Is a Guru Really Necessary?

Guru Nanak with disciples (

There are mixed feelings about the role of guru in one’s spiritual life, and I am asked about it very often. Those who stick to tradition think that guru is absolutely essential and one must accept the guru as the supreme authority. Others think that, although guru is a must, there is no need to surrender to him or her completely. Still others think that guru is not really needed – everyone has to pave his or her own path and God will give guidance from within the heart of a sincere spiritual seeker. “God is available to everybody,” they think. “He is not the property of any one person. So, he should be directly approachable by anyone and anywhere.”

I think the majority of people fall into the last two categories. One reason, quite often cited, is the many examples of gurus exploiting their disciples in the name of surrender and service. “How can one put full faith into a guru?” they ask. “After all, a guru is another human being, prone to human defects, so why should he be considered an absolute authority?”

These are quite convincing arguments. To reach the proper conclusion about them one has to deliberate carefully on the principle of guru in the Vedic system.

Every system has basic principles that cannot be compromised without causing the system to malfunction. For example, if you remove a little screw from a clock it may not work anymore. Or if you replace a human eye with a monkey’s eye, the person will not be able to see. It is like a mathematical equation, if one of the parameters is wrong the whole equation gives a defective result. If we are serious about getting the result from a particular system, we have to understand these basic principles that cannot be tempered with.

Guru is a fundamental principle of the Vedic system. Although the importance of teachers is ubiquitous across all cultures, Vedic culture’s depth of sanctity, importance and greatness of teachers goes beyond other cultures, and is not easy to understand for those not born and raised in a traditional Vedic family. Without such an upbringing, it is uncommon to have significant faith in Vedic śāstra, without which it is not easy to have significant faith in guru.

Modern logic may find flaws in the guru principle and try to repair this by changing or evading the principle – but, like changing an important screw in a clock, this will cause the entire Vedic culture to produce a different result.

That the guru is absolutely essential to Vedic culture is certain, because guru is at the foundation of each of India’s many denominations of spirituality – such as Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, Vedānta, etc. or their further sub branches, such as karma-yoga, jñāna-yoga and bhakti-yoga. In Bhagavad Gītā, Śrī Kṛṣṇa plainly says, “If you want to know the truth, approach a guru” (Gītā 4.34). In the Bhāgavata, sage Prabuddha makes a very similar statement, “If you want to know the supreme truth, approach a qualified guru.” (SB 11.3.21)

Kṛṣṇa has also made many other statements that directly or indirectly stress the importance of having a genuine guru:

mad-abhijñaṁ guruṁ śāntam, upāsīta mad-ātmakam (SB 11.10.5)

“A guru, whose desires are pacified and who comprehends me, is as dear as my own self, and as worshipable.”

evaṁ gurūpāsanayaika-bhaktyā (SB 11.12.24)

“Worship guru with singular devotion.”

ācāryaṁ māṁ vijānīyān, navamanyeta karhicit

na martya-buddhyāsūyeta, sarva-deva-mayo guru

(SB 11.17.27)

“Understand that the ācārya is as good as I. Don’t consider him an ordinary mortal, guru is equivalent to all the gods.”

nṛ-deham ādyaṁ su-labhaṁ su-durlabhaṁ, plavaṁ su-kalpaṁ guru-karṇadhāram

mayānukūlena nabhasvateritaṁ, pumān bhavābdhiṁ na taret sa ātma-hā

(SB 11.20.17)

“The human form of life is the source of great and rare fortune. It is like a boat, guru is the captain, and I am the favorable wind. Only a suicidal person would not ride this boat across the ocean of existence.”

anādy-avidyā-yuktasya, puruṣasyātma-vedanam

svato na sambhavād anyas, tattva-jño jñāna-do bhavet

(SB 11.22.10)

“Since the very beginning, people are ignorant. Therefore, on their own, they cannot discover the truth, even about their own selves. They require another, a person who knows reality and can bestow knowledge to them.”

Śrī Nārada also speaks plainly about the absolute importance of guru. He says, “All perfection can be attained easily by serving a genuine guru” (SB 7.15.25). He also says, “Guru is like a torchlight of knowledge and is a direct manifestation of Bhagavān. If one considers guru an ordinary human, one’s learning is as futile as the bathing of an elephant.” [Elephants tend to sprinkle sand over their body after bathing.]

Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī also speaks clearly about the importance of guru, saying that the practice of bhakti begins by taking shelter of a guru. (BRS 1.1.21)

These quotes provide a glimpse into the indispensible role of guru in the Vedic system. Furthermore, even Śrī Kṛṣṇa Himself accepted a guru, to show by example the essential importance of guru.

It is actually a very “open secret” that surrendering to a genuine guru is the key to success in any form of Vedic spirituality. It is “open” because practically everyone knows it. Yet, it remains “secret” because few of us understand it deeply and take it seriously.

Sri Haridasa Shastri Maharaja
Sri Haridasa Shastri Maharaja

We cannot simply study śāstra on our own. The human mind has the great ability to perceive selectively. When we study without a guide we don’t really study śāstra as much as we study our own selective version of it. We need the guidance of guru so we can comprehend things that do not always conform to the preconceptions of our intellectual saṁskāras. No doubt, we may gain many profound realizations and have many deep experiences by studying śāstra on our own, but we cannot get the full result of śāstra – to get out of the bondage of material nature – without taking full shelter of the guidance of a genuine guru. There is no alternative.

But one may cry out, “I am prepared to surrender to the guidance of a genuine guru, but where is that genuine guru? All I see are unqualified or semi-qualified people as candidates.”

Disciples often blame the gurus like this, but the deeper truth is that most would-be disciples are not willing to pay the price required to establish a true relationship to a genuine guru. They look for something cheap, some solution for their material problems. They do not seek guru to discover the ultimate goal of life, so they find gurus who can only offer possible solutions for the temporary and relative goals the disciples truly seek. They don’t approach a guru who can deliver the ultimate goal because this is not their need. Moreover, a genuine guru does not even entertain such insincere disciples. Genuine gurus are, truly, extremely rare – because they are not in demand.

If there were only genuine disciples, unqualified gurus would lose their profession, because nobody would accept them. So in reality, unqualified gurus exist because of unqualified disciples, just as imitation jewelry sells as long as there are buyers for it. If there were only genuine disciples, only genuine gurus would exist, because unqualified gurus would not be in demand. Moreover, a genuine disciple would not last very long with an unqualified guru. Either the disciple will leave the guru, being dissatisfied with him or the guru will spurn him away, not being to able to accommodate him.

Then, the real question is, “How can I become a genuine disciple?”

To be a genuine disciple, one has to sacrifice one’s material life completely. This is described in Kaṭha Upaniṣad. Vajasravas once performed a sacrifice during which he was supposed to donate all his possessions, yet he was donating only his old and milk-less cows. His son Naciketā was not happy to see this. He wanted to leave his deceptive father, so he asked, “I am also your possession, to whom will you give me?”

His father did not reply. Naciketā repeated his question. Again, his father did not reply.

When he asked the question a third time, his father angrily said, “I will give you to death.”

c) எஸ். பி. கிருஷ்ணமூர்த்தி - Sankara Mutt at Rameshwaram
Yamaraja teaches Naciketa (Sankara Mutt at Rameshwaram)

Naciketā went to the Kingdom of Death. Yamarāja, the lord of death, was away, so Naciketā had to wait at his door. He did this for three days and nights without eating or drinking. When Yamarāja returned, he was pleased with the boy and asked him to request three boons. The third boon Naciketā requested was to obtain spiritual knowledge. In response to his request, Yamarāja personally instructed him in the science of ātmā and Paramātmā.

In this story, the father represents the insincere disciple and the son represents the genuine disciple. The father was only making a show of doing a sacrifice in which he was supposed to give up all his material things. The son, on the other hand, was willing to sit and wait at the door of Yamarāja for three days and nights without eating and drinking. The three days and nights signify the renunciation of everything produced by the three guṇas of nature. Sitting at the door of Yamarāja signifies that Naciketā was willing to sacrifice his life. By this he proved that he had no material interests and was willing to give up everything for a spiritual cause.

Yamarāja represents the genuine guru. Such a guru is represented by the lord of death because one can attain the true blessing of a genuine guru, spiritual knowledge, only when one is willing to accept the death of all one’s material desires and attachments. This is also the significance of the First Chapter of Bhagavad Gītā, where Arjuna is expected to kill all his relatives.

