Question: I would like your educated opinion about the necessity of a “living” i.e. physically present guru. There are a lot of strong opinions on this topic that are very often one-sided and pushed with an agenda. I am mainly interested to know whether it is legitimate to follow a guru’s teachings without ever having had a personal relationship with that guru?
Answer: Is it possible for you to become a good swimmer, tennis player, medical doctor, dancer, or musician just by reading good books on the subject? If your reply is yes, then you don’t need a living guru. Then I would ask you to cite some examples of people who have become successful in any of the above fields without a personal mentor.
Bhakti is an unknown subject. We have no experience of it in our day to day life, unlike some of the subjects mentioned above. People don’t even understand its definition without meeting a genuine guru. How is it possible to follow something which we do not understand even theoretically? This is my personal experience. I don’t know anyone who became a perfected devotee without a living guru.
Question: We worship forms of eternal personalities who are present in the spiritual world. For example, Śrī Caitanya, whom we worship here, is in the spiritual world. How does it work in the case of the guru? The guru’s form is not eternal, but we worship the person and not just the principle of the guru behind the person. Does that mean that the guru’s form is actually also present somewhere eternally?
Answer: The form you see is not eternal. He is the vyaṣṭi, or individual, guru. However, there is a form of Kṛṣṇa as the samaṣṭi, or collective, guru in the spiritual world. He is the guru-tattva. His place is to the left of Kṛṣṇa on the yoga-pīṭham. He is eternal. We worship both the vyaṣṭi–guru and the samaṣṭi–guru. Vyaṣṭi–guru is the representative of the samaṣṭī-guru. He is worshiped as nondifferent from samaṣṭi guru, who is no other than Kṛṣṇa. Kṛṣṇa says, “Know me to be the ācārya” (ācāryam mām vijāniyāt, SB 11.17.27).
The vyaṣṭi guru, however, generally is not coming from the eternal loka but from this material world. There are sādhaka-siddhas (beings perfected through practice) and nitya-siddhas (eternally perfected beings). The idea that every guru is a nitya-siddha is not true. If the process of bhakti is to have any efficacy, it must work on people of this world; otherwise, what is the use of this process? If all gurus were nitya-siddha, then they would just come from the spiritual world, make a show, and then go away. That would mean that nobody from this world could become perfect and be a guru.
Question: Do we worship the guru as a person or as a tattva, a philosophical principle?
Answer: We worship the guru as both, because they are non-different. Furthermore, the guru as we see him is a person who has a body and a spiritual self. It is not that we just worship the form and neglect the spiritual being. It is also not that we just worship the spiritual being and neglect the form. Therefore, the guru is not considered as a material person. His form is not considered material even if it manifests all the qualities of a material body. Kṛṣṇa says that the guru should not be looked upon with a material vision (namartya-buddhyāsūyet, SB 11.17.27). It is counted as an offense to consider the guru’s form as material in the same way it is considered an offense to see the arcāvigraha (deity) as a stone piece or the tīrtha(holy river) as ordinary water. So we worship the guru as a person and also as tattva who is manifest as samaṣṭi guru in the spiritual world.
Question: How does the relationship between the guru and the disciples continue in the spiritual world?
Answer: The relationship between the guru and the disciples continues in their spiritual bodies. We have a relationship with our guru here, who is non-different from the samaṣṭi guru or guru-tattva. The samaṣṭi guru is eternal. Our relationship thus continues in the spiritual world. Moreover, in rāgānugā bhakti, a disciple gets siddha-deha in which he becomes an assistant of his guru in siddha-deha. Thus, the relationship continues.
The expertise of a good teacher brings out all of the garbage in your mind. Without you becoming aware of it, you cannot be purified of it. You may become overwhelmed by this. You may start observing problems in your mind or behavior which you never saw before. But you should not become fearful. This is the cleansing process.
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