands for suppression and removal. Together ‘GU’ means removal of the darkness. ‘Ra’ is the fire bija (seed sound), and represents the good and bad of fire: anger and insight. ‘Ru’ is the suppression of the negative aspects of fire that disturb your pure vision. So the vibrational meaning of ‘guru’ is one who removes darkness and obstacles to our understanding.

The literal meaning of guru is teacher. This can be relative to spirituality or other sciences as well. In yoga and other Vedic sciences there is an understanding of three levels of guru.

  1. The siksa guru teaches you the basics and tells you where to search for information. They basically teach you how to tie your shoes. On a material level this is your primary educators. On a spiritual level it is your local yoga teacher or on a religious level it is the Sunday school teachers. The siksha guru can be the same spiritual level as you but just know things you haven’t found yet.
  2. The diksa guru is a teacher who gives you initiation into a mantra or meditation or some kind of sadhana (spiritual practice). They pass on a certain live energy or understanding to you. They must have a high level of accomplishment in the path you wish to learn from them. On a material level this is the mentor you have for a particular field of work who teaches you the final application of your learning. On a spiritual level this is someone who has mastered a spiritual practice and is passing on the teaching. On a religious level it is the priest or rabbi that performs religious rites and initiations.
  3. The Sat Guru is one who has achieved the final goal of the particular path and is a guiding light to the student walking the path. On a material level this is someone like Michael Angelo for an artist. On a spiritual level this is someone like Amachi, or Ramana Maharishi, or the Saints, Mohammad, or the Baal Shem Tov. On a religious level this is divine beings like Jesus, Krsna, or Rama (at this level religious and spiritual levels are similar or vary depending on religious philosophy). The important aspect of the Sat Guru is that they have completely attained the final goal. They can affect you whether they are embodied or not. Thinking of them or mediating on them guides your consciousness and lets you know your goal.

We have many siksha gurus (the more the better), few diksa gurus and one or two Sat gurus. Siksha gurus are easy to find, Sat gurus are transcended and we don’t even need to meet them to connect into their guidance. But good diksa gurus are hard to come by and you only get them when you are ready.

Then there is the transcendental aspect of Guru that is very important in Yoga. According to Yogic philosophy the universe and everything in it is made of the five elements. Akash (space), air, fire, water and earth, with akash being the most subtle permeating everything yet containing everything within it (just like god). The planet Jupiter relates to the akash (space element) and in Sanskrit the word for Jupiter is ‘Guru’. So Jupiter (Guru) is the planet ruling akash, that which contains everything and permeates everything. Astrologically, the position of Jupiter shows the relationship with the Guru, and how gurus in your life manifest.

Then there is the Supreme level of Guru called ‘Adi Guru’, which means the original Guru. Patanjali said in pada 1 verses 25-27 that Aum is a word denoting Iswara (god). In him (Iswara/Aum) is the seed of all knowledge. Not being limited by time, Aum is the Guru of the earliest teachers. Patanjali, then advises constant repetition of Aum. In this way, the Guru tattva (essence of the Teacher) is brought into our lives. The Guru tattva starts at the level of the Adi Guru, then is seen in the transcendental Guru astrologically, then manifests in our lives as the various levels of gurus we encounter. Knowledge comes through the Guru, whether directly from the highest level or through the physical manifestation of guru in our teacher-student relationships. The yoga texts teach that there is no knowledge without guru, without the removal of darkness/ignorance.

By paying respect to the Supreme Guru we improve and strengthen our guru karma and open the way for more knowledge and understanding to enter our lives. This is often done by chanting Aum before a yoga class. Having teachers’ pictures around exalts the teacher/Guru and shows respect. Yoga teaches that the types of gurus we attract to ourselves in our life is a reflection our own guru karma. Thursday has been set as the best day to show appreciation to the Guru and your gurus.

