The Role of the Guru in Indian Classical Music

Indian classical music, or Hindustani music, is revered as one of the world’s more complex and theoretical musical systems. Despite the values placed on demonstrating this necessary knowledge base and observing the conventions of musical performance, Hindustani music remains to be transmitted primarily through oral/aural, instead of written, means. Central to this system is the guru, an individual whose role goes beyond that of a musical instructor. Here is an edited excerpt from Chapter 2 of my MA Thesis, “Cross-Cultural Pedagogy in North Indian Classical Music.”

2.2 The Role of the Guru

The guru as an authority permeates Indian history and all realms of Indian religion, philosophy, and expressive arts. Since the time of the Vedas, there have been prescriptions for the qualities of an effective guru. The guru is responsible for guiding the disciple from ignorance or darkness to enlightenment. In this context, teaching involves “not merely the transference of facts, techniques, [and] examples set by the teacher, but creating in the mind of the shishya [disciple] the fullest awareness of the subject taught” (Menon 1983:18).

In the traditional system of Indian education (prevalent through the Vedic and post-Vedic periods), character building is stressed as well as learning. As a paragon of proper behavior, the guru is “a torch-bearer of human values, ethics, and knowledge” (Singh 2004:74). The guru fulfills not only a musical role in the life of his disciple, but also serves as a spiritual and personal guide. There are many qualities required from an individual for the elevation to the status of a guru. In music these include devoted practice, industriousness, a distinctive musical style rooted in tradition, service to the gharana (musical lineage), and respect for sadagi, a simplistic lifestyle. As an exemplar of tradition, the guru receives respect from their pupils, their pupils’ families and close relations, and is regarded as a “transcendent individual… set apart from society in general by their special knowledge” (Slawek 1999:459). Disciples are completely devoted to their guru, never questioning the guru’s actions or instruction. However, Vaidyanathan argues that the gurushishya relationship “isn’t in the least repressive or authoritarian,” (1989:160) because the disciple actively chooses the guru.

Qualifications for an appropriate guru are outlined in the sacred literature of Hinduism. These qualities include a devotion to providing education and training that maximize the disciple’s potential, fatherly love for the shishya, attentive teaching without asking anything in return, and the ability to recognize and nurture talent using methods appropriate to the capacity of each individual student. The guru’s obligations to his disciples encompass musical, moral, spiritual, social, and economic realms. The guru is responsible for the continuity of a musical tradition, acting to preserve, develop, and transmit musical materials.

Socially, the choice of guru “is even more important than choosing a husband or a wife” (Shankar 1968:11). A musician’s status and musical identity is “based on his musical heritage” and “depends on the name and identity of his guru” (Singh 2004:76). This reflects an Indian perception of identity as “something that is bestowed on the person from outside,” derived from “others belonging to the same clan, tribe, or caste” (Vaidyanathan 1989:153). One’s social and musical identity, as well as development of musical skills, is dependent upon finding a respected guru who fulfills the necessary educational and social roles. The guru is responsible for imparting the acceptance of music as a lifestyle to the disciple. This typically means a life of humility and sadhana, meaning “practice and discipline, eventually leading to self-realization” (Shankar 1968:12).

The status of guru is only achieved through the bestowal of such honor by a disciple to a guru. Determining a guru is “a subjective assessment;” a potential disciple “evaluates the existence and extent of benefits he receives from a particular person and if he finds them weighty enough, guruship becomes a reality” (Ranade 1984:39). The agency a prospective devotee has, by seeking a guru displaying these traits, safeguards against improper elevation of talented, yet deficient, individuals to the status of a guru. The ideal guru honors his obligations to his devotees while living a life of discipline, simplicity, and moral benevolence. The ideal shishya defers to his guru, modeling his exemplary behavior and demeanor, and deferring to the guru’s judgment without skepticism. This mutual understanding forms a unique relationship that “is the paradigm of all relationships in India,” (Vaidyanathan 1989:161) including those between a devotee and his deity, a servant to a master, friend to friend, parents to children, lover to beloved, and between enemies.

In many realms of Indian culture—music included—the guru is seen as a representation of the divine. The guru is regarded in such high esteem that “both God and the parents are described to have been accommodated in him” (Ranade 1984:31). This unique relationship between guru and shishya was reinforced through the practice of gurukul, an institution in which the devotee lives within the household of the guru, with the guru supporting the disciple financially.

Throughout Indian history, the guru gained importance from the fact that knowledge was not written down, but was personally acquired from an authoritative source. It is the guru who transforms “facts into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into deeper insight” (Ranade 1984:31). The guru serves not only as a teacher, but as a repository and interpreter of information. This mode of transmission is rooted in the religious tradition and ritualism of the Vedas. The guru is the ultimate authority in all musical concerns. “It is assumed that every musician’s corpus is in fact determined solely by what his guru has taught him…[and] unless learnt from a guru, a disciple is hardly allowed to claim authenticity for his learning” (Ranade 1984:39). Traditionally, it is impossible for one to gain access to the realm of Hindustani music without an acceptable guru. The guru is the sole transmitter of musical knowledge and tradition; furthermore, the guru is needed to develop the musician as an ethical human being, as an interpreter of musical knowledge, and as a stage performer. The guru is responsible for the musician’s social status and musical identity in society as a whole.


Menon, Narayana. 1983. “The Learning of Indian Music.” International Journal of Music Education 2:17-18.

Raina, M.K. 2002. “GuruShishya Relationship in Indian Culture: The Possibility of a Creative Resilient Framework.” Psychology Developing Societies 14:167-98.

Ranade, Ashok Da. 1984. On Music and Musicians of Hindoostan. New Delhi: Promilla & Co., Publishers.

Silver, Brian and R. Arnold Burghardt. 1976. “On Becoming an Ustad: Six Life Sketches in the Evolution of a Gharana.” Asian Music 7.2:27-58.

Singh, Nivedita. 2004. Tradition of Hindustani Music: A Sociological Approach. New Delhi: Kanishka Publishers.

Shankar, Ravi. 1968. My Music, My Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Slawek, Stephen. 1999. “The Classical Master-Disciple Tradition.” In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Volume 5: South Asia, edited by Alison Arnold, 457-67. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.

Vaidyanathan, T.G. 1989. “Authority and Identity in India.” Daedalus 118.4:147-69.

This entry was posted in Ethnomusicology, India, Pedagogy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Role of the Guru in Indian Classical Music

  1. Krishna Kannan says:

    Beautifully written. Today being Guru Purnima my pranams to all my Gurus… who have removed the darkness of ignorance from my life and given the light of knowledge and wisdom;;;;; also a prayer to the almighty that may I never cease learning and may I never cease feeling amazed at what I learn…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *