I have seen some differences between the perceptions of the Guru’s concept in the West and in the East (particularly in India) during last several years. When I first came to India, I was very surprised that different Hindus sometimes used word “Guru” for sellers, taxi drivers, railway station or airport workers. When someone in the West calls himself a “Guru”, it causes different feelings, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. Everyone knows that Guru is an enlightened master, who leads the student to exit from the cycle of rebirths, i.e. to mukti. Guru is the one to whom students are engaged in seva (service) and receive in return from him spiritual blessings. Guru is who has an ashram and group of students. In this regard, many Western people believe that the Guru can exploit pupils and that it may be only business. It may be a truth in some cases, and such fears of people are understandable and justified. There is always some competition for money between different schools. And when someone calls himself “Guru”, then the question immediately arises: “Is this person a Sadguru, or he wants to use this status for personal gain?”
I have been a witness of some practitioners’ talks: “I will not bow to the Guru, because I think it’s humiliating for myself. He is not the ideal I dream about.” However, in many eastern countries, including India, I saw the opposite thing. Nobody considers it humiliating to make a bow not only to a Guru, but to someone who more experienced or older then you also. For example, in South Korea junior students bow to senior students, of course to teachers as well. In a sign of courtesy shop assistants make a bow for you when they greet or say goodbye for you. Nobody thinks it is demeaning for himself.
There are many different categories of Gurus in India. For example, those from whom you learn the rituals (karmakanda Guru), from whom you learn applied science, such as Astrology (Jotishacharya), Ayurveda (Ayurvedacharya), etc. Students in schools and universities can call their teachers as “Guruji.” In India, I have not seen such excitement associated with the term of “Guru”, and debate about who can be considered a Guru and who cannot. Obviously, there a lot of reasons for that, the main of them is the lack of understanding of Indian life and tradition in the Western countries in general. Perhaps, in the West there is an abuse of this concept. Based on what I saw in India, I do not think it is bad to call “Guru” even someone, who cannot lead you to moksha, but is able to give me some kind of applied knowledge. Also, I do not think that it is humiliating to make a bow to a man, if there is a need associated with the rules of Tradition.
A Guru, who leads you to moksha is the Sadguru. Of course this kind of Guru may not be everyone, but everyone, who can teach you something valuable, may be called a Guru. Sometimes it also happens that you have learned something from one Guru, and then meet someone, who has a higher spiritual realisation. You begin to learn from someone, who above the previous level. In this case, the preceding Guru (who is still your Guru) is considered as the cause of the meeting with the next Guru. I think, we should respect all those, who has taught us something worthwhile, and try to learn from anyone who we can learn.