Why Do We Touch a Guru’s Feet?

In the West, there is often a lack of understanding about the tradition of touching the Guru’s feet. Such an act can seem like groveling, or an act of inflating the Guru’s ego. But this shows a very limited understanding of what it means to pay respect to the Guru.

Touching the feet of a revered elder has historical significance in India. One touches the feet of one’s parents, for instance, to show respect. When we touch the feet of the Guru, or as is often said, taking the dust of their feet, we are saying that even their feet and the dust of their feet is holy. But why? How may we philosophically understand this custom? And why is it so important?

Showing reverence for the Guru is not meant to create or increase superiority of the Guru, but rather, to create and increase humility in the devotee. Real humility is a sign of confidence free from ego. Therefore, when we touch the guru’s feet, we are saying, “I am humble and I am your servant, because I am confident in myself and you, and trust in my ability to follow your guidance and excel in it.” When we offer a guru paduka puja, we bathe and offer flower to the guru’s feet as a sign of reverence. We acknowledge the divinity within them, and the divinity they awaken in us.

This cultivation of our own humility and sublimation of our wily ego is why it is important to pay respects to elders, to follow meaningful customs and procedures. Therefore, when we touch the Guru’s feet, we are following tradition, and paying respect in the same way that billions have done so for thousands of years.

There is power in this simple ceremony, and it is in essence a form of worship, a recognition of the Divine nature of the Guru. The reason we say that the Guru is God, is because the Guru shows the pathway to God. The Guru becomes more important than God for the spiritual adventurer, because while God can be felt and sensed and worshipped, the Guru is there in flesh and blood, with a voice and ears and eyes, and the experience and accomplishment to be able to guide you in the best possible way. The effective Guru doesn’t give you all the answers, but helps you stand and walk the path on your own. The effective Guru can help us tell the difference between fact and fiction, between our imagination and an experience of divine grace. The loving Guru helps to puncture our egos, which keep us separated from knowledge of the true Self, and does so with love and compassion, never in a way that shames, belittles, or damages us. Therefore, when we touch the Guru’s feet, we are saying, “I respect and revere your knowledge and wisdom, I acknowledge the countless hours of your sadhana, and I recognize even the dust of your feet as holy prasad.”

Showing reverence for the Guru is not meant to create or increase superiority of the Guru, but rather, to create and increase humility in the devotee.

Real humility is a sign of confidence free from ego.

The goal of every Guru should be to help you surpass their own abilities and knowledge. They should have perfected the balance of ego-less humility and confidence, and they should have a firm knowledge and powerful demonstrated ability in their sadhanas. They should respect their lineage and pass it on faithfully and respectfully, adding their own flavor and gained experiential knowledge along the way. Therefore, when we touch the Guru’s feet, we are saying, “I offer respect not only to you, but also to the Gurus at whose feet you bowed, to the entire parampara (lineage of Gurus), all the way back to the first Guru.”

The Guru carries us from ignorance to insight, but they do so as part of a vast, moving, living stream of wisdom. Touching the feet of the Guru is a sign of respect and reverence, not only for the person, but for the entire lineage. Through this living person, you can show respect for the entire living tradition, and your gratitude for receiving its wisdom through that special teacher.

Touching the Guru’s feet, then, is an act of respect and reverence, but also of learning. We facilitate our own spiritual progress when we learn to be humble. Humility puts us in a place of learning. After all, when we accept a Guru, regardless of whether they are a diksha (initiatory) or shiksha (learning) Guru, we do so because we wish to emulate that Guru. By touching their feet, we demonstrate not only that we are ready to listen to them, but also that we are ready to transform and strengthen ourselves.

Gururbrahma gururvishnu gururdevo maheshwarah |
Gurusakshat parabrahma tasmai shree guruve namah ||

“The Guru is Brahma, the Guru is Vishnu, the Guru is the Great Lord Shiva. To be near the Guru is to be near the ultimate Oneness – I adore you, O venerable Guru!”

Photo credit: Gurupaduka Puja, courtesy of Kulasundari Devi