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What is a Guru?

by Namadeva Acharya (Thomas Ashley-Farrand)

First published in Sacred Pathways magazine, January-February 2006 issue

Namadeva’s guru is Sadguru Sant Keshavadas (1934-1997) and he follows lineage holder Guru Rama Mata, Sant Keshavadas’ widow. Through his guru and over the last 35 years Namadeva has spent time with and/or been blessed by Swami Satchidananda, Swami Vishnu Devananda, Swami Chidananda, Jagadguru Jayandra Saraswati and Jagadguru Vijayendra Saraswati (Kanchi Math), Jagadguru of Pejowar (Uddipi) Math, Paramahansa Muktananda, Swami Bala Gangadarnath, Yogi Bhajan, Yogi Amrit Desai, Buddhist teacher Ashoka Priya Darshan, Dr. Leon Wright, The Dalai Lama, the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, Kalu Rimpoche, Sakya Jetsun Chiney Luding, Pir Vilayat Kahn, and many others.


First, a guru is not a state of consciousness, it is a job. There are all kinds of gurus from musicians and storytellers to those who never speak a word. What they have in common is the appointed authority to do their job: helping the ego-mind-personality merge with the divinity within. The soul, self, jiva, atma - whatever you want to call it – is immortal. There was never a time it did not exist. There will never be a time it will not be. The ego-mind-personality is not immortal. It ceases to be at the time of death, while an essence of what it has learned and accumulated of spiritual value goes forward into the next life, even if that life does not take place for five hundred or a thousand years.

But the ego-mind-personality can become immortal if it so chooses. Of course, this choice involves a clear decision, commitment, discipline, and Grace. Once the decision is made, a succession of teachers begin to appear, helping, teaching and leading the aspirant. The only ongoing quality that matters is sincerity. One can make mistakes, take wrong turns, and make short-term inefficient choices, but if all are done within the framework of sincerity, the aspirant continues to get help. In the process of preparing the ego-mind-personality to merge with the soul within, negative qualities are sanded away at the rate the aspirant can stand. Rescue, within the bounds of karma, often is afforded to struggling individuals. Eventually, one will meet a true guru.

Shake any bush, today, and out tumble gurus of all sorts. They are mostly “wanna-bes,” “think-they-ares,” “wish-they-weres,” “never-will-bes,” and would-be spiritual leaders who have decided that this is their calling. Some of them are sincere. Some are not. A true guru is not self-appointed. They are selected and trained for the job by those who are true gurus, sadgurus, jagadgurus and genuine celestial enlightened ones who come here from time to time. There are very few true gurus.

A genuine guru has spiritual authority. They can consciously take on the karma of anyone they meet. Although they have this ability, they use it selectively. If the taking on of karma serves the greater dharma, or spiritual advancement of the species, country or other group deemed important, the guru will take the karma of that individual. Sometimes the karma can be worked off without harming the guru and sometimes not. But the guru always knows both the reason and the outcome for taking another’s karma.

A true guru has spiritual gifts to give, and they give them—sometimes lavishly—to students, disciples and complete strangers. A true guru will know the appropriateness of the gift and can “see” how it will be applied. That’s not to say that all possible outcomes from application of the gift are known. Although a sadguru has this ability to know all possible outcomes, the true guru does not. Still, a clear direction is apparent to the guru which points strongly to how the gift will be employed. This is how the appropriateness of the gift is determined. Sometimes a new color, signifying a new gift, is added to the aura. Orange, for instance, might be given, and with it a definite body of knowledge. Suddenly, many things become clear for no apparent reason. This new knowledge ends up changing everything about the life of the person who receives it. Old relationships may end and new ones begin. New goals and ways of reaching them appear in the mind. All this from one new color/gift. All the while, increasing the ability of the ego-mind-personality to eventually merge with the soul or self is the overriding objective.

A true guru can change the direction of the life paths of those he/she meets with relative ease. A word, a glance, a thought can change the course of a life as easily as one switches the path of a train from one track to another by pulling a lever. The self of the individual is accessed and a new set of instructions, or a new instruction, is issued that changes the conditions one will meet in life. Or the true guru may make a tiny change in the set of foundation assumptions (or knowledge) the ego-mind-personality uses to make decisions. Often only one tiny change can completely alter the nature of the decision-making process. If one has a near-death experience and survives, for instance, the fear of death is usually completely eradicated. The elimination of fear from the ongoing decision-making process affects everything.

