Is a Guru Necessary?

Is a Guru Necessary? February 21, 2013

This is a subject that came up on my Facebook page recently. Do we need to have a teacher to guide our spiritual progress in Hinduism?

I can definitely see how a guru or teacher would be very valuable for many people, at least for part of the journey, but I also think there are other ways to go about it.  One of the things I like about Hinduism is that you do not need an intermediary between yourself and God. Because the divine is within you, you are always capable of accessing it directly.

On the other hand, a guide can be enormously helpful.   Krishnachandra Dasan on the Facebook page made quite a good case for the need for a teacher:

 It could be perceived as you put it [referencing when I said that Krishna says in the Gita that he accepts any offering made with devotion, whether a leaf, a flower, or a drop of water], and yes, as Krishna says, there is no diminishment of any act performed in devotion, however, He also says in verse 18:66, to “Surrender unto Him and He will liberate you”! So, in the same tradition, if one really wants to achieve the fruits of Aradhanam, (which is ultimately moksha, according to all the Vedic sastra’s), then it is recommended that one seeks out a bona fide Acharya, (who represents the traditions and heritage of a Vedic lineage, also known as a ‘Sampradaya’) and undergo the appropriate initiation according to which ever deity / Agama they wish to follow, otherwise, it is described to be like “licking the outside of a honey jar”, going through the motions, but not having access to the nectar and nutrition inside! 

It is also stated:

pancaratra-vidhim vina
aikantiki harer bhaktir
utpatayaiva kalpate

“Devotional service to the Lord that ignores the institutes of the authorized Vedic literatures like the Upanishads, Puranas and Narada-pancaratra is simply an unnecessary disturbance in society.”

Therefore, the first port of call for anyone who follows Sanatana-dharma, is to seek out a bona fide Acharya and receive the necessary mantras, guidance, knowledge and training from them in order to achieve the ultimate goal of life, which is to understand the self and become free from Samsara, which is the point of all Hindu / Indian based traditions:

“One cannot learn about the Ultimate Truth from the Scriptures through personal reading and self-interpretation — the teaching must come from an authority. In matters of health one does not consult a doctor who is self taught, one goes to a specialist who has studied 
in a recognized school of medicine. In the same manner in order to understand the Ultimate Truth as it really is, one goes to a properly qualified Acharya-purusha”!


This statement is reaffirmed by many quotes from the sastras:

yasya deve para bhaktir
yatha deve tatha gurau
tasyaite kathita hy arthah
prakasante mahatmanah

“Only unto those great souls who have implicit faith in both the Lord and the spiritual master are all the imports of Vedic knowledge automatically revealed”! (Ref: Svetasvatara Upanishad, 6.23).

tad-vijnanartham sa gurum evabhigacchet
samit-panih srotriyam brahma-nishtham

“If one is actually serious about understanding supernatural, transcendental subject matters, one must approach a bona fide spiritual master”! (Ref: Mundaka Upanishad 1.2.12).

The Viṣṇu Purāṇa (3.8.9) states: “The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Viṣhṇu, is worshiped by the proper execution of prescribed duties in the system of varṇa and āśrama. There is no other way to satisfy the Supreme Personality of Godhead. One must be situated in the institution of the four varṇas and āśramas”! 

Without the assistance of an Acharya, one cannot be ‘properly’ situated in VarnAshram and therefore, as it is stated above, one cannot (ultimately) please the Lord, which is the goal of ‘Bhakti’!

There is a whole chapter in the Srimad Bhagavatam, where Krishna explains to Uddhava the process of worshiping an icon / deity and therein He emphatically states that one should be ‘twice-born’, i.e. initiated and follow the prescribed duties set out in the Vedic literatures: 

SB 11.27.6: The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: My dear Uddhava, there is no end to the innumerable Vedic prescriptions for executing Deity worship; so I shall explain this topic to you briefly, one step at a time.

SB 11.27.7: One should carefully worship Me by selecting one of the three methods by which I receive sacrifice: Vedic, tantric or mixed.

SB 11.27.8: Now please listen faithfully as I explain exactly how a person who has achieved twice-born status through the relevant Vedic prescriptions should worship Me with devotion.

SB 11.27.9: A twice-born person should worship Me, his worshipable Lord, without duplicity, offering appropriate paraphernalia in loving devotion to My Deity form or to a form of Me appearing upon the ground, in fire, in the sun, in water or within the worshiper’s own heart.

SB 11.27.10: One should first purify his body by cleansing his teeth and bathing. Then one should perform a second cleansing by smearing the body with earth and chanting both Vedic and tantric mantras.

