Acharya, see also Spiritual Leader
Giriraja dasa (Swami)
“Ever since the Stone Age, people have come up with so many nonsensical ideas to explain the forces of nature.” That’s what my father, a Chicago lawyer, would tell me when I was growing up. “The idea of a God may give peace and inspire morality, but scientifically-minded people are beyond all that.”
My seventh grade teacher showed me a different angle. He reasoned, “There are so many things we can’t see. We can’t see atoms or air or our own minds. Does that mean they don’t exist? Just because we can’t see God, does that mean He doesn’t exist?”
That made sense to me, and I had a change of heart. I didn’t exactly know who God was, but somehow I knew He was at the center of things.
Then, four years later (in my junior year of high school), a close friend laughed at my ideas. “The wonders of nature are just coincidences. You’re just imagining that a God is doing these things.” His strong personality and arguments persuaded me to set aside my belief for the time being.
Still, I wanted some kind of perfection in my life, and I thought I could find it by studying psychology. I read books like Eric Fromm’s The Art of Loving, and finally I enrolled in Brandeis University’s psychology department so that I could learn how to help people get along better. But soon it became clear that most psychiatrists were themselves disturbed, and that their rate of suicide was surprisingly high. Besides, all the “experts” had different theories and rarely agreed on anything.
Dismayed at not being able to find any peace of mind, I turned to the East for spiritual wisdom and looked for a spiritual teacher. For a start, I read about Zen Buddhism and also attended a weekend meditation led by a well-known American Zen master. What an experience that was. All of us had to sit straight and stiff and play all kinds of mental games to empty our minds. We had to meditate on riddles like, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” At times, when I fell asleep, a monitor would swat me on the shoulder with a stick. Needless to say, I felt uncomfortable. After the meditation, someone asked the master about Vedanta philosophy. He replied, “I have enough trouble keeping up with Zen. How can I think about Vedanta?” It seemed to me that a real spiritual teacher should know everything about spiritual life. So right then I knew that this man wasn’t the teacher I was looking for.
Later, I studied the writings of a famous Indian whom many people had called an incarnation of God. I asked one of my friends how I could study under him, but my friend told me that he didn’t accept any students. I thought, “What kind of master is this? Without accepting students, how can he benefit anyone? So that he can be detached he’s denying others the opportunity to be enlightened?” This didn’t make much sense to me, so I gave up on him.
Next, I became interested in a group that offered a popular version of meditation. Their leading American representative had rented a big hall in Cambridge to demonstrate the technique. But when I went there I found out that I’d have to pay an initiation fee of thirty-five dollars and give up some kind of sense pleasure for one week. I wondered, “Thirty-five dollars—this is spiritual life? And if sense pleasure is bad, then why give it up for only one week?” It all sounded a little strange.
So it went. Whenever I found that a “swami” or “yogi” or “perfect master” or “realized soul” was anywhere within a thousand miles, I would rush to meet him. “This-ananda,” “That-ananda”—so many anandas I met, but I always came away disgusted.
Then, on April 18, 1969, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada came to the Brandeis campus to speak on the Bhagavad-gita. My girl friend tried to persuade me not to go. “Why can’t we be like other couples?” she asked tearfully. “Why do you always have to run to these swamis and yogis? Why can’t we be like everyone else?” I didn’t want to disappoint her, and I actually tried to forget about the lecture, but from within I felt I had to go. Not wanting to hurt my girl friend’s feelings, I reassured her, “Let me go to this one lecture, and this will be the last swami I visit.”
When one of my classmates and I entered the hall, the lecture had just ended. We saw Srila Prabhupada sitting on a magnificent chair in the middle of the stage. He was surrounded by chanting and dancing devotees. Satsvarupa dasa, (now Satsvarupa Gosvami) the president of Boston’s Krishna temple, led the enthusiastic chanting. As the sound system boomed the transcendental vibrations off the bare brick walls, I felt like jumping up and joining in. When the chanting ended, the devotees bowed to offer their respects to Srila Prabhupada. Then he left the stage, and a few disciples followed him.
Some of the devotees needed a ride to Harvard Square, so I gave them a lift in my station wagon. As we rode along, I mentioned that I’d been looking into Zen. “According to the Buddhists,” I said, “this world is just an image; it’s like a movie. And behind it all is nothing.”
A devotee commented, “Sure, this world is like a movie. But when you’re watching a movie, you know that there’s someone behind the whole show: a projectionist. So there’s also someone behind this world—Krishna.” The more I listened to the devotees, the more I wanted to hear their guru. When I dropped them off in Harvard Square I asked a devotee named Patita-pavana where the temple was. He told me how to find it and said that Srila Prabhupada would be speaking there the next evening. I decided to go.
I spent the next day anticipating my visit to the Krishna temple. Finally, about 6 p.m., I set out. The temple was in an out-of-the-way but pleasant part of Boston called Allston. At the given address, 95 Glenville Avenue, I found a small storefront. With anxiety and eagerness I rang the doorbell, and a pleasant young man opened the door and welcomed me in. The room was thick with the smoke and fragrance of incense. It was a smallish room, crowded and warm. I saw Srila Prabhupada seated on the same chair as at the auditorium on campus. He was speaking, but I could hardly hear him. Yet I did catch one thing he said. He quoted a verse from the Bhagavad- gita: “Out of many thousands among men, one may endeavor for perfection, and of those who have achieved perfection, hardly one knows Me in truth” (Bg. 7.3).
