By Peter Brent


Gurus make for fascinating study. On the one hand we may feel a need for a teacher, on the other we are fully aware, thanks to studies on co-dependency and the ‘Stockholm syndrome’, that intense reverence for another person may easily be abused. But what if it is not?

The assumption in the West is that the tacit and implicit knowledge of the Guru – that which can’t be written down – is of little importance compared to his or her explicit, verbally transferable, knowledge. Informally, of course, we continue to beat a path to master artists, sports trainers and craftsmen to get that ‘special something’.

In India, where the notion of the Guru is fully embedded, author Peter Brent shows that it might not be a case of either/or.

One who enlightens

Who is ‘a true Guru’? In some ways, the picture becomes very confused when one looks at it closely. Some people, for example, say that anything that helps one in one’s spiritual progress is a Guru.

And this is true, if one thinks that ‘guru’ has been translated as ‘one who enlightens.’

Then there are hereditary Gurus. In some cases, for instance among the Vallahbacharyas, all the male members of a family are Gurus the moment they are born; in others the old Guru appoints a successor who may be his son, or perhaps his cousin or brother, but who is never anyone from outside the family. And of course such groups are only following the tradition of the ancient, Vedic Guru, who inherited his shishya varga, his group of students and disciples, from his Guru father, just as they inherited him from their fathers.

Then there are sect-Gurus, men who are leaders of a defined group and who often claim spiritual descent from a founding deity, known then as the adi-Guru.

Then there are mahants, the heads of monasteries, who perform the functions of a Guru. And it must not be forgotten that these categories are not mutually exclusive; at the same time, any holy man, once approached, may accept someone who comes to him as his disciple.

Teachers of reality

Some consider these last ones ‘the holy men’ among that highest level of teachers, the sad-Gurus – the ‘teachers of reality’, as that term has been translated. These are the masters whom we in the West think of as ‘real’ Gurus.

Often they come from poor families, manifest their holiness early, refuse to marry – it may be because they refuse that their sanctity first becomes apparent. They take to the roads of India, making their way in a pilgrimage sometimes decades long from one holy man or holy place to another.

Or they may settle early, at the feet of a great teacher, taking over from him when he dies. Or they may decide to remain in one place, from which, little by little, the fame of their holiness and, perhaps, their miraculous powers, begins to spread about the land.

In this way, they draw their disciples to them; they bring to their feet great crowds, some of whom will accept them as their Guru, others of whom have come only for the darshan of the great man – that view of him which the Hindu feels will enable him to draw up into himself some particle of a saint’s or leader’s virtue.

Two categories

Particular followers of a Guru may decide that they should renounce the world and serve this saint and God. Most, however, will remain weekend devotees, travelling as often as possible to the ashram of the Guru, drawing on his wealth of spiritual power, staying perhaps in the guest-house the ashram provides, then returning to the city to continue their normal, secular lives.

They will be no less a devotee of their Guru than those who, in ochre robes, stay at his side and minister to his needs twenty-four hours a day.

As one secular devotee of a Guru put it to me, ‘There are two categories, that of the householder and that of the renounced. The ultimate goal is the same for both – but they are in a better position to attain it.

In choosing one’s Guru, there often comes a moment of recognition, or of something perhaps a little sharper, a moment as emotional as that of ‘falling in love at first sight’ might be for us.

Once one has had such an experience, there is rarely any going back on it; one has found the Teacher one has, consciously or not, been looking for.


One chela, whose Guru was an ascetic who had not lain down or spoken for a dozen years, described their first meeting for me. ‘I was staying in a small cave near here, and so I came to know that there was a holy man living here. I came to see him, and the first time I saw him it was as though I had been thirsty all that time and now the thirst had left me. I felt very peaceful. That is how I knew I had met my Guru.’

Or the devotee of a female Guru, Godavari Mata, herself a woman: ‘Somebody said, “Mataji has come”. I turned round just to see – and at that very moment something in me …. I don’t know, I can’t explain that experience. Something sort of …. I just surrendered. She was at that time very beautiful, even physically …. Really I can’t explain what had happened to me. I was like one in a dream.’

Sometimes the recognition is in the other direction – it is the Guru who picks out the disciple. One devotee was being introduced to the Guru by his brother, when the Guru said, ‘I know him, I have known him since long.’

And when the astonished newcomer asked how that was possible, the Guru said, ‘I have known you since your birth, during many births. I have always been with you.’

