The Role of Guru

From On the Wings of the Swan, Volume V, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Guru is one of the names of God, just like Rama, Krishna or Devi. It is a name which represents an attribute of God: the energy which dispels darkness. It has also been said that guru is inside; the power to change, the power to transform and the power to enlighten a being is within everyone. This energy, this shakti, this power, is an attribute of the turiya state of consciousness and in order to access this source of power, a person needs a catalyst, an external agent. The external agent is the physical form of a person who is recognized by the aspirant as the guru.

Definition of the physical guru

The concept of the physical guru is someone who knows the process of self-transformation. A guru who can understand the limitations and the abilities of each aspirant can guide aspirants according to their evolution. The concept of guru implies a natural understanding between two people. A guru does not say, "I am a guru." Those who do are caught in their own ego-trip. A guru does not say, "I am a master," for such statements or sentiments go against the principle of spiritual life. In spiritual life one is supposed to transcend the ego. Saying, "I am a guru" is not transcending the ego; rather, it is overemphasizing one's self-image and self-esteem. This self-projection leads to the downfall of a spiritual person, whether it be the master or the disciple.

According to all spiritual traditions, the realization of guruhood or connection with the inner guru takes place when the entire system of the body and mind is purified. There is no question of anybody claiming to be a guru. In the state of purification, if ego is to be transformed and transcended, naturally the aspirant develops simplicity, innocence and purity. These become the hallmarks or trademarks of an enlightened being.

Guru-disciple relationship

The association that a spiritual master and a spiritual aspirant have with each other develops trust and faith. This trust and faith creates an awareness in the mind of the spiritual aspirant, "This person is my guide." This trust and faith has to be innocent.

There is a story of a saint who walks through a town with his disciples. He goes to a bar and has a drink of whisky. The disciples become happy and say, "Well, if the guru is doing it, there is nothing wrong with it and we can also do it." They order a huge glass of whisky each and get drunk. The guru then goes to a nightclub, listens to music and dances. The disciples think, "When the guru does it, it must be all right and also good for us, for the guru is only teaching us through his example." They start dancing, listening to music and displaying all kinds of funny behaviour. The guru goes into the red light district. The disciples say, "If it is all right for the guru, it must be all right for us," and they have a good time. Finally, the guru goes to a place where glass is being melted. He takes a beaker full of molten glass and drinks it. This time the disciples say, "Only gurus can do that. We can't."

This is a story, but in the lives of many people it is a real story. If you look at yourself, how many times do you compare yourself with your guide, teacher and master? If you want to do something and the guru does it, you think, "Oh, it is sanctioned." If the guru does something that you can't do, you say, "Oh well, only gurus can do it because they are powerful siddhas." With such a comparative and competitive mentality, the relationship with the guru cannot be established. Rather, it is a false relationship and you are duping yourself. Therefore, you must be clear in realizing that the relationship which has to be developed with the guru is based on understanding, trust, belief and the realization that this person can guide you.

A blade of grass cannot conceive of becoming a mango tree. Disciples are like the blade of grass and guru is like the mango tree. The basis of the relationship between the spiritual aspirant and the spiritual master is of understanding, faith and trust. It is knowing the limitations that exist in each one of us and accepting that. Therefore, it is also necessary not to have preconceived ideas about what a guru should or should not be because such ideas are generally false.


The outcome of this relationship based on trust, faith and understanding is identification and surrender. This can be seen in the life of Swami Satyananda. He lived with Swami Sivananda for many years and then left the Rishikesh ashram under his guidance. However, even today, when it comes to his feelings for Swami Sivananda, he says, "I may be guru for others, but in my personal life I am still a disciple of my guru." This sentiment was expressed most clearly when he sent his message for the World Yoga Convention, held in Munger in 1993: "The most memorable event in my life has been the moment when I surrendered myself to my guru." That was the starting point of his spiritual life.

If we have to think of what has been the most memorable event in our life we will definitely point out some achievement, when we received a degree or a promotion. I do not think that anyone is going to say, "When I met my guru." Nobody has said it so far. Nobody has the courage to say it because their concept of guru is a reflection of their personality and not the realization of the spirit which is being reflected by the guru. This is a major difference between a spiritual master and an aspirant. If we can understand this much, we have understood everything.

The process by which the guru takes his disciples to task and inspires them to reach the highest is: sadhana, karma yoga and egodectomy – to some close disciples, not to everyone.


The most common process is sadhana, for everyone expects a nice outcome or achievement from sadhana. Therefore, the guru encourages one to participate and involve oneself in sadhana. However, even in sadhana, one makes mistakes.

The guru gives an instruction that this is what one needs to do, like so many rounds of japa. Instead of following that sadhana, people apply their mind and try to do more. When they do self-motivated sadhana they may lose their balance, because they applied the mind and crossed the threshold of safety. After all, they are not aware of their nature, mind, or vrittis.

The guru is also not one hundred percent aware, but the difference is that the guru is monitoring and observing. During this process of probing or monitoring, the instructions are, "You do this much," because that is the safest threshold or system to follow. If people apply their mind and say, "Well, if I do more, I will attain faster," then psychic imbalances happen and they lose mental and emotional balance. They will not accept their own shortcomings, but the blame for failure or unsuccessful effort will always be put on the guide.

For this reason, gurus are reluctant to guide people into higher yogas. They simply teach the basics and talk about the concept of yoga but they do not wish to guide them, because they know that people cannot disassociate themselves from their ambitions and the mind's involvement in sadhana. This does not mean that they are incapable of achievement. It simply means that they need to work on themselves to develop a correct level of identification with the energy that is being reflected by the guru. They need to follow the path in a gradual, systematic, progressive way.

Karma yoga

The second aspect that is emphasized is karma yoga, not in the sense of work, but in the form of developing the right attitude towards one's participation and involvement in society. The human mentality is such that when people think of spiritual life they begin to believe that spiritual life negates and denies participation in material efforts. The concept of karma yoga is taught to the next, more sincere group of people, who are ready to go beyond sadhana. The direction is realizing that one is not free from actions; rather, one can change the participation in action to improve one's mentality, attitude and consciousness, and gain more wisdom. One can become free from attachment to experiences which bind the mind to the gross plane. Therefore, karma yoga as a belief and philosophy has been given a lot of importance.


Once the disciple is able to disassociate himself from the bondage or the influence of karmas, the next step is egodectomy, destruction of ahamkara. This destruction or transformation of ego relates to the manifest, the subtle and the individual identity. Ego is seen in three forms here.

When the ego is associated with the manifest personality, the body and mind, it is seeking fulfillment. The manifestation of ego comes in the form of arrogance, the 'I am holier than you' attitude. In a gross or manifest personality it is only arrogance, abhimana.

When ego is related or associated with the subtle mind, it takes the form of what is known as self-esteem, confidence, optimism, belief in one's self, swabhimana. To begin with, at the mental level the guru tries to develop swabhimana, the ability to trust oneself, to listen to one's conscience, to know the appropriate and right method to achieve the goal. However, in the final stage, the guru helps the disciple to overcome the remnants of the individual self.

The remnants of the individual self is one's individuality. Loss of one's individuality creates a lot of fear in people because they begin to feel, "What will be my identity if I do not have my ego?" However, in spiritual life loss of identity is seen as a gain and not a loss. One gains in the sense that one overcomes the limited nature of the self and connects with the cosmic self.

This idea or concept is further clarified in the Yoga Sutras. After going through the various stages of savikalpa samadhi (savitarkara, nirvitarkara, savichara, nirvichara samadhi) comes ananda samadhi, the state of bliss. The last form of savikalpa samadhi is asmita samadhi, in which there is loss of individual identity. Only after this the final state of nirvikalpa or nirbija samadhi begins. Egodectomy is the effort of the guru to take the disciple beyond the state of asmita to the realm of enlightenment.

The egodectomy can take any form, depending on the individual. What has to be recognized is the role of the aspirant in relation to the guru. The aspirant must strive to develop a sense of identification with the energy and spirit of the guru. This becomes a separate sadhana for the disciple, to evolve to the level of close connection where, although guru and disciple may live in two bodies, their spirit is one.

Trusting the guide

Guru is a spiritual aspirant who has gone through the process of personal transformation, who knows the pitfalls on the spiritual journey and can guide the aspirant to overcome those pitfalls. That is the meaning of the relationship between guru and disciple, and in spiritual life guru is a necessity, not a compulsion.

How can one be open? That is a difficult question to answer because each one expresses openness in a different way. Generally people think openness is when they dump their social, family or other problems on others, but this is not real openness or open communication.

Open communication means one is able to consult the guru, see the validity of the advice, and adhere to that advice without bringing the mind into it. That is the beginning of openness. The guru is not there for intellectual satisfaction; for that there are pandits, people who are knowledgeable, and who can convince an aspirant as they have read or developed their own understanding of a topic.

Guru is not for intellectual conviction, but for spiritual development. Therefore, the only way to have open communication is by developing trust and faith. Open communication is established not by applying the mind but by becoming innocent and simple. It has to happen spontaneously. One cannot make an effort to achieve it. It only happens as one develops more trust in the guru.

1998, Ganga Darshan