Mantra 1.2.23 of Kaṭha Upaniṣad says that God cannot be attained by eloquence, intelligence or a lot of study. God reveals Himself only to one who is blessed by Him (in the form of guru). In mantra 9 of the same chapter, it says God cannot be understood by logic, God can only be understood by the guidance of a qualified guru. Similarly, Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad (6.23) says that the subjects discussed in the Upaniṣad become fully revealed only to a person who has pure devotion to guru as much as for God. Similarly, Chāndogya Upaniṣad (6.14.2) says that only one who has a qualified guru can know the truth.

From all this we must conclude that taking shelter of a genuine guru is absolutely essential for attaining spiritual knowledge and realization. This principle cannot be minimized just because one sees exploitation or lacking in the dealings between guru and disciple. If we sow barren seeds, naturally we get no crop, but this does not mean that seeds are not essential for a harvest.

15 thoughts on “Is a Guru Really Necessary?”

  1. A genuine discipleship is necessary to get to the genuine Guru leading to Spiritual perfection.
    However, the point is that what if one understands this at a later stage of life. I mean one is brought up in the normal, general way, takes up a job, gets married and has kids and generally goes with the flow of life. But on account of one’s interest in spirituality one keeps dabbling here and there and finds a genuine seer whose shelter one can take. So would one have to wait for one’s responsibilities to be completed to dedicate oneself completely, because he missed the bus when he was a bachelor when he could have taken the plunge easily.
    This again seems confusing because I suppose the Sastras say that spirituality is for everyone and in every walk of life. Also in Bhagavatam we come across devotees who are Kings, married and leading a so called general life. Even the seeker Arjuna is a King, married and having kids who accepts the seer Krishna as his Guru.
    Can you please clarify on this.

    1. You have answered your question yourself. I don’t know what to say. You have clearly said that spirituality is for everyone and for every walk of life. Sri Rupa Gosvami says that everybody has the right to engage in bhakti: nṛi mātrasya adhikāriṇah. You have also referred to the various devotees described in Srimad Bhagavatam who were “married and leading a so called general life”. So where is the difficulty?

      Bhakti is not dependant on married life or unmarried life. It is a matter of surrendering one’s self, no matter what state of life you are in. Some may find it more conducive to execute bhakti while remaining unmarried, and others may find married life more conducive.

      Most of the associates of Caitanaya Mahaprabhu were family men. Even great acaryas like Narottama das Thakur and Srinivas Acarya were married. Sometimes our mind can play tricks like this. “Oh, I am a married man, fallen into the dark well of the material word. Therefore it is not possible for me to surrender and to take to bhakti wholeheartedly. It is too late for me.” If you are married, take inspiration from good devotees who were or are married.

  2. execellent article. the story of naciketa with the purport is very enlightening.

  3. I guess the next question is to find a bonafide guru .. where ? I been looking for 5 years currently .. had teachers in the past . They say when the student is ready the teacher will appear

    1. “They say when the student is ready the teacher will appear.”
      So this implies that you are not ready …

  4. Excellent article all around as always.
    the problem right now in the world with “Guru’s” is there are so many blatant and even sinful so called Gurus even here in Vrindavan. Some are pedophiles one who parades around with a large following claiming to be a reincarnation of Krishna/Babaji/Yogananda as well as one horrifying pedophile who was arrested…yet has a large popular “Krishna Land” place right here in Vrindavan.
    The big problem is that the supposed “real Gurus” do not drive these demons out of Vrindavan or take action against them. And indeed some of them are supported with friendly gestures even though they are known to be criminals.

    Sincere Guru’s have to be very bold, brave and strong to stop the frauds coming and thriving at least the ones in Vrindavan.

    A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami was very strong in this way yet he ended up being poisoned and a strong of horrifying incidents followed with some real monster leaders from that group.

    This is the REAL problem with the modern global Guru problem. People lose faith in Guru’s on all sides. But the sincere disciple gets good luck.

  5. Should anādy-avidyā-yuktasya not be translated as ‘endowed with beginningless ignorance’, instead of ‘Since the very beginning, people are ignorant’? It may lead to fall vadi understanding.

  6. A good article on an important subject.

    Hari Hari Hari!

