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What is the Guru?

October 30, 2011

Today a good friend of mine asked me a pretty important question: How do you explain the concept of guru to people?

The question needs some context. Some people are afraid to admit it, but I’m not — I have a guru. His name is Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, and if you want to read more about him, his official Wikipedia entry is here — but it’s not really that important for you to know who he was to understand what the Guru is.

People are often afraid to talk about their guru because I mean, let’s be honest, it’s a little weird. It is perhaps one of the most misunderstood concepts in all of Yoga and meditation. On the one hand you have New Agers who water down the concept as being an abstract “inner voice” that reinforces their already pre-established points of view through various religious archetypes, while on the other hand you have forms of avatar worship that — on the outside, at least — look pretty similar to the way Christians look at Jesus. But what is the Guru really all about? More importantly, why does it matter?

I can only speak from my own experience. Luckily for me, as I talked about in my last post, one of the beauties of meditation is that it is a practice whose results are meant to be replicable by any aspiring practitioner — they are something anybody can experience. For me, early on in my practice I had an extremely vague, if not totally inaccurate idea of what the guru was. I knew who the guru was, of course — or at least I thought I did. I was living in a house with yogic monks and Anandamurti’s photo was hanging on the wall of the meditation room. He was born in the 1920’s, I was informed, and died in 1990. “Well that sucks,” I thought, “I bet he was a pretty okay guy.”

It goes without saying that my connection with the guru pretty much stopped there. Sometimes I thought that it must’ve been really “cool” to have met a genuine spiritual master — sometimes I even envied others of the time they might have spent with him. Otherwise, I didn’t really see what this man who lived and died in a foreign country had much to do with me.

Everything changed one night, however, when a friend of mine who had been meditating for decades told me a story about the guru from his own personal experiences. According to him, he was on his way to learn meditation from a Yogic monk when along the way he was stopped by a man on the street he had never met before, short, bald, with big, thick glasses. Apparently, the stranger stopped him and cordially asked him for directions to somewhere. Looking into the stranger’s eyes, my friend said that he was suddenly struck dumb, as if mesmerized.

My friend was at a loss for words even retelling the story to me. “It was the like the whole universe was in those eyes,” he said. “It was all reflected there.”

Not being able to help the stranger, my friend then continued on to the local meditation hall where he was shocked to see a photograph of the stranger he had just met on the wall.

“Who’s that?” he wanted to know.

“That’s the guru,” the monk replied.

Far from being a story that stirred any mystical yearnings or even questions or doubts within me, I walked away from the story feeling incredibly pissed off.

“Screw this,” I thought to myself. “Who needs a guru if he’s already dead?” Moving beyond the apathy or even envy I had felt before, I had finally moved to anger. Could this story possibly be true? I had heard literally a hundred stories almost exactly like it over the past few months I had spent living in this house with these monks. If even one of them proved to be even partly true, then I had in fact completely missed out on the life of one of history’s greatest spiritual masters. What the hell was the use of a guru? I thought. He had lived and I had missed him, and now he was gone.

Alone in my room later that night, I lay in my sleeping bag on the bare floor and cursed the world, cursed the guru and cursed my bad luck for being only five when he died. “The guru is everything,” one of the monks who lived with me assured me. “The guru never dies; the guru’s always here.” Great, I thought. Just what I needed: another voodoo-zombie-Jesus-fable. There seemed to be a fundamental disconnect between the difficult, intellectually rigorous and at times sublime philosophy underlying meditation that I had been studying and the whole concept of the “guru,” which seemed religious, dogmatic, and almost vestigal. Once again, I thought the thought again: “who needs a guru?”

It’s a little unreasonable how angry I got that night. I spent the whole rest of the night being upset about it in a way that I rarely get upset about anything. What matters isn’t so much how angry I got that night but what happened after I fell asleep.

That night I dreamt I was in an old, leaky basement, smelling rank of mold and mildew. In the dream I was a hunchback, crippled and deformed. Anandamurti was there, too, and so were his followers. His disciples would come once in a while, receive some teaching from him and leave happily, but I never approached him — my only job was to fix the leaks. The whole dream I spent trying unsuccessfully to meditate. Meditation was difficult, almost impossible, with all of my dreamed up disabilities. If all I could do was fix a few leaks, then so be it.

At the end of the dream, I finally approached Anandamurti myself. I asked him one question: “Why is it so difficult to meditate?”

“You have no devotion,” he replied. It was a response I wholly unanticipated. “The purpose of your life is to develop devotion. You must learn the true meaning of the word.” Finally, he asked me if I was ready to lead “a life of Cosmic ideation” and touched me on the forehead, which promptly led me to pass out and wake up from my slumber in an altered state of consciousness — a state of consciousness so exhilarating, so transformative, so ecstatic that it took me many, many minutes to return to “normal”. I felt that the entire body of the universe was contained within me — that the universe was a projection and reflection of my own cosmic Self. A long while later, blinking as I looked about the room around me, things looked different and yet looked the same. Anandamurti’s photo was hanging on the wall, but it wasn’t the same photo I had seen so many times before. I had changed. I’d never be the same again.