That struck me. I thought, “Spiritual life isn’t cheap. That’s one thing I’ve learned already.”
After he finished speaking, Srila Prabhupada asked for questions. A nicely dressed young man in the back of the room raised his hand. “Swamiji,” he said, “How has Krishna created maya [illusion, or forgetfulness of Krishna]?”
Srila Prabhupada gave a beautiful answer. He began, “Maya is just like a cloud. Isn’t the cloud produced by the sun?”
“And doesn’t the cloud also cover the sun?”
“In this way Krishna is also creating maya, and due to maya, Krishna becomes covered. Actually Krishna is not covered, but our vision is covered, so we are not able to see Krishna.”
Then I asked my question: “There are so many different processes of self-realization, like Zen Buddhism, kriya-yoga, and others, and so many different teachers, with each one advocating his process as the best. How can we actually know what is the proper way?”
Srila Prabhupada then questioned me. “First of all, what is your goal? Do you want to serve God, or do you want to become God?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“If you want to become God, that means that you are not God now. But how can somebody who is not God become God? God is God. He never has to become God by any mystic yoga process. He already is God. Krishna is God when He is on the lap of His mother, Yashoda; He is God when he is tending the cows with His friends; He is God when He is speaking the Bhagavad-gita on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra. God is always God. Not that by some mystic yoga process He becomes God. You are not God, nor can you become God. God is in your heart, and if you surrender to Him you can become godly. He is ready to help you, but if you try to become God you are only cheating yourself. If you want to become God then why should God help the competition? But if you want to serve God then God will give you all facility. So what do you think—do you want to become God or do you want to serve God?”
As Srila Prabhupada was speaking, I realized that actually I had wanted to become God. In fact, in my apartment I had painted a sign in bright, fancy letters; it said, “You Are God.” Another thing I realized as he was speaking was that Srila Prabhupada was the spiritual teacher I’d been looking for, and that he could see right into my heart. I became ashamed, because I knew that Srila Prabhupada was seeing all of my foolishness. Then he repeated, “What do you think—do you want to serve God, or do you want to become God?”
I hesitated. I had some inclination to serve God, but I admitted, “Actually, I see that I wanted to become God.”
Srila Prabhupada said emphatically, “Yes, that is right! But how can you become God? You cannot. God is in your heart, and if you water the seed of devotion by chanting Hare Krishna, He will give you all the sunshine to make it grow.”
Every vibration in Srila Prabhupada’s voice struck my ear and entered my heart. Meanwhile, Srila Prabhupada asked the devotees to distribute prasada (spiritual food, offered to Krishna) to everyone. Earlier in the evening Srila Prabhupada had initiated several new devotees, and now a feast would complete the occasion. One devotee brought a large platter with many varieties of prasada and offered it to Srila Prabhupada, who quipped, “I am not God; I cannot eat all this. Distribute it.” Then one joyful devotee approached me. “If you like,” she said, “you can help distribute the prasada.” I was thankful for the chance to do some service.
After everyone else had begun eating, I sat down and looked at my plate. There were so many preparations that I’d never seen before; I didn’t know which one to try first. I bit into a pakora (a breaded cauliflower chunk, zestfully spiced and deep-fried in pure butter). In all my life I had never tasted food so delicious. I looked at the devotees around me relishing their prasada, and then I tried a puri (a light pastry, puffed in pure butter) and some eggplant and tomato with curd. Again the taste was extraordinary. One by one I tasted all the preparations, and each one was more wonderful than the last. I’d never experienced such pleasure in eating. I reflected that everything in Krishna consciousness was that way. The philosophy, the prasada, the chanting, the temple, the devotees, and their spiritual master—all were on a superior level.
The next evening I visited again. On alternate nights, instead of speaking at the temple, Srila Prabhupada would speak at one of the nearby universities, and that night he was going to speak at Boston University. I came early so that I could drive the devotees to the program in my station wagon. Srila Prabhupada spoke clearly and simply and then opened the floor to questions. One person asked, “What can this movement do for the hungry people of the world?”
Srila Prabhupada replied, “If you give a bag of rice to the pigeons, one pigeon will take some grains and go away, another pigeon will take some grains and go away, and in this way all the pigeons will have enough. But if you put a bag of rice in a busy marketplace, the first man who sees it will take the whole bag and hoard it. So the real solution to the food problem is to change the greedy mentality in human society. Actually, there is no scarcity of anything; there is only a scarcity of Krishna consciousness. God has provided for everybody. We simply have to accept what He has given and distribute it equally. That is Krishna consciousness.”
After the questions and answers, with Srila Prabhupada looking on, the devotees danced in a circle and chanted Hare Krishna. When I joined them I began to sense that Lord Krishna actually is present, as He says in Bhagavad-gita, “within the hearts of all living beings.” It was a bright moment in my spiritual life.
The next night, after Srila Prabhupada’s lecture at the temple, I asked a question (each time Prabhupada spoke I would limit myself to just one carefully thought-out question): “What is the relationship between service to man and service to God?”
Srila Prabhupada replied, “If a hungry man comes to you and you feed him, in a few hours his hunger will return and he will have the same problem all over again. But if you give him Krishna consciousness, all his problems will be solved permanently. If you give a man a million dollars, all of his ten-dollar problems will be solved. Similarly, if you give a man Krishna consciousness, all of his little problems will be solved, including eating. And his problems will be solved permanently. He’ll become completely satisfied.”
