The Guru as God – Conceptions of Religious Authority in the Vedas

The Guru As God:

Conceptions of Religious Authority in the Vedas, Upaniṣads and the Works of Śaṅkarācārya

History of Religions Colloquium Paper May 24, 2007

By Jeremy Morse


We must all wait till the guru comes, and the guru must be worshipped as God. He is God; he is nothing less than that. As you look at him, the guru gradually melts away—and what is left? The picture of the guru gives place to God Himself…“I bow to the guru, who is the embodiment of the Bliss Divine, the personification of the highest Knowledge, and the giver of the greatest beatitude; who is pure, perfect, one and without a second, eternal, beyond pleasure and pain, beyond all thought and all qualification, transcendental.” Such is in reality the guru. No wonder the disciple looks upon him as God Himself and trusts him, reveres him, obeys him, follows him unquestioningly. This is the relation between the guru and the disciple.1

Swami Vivekananda, from the talk “Discipleship” delivered in San Francisco, March 29, 1900


The term “guru” is now common in English-language usage. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “guru” as “a Hindu spiritual teacher or head of a religious sect,” or, more generally, “an influential teacher; a mentor; a pundit.”2 The term in India has a rich history which is not evident in the OED’s definition. In this paper, I will analyze conceptions of the guru found in the Vedas, the early and late Upaniṣads, and some writings attributed to Śaṅkara, and I will speculate on some possible historical causes for the differences in the depictions found in these texts. This investigation is important because the Indian teacher has been integral to the development of Hinduism, and the figure continues to be essential in constituting modern Hindu belief and practice around the world. There are numerous ways one might approach the study of the development of the figure of the guru because of the great variety of traditions in which the guru plays a decisive role. In this paper, I will investigate descriptions of teachers and their

1 Swami Vivekananda, “Discipleship,” in Vivekananda: The Yogas and Other Works, ed. Swami Nikhilananda (New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1996).

2 Oxford English Dictionary, 2ed ed, 1989, (accessed in electronic form April 5, 2006).

functions in select Sanskrit texts in order to demonstrate a shift in the ways in which the authors of those texts understood the guru.

The Vedic Saṃhitās and early Upaniṣads described the teacher, whom these texts called an ācārya, as an initiator, mentor, and instructor. In the later Upaniṣads, one finds the beginnings of an understanding of the figure, whom they referred to as a guru, as one who not only offers guidance but also bestows grace, or permits access to the divine. As opposed to merely a guide who points the aspirant on the path toward mokṣa or release, in the later Upaniṣadic texts the guru is a conduit for the experience of divine. The range of Upaniṣadic understandings of the guru is extended in a number of works attributed to Śaṅkara, one of the foremost commentators on the Upaniṣads in medieval India, and his writings serve as an important interpretive source for contemporary guru traditions.3

In his work the Upadeśasāhasrī, Śaṅkara describes the guru as a Brahmin4saṃnyāsī (renunciate) instructor. The teacher in this text is one who teaches the Vedic hymns and initiates qualified students. This conception of the guru is based on the one found throughout the Vedic corpus, but is innovative in that Śaṅkara aligns the institution of saṃnyāsa (renunciation) with the vocation of the orthodox, brahmanical, Vedic instructor.

In his devotional hymns such as the Dakṣiṇāmūrtistotram, Śaṅkara describes the guru as an appropriate object of veneration, equated with the god Śiva, whose grace is beneficial and indeed indispensable for progression on the path to self-realization. The guru-veneration described in texts such as this one is practiced today in Hindu ashrams throughout India and in

3 The Sri Guru Gita, a text used in Indian ashrams in the modern period describing the divine nature of the guru and the way a devotee should approach him, cites Śaṇkara as an authority. For instance, see the commentary to verses 40, 43, and 296, among others, in (Swami Narayananda, ed., Sri Guru Gita (Shivanandanagar, India: The Divine Life Society, 2005).)

4 I have elected in this paper to refer to those of the priestly class by the anglicized term “Brahmins,” distinguishing them from the divine principle “brahman.”

the diaspora. Furthermore, the monastic institutions (maṭhas) and the renunciate orders (daśanāmis, or “ten-named-ones”) which look to Śaṅkara as their founder have come to define brahmanical Hindu renunciation, and one can map conceptions of the guru-as-god and the practices associated with the figure through the activities and doctrines of these institutions. The authority of these institutions lies in the authority of their leaders, referred to as jagadgurus (lit. “world-teacher” or “teacher of the universe”), who trace their lineage directly to Śaṅkara himself. Thus, Śaṅkara’s conceptions of the guru have been embodied in these institutions which are still influential today.

