The Guru (Archetypes #7)

Dec 18 2012

“The syllable gu means shadows, The syllable ru, he who disperses them, Because of the power to disperse darkness, the guru is thus named.” – Advayataraka Upanishad

“The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.”  – Thales

Albert Einstein was one of my heroes as I grew up, and he seemed to embody wisdom with charm, a sense of innocence and a childlike wonder in the world. He appeared very much as a child at heart, yet deeply intellectual. Whatever the reality behind this image, he is probably the most universal contemporary symbol for the Guru. One of my favourite films is Insignificance, where the interplay between The Professor, The Actress, The Senator and The Ballplayer (thinly disguised portraits of Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, joe McCarthy and Joe DiMaggio) is a fascinating play on knowledge, sex, power and fame. Or put another way, the play is about the relationships between the Guru, the Seducer, the Ruler and the Warrior archetypes.

The Guru’s mission is to use intelligence and analysis to understand the world. Gurus fear ignorance and being duped or misled. There have been many in history, including Socrates (who combined this with Idealism and Rebelliousness) and Plato (who also had Ruler tendencies).

Guru is a Sanskrit word (devanagari,गुरु) meaning ‘teacher’ or ‘master’ and is commonly used in Indian religions, where knowledge was always passed from teacher to students. There is a long tradition of Gurus in Asia, including Confucius, Buddha and others. Reading Karl Jaspers profiles of Socrates, Buddha, Confucius and Jesus draws out some of the fascinating parallels between these figures.

In modern American culture, Oprah Winfrey is held in similar regard. Oprah has built on her talk show reputation by branching into magazines and book clubs rather than cosmetics and fashion, building on her image as a source of wisdom. Like many Gurus, she also combines her wisdom with a dose spirituality and calmness (just as Einstein did).

We all seek wisdom, and self-help books dominate the shelves of bookstores, especially in Singapore (when you can find one that is still open). The X-Files ran for seven series with plots which hinged on finding the difference between truth and illusion (even when the answer is difficult to find). Every episode began with the statement, “the truth is out there”.

The best known Guru brand is perhaps CNN, whose motto, “Be the first to know” could be the motto of a novice Guru. A more enlightened Guru would say, “The truth will set you free”. CNN are selling information, in the same way as Financial Times, New York Times, Harvard Business Review and Harvard University too.

Gurus have many other identities as teachers, mentors, philosophers, sages, academics, oracles, experts, advisors, contemplatives, scholars, thinkers, researchers and detectives. Sherlock Holmes is another of my childhood heroes. Gurus are the guardians of truth and sources of wisdom.

By seeking and gaining a better knowledge of the world around us, the Guru enlightens all of us and helps us to progress and fulfil our full potential. Gurus can be intelligent, thoughtful, analytical, reflective, expert, philosophical and informative. They seek the truth, share knowledge and always value wisdom and objectivity.

Confusion or doubt are the triggers for the Guru’s deep desire to find the truth. The initial search for the truth and objectivity, gradually evolves into critical and innovative thinking and the Guru’s elevation to an expert, ultimately showing wisdom, confidence and mastery of her or his chosen field.

The Guru should take care not to be over-confident, as their gifts can easily disconnect them from reality when they become dogmatic. As Peter Drucker (a business guru himself) once said, “I have been saying for many years that we have been using the word ‘guru’ only because ‘charlatan’ is too long to fit into a headline”.

The Guru is an appropriate archetype for brands that provide expertise or information to customers, that encourage customers to think, that are based on new scientific discoveries, that are supported by research or facts, that want to differentiate themselves from brands with questionable quality or performance. For example, computer hardware and software, education, training, leading edge technology and, in these days of data streaming, mobile telecommunications. And, of course, market research and business intelligence.

McKinsey embody the Guru archetype and consistently communicate their knowledge across a wide range of topics. This enables them to charge many times what market research companies can charge for providing insight-based advice. Whether this is perception or reality is not for to judge. McKinsey can be dogmatic on occasions too.

In summary, the Guru helps you understand your world. In the words of Rene Descartes, “I think, therefore I am”.


The Hero and the Outlaw by Margaret Mark & Carol Pearson

Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus by Karl Jaspers

No responses yet

Leave a Reply