What’s in a Name? Our Journey to Understand the Meaning of “Guru”

Last verified Sep 16, 2022

Yesterday, all of my teammates and I gathered together virtually and in person to learn about the history and usage of the word “guru” from a guest expert.  

Why are the employees of a software company dedicating a chunk of their workday to learning the etymology of a word? Sure, it’s easy to Google, but around here, we love to dig deeper for an answer. Our product is all about knowledge, after all. It should be no surprise, then, that we started asking some of those deep questions—like, what does the name Guru mean? Yes, most of us know the dictionary definition, many have read the Wikipedia entry, and of course, some of us have personal cultural ties to the concept and its spiritual component. But did we as a company know enough about what “guru” really means, and were we using it correctly and respectfully?

Guru Collage Image-Library-3

We’re not unaware that the language of cultural appropriation is baked into the language of corporate culture. (How many times have you read a job description with “ninja” in the title, or a company inviting you to join their “tribe?”) But were we, as a company, inadvertently contributing to this unfortunate phenomenon? To answer this question, we had to go back to where it all started. 

The beginning of Guru

When Rick Nucci and Mitch Stewart started Guru in 2013, they had a vision: create a knowledge management solution that was more than just a place to store your files. They wanted to build something that would give people a single source of truth for knowledge that would help them do their best work. And after that product was built, their vision for a single source of truth was what helped them find the perfect name: Guru.

Fast-forward a few years and more than a few customers gained. Users loved the product and the name resonated with them. Some customers verbified our company name (“Did you Guru it?”) and internally, some of us affectionately used the term “Guruvians” to refer to our teammates. We’re passionate about what we do, and using a term like Guruvians gave us a sense of community and identification with the meaning behind our company name. If our product is the brain, knowledge is the beating heart that powers it. “Seek and share knowledge” isn’t just one of our core values; it’s at the core of everything we do.

Of course, just because we had good intentions (you know what they say about those) doesn’t mean that we were actually using the term “guru” properly or with the respect it deserved. And that’s when we started to reevaluate.

What’s in a name?

As I mentioned before, we love to ask questions around here, and among those were questions about our company name. During one of our regular Town Hall meetings, a team member posed an anonymous question asking whether we were borrowing from another culture without paying adequate respect or fully understanding what we were doing. A straightforward and thoughtful question which we had historically considered, but upon reflection, we asked ourselves if we were truly qualified to answer.

Although we did our research and put some initial usage guidelines into place (no more “Guruvians” or other puns, no matter how well-intentioned), one of the key requirements to make Guru a source of truth is that trusted information comes from subject matter experts. This way, everyone can be confident that the knowledge they’re getting is correct. We quickly realized we weren’t the subject matter experts on this topic, so we needed to find someone who was.

In search of a SME

Image of Dr. Rina Arya with text "ask an expert"

Since my team, the Brand Studio at Guru, is responsible for creating and maintaining brand guidelines, our Creative Director, Christine Richardson, led the search. “I was looking for someone who was both a scholar and a member of the community our name is borrowed from,” Christine said. “I didn’t want to simply appoint someone to be the spokesperson for their entire community, but I also didn’t want to find someone who studied it but didn’t live it or belong to the culture.” Enter: Dr. Rina Arya, Professor of Visual Culture and Theory at the University of Huddersfield’s School of Arts and Humanities. With a background in theology and a current book project on the cultural appropriation of Hindu symbols, Rina could not have been more well-suited to the task.

Answering the question

Let’s talk process. Because Rina is the expert here, I asked her to describe her approach so that we could present it here in her own words.

What was your approach to answering the question of how to appropriately use the word guru?

The first thought I had in my mind was to make aware, for the benefit of those who had less knowledge about what a guru is, the expanded way in which the term is applied today, very often by gurus themselves. My approach to the task in hand was to organize my thoughts about the various different types of guru that are out there, past and present.

I wanted to be able to order this information historically in an accessible way so that people are aware of the way in which the term has become wider in application. Once a more developed understanding of the term was reached, then I focused on the pressing issue of how the term should be used. It was really important for me to be able to explain my thoughts about how the term should be used. Simply to say the term shouldn’t be used in certain ways seemed to me to be incomplete—reasons to support my claims were needed.

One of the problems surrounding cultural appropriation—that is, the use of culture by members of a relatively more powerful culture—is that discussion is often not invited, which means that people are sometimes not aware of why it is not permissible to use certain terms. Whilst charges of harm and offense need to be taken very seriously, it is important that dialogue continues so that knowledge can be shared about the implication of taking from other cultures.

Was there anything specific in your approach to educating a group of this size?

