Guru-tattva: Necessity of Guru

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.

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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 vyaṣṭiguru and the samaṣṭiguru. Vyaṣṭiguru 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.

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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.

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Comments ( 15 )
  1. Of course, all this implicitly assumes that a person accepts a guru who is fully realised and competent to guide him to Kṛṣṇa, rather than accept some unqualified fellow and imagine him to be qualified, which is almost always what happens in the present times.

    Then the real question is, in the event of not finding a genuinely exalted guru, rather than accept some ambitious and self-authorised clown and be deviated, whether a person can accept the ācāryas as his guru and accept instructions from their glorious books and chant the mahāmantra. Besides practical books on sādhana and vaidhi-bhakti available in ISKCON, there are simple and practical books like Viśvanātha Cakravartī’s Mādhurya-kādambinī, Rāga-vartma-candrikā, Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu-bindu, Narottama Dāsa Ṭhākura’s Prema-bhakti-candrikā, and so on. Everything that anyone needs to know, beginning to advanced, is clearly explained in the books of the ācāryas.

    I feel that this is absolutely fine because sincere acceptance of śikṣā and diligent execution of sādhana is more important, and is as good as dīkṣā in principle. At least in the gauḍīya-sampradāya, I am firmly convinced that Mahāprabhu is not concerned about a jīva’s formal dīkṣā, but rather his sincere acceptance of śikṣā and his meticulous execution of sādhana to attain the goal. I am not against the principle of accepting dīkṣā, but rather just forewarning and preventing the detrimental consequences of imagining some unauthorised person with potentially secretive anarthas to be a pure guru who Kṛṣṇa speaks through, and eventually be thoroughly disenchanted. It is best to trust oneself, Kṛṣṇa, and the ācāryas, rather than some random person. Is there anything wrong in whatever I have said?

    • Babaji Post author

      “It is best to trust oneself, Kṛṣṇa, and the ācāryas, rather than some random person. Is there anything wrong in whatever I have said?”

      Yes, I agree that we should not trust a RANDOM PERSON. But I am not referring to some random person. I am explaining the need of living qualified guru. If you disagree with that, then you need to prove your hypothesis with your experience by following your recommendation.
      Moreover, if you trust Krsna and acharyas, as you write above, then trust their words. Krsna and the acharyas do stress the need of a living guru. Krsna says very clearly in BG tad viddhi… (4.34) and He repeats that several times in SB in the Eleventh Canto. Rupa Gosvami says it very clearly in BRS – guru-pādāśraya tasmat. You cannot have pādāśrya (shelter of the feet) of a non-living guru. Furthermore, Krsna and the acharyas had living gurus.
      Otherwise, I do not know what you mean by trusting Krsna and acharyas. Or do you mean to say trust everything else except those statements where they recommend taking shelter of a living guru?

    • Yes Mahārāja, I do not deny the need for a living guru, and acceptance of his shelter if such a person actually exists. However, qualified gurus are almost an extinct species. The solution I proposed is to reconcile this widely prevalent practical scenario. In the event of not finding a qualified living guru, what is the solution you provide?

  2. deepak desai

    Dear Babaji,

    Can you kindly explain the term “siddha deha”?

    • Babaji Post author

      Siddha deha means the perfected body or the spiritual body, which is awarded to a sadhaka who has attained perfection while living in the sadhaka deha.

  3. Nila Madhava Das

    Dear Babaji,

    Dandavat pranams, Sri Sri Guru Gauranga Jayata!

    Regarding guru-tattva, we’ve seen in this world that sometimes it appears that the person who is the vyasti guru can change. Is this so? What I mean is seen in a couple different examples. The first is that we may receive diksa from a guru who may send us to a second (siksa) guru for further instruction/guidance on a specific issue.
    Secondly, we may receive diksa from a guru who at one point appears spiritual and is engaged in bhakti, but at a later time stops his practice of bhakti. Hopefully we can then find the guru principle manifesting through someone else.
    Thirdly, we may receive a connection with a sad guru but then before receiving diksa, that guru enters nitya lila. I’m guessing that then we must seek out the vyasti guru again manifesting through another.
    Can you please clarify these situations and if I have the understanding of them correct or not? Thank you very much for your time and seva. Jai Sri Radhe!

