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Guru-sevā Is the Key to Success
Bhakti Sandarbhas

Guru-sevā Is the Key to Success

In Anuccheda 236 of Bhakti Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī explains that surrender to Bhagavān is the first step in pure devotion. However, Bhagavān is not directly available to us. So how do we surrender to Him? What is the proof that we are truly surrendered? It is not easy for our ahaṅkāra to surrender because the ahaṅkāra’s very nature is not to surrender. Thus, it is possible for the ahaṅkāra to rationalize its non-surrender as surrender. It is not easy to see one’s own defects. To overcome this difficulty, surrender and service to guru is recommended. The guru is the litmus test of one’s surrender. Without serving the guru directly, one may remain in the illusion of surrender and even convince to others. Therefore, surrender and service to guru has been repeatedly recommended in śāstra. This is the subject matter of Anuccheda 237 of Bhakti Sandarbha. Below I present the translation of this anuccheda followed by my commentary.

Translation of Anuccheda 237

We have thus described the devotional act of surrender (śaraṇāpatti). Surrender is the first limb of devotion to be undertaken, for without it, one cannot attain the sense of belonging to Bhagavān (tadīyatva).

In this regard, it is true that all perfection is accomplished simply through surrender, as stated in Garuḍa Purāṇa:

śaraṇaṁ taṁ prapannā ye dhyāna-yoga-vivarjitāḥ
te vai mṛtyum atikramya yānti tad vaiṣṇavaṁ padam

“Those who have forsaken the paths of meditation and yoga and taken refuge of You certainly transcend death and attain the supreme abode of Bhagavān Viṣṇu.” (GP 1.227.36)

In spite of this, however, if one longs to taste a specific flavor of love and has the ability to do so, he should constantly and single-mindedly render service to the lotus feet of a guru, who can instruct one in the confidential conclusions of the devotional scriptures or who initiates one into the mystery of the mantras that pertain to Bhagavān. Indeed, the grace of the guru is the root cause of removing all insurmountable defilements (anarthas) that cannot be overcome by any effort of one’s own, and of obtaining the supreme mercy of Bhagavān.

In the Seventh Canto of Śrīmad Bhāgavata, Śrī Nārada gives an example of the first of these two, namely, how the mercy of one’s instructing guru is the root cause of removing all defilements:

asaṅkalpāj jayet kāmaṁ krodhaṁ kāma-vivarjanāt
arthānarthekṣayā lobhaṁ bhayaṁ tattvāvamarśanāt
ānvikṣikyā śoka-mohau dambhaṁ mahad upāsayā
yogāntarāyān maunena hiṁsāṁ kāmādy anīhayā
kṛpayā bhūjanaṁ duḥkhaṁ daivaṁ jahyāt samādhinā
ātmajaṁ yoga-vīryeṇa nidrāṁ sattva-niṣevayā
rajas tamaś ca sattvena sattvaṁ copaśamena ca
etat sarvaṁ gurau bhaktyā puruṣo hy añjasā jayet

“One should conquer desire by relinquishing the spirit of enjoyment, anger by abandoning desire, greed by discerning the defects of wealth, fear by contemplating the nature of truth, lamentation and delusion by discriminating between reality and appearance, deceit by serving the wise, the obstacles to yoga through the practice of silence, violence by indifference to desire, misery arising from contact with other beings through forgiveness, misery arising from the forces of nature by transcognitive awareness (samādhi), miseries connected with one’s own body and mind through the power of yoga, sleep by adopting the sāttvika codes of behavior, the qualitative states of distraction (rajas) and indolence (tamas) through material illumination (sattva), and material illumination (sattva) through detachment. A person can easily conquer all these by bhakti to his spiritual teacher.” (SB 7.15.22-25)

In regard to the second of the above mentioned items, namely, how the grace of one’s mantra-guru is the root cause of obtaining the supreme mercy of Bhagavān, we find the following statement of Brahmā in the Vāmana-kalpa:

yo mantraḥ sa guruḥ sāksād yo guruḥ sa hariḥ svayam
gurur yasya bhavet tuṣṭas tasya tuṣṭo hariḥ svayam

“The mantra is directly the guru, and the guru is Bhagavān Hari Himself. Bhagavān Hari is personally pleased with a person with whom the guru is pleased.”

Elsewhere in the same text, it is said:

harau ruṣṭe gurus trātā gurau ruṣṭe na kaścana
tasmāt sarva-prayatnena gurum eva prasādayet

“If Bhagavān Hari is displeased, one’s guru can offer protection, but if the guru is displeased, nobody can provide protection. Therefore, one should satisfy one’s guru through all one’s endeavors.”

Therefore, serving one’s guru is indeed a regular duty, as stated by Bhagavān in the following text:

prathaman tu guruṁ pūjya tataś caiva mamārcanam
kurvan siddhim avāpnoti hy anyathā niṣphalaṁ bhavet

“One should worship Me only after first worshiping one’s guru. By doing so, one attains perfection, otherwise one’s efforts end in futility.”

