The English language is a curious monster. On one hand, its native speakers insist that everyone speak it because to not speak it denotes you as an unworthy outsider. In fact, learning that I spoke a second language at home made many a white teacher of mine gasp with shock. And yet, the language I’m supposed to know perfectly for its Anglo-American superiority and importance is the very language that has been stealing words from other languages since its inception.
And believe me, after almost a decade studying the English language and its literature as well as making a living off of editing it for other writers, nothing makes me scratch my head more than the introduction of non-English terms into the lexicon. From an editing standpoint, the question is if the non-English term stays true to its original roots and clearly relays its meaning into English. Some terms, like zeitgeist, which is German, work perfectly into English and are used widely with no misunderstandings.
But one term that always throws me for a loop is guru.
I’m sure you’ve heard the term guru in the context of so-called “self-help gurus,” “tech gurus,” and “beauty gurus.” On the outset, it seems like the perfect buzzword to label someone who teaches you how to do the perfect smoky or proclaims the ten mistakes you’re making with a self-help routine as worthy of your hard-earned money. But look closer and you’ll notice that more times than not, books written by these so-called gurus don’t have much substance. In fact, it’s the books written by people who don’t call themselves gurus who really have something significant to say.
Now you might be asking why I’m not giving examples here, because there are plenty. My argument isn’t hinged on one or two “self-help gurus” or “beauty gurus.” Instead, my stance is the improper use of the title to market certain authors as something more than they are. After all, “self-help instructor” and “beauty coach” just don’t have that clickable ring to them.
Guru is a Sanskrit term that translates to a mentor or guide. Someone with a deep knowledge of a subject or field. However, in the cultural sense, a guru is a figure of reverence who counsels and guides and inspires their shisyas in the righteous way of being. The term shisya is also a Sanskrit term that translates to seeker of truth (i.e. a disciple, as opposed to someone who likes your Insta stories).
Now I acknowledge that “self-help gurus” claim to be committed to helping their readers/customers get their lives on track and coach them to live more fulfilling lives, which is what traditional gurus do. But then, traditional gurus don’t package their teachings for profit to win at capitalism.
As such, traditional connotations associated with “teacher” and “student” simply don’t do the terms guru and shisya justice. Growing up, guru was reserved for just the most revered of my, well, gurus. My Bharatanatyam instructor, for one, who had been training me for well over a decade was one guru. It wasn’t a typical lecture-style way of learning common in the American public school system but rather dance as a way of life. Certainly not something Amazon’s #1 self-help book could’ve taught me.
And yes, I said it: writing a ten-step guide to better your life doesn’t make that writer a guru. It’s almost always branding without substance. It’s no better that leveraging the synergy of your employees to optimize profits. At that point, the term guru goes from being a reverential title given to only the wisest spiritual guides to someone who taught themselves how to do a cat eye.
You’ll notice that I haven’t yet used the dreaded word “appropriation” here because I’m honestly not convinced that a non-Indian proclaiming themselves a guru is appropriation. By definition, a guru can be anyone who chooses to guide shisyas in a number of fields. So it all boils down to the substance of the books and author in question. Is the book merely for self-promotion or truly educational? Does the writer actually care about their readers? Did the writer take time and care into the research and editing process?
Just branding yourself as a guru and writing a book doesn’t, in fact, make you a guru. Just like calling yourself the best at something doesn’t actually make you the best at that thing. Do the work and let your readers take notice.
In reality, guru is yet another term that no doubt is going to be a fixture in the English language. But using it as a buzzword for self-promotion and to make writers seem like more than they are is a gross misunderstanding of what the term stands for.
If you as a writer are in fact a guru, then allow me to give you time-tested writing advice that every creative writing student learns in their first seminar: show, don’t tell. And if you must tell, have something valuable to show.