A few nights later, after a lecture at Harvard, the students asked Srila Prabhupada many challenging questions, but he easily answered all of them. One student said, “You’re chanting Hare Krishna, but couldn’t you just as well count from one to ten over and over again, and wouldn’t that have the same results?” Srila Prabhupada replied, “Yes, you can try counting, and when you finish counting, you can try chanting.” Everyone laughed.
Another boy rambled on about how we need revolution. “This chanting has been going on for many years,” he said. “But now we have to take action, just like the Russian Revolution.”
Srila Prabhupada inquired, “Now you’ve had your Russian Revolution, but are the people in Russia happy?”
The boy replied, “Well, no.”
Then Srila Prabhupada said, “Then what is the value of this revolution? And even if the situation has improved, again it will get worse. Better to chant Hare Krishna and get the permanent solution.”
After the question-and-answer period, the devotees chanted Hare Krishna. Later, I lingered among the audience, noting how they’d appreciated Srila Prabhupada and the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra. A disciple told me what I’d already gathered: Krishna’s pure devotee can never be defeated.
I kept coming to hear Srila Prabhupada speak, either at the temple or at a university. One night he said something that I found especially illuminating: “Our whole life is simply wasted in these two activities—hankering and lamenting. Either we are hankering after what we don’t have, or we are lamenting over what we’ve lost.” That pretty much summed up my life. Prabhupada added, “The peace we are hankering for, life after life, moment after moment—we’ll get it when our desires are purified and dovetailed with the Lord’s desires.”
The next day Srila Prabhupada gave a moving lecture at the Harvard University International Students Association. He said, “Our radius of love is always expanding. If you give a baby some food, he’ll simply put it in his mouth; he thinks only of himself. But when he gets a little older, he may think of sharing the food with his mother, then with his father, and then with his brothers and sisters. If you give him food when he is still older, he might share it with his friends. When he is a young man, he may think of his community’s welfare, and when still more mature he may think in terms of serving the society or the country, until finally he might come to the point of serving all humanity. But still his love is not all-encompassing. What about the cows? Are they not also sensitive living beings? Then why should we kill them? And what about the plants? We are cutting down so many trees and killing so many cows and other animals. Why should we not love all living entities?”
Srila Prabhupada then gave a nice example. What he said cleared things up for me. “This is our defect: our love is not perfect. I have my area of interest, and you have your area of interest, but mine overlaps and conflicts with yours. If I throw a handful of stones into the water, the circles they make will overlap and clash. But if I could throw the stones all at one center point, the circles would never clash. In the same way, if I have my center of interest and you have your center of interest, our interests will clash. But if we find the perfect center, we’ll have perfect harmony. And what is that perfect center? That perfect center is God—Krishna.”
Although I was still living at my apartment, I liked the idea of working with Prabhupada’s disciples. But I was in doubt about whether I should move into the temple or stay where I was. One night, I got the opportunity to drive Srila Prabhupada back to the temple after his lecture. Here was the chance to ask him something that had been on my mind for some time. “Srila Prabhupada, what should I do with the rest of my life?” I was anxious, because I expected that he would ask me to move into the temple right away. But he replied, “Just study our books very thoroughly and chant Hare Krishna.” I was relieved that Srila Prabhupada was so understanding. He’d already helped me to see that Krishna is the center of things, and I could see that the rest would come naturally.
by Devamrita Swami
In his book Perfect Escape, Devamrita Swami comments on the teachings of the saint Jada Bharata to King Rahugana, found in the Fifth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam. Having heard from Jada Bharata, King Rahugana is now speaking.
"Because of the material conceptions that have shackled my mind, I declare myself diseased. My body, made of matter, is full of dirty things, and my vision is polluted by pride. Your words of nectar are the right medicine for me, like vaccine for one bitten by a snake. Like cooling water, your instructions relieve one from the scorching fever of material attachment.”
Have you ever known anyone afflicted with a terminal disease like cancer? Of course, in one sense everyone is a terminal case, as the death of the body is common to all. Nevertheless, we all want to live a full life span. Longevity is our expected privilege as members of the developed world. Just think what happens when an educated person of sufficient financial means receives a medical diagnosis that the end is near. Once the initial shock wears off, the person at once begins a desperate search for a brilliant doctor. We are all trained to believe that the frontiers of science will continuously offer new prospects for miraculous cures.
A wealthy patient eagerly researches even the most remote leads. Consider, for example, the famous American basketball player Magic Johnson. When he learned he was HIV positive, he at once deployed his millions to seek out the premier AIDS specialists in America. No possibilities were left unexplored.
Suppose you have bone cancer. Fortunately, friends in the alternative medical scene tell you of a doctor who has astonishing success reversing deterioration in patients who surrender to his or her radical prescriptions. Just visualize what your attitude would be upon arriving at the treatment center: “Doctor, I’ve heard all about your special therapy and its extraordinary possibilities. Conventional doctors have given me no chance to live, but I’ll do anything you say to save my life. Your reputation is famous throughout all the journals of alternative healing. Please treat me. At least put me on the waiting list. I promise I’ll follow your every instruction completely—no matter how much I have to change my living habits.”
