Throughout history, people have chosen spiritual teachers to help them reach a more profound spiritual connection.
The term guru has been made popular to refer to our most respected teachers. The Sanskrit word guru means “dispeller of darkness.” Our awareness of gurus in the West is fairly recent, dating back to 1893, when Americans were introduced to the teachings of Swami Vivekananda. And for the past 120 years or so, different influential gurus have taught us about meditation.
Whether you’re new to the practice of meditation or already have made it a daily habit, here are six teachers who you should know about—and can learn from.
Swami Vivekananda, 1863-1902
“Stand up for God; let the world go.”
Born in India, Swami Vivekananda first became known in the United States during the Chicago Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. This was the first time Americans had been exposed to a Hindu monk.
Vivekananda would go on to to teach Americans about Vedanta philosophy. His goal was to help the West understand India’s spiritual culture, and to bridge the gap between the two countries. He was well received and respected for his vast knowledge of Eastern and Western cultures as well as his compassion for humanity.
Even though Vivekananda died before age 40 and his public service only lasted 10 years, the impact of his message was widespread. He founded the Ramakrishna Order of Monks, which is one of the most predominant religious orders of India. Vivekananda is also known for his four books on Hindu philosophy: Jnana-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga, Karma-Yoga, and Raja-Yoga. Learn more about Swami Vivekananda.
Paramahansa Yogananda, 1893-1952
Read a little. Meditate more. Think of God all the time.”
Paramahansa Yogananda— who is best known for his literary masterpiece Autobiography of a Yogi—was born as Mukunda Lal Ghosh in Gorakhpur, India to a wealthy Bengali family. His parents were disciples of Lahiri Mahasaya, who was known for reintroducing Kriya Yoga (the scientific technique of God-realization through the practice of a specific form of meditation) in modern India.
As a young man, Yogananda’s teacher told him that he was the chosen one to bring knowledge of Kriya Yoga to America and the rest of the world.
In 1920, Yogananda had a divine vision that it was time to begin his teachings in America. Soon after, he visited Calcutta, where he was invited to speak in Boston as India’s delegate to an international congress of religious leaders. The same year, he founded the Self-Realization Fellowship in Boston to spread the knowledge of Kriya Yoga and meditation.
The seeds of Yogananda’s teachings have lived on through his self-realization centers, which are located around the world. Many locations have beautiful meditation gardens such as Lake Shrine Gardens in Pacific Palisades, California and the Encinitas Hermitage, Retreat & Gardens in Encinitas, California. Learn more about the Self-Realization Fellowship.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, 1918-2008
“The important thing is this: to be able, at any moment, to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.”
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who was a guru to many singers and Hollywood stars in the 1960s, became interested in a spiritual path after obtaining his Master’s degree in physics at Allahabad University in 1940.
After studying under guru, Swami Bramananda Saraswati, he began the Spiritual Regeneration Movement and his world tour to teach meditation. He named his technique Transcendental Meditation and expanded his teachings to the United Kingdom and the U.S.
In 1961, he established his first International teacher training course in Rishikesh, India, where meditators from around the globe came to learn how to teach Transcendental Meditation. In 1971, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi founded his first international university, now situated in Fairfield, Iowa. There are more than 5 million meditators who have learned and practiced the Transcendental Meditation technique. Learn more about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, 1956-present
“You should be ready for any challenge. This readiness will make you happy.”
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, known as a spiritual leader and an ambassador of peace, founded The Art of Living Foundation and developed the Sudarshan Kriya breathing technique.
Born in India, Sri Sri (as his followers affectionately call him) was a gifted child who was able to recite parts of the Bhagavad Gita by age four. Sri Sri holds degrees in both Vedic literature and physics.
His mission is to teach people how to live a stress-free life through The Art of Living Courses, which include breathing techniques, meditation, yoga, and tips for daily living.
In 1997, Sri Sri founded the International Association for Human Values (IAHV), a humanitarian organization with a vision to uplift human values. IAHV delivers disaster-relief funds throughout the world and includes programs such as prisoner rehabilitation and trauma relief for veterans.
As ambassador of peace, Sri Sri has brought a message of non-violence and conflict resolution to countries such as Iraq, and the Indian states of Kashmir and Bihar. Learn more about Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and his tour schedule.
Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi), 1953-present
“Our highest, most important duty in this world is to help our fellow beings.”
Mata Amritanandamayi or Amma, which means “Mother” as her devotees call her, is known world wide as the “hugging saint.” When on tour, Amma sometimes spends up to 22 hours a day embracing people who come to her for healing and blessings.
When Amma was 9 years old, her mother became ill and she had to quit school to take care of her siblings. She would go door-to-door to ask for food and noticed the poverty and suffering in her small village in India. Filled with compassion, she would give clothing and food from her home to others. Even as a young girl, when she saw people filled with grief and sadness, she would embrace them. It was unheard of for a young, then adolescent girl to offer love and affectionate hugs to strangers, especially men. But Amma continued her mission of love despite the criticism. Amma was also often found meditating as a child.
In her work, she and her trained volunteers have taught more than 1.3 million people to meditate through her simple meditation technique called Integrated Amrita Meditation (IAM).
Through her organization, Embracing the World, Amma not only offers love and comfort, she gives back through selfless service (seva). Embracing the World feeds 10 million poor people in India every year, has built 45,000 homes for the homeless, and has built a 1,300-bed hospital in Kerala, India. Learn more about Amma’s work.
Deepak Chopra, 1947-present
“I, of course, meditate for two hours every morning. I wake up at 4 a.m. every day and I love it.”
Deepak Chopra, who began his career as a medical doctor in Boston, is the author of more than 80 books, co-founder of the Chopra Center for Wellbeing, and founder of The Chopra Foundation.
Born in New Delhi, India, Dr. Chopra dreamt of becoming a writer. But his father, a cardiologist, encouraged him to pursue medical studies first. As chief of medicine at New England Memorial Hospital, Deepak became increasingly frustrated with Western medicine. He experienced patients who only wanted relief through prescription medications. He began studying alternative medicine, met meditation guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with whom he learned Transcendental Meditation, and began a successful career in alternative medicine and holistic practices.
In 1996, he and Dr. David Simon founded the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in La Jolla. His book Ageless Body, Timeless Mind moved him to celebrity status after it sold one million copies in hardcover. Drs. Chopra and Simon formed the Primordial Sound Meditation technique rooted in the ancient Vedic tradition of India. Although the roots of this mantra-based meditation technique have been around for thousands of years, Dr. Chopra has mentored and taught thousands of modern meditators, including many Hollywood celebrities, among them the late Michael Jackson. Learn more about Deepak.
Even if you don’t follow a particular meditation teacher, reading about them and their lives, reading their books, and listening to their lectures can inspire you to raise your level of consciousness.