In a smaller-sized group, greater interactivity may have been more possible. That being said, my involvement with key people in the Guru team, who were on hand to support, and were incidentally in different roles in the company (which gave me a holistic perspective) made me feel more prepared when it came to reaching the group as a whole, via presentation, because it made me understand Guru the company more fully.

The combination of different forms of information fed to the group, such as the pre-reads, the historical information given in the presentation, followed by the sharing of my thoughts about how guru-the-concept relates to Guru (the company), was in my opinion a helpful way of proceeding.

We’re not the only company reexamining the impact of their brand. Do you have any advice for other organizations that are just started to ask similar questions?

I believe that reflecting on decisions made, such as the use of the brand name, can never come too late, and so I’d say that organizations which are pausing to take stock of their identity and exploring it should be commended because it’s a worthwhile endeavor and has the potential to unite the group more strongly as well to show to those outside of the organization that a refresh is an invitation to learn. It’s also especially important in today’s climate of increasing globalization.

My main pieces of advice would be to be transparent with employees about plans, even if the plans are only speculative, and to invite the participation of different individuals and groups from the organization for their input. Having specific objectives in mind should not delimit findings that may emerge. This is the stance I took anyway; whilst I had particular aspects of analysis, I remained open to what else I might learn. Finally, I’d like to add that organizations should not hold off on re-examining their brand for fear of not knowing all the answers, as the spirit of inquiry is an invaluable part of the learning process.

What we learned

A pull quote from Dr. Rina Arya

With this approach in mind, Rina created a comprehensive educational training for our team with the primary goals of teaching us about the different types of gurus and the history, how to use the term appropriately, and how to examine our relationship with the term and concept as a company. 

In order to maximize the experience, we created Guru Cards with information from Rina and shared them with our entire company as a preread for the session. That way, everyone could show up with a foundational understanding, and Rina could spend the session giving us more than just surface-level knowledge. This required a commitment on everyone’s part, and we were happy to do the work. 

Pre-read materials:

During the session (and in additional materials provided by Rina), we dove deeper. We learned about the power dynamic between a guru and their disciples, and the concept of darshan, which is a mode of looking reverentially. (An integral part of worship for Hindus is the taking of darshan. This means they will go to see the object of their worship.) We also learned about the use of the term guru in popular culture, the dark side of guru culture, the “management guru,” and a particularly striking example of misuse of a sacred image.

By enriching us with additional context, Rina made the final part of the session—guidelines for the usage of the term guru within our company—much more meaningful. Learning its history helped us understand how its meaning and usage have changed over time, from its spiritual origins in Hindu culture to its broader modern usage. We felt connected to the material and to Guru (capital G), and the only downside was that we didn’t have time for more questions from the audience. (I told you we like to ask questions!) 

Ultimately, after getting to know Guru the company, Rina offered us these key takeaways about how our product, mission, and core values align with the concept of the guru:

  • Gurus offer guidance.

    Guru (the concept) is based in a sense of lack—that is, people seek out a guru when they feel something is missing in their lives. Likewise, companies seek out Guru when they are missing a single source of truth for their knowledge. 

  • Gurus offer something for everyone.

    We can all benefit from learning from guru culture because we all have something to learn. We learn different things, in different ways, through different styles and approaches, at different speeds, but the act of learning is paramount to the experience—we all learn. The something-for-everyone approach reflects inclusivity. Likewise, Guru the product is meant to democratize knowledge by making it accessible to everyone.

  • Gurus provide holistic care.

    Gurus provide holistic care in that they consider the whole person and their needs, even when enlisted for help with a very specific problem. Guru the company offers holistic support to customers at different stages of growth and for different use cases.

  • Gurus illuminate and enlighten.

    Gurus provide focus and clarity, lead us from darkness into light, and elucidate complex ideas in simple, accessible ways. 

  • Gurus work with you to bring out the best in you.

    Gurus bring out the best in people by enlightening them and providing clarity—people simply feel better when they experience clarity and focus. The best gurus sharpen the skills and tools you already have to help you be your best. Similarly, Guru the product captures the knowledge of your team’s experts and makes it available to everyone so that they can do their best work.

  • The presence of the guru is felt.

    The guru’s influence is felt; Guru the company provides support that is accessible anywhere.

  • Gurus inspire community-building.

    Working with gurus puts you on a path of self-discovery and journeying that facilitates the bringing together and alignment of customers within the company. 

Where do we go from here?

As we say in our core values, we strive to create a culture of knowledge that makes us all a little bit better. And we believe we can keep getting better if we keep learning and growing. That’s why we plan to continue our relationship with Rina—because knowledge is a constant process, and we’ll never stop asking questions.