Bernie S. Siegel, alternative doctor and author, has sold millions of books recommending attitudinal healing. “Hope is therapeutic,” he says. Although statistics show that a person with x number of terminal symptoms will die in y number of months, he tells of special possibilities. You could be among the exceptional cases—if you change your mentality. He advocates love, laughter, and doing what you like to do. Especially you should “live life to the max.” Then you may qualify yourself for a complete remission, or at least a partial mitigation. People naturally flock to him for personal care.
Siegel says he wouldn’t describe himself as a consummate optimist. Early in his medical career, he saw that although he was trained to help people live, everyone in fact dies. So he feels that if he can spread some happiness amidst the anguish of life, he has made a significant contribution. “I’m a realist,” he said in a radio interview. “I know there’s pain and trouble ahead, but I choose joy. As Joseph Campbell said: ‘I’m here to participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.’ Life is tough, but since I’m here for a limited time, I choose joy. That’s a choice we all have to make or we’re not going to be grateful for life or be happy.”
Judging by sales of Siegel’s book, people appreciate his efforts. Like other alternative-medicine authors—Deepak Chopra, Larry Dossey, Andrew Weil—Siegel firmly insists on a reciprocal relationship of love and trust between the doctor and patient. The doctor must resonate with the patient’s inner nature, so that the patient can arouse the dormant inner strengths crucial for the healing process.
The Western world easily accepts devotion to Siegel and his methodology. We cherish a doctor reputed for postponing disease and death. For a transcendentalist, however, the public’s attitude differs. Society has hardly any idea how to encourage a genuine spiritual teacher. We don’t understand the dynamics of the relationship between a bona fide spiritual guide and a student. Nor do we understand the goal of that relationship.
Take for example Joseph Campbell, the famous popularizer of mythology. Commenting on Westerners’ seeking spiritual guides, the late scholar said: “I think that is bad news. I really do think you can take clues from teachers; I know you can. But, you see, the traditional Oriental idea is that the student should submit absolutely to the teacher. The guruactually assumes responsibility for the student’s moral life, and that is total giving. I don’t think that’s quite proper for a Western person. One of the big spiritual truths for the West is that each of us is a unique creature, and consequently has a unique path.”
Yes, each of us is an individual. Krishna, in the Bhagavad-gita, confirms the eternal individuality of both the minute living entity and Himself, the Complete Whole: “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” (2.12) Yet when living entities forget their relationship with the supreme source, they all suffer a common disease. Everywhere you’ll find the same plague: misidentification with the body and mind, concurrent with an intense struggle to live an illusory life separate from Krishna, the Complete Whole.
The Srimad-Bhagavatam (5.5.18) warns that no one should become a spiritual teacher who cannot rescue a student from the cycle of repeated birth, disease, old age, and death. In fact, the text cautions that one should not even become a parent or a spouse if one cannot accomplish this most important task. Therefore, all Krishna conscious literature advises that one not accept the tutelage of a spiritual guide without investigating whether he can indeed supply all the spiritual necessities. But when you find a doctor who can actually heal the tumor of material existence, why not humble yourself in love and trust?
Doctors like Bernie Siegel aspire only to ease the pain in an admittedly tough and trouble-filled world. Certainly we do need to keep our bodies in the best possible health, and for talented medical help we should be grateful. But we should remember that even the most acclaimed doctors can offer only stop-gap measures in a temporary, precarious existence. For their critical aid in pursuing the ignorance that feels like bliss, we adore them. We desperately seek their guidance like drowning men battling for air. No arguments, just, “Doc, I know you can help me where all others have failed. Whatever you advise, I’ll do without argument.”
Actually, everyone is a terminal case—the death rate is 100 percent. Yet fed by scholarly and popular misunderstandings, we fail to value real therapy, real medicine, and to take advantage of Krishna consciousness.
“Physician, heal thyself.” Why merely take part in so-called joy in the sorrows of the world? Why not learn to rise above illusion and teach others to do the same? The Srimad-Bhagavatam (5.5.4) says: “When a person considers sense gratification the aim of life, he certainly becomes mad after materialistic living and engages in all kinds of sinful activity. He does not know that due to his past misdeeds he has already received a body which, although temporary, is the cause of his misery. Actually the living entity should not have taken on a material body, but he has been awarded the material body for sense gratification. Therefore I think it not befitting an intelligent person to involve himself again in the activities of sense gratification by which he perpetually gets material bodies one after another.”
Here we find a clear invitation to real welfare work: teaching others to avoid material existence altogether. That is the greatest gift. Rather than offering only temporary help, why not get to the root of the entire problem? Cure the bodily conception of life and alienation from the all- attractive reservoir of pleasure.
King Rahugana next tells Jada Bharata:
“Whatever doubts I have regarding spiritual life I will ask you about. Although you have imparted to me mystic knowledge for my enlightenment, your meaning appears too difficult for my grasp. Please repeat your instructions in a simplified way so that I can digest them. I do have a very inquisitive mind, and I certainly desire a clear understanding.”