It’s easy to misinterpret my story. I don’t blame you — I had professionally misinterpreted every story I had ever heard about the guru, up until that moment — the guru and the relationship of the guru and the disciple are notoriously considered some of the thorniest, most esoteric concepts in all of Yoga. I return to my good friend’s initial question: How do you explain the concept of guru to people?

Both the theory and practice of meditation teach that at our deepest, rudimental Self, we are all connected as One. More specifically, this entire universe can accurately be considered a universal, cosmic Consciousness that experiences Itself subjectively through each of Its manifestative “projections”: through you, through me, through all animals and all plants. We are quite literally God, gradually coming to realize Himself. Or Herself, if you prefer 🙂

By this reckoning, who is the Guru? The guru is often thought of as a “guide.” Really speaking, the guru in this case must be our deepest, innermost Selves. The practice of meditation is self-realization, after all — it must be the Self who is the true guru.

To take this a step further, if our spiritual journeys are really the process by which we truly come to know our Selves — and if that universal Self is manifested in EVERYTHING, good AND bad — then the whole universe must be the guru, always whispering to us the answers to our questions in the hope that we are listening. You are the guru speaking to me and I am the guru speaking to you. The guru speaks to us through the wind, through the sky, through the earth and through the trees — through the beggar, asking for change and through the rich, rolling in wealth. The whole universe is teaching us, after all, because the universe itself is our Selves, reflected.

But here’s the problem: this is an ideal that sounds pretty cool in theory, but in practice is a state of non-dualism that takes perhaps lifetimes to completely achieve. Unless and until that state of non-dualism is realized in its totality, how do we actually behave? How often do we really listen to that innermost Self, and how often are we actually just listening to ego-constructs, self-created in an unconscious effort to maintain our comfortably preconceived notions of the world? The necessity arises, therefore, for a guide, and not just an internal one — for someone who’s been to our destination before — for someone who can show us the way.

The literal meaning of “guru” is “dispeller of darkness.” Spiritual darkness can be defined as the feeling that “I am an entity separate from all others.” It is a state that, at its best, creates a sense of existential dread and isolation and, at its worst, breeds irrepressible greed and violence. This darkness has been likened metaphorically to being lost in a cave. Like a flashlight, set there to show us the path, the guru, in its deepest sense, has the same power to tear the shroud of darkness and lead us to our desired goal.

To return to my own experience, what really happened that night in that dream? Did the spirit of this legendary, mythical guru who “never died” and was “always with me” descend from some heavenly realm to give me some profound, mystical experience in my sleep to show me I was on the right path? Certainly not. What spirit? There is only one spirit and that same spirit reflects Itself through all forms, in all places. Imagine you walk outside one night, and see the moon reflected in so many pools of water. How many moons are there? Are there innumerable moons, or is there just that self-same One moon, reflecting itself in the innumerable pools of water? What I experienced in my dream that night wasn’t a communion with the man whose photo was on the wall — the man who was born in the 20’s and who died in the 90’s — what I experienced was a communion with my own innermost Self.

Is there a contradiction between the inner guru and the outer guru? Of course not. The external guru, after all, is someone who has already reached the goal. What is the goal? Union with the deepest, innermost Self. Not lowercase self — uppercase Self — the same Self that reflects itself imperfectly in me. What is the difference, therefore, between the God within me, struggling to realize Itself, and the God within my guru, already self-realized? Only this — knowledge. Not intellectual knowledge, but experiential knowledge — intuitional knowledge. The goal of meditation, therefore, is to realize that the Self, God and the Guru are all one and the same entity. There is no difference. And what is the role of the external Guru? Merely to inspire us and show us the way. The guru is a bridge — between the world of forms and formlessness. Why did my deepest innermost Self take the form of Anandamurti in my dream? The answer is simple. The Supreme Consciousness is formless, after all. Anandamurti appeared to me because Anandamurti is the form that I recognize. 

The Guru isn’t the form — the Guru is the entity operating behind the form. And that how is how I explain the concept of Guru to people.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Sudarshan permalink
    October 30, 2011 1:09 pm

    Thank You for writing the blog about Guru which brought tears of joy from my eyes.

    Your friend,

  2. adaan permalink
    October 30, 2011 2:01 pm

    Great, but please don’t use emoticons.

  3. November 1, 2011 2:31 pm


    • November 1, 2011 3:10 pm

      Yes, in the sense that the whole concept itself was a strange vestige of a long-standing tradition that had no use in the modern era. This is also a common point of view among some modern meditators, i.e. that a guru is unnecessary.

  4. November 2, 2011 10:46 pm

    Wow! Thank you that is so beautifully explained.

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