One criterion by which distinctions can be made between different types or models of teacher-student relationship is the goal of the relationship. I came to define this “goal-role” criterion when contemplating the classification by tradition, proposed by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk in You Must Change Your Life.


The Hindu guru

According to Sloterdijk, “In schematic terms, one could say that the guru initiates the student into the simple counter-intuitive truth that the great self of the world and the small ego-self are identical.” Realization of the “equation of the world soul and the individual soul, or the infinite and the finite intellect” being the goal, it follows that “[the student’s identification with the guru] is the most important affective resource that is available for use in transformative work – which is why one part of the craft of guru pedagogy is to keep the fire of the beginner’s illusion burning for as long as possible.” In fact, says Sloterdijk, “[f]rom the guru’s point of view, the pupil’s idealizing anticipations are not wrong because they aim too high; rather, the pupil is only condemned to a form of indispensable error in the sense that he cannot yet know how much higher the real goal is located than his dreamy anticipations are capable of imagining.”

The following quotes from the Hindu scripture Kularnava Tantra and from Perm’s The Yoga of the Bhagavat Gita further elucidate the importance of the student’s idealization of and surrender to the guru:

“The guru, it is declared, is the very Lord himself.  To approach the guru, to worship the guru, is to approach the Lord, worship the Lord… Shiva is really all-pervading, above the mind, without features, imperishable… infinite; how can such a one be worshipped? That is why, out of compassion for his creatures, He takes the form of the guru and, when so worshipped in devotion, grants liberation and fulfillment…” (Kularnava Tantra 13)

“The disciple must resort to the feet of a wise teacher, one who is an embodiment of that Teacher Who is already in his heart, the Eternal Wisdom …. [H]e needs the guidance of one who, because his whole being has become one with the Wisdom, can speak with the same voice as that Teacher in the heart and yet can do so in tones which can be heard with the outer ear… When [] the disciple has found his Guru, he must, by the obedience of self-effacement, and the service which consists of putting the will at the disposal of the Teacher, so unite his being with that of the latter that the Wisdom which shines in him may light up in the disciple too.” (Prem)


The Buddhist master

In contrast to the goal of the Hindu path, the goal of the Buddhist path, according to Sloterdijk, is the realization of “the essential identity of the selflessness of the world and the absence of a substantial soul”. This goal requires “…a form of tuition in which students are constantly thrown back to the self-referential nature of their search. They have to learn to find the liberating nothingness in themselves, and then to see through the world as a nothingness and finally recognize the two nothingnesses as one and the same.” It also follows that “the Buddhist teacher has the duty of distracting the projection from his person and deflecting it to the Dharma, the redemptive doctrine, in keeping with the principle of the not-self.”

Sloterdijk’s comparison between the Hindu Guru and the Buddhist master is supported by Kakar and Bogart:

In Hindu terms, the dominant image of the guru seems to have decisively shifted toward the moksha (liberation) guru rather than dharma (virtue) guru, toward the bhakti (devotional) guru rather than jnana (knowledge) guru or, in tantric terms, toward the diksha (initiation) guru who initiated the novice into methods of salvation rather than the shiksha (teaching) guru who taught the scriptures and explained the meaning and purpose of life. (Kakar)

In Buddhism the teacher’s role is to inspire the student to undertake an arduous process of self-observation, moral training, and meditative discipline. If in Hinduism the guru is sometimes viewed as a “savior” whose grace carries the student toward liberation, the Buddhist view is generally that the teacher can only point the way that aspirants must travel through their own strenuous efforts. The teacher cannot liberate the student through the bestowal of grace.” (Bogart)


The Christian abbot

The goal of the Christian path is to become “Christ-like”, and the requirement from the apostle or abbot is therefore not a “realization” (enlightenment) but imitation of “the inimitable” (imitatio christi), by which “the Christian zealot can himself become an object of imitation by third parties.” Therefore, says Sloterdijk, “the Christian teacher is destined not only to be an imitator of Christ himself, but also to take the position of the imitable and make himself available to the communities of believers as a ‘formant’, a shaping ‘type’. Hence the dictum: a Christian is one who makes others Christians… Through the two-sided imitatio, apostolic succession takes on the form of a pyramid game, in which each participant is at once imitator and imitated.”


The philosopher

Under this category, Sloterdijk names Socrates as exemplifying the “erotic” philosopher. The goal of “the Socratic procedure”, he says, is cultivation of “love for the absolute”, hence Socrates “[feigns], with a responsible irony, love for his pupil, [] gains the latter’s love in return – and proceeds to direct it from his person to the insight as such.”


The Sufi sheikh

The goal of Sufism, a mystical movement within Islam, is “to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God” (, and the love between the Sufi sheikh and the “wayfarer” (sālik) is, according to Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, “both the most powerful and the most paradoxical relationship a human being can experience; it is unique in this world… On the Sufi path the disciple is taken Home through the power of divine love, and this love is the most potent and dangerous force in existence. It can cut through every pattern of resistance and awaken the heart. To have the power to place this love into the heart of another person is a tremendous responsibility. It also means that the other person can easily fall in love with you. This love is like nothing the disciple has ever known, and it is given freely without conditions. It is pure poison—a drug to the heart. The teacher holds the heart of the disciple in his own heart and nourishes it with divine love.” (Vaughan-Lee)


 The Hasidic tsaddik

Dveikut, cleaving to God, which Buber describes as “[a] soul united within itself and indivisibly directed to its divine goal”, is the highest goal of this mystical Jewish movement. “But how,” continues Buber, “in the chaos of life on our earth, are we to keep the holy goal in sight?…Man needs counsel and aid, he must be lifted and redeemed… A helper is needed, a helper for both body and soul, for both earthly and heavenly matters. This helper is called the zaddik… the zaddik has the greatest possible influence not only on the faith and mind of the hasid, but on his active everyday life, and even on his sleep, which he renders deep and pure… As a zaddik once said: “I learned Torah from all the limbs of my teacher.” This was the zaddik’s influence on his true disciples.” (Buber, 1947, pp. 4-8) Bogart adds that “[the] tsaddik was a charismatic figure said to be in constant communion with God, a visionary possessing extraordinary powers who provided spiritual and prophetic leadership to his community. Like the siddha guru in India, the Jewish tsaddik was viewed as an instrument for an influx of divine energy and vitality, which streamed through him from God down to his contemporaries. Tzaddiks were holy men little concerned about formal religious service and scriptural study, and more interested in the living spirit of prayer, devotion, song, and community.” (Bogart)