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What is a Worthy Spiritual Teacher Like?

A selection on the Spiritual Teacher, from Perspectives on Yoga, a new book to be published later this year.

Spiritual Teacher - a hand upIn the Srimad Bhagavatam (11.7.33-35) the first human guru, Sri Dattatreya, describes how he had twenty-four gurus, including elements, planets, animals, insects and human beings. A guru is something or someone which gives us a push in the direction of higher consciousness, which teaches us to see farther and deeper than we have before.

Sometimes a book does this, and sometimes a single word spoken by someone who had no idea it would have that effect on another person. And for those of great good karma it is possible to meet a great soul who can lift them to a higher level of awareness by various means, including their mere presence.

But some impetus to awakening is necessary for all of us. Of course, that awakening ultimately comes from within, but since we are so outward-turned it almost always requires an external stimulus of some sort.


A true and worthy guru or teacher (acharya) will freely teach anyone who is sincere and willing to follow instruction. He will care nothing about their background or their past.

A mentally disturbed man tried to kill Swami Sivananda, who forgave him and asked him to live in the ashram and do sadhana.

Gondawali Baba (Sri Brahma Chaitanya)A man was hired by jealous Brahmin pandits to poison Sri Brahma Chaitanya of Gondawali because of his open attitudes and ways. Knowing that if he refused the offered poison the man’s intention to kill him would be revealed and he would be punished, Sri Brahma Chaitanya took the poison and swallowed it. Seeing this, the man fled in terror. By his yoga powers the saint did not die, but he developed chronic asthma.


A worthy teacher can help anyone who wishes to change, for the divine Self is within all, and the moment anyone desires higher life he is ready and able for it. In the lives of great yogis we find examples of every kind of degradation being dispelled by their merciful teaching. What value would they be if this was not the case? The principle is that those who have dug themselves into a hole can climb out if they have a competent teacher. This is true for all. The sole factor is their intention and will.


The teacher may show the water in the well, but the student is the one who brings out the water from the well, for it is his own Self that is the well! Certainly a teacher can instruct in the way to access the water, but the student does the rest.


People ignorantly think that a teacher’s body is the guru. This is really only to be expected, because however philosophical we may think we are, we are very body-identified. It is a matter of conditioning from nearly all our previous lives. So of course we will identify a guru or teacher with his body and become dependent and even obsess on it.

This is not just a serious obstacle to spiritual life, many “disciples” make it a substitute for spiritual life. What we should be intent on is the wisdom teaching of the guru. We need to listen, learn, and apply. And that is all.

If the guru’s body is far away or no longer alive, we will be in no way hindered in our progress. That of course is easy to say, but human beings are addicted to attachments of all sorts, including spiritual attachments.

I will admit to you that I wish with all my heart that I could have even just a few minutes again in the presence of the great souls I have known in the past. There is no substitute for the company of the holy, for it can change us in subtle ways we often are not aware of this until that company is lost. But since Brahman Itself is “mighty world-destroying Time” and “all-devouring death” according to the Gita (11:32; 10:34), we shall certainly lose the company of the holy, and it is wise to be ready for that.

We must strive to embody the wisdom they teach us so in us that wisdom shall live on, and after our death we can ascend to those worlds where such great ones abide until they again return to purify and bless the earth–perhaps with us as their companions in the Great Work.


A true guru is a living example of what he teaches, and he continues to observe himself all that he teaches to others. You know you are within the gates of a guru-cult when your hear: “Maharaj no longer needs to….”

Buddha blessing

Buddha meditated until the day of his passing from this world, and he followed all the disciplines that even the youngest of the monks observed. He went on the alms-round just like everyone else: no special cook and kitchen for him. Nor did he make his advanced age an excuse for slacking off. The same was true of Swami Sivananda. What he told others to do, he himself did until the last breath.


A true spiritual teacher does not have the the idea, “I am a guru.” He sees divinity within all, equally, and never see them as disciples.

Once a vain young Brahmin man went to Rishikesh to see Swami Sivananda. He was one of these “I bow to no one” simplistic non-dualists. He was wondering how he would get out of bowing to Sivanandaji, since others would be doing so. In his egoic dilemma he went into a small alleyway to ponder what to do. In a matter of moments Swami Sivananda entered the alley, came up to the young man and bowed down and touched his feet! He got the message.


There are a lot of “jewel in the lotus” gurus in India, but there are real gurus that treat everyone like their own family, often to the shock of those that have only been around the “jewel” type.

That is why, presumptuous as it is really is, when I speak of Swami Sivananda I can so readily call him “my friend.” One morning in satsang I sat there looking at him and knowing: “If there is anyone in this world who loves me, it is this man.” And I did not mean love in the egoic sense of normal human emotion. He loved the true Me: my Self, not my masks and labels.

Truly: Sivananda was God and God was Sivananda.

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