A Guru is one who has realized the tatva (essence) of Ishwara (Iśvara) and become a lamp in whose light one can realize Iśvara (God) and one’s Ḍharma. The concept of a guru is the most fundamental entity in Sanātana Ḍharma (Hinduism). A guru is not just a teacher, which is a common misinterpretation. Like Ḍharma, there is no equivalent word for Guru in other philosophies. Though the word Guru was incorporated into many philosophies, the core concept and its definition got revised over time. A Guru is different from an Ācārya, Upādhyaya, Adhyapaka, Gyani (jñani), Yogi, Siddhi, Rishi (Maharśi), and Sanyasi. Sanātana Ḍharma upholds the significance of a guru at a higher position than the concept of Iśvara (God). Hence the Sloka:
“Guru Brahmā, Guru Viṣṇur, Guru Devo:maheśvara:ha, Guru Shakshat Pāra:brahmā, tasmay Śrī Guravay Namaha”
What is the difference between a Guru, Ācārya, Upādhyaya, Adhyapaka, Jñani, Rishi (Rushi), Yogi, Siddhi, and Sanyasi?
A jñani is one who has moved beyond the conscience that is limited to this reality and prakruti (Prakṛti). A jñani can continue to exist in his/her physical form but is devoid of the cause and effects of karmā and its karmā:phala, hence a jñani is not associated with an ashram(am), nor is he/she associated with its respective karmā. This can be seen in Śrīmad Bhagavād Gita, Chapter 3 of Karmā Yoga, Sloka 17 & 18, wherein Gitācārya (Śrī Kṛṣṇa) says:
यस्त्वात्मरतिरेव स्यादात्मतृप्तश्च मानवः। आत्मन्येव च सन्तुष्टस्तस्य कार्यं न विद्यते।।
नैव तस्य कृतेनार्थो नाकृतेनेह कश्चन। न चास्य सर्वभूतेषु कश्िचदर्थव्यपाश्रयः।।
(Gita Supersite. n.d.)
Meaning, for those who have realized their Ātman and are immersed within it, there is nothing left to be done in this reality, nor is there a need for them to abide by an ashram and its karmā.
A Guru is one who is well-versed in the tatva of Shastra (Śāstra) and Ishwara (Iśvara) and hence speaks for the well-being of the people around. Now, here comes a twist; a jñani, though called and addressed as a Guru, is not necessarily a Guru. For example, Śrī Ramakrishna Paramahamsa was a jñani, but he hadn’t established an ashram nor had he taken any shishya. Many followers who were impressed by his gyana(m) flocked around him and considered him a Guru.
Let us understand a Guru through a sloka:
“आदि-गाथा तत्वाहा सिषययो हितयो जातहा सततम”
“దిగత తత్వాహ శిష్యయో హితాయో జాతః సతతం”
“Adi-gatha tatvaha sishyayo hithayo jathaha sathatam”
Meaning, the Guru is one who has realized tatva(m) (meaning or essence) and through this understanding reached a state of content. Such a Guru will strive to pass on this knowledge to the students so that one day they can understand and reach higher conscience in life. It is an inherent nature of a Guru to make way and lay the path for generations to understand the concept of existence. A Guru is one who has understood the tatva(m) “Adi-gatha tatvaha”. This makes us “sishyayo”, the students seeking this knowledge for “hithayo” (meaning our upliftment) with respect at the feet of our Guru, so that we can realize that tatva(m). (Srichaganti. K.D.S, n.d., p.17)
Guru is explained by Swami Prabhavananada and Christopher Isherwood in their translation of Śrī Adi Śankarācārya’s renowned composition of Advaita Siddhanta titled Vivekachudamani (Crest -Jewel of Discrimination) as:
“One who is deeply versed in the scriptures, pure, free from lust, a perfect knower of Brahman, calm like a flame when its fuel is consumed, an ocean of love that knows no ulterior motive, a friend to all good people who humbly entrust themselves to him. Let the seeker approach the master with reverent devotion. Then, when he has pleased him by his humility, love and service, let him ask whatever may be known about the Ātman”(Swami Prabhavananda. Isherwood, Christopher. 1947)
Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev profoundly defined Guru as:
“To be a teacher you need to know something. To be a guru you don’t need to know anything, but you got eyes to see, whatever you want you can look and speak. But to be a teacher you got to know something. If you don’t know anything you can’t make a teacher, isn’t it? So, to be a guru you don’t need to know anything. Just a level of perception that’s all, you are not knowledgeable about anything. It is easy, being a teacher is difficult because you have to remember so many things.”(Sadhguru. 2018)
