GURŪ, a spiritual guide or preceptor. The term, long used in the Indian religious tradition, has a special connotation in the Sikh system. The Sikh faith itself signifies discipleship, the word sikh (śiṣya in Sanskrit and sissa or sekha in Pālī) meaning pupil or learner. The concept of Gurū, the teacher or enlightener, is thus central to Sikhism. The Gurū, according to Sikh belief, is the vital link in man's spiritual progress. He is the teacher who shows the way. He is not an intercessor, but examplar and guide. He is no avatār or God's incarnation, but it is through him that God instructs men. He is the perfectly realized soul; at the same time, he is capable of leading the believers to the highest state of spiritual enlightenment. The Gurū has been called the ladder, the row-boat by means of which one reaches God. He is the revealer of God's word. Through him God's word, śabda, enters human history. The Gurū is the voice of God, the Divine self-revelation. Man turns to the Gurū for instruction because of his wisdom and his moral piety. He indicates the path to liberation. It is the Gurū who brings the love and nature of God to the believer. It is he who brings that grace of God by which haumai or egoity is mastered. The Gurū is witness to God's love of His creation. He is God's hukam, i.e. Will, made concrete.

         A special figure is employed to describe the transference of the Gurūship in the Sikh tradition. This figure helps us understand the true nature of Gurū. The Gurūship passes from one Gurū to the other as one candle lights another. Thus the real Gurū is God, for He is the source of all light. It is clear that the Gurū is not to be confused with the human form (the unlit body) . In the Sikh faith which originated in Gurū Nānak's revelation, Ten Gurūs held the office. In Sikhism the word Gurū is used only for the ten spiritual prophets -- Gurū Nānak to Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, and for none other. Now this office of Gurū is fulfilled by the Gurū Granth Sāhib, the Sacred Book, which was so apotheosized by Gurū Gobind Siṅgh.

         Various connotations of gurū have been given based on different etymological interpretations. One generally accepted in Sikhism is that derived from the syllable gu standing for darkness and for its removal. Thus gurū is he who banishes the darkness of ignorance. According to Sikh belief, guidance of the gurū is essential for one's spiritual enlightenment.

         No particular text dealing with the concept of gurū is found in the Sikh Scripture, though scattered references abound. They are often figurative and symbolic but are fully expressive of the pre-eminence accorded to the gurū. He has been called a tīrtha, place of holy pilgrimage, i.e. purifier; a khevaṭ, the boatman who rows one across the ocean of worldliness; a sarovar, a lake where swans, i.e. holy saints, dwell and pick up pearls of sacred wisdom for food; a samund, ocean which is churned for the gems, for his bāṇī, or inspired word, is itself deep like the ocean and its wisdom can be brought out only after long meditation; a dīpak, lamp which lights up the three worlds. In another comparison the Gurū is called pīlak, elephant controller, as he restrains the mind that is like a mad, romping elephant. He is called dātā, donor of wisdom; amritsar, the pool of ambrosia of the Name; a basīṭh, one joining the seeker in union with God; joti, the light which illuminates the world. Other comparisons are añjan, collyrium, which sharpens the Sight -- a metaphor for the spiritual vision; sahjai dā khet, the field of equipoise or equanimity; paharūā, the watchman who drives away the five thieves, i.e. the five evils. He is sūrā, the hero whose sword of jñāna or knowledge rends the veil of darkness and overcomes ignorance and wickedness, pāras, philosopher's stone which turns base metals into gold, for he transforms ordinary men into holy saints. There are numerous more comparisons.

         The first stanza of Bāvan Akharī, one of Gurū Arjan's compositions in the Gurū Granth Sāhib, is a paean of glorification in honour of the Gurū (Gurudev) in exalted classical style. Gurudev, i.e. the divinely inspired Master, is the mother, father; he is the Master and the Lord Supreme. He is friend, relative, brother. He confers on the seeker the name of the Supreme Being, i.e. the mantra, which is infallible. Gurudev is the touchstone which surpasses all pāras. Gurudev is sacred tīrath of the ambrosia of immortality, a bath wherein is a bath in jñāna. Gurudev is the banisher of sins; he makes the impure pure. Gurudev has existed from beginning of the beginning, from the beginning of the ages and has lasted through all the yugas; i.e. his light is eternal. His teachings of the Name alone can save humanity (GG, 250).

         The guidance of the gurū is absolutely essential; no spiritual gain can accrue without the gurū's guidance. The view has been constantly reiterated in the Gurū Granth Sāhib:

        Were there to rise a hundred moons, and a thousand suns besides,

        Without the gurū, it will still be pitch darkness

                                                                (GG, 463).


