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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Kelly



heavy, weighty, important;

revered person, teacher

In Sanskrit there is no formal difference between adjectives and nouns: guru/heavy; (the) heavy (one).

guru has cousins in many Indo-European languages. Despite surface appearance both it and its opposite laghu/light are related to

Latin grāvis heavy, serious — levis/light

Latin brūtus heavy, dull

Greek barus heavy (as in barometer) — elakhus/light

(The striking g/b difference hides a consonant represented by *ghw- that has survived in none of the daughter languages.)

Latin gravitas has come into English both in its direct unchanged form and as gravity. Its Sanskrit equivalent is gurutā/heaviness; the role of the guru; pregnancy.

An alternate origin story from within ‘guru culture’ is that gu means dispel and ru means darkness, so that the guru is the darkness-dispeller. This looks much more like a Chinese-style word than anything at home in Sanskrit’s own word-forming system. It was really just a way for participants in the culture that built up around the word to lodge an understanding inside it. In the same way haṭha, an ordinary word meaning force, was taken to be ha/sun plus ṭha/moon. This has no basis in the word’s origin, but is a quite interesting way to load up one’s key words. Why not?

The guru as teacher stands in relation to the śiṣya/student, literally the one who is to be educated, or in harsher uses of the verb controlled, disciplined, punished.

The line of transmission from teacher to student is known as



paraṃpara/one after another, is like a mini-sentence without a verb turned into a noun. The nature of the verb must be understand, as in “one (transmits to) another” or “one (forms) another”.

It suggests an unbroken lineage stretching back in time. On the other hand the religious history of south Asia shows tremendous variety and innovation over time: the chain of control is far from absolute. To judge even just from instances in the creation of modern yoga innovations are validated by being projected into the past once one’s guru has in one way or another faded into the background.

Master/apprentice relations have of course been widespread across the world in the transmission of craft and other kinds of knowledge. But role of teacher has been of particular importance in South Asia. There will be multiple causes for this but among them must be the culture of memorisation for the Vedic poems that preserved them in entirely oral form in lineages of transmission for a millennium or more.

Notable is the use of guru (like sensei in Japanese culture) as an honorific extended to politicians and others who are not at all like masters to apprentices.

There will always be risks in this kind of unequal relationship. One proverb proposes:

In this proverb fire is the obvious physical exemplar: too far away and it gives no warmth and too close it burns. The other three are human relationships that evidently involve some kind of temptation and risk.

These appear to be ordered in descending frequency: few people will have to worry about getting too close to the power of king (who may give you presents, but watch out if he’s angry or falls in a palace coup), while heterosexual relations are extremely common; and somewhere in between will be those who commit to intense tutelage with a guru.

‘Woman’ is included as part of the routine misogyny of so many old agrarian cultures. But the point is the same one as in the Latin uxorius/wifely, used of men who are too fond of their wives—as if misogyny is an ideal one might fall short of, or a position one might forget to adopt.

And for guru too, a warning to keep the right distance. As it is only a proverb no exact guidance guidance is provided, just the idea that a decision must be be made and that ‘too much’ is possible.


The role of the guru came attached to, among many other spheres of activity, yoga. In the modern period two contradictory developments.

On the one hand, the modern yoga teacher, at least when it comes to modern postural yoga, came to occupy a role of low authority and low compulsion in the life of the student. Hurray for that. (Or it might be that yogic material was transferred into some other already exisiting role.)

In the Yoga at Home lift-out in the 1964 Woman’s Weekly, its author, the White Russian refugee Michael Volin, presented himself with some of the more traditional trappings: seated on a tiger skin wearing only a thong. This was not to last.

At around the same period Iyengar was crafting a presentation of yoga for state-run centres in the UK that was explicitly secular (this was a precondition presented to him) and largely shorn of deference.

Across many styles of yoga practice a degree of religiosity became something that could be wheeled in or out according to local taste without radically changing the practice.

On the other hand modern yoga went global: on a scale totally beyond the world of the traditional guru. That small world (highly local and decentralised where a teacher’s power did not reach very far) had its own limits built into it.

That sudden shift onto a global stage produced its own problems: the birth of the cult (which seems to be a modern development) on one side and on the more secular end the megalomania of someone like Bikram. In all that Iyengar, to his credit, remains untarnished.


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