At this time the Guru may give proofs of heightened powers – he may give advice on some problem about which the devotee is worrying but which he has not yet discussed with his new Master.

In one case the Guru came to his prospective follower on the first day, after a period of silent meditation had been passed by the aspirant with as little result as always, and told him that the mantra he was using to concentrate on was too long.

Impressed in this way – ‘How did he know what my mantra was?’ – the man became a life-long follower. In this and other ways, both Guru and disciple are tested.

The whip-hand

The Guru has the right at any time to send away a would-be disciple; conversely, although it may be frowned upon, it is understood that the disciple who makes no progress under a particular Guru may strike out to find himself another.

In making these decisions, of course, the Guru as the enlightened man has certain advantages. As one Guru told me, ‘As soon as a shishya comes and sits before a Guru, he sees the vibrations that emit from that shishya, and because he is more powerful, he knows what type of a shishya he is.’

Nevertheless, it is the disciple who, in a curious way, has the whip-hand; if he does not make an approach to the Guru, if he does not decide that the Guru is the man who can lead him to self-realisation, then whatever the Guru may think of himself and his spiritual ability, he will be left without a follower.

Only when the would-be disciple has made his decision can the Guru exercise what is his prerogative, the acceptance or rejection of the newcomer.


Acceptance may then be formalised by diksha, initiation. Within a sect or a monastic order, this is naturally done with ceremony and ritual.

On the ashram, however, initiation may be very informal, may involve no spoken word at all. Indeed, this kind of initiation is often considered the highest of all: distinction is made between the diksha which is bahya, external, and abhyantari, which is internal and most subtly effected.

There are in this subtle initiation three further categories, sparshi, where the Guru simply touches the disciple, caksush, which is by a glance, and manasi, which is by thought alone.

Another classification is similar – sbakti, in which the Guru’s spiritual power enters the disciple directly, even when they may be physically separated; sambhavi, in which there is some contact, a touch perhaps, an exchange of words; and anavi, in which there is a ritual of some kind and the devotee is given a mantra.

What initiation proves is the mutual acceptance, one of the other, by Guru and disciple. What it does is to pass the divine power of the Guru into the disciple.

What kind of relationship?

It has been said that the Guru-disciple relationship is not a teaching, it is a transmission, and with initiation of whatever sort, but particularly perhaps of the silent, subtle kind, such a transmission is given a channel it can use. From then on, the process of self-realisation can continue. For, as one Guru put it to me,

‘The Guru and the shishya, they are like two kernels in one jack-fruit, one raw, the other ripe. The raw one wants to be ripe; the ripe one is ripe and wants nothing more. While the raw one feels different it will continue to demand, to want something. But there is no difference – it is all jack-fruit, all the same stuff. The difference is only felt by the unripe.’

Once the disciple has been accepted and initiated, that ripening process can begin. The intensity of the subsequent relationship cannot be exaggerated. For the disciple, the Guru is divine. He is, he must be believed to be self-realised and thus essentially indivisible from Brahman, not only in the general way in which this is true of everyone, but in the particular, direct way which follows upon the destruction of all the barriers of illusion. Not only that, he is visible, manifestly there, the Guide on the path

A shelter

Again and again the devotees of one Guru or another – sad-Guru, sectarian Guru, hereditary Guru – said to me, ‘Guru is greater than God, because he leads me to God.’ To illustrate the depth of the relationship, here are the words of a Swaminaryana monk: ‘The invisible presence of the Guru is like a shelter that continues. He is the real liberator. Everything depends on him, when or whether he wants to raise us up… The ultimate stage will come when we realise his presence all the time…’ And a secular follower of the same Guru told me, ‘If he tells me to stay with him, then I have to. If he tells me to renounce the world, then I have to. It is his orders which mould our lives.’

Or another devotee, an engineering student, speaking of his quite different Guru, ‘There is no comparison between this and any relationship I have known. I feel that he is perfect. Disagreement can never be possible, you see, because the situation as Swamiji analyses it can never be wrong.’

It is by way of such an intensity of feeling that the teachings of the Guru, or the power of the Guru, are transferred to the disciple. And for this reason much of what passes between Guru and shishya does so in silence.

The Guru sits, often on the gadi, the padded throne, while before him, men and women separate, his followers face him. They greet him by prostrating themselves, they offer a gift – fruit, a little money – then take their places in the assembly. If they have a question, they will ask it; otherwise, they simply watch him, or close their eyes and go into meditation. For long stretches, the hall in which these people are meeting their teacher is absolutely silent. As one American disciple put it, ‘He’s got like great teats all over him and we just suck and suck that heavy goodness out of him.’

