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10 Big Questions About Hinduism, Answered

4

What's the Role of Gurus in Hinduism?

Yoga guru Baba Ramdev
Yoga guru Baba Ramdev speaks during a press conference at the Constitution Club of India, in New Delhi. Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

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The word guru means "dispeller of darkness." In Hinduism, a guru is an enlightened spiritual teacher who dispels the "darkness" of ignorance and guides his or her students on a path toward moksha.

In the Hindu tradition, the words and teachings of a guru are just as holy and sacred as the ancient Hindu texts. While Hindus are not required to have a guru, it's considered advantageous to seek the help and direction of a wise teacher.

While there is no recognized Hindu authority that confers the title of guru, many gurus claim a sacred lineage. Often they were students of a well-known guru who was himself or herself the student of other famous gurus going back centuries. A guru is not only expected to be wise, but to have had his or her own direct experiences with the Divine that inform their teachings.

The students or disciples of a guru are called shishya, and the close relationship between a guru and his or her loyal followers has been central for transmitting Hindu truths and practices, especially when Hinduism was primarily an oral tradition. In the past, students lived with or near their guru so that their spiritual education could be individualized to their needs, but now many gurus take students remotely or publish their teachings in books and online.

Although students are expected to show devotion and respect to their guru, they don't worship the teacher or follow him or her blindly. Gurus aren't gods; they are still human beings with human frailties, and students are expected to use their judgment about inappropriate behavior or unethical teachings.

It's also perfectly OK for Hindus to switch gurus for any reason, including if they feel that their spiritual needs have changed or would be better served by somebody else.

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