The sage has adequately explained to the king a basic lesson in spiritual knowledge. A sincere student, however, does have the right to humbly petition the spiritual director for clarification. Krishna consciousness is the most profound art and science, and as such it requires continuous guidance through a heartfelt intimate bond between teacher and student. Contrary to foolish fears, the relationship does not resemble a dictatorship. For instance, Krishna is the Complete Whole and therefore the original guru. Yet after speaking eighteen chapters of the most wonderful knowledge to Arjuna, Krishna clearly indicated that Arjuna still had his options:
“Thus I have explained to you knowledge still more confidential. Deliberate on this fully and do what you wish to do.” (Bhagavad-gita 18.63)
Krishna lucidly delineates the results of all possible choices. Yet even the Supreme Infinite, the original teacher, does not interfere with the tiny independence of the minute, finite living entity. Those giving knowledge and guidance on behalf of Krishna also do not wring submission and agreement out of potential students. Krishna consciousness is a voluntary affair of devotional love and service. The best way for a newcomer to approach it is through careful deliberation.
In Part Two of this episode of Lives of the Vaisnava Saints, host Chaturatma describes the glorious activities of Vaisnava authors Vrindavana dasa Thakura and Krishnadasa Kaviraja Thakura.
Vaisnava authors are not like the literary stars on the bestseller lists. They write about eternity, for eternity. In Part One of this episode of Lives of the Vaisnava Saints, host Chaturatma introduces the great Vaisnava poet, songwriter, and author, Locana das Thakura.
from Back To Godhead Magazine #13-08, 1978
by Satsvarupa dasa Goswami
There have always been cheaters posing as gurus. Many thousands of years ago, the demon Ravana dressed himself as a swami to win an audience with Sita, the wife of Lord Ramacandra (an incarnation of Lord Krishna). Ravana kidnapped Sita, but Lord Ramacandra killed him. Five thousand years ago, when the Lord appeared in the world in His original form as Krishna, He dealt with another cheater: King Paundraka donned an extra set of arms, in imitation of Lord Krishna’s four-armed Vishnu form, and demanded that Krishna worship him. Again, the Lord did away with the cheater personally.
The current age presents a special dilemma. To begin with, as the ancient Srimad-Bhagavatam predicts, most people are spiritually lazy and ignorant. And what’s more, when they finally bring themselves to search for a guru, they find thousands of latter-day Ravanas and Paundrakas. Granted, today’s cheaters are insignificant next to those personally dispatched by Lord Krishna, but they’re running unchecked. There are no laws against pretending to be a great guru or even God Himself. So it’s extremely difficult to stop the cheating “gurus” and “incarnations.” But Vaishnavas (devotees of the Lord) have to try, at least, to expose them.
Nowadays, the cheaters are so brazen that even when caught in the most scandalous behavior, they matter-of-factly admit they’re cheating—because they know their followers will go on worshiping them anyway. One famous “guru” had an affair and tried to pass his consort off as the divine mother of the universe. After the divine union broke up, he simply said his mate was no longer the divine mother, and the “disciples” went along with it. Other so-called gurus make drastic doctrinal shifts whenever it seems their popularity is slipping. After all, next year’s meditational techniques may make this year’s eternal truths look passe. So the cheater may have to change his act, much like a popular entertainer. And how many times have thousands of people paid millions of dollars, only to discover that they all received the same “secret” manual But still the cheated come forward and pay even higher fees for new “secrets,” like levitation. It makes you wonder; what’s the use of telling people they’re being cheated when they already know?
One positive note—the recent wide distribution of authentic translations of ancient India’s Vedic literatures. Though the cheaters often say they base their teachings on these books, the books themselves draw a clear line between the cheaters and the genuine teachers:
The pseudo swamis and yogis and man-made gods do not believe in the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and thus they are known as pashandis, offenders. They themselves are fallen and cheated, because they do not know the real path of spiritual advancement, and whoever goes to them is certainly cheated in his turn. When one is thus cheated, he sometimes lakes shelter of the real followers of Vedic principles, who teach everyone to worship the Supreme Personality of Godhead according to the directions of the Vedic literatures. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.14.30)
In other words, if you want to find a bona fide guru, you have to consult the standard literatures (the Vedic literatures) and the standard spiritual masters, who come in disciplic succession (parampara) from Lord Krishna. Five thousand years ago the Vedic literatures were put into written form by an incarnation of Krishna named Vyasadeva, and even today the spiritual master’s chair is called a vydsdsana. To sit there, a guru has to teach exactly what Vyasa did, and he has to be a disciple of a spiritual master who comes in succession from Vyasa. Another symptom; the guru’s life must show that he is personally convinced of the message the Vedic literatures set forth—namely, “Worship the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”
It’s much in vogue today to say that all teachings are the same, “Take any path you want,” the cheaters say. “They all lead to the same place.” But common sense says that if you buy an airline ticket to New York, you’d better not try to hop a plane to L.A. And the Upanishads say, “One result is obtained by worshiping the supreme cause of all causes, and another is obtained by worshiping that which is not supreme.” Different forms of worship or meditation will lead you to different goals, and only through devotional service to the Supreme Godhead can you transcend the cycle of repeated birth and death and attain eternity, bliss, and knowledge in the kingdom of God.
Nor can a genuine guru be a debauchee or a “New Age” hero given to mundane psychology, frivolous sports, rock music, or other whimsical games and speculations. Even self-realized persons have to follow basic standards of morality. Avoidance of illicit sex, meat-eating, gambling, and intoxication is prerequisite not just for some people but for anyone interested in actual spiritual life. Anyone who claims to be above these standards is following in the footsteps of Ravana, and his followers will join him in ruin. A real guru has to be a humble representative of the Supreme, a servant of God.
