Guru and the Student

The one who teaches should be amazing and the one who learns should be equally skillful. It is only then that the connection of Guru [divine teacher] and Shishya [student] becomes meaningful.

                                                                                           -- The Upanishads



The ancient texts of yoga define a guru as an evolved spiritual guide who has reached a high degree of enlightened development. The true guru has the wisdom to help a student dissolve ignorance of the oneness of all. This teacher is a living personification of the one Self, eternally pure, eternally perfect, unchangeable and unchanged. The sage Swāmi Sivānanda has written that just as a lighted candle is needed to light another candle, an illumined soul is needed to illumine another soul.


The literal Sanskrit translation of the word “guru” is "weighty one," meaning a master of great knowledge or skill. The word guru comes from two Sanskrit root words: “gu,” meaning darkness, and “ru,” meaning light. When the student has a sincere interest in spiritual knowledge, the guru removes darkness and shines light, creating an environment for the student to transform.  


“Spiritual training,” says B.K.S. Iyengar, “has nothing to do with theoretical study, but it leads to a new way of life. Just as sesame seeds are crushed to yield oil and wood ignited to bring out its latent heat, so must the pupil be unswerving in practice to bring out the knowledge latent within…when [the student] realizes that [he/she] is the spark of the divine flame...then all [his/her] past impressions are burnt out, and [he/she] becomes enlightened.”


Gurus and their students are both concerned with knowledge of the spiritual, and by teachings and example, a guru facilitates seekers to make choices that deepen their love of the divine. Everyone can glean great benefits from learning āsanas, breathing techniques and meditation from a good, qualified yoga teacher. However, if you are interested in pursuing yoga as a spiritual path, guidance from a true guru is necessary. 


BKS Iyengar cites a classic example of the guru/student relationship in the Bhagavad Gita, “where Krishna removes the doubts of Arjuna, the mighty warrior, whose unerring aim and spirit of humility led him to the highest goal of life.”


According to yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein, yoga is a tradition which is “initiatory,” meaning “initiation (dīksha) by a qualified teacher (guru) is essential for ultimate success in Yoga.”


Feuerstein cites seven functions of a guru:


  • the guru initiates the student into spiritual life,
  • the guru transmits wisdom,
  • the guru guides by example,
  • the guru illuminates the disciple’s true nature,
  • the guru transcends living only the material life,
  • the guru is the “ultimate ego buster,”
  • the guru is an authority to help the seeker transcend the self,
  • the guru helps you discover your “inner guru.”


What differentiates a guru from a teacher or an instructor? Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, says that learning can arise only from three sources:


  • Reference
  • Logic
  • Experience


Reference - The one who teaches by reference, or knowledge, is a teacher.


Logic - The one who combines referential knowledge with logic, who is sincerely on the path to the Ultimate, and who teaches only what they know from experience, is a higher level teacher, or acharya.


Experience - The one who has the absolute experience of the divine, and therefore ultimate knowledge, is a true guru; he or she is one who has the quality of pure love unbounded, with the ability to see the reflection of divinity in each and every one of us. The true guru embraces each student with the same intensity of love.


Ultimately, the true guru lives in the heart of every seeker. The path is to listen carefully to your own heart with the greatest of faith. Difficulty arises in even the most steadfast practitioner because the mind is naturally restless, and in its restlessness, shuts our ears to our own inner voice. When the restlessness subsides (through devout practice,) the still, inner voice is there waiting to be heard, unchanged and unchanging. The ancients said that when the seeker is ready to listen, the guru appears.


According to the ancient texts of yoga, a guru must have these qualifications:


  • The teacher must understand the essence of the scriptures (they are often contradictory and must be known for what they are, attempts to describe the indescribable)
  • The teacher must be one who has the spiritual capacity to convey spiritual power to the seeker without being drained of his or her own spirituality
  • The teacher must be pure
  • The teacher must be unselfish, without motive


BKS Iyengar writes that the guru:


  • “should be clear in perception and knowledge,
  • regular in spiritual practice,
  • constant and determined in study.
  • free from desire from the fruits of his actions, and pure in what he does to guide his pupils in the true essence of knowledge…a bridge between the individual and God.”


How does one go about finding such a guru? The adage “when the pupil is ready the teacher will be there,” is the paradoxical answer; students who prepare themselves through sincere self-study and devotion to the moral disciplines will often find themselves “found” by a guru. It is often said that a guru teaches everyone who deserves it.


According to bhakti yoga, it is never by chance that one meets their guru. Sage Ādiswarananda writes, “The teacher comes when one’s longing for God is intense, pure, and sincere… In spiritual life, what we are given depends upon what and how we seek.”


The perfect aspirant is described in the Bhagavad Gita: “He who never hates any being and is friendly and compassionate to all…he who is free from joy and anger, fear and anxiety…he who is free from dependence, who is pure and prompt, unconcerned and untroubled…he who rejoices not and hates not…he who is alike to foe and friend, who is the same in cold and heat, in please and pain, who is free from attachment and who is unchanged by praise and blame, who is content with whatever he has, firm of mind and full of devotion…”


Ādiswaranda notes that the seeker need not worry about starting a spiritual quest without having all these qualities – the important thing is the full commitment to the goal of the quest and only unwavering faith. “When these qualities are present, all other virtues will be bestowed…”


Sage Vivēkānanda says, “when the divinely appointed teacher comes, serve him with childlike confidence and simplicity, freely open your heart to his influence, and see in him God manifested.”


Yet Vivēkānanda also warns: “There are many who, immersed in ignorance…[and] in pride…fancy they know everything, and not only do they stop there, but offer to take others on their shoulders; and thus, the blind leading the blind, both fall into the ditch…the world is full of these.”


Sivānanda advises that if you feel peaceful in the presence of the guru, if they clear your doubts, if your practice is strengthened by their presence, if you feel their loving qualities, and if you feel spiritually elevated in their presence, then you may take this person as your guru. He says that reason or logic cannot help you select a guru, as reason or logic doesn’t have the capacity to reveal the spiritual. Through the ages, ancient yogis advised that once a guru is chosen, one must abide by the authority you have given them.  Sivānanda advises to stick to only one guru. There is a saying, “Listen to all, but follow one. Respect all, but adore one.”




  1. Georg Feuerstein, The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, 2003
  2. B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Pranayama, 1998
  3. Bansi Pandit, Explore Hinduism, 2005
  4. Swami Adiswarananda, The Four Yogas, 2006




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