SB 11.27.11: Fixing the mind on Me, one should worship Me by his various prescribed duties, such as chanting the Gāyatrī mantra at the three junctures of the day. Such performances are enjoined by the Vedas and purify the worshiper of reactions to fruitive activities.

(To me “Surrender unto Him and He will liberate you” doesn’t mean seek out a guru, it means surrender to Krishna in your heart. Some of these other quotes can also mean you studying the scriptures, not necessarily needing a teacher to tell you what they mean).

It’s hard for me to know how much someone with no background in Hinduism could learn and pick up on her own. I can imagine one could learn a lot from books and the Internet, but it would help a lot to have a wise man interpreting and guiding at least at first. On the other hand, there are stories of people spontaneously becoming enlightened because they sense the truth and follow it (most likely these people had many previous lifetimes of study and learning).

I had the guidance of a guru for a period of time, so I did have the help until my mind was developed enough to comprehend the fullness of truth.

I’m thinking now that perhaps it is a natural development for someone who didn’t grow up with Hinduism to start to learn the basics from books and the Internet and keep an eye out for an appropriate guru. It’s good to take one’s time and find just the right teacher.

Eventually I do think that you can grow beyond the need for a guru.

You have the truth within you and you are capable of accessing it.

My own background is informing this opinion. I am very wary of gurus and have difficulty trusting anyone outside myself to guide me spiritually. I’ve felt burned before.  However, I also feel confident in my ability to guide my own soul towards enlightenment. I feel the divine spark within me and I am happy for it to guide me.

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  • The biggest problem I have so far is of praying to or worshipping any deity.

    “A twice-born person should worship Me, his worshipable Lord, without
    duplicity, offering appropriate paraphernalia in loving devotion to My
    Deity form or to a form of Me appearing upon the ground, in fire, in the
    sun, in water or within the worshiper’s own heart.”

    I have a BIG problem with this. It just simply isn’t part of my reality nor my nature. However, I will say that there is this “something” I have a vague sense of awareness of, and I often ask of it in my language-less state, with imagery, feelings, or both, and eventually, the universe responds. It’s like I ask the Universe, and depending on whether the timing and the circumstances are right, the desires are manifest as reality in this world. Sometimes, the desires don’t become reality either because things haven’t lined up right, or it’s not time yet. I had to wait a long time to extract myself from a bad deal in which a contract to restore a vehicle for me was misrepresented, and it took me four years after it was signed a year prior to get out of it so that I could redirect the money into a travel trailer that I own free and clear, a mobile place of shelter. It also took over seven years, not long after I went back into retail and remembered fully why I hated it, to get back out of retail into something else that mattered a lot more to me. It also took me a while to situate myself financially, similarly to that of Hindu women as far as money and savings is concerned, I’d say about 9 years. Just like Hindu women do, I consider my savings OFF LIMITS and do everything I can to never have to dip into it, and I buy it back as soon as I have enough money to recoup my savings. I asked many times, and I worked along as I saw what was missing in making my desires reality, putting the missing pieces in place, and eventually it was reality.

    I would like to ask about a guru in the Texas area in the USA – does anyone know who or how I could contact one? I am in need of further guidance, because if I sense these objections I have from one of them, it stops RIGHT THERE. I have no qualms about walking away from this, as I have lived as an Ancient for nearly half a century. I would like to know where I stand on this, because I see two paths before me, one as a Hindu, and the other as an Ancient, continuing to incorporate sayings and teachings that fit me the best, which would help me to build out my world, though at an enormous cost of being the only one of “my kind,” because of my unique circumstances as a deaf person.

    A quick question about this phrase, “Sanātana Dharma.” Is this Sankrit or Devanagari when Hindus discuss this? One or the other makes a big difference in how this is pronounced per the Schwa Syncope Rule of Hindi. Exactly how is this phrase pronounced in terms of which syllable is silent?


    • Ambaa

      One of the nice things about Hinduism is there aren’t many hard and fast rules. Many of us see the Gita as the word of God, but it isn’t required. You don’t have to do as Krishna instructs there. It’s advice and to help you be happier and at peace and break the cycle of death and birth, but if it doesn’t work for you then don’t do it. If devotion isn’t a path that’s comfortable for you, that is just fine.

      There’s a lot of people on the devotion path so it can feel sometimes like the only way, but it is not. The path of action and of knowledge are still valid ways to get you to the same goal.