        None other than the gurū can give enlightenment,

        Nor can happiness without him enter the heart

                                                                (GG, 650).


         "None has ever realized God, none at all, without the gurū's guidance," declares Gurū Nānak (GG, 466). Using figurative language, it is Pointed out that no blind man can find the path without the gurū, as nobody can reach the housetop without the stairs and no one can cross the river without a boat. As says Gurū Amar Dās, he who remains without the Gurū's guidance is the rejected one

                                                                        (GG, 435).

        What is gained if the gurū's compassion and guidance are available is thus elaborated:

        By the holy preceptor's grace is faith perfected;

        By the holy preceptor's grace is grief cancelled;

        By the holy preceptor's grace is suffering annulled;

        By the holy preceptor's grace is love of God enjoyed;

        By the holy preceptor's grace is union with God attained

                                                                (GG, 149).


         The gurū cleanses the seeker's mind of the impurity and brings it to contemplating on the Name. He breaks the shackles of the disciple who turns away from the excitements of the senses. He seeks his welfare and cherishes him as the beloved of his heart. A touch of him erases all blemishes of conduct. The bard Nall refers to the transforming power of the gurū thus in symbolic language: "From base metal I became gold by hearing the words of the Gurū. Poison was turned into nectar as one uttered the Name revealed by the Gurū. From iron a diamond I became by the Gurū's grace. From stone one becomes a diamond in light of the jñāna manifested by the Gurū. The Gurū transformed common timber into fragrant sandalwood and banished all pain and misery. By worshipping the feet of the Gurū, the foolish and the evil became angels -- the noblest of men" (GG, 1399) .

         God, who is "without form, colour or feature, " is yet self-communicating. 'Through the True Word (śabda ) is He revealed, " as says Gurū Nānak (GG, 597) . Further:

        Within every heart is hid the Lord;

        In all hearts and bodies is his light.

        By the gurū's instruction

        Are the adamantine doors opened.


         Here śabda and gurū are juxtaposed. Often they become one word, śabdagurū, identifying śabda with the gurū.

        The śabda gurū is the profound teacher;

        Without the śabda the world remains in perplexity

                                                            (GG, 635) .


        Set your mind on the gurśabda

        Which is over and above everything else

                                                            (GG, 904) .


        Through the śabda one recognizes the adorable Lord

        Through the word of the gurū (gurvāk)

        Is he imbued with the truth

                                                            (GG, 55).


        Śabda is the same as the gurū, says Gurū Rām Dās. "Bāṇī (the gurū's utterance or word) is the gurū and the gurū is baṇī; in baṇi are 'contained all the elixirs" (GG, 982). Śabda, ever present, is articulated through the human medium, the gurū, so ordained by the Supreme Being. The historical Gurūs of the Sikh faith are believed to have uttered the truth vouchsafed to them by God. "As I received the word from the Lord, so do I deliver it, " says Gurū Nānak (GG, 722). Gurū Arjan: "I know not what to say; I utter only the word I receive from God" (GG, 763). And Gurū Rām Dās: "Own ye the Sikhs the bāṇī of the gurū as truth and truth alone, for the Creator Himself makes him utter it" (GG, 308).

        God, thus, is the primal Gurū of the whole creation. This is how Gurū Nānak discloses the identity of his own Gurū. One of his compositions, the Sidha Goṣṭi, is in the form of a discourse with a group of yogīs. Therein a yogī puts the question to him, "Who is your Gurū? Whose disciple are you?" (GG, 942) . To which Gurū Nānak replies:

        Śabda is my Gurū, and the meditating mind the disciple.

        By dwelling on Him I remain detached.

        Nānak, God, the cherisher of the world through the ages, is my Gurū

                                                            (GG, 943).

        Elsewhere Gurū Nānak and his successors affirm that the Satigurū is God.

        The light of the pure Lord, the essence of everything, is all-pervading.

        He is the infinite, transcendent Lord, the Supreme God

        Him Nānak has obtained as his Gurū

                                                            (GG, 599) .


        Accredited is the personality of the bright Gurū, God

        Who is brimful of all might.

        Nānak, the Gurū is the transcendent Lord Master.

        He, the ever present, is the Gurū

                                                            (GG, 802) .


