Guru,  History,  Teaching Ashtanga,  Uncategorized,  Yoga Philosophy,  Yoga Sutras

Happy Guru Purnima

Today is a day for giving thinks to the gurus of your life.

What is a Guru?

Interesting enough, there are a lot of different etymologies.


As a noun the word means the imparter of knowledge (jñāna; also Pali: ñāna). As an adjective, it means ‘heavy,’ or ‘weighty,’ in the sense of “heavy with knowledge,”[Note 1] heavy with spiritual wisdom,[16] “heavy with spiritual weight,”[17] “heavy with the good qualities of scriptures and realization,”[18] or “heavy with a wealth of knowledge.”[19] The word has its roots in the Sanskrit gri (to invoke, or to praise), and may have a connection to the word gur, meaning ‘to raise, lift up, or to make an effort’.[20]

Sanskrit guru is cognate with Latin gravis ‘heavy; grave, weighty, serious’[21] and Greek βαρύς barus ‘heavy’. All three derive from the Proto-Indo-European root*gʷerə-, specifically from the zero-grade form *gʷr̥ə-.[22]

Darkness and light[edit]

गुशब्दस्त्वन्धकारः स्यात्‌ रुशब्दस्तन्निरोधकः
अन्धकारनिरोधित्वात्‌ गुरुरित्यभिधीयते॥ १६॥

The syllable gu means darkness, the syllable ru, he who dispels them,
Because of the power to dispel darkness, the guru is thus named.

Another etymological theory considers the term “guru” to be based on the syllables gu (गु) and ru (रु), which it claims stands for darkness and “light that dispels it”, respectively.[Note 2] The guru is seen as the one who “dispels the darkness of ignorance.”[Note 3][Note 4][27]

Reender Kranenborg disagrees, stating that darkness and light have nothing to do with the word guru. He describes this as a folk etymology.[Note 5]

Joel Mlecko states, “Gu means ignorance, and Ru means dispeller,” with guru meaning the one who “dispels ignorance, all kinds of ignorance”, ranging from spiritual to skills such as dancing, music, sports and others.[29] Karen Pechelis states that, in the popular parlance, the “dispeller of darkness, one who points the way” definition for guru is common in the Indian tradition.[30]

In Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion, Pierre Riffard makes a distinction between “occult” and “scientific” etymologies, citing as an example of the former the etymology of ‘guru’ in which the derivation is presented as gu (“darkness”) and ru (‘to push away’); the latter he exemplifies by “guru” with the meaning of ‘heavy’.[31]-


To summarize, Guru can mean:

Someone who is heavy with spiritual knowledge

One who dispels ignorance of the Self

Someone who takes you from darkness to light

What Guru does not mean:

Perfect human being.  A guru is a person who awakens the light of knowledge inside of us. Someone can do this and absolutely not be a good person.  We hope they are but this is not necessarily the case. The person who set me on my path of jnana/knowledge is currently in prison. It does not change the fact that he was the first person to open my eyes to a world that existed beyond my conditioning.

Forever. In a perfect world, we outgrow the need for our gurus in the same way children outgrow the need for parents. My first teacher is no longer my guru.

Are gurus necessary?

For 99.9999% of us, probably.  As humans, we thrive on relationships.  We crave relationships.  Without human relationships, babies don’t develop properly.  It is human connection that grows extraordinary humans.  Most people, who have accomplished extraordinary things on this earth, didn’t just do it for themselves and they did not do it without help from other humans. Human interaction has the capacity to grow us exponentially and change the world in a short period of time.  Interaction with someone who is “heavy with knowledge”, a guru, can result in gaining huge amounts of knowledge in a short period of time.

I have been studying yoga philosophy for about a decade. Recently, I took a college course on Samkhya and Vedanta. In 8 weeks, this course summed up everything I had learned in a decade about Samkhya and Vedanta, and than some.  My first experience with Ashtanga was with Beryl Bender Birch’s book, “Power Yoga”. I would try a few poses from the book everyday. I did this for a few weeks until I took my first Ashtanga class. I went 3 times as far in Ashtanga in that 1 hr and 1/2 class, with a physical teacher, then I did in a few weeks with a book. I will never forget how for months I struggled to balance in Vatyanasana. I went to see a teacher, and in 3 seconds, she solved what I couldn’t fix in 6 months.

Why not just say “teacher”?

Use whatever word makes you feel good. In your heart, you know what your connection is. I did not use the word guru with my first teacher but, now that I look back on it, he absolutely was that. There was a level of devotion that went beyond what I feel for a teacher.  We all have had many teachers. School teachers, coaches, college professors, yoga teachers, dance teachers etc. Most of them, you probably vaguely remember. Most of them, could have been switched out for someone else and you would not have cared. However, there may have been one or two that completely shaped you. One or two that opened up your heart. One or two that made you feel alive. That made you shine. Some people choose to call this person a guru because the level of impact they had on their lives is above that of a regular teacher. The same way we call someone “best friend” because they are closer than a regular friend.  At my mother’s church, there is an honorary title “mother” that is bestowed on one woman in the church. She acts like a mother to the congregation.  She is a woman who has a loving and nurturing heart. She is given this tittle because, to the congregation, she is not just any woman. She holds a special place for them.

Recently, I have seen guru shaming. People being shamed because they call a teacher guru. This is ridiculous because no one but that person can say what they feel in their own hearts.  Yes, if you feel differently about that teacher, you have a right to say it but no one has the right to shame people. Yes, that guru hurting people goes against ahimsa but you shaming people does as well. As the saying goes, “two wrongs don’t make one right”.

Happy Guru Purnima

Thanks for reading


Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail [email protected]