I must be clear at the outset about how I approach the texts attributed to Śaṅkara. The tradition which follows Śaṅkara ascribes more than 300 texts to his authorship. Modern scholars, however, believe that only a small portion of these texts were written by the supposed historical person.5 Below, I will briefly address the question of how scholars have attempted to establish whether or not the historical Śaṅkara wrote specific texts, but my argument in this paper does not rest on these distinctions. My investigation is concerned not with authorship per se, but with depictions of the guru found in textual sources, be they the Vedas, the Upaniṣads, texts written by Śaṅkara himself, or works written well after his lifetime and attributed to him. Thus, I approach the works of Śaṅkara not as the oeuvre of a historical personage, but as a more or less discrete body of literature within which a number of important enunciations of the guru are discernable. I will investigate the various conceptions of the guru found in these texts, and I will sketch what we know of the diverse cultural matrix in which those texts were embedded in order to explore possible causes for these enunciations, such as the dynamics between brahmanical and

5 See, for example, Sengaku Mayeda, ed., A Thousand Teachings: The Upadeśasāhasrī of

Śaṅkara (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1992), 6.

non-brahmanical traditions, the rise of bhakti movements, and overt political and economic pressures.

There is no clear textual moment when the guru shifts from being an initiator to a god- like figure; rather, one can identify a gradual attribution of god-like qualities to the figure of the guru in the texts I examine. How these textual descriptions relate to real people’s actions is difficult to identify, and one can merely speculate as to how the texts might have influenced and been influenced by social and political factors. Sanskrit was a language of the elite, and works written in it reflect elite concerns. Further, one cannot take for granted that these texts were solely either prescriptive or descriptive—they probably were a combination of both, being socio- politically laden records of what male Brahmins thought fit to commit to palm leaf manuscripts and then preserve by meticulous copying.

In classical Indian culture, the word “guru” in the singular means “teacher,” in the dual it refers to one’s father and mother who are seen to be one’s first gurus, and in the plural it means “elders.” Guru devotion, even in its most developed expressions, is an extension of practices which express respect and honor for parents, teachers, elders and royalty. A wife might refer to her husband as a deva, or god, and a subject would probably have treated his king like a divine being. Practices of respect and honor would probably have included making reverential gestures (añjali), bowing, prostrating, touching one’s forehead to another’s feet, washing another’s feet, giving gifts, etc. These gestures are all commonplace in the Hindu context—the difference between one and another is in degree and not in kind. For example, a priest entering a temple dedicated to Śiva might perform a daṇḍavat praṇāma, a full-body prostration, toward the liṅgaṃ rather than a simple añjali. In this case, the former serves as a more complete version of the latter and, thus, expresses total submission as opposed to ordinary reverence. Thus, there is no reason

to doubt the textual descriptions which assert that gurus, or their mūrtis (images, representations), were worshipped in the same way as mūrtis of gods and goddesses were, as they are in many traditions today, for these practices accord with culturally prescribed expressions of respect and honor which have been ethnographically recorded.6

I begin by discussing conceptions of the guru found in the Vedas and the Upaniṣads. I then situate Śaṅkara in his historical milieu and briefly discuss the hagiographical accounts of his life as they pertain to the present enquiry, and review the scholarship which attempts to determine which texts were written by the historical Śaṅkara and which were not. I then turn to a number of conceptions of the figure of the religious teacher and to the relationship between guru and disciple (śiṣya) in the Śaṅkara corpus. This leads into a discussion of the incorporation of elements of devotional practice, bhakti, into Advaita Vedānta, which traditionally emphasizes jñāna, the path concerned with the acquisition of knowledge and discrimination. I then conclude by discussing some factors which might have influenced these shifts in the conceptualizations of the guru.

Foundations: the ācārya as a teacher and initiator in the Vedas, Upaniṣads and Dharma


In the period before writing was widespread on the Indian subcontinent, education consisted of oral instruction and memorization by means of repetition, a style of instruction still

6 The story of Ekalavya in Mahābhārata portrays Ekalavya paying homage to a mūrti of his guru Droṇa in the latter’s absence (Vishnu Sitaram Sukthankar, ed., Mahābhārata (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1933-69), 1.123.10-39.) This episode is evidence for the practice of guru-worship during the epic period.

prevalent in Sanskrit training in India today.7 Vedic hymns would have been recited by a teacher and repeated by the student; transmission of the Vedas was effected orally. One primary function of the early teacher was to participate in this relationship of oral instruction, accurately preserving the hymns, and the traditions of their interpretation, that the teacher learned during his own time of tutelage.