People have often been confused in the west as to whether money should be made from yoga and other spiritual sciences. Have masters in the past charged money? No, they didn’t have to because people understood the proper method of dakshina (payment of the teacher). One was expected to offer Dakshina to the guru to whatever capacity one was able to, to insure the teacher was able to live a life where they could spend their time studying and teaching. Dakshina was never free and sometimes was paid with a heavy request by the guru. Krishnamacharya when he asked his guru what would be the dakshina was told he was to return to society and be a yoga teacher, even when he was trained as a doctor. He followed this and gave us the lineages of yoga coming through Desikachar, Iyengar and Pattabi Jois. In this day and age, people don’t have the ability to offer dakshina in the same way, or to give the teacher a piece of land and some cattle for their sustenance, so instead yoga teachers charge per class. This is no deviation from the past, as there must be an exchange of energy: money is energy and so are teachings and knowledge. On the other hand it is considered negative karma to not pay the guru as the teacher is just the manifestation of the Guru on the material plane. To be the best student one should not only pay the teacher but should bring gifts of sweets and other food, this is tradition.

The mind creates much of our experience of existence. In spiritual teachings, if you view the guru as a simple man/woman than you will get the blessings of a human being. If you view the guru as holy and divine then you get the blessings of divinity. Your own perception of the guru will effect the results you get from the guru and will effect what the guru wishes to share with you.

The physical guru is a human being and does human things. Often people confuse the physical body of the guru with the Guru tattva (essence of the Guru) they represent. The physical embodied guru is still human, still eats food, and still breaths. They will do human things and we are to know that they represent the Guru tattva in our life, they are not the Guru themselves as the Guru is transcendental and in everything every where.

This article is published in Yoga Living November/December 2004 Vol VI Issue II.

Aum Guruvay Namaha

Patanjali Yoga Sutras 

kleśakarmavipākāśayairaparāmṛṣṭaḥ puruṣaviśeṣa īśvaraḥ || 24||

Ishvara is Purusha, unrelated to afflictions of life, actions and their results, or impressions produced by these actions.

tatra niratiśayaṁ sarvajñtvabījam || 25||

In Him there is the seed of limitless omniscience.

sa pūrveṣām api guruḥ kālenānavacchedāt || 26||

Not being limited by time, He is the teacher (guru) of the earliest teachers.

tasya vācakaḥ praṇavaḥ || 27||

Aum is the word denoting Ishvara (god).

tajjapastadarthabhāvanam || 28||

Constant repetition of Aum and meditation on its meaning [is surrender to God].

tataḥ pratyakcetanādhigamo’ pyantarāyābhāvaśca || 29||

From that practice, the consciousness turns inward and obstacles are overcome.

Krisnamacharya Yoga Film 1938 (silent)

The Tantric Derivation of the Word Guru
kulaarNavatantra, saptadasha ullasaH (translation by Freedom Cole)
[Every sound/letter has a meaning in traditional tantra]

gushabdastvandhakaaraH syat rashabdastannishodhakaH.
andhakaaranirodhatvaat gurarityamidhiiyate..7..

The sound ‘gu’ is darkness (andha- blind, kaara- doer, or that which makes us blind),
And the sound ‘ra’ is the purifier which corrects,
The one that can restrain (nirodha) darkness is known as the guru.

gakaaraH siddhidaH prokto paapasya daahakaH.

ukaaro viSNurityuktastrtayaatmaa guraH paraH..8..
The letter ‘ga’ gives perfection (siddhi),
While letter ‘ra’ burns sin,
The letter ‘u’ is Visnu;
The soul that has all three is the supreme guru.

gakaaro GYaanasampattii rephastatra prakaashakaH.
ukaaraH shivataadaatmyaM gururityabhidhiiyate..9..

The letter ‘ga’ give the attainment of knowledge,
The letter ‘ra’ is illuminating,
The letter ‘u’ is the same as Shiva;
This is why he is called the Guru.

guhyaagamaatmatattvaadhanaddhanaM bodhanaadapi.
rudraadidevarupatvaad gururityabhidhiyate..10..

He brings understanding to the secret (guhya) of the texts (agama)
And the essence of the of the soul to the blind,
His form is the original Rudra,
And so he is called the Guru.