Thus it is said in the Nārada-Pañcarātra:

vaiṣṇavaṁ jñāna-vaktāraṁ yo vidyād viṣṇu-vad gurum
pūjayed vāṅ manaḥ kāyaiḥ sa śāstrajñaḥ sa vaiṣṇavaḥ
śloka-pādasya vaktāpi yaḥ pūjyaḥ sa sadaiva hi
kiṁ punar bhagavad-viṣṇoḥ svarūpaṁ vitanoti yaḥ

“One who regards a Vaiṣṇava guru, who is a preceptor of transcendental knowledge, in the same manner as Viṣṇu, and who worships him with his body, mind, and speech, is a true knower of śāstra, and he is a Vaiṣṇava.”

 Even a teacher who explains just a quarter of a verse of scriptural truth is certainly always worshipable, so how much more must this be the case for a guru who reveals the essential nature (svarūpa) of Bhagavān Viṣṇu!

In the prayers of Devadyuti from the Padma Purāṇa, we find this statement:

bhakti yathā harau me’sti tad-variṣṭhā gurau yadi
mamāsti tena satyena sandarśayatu me hariḥ

“If my devotion to my guru surpasses my devotion to Bhagavān Hari, then by the strength of this fact, let Bhagavān Hari disclose Himself directly to me.”

Consequently, for a person devoted to his guru in this manner, there is no need of executing any other limb of devotion, as stated in the Āgama scripture in the section describing the results of the puraścaraṇa ceremony:

yathā siddha-rasa-sparśāt tāmraṁ bhavati kāñcanam
sannidhānād guror evaṁ śiṣyo viṣṇu-mayo bhavet

“Just as by contact with processed mercury, copper turns into gold, so too a disciple acquires Viṣṇu’s divine nature by close association with his guru.”

In his discussion with Śrīdāma, Bhagavān Kṛṣṇa confirmed the same point that other limbs of devotion are unnecessary for one devoted to his guru:

nāham ijyā-prajātibhyāṁ tapasopaśamena vā
tuṣyeyaṁ sarva-bhūtātmā guru-śuśrūṣayā yathā

“I, the Immanent Self within all living beings, am not as pleased by sacrifices, nor by exalted birth, nor by penances, nor by tranquility of mind, as I am by the service rendered to a guru by his disciple.” (SB 10.80.34)

Śrīdhara Svāmī comments: “There is no one more worthy of service than a guru who bestows transcendental knowledge. This was stated already. Therefore, there is no higher religious duty (dharma) than rendering service to him. The present verse is spoken to elucidate this point. The word ijyā, or ‘Vedic sacrifice,’ refers to the duties of a householder (gṛhastha-dharma). The word prajātiḥ, ‘exalted birth,’ refers to the elevated birth in which one is initiated into the study of the Vedas by acceptance of the sacred thread (upanayana). This is a reference to the duties of a celibate student (brahmacāri-dharma). Since these two (ijyā and prajāti) appear in a compound, the instrumental case ending applies to both of them, i.e., ‘by these two’ (tābhyām). The word tapasā, ‘by penance,’ means ‘by the duties of one who has retired to the forest’ (vanastha-dharma), and upaśamena, ‘by tranquility of mind,’ means ‘by the duties of an ascetic’ (yati-dharma). [Kṛṣṇa declares:] ‘I, Parameśvara, though situated [impartially] as the Supreme Self within all living beings,  am not as pleased by all these practices as I am by the service rendered to one’s guru.’” [Here ends Śrīdhara Svāmī’s comment.]

The transcendental knowledge (jñāna) bestowed by the guru, as referred to in Śrīdhara Svāmī’s commentary, can be of two types—that which pertains to Brahman or that which pertains to Bhagavān. In the case where the jñāna pertains to Brahman, the explanation of the words in this verse is as given above. In the second case, however, the words should be understood as follows: Ijyā would refer to the worship of Bhagavān (pūjā), prajāti to initiation (dīkṣā) into a Viṣṇu mantratapaḥ to transcognitive awareness of Bhagavān (samādhi), and upaśama to the state of resolute fixity (niṣṭhā) in Bhagavān.


In this anuccheda, Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī reveals the secret formula for success. This entails unpretentious service to one’s guru from the heart, without desiring anything in return. This formula is true for all paths but especially so for bhakti, and it is compulsory for rāgānugā-bhakti. Although millions of people take to spiritual practice, hardly one attains the proclaimed and desired goal. The reason for this is that they fail to apply this secret formula.

If an opponent (pūrva-pakṣī) were to analyze the spiritualists from a purely logical point of view, he may conclude that their claims are without any substance. Indeed, there are many nonbelievers who make such statements, and many more who silently concur. The low rate of success among spiritual practitioners may be compared to a farmer who plants one million mango trees out of which only one yields any fruit. This could hardly be considered as successful farming, and one would seriously doubt repeating the procedure or recommending it to others. However, instead of concluding that mango trees are unsuitable for fruit production, one should question the farming method employed.

The same principle is all the more true in regard to the cultivation of spiritual truth. When the fruits of such cultivation are seen to be meagre, one should suspect that the practitioners are doing something wrong and not that spirituality is fictitious. This is because the self-revealed śāstra is infallible. Śāstra is either the direct words of Bhagavān or of highly self-realized sages who have seen the Truth. It is flawless knowledge transmitted for the highest good of humanity. For it to bear fruit, however, it must be followed as per the prescription. One cannot expect an appropriate result to ensue from a faulty procedure, and correct procedure cannot be applied without proper knowledge. Proper knowledge comes from an authentic guru by studying in the recommended manner. This is the missing link in the chain of success for bhakti.

Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī points out that service to one’s guru is so potent that all perfection can be attained simply by this alone, even if the practitioner does not participate in the other limbs of bhakti. Earlier it was said that success in bhakti can come about merely by practicing one of its limbs or by a combination of a few of them. But among all these limbs, service to one’s guru is not optional. Whatever methods one adopts must include this foundational practice. In this regard, we find the following statement in Hari-bhakti-vilāsa:

guru-mūlam idaṁ sarvaṁ tasmān nityaṁ guruṁ bhajet 
puraścaraṇa-hīno’pi mantrī siddhyen na saṁśayaḥ

All these practices [of mantra meditation and so on] are rooted in the guru, therefore, one must serve one’s guru regularly. By this, the practitioner of mantra can attain perfection even without undertaking the [normally] obligatory prepatory rites known as puraścaraṇa. Of this, there is no doubt. (HBV 17.242)

The reason for the importance of taking shelter of a guru was explained in the previous anuccheda. Here the importance of service to one’s guru has been highlighted. In Vāmana-kalpa, it is said that if Bhagavān becomes displeased with a practitioner, the latter’s guru can offer protection, but if the guru is displeased, even Bhagavān cannot help, because He himself has entrusted this power to the guru. He does not intend for an aspiring spiritualist to bypass the guru and approach Him directly.

First, the practitioner has to prove himself or herself to the guru. Guru is the testing ground. An actor, for example, must rehearse before taking the stage. Similarly, the practitioner has to rehearse with his guru before being permitted to enter into Kṛṣṇa’s divine play. Once the guru is satisfied, one is granted the requisite visa to enter the kingdom of Bhagavān. The authentic guru is thus like an ambassador from Bhagavān’s kingdom. For this reason, in Indian scriptures, a tremendous amount of emphasis has been given to the principle of guru-sevā

In this regard, Mahābhārata (Ādi-parva, third chapter) begins with the stories of four students—Āruṇi, Upamanyu, Veda, and Uttaṅka—and the services they rendered to their gurus. These stories throw light on the prevalent culture of guru-bhakti in the olden times, which can still be witnessed at present, although it has become increasingly rare. Even Kṛṣṇa, who is called jagad-guru, “the universal teacher,” went and lived in the āśrama of His guru, Sāndīpani Muni, and rendered service to him. This was done simply to set an example for people in general.

Yet, for all that, there are many teachers who advocate that we do not need a guru, or that we are our own guru. This is like saying, “I have no tongue in my mouth.” If this were true, how could the person make such a claim in the first place? If a guru is not required, then why do such advocates adopt the position of teachers  and thus contradict their own statement, because if their words are accepted, they become gurus for their followers? If we reject such teachings, then we should take a guru. In either case, accepting a guru is unavoidable.

According to Nārada-pañcarātra, one should respect every teacher from whom teachings have been received, and not just the dīkṣā-guru. In this regard, Cāṇakya writes:

ekākṣara-pradātāraṁ yo guruṁ nābhivandate
śvāna-yoni-śataṁ gatvā cāṇḍāleṣv abhijāyate

“One who does not respect a guru who has taught the meaning even of a single syllable will take birth as a dog for one hundred births and then as a cāṇḍāla, an outcaste.” (Cāṇakya-nīti 13.18)

This may sound terribly extreme, but the point is being made to stress the importance of accepting and respecting a guru.


  • Neil Steinert December 15, 2020

    Sadhu Sadhu!

  • Anurag December 22, 2020

    //One who does not respect a guru who has taught the meaning even of a single syllable will take birth as a dog for one hundred births and then as a cāṇḍāla, an outcaste//

    What about university or school teachers? What if you had confrontations with them which led to you walking out on them? Is there any offence involved? How can one rectify this mistake?

    • Babaji December 23, 2020

      A teacher should be respected, be he/she a spiritual or material teacher. There is no harm in respecting a teacher. I see no good reason to disrespect a teacher. One can surely gain knowledge by respecting one’s teacher.
      In the very beginning of Srimad Bhagavata (1.1.8), sage Śaunaka says that a teacher reveals secrets to an affectionate student. this has been my experience too,
      these days students disrespect their teachers out of ignorance, pride and ill-training. This is the scenario all over the world.
      To answer your question : How can one rectify this mistake? – Do not disrespect any teacher again and worship Vyasa on Vyasa puja day.

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