We have attempted to give a public warning about the cheaters who lake the name of swamis and “god- men.” The whole purpose for going to a spiritual teacher is to find the genuine path of God-realization and self- realization. But if we go to a cheater, we’re only cheating ourselves; we’ll have to stay within the cycle of repeated birth and death. Yet even as we issue this warning, we know that it won’t stop the moths from entering the fire of the false gurus. So we’re interested more in the innocent—and in the cynics. Anyone who is actually sincere about finding the genuine path shouldn’t conclude that all spiritual life is a fraud, even in the midst of this bad age. There’s an old story about a man whose dishes were stolen—he decided that from then on, he’d eat off the floor. No, even though one may have been cheated once—or twice—he has to go on with the business of life, striving to find the truth.
The human form of life is meant for self-realization, so we have to take guidance from a genuine spiritual master. As the Vedic literatures inform us, God is within each person’s heart, and when someone is actually sincere about finding the genuine path back to Godhead, the Lord will guide him from within. When he meets a pure devotee of the Lord, the Lord will confirm it from within: “Yes, you can inquire from this guru.” By sincerely inquiring and hearing from a bona fide spiritual master, we will reawaken our natural, eternal, joyous relationship with God. What we need first of all is sincerity. That will help us avoid sensational, concocted paths, and it will lead us to real knowledge and advancement in spiritual life, no matter how bizarrely the fools carry on in their caricature of spirituality.
by Subhananda dasa
Questions at Harvard Divinity School
Student: The idea of “spiritual guide” or “spiritual master” is not exclusive to the Indian spiritual tradition, as you know. It’s found, in varying degrees of formality, in a wide spectrum of religious and cultural contexts: the Christian abbot or prior, the Jewish rabbi, the Zen roshi, and so on. Yet most people in the West seem apprehensive about the idea of submission to a spiritual guide. Why would you say this is?
Subhananda dasa: It’s due to a lack of interest in spiritual life. We live in a society that is materially oriented, so most people simply aren’t interested. This lack of interest in spirituality comes from our modern skepticism—our disbelief in the very notion of an absolute, perfect Truth. Most people—if they have any interest in philosophy or religion at all—tend to be relativists: “Everyone has his own truth.” So if there’s really no ultimate, objective, absolute Truth—if all is relative and subjective—then the idea of a guru, one who teaches Truth, becomes meaningless. And so we view gurus as merely people propagating their own or someone else’s relative concept of truth or reality.
Student: Also, most people are reluctant to accept the premise of human perfectibility. Even though there may be objective truth, they say, human nature is so terribly fallible—and therefore no one person can perceive truth in full.
Subhananda dasa: Yes. Absolute Truth, or God, appears so infinite, transcendent, or esoteric that it must be beyond our human powers to perceive it. So we think that no one can achieve perfect realization of Truth. We accept the idea of “teacher” only in a limited sense. One person, we think, may be able to tell us something of his own relative insights about relative truths. But anyone who reportedly possesses perfect knowledge of truth has to be immediately written off as a charlatan. We see this skepticism in the media’s stereotypes—“the guru”: a skinny old fellow wearing long flowing hair and a beard, dispensing cryptic aphorisms and cosmic riddles, and milking his followers for all they’re worth.
Student: I think that—perhaps out of pride—some people dislike the very idea of submission.
Subhananda dasa: Yes. We’d rather be in the position of teacher than that of student. Submission to a teacher implies an admission that I need instruction and guidance. And this is humbling. Most of us will submit to another person for guidance only as a last resort, when all our own wisdom has failed.
Student: But then, we all know that authority figures can become corrupt. All of us have, I suppose, experienced disappointment with authority figures—parents, teachers, politicians, clergy. I think we’re leery of any guru because he may be corrupt.
Subhananda dasa: Unfortunately, that fear is well founded. For every genuine guru, there are plenty of others who are not qualified, not genuine, whose motives are questionable. And for sure, some are outright charlatans and con men. Often the problem is, “Power corrupts.” And when a guru is invested, whether by tradition or by self-pronouncement, with absolute power, too often, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If a person’s motives in becoming someone else’s spiritual mentor are even slightly tainted with self-serving, quite likely he’ll turn into an exploiter. So one has to be wary. There are bona fide gurus. But : to find a bona fide guru one has to be a genuine seeker.
Student: Why do so many people seem to fall in with gurus of such questionable qualifications or motives?
Subhananda dasa: It’s because most self-styled seekers don’t really want a genuine traditional guru. They don’t want spiritual life strongly enough to make the necessary sacrifices. A genuine guru will require real personal surrender and real renunciation of worldliness. Most people simply don’t want to go that far. They want a guru who will make few demands and provide a cheap artificial “high.” Another thing is that hardly any gurus on the American scene talk about the traditional texts that provide criteria by which would-be followers could judge a teacher’s authenticity. In many cases, I’m sure, the gurus do this quite consciously. Some teachers go so far as denying the importance of the traditional texts and arguing that they themselves can provide the spiritual experience that the scriptures can only describe. This is a ploy to save themselves from being exposed. The followers are left with no criteria for judging the authenticity of their guru—except, of course, the guru’s own criteria. Anyone who knows the Indian spiritual tradition through the texts of the tradition can see through all this. But many followers are spiritually illiterate, ignorant of the depth and richness of the traditions their gurus claim to represent.