    • Babaji Post author

      First of all, I want to make it clear that I am using the term guru in its original sense, as defined in śāstra. I do not speak about aśāstrīya gurus.

      > Regarding guru-tattva, we’ve seen in this world that sometimes it appears that the person who is the vyasti guru can change. Is this so?

      Truly speaking not.

      > What I mean is seen in a couple different examples. The first is that we may receive diksa from a guru who may send us to a second (siksa) guru for further instruction/guidance on a specific issue.

      I do not know what you mean by specific issue so I cannot comment.

      > Secondly, we may receive diksa from a guru who at one point appears spiritual and is engaged in bhakti, but at a later time stops his practice of bhakti. Hopefully we can then find the guru principle manifesting through someone else.

      I do not comment on such a situation because the disciple has rejected the śāstra to begin with by accepting an aśāstrīya guru. Śāstra does not give injunctions for those who disregard śāstra to begin with.

      > Thirdly, we may receive a connection with a sad guru but then before receiving diksa, that guru enters nitya lila. I’m guessing that then we must seek out the vyasti guru again manifesting through another.

      Yes, if one did not get diksha, then one must seek another qualified guru.

  4. Vraja Kishor

    I love these practical answers.

    I was going to counter-argue that sometimes it is possible to become very proficient in something without a teacher at all (even a book), due to having studied in previous lifetimes. For example I became a guitar player just by picking up a guitar. And I learned astrology just by reading some books and correcting their mistakes in my head. Sorry to blow my trumpet, but who cares, these are karmic things. But I think the second paragraph where you pointed out that Bhakti is not like any of these things because it is not something we could have mastered already in a previous life. It is something we have yet to comprehend.

    I remember studying somewhere that sādhana from previous life will restore itself quickly, like this – but still I guess we will come to the point we already got too, and then be stuck, needing guidance?

    For me, the answer that nailed it is that Bhakti is completely antithetical to the way we have experienced and learned everything. It can only come into our comprehension by revelation, and we need as much help as we can get (living, hands-on help) to correct the mistakes that block us from receiving that revelation. Did I get that right?

    • Babaji Post author

      I agree that one can be very proficient in a material field because of past samskaras. Yet to be a master even in a material subject, one would need guidance from a living person. You may have become a guitar player without a teacher, but can you say that you became a master of guitar without guidance from a living teacher, and similarly a proficient astrologer with no living guide? If you say yes, then I can say with surity that you had perfected these fields in your past life under the guidance of living teacher.

      > I remember studying somewhere that sādhana from previous life will restore itself quickly, like this – but still I guess we will come to the point we already got too, and then be stuck, needing guidance?

      Yes, guidance is needed, except if you had attained a very advanced stage of Bhakti and then have to be born due to an offense. In any case, personal guidance is needed in the past of life or this life or both.

      > For me, the answer that nailed it is that Bhakti is completely antithetical to the way we have experienced and learned everything. It can only come into our comprehension by revelation, and we need as much help as we can get (living, hands-on help) to correct the mistakes that block us from receiving that revelation. Did I get that right?

      Yes, that is the point I am making. But because of some devotees’ bad experience with unqualified gurus, they tend to think that there is no need of a living guru. They can try it and refute me by their experience. I am willing to accept their experience. But I have strong doubt that one would attain perfection without a guru. If one understands the intricacy of the path of Bhakti, one would agree with me. Reading books of the acharyas, one can learn a lot but one will learn through the lens of one’s conditioned mind. The true meaning of the written word is revealed by the grace of a guru, bruyu snigdhasya śiṣyasya guruvo guhyam apyuta (SB 1.1.8). This is stated in the very beginning of Bhagavata Purana. There are many such verses spoken by Krsna to Uddhava in the Eleventh Canto. There are similar statements in the Upanishads and other Puranas. I can say from my experience that with out the grace of my guru, I would have not understood even the definition of Bhakti.

    • Studying from a book is not equivalent to studying without a teacher at all, because the author is living and teaching through his words in his book. Therefore, even an acclaimed self-taught person is taught by the author of the books he studied. The author of a book is always living through his words.

