Sometimes when we are trying to understand something we begin by understanding what it is not. In the case of the term, guru, which has been acutely misrepresented in recent times, we can begin by recognizing that an expert in their field is not a guru. A wise person is not a guru. Someone who is charismatic or has lots of followers is not a guru. All spiritual teachers are not gurus. And finally, those who self-appointedly call themselves as such are usually not gurus.
Guru means “dispeller of darkness” from the Sanskrit, gu, meaning "darkness," and ru, meaning "that which dispels." Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the spiritual classics "Autobiography of a Yogi" and "The Divine Romance," states, “a true God-illumined guru is one who, in his attainment of self-mastery, has realized his identity with the omnipresent Spirit. Such a one is uniquely qualified to lead the seeker on his or her inward journey toward divine realization.”
This is no ordinary teacher, nor is it even a brilliant or highly experienced one. A true guru is a clear, pure channel of Consciousness, untainted by ego or personal desires. They may be operating through a human body and mind to guide others back to the awareness of their true Self, but they are in complete transcendence of this world at all times. Only one who has attained this realization can show others the laws of spiritual harmony. And our attunement to them as living embodiments of scriptural Truth enables us to be guided from the darkness of our ignorance to the light of Self-realization as the following chant proclaims:
Om Asatoma Sat Gamaya; Lead me from the unreal to the real
Tamasoma Jyotir Gamaya; Lead me from the darkness to the light
Mrityor Ma Amritam Gamaya; Lead me from death to immortality
Separating the Charlatans
Inevitably, in every seeker’s journey, there comes a time when they tire of the little self’s story and yearn to know that which is greater. The difficulty then becomes discerning who is, and who is not, capable and qualified to remove our blind spots and eradicate our tenacious egos. Charlatans are many and the misuse of the word, guru, contributes to this mysterious domain. Many well-intentioned people fall prey to the passions of false gurus seeking money, power and/or sex. The misuse of spiritual powers by leaders has a long history, so seekers are cautioned to be careful, responsible and discerning.
Some people can be very knowledgeable in certain areas; proficient, for example, in intellectual wisdom, but still lacking in the embodiment of Truth and its integration in all aspects of their being. This being the case, they are still in their own spiritual darkness and cannot lead anyone else where they have not been themselves. The ego is still their dominant operating system. How can one remove a speck from another’s eye when he has a log in his own (Matthew 7:5)?
An essential part of making our way from darkness to light is, in fact, seeking out various teachers. Like in asana practice where we cannot realize the full expression of most postures on the first try, neither are we given the full understanding of ourselves by our first teachers. There is a process to Self-realization. The practice of learning deeper surrender into a posture and also into the humility needed for a guru-disciple relationship takes time. But our prostrations in forward bend on our mats prepare us for the final bow at the feet of the master. The yoga sutra is fulfilled and we become free.
“Absolute devotion and surrender to the Divine enables soul freedom.” 
Does the Guru Lie Within?
Although it is commonly heard in yoga classes that "the guru is within," this may add further to the student’s confusion. Of course, it is true that the Divine Light lives within each of us. And that a true guru enters into us and accepts us. But if our awareness is still steeped in forgetfulness of our true nature, we are in darkness. And darkness cannot perceive light within itself. Left to our own devices, the ego will forever run the show. But if the switch is turned on by one already embodying the light, then we can perceive our true nature as it has always been.
The battle between dark and light, between the ego and the soul, is the fundamental action in this world of duality. It is a great blessing that true gurus have come in every age to lead us back to Truth and the realization of our innate light and love.
Characteristics of a True Guru
So, now that we've discussed what does not make a true guru, let's discuss what does:
- They are humble, without ego or any selfishness, because they know they are not the doer of actions but rather an instrument of the Divine.
- They are absolutely peaceful within. Anger never overtakes them, even if they use mock anger to correct or guide.
- They do not seek mechanical obedience from a cultish following, build self-serving organizations or ask for money, adoration or sexual favors.
- They never use spiritual powers (siddhis) for personal recognition or proof of their exalted consciousness.
- They have realized Truth and experienced the blessings of that state; therefore, their words are alive with Truth and their lives are examples that all may follow.
- They want only the devotee’s highest good and will never force their will or expect someone to renounce his free will.
- They exhibit pure, unconditional love, wanting nothing but the devotee’s spiritual development and well-being.
- They work tirelessly and selflessly for the benefit of others.
- One can see all universal virtues in them. (Learn more about yoga virtues here.)
- They can enter the unblinking, unmoving, unbreathing state of samadhi at will.
- They understand the ways of the world very well, as well as the laws of destiny and karma.
After 22 years of studying with many wonderful teachers, profoundly grateful for the wisdom and knowledge imparted to me, there came a time when I felt a longing for a master, one who could guide me from my ego-centered place of human wisdom to the place of true and total God-realization. It took years of dedicated prayer, but that master showed up one day and the difference is palpable. The depth that exists in the teachings of a totally awakened guru provides a lifetime of work for the devotee to live into, and the sweet, deep trust that exists between disciple and master is unparalleled.
 Paramhansa Yogananda, The Divine Romance (Los Angeles: Self Realization Fellowship, 1986) 470.
 Jennie Lee, True Yoga: Practicing with the Yoga Sutras for Happiness and Spiritual Fulfillment (Woodbury: Llewellyn Worldwide, 2016) 135.