In the Vedic period, teaching was a hereditary privilege and responsibility that rested on male members of the Brahmin class. There is little textual evidence for female ācāryas in that period, though Patrick Olivelle does note that some women were allowed to study the Vedic scriptures during that time.8 By the classical period, however, women were no longer allowed to undergo the upanayana ceremony which signals the beginning of a student’s formal Vedic study; the duties of marriage took the place of Vedic education. 9 This dynamic has changed in the modern period, as we find many female gurus and even more female disciples in contemporary guru-traditions in India and in the diaspora.10

Jan Gonda writes about the teacher in Vedic culture:

“Teaching the Veda was a duty enjoined upon a Brahmin. It is interesting to take cognizance of the motivation. The man who, having mastered the Veda, does not teach destroys his own good acts and shuts the door to happiness (a quotation from

7 The Vedic literature makes no reference to writing, and it has been argued that the first widespread use of writing on the subcontinent was likely in the third century B.C.E. during the time of King Aśoka. Sheldon Pollock comments that in “the middle of the third century B.C.E.,… scholars in the Maurya chancellery brilliantly adapted the imported technology of writing to Indic language use.” (Sheldon I. Pollock, Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 87.)

8 Patrick Olivelle, The Āśrama System: The History and Hermeneutics of a Religious Institution

(New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 184.

9 See for instance Mānavadharmaśāstra 2.66, in Wendy Doniger, ed., The Laws of Manu, Penguin Classics (London ; New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 24.

10 For a discussion of contemporary female gurus, disciples, and the dynamics of their traditions, see Lynn Teskey Denton, Female Ascetics in Hinduism, ed. Steven Collins (Albany: State University of New York, 2004). See also Karen Pechilis, ed., The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Śruti in Medh. On Manu 2, 113); the man who keeps back something or speaks untruth dries up completely (PraśnaU. 6, 1) or receives all the sins of his pupil (Mbh. 7, 50, 21 (?)).”11

A Brahmin who has studied the Veda is said to acquire power which must be transmitted or else chaos may ensue.12 These passages discuss the concepts of varṇāśramadharma and svadharma which were codified in Dharma Śāstras and the Hindu epics. These terms refer to a Brahmin’s specific duty to pass on the Vedic knowledge he acquired, and there were consequences if he failed to do so, such as enduring personal suffering and social alienation.13 In the early period, the Brahmin teachers were largely householders, and were not paid for their services. In exchange for their work they received gifts at the culmination of a śiṣya’s period of tutelage, called either “vedadakṣiṇā” (gift given in exchange for teaching the Veda), or simply “gurudakṣiṇā” (gift for the guru).14

Vedic education involved an intimate relationship between teacher and student. Ideally, the śiṣya would come to live in the household of the guru (gurukula) and serve him and his family. This stage of student-hood is brahmacarya, a term which literally means “walking with brahman,” “cultivating brahman” or “devoting oneself to brahman.”15 Patrick Olivelle notes that the stage of brahmacarya becomes codified as the first of three and then later four āśramas, or

11 J. Gonda, Change and Continuity in Indian Religion (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1997), 234. Parenthetical remarks and citations are in the original.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid. The most famous example of such gift-giving may be the story of Ekalavya in the Mahābhārata, where the guru Droṇa (also known as “Droṇācārya”) asks for and receives Ekalavya’s right thumb as his gurudakṣiṇā to ensure that Arjuna’s supremacy as an archer will not be challenged. See Sukthankar, ed., Mahābhārata, 1.123.10ff.

15 Gonda, Change and Continuity in Indian Religion, 284.

stages of life, which take their classical form in the second century B.C.E. as successive stages through which an ideal twice-born male would pass.16

Mānavadharmaśāstra details a range of injunctions about how a student should interact with his guru and his guru’s family while in the stage of brahmacarya. According to Manu, the student should treat the guru as a father because he gives instruction in the Veda, without which the twice-born student is the “equal of a servant.”17 The student should be careful, says Manu, to avoid ostentatious dress, speech and action in the presence of his guru, and should always honor his guru by restraining his body, speech, mind and heart.18 Manu describes the respect due to one’s teacher, father and mother in verses 2.226-33, where he says that the “teacher is the physical form of ultimate reality,” and that a student should not undertake any duty without the permission of all three personages.19 Manu compares the three figures to the three Vedic fires, asserting that the teacher is analogous to the āhavanīya fire into which oblations intended for the gods are offered.20 He goes on to say that a (twice-born male) householder gains power over the conditional realm through obedience to his mother, attains the middle world through obedience to his father, and “by obedience to his guru, [attains knowledge or experience of] the world of ultimate reality.”21 Thus, by the time of Manu, we see a conception of the guru as a doorway to the experience of brahman. This conception of the guru-as-guide is also found in the Upaniṣads and is the basis of the understanding of the guru-as-god.