      I can’t confidently answer your question about the rules of pronouncing Sanatana Dharma! (I pronounce it with the second “a” emphasized, i.e. the long “a”)

      • According to the English spelling above, the second syllable of Sanātana is a long ‘a’ like ahh as in ‘father,’ and the final syllable of Dharma is pronounced. I see that the r/m conjunct is a common one, so it appears to be meant to be pronounced as a joined consonant combination and not the case of a schwa-succeeded consonant being followed by a vowel-succeeded consonant, which I don’t think is the case in words from Sanskrit, but in Hindi and other South Asian languages. Sanskrit is the liturgical language used by Hindus and possibly others, and I just found out recently that people are starting to take up speaking Sanskrit in everyday usage in a revival of the language. Dhanyavaad!

        • Ambaa

          Yes, there is a revival in speaking Sanskrit. And it does have a slightly different sound from Hindi despite them being so closely related.

          My parents have been Sanskrit scholars for forty years and my mother has recently been taking classes in spoken Sanskrit.

          I don’t speak Sanskrit but I do speak Hindi somewhat. I’ve focused on learning Hindi. I did try to learn Sanskrit a while back and found it enormously difficult!

        • सनातन धर्म – sanaatana dharma

          ‘naa’ has a long A sound because it is a different vowel from the others, as you can see by the vowel sign.
          न = na (the vowel sound in the word ‘none’)
          ना = naa (the vowel sound in the word ‘naan’)

          Ending ‘a’ is pronounced in Sanskrit. If they were not pronounced, they would have a virama on the ends of the words. Virama is this guy here: ् that keeps the inherent vowel from being pronounced.

          Hindi has a bit different pronunciation rules from Sanskrit – ending inherent vowels are generally dropped, so सनातन would be pronounced ‘sanaatan’ and not ‘sanaatana’

          • That is true! I can read the Sanskrit you wrote up there, and the long ‘a’ matra to the right of न indicates that and not the inherent vowel of that consonant. That matra is in the dependent form, because it has to be verbally connected to a consonant, otherwise, आ, the independent form, is written either alone as a single letter, at the beginning of a word, or after a vowel letter – in other words, when it has no consonant to connect to.

            By the way, the letters indicate:

            न – dental ‘n’
            त – dental, unaspirated ‘t’
            ध – dental, aspirated ‘d’ (sounds like dha, or duh-huh, very quickly)

            Yes, that Virama is also known as the halent sign or symbol, a vowel suppression mark. In regards to Hindi’s pronunciation rules… Remember that Sanskrit has been regarded as the primary liturgical language for Hindus, at least. Sanskrit means “perfect, refined speech.”

            The obligatory vowel deletion usually occurs at the end of words with consonants as the last letter (pronounce the consonant as the final sound, not the inherent vowel after it), in the middle of many words, or when the schwa-succeeded consonant is followed by a vowel-succeeded consonant (in this case, you drop the schwa after the first consonant and pronounce the non-inherent vowel of the second consonant. This is referred to as the Schwa Syncope Rule. It’s been said that this is not accurate but maybe 89% of the time, which presents a problem for speech-synthesis software on computers, because different pronunciations can mean different things. I don’t believe Sanskrit has this, hence the halent sign.

            I suspect that this feature of the language serves as a “shibboleth” of sorts, which means a feature of a language or customs of a people that help trip up foreigners and alert the natives to their presence without the foreigner, especially a spy, realize it. Native speakers would most likely not make fundamental mistakes unless it was in jest or the person has some kind of a disability, and the residents can confirm that that’s what it is, not because they are posing as one of the natives from a different part of the country.

      • I wanted to add something here, since I had time to think about it while stepping up herbs into bigger pots. Andrea mentioned in another post of yours that there are three ways of the path, which is knowledge, devotion, and service. That made sense to me. Looking back at your above post, I see what you said. I didn’t quite get it at first.

        While I was out there stepping up plants, I had to think deeply, that of why I am on the farm. I reminded myself that when I left my job of 8 years, packed of my apartment, and went on the road, I wanted to try new things, to find some way to serve, to help people. I’ve been doing that for nearly a year, helping a woman get her ranch started for four months, house sitting for two months, helping someone with her need for transportation when she needed, and lately, working as a volunteer on a pretty good-sized organic farm near the coast in Texas for over six months now.

        Please give me an example of how I could go on the path of knowledge in the context of your suggestion to go on that path.

        While I was out there this afternoon, I was really feeling the difficulty of being alone in belief and thought. It’s hard… It’s painful. It’s something I’ve endured in this life, and yet, I can’t just capitulate and go join a church even if I don’t believe in those things. I really would like to make progress on this issue.