         According to Sikh belief there is no difference in spirit between such a gurū and God. "The gurū is God and God is the Gurū there is no distinction between the two" says Gurū Rām Dās (GG, 442). "God hath placed Himself within the gurū, which He explicitly explaineth" (GG, 466) . "Acknowledge the Transcendent God and the gurū as one" (GG, 864) . The real personality of a human being is the ātman, the physical body is only a temporary dwelling place for the ātman which is eternal and is a spark from the Eternal Flame, the Supreme Ātman or God. "O my self, you are an embodiment of God's Light; know your true origin" (GG, 441) . Being encased in the physical frame, this ātmān becomes so involved in the temptations of the physical world that it forgets its reality and loses contact with the Flame of its origin, whereas the ātman of the Gurū remains ever in tune with that Supreme Light from which it has sparked off. It is thus that God is accepted as residing within the gurū. It is in this sense that there is no distinction seen between the gurū and God. Gurū or satigurū is thus a word with a double meaning in the Gurū Granth Sāhib. It may refer to God or to His chosen prophet.

         The true Gurū is easily distinguished. "The true gurū is one who has realized the Supreme Being and whose association saves the disciple" (GG, 286) . "The true gurū is one in whose heart dwells the Name Divine" (GG, 287) . "He by meeting whom the mind is filled with bliss is the true gurū. He ends the duality of the mind and leads (the disciple) to the ultimate state of realization " (GG, 168) . "Praise, praise be to the true gurū who demolishes the fort of dubiety; wondrous, wondrous the true gurū who unites the seeker with the Lord" (GG, 522). The gurū is ordained as such for the liberation of mankind . He transmits the message of God to men and performs acts of grace to save them. The gurū is sent by God, but he is not God's incarnation. "Singed be the tongue which says that the Lord takes birth" (GG, 1136). He is ajūnī (unborn); He is saibhaṅ (self-existent) . Highest tribute and adoration are reserved for the gurū. Devotion to the gurū is deemed to be the quintessential quality of a religious man. The pain of separation from the gurū and the joy of meeting with him find expression in poetry of deep intensity, as in Gurū Arjan's hymn in Rāg Mājh (GG, 96-97).

         Gurū Nānak was suspicious of human preceptors, paṇḍits, gurūs and pīrs. They are generally denounced as blind guides, self-styled and traders upon ignorance and supersition. He warns against them:

        Never fall at the feet of one

        Who calls himself gurū and pīr, and goes begging.

        He who eats what he earns

        And from his own hands gives some in charity,

        He alone knows the true way of life

                                                            (GG, 1245).


        The disciple whose gurū is blind will not attain the goal (GG, 58) . Taking up this thought the third Gurū said:

         The disciples whose gurū is blind perform only blind deeds.

        They follow their own wayward will,

        And ever utter the grossest lies

                                                            (GG, 951).


        When Gurū Nānak speaks of his gurū or satigurū, it is not such teachers that he has in mind. The true gurū is the means of the self-revelation of God. He makes the concealed and ineffable God known. He symbolizes the supreme act of God's grace in revealing Himself as Truth, as the Name, as the Word. The true gurū comes to unite all people of the world and to unite them to the Supreme Being. A false gurū creates schisms, divisions and prejudices. The true gurū as manifested in the history of the Sikh faith comes to suppress the forces of evil and to rally the forces of good. He comes to resuscitate the values of true religion, dharma.

         The Sikh faith developed under the guidance of ten successive Gurūs from 1469 to 1708. Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, the Tenth Gurū, appointed no personal successor, but bequeathed the gurūship to the Holy Book, the Gurū Granth Sāhib. The holy Word or śabda had always been referred by the Gurūs as well as by their disciples as of Divine origin. The Gurū was the revealer of the Word. The Word was identified with the Gurū when Gurū Gobind Siṅgh proclaimed the Holy Book Gurū before he passed away. Bards Balvaṇḍ and Sattā theorize that of their three aspects -- jotī, i.e. light, jugati, way or procedure, and kāiā, i.e. body -- it is only kāiā, the body, that changes as succession passed from one historical Gurū of the Sikh faith to the next. Jotī and jugati remained the same. As sang the bards: Joti ohā jugati sāi sahi kāiā pheri palaṭīai" (GG, 966). From their verse emerges this concept of three aspects of the gurūship.

         God is the source of all light or consciousness. God kindles that light, in the chosen human body, the Gurū in the jotī-aspect the Gurū is the most enlightened human being, he is in direct communion with God. He communicates the message of God to mankind. He transmits His light to the world. Without the gurū, darkness prevails. Says Gurū Nānak, "The light of the gurū alone dispels darkness" (GG, 463). "The gurū is that lamp which illuminates the three worlds" (GG, 137) . Balvaṇḍ and Sattā in their hymn in the Gurū Granth Sāhib affirm that the historical Gurūs of the Sikhs shared the same joti (light). The joti got transferred to the successor's body. Thus, right from 1469, the year of the birth of Gurū Nānak, to 1708, the year of the passing away of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, it was one continuing jotī manifesting itself in the Ten Gurūs.