Under the banner of “experience” they imagine that analytical thinking is a waste of time—and so they have no grasp of any spiritual realities other than vague concepts like “the light,” “the spirit,” “love,” “the One,” and so on. You may consider this a bit of an exaggeration. If you do, go and see for yourselves. Talk with the followers of some gurus. You’ll be surprised.
Student: I think what you’ve said about inauthentic gurus has been helpful. I’d like to hear you speak a little more about the concept of guru in the ideal, as articulated in your own tradition.
Subhananda dasa: Well, the basic thing about a guru is that he is fully conversant with the science of the Absolute Truth. Also, a genuine guru is a fully self-realized soul. He is free from illusion. He knows himself as an eternal, spiritual being, and thus he no longer identifies himself with materiality. He knows the Absolute Truth as the source and essence of everything. And his knowledge isn’t theoretical or speculative; it’s based on direct perception of reality. He experiences truth directly, not merely in theory. He isn’t just a philosopher or theologian, but a mystic. He has experienced, and is experiencing, that of which he speaks.
And not only does the realized guru know the truth. He loves the truth. In its original sense, the term philosopher means “one who loves truth.” So one might say that the spiritual master is the ideal philosopher. Nor is it a mere concept or idea, however grandiose or sublime, that he loves. It is the Personal Truth, God, who elicits his deepest devotional sentiments.
There are, of course, many interpretations of the nature and function of the guru, even within the Indian spiritual tradition. But rather than try to provide a survey, I’m speaking from the viewpoint of India’s chief and most influential theistic tradition, that of Vaishnavism, represented by such seminal thinkers as Ramanuja, Madhva, and Sri Caitanya.
Student: Earlier you spoke of the guru’s asceticism ...
Subhananda dasa: Yes. This is another classical characteristic of a genuine guru. He has renounced the desire for material acquisition and gratification. Because he is free of ahankara, false ego, he isn’t physically or mentally self-indulgent. In other words, it’s not enough for one to know oneself to be different from one’s material body merely in theory. One has to understand his spiritual identity through direct realization.
And one who directly realizes his spiritual identity renounces those objects, those pleasures, that have to do with the temporal body. He realizes that just as the body is temporary, so its possessions and its pleasures are also temporary and therefore of no real, ultimate significance. Compared to the sublime pleasure he gets from his devotional service to Lord Krishna, all mundane pleasures appear dull and lifeless. This renunciation or asceticism can come only from real spiritual advancement. That’s why Srila Rupa Gosvami tells us, “Only a spiritually advanced person who can tolerate the urge to speak, the mind’s demands, the actions of anger, and the urges of the tongue,the belly, and the genitals is qualified to take the position of guru.” If someone has taken the position of guru and yet we see he’s still attached to materialism, this should give us pause.
Student: So practice is at least as important as precept?
Subhananda dasa: Yes. If the guru himself is not renounced—if he is still addicted to worldly activities and gratification—how will he succeed in freeing others from egoism and illusion? He himself must set the highest example. The guru is also called "acharya"—one who teaches by personal example. In other words, he himself lives by the knowledge he teaches. His actions, his words, his entire disposition reflect the sublime truth of which he speaks. His actions set an example for others to follow. His very presence can, if one is a little sensitive, soften the heart, elevate the feelings, and inspire sublime action.
Student: The qualifications for the guru that you’ve discussed so far—that he must be spiritually realized, that he must be materially renounced, and that he must set a high example—sound like general criteria for holiness. What uniquely distinguishes a person as a guru over and above a holy man?
Subhananda dasa: The obvious distinguishing factor is that the guru teaches. Not only is he a holy man, but he also makes others holy. This means compassion. He isn’t content with his own spiritual advancement, liberation, or salvation. He desires these things for others. In fact, this compassion is the real symptom of spirituality.
It’s important to note how the guru transmits knowledge to his disciple. There’s a popular misconception that the guru’s enlightenment of his disciple is a kind of magical feat whereby he magically injects spiritual knowledge into his disciple as if surcharging him with an electrical current. In reality, the guru explains everything to the disciple in accordance with logic and reason, as well as scriptural authority and tradition.
Student: Earlier, you were speaking about how to be sure of the validity of the knowledge the guru teaches, and you were tying that in with historical disciplic succession.
Subhananda dasa: This is a crucial point. There has to be a test for validity. Nowadays, everyone considers himself a guru,in the sense that everyone instinctively assumes that he’s seeing things as they really are. We draw upon the vast and murky data of our ordinary daily sense perceptions and mental impressions, and we form broad conclusions about the nature of things. But because one person’s sensory and mental impressions differ vastly from any other person’s, we come to vastly differing conclusions. A multitude of individuals, a multitude of weltanschauungs. We all think we’re our own guru. But clearly anyone who thinks he’s his own guru has a fool for a disciple.
The idea of a guru presumes the existence, the reality, of perfect objective knowledge—knowledge that can be directly perceived, if only we have the eyes to see it. Within the broad tradition that I’m taking part in, perfect and infallible knowledge is called veda—divine, eternal wisdom, preserved through oral tradition and later compiled in the form of the Vedic scriptures. Traditionally, Vedic knowledge is transmitted through what is called parampara, disciplic succession. The knowledge is carefully preserved and passed down from master to disciple, generation after generation. In other words, the guru. has the sacred duty to transmit Vedic knowledge as it is, without subjective taint or speculative interpretation.
Professor Cox: I’d like to raise in a friendly way what I think might be an interesting contrast—not in this case, I think, between the Hindu tradition and the Christian, but between what might be referred to as the lineage and the antilineage elements within any particular religious tradition. I think that in Christianity one finds examples of both lineage and antilineage, or disciplic and antidisciplic, understandings. There’s the concept of apostolic succession, which the Pope is said to represent, and many churches are based on this notion of disciplic succession.
There are, however, and I think also stemming from Jesus, antilineage, anti-disciplic visions of truth. The underlying thought here is that a lineage can become corrupt and often is corrupt. In fact, many of them have within their very structure the possibility of corruption. And therefore God sometimes appears in human society as a critic of lineage rather than its perpetuator. When Jesus criticizes the existing lineage of his time, he says, “You say you have Abraham as your father, but I tell you that God is able to raise up out of the stones children of Abraham.” He affiliates himself with John the. Baptist, who founded what you might call an antilineage movement. And also, interestingly enough, we have the example of St. Paul, who was a kind of epitome in the early Christian period of the antilineage disciplic notion. That is, he had a direct revelation from God and Christ and carefully did not seek legitimization from the early disciples. So, maybe you’d like to respond to this theme—the tension between the disciplic transmission and the ... let’s call it the charismatic or visionary revelation of truth, which is often antidisciplic.
Subhananda dasa: You’re certainly correct in pointing out that a lineage can and does become corrupt. Lineages become weak or cease to function altogether. Religious history provides many examples of this, for sure. But it is important to understand Vaishnava disciplic succession as not merely historical but revelatory. That is, it by no. means precludes charismatic or visionary revelation of truth. Succession does not necessarily imply merely mechanical transmission of dogma. The guru is no mere pedantic functionary. With each link in the disciplic .chain, the eternal Vedic knowledge comes to life. It becomes real and dynamic through the guru’s own spiritual vitality. He realizes truth and he transmits the fruits of that realization, including the very process through which his disciple can himself achieve realization. Krishna tells Arjuna in the Gita, “The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.” It is further understood that the Lord, in His form as the indwelling witness and guide, the Supersoul, the Paramatma, is forever revealing spiritual understanding within the heart of His pure devotee. So disciplic succession is a revelatory function, although that function remains intact only so long as the links of the chain are strong.
But, because for one reason or another a disciplic succession may be corrupted or lose its spiritual vitality, God will intercede, either personally or through an agent. You gave the example of Jesus Christ, who criticized the lineage existing in his time. But it seems to me that what he was criticizing was not the notion of lineage per se, but the corruption of lineage, or the decadence or misuse of lineage, or simply the limitations of a particular lineage. Catholics, at any rate, would argue that Jesus himself established a new lineage, that of the apostolic succession, although, as you imply, Protestant thinking would tend to be antilineage in that respect. In Vaishnava understanding, the Lord can and does intercede historically when a tradition has been corrupted or lost, or is in need of revitalization. In Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna Himself explained to Arjuna that with the ancient disciplic succession now broken, the eternal science of yoga had become lost, and therefore it was necessary for Him to personally present again this science to His disciple, Arjuna, through the Gita. Disciplic successions can degrade into archaic orthodoxy, but they don’t have to.
Student: If the guru is primarily a transmitter of Vedic knowledge, can’t one simply guide one’s life in terms of that scriptural knowledge, without having to associate himself with a guru? Why can’t one deal directly with the scripture?
Subhananda dasa: Adherence to Vedic scripture without the direct, practical guidance of a spiritual master is insufficient for spiritual advancement for a few reasons. First, Vedic literature describes the Absolute Truth from various angles and prescribes a variety of paths to that Truth. The spiritual master knows the particular mentality of each disciple and instructs him personally, in a manner appropriate to his mentality. The example is given that a pharmacy may contain thousands of medicines, but one requires a doctor who can prescribe the appropriate medicine for the particular ailment. Second, the spiritual aspirant benefits from the personal example of a perfected soul. Because the guru personally exemplifies Vedic wisdom, that wisdom becomes a tangible, real thing for the disciple.
Further, it’s not by the disciple’s own efforts, in the ultimate sense, that he advances on the spiritual path. It is by divine grace. The Lord’s blessings are delivered by the Lord’s representative, the spiritual master. A verse in the Svetashvatara Upanishad states, “Only unto those great souls who simultaneously have implicit faith in both the Lord and the spiritual master are all the imports of the Vedic knowledge automatically revealed.”
Student: I wonder if you could explain again the guru’s emissary function—what you referred to as his being an “external manifestation” of God?
Subhananda dasa: The authentic guru is God’s representative. He acts as the intermediary between the spiritual aspirant and God. The guru does not obstruct the soul’s approach to God. He facilitates it. While under the influence of maya, illusion, the unaided soul can neither perceive nor approach God directly. He makes this approach through the spiritual master. The disciple sees God, you might say, through his spiritual master—and this vision is really still direct. You may view a tree through your bedroom window, but your perception of the tree is still direct. What this means is that the guru must be “transparent”—a transparent medium for the disciple’s approach to God. The guru doesn’t take the disciple’s worship as his own, but he passes it on to God. God appears, as it were, through the agency of the guru to liberate the seeking soul.