Sunday, July 5, 2020

What is Guru Purnima and How it is Celebrated

Guru Purnima
Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash

Today is a special day in India called Guru Purnima, a day when all gurus are honored.  To understand what exactly is Guru Purnima, why it is celebrated, how it is celebrated, and what foreigners can do on this day I decided to reach out to my friend Arvind Pare, a well-known Vedanta teacher based in Mysore, India.  

I met Arvind for the first time in 2012 when I visited my friend Lakshya at Arsha Vidya Gurukulam. That's Swami Dayananda's Ashram in Coimbatore.  She briefly introduced him to me back then.  Arvind lived at the ashram for 15 years studying Vedanta directly under the guidance of his teacher Swami Dayananda Saraswati.

Later on, I met Arvind again just when he was moving to Mysore.  Today he is a very popular Vedanta teacher among foreign students who travel to Mysore to practice yoga.  I've been to many of his classes myself.  He is so popular you need to make sure you arrive on time or you won't find a place to sit.  

His school name is called Swadhyaya.  He is currently offering online classes on the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, and the Kenopanishad.  If you are interested in following his online classes you can contact him directly via his Facebook Page.

I sent these questions to Arvind just three days ago.  Luckily he managed to send me a few voice messages yesterday afternoon with the answers.  I spent the whole night transcribing them and working on this blog to be able to share it today, on Guru Purnima day.  So I hope you'll find it helpful.

What is Guru Purnima

Purnima means a full moon day, and according to the Indian calendar, we celebrate it this month.  This day has always been devoted to recognizing, respecting, and worshiping the guru.

This day happens to be the birthday of the great sage Vyasa.  Vyasa is the author of the Mahabharata, and therefore he is also the writer of the Bhagavad Gita, because the Bhagavad Gita comes in the middle of the Mahabharata.

He is also sometimes referred to as Veda Vyasa. 

He did not write the Vedas.  The Vedas, a huge body of knowledge, we say haven't been written by anyone. They have been received by the humanity, but Vyasa arranged them and compiled them into four Vedas: the Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda, and Atharva-Veda. 

That is another great contribution of Vyasa, besides the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita.

And then we have the Puranas which is, you can say, mythological history.  But it is not all myth. There is also a lot of teachings in many of these Puranas, the teachings of Advaita Vedanta.  

Out of the Puranas, there are eighteen Puranas, which we call Ashtadasha Maha Puranas.  Vyasa is supposed to be the writer of those Puranas.

And then there is the Brahma Sutras.  Just like the Yoga Sutras, we have the Brahma Sutras.  That is also a writing of Vyasa Badarayana.  Badarayana is another name for Vyasa.  

So you can understand how great is the contribution of Vyasa and why his birthday has been chosen as the date to recognize the entire lineage, the parampara of all the gurus.  

The parampara starts with Narayana, the Lord, and Vyasa is considered an avatara of Narayana, the greatest. If we didn't have Vyasa we would have nothing.  That's how we look upon him. So his birthday is therefore designated as the day when all the gurus can be recognized. 

Why is Guru Purnima celebrated?

Well, we say that guru is the one who removes the avidyā, the ignorance of the Self.  We generally say gu is the darkness and ru is the remover.  Therefore the word guru means the one who removes darkness. 

That is often quoted but then, what is this darkness?  It is not the absence of light as we know it.  That is just a metaphor.  

A person who is born is already someone who is born with avidyā, with ignorance.  So we all have ignorance until it is removed. It is more like a principle and the only way it can be removed is by gaining the vidya, the knowledge of the Self.  

And so guru is the person who gives the knowledge, the vidya which can remove this avidyā, the darkness of ignorance. Therefore the guru is revered in this culture more than anything else.  

We say in Vedanta, Mahavakyasya Upadesakarta, the teacher of the sentence which shows the oneness between Jiva and Īśvara is the guru.  That sentence is Tat Tvam Asi: You are That. 

Whoever makes you see the meaning of this sentence that person is called guru.  That's where the word guru can be used.  

In any other situation when the word guru is used, is to show respect for the teacher.  Not every teacher is a guru.  Guru is of course a teacher, but not all the teachers are really considered a guru.  