There were different types of teachers in the early period who performed somewhat different functions and were referred to by a variety of terms, although there was evident overlap

16 Olivelle, The Āśrama System: The History and Hermeneutics of a Religious Institution, 105.

17 Doniger, ed., The Laws of Manu, 35, 2.171-2.

18 Ibid., 36-37, 2.192-4.

19 Ibid., 40, 2.226-9.

20 Ibid., 41, 2.231.

21 Ibid., 41, 2.232-3.

and interchangeability in the nomenclature. William Cenkner attempts to differentiate them, mentioning that the “guru” was the figure who would perform rites and give instruction in multiple Vedas, the “ācārya” would perform the upanayana rite and instruct in a single Veda, and the “upādhyāya” was the most ordinary teacher, who was often paid for his services, and who taught only a limited amount of usually a single Veda.22 Monier Monier-Williams’ definitions of these terms paint a somewhat different picture; he defines “ācārya” as one who knows or teaches the rules or ācāra, and a “spiritual guide or teacher (especially one who invests the student with the sacrificial thread and instructs him in the Vedas, in the law of sacrifice and religious mysteries).”23 He goes on to say in parentheses that “the title ācārya affixed to names of learned men is rather like our ‘Dr.’”24

A “guru,” for Monier-Williams, is one who bestows upon a youth an initiatory mantra, instructs the youth in the Śāstras, and prepares the youth up to the point of the upanayana ceremony, which is conducted not by a guru but by an ācārya. 25 The ācārya, according to Monier-Williams’ classification, is the most senior teacher and guide, the guru is somewhat lesser in stature, and the upādhyāya is the most junior, being a paid instructor who earns his living by teaching only a part of the Vedic corpus.26

There may be evidence for an historical progression in the above terms. According to Gonda, the term “guru” does not appear prior to the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, while “ācārya” is mentioned in the Atharvaveda in the context of a hymn to the brahmacārin and in the upanayana

22 William Cenkner, A Tradition of Teachers: Śaṅkara and the Jagadgurus Today (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2001), 6.

23 Monier Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 131.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid., 359.

26 Ibid., 213.

ceremony.27 In the upanayana ceremony the ācārya brings the youth into his household and pledges to transmit his knowledge. 28 This rite of upanayana is important in the discussion of the Indian guru, as it is the defining moment in the inception of religious instruction and a primary raison d’ȇtre of the Brahmin class as mentioned above. The ceremony marks a necessary passage through which members of the twice-born classes undergo their second birth by means of ritual activities and the recitation of passages such as AV 11.5.3 wherein the teacher symbolically gives birth to the student. 29

Both the initiator and the student undertook certain duties following the ceremony. The brahmacārin was under obligation to serve his teacher, live a life of chastity and austerities, and beg for his food. The ācārya’s primary responsibility was to foster a love for knowledge in the student through the intimate relationship of teacher and student, in the process forming his character and helping to develop the personality of the student. It was incumbent on the teacher to pass on to the student the knowledge of the tradition and to instruct him in the performance of the various religious and social duties appropriate to his caste.30

The teacher in these contexts was primarily a male Brahmin educator and initiator whose role it was to pass on the oral Vedic tradition to his student, induct his student into religious life, and in so doing, fulfill his own dharma.

27 Gonda, Change and Continuity in Indian Religion, 235. In this ceremony, a youth is taken into the tutelage of a ācārya via an action described by the verb upa-nī from which comes the verbal noun upanayana, literally “the act of leading to or near, bringing.” (Monier-Williams, A

Sanskrit-English Dictionary, 201.)The rite required a youth to approach a teacher and ask that he initiate formal instruction. The teacher would ask the youth his name, class, caste, family background and other personal details, and confirm that the youth had sufficiently prepared himself for discipleship. He would enact a symbolic re-birthing by placing his hand on the youth’s head, and then would usher the pupil into student-hood by teaching him the Sāvitrī Vedic verse. See, for example, Gonda, Change and Continuity in Indian Religion, 284-88.

28 Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, 201.

29 Gonda, Change and Continuity in Indian Religion, 233.

30 See Cenkner, A Tradition of Teachers: Śaṅkara and the Jagadgurus Today, 8.

Download PDF file of Full TEXT of:

The Guru As God:

Conceptions of Religious Authority in the Vedas, Upaniṣads and the Works of Śaṅkarācārya

History of Religions Colloquium Paper May 24, 2007

By Jeremy Morse

Jeremy Morse – Guru as God