in Gurus & Disciples

What’s the difference between a guru and an educator?

A guru fashions a doctrine and disciples. A guru dictates the questions and answers which are permitted. Disciples are discouraged from independent thought. Their job is to distribute the doctrine and to allure more disciples. Gurus demand obedience and compliance.

Educators, on the contrary, foster learning and encourage questioning and searching for answers. Students are allowed to engage in independent thought. Unexpected answers or questions are welcomed by educators as part of the process of learning and discovery. Educators stimulate creativity, skepticism, and intellectual explorations.1

Gurus seldom, if ever, doubt their doctrines and tend to see themselves as infallible. Educators, on the other hand, are doubtful about many of their beliefs. Educators lack absolute certainty. Gurus are absolutely certain of their doctrine.

Adi Shankara with Disciples, by Raja Ravi Varma (1904)

Adi Shankara with Disciples, by Raja Ravi Varma (1904)

Guru behaviors

It’s important to define words that often have multiple meanings. A popular definition is that a guru fits the East-Asian notion of an enlightened spiritual teacher. Most important, is not the personality or person, but the actions and attitudes that differentiate an educator from a guru.

Below are two examples using different Eastern, Hindu-inspired gurus.

When a visitor named Shyam Basu asked [guru] Ramakrishna: “How can you say that sin is punishable when you say that He is doing everything?”. The [guru] was cheesed off and quipped: “What calculating cunning (sonar bener buddhi)! You asshole (Ore podo), just eat the mango. What will you gain by counting the trees, branches, and leaves in the grove?”2 [Read more quotes and a brief biography in my post Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: Smoking, Cussing Godman?]

To a dissatisfied student, [the guru] Paramahansa Yogananda said: “Don’t doubt, or God will remove you from the hermitage. So many come here looking for miracles. But masters do not display the powers God has given them unless He commands them to do so. Most men don’t understand that the greatest miracle of all would be the transformation of their lives by humble obedience to His will.”3

The behaviors and attitudes expressed by these two East-Asian, Hindu-inspired god-men is emblematic of gurus. It doesn’t matter whether a person is popularly called a guru or disciple. What matters most is how a person acts and how disciples surrender and obey.

Donald_Trump_by_Gage_Skidmore_6-minMany more gurus than educators

A guru aims to produce disciples who obey and comply. Disciples are discouraged from independent thought. Independence is discouraged as being egoic, rebellious, and “doing your own thing”—opposing the guru and doctrine. Educators encourage students to question and search for answers. When it no longer serves, doctrine may be discarded. An educator aims to stimulate creativity, skepticism, and intellectual explorations.

In many schools teachers are more like gurus than educators. In politics many citizens act more like disciples. Making distinctions—between guru versus educator—is important. It illustrates and impacts the way we think and act in daily life, in private and public.

Top photo credit, walking buddha and disciples, by AntanO – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

1 Many of the distinctions of guru versus educator made in this post were gleaned from Russell L. Ackoff’s, Differences That Make a Difference, London: UK, Triarchy Press, 2010.

2 Quote of Ramakrishna Paramahansa from Narasingha P. Sil’s,
Ramakrishna Revisited: A New Biography, Lanham: MD, University Press of America, 1998, p. 163.

3 Quote of Paramahansa Yogananda from Sayings of Paramahansa Yogananda, Los Angeles: CA, Self-Realization Fellowship, 1980.

Leave a Reply

  1. Having been in many guru settings and having been both a High School teacher and 13 years as a University professor (undergrad and graduate), I can tell you that the distinction between “guru” and “educator” is artificial. As you said at the end, Scott, “In many schools teachers are more like gurus than educators.”

    It is hard to come up with individual terms. In Japanese, “Sensei” simply means teacher or doctor — but literally, it means “the one who comes (came to life) before me.” Yet in the US, it has all sorts of deep spiritual, “Master” nuances. During my 7 years in Japan, as both a college teacher and an acupuncturist, I was called “sensei” all the time. So what is a true sensei.

    To keep it simple, instead of battling over nouns, why not just use adjectives:
    – an abusive teacher/guru/sensei/educator
    – an indoctrinating teacher/guru/sensei/educator
    – a deceptive teacher/guru/sensei/educator
    and so on…

    But one of your points is that, just because they have the holy title of guru (or sensei or professor), be on the alert for deception, indoctrination and abuse. On a milder scale, I saw college profs who were totally unaware of their own indoctrinating tendencies. Why? Because the smarter we are, the better we are at not only deceiving others, but also ourselves.

  2. @Sabio: Yeah, all language seems artificial, symbolic. Yet, it’s the best we have to communicate ideas and feelings and it may be worth trying to better define terms. I agree the main point I was trying to make is we all could be alert with any teachers or doctrines. Some more than other teachers.

    @Silvio: Thanks for your encouragement.


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