  5. Rati

    Thank you for the article. Regarding the first question, may I ask further about the nature of the guru disciple relationship in the modern world?The modern version of such a relationship often has geographical distance between the guru and disciple, and perhaps only short and infrequent meetings. I find it hard to understand how a genuine relationship of mentorship can take place in such a situation, because a strong relationship requires time and proximity to develop. I understand the principle of developing an attitude of service and surrender to Guru, but without personal training there seems to be a lot of pitfalls with this approach. Nowadays shastra can be taught via recorded lectures and over the internet, but the subtleties of service attitude, humility, and generally knowing each other etc. Can’t really be taught in this way. How can one make this modern version of guru disciple relationship effective, especially when personal training between the two parties is not a possibility?

    • Babaji Post author

      Wherever there is a will there is a way – is a popular adage, and it has some truth in it.
      So it is a matter of deep yearning and then Kṛṣṇa will help. it may take time but if one’s will and priority are sincere and clear
      then it is bound to be fulfilled. But if our will is not strong and we have so many other desires sticking in our mind then it can take lifetimes.
      Still it will happen.
      Secondly, it is a matter of one’s heart. Distance is no barrier if heart is fixed on guru. Otherwise, students can be in physical proximity to the guru and may be very distant in the heart. They may even be offensive instead of surrendering to the guru.
      It is not always feasible for a disciple to live with the guru. Even in the past it was like that. But in the past people were trained in their childhood about principle of surrender. At present we are trained not to surrender. That is the big problem and not so much the physical distance. Bhakti does not fit in our modern mindset because of our upbringing. It is a completely foreign idea. Therefore, there is resistance for having a living guru, or if we have one, there is the idea to have someone else as śikṣā guru. This way one can maintains one’s independence and also have a guru – having worst of both the worlds!!

    • Rati

      Thank you Babaji for your very nice response, it is very encouraging. My respects to you.

  6. Hari Sharanam

    “Studying from a book is not equivalent to studying without a teacher at all, because the author is living and teaching through his words in his book. Therefore, even an acclaimed self-taught person is taught by the author of the books he studied. The author of a book is always living through his words.”
    Cant find anything wrong with this comment. Yes, ideally one should take initiation from a truly qualified Guru. But if whatever reason, living in this world, you cant yet, then the words of our Acharyas are still embodied in their books, and as long as the books themselves are translated carefully by students who actually did have a living qualified Guru, then these words are no longer ordinary, and carry power and grace. We know this to be a demonstrated fact.

    • A living guru is mainly recommended only for accountability. An immature sādhaka on the elementary level can only relate with his guru in flesh and bones, but slackens his vigilance and self-discipline in his guru’s absence due to mistakenly thinking that nobody is watching him. So he needs someone to constantly supervise and train him, but this is only possible when a disciple lives with his guru. In the modern times, when traveling, preaching, and making disciples is held paramount over diligent scriptural study and meticulous execution of sādhana in solitude to realize Kṛṣṇa, even with a living guru, a disciple has little accountability to him due to them being disconnected from each other since the very moment of dīkṣā, which is the reason most disciples hardly progress. Most disciples are completely lost due to being unable to confront their anarthas and loneliness in seclusion, and thus go guru-shopping and seek acceptance in some congregation, but inevitably continue to remain disenchanted.

      However, we cannot blame our lack of spiritual advancement to the lack of a qualified living guru. Kaliyuga throws a new challenge in every decade of every century, and things only get worse. If a sādhaka can take responsibility by holding himself accountable to the all-witnessing paramātmā within his heart, who is his real guru, then he can live in peace studying the ācāryas’ books, chanting the mahāmantra and dīkṣā-mantras, worshiping deities, and so on, living every moment in the presence of Kṛṣṇa within his own heart. People like Satyanārāyaṇa Bābājī, Anantadāsa Bābājī, Demian Martins, and others have rendered an outstanding service to our ācāryas books so that we may associate with and directly learn from mahābhāgavata-gurus like Jīva Gosvāmī and others through their books, rather than vainly wander in search of such a mahābhāgavata-guru. Thus, the supreme importance of translating, annotating, preserving, and disseminating our ācāryas’ glorious writings can never be adequately emphasized, because it is verily the life-breath and wealth of the gauḍīya-vaiṣṇavas.

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