GURU & guru: Betwixt & Between

February 4, 2013 by IJ Singh

The title may appear to have been set by a careless typesetter but it is deliberately so designed.  So bear with me awhile.   

I love words – parsing them or playing with them is an unmatched pleasure, particularly with Manjyot Kaur, a friend who is equally fond of such pastimes.   Recently we were killing time in such pursuit when our attention turned to how words fall in and out of fashion. 

I know that our everyday language – norma loquendi – changes over a lifetime, sometimes faster yet.  Witness some hangovers like “thee, thou and prithee” from not so long ago.  They were the norm -- common armamentarium -- of an educated mind less than a century ago and are now absolutely unheard of.  (I know that a preposition is bad to end a sentence with.  And here I have done it twice already.)

I have spent a lifetime learning and teaching human anatomy and I know that within that span anatomic nomenclature, indeed the language of the health sciences, which was heavily rooted in Greek and Latin terminology for untold centuries, has undergone a sea change. Now anatomy has an increasingly and clearly Anglicized vocabulary that is so much easier on the tongue -- perhaps even the mind.

But I never imagined that respectable academicians would track human progress by exploring how words fall in and out of fashion – somewhat like tracing the path of civilization by measuring the rising and falling of hemlines.

Apparently, academicians at the Michigan based Lake Superior State University enjoy such passion in the evolution of language.  They have just released their annual list of banned words for the New Year (2013). This year’s list includes terms like “spoiler alert,” “fiscal cliff,” and other ridiculously over-used words and phrases.

Nominations of words and phrases that seem to be overused misused or appear generally useless or past their prime come largely from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, but generally from all around the globe.

It is not a new pastime.  This year brings us the 38th annual list of dirty-dozen words and phrases that these scholars recommend should be banished from the Queen’s English for misuse, overuse, abuse and general uselessness. The nonbinding, tongue-in-cheek decree was released Monday, January 7, 2013.

The oft-used phrase receiving the most nominations this year for this “spoiler list” is “fiscal cliff.”  True that it has been overused by media outlets when describing across-the-board federal tax increases and spending cuts that economists warn could place our very life style and existence in jeopardy unless Congressional leaders wake up to smell the coffee – I couldn’t resist the cliché.  Maybe smelling the roses would be a more fitting metaphor.

It is as if words come to us like milk in cartons and enter common usage with an alert warning us to “use by date” stamped on them.

But then aren’t some words like canned vegetables?  Until opened they remain fresh; the calendar starts running only when the can is opened. But then pedigree of what is in the can is critical; some contents can spoil while within the sealed can and deform it from even when it shows an unbroken seal, while others last forever.

The list of the many obnoxiously overused words and phrases for the year 2013 includes expressions like the River of Debt and Mountain of Despair.  How can I leave them to their slow death when I owe so much to so many friends and foes for both the debt and despair that continue to enrich my life?

Stylistically hopeless as such phrases seem, I could talk myself into banishing them but the list also includes some that I am not ready to let go out of my life such as YOLO (you only live once) and GURU. 

The first is a fundamental truth; you do live only once even though one can die a thousand deaths in that one lifetime. The word Guru, on the other hand, even within its many shades of meaning, speaks of a truth connected to life that I am not ready to sunder.

The word Guru comes to us from India and its rich traditions.  A rough and ready translation would parse the word into two with Gu meaning darkness and Ru meaning light; thus a Guru is one who leads one metaphorically from the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge and awareness.

But then, given this literal understanding, a Guru doesn’t have to be a spiritual master, even though this was the traditional meaning of a Guru.

The word Guru has now morphed into so many applications that it becomes confusing.  Common usage equates the word with any expert.  Gurus are now dime a dozen.  One can be a Guru in the kitchen or in music, in surgery or in style and fashion, even a personal trainer at the spa. 

Some may even think of me as the guru -- notice it is a lower case guru -- of anatomy, since that’s what I have taught for much of my life. Once the Dean at my university and I were talking about how to measure student responses in judging teacher effectiveness.  I couldn’t help saying to him: “At any given time I can line up 20 students who think of me as God’s gift to anatomical sciences, and I can produce another 20 who would like to see me hanging on the nearest tree – and I reckon that both groups are right.

The common meaning of guru is a teacher. But Sikhi looks at the word “Guru” very differently, most uniquely so.  The title is reserved in Sikh scriptural writing and tradition for God or the ten Gurus in human form, from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, who personally founded, led and nurtured Sikhi through a good 240 years, and since 1708 the title is singularly used for the Guru Granth which is the 1430 page repository of Sikh spiritual heritage.  It is the Word that is the Guru Eternal.  That’s why Guru Nanak proclaimed: “Sabd Guru surt dhun chela” (Guru Granth p. 943).

 A line from Keertan Sohila that Sikhs read every night comes to mind: "Chhea ghar chhea gur chhea updes./Gur(u) gur(u) eko ves anek,"  meaning that  there are six shastras (Hindu holy books), their six authors and six methods of teachings; But One God alone is the Teacher of teachers, though He manifests Himself in many ways.

“Guru” is not a title to be lightly and carelessly bandied about for any mortal who may be a maven of one human activity or another.  “Guru” has a very different application than “guru.”

So no individual, living or dead, no matter how spiritually refined, is to be honored by that title in Sikhi.  I make this categorical statement even though I know that it is not difficult to find individuals, some well-meaning perhaps, and others who are unmistakably charlatans, running about with the title “Guru” appended to their names. But then business and commercial interests often trump Sikh teaching, doctrine and widespread tradition.

If some words have become trite and laden with unnecessary baggage in interpretation, it is good to remember that overuse of words indicates that words have meaning.  The more significant the meaning the more overused it becomes in common parlance.  The more often it is used the more quickly it gets relegated to the list of trite and dated expressions.  We then tend to forget that becoming trite is an indicator of its power, application and usefulness over time.

Words become trite and phrases become clichés when they are used often, but nothing else conveys the meaning quite so aptly. We may hate them but can't do without them either. Their precise meaning amplified by their overuse imbues their application with character.

Trendy and new expressions may be exciting but only time will tell if they have a lasting place in life.  What’s more important? Keeping up with the Joneses or conveying a clear but pithy and unmistakable message?  And it’s fun to hear the phrase “YOLO” just because it sounds so dumb.

A list of overused words and expressions appears yearly, but it doesn’t carry any real power behind it, except what we assign to it. It’s not that we can require the user of such a word or phrase to be thrown in jail or his mouth washed with soap.  Not so long ago, young children, whenever caught uttering a profanity or vulgarity, were routinely threatened with the latter penalty.

It is great fun to spot the over-hyped and over-wrought phrases that people get sick of each year. I, too, sometimes get tired of hearing myself spouting the same words … 

For Sikhs the Guru is the Guru of gurus. Guru, the word, endures.

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January 16, 2013

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