Since my elementary days, getting behind the whole guru worship was awkward, particularly if I did not know much of a certain guru. In the Eastern traditions, guru worship, or obeisance, is very common and often extends to unknown individuals who hold a certain status'. Such courtesy is usually bestowed to religious individuals, elders, ancestors, etc. It took no thought to bow before entities that dominate our religious traditions, but I took pains in having to bow before gurus which I knew nothing of other than that they were wearing particular garments associated with monks, etc.. Overall, it appeared to be tradition over spirituality at the time.
As an example, my family has occasionally attended the Swaminarayan temple, and I remember one particular event in attending the London temple. Behind the altar piece, which I assume was the Hindu entity Krishna, was another room filled with the busts of unfamiliar gurus, for which my family one by one lined up and bowed before. I remember asking my elder if he knew who these individuals were, for which he responded as they are "gurus" as he continued to bow before each bust. Flash forward a decade, my family will occasionally visit the recently constructed Southern California location due to its magnificent structure. To my surprise, the center piece was not Krishna or anyone familiar from the ancient stories (puranas), but it was their guru, Swaminarayan. In comparison, the Hare Krishnas place the statue of their guru, Swami Prabhupada, at the foot of Krishna closer to the audience, but the Swaminaryan temple placed their guru at the center. I'm not one to criticize due to my ignorance of the sect, but I do feel in order to heart-fully bestow my obeisance, the figure should first be a "guru" unto my own intellect, which he probably has been for so many people to bestow him that honor.
The word guru is actually two (2) sanskrit words, "gu" and "ru". "Ru" is familiar if you know the story of Ru-dra aka Shiva, the cosmic aspect of destruction. Hence, "ru" means destruction. "Gu" means ignorance. Hence, in order for an individual, or an experience, or a train of thought to be a "guru", it must destroy the illusion of ignorance. With this understanding, guru worship makes more sense where we are simply paying respects to those who help enlighten our intellect. However, the obeisance was still difficult for me, where much of it in the Eastern spiritual traditions seem to revolve around a form of submissiveness. What's even more difficult is when viewing certain sects as completely submissive to their guru, where all other information outside their circle is simply negated in favor of their alleged guru. Such is counter to "guru" in the sense of dispelling ignorance. More simply put, there seems to be plenty of occasions where "guru" worship is more akin to "ego" worship.
Don't get me wrong, I have my pantheon of gurus. However, my obeisance stems form the brilliance they have shined into my intellect. I also have past gurus who I still honor as simply stepping stones to clearing the cloud of my mind, though I may not return to their teachings. However, the intellectual battle between when a teacher is an actual guru or uses that status to accentuate ego was ongoing. I have continually played with this idea in viewing Nithyanandaji who, although brilliant and dispels ignorance, can be seen wearing gold jewelry, seated on a golden throne, and even found as a golden statue within his temples. Nonetheless, my battle with such glamour was dispelled with the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta.
More so than any other philosophy that I have divulged, Advaita Vedanata is designed for you to experience the oneness, the God/Goddess within, the sat/chit/ananda (existence/consciousness/bliss). As the great guru Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj would state regarding the worship of deities, is simply where do these deities go when we pass on, do they not dissolve into the illusion that we are witnessing? What is truth is simply pure consciousness, it is the one aspect of our illusion that doesn't change, the aspect of ourselves that simply witnesses without attachment to ideas or beliefs. It is the "I Am" without the "That". Provided that we are all One and part of the infinite expanse known as Brahaman and beyond, guru worship, deity worship, or any form of worship is simply consciousness worshiping consciousness.
In Hinduism, we greet each other with Namaste, or "my higher self bows and honors your higher self". In Mayan, the greeting was In'Lakesh, or "you are another me" or simply that we are all mirrors of each other. In Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the enlightenment teachings of Padmasambhava it is pivotal to recognize everything as simply mirroring yourself, and hence, must love unconditionally. Therefore, my favorite teachers are typically ones that recognize this concept and consider themselves as "catalysts" or "permission slips" to allow us to recognize what we've always really known. These gurus understand that they are simply mirrors reflecting back to us.
Though Nithyanandaji may display himself with some flare, he continually acknowledges Shivoham, meaning "I Am Shiva" and further elaborates "You Are Shiva". In mentally dissecting his style, I've realized that he is simply playing a role within a tradition in order to bestow his knowledge to a particular audience that is ancestrally rooted in guru worship. With the knowledge that we are simply "consciousness worshiping consciousness", that our gurus are simply "permission slips" for us to acknowledge greater truths about ourselves, it is good to see guru worship is alive and well.
Overly educated and continuously exploring and revealing more behind the veil.
"It cannot be too highly emphasized that the mystic swims in the same waters in which the psychotic drowns."
-James Wasserman, The Mystery Traditions