Swami Prabhavananada, in his book “The Spiritual Heritage of India”, defines guru as:
“He of course explains the scriptures, the spirit as well as the letter; but, what is more important still, he teaches by his life–by his little daily acts, by his most casual words, sometimes even by his silence. Only to be near him, only to serve and obey him in humility and reverence, is to become quickened in spirit”(Swami Prabhavananda. Huston Smith. 1979)
Ācārya comes from the word Acharana, meaning to “implement” and “abide by”. An Ācārya can be a guru and can also be a jñani. However, the main difference is that an Ācārya himself/herself takes up an ashram (from among the four ashrams) and implements and abides by its karmā so as to become a living example in performing the karmā associated with that ashram. A good example is Śrī Śankaracharya, who was a jñani at such a young age, took up Sanyas:ashram and continued to retain in that ashram, implementing all its respective karmā. By doing so, he stood as an example – paving the way for future generations. He also took in shishya under him to pass on the tatva, and hence became a guru. Another good example is Dronācārya, who took up Gruhast:ashram and established an institution to teach all the Kauravas as students (note, the Pandavas are also Kauravas), and hence took the position as a guru.
An Upādhyaya or Adhyapaka is one who interprets the concepts of a scholar or Śāstra, becoming an intermediate towards explaining the concept. Hence Upādhyaya can be a profession, whereas Guru, or Jñani, or Ācārya are not professions. An Upādhyaya is mostly a position or a role in an academic institution (like a vice principal) and Adhyapaka is a teacher. Enlightenment is not a course nor a syllabus that one can complete through a trainer or an instructor. One can explore the Siddhānta (approach or concept laid by a guru), and memorizing information and grammar is a good step, but is not the goal towards realizing Ātman. Enlightened beings are svadhyaya (self-taught) beings for whom a Guru acts as a lamp.
Please note that a Sanyasi (Saṃnyāsi) is different from a Guru, although this is a common misinterpretation. Not every person who wears Kaashayam (orange or saffron-colored cloth) is a sanyasi and not every sanyasi is a Guru. Sanyasies are those who have moved beyond the three ashrams to unify with Iśvara through Vairagya in order to attain liberation (Mukti or mokṣa); hence one should never seek a sanyasi with desires or wishes. Now that we have had a small glimpse into the understanding of a Guru and Ḍharma, we must realize that Ḍharma and Guru constitute the quintessential concept of Sanātana Ḍharma Siddhānta, making it neither a religion nor a philosophy. Hence Sanātana Ḍharma should not be compared with any other religion or cult.
A Rishi (rśi/Maharśi) (the closest word is a sage), is one who is not just a devotee or saint; he goes through tapasya (a deep meditative state) and becomes a medium to Iśvara and the ultimate truth. It is through a rishi that this truth is shared as Shruti and Kalpa(m). There are many classification like Maharśi, Brahmārśi, Rajarśi and more.
A Muni is an ascetic with austerities and lives on a resolve with devotion. Some remain in silence and some dwell in forever singing like Nāradā Mahamuni. Nāradā is also called Devarśi.
Both Rishis and Muni can enter into Gruhast (Married life and bear children).
A Yogi is one who has enhanced one’s physical body, the mental and psychological faculties, and the life energies that are in accordance with the energies of nature and the universe, using the discipline and the concepts of yoga.
A Siddha is one who has attained and excelled in a set of unique abilities (called Siddhis) that are not in the realm of a normal being, and are achieved through various procedures, austerities, yoga, tapasya, and more. There are various siddhis defined by Śāstra; however, eight are more prominently described. They are Anima, Mahima, Garima, Laghima, Prapti, Prakamya, Ishitva, and Vashitva. Sage Kapila is defined as a Siddha in Śrīmad Bhagavād Gita by Krishna (Śrī Kṛṣṇa). Hanuman is also defined to have excelled in all eight Siddhis.