Whether it be dance gurus, yoga gurus, or the gurus of music, they are also given similar respect.  But the word guru (in its original meaning) is mainly reserved for the one who removes avidya.  

“Students of Indian classical music and Indian classical dance, which also follow the Guru shishya parampara, celebrate this holy festival around the world.” Wikipedia

What do people do on Guru Purnima?

Guru in this culture is also equated to Īśvara because guru is the one who gives you knowledge of Īśvara which removes the ignorance.  That's why many people like to go on this day to a temple because Īśvara is the first guru.  Even in the Patanjali Yoga Sutras Īśvara is considered the first guru: 

पूर्वेषामपि गुरुः कालेनानवच्छेदात् ।
Pūrveṣāmapi guruḥ kālenānavachchhedāt 
Because he (Īśvara) is not limited by time, he is the guru of even the first gurus.
Y.S. I.26

So the guru parampara (the guru lineage) either begins with Vishnu Nārāyaṇa or with Shiva Dakshinamurti (different forms of Īśvara).  Both are our starting point for the guru parampara.

That's why many temples on this day of Guru Purnima will be cleaned up and decorated beautifully, and a lot of people will visit these temples to pay their respects and worship Īśvara, in many different ways.

And of course, if there are people who are learning dance or music they cannot forget to go to their guru if he is in the same city, or at the very least give him a phone call.  Some of these teachers can get very angry if you don't remember them on the Guru Purnima day.  

So lots of people on the Guru Purnima day will go to their teachers with flowers and sweets and then they will bow to their guru to show respect for them in this way.  

What can foreigners in India do on Guru Purnima?

And that is exactly what foreigners can also do.  They don't have to do anything different. They can just go with their friends to whomever they consider their guru.  

Even a yoga teacher is paid the same amount of respect.  Even though he is perhaps not removing avidya, except for removing the avidya of some asanas, he is still extended this respect generally reserved for the guru, because we don't lose anything in respecting a teacher at the same level as a guru.

The problem happens when they are considered seriously as a real guru.  Later on, people suffer because their guru did not live up to their guru status. Otherwise, we have a tradition of considering all teachers as gurus and respecting them, because by respecting them alone we learn.

Foreigners can also go along with their Indian friends to their guru and offer flowers and bow to them in whichever way they want.  If they want to do namaste that is fine in my book but some people might expect you to touch their feet.

Either way, paying your respect and bringing something in your hands is important, because when you visit your guru you don't go empty-handed.  That is a rule.

When you go to a temple, when you go to a guru or when you go to a king ––we use to have kings earlier––, when you go to them you do not go empty-handed.  

“Riktpaniḥ na pashyeta devam rajanam gurum.”  An empty-handed person may not go to see a king, a God, a temple or a guru.  This is a quote the Swami Dayananda used to quote, but the source is unknown.

So bringing something that the guru may be able to use, or some sweets and flowers, and just paying your respect to him, that's what foreigners can also do.

How long does Guru Purnima last?

Guru Purnima lasts just one tithi, one full moon day, that's it.  A moon day is slightly shorter than a solar day.  The solar day is 24 hours but the moon day is 23 hours and a little bit more.

In the Indian calendars, you can see that the Guru Purnima starts let's say at 11:30 am and finishes the next day at 10:15 am. Something like that.   You can always look at the Panchangan, the Indian calendar, and find out.

How to contact Arvind Pare

I hope you've found this mini-interview helpful.  Please don't hesitate to like it and to share it with your friends.

Also, don't forget to visit Arvind's Swadhyaya Facebook Page to find out about his online teaching schedule.  To know more about him you can also visit his website, his YouTube channel and his Instagram (not very active there yet). 

Make sure you also subscribe to my newsletter here so you don't miss my future blog updates.  Thanks for your support.

May the blessings of all the Gurus be with you on this day.


  1. Thank you so much for this information, Marco! I had never heard of this tradition and I recently found my guru in Varanasi earlier this year. I will send him an email :-)

    1. Thanks to you. Wow, you found your guru in Varanasi, that's wonderful. Congratulations 😊 🙏