Origin of the word ‘Guru’

From an equal of gods to the expert next door

I once visited a house in a remote village. The entrance had a picture of a woman with bobbed hair. She wore a sari with a sleeveless blouse. There was a garland around the picture and vermillion was smeared on it. When I wondered aloud who she was, the matriarch of the house said, “She is our guru.” The word only confused me. ‘Guru’ is now used to denote so many kinds of people. The woman could be a saint, a political leader or even an expert in a certain subject. The matriarch added, “She is my sons’ teacher. She taught them in school. My sons owe everything to her. So we worship her picture every Guru Poornima.”


Here in a village, ‘guru’ still meant a teacher or mentor. Unaffected by modern English usage, for the family, the word had retained its ageold meaning. ‘Guru’ in Sanskrit means heavy or weighty. It could also translate into ‘someone who is knowledgeable’, perhaps the reason it was used to describe a teacher. ‘Guru’ is also used for the planet Jupiter, said to be the heaviest of the planets. In mythology, Brihaspati or Jupiter is considered the supreme teacher, or the Guru of the Gods.



The Advayataraka Upanishad splits the word into two to explain its meaning. It says that the syllable ‘gu’ stands for darkness and ‘ru’ for the one who dispels it. So, the one who has the power to remove darkness is a ‘guru.’ The Skanda Purana, the largest of the puranic texts, says “Guru Brahmaa Gurur Vishnu, Gurur Devo Maheswara, Gurur Sakshat Param Brahma, Tasmai Shri Guruve Namaha.” These lines hold the guru in a position equal to that of the creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe.


This devotion for the guru prevailed across castes and creeds in ancient India. The mystic poet Kabir writes, “Guru Govind donokhade, Kaake lagoon paaye. Balihari guru aapne, Govind diyo bataaye.” (If my guru and God were to stand before me, who should I bow to first? Well, I choose my teacher because it is he who introduced God to me’).


A guru is not necessarily restricted to a teacher in childhood, but one you can meet at any point in your life. In that sense, the word refers to anyone who guides and inspires. In the Mahabharatha, though Dronacharya was Arjuna’s guru in childhood, it is Krishna who becomes his guru on the battlefield. He not only drives Arjuna’s chariot in Kurukshetra, but also boosts his morale and inspires him. Among Kannadigas in Bangalore, ‘guru’ is even used to address a friend.


Starting in the middle of the 20th century, ‘guru’ is being used in English for both mentor and expert. In 1966, the word was similarly used in Canadian English. Some attribute this usage to communications theorist Marshall McLuhan. It gained popularity in the 1990s when it was used for computer experts. We now hear about gurus in every walk of life (management guru, fashion guru and even love guru). The word is used so loosely that it is considered part of slang.


This article is published in TALK magazine, in my column Keywords. You can read it at http://talkmag.in/cms/columns/keywords/item/143-guru


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