An Archaka is a person who performs upāchara (services) inside an inner sanctum (garbhalaya) of the deity in a temple. Archakas go through various sadhanas to consecrate themselves so that they are physically in a condition to serve a consecrate deity with an yantra (energy device). A Purohit, on the other hand, is a person who performs various rituals at the residence of people like pūjā, Kalpa, yajña, homa, havan, and more on various occasions like religious events or personal events like Gruhapravesha, Vastu pūjā, Namakarana, and more. A Pandit is the one who has ripened in a specific scripture or sect and achieved mastery.
Without the concept of Ḍharma, which provides a human with a choice and an understanding of the effects of an action, on what basis can one perform an action or make a choice? Without the understanding of a Guru, from whom can one learn to interpret the Śāstra and its tatva, how can any concept be passed on to the next generations? This is a very important question, especially when we are presented with so many different philosophies in Kaliyuga. Please note that this discussion is not to compare one concept or philosophy with another. It is to understand how Ḍharma be applied in our Karmā and on what basis.
Yes, one can always read various literary works; but, can one mine the essence of it, can one reach that content? It is the very nature of KaliPuruṣa (the predominant entity and nature of Kali:yuga) to throw humans out of the wheel of Ḍharma, encourage lifestyles built upon the acquisition of materials, greed, lust, selfishness, and pleasure, causing truth to be covered under too much misinformation and misinterpretations, making it very difficult to both follow and seek the truth. And what guarantee that one is not reading the opinion of some writer. However, as quoted in Śrīmad Bhagavād Gita, part of Śrī Maha:bharat, composed by Maharśi Veda Vyāsa, Chapter 7, verse 16, as:
“आर्तो जिज्ञासुरर्थार्थी ज्ञानी च भरतर्षभ”
“Artho jignAsur arthArthi, gnAni cha bharatarshabha”
(Gita Supersite. n.d., All Glory to Sri Sri Guru and Gauranga. 2005)
“Jignasur” – one who is curious and eager to learn and understand Iśvara – will seek and explore, and as Śrī Adi Śankarācārya said in Kanakadhārā Stotram, Śrī Viṣṇu, in His yoga:nidra, considers those who desire to comprehend Iśvara and helps them reach a Guru, reach a good book and more. Also making them fall within the divine sight of Sri Lakshmi (Śrī Lakṣmī), who is constantly watching Śrī Viṣṇu. She, as Śrī Mahā Viṣṇu’s Shakti (śakti), will bestow prosperity so that one can continue on one’s path towards devotion. (Srichaganti. K.D.S, n.d., p.16)
Guru is the lamp in whose light one can see Iśvara, may that light shine upon our darkness and bring us into the ever joyous state of Brahmanandam.
REFERENCE ENTRY (APA Style citing)
Ramakrishna Paramahamsa Sri Vivekananda Ashrama. (n.d.). Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Image Retrieved from http://www.vivekanandaashram.org/.
Adi Shankaracharya with Sisya (Painted by Raja Ravi Verma). (1904). Wikimedia Commons, File:Raja Ravi Varma – Sankaracharya.jpg. Retrieved from https:/commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARaja_Ravi_Varma_-_Sankaracharya.jpg
Sri Chaganti Koteshwar Rao (Orator). (n.d.). Kanaka Dhara Stotram [Audio Part 1-19, Recorded by Srichaganti.net]. Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, India. Retrieved from https://www.english.srichaganti.net/KanakaDharaStrotram.aspx
Gita Supersite. (n.d.). Developed and Maintained by IIT Kanpur. Retrieved from https://www.gitasupersite.iitk.ac.in
All Glory to Sri Sri Guru and Gauranga. (Nov 27, 2005). Srimad Bhagavad Gita. Retrieved from http://www.bhagavad-gita.org/Gita/verse-07-16.html
Swami Prabhavananda. Isherwood, Christopher. (1947). Shankara’s Crest-Jewel of Discrimination. California: Vedanta Press
Swami Prabhavananda. Huston Smith. (1979). The Spiritual Heritage of INDIA. California: Vedanta Press
Sadhguru (Orator). (June 23, 2018). How a Guru is Different From Saints & Sages – Sadhguru [Audio]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/Deh7k-ohE-I