         This awareness of one light acting through the successive Gurūs was so permeating among the Sikhs that Mobid Zulfiqār Ardastānī (d. 1670) wrote in his Persian work Dabistān-i-Mazāhib, "The Sikhs say that when Nānak left his body, he absorbed himself in Gurū Aṅgad who was his most devoted disciple, and that Gurū Aṅgad was Nānak himself. After that, at the time of his death, Gurū Aṅgad entered into the body of Amar Dās. He in the same manner occupied a place in the body of Rām Dās who in the same way got united with Arjan. They say that whoever does not acknowledge Gurū Arjan to be the very self of Bābā Nānak becomes a non-believer."

         Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, last of the Gurūs, himself wrote in his poetical autobiography called Bachitra Nāṭak, "Nānak assumed the body of Aṅgad... Afterwards, Nānak was called Amar Dās, as one lamp is lit from another... The holy Nānak was revered as Aṅgad, Aṅgad was recognized as Amar Dās. And Amar Dās became Rām Dās… When Rām Dās was blended with the Divine, he gave the Gurūship to Arjan. Arjan appointed Hargobind in his place and Hargobind gave his seat to Har Rāi. Har Krishan, his son, then became Gurū. After him came Tegh Bahādur."

         Balvaṇḍ and Sattā further proclaim that the Gurūs indicated the same jugati or the method and way of life. The ministry of Gurū Nānak combining jotī and jugati, took care of both the worlds, the spiritual and the temporal. It was the ministry of deg (charity), and tegh (power), of mīrī (temporal authority) and pīrī (spiritual power). According to the bard, Nānak founded sovereignty on the firm rock of truth... Nānaku rāju chalāiā sachu koṭu satāṇī nīv dai (GG, 966). As Nānak transferred the jotī (light) to Lahiṇā who became Gurū Aṅgad, he unfurled the umbrella over his head -- lahaṇe dharionu chhatu siri, i.e. he invested Lahiṇā with the authority to carry on with the practice he had introduced. The Gurūs preached devotion, bhakti or nām (meditation on the Divine Name), recitation of bāṇī, the sacred texts, and kīrtan, i.e. singing of the Lord's glory in saṅgat or holy assembly. Along with nām, they inculcated the values of kirat, labouring with one's hands, and vand chhakṇā, sharing with others the fruit of one's exertions. The Gurūs had carved a clear way for the disciples.

         The Gurū's kāiā or body was the repository of God's light. It was the medium for the articulation of śabda, Word Divine, or God's message. So it was worthy of reverence. The historical Gurū was the focal point of the saṅgat and the living example of truths he had brought to light. He himself lived up to the teachings he imparted to his disciples.

         The saṅgat turned into Khālsa in the time of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh who introduced khaṇḍe dī pāhul, i.e. baptism of the double-edged steel sword. With the formation of the Khālsā, the concept of the Gurū Panth formalized. By becoming the sixth person to receive amrit at the hands of the Pañj Piāre, the Five Beloved, who formed the nucleus of the Khālsā Panth, Gurū Gobind Siṅgh testified to his own membership of the Panth, and to having merged himself with it and endowed it with the charisma of his own personality. The bāṇī, always revered by the Sikhs as well as by the Gurūs as Word Divine, was however above all. This was something which even the Gurūs themselves could not change. It was this superiority which Gurū Gobind Siṅgh acknowledged in 1708 when he invested Scripture as Gurū. The idea of the Gurū Panth lives on in the Khālsā. But the Khālsā itself could not alter the fundamental tenets of the Sikh faith as enunciated in the bāṇī. The Gurū Granth Sāhib was, in the presence of the Khālsā, proclaimed Gurū. The finality of the pronouncement remains a cherished truth for the Sikhs and the Holy Book has since been the perpetual authority, spiritual as well as historical, for them. No living person, however holy or revered, can now have for them the title or status of Gurū. For Sikhs the Gurū is the teacher, the prophet under direct commission from God -- the Ten who have been and the Gurū Granth Sāhib which is their continuing visible manifestation.


  1. Śabadārth Srī Gurū Granth Sāhib. Amritsar, 1959
  2. Jodh Siṅgh, Bhāī, Gurmati Nirṇaya. Amritsar, 1932
  3. Darshan Siṅgh, Gurū Granth Bāṇī vich Gurū dā Saṅkalap. Patiala, 1976
  4. Kapur Siṅgh, Parāśarapraśṇa. Amritsar, 1989
  5. Sher Singh, Philosophy of Sikhism. Amritsar, 1980
  6. Cole, W.O., The Guru in Sikhism. London, 1982

W. Owen Cole