It is – because of the essential privacy of this relationship, because it is always unique, tailored for and by the personalities of one Guru, one disciple – very difficult to define in very strict and formal terms exactly what a Guru is and does. I have evolved a partial definition of the Guru; that is, I have isolated four conditions any two of which must be met by anyone claiming to be a spiritual Guru (obviously those teaching dance and music come into a different category).

Definition of a Guru

These conditions are: (a) the Guru must be able to achieve the state of samadhi; (b) he must be able to teach or transfer to others the ability to achieve samadhi (this as the visible sign of a high level of self-realisation); (c) he is the established successor of his own Guru before him; (d) he has the right and the power to give initiation. The great sad-Guru on his own ashram will meet all four of these conditions; the hereditary Guru of a bhakti cult might only meet the last two. But two at least must be met for someone to be considered a Guru.

A fifth condition – that of deep learning in the Hindu scriptures – will be almost universally met by Gurus, yet may not be by some who seem to have achieved a very high spiritual plane without experiencing a conventional education. Such proficiency, however, will generally be expected by would-be disciples.

Emotional restriction

It is plain that explanations for some of the intensity with which this relationship is entered into must be looked for outside it, in Indian society as a whole. When one does so, one sees that a highly-repressive puritanism is very widespread in India, which holds down not merely sexuality, but all emotion.

Public tenderness between husband and wife is, for example, considered indecent, and any acknowledged feelings of affection between, say, an engaged couple are unthinkable. The vast majority of marriages are, in any case, arranged.

Most people’s lives are, therefore, emotionally very restricted. They are weighed down by the demands of duty towards their often widely-ramified families; their circle of friends is limited by class, caste and wealth; their opportunities in life restricted by the general poverty of the country and the commands of their parents.

To these last they remain entirely subservient for the whole of their lives, living into middle-age with restrictions the Westerner has thrown off before he is into his twenties.

In this situation, the relationship with the Guru is one of the very few in which the Indian may be respectably swept off his feet by his emotions. In many of these cases it seems to me that what has happened is a redirection of love, a love rebuffed hitherto by the many barriers convention puts in its way, either by prohibiting its expression or by demanding it as a duty.

Not unique

Nevertheless, it is clear that for perhaps thousands of years men and women have been led to some kind of realisation, some kind of spiritual development, by the personality and techniques of successive generations of Gurus.

The institution is not, of course, unique; in many parts of Asia, both further West and further East, similar masters teach their disciples the details of similar routes. (Zen and Sufi both, as a matter of fact, seem more interesting to me, since they are more aware that man is also partly intellect, that he must be taught to think in new ways, that his expectations, even of the master-aspirant relationship, should be broken down before something useful can emerge; much of what passes between shishya and Guru seems to me to do so by rote).

If now the West is showing a greater and greater interest in these institutions, it seems to me to be because we have reached the end of an era in the history of ideas.

Much to learn

Scientific materialism seems to be at its last gasp. We are watching with despair the world it has created, or tried to show us: a world of insane weaponry, of irrelevant endeavour, of pointless experimentation. We go to the Moon because we can, not because we must.

Scientists work impartially on cancer cures or the virus of bubonic plague. Sociologists and psychologists settle with the same objectivity to the causes of poverty as they do to the methods of selling detergents.

Behaviourists maim a million animals in order to prove what their very determination disproves of itself, that living is a matter of learned muscle-response.

Land, sea and air become polluted. The world’s natural resources drain away. Ideologues confront each other, those sad, threatening pushbuttons under their fingers.

From such a world, we are beginning to recoil; even scientists are asking whether an undifferentiated curiosity is really man’s highest and most hallowed attribute.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle showed that even in physics the observer cannot exclude himself from his observations. Man is having to rediscover his inevitable presence, is having to reckon with himself in the particular; generalisations will no longer entirely do.

If a new era of subjectivity is thus being ushered in, it may be that somewhere in the Guru-shishya relationship there are elements which will prove useful to us, that from this intense and alien institution we may yet have much to learn.

The Author

Peter Brent wrote many books, among them a major biography of Darwin (Charles Darwin: A Man of Enlarged Curiosity); also two studies of the mystical and religious traditions of the East (Godmen of India and Healers of India), of which this monograph was a forerunner. Here is an edited version – the full article can be downloaded at: