Spiritual Masters and Disciples
Will my initiating spiritual master have to take birth again to rescue me if I don't return to the spiritual world?
Hare Krishna! Thank you for your letter. It is wonderful that you have taken initiation in this life...That will certainly mark the beginning of your journey back to Goloka Vrindavan and it is certainly true that there is some possibility that you will not make it in this one life.
However, the relationship between the guru and the disciple is eternal. Somehow the Guru will continue to give instruction as long as you are sincerely attempting to follow his instructions. If you become negative toward devotional service, or commit sinful acts deliberately, then the guru's obligation will be finished, although out of affection he may come to save you anyway.
Here is an experience with Srila Prabhupada in that regard (from a 1996 Vyasa-puja offering by Nikunjavasini dasi):
"I was coming and going, as my small baby kept making noise. Then a devotee asked a question: 'In the guru-puja song we sing, ‘You are my spiritual master life after life.’ Srila Prabhupada, does this mean that if we don’t make it this lifetime you will come back to save us?' You answered firmly, banging your fist on the little bookstand before you, 'You make it this lifetime, don’t make me come back.' Again we must remember you gave us all the tools. We have to understand how important it is to follow you and not get distracted by the agents of Kali.
"To become your disciple, it is not enough to take initiation from you. We have to deserve it by taking to your discipline. 'Disciple' means 'strict follower of the disciplines given by the spiritual master.' Just as a doctor can help a patient only if the patient follows the prescription and diet the doctor gives, so you can save us only if we strictly follow your instructions. Srila Prabhupada, you gave us everything, and we have a lifetime to practice accepting your gifts. You are an ocean of mercy, and you rain it down on us without restriction. May we develop this faith: that if we follow you, you will take us back to you after our time in this body is over."
I hope this is helpful
Krishna Himself appears on earth from time to time, in His own words, to "deliver the pious and annihilate the miscreants." Essentially, He comes to show His attractive, transcendental personality to mankind and thus inspire us to rejoin Him in the spiritual world. To this end, He spoke the Bhagavad-gita, and His pastimes were recorded in the epic Srimad-Bhagavatam. After His return to the spiritual world, mankind largely forgot Him, forgot His teachings, and went back to business as usual.
Then, around five hundred years ago, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu appeared. Scriptures identify Mahaprabhu as Krishna Himself, in the guise of His own devotee. His plan was to revive the consciousness of people in general by again presenting Krishna's instructions for the modern era. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu Himself didn't write books, but He spent considerable time and effort instructing some of His most learned and dedicated disciples in the science of Krishna consciousness. He requested them to preserve His teachings in writing, and expand upon those teachings with their own realizations.
". . . [Chaitanya Mahaprabhu] is Krishna Himself, and He is teaching how to love Krishna. Therefore His process is most authorized (italics added). Just like you [the news anchorman] are the expert in this establishment. If somebody is doing something, if you personally teach him, "Do like this," that is very authorized. So God consciousness, God Himself is teaching. Just like in Bhagavad-gita, Krishna is God. He is speaking about Himself. And at last He says, "Just surrender unto Me. I take charge of you." But people misunderstand. So Lord Chaitanya—Krishna again came as Lord Chaitanya to teach people how to surrender. And because we are following the footsteps of Lord Chaitanya, the method is so sublime that even foreigners who never knew Krishna, they are surrendering. The method is so potent."
Srila Prabhupada also frequently spoke on the essential importance of the writings of the Six Goswamis to those seeking a deeper understanding of the teachings of Krishna consciousness. In his preface to his book Teachings of Lord Chaitanya, a collection of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's instructions to Rupa and Sanatana Goswami, he has this to say:
"Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu instructed His disciples to write books on the Science of Krishna, a task which those who follow Him have continued to carry out down to the present day. The elaborations and expositions on the philosophy taught by Lord Chaitanya are in fact most voluminous, exacting and consistent due to the system of disciplic succession."
And, in the following excerpt from a lecture Srila Prabhupada gave on Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's authorized biography, the Chaitanya Charitamrita, on November 21, 1966, in New York, he had this to say:
"[the six Goswamis] wrote volumes of books on the basis of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's instructions. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu didn't write any books Himself . . .only eight verses, called Siksastaka. Otherwise, all the valuable books in His sampradaya—philosophical lineage—were written by His disciples, especially Rupa Goswami, Sanatana Goswami, and their nephew Jiva Goswami. Jiva Goswami left home at the age of ten and, after becoming a very great Sanskrit scholar, wrote many valuable volumes of books . . ."
—from a lecture on Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 26.66-96, 11.21.1966
The point is that the Goswamis' literary contributions are given importance because they wrote down Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's instructions on Krishna consciousness. And who better to explain how to develop such consciousness but Krishna Himself, acting as His own ideal devotee?
The modern theory of evolution became popular in the 1800s as a result of the work of Charles Darwin and others to understand the diversity of species on earth. Evolution has become the standard way to explain how all life came into existence and gradually evolved from simple to complex forms.
The Srimad-Bhagavatam, composed over five thousand years ago, also contains detailed explanations of how evolution takes place, describing the gradual development—from subtle to gross—of the material elements, the planets, the bodies of all living creatures, and how conscious beings (atmas, or souls) enter the material world to inhabit the specific material bodies suited to their particular consciousness.
There are some significant differences between the Vedic view and today's many variations on evolutionary theory. One is that the Vedas take consciousness into account as the basis of all varieties of bodily forms. Every material body is animated by a spiritual spark—atma—who is placed into a particular type of body according to his qualification, or karma. The atma gradually evolves, or transmigrates from less conscious to more conscious species through a succession of bodily changes—births and deaths—on the way to eventual emancipation from the cycle of rebirth.
The Vedas also say the whole evolutionary process happens neither blindly nor by chance nor by a random series of events originating in chaos. Rather, everything occurs intentionally. Instead of postulating that the universe and everything within it sprang forth from a void (or a void containing an inexplicably handy assortment of organic chemicals), Vedic literature again and again ascribes the creation and development of the cosmos and all its inhabitants to a profoundly intelligent consciousness.
Whatever version of evolution we ultimately choose to accept will be based on a certain amount of faith. This is true of all events occurring outside our direct experience. Modern theories of evolution and of the origin of life, while certainly the products of many years of study by relatively well-informed and brilliant men of considerable intellect, are still theories after all. Just as previous theories fell out of favor, it is the nature of all theories to be cast aside over time.
The Vedas are described as apauruseya, "not created by man." The Vedic tradition teaches that perfect knowledge can only come from a perfect source, and the Vedas have the same source as the cosmos itself. Since the time of universal manifestation, perfect knowledge of how and why it came into being has been passed down from teacher to student. That system is known as parampara, "one after another," and even considering such a system's potential for error, it is considered the most reliable of all methods of acquiring knowledge.
"Although Westerners accept that Darwin first expounded the doctrine of evolution, the science of anthropology is not new. The development of the evolutionary process was known long before from the Bhagavatam, which was written five thousand years ago. There are records of the statements of Kapila Muni, who was present almost in the beginning of the creation. This knowledge has existed since the Vedic time, and all these sequences are disclosed in Vedic literature; the theory of gradual evolution or anthropology is not new to the Vedas." ( Srimad-Bhagavatam, 3.29.29, Purport)
We all need the guidance of pure devotees if we want the full fruit of devotion to Krishna. We need practical guidance—according to time place and circumstance—how to proceed along the path of Krishna's service, and clearly understand Srila Prabhupada's teachings.
The same is true for any kind of study. If we want to learn piano, it helps to have a teacher who can see where we're at, see what we may be doing wrong, and correct us so we can advance. Private practice and studying books on our own will surely help us make progress, but having a teacher observe our progress firsthand and guide us step by step makes a huge difference. When we're eager to advance in our spiritual life, Krishna speaks to us through His devotees—especially the spiritual master—to help us.
Each of us needs to develop our own steady practice of bhakti which should include a thorough study Srila Prabhupada's books. When you do that, Krishna will lead you to a spiritual master eventually and you will be inspired to formally take diksa, initiation. But patience is recommended. Steadily practicing Krishna consciousness, reading Srila Prabhupada's books, taking the association of other devotees and coming to the temple are the recommended procedures for making quick progress on the path to Krishna.
It's most helpful to hear from devotees more advanced than yourself. This is how we become inspired in spiritual life. You can hear classes by many mature devotees on ISKCON Desire Tree. You may find by hearing from a wide variety of sources that some devotees especially inspire you in your Krishna consciousness.
Srila Prabhupada inspired many, many people to give their whole life to the practice of Krishna consciousness. In his books, he repeatedly stresses the importance of finding a "bona fide spiritual master." This is an eternal principle. He intended the Krishna consciousness movement to continue for as long as possible. This means he intended it to be a genuine, living spiritual tradition.
Those of us who became interested in Krishna consciousness at this time in history—just after Srila Prabhupada's departure from the mortal world—have the benefit of being able to read all his books, read all his collected letters, hear all his recorded lectures, and meet many of his disciples, all of whom have been practicing Krishna consciousness since 1977 at the very least.
Our advice is to avidly read Srila Prabhupada's books. He wanted all his followers to become conversant with the philosophy of Krishna consciousness, and his books are intended as study guides for any aspiring devotee of Krishna. By thoroughly going through his Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam, and Chaitanya Charitamrita, anyone can get a complete picture of what Krishna consciousness is.
We also recommend that you hear from as many senior disciples of Srila Prabhupada as you can. If you've done your homework, you'll be better able to discern who has done the same. You may discover that some devotees seem to understand Srila Prabhupada's teachings more deeply and comprehensively. Srila Prabhupada's books are our textbooks for spiritual advancement, so in choosing a spiritual master it makes sense to try to find someone who understands Srila Prabhupada's books well enough to teach them.
Find someone who you feel best represents Srila Prabhupada. Hear from them as much as possible, and develop a relationship with them based on service. This is the traditional way to approach a guru, which Krishna Himself recommends in the Bhagavad-gita. Over time, Krishna will make it clear to you who inspires you the most in Krishna consciousness. It is said that by the mercy of Krishna, one gets a spiritual master, and by the mercy of the spiritual master, one gets Krishna.
One recommended site for hearing classes by senior devotees is Iskcon Desire Tree. There are hundreds and hundreds of lectures to choose from.
Srila Prabhupada answers this very question quite thoroughly here:
"One should always remember that a person who is reluctant to accept a spiritual master and be initiated is sure to be baffled in his endeavor to go back to Godhead. One who is not properly initiated may present himself as a great devotee, but in fact he is sure to encounter many stumbling blocks on his path of progress toward spiritual realization, with the result that he must continue his term of material existence without relief. Such a helpless person is compared to a ship without a rudder, for such a ship can never reach its destination.
"It is imperative, therefore, that one accept a spiritual master if he at all desires to gain the favor of the Lord. The service of the spiritual master is essential. If there is no chance to serve the spiritual master directly, a devotee should serve him by remembering his instructions. There is no difference between the spiritual master’s instructions and the spiritual master himself. In his absence, therefore, his words of direction should be the pride of the disciple.
"If one thinks that he is above consulting anyone else, including a spiritual master, he is at once an offender at the lotus feet of the Lord. Such an offender can never go back to Godhead. It is imperative that a serious person accept a bona fide spiritual master in terms of the shastric [scriptural] injunctions. Sri Jiva Goswami advises that one not accept a spiritual master in terms of hereditary or customary social and ecclesiastical conventions. One should simply try to find a genuinely qualified spiritual master for actual advancement in spiritual understanding."
(from Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 1.35, purport)
Teachers help us progress faster. They can see (if we let them) what we’re doing wrong, and help us correct it. Books can’t do that. Plus, you can close a book. A teacher may pursue you.
Krishna consciousness works best when three items are in place: guru (teacher), shastra (scripture), and sadhu (keeping company with other serious students).
The shastra is the knowledge upon which everything is based. It’s the starting point, the guide. It shows us the goal. How we apply that knowledge is another thing. Do we accept some things and not others? Do we consider part three of the scriptures to be of utmost importance while choosing to ignore part four?
The guru, the teacher, can see where the student is at, and help them adjust their course. A good teacher is always a good student also. They can preach because they practice. A sincere student can progress farther and faster with a teacher than without one.
It’s said that when the student is ready, Krishna sends him a teacher, and then the teacher gives him Krishna.
To find a teacher, it helps to know:
1) the qualifications of a teacher
2) the qualifications of a student
Finding and accepting the guidance of a spiritual teacher requires a seriousness about learning, and willingness to make that learning a priority. Without being willing to do what it takes to pursue a path of spiritual knowledge, better to be honest and wait until you are before you seriously accept a guru.
There are many kinds of spiritual teachers. In one sense, there’s something we can learn from everyone, so everyone is our guru.
In another sense, there are people whom we deeply respect and trust, who amplify the voice of Krishna within our heart. For a successful spiritual life in Krishna consciousness, it's very helpful to have relationships with people who help us understand Srila Prabhupada. The more we understand Prabhupada’s writings, the more we’ll be able to see how to apply Krishna conscious principles in our life.
To find a spiritual teacher, it can help to have recommendations from trusted devotees, and testimonials (if available) from other students and disciples. Accepting a spiritual master is a lifelong commitment, and the more we know a person, the better we’ll be equipped to make a choice about entering such a relationship with them.
In general, it is very helpful to have relationships with our spiritual elders, especially people whom we are inspired by and whose advice we naturally seek. It’s very helpful to offer service to our respected superiors and seek their good wishes. It is by the good wishes of Krishna’s devotees that we are able to make any progress at all in our spiritual lives.
If we ourselves are following the process of Krishna consciousness, learning as much as possible about the qualifications of a spiritual master, and what’s expected of us as students, over time we will develop relationships with a healthy variety of spiritual teachers. From these relationships it will eventually become clear who inspires us the most in our spiritual practice.