Guru – Definition, Meaning and History

The definition of Guru

Guru is a Sanskrit word that means «teacher» that usually is given to a spiritual teacher or leader. Other meanings can include a spiritual master, religious teacher, divine preceptor, or a learned Brahmin. In ancient India the VedasVedanta and other sacred lore were passed down orally through the generations from gurus to disciples.

Traditionally in Hinduism, at the age of twelve the male is initiated into the religion, at which time he becomes a student, or chela, of a guru to learn the Vedas and other teachings. The student is required to show great deference to the guru, who confers immortality through his wisdom. The guru is held in an exalted status, even above the student’s family and parents. In various Hindu sects, the guru instructs the initiate in a secret mantraprayers, rituals, and meditations, a practice also followed in Transcendental Meditation.

While in some sects of Sikhism, the guru is not a person, but the Word of God, which is obtained directly from scripture. However, in other Sikh sects, the human guru is responsible for helping the people to recognize the way to divine salvation. The Bauls of Bengal sometimes employ the word guru to refer to whatever makes them understand or think of God.

Gurus for ages have handed down and taught the yoga systems. Discovering a guru is of primary importance to every yoga disciple.

In Tibetan Buddhism Padma Sambhava, «The Lotus Born» (755-797), was the Great Human Guru of the Bardo Thodol, the Book of the Dead. He was the incarnation of the essence of the Buddha Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, and was the first teacher in Tibet to expound the Bardo Thodol. It is believed the Bardo Thodol taught that the greatest guru known to humankind in the present cycle of time is the historical Buddha. A rinpoche, or «precious guru» is born under pure, holy conditions.

The Tibetan yogis and followers of Tantrism define three lines of gurus: superhuman or divine, over which the Supreme Guru sits on the Thousand-petaled Lotus; highly developed humans who possess siddhis, or psychic powers; and ordinary religious teachers. Women as well as men might become gurus. The chela studies with the guru for a year, and then is evaluated. Upon passing, the chela receives psychic training. The guru is always to be obeyed; it is not possible to change gurus unless the student can demonstrate that he or she has advanced beyond the capability of the teacher. For the initiation of the student, the guru prepares with ritual exercises for several days, and then invokes the divine gurus by communicating with them on the spiritual plane.

The west has adopted the term «guru» to refer to many types of spiritual teachers. In some instances the term is used as a sign of affectionate admiration. A.G.H.


Guiley, Rosemary Ellen, Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience, New York: HarperCollins, 1991, pp. 249-250