  7. 1. In Gītā 4.34 the word tattva-darśinaḥ is in the plural; such as in a similar advice from Viṣṇu: nirdvandvā nirahaṅkārā yatayaśśuddhalocanāḥ | te māṁ paśyanti satataṁ tān pṛccha yadihecchasi ||. Kṛṣṇa encourages Arjuna to formally approach different gurus and not just one; however the kṣatriya does not go to Droṇācārya or Bhīṣma or any other preceptor but stays fixed in the loving bond with his friend. So what is the need of conventionalism for a real vaiṣṇava? Not even the spontaneity of Bg. 2.7 contains the formality required by verse 4.34.

    2. Why do spiritual masters zealously claim a traditional primacy according to the scriptures if they themselves have not followed with exactitude the austere regulations of śāstras? For example, during their brahmacarya period, how many gurus have dressed in black deer-skins, worshiped the sacred fire, sat on kuśa grass, begged food or slept on the ground for at least nine years of their lives? Are the gurus following literally the regulations of the Hari-bhakti-vilāsa?

    3. All gurus are skilled in quoting scriptures to claim their privileges, but what are the implied positions and rights of śiṣyas? If the ācārya is Kṛṣṇa, who is the śiṣya? In addition, if the śiṣya-guru relationship is eternal, why does not the father remember and look for his son?

    This perhaps sounds defiant, but it is not. You are a bābājī.

    1. 1. In the beginning of my article I said there are three types of people. You can choose your category. I have given my opinion. Moreover, in Sanskrit the plural case can also be used for one person for showing respect. It does not necessarily means that Krsna tells Arjuna to go to many gurus and in practicality, Arjuna did not do that.

      2. Please ask the particular spiritual guru you have in mind. I don’t think I need to answer this.

      3. What you are asking here is not related with the article at all. The topic of this article is whether one should have a guru or not. If you do not agree with my conclusion, this is fine with me.

      What you say doesn’t sound defiant, it is fine with me. I have given my understanding of guru in this article. Nobody needs to agree with me. You can have a different understanding, that is acceptable.

  8. Dear Babaji Maharaj,

    on the onset, please accept my humble obeisances. I have read your article many times now. I have always had these questions and now after many years it has again clouded my mind and engulfed me.

    I was initiated and my Guru left the movement. However, as told most of us were and are not the true spiritual seekers (not good disciples). I have no doubt I am still not ready. But I want to start, begin, something which I am capable of, whom should I go to? what should I do to have that genuine desire to submit everything for that one cause?

    you said, –
    Then, the real question is, “How can I become a genuine disciple?”
    To be a genuine disciple, one has to sacrifice one’s material life completely.

    this is my situation, turning away from my stint with the group where my spiritual master disowned me, I fell back from where I came. With my parents wishes I am married and have children. I do not have favorable circumstances to say the least for practicing devotional service at home. As I see its time for me to prepare the right mood to devote myself. Please guide me.

    My humble obeisances

    1. Dear Ranchor ji,

      > But I want to start, begin, something which I am capable of, whom should I go to?

      Whoever you go to, you must have implicit faith in that person. That is very important. And the faith should not be based on hearsay but on your own understanding and experience. This will need some investigation on your part. It will not be appropriate for me to point out a specific person because it is you who have to trust that person. If you do not have trust and just accept it on my authority, then later on, you may have doubts.

      > What should I do to have that genuine desire to submit everything for that one cause?

      You have to deliberate about life, its temporary nature and the outcome of our actions in this life. You have to consider whether you want to continue in the cycle of birth and death by following your mind and sense, or you want to find a permanent solution for this. Consider the importance of human birth and its capabilities. If these questions can be deliberated on properly, the one can have a genuine desire.

      Do not be a “rancor” (one who runs aways from the battlefield) as Arjuna was trying to be. Pray to Krishna fervently to guide you and show you the way. Have faith in Him that He will help you to be situated on the right path. Recite verse 2.7 from Bhagavad Gita repeatedly in your mind.

  9. Such a nice article! The purports drawn from the story of Naciketa and Yamaraja are amazing! Thank you so much Babaji Maharaja.

  10. Thanks you Babaji Maharaj, My sincere and humble obeisances.

    ranchor das

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