A guru is the one who helps us find God. But how does one find a guru?
The Upanishads (Hindu philosophical texts) compare the path to liberation to a razor's edge. To be successful on this path requires one to be like a snail, characterized by a steady and sure-footed movement, as one wrong step may cut the snail into two. Here lies the dilemma of the average spiritual aspirant: how does one attain enlightenment without outside help, for the ways are many and bewildering? Is enlightenment possible without a guru?
Who is a Guru?
The word 'guru' literally means teacher. A more spiritual meaning can be drawn from a paragraph in the Upanishads, which identifies guru as a combination of two syllables, gu (darkness) and ru (dispeller). Hence, in a spiritual sense, a guru is someone who dispels darkness. The true guru initiates the aspirant to the spiritual path and guides him on the way, always keeping an eye on his progress.
A true guru does not forsake his disciples even after their death. The ancients compare the guru to the turtle who lays her eggs on a beach and hatches them with her loving gaze from a distance, ensuring that the young ones reach the ocean. Similarly, the guru watches his disciples take countless births, monitoring their progress and helping them through each lifetime to attain liberation ultimately.
Why is the Guru Important?
The importance of the guru in Indian traditions can be seen from the popular mantra given below.
"Guru Brahma Guru Vishnu Guru Devo Maheshwara
Guru Sakshath Parambrahma Tasmai Shri Gurave Namaha"
"The guru is the creator, the guru is the preserver, and the guru is the destroyer. The guru is the Absolute. I bow before you."
A famous poem by Kabir illustrating the meaning of this mantra goes like "Guru and God both appeared before me. Whom should I bow to first? I bow to my guru for it is he who introduced me to God."
A guru can be compared to a person who tunes an instrument (the student) so that it is ready to be played. Not all agree with the idea of an external guru. J. Krishnamurti, the philosopher, openly rejected the idea of a Guru, urging his 'followers' to avoid using him as a psychological crutch. In fact, he says, "Man has to be his own guru to bring about psychological transformation".
What is a Guru Like?
Traditionally, it is believed that gurus only teach through discourses. However, some advanced gurus pass on their teachings through touch or simply by their presence. Moreover, the guru need not even be human. You may scoff at the idea of learning from an animal or an inanimate object such as the Earth. Dattatreya had 24 teachers, which included animals such as the python, elephant and elements such as earth, water, sky, and so on. For example, from the sky, he learned that though the sky envelops the world like a piece of clothing, it is not the world. Similarly, the body envelops the self, but is not the self.
Identifying a suitable guru is not easy. Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan says, "When I asked my teacher what is the sign of a real guru he said, 'It is not his form, it is not his appearance, it is not what he says; it is what his presence conveys to you.'"
Swami Vivekananda mentions that a true guru is one of pure character, who understands the spirit of the scriptures, and does not desire fame or money.
When Will I Find a Suitable Guru?
Once a young man approached a Zen master and said "Sir, I want to be your disciple". When asked why, the man replied, "Because I want to attain enlightenment". "Come with me", the master replied. The Zen master took him to a stream of water, and grabbed his head, keeping it under the water for a minute. Finally, the Zen master let go of the struggling student's head, and asked "What did you want most when your head was under water?" "Air" replied the panting student. "Good," replied the master, "Come to me when you desire enlightenment as much as you wanted air".
In India, it is often said that when the disciple is prepared, the master finds him. To obtain a good guru, one requires the necessary humility, reverence, and desire to learn. But is that enough? In earlier times, a guru would test a prospective student before agreeing to teach him. However, gurus should also be tested. After all, the guru may be misguided himself. Or worse, he may be a conman out to rob his followers. The Dalai Lama says, "Rely on the teachings to evaluate a guru. Do not have blind faith, but also no blind criticism".
Where Do I Find a Guru?
It is not uncommon for people to travel all the way to the Himalayas in search of a suitable guru. However, Ramana Maharishi says, "The master is within; meditation is meant to remove the ignorant idea that he is only outside. If he is a stranger whom you await, he is bound to disappear also. What is the use of a transient being like that? But so long as you think you are separate or that you are the body, an external master is also necessary and he will appear to have a body."