A true guru is compassionate. He/she has usually “been there.” The experiences of many lives have been integrated so that probable choices and decisions resulting from certain circumstances are clearly seen. Understanding not only mentally but almost viscerally what a particular aspirant is going through, the true guru may search intensely for an acceptable way to help deserving ones whose karma may militate strongly against such help. Compassion is active, not passive.

A true guru knows his/her limits—the limits of how they can help or how they can speed things along. The boundaries are always in sight and usually observed.

True gurus are humble. They are not impressed with themselves. They know too much for that. But they also know that all knowledge is approximate, that everything is temporary, even time itself. They know that Truth or God is vast and that no one has an exclusive corner on “the truth.” They know that great forces and beings have made it possible for them to evolve to where they are. They know that perceiving the Great Illusion of this reality does not diminish the pain felt by people living in this world. So they help, with gratitude for what they have received and what they are empowered to do in service of others.

Such a true guru is aware of the conscious, active, hugely advanced forces and beings operating in our reality. Sometimes those forces and beings come to the aid of the true guru and sometimes not. But at all times there are very, very advanced beings on the planet who monitor things. They sometimes hide in plain sight as a jagadguru, and sometimes they keep well below the spiritual radar for their own purposes. But they are here, and the true guru knows his or her limitations in the grand scheme of things.

A spiritual teacher, even one who has reached the place of an advanced adept, is not a guru until and unless the appointment for the job arrives. For many advanced adepts, the appointment to become a true guru never arrives. Yet they teach—tirelessly, endlessly, selflessly, joyfully. They have lessons to teach about spirituality; about life; about separation of the real from the unreal; about the rhythms of existence, both individual and cosmic; about the subtle habits of the lower mind that seeks to evade the light where it must surrender its bad habits; about the misuse of charming personalities that merely seek gratification however it might be obtained. The genuine spiritual teacher is a treasure beyond compare, for each has put their shoulder to the wheel of humanity’s progress, each within his or her specific area of special interest or attainment. And the Grace of The Supreme flows through each in wonderful and different ways.

But they are not gurus. They cannot change the course of your life in an instant. They cannot take a terrible condition away from you and assume the burden themselves by a mere thought. They cannot determine your appropriateness to receive a spiritual gift, see how it will be applied, and then give it to you.

It is a commonly accepted truth in mystic and spiritual pursuits that what we all seek is within. Scriptures from many religions say it. Enlightened ones say it. True gurus, sadgurus, jagadgurus and maha siddhas all say it. But appointment to the job of being a guru comes usually from an external source. It can be a being in the flesh who, determining that one’s nature is appropriate to the job, appoints a person through some transfer of authority. It can be a great being who comes in a dream and empowers an adept or spiritual teacher. On rare occasions, a force of some kind will seize an individual and so alter their energy, spiritual ability and perceptions, that the condition of the job is conveyed by cosmic initiation. But in all cases, the abilities and responsibilities of the true guru remain.

Finally, a true guru has been embraced by love and realizes with every facet of his or her being that love is both the method and the destination. It is means and end. There is no way to achieve a state of love other than by loving. For God or Truth speaks to the heart. The mind cannot contain or apprehend Truth or God in its entirety. Truth is the ocean while the mind is like a teacup. And you cannot hold the ocean in a teacup. It is true that you can pour the contents of the teacup into the ocean and it becomes one with the ocean. But then the meditation ends and the ego-mind-personality – even the divine ones – are back in the body. Automatically, limitations of understanding take place because of the confines of the teacup.

It is astonishing that some of the towering great minds of the East including such persons as Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Madvacharya, The Buddha, and others do not agree on the finer points of what is Truth, what is Reality, what is the nature of the Self, and so on. They see different shafts of the same light, but none have the capacity to see it all. The first Sadguru, Dattatreya, was once asked to comment on the differences between Dwaita (dualism) and Advaita (Non-dualism), between Saguna Realization with a form involved (as in Rama or Krishna, etc.), or Nirguna Realization without any form involved. He looked kindly at the questioner and said, “If you are still concerned with such things, you still have a ways to go.” Most teachers and gurus agree that love will take you all the way to the goal of human existence.

True gurus have a unique set of skills and tools to help the finite part of us merge in the infinite part of us. They have been specially sent on assignment to help us, in our identification with our ego-mind-personality, to move as expeditiously as possible into a state of being where we understand immortality because we have achieved it.

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