There are mixed feelings about the role of guru in one’s spiritual life, and I am asked about it very often. Those who stick to tradition think that guru is absolutely essential and one must accept the guru as the supreme authority. Others think that, although guru is a must, there is no need to surrender to him or her completely. Still others think that guru is not really needed – everyone has to pave his or her own path and God will give guidance from within the heart of a sincere spiritual seeker. “God is available to everybody,” they think. “He is not the property of any one person. So, he should be directly approachable by anyone and anywhere.”
I think the majority of people fall into the last two categories. One reason, quite often cited, is the many examples of gurus exploiting their disciples in the name of surrender and service. “How can one put full faith into a guru?” they ask. “After all, a guru is another human being, prone to human defects, so why should he be considered an absolute authority?”
These are quite convincing arguments. To reach the proper conclusion about them one has to deliberate carefully on the principle of guru in the Vedic system.
Every system has basic principles that cannot be compromised without causing the system to malfunction. For example, if you remove a little screw from a clock it may not work anymore. Or if you replace a human eye with a monkey’s eye, the person will not be able to see. It is like a mathematical equation, if one of the parameters is wrong the whole equation gives a defective result. If we are serious about getting the result from a particular system, we have to understand these basic principles that cannot be tempered with.
Guru is a fundamental principle of the Vedic system. Although the importance of teachers is ubiquitous across all cultures, Vedic culture’s depth of sanctity, importance and greatness of teachers goes beyond other cultures, and is not easy to understand for those not born and raised in a traditional Vedic family. Without such an upbringing, it is uncommon to have significant faith in Vedic śāstra, without which it is not easy to have significant faith in guru.
Modern logic may find flaws in the guru principle and try to repair this by changing or evading the principle – but, like changing an important screw in a clock, this will cause the entire Vedic culture to produce a different result.
That the guru is absolutely essential to Vedic culture is certain, because guru is at the foundation of each of India’s many denominations of spirituality – such as Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, Vedānta, etc. or their further sub branches, such as karma-yoga, jñāna-yoga and bhakti-yoga. In Bhagavad Gītā, Śrī Kṛṣṇa plainly says, “If you want to know the truth, approach a guru” (Gītā 4.34). In the Bhāgavata, sage Prabuddha makes a very similar statement, “If you want to know the supreme truth, approach a qualified guru.” (SB 11.3.21)
Kṛṣṇa has also made many other statements that directly or indirectly stress the importance of having a genuine guru:
mad-abhijñaṁ guruṁ śāntam, upāsīta mad-ātmakam (SB 11.10.5)
“A guru, whose desires are pacified and who comprehends me, is as dear as my own self, and as worshipable.”
evaṁ gurūpāsanayaika-bhaktyā (SB 11.12.24)
“Worship guru with singular devotion.”
ācāryaṁ māṁ vijānīyān, navamanyeta karhicit
na martya-buddhyāsūyeta, sarva-deva-mayo guru
“Understand that the ācārya is as good as I. Don’t consider him an ordinary mortal, guru is equivalent to all the gods.”
nṛ-deham ādyaṁ su-labhaṁ su-durlabhaṁ, plavaṁ su-kalpaṁ guru-karṇadhāram
mayānukūlena nabhasvateritaṁ, pumān bhavābdhiṁ na taret sa ātma-hā
“The human form of life is the source of great and rare fortune. It is like a boat, guru is the captain, and I am the favorable wind. Only a suicidal person would not ride this boat across the ocean of existence.”
svato na sambhavād anyas, tattva-jño jñāna-do bhavet
“Since the very beginning, people are ignorant. Therefore, on their own, they cannot discover the truth, even about their own selves. They require another, a person who knows reality and can bestow knowledge to them.”
Śrī Nārada also speaks plainly about the absolute importance of guru. He says, “All perfection can be attained easily by serving a genuine guru” (SB 7.15.25). He also says, “Guru is like a torchlight of knowledge and is a direct manifestation of Bhagavān. If one considers guru an ordinary human, one’s learning is as futile as the bathing of an elephant.” [Elephants tend to sprinkle sand over their body after bathing.]
Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī also speaks clearly about the importance of guru, saying that the practice of bhakti begins by taking shelter of a guru. (BRS 1.1.21)
These quotes provide a glimpse into the indispensible role of guru in the Vedic system. Furthermore, even Śrī Kṛṣṇa Himself accepted a guru, to show by example the essential importance of guru.
It is actually a very “open secret” that surrendering to a genuine guru is the key to success in any form of Vedic spirituality. It is “open” because practically everyone knows it. Yet, it remains “secret” because few of us understand it deeply and take it seriously.
We cannot simply study śāstra on our own. The human mind has the great ability to perceive selectively. When we study without a guide we don’t really study śāstra as much as we study our own selective version of it. We need the guidance of guru so we can comprehend things that do not always conform to the preconceptions of our intellectual saṁskāras. No doubt, we may gain many profound realizations and have many deep experiences by studying śāstra on our own, but we cannot get the full result of śāstra – to get out of the bondage of material nature – without taking full shelter of the guidance of a genuine guru. There is no alternative.
But one may cry out, “I am prepared to surrender to the guidance of a genuine guru, but where is that genuine guru? All I see are unqualified or semi-qualified people as candidates.”
Disciples often blame the gurus like this, but the deeper truth is that most would-be disciples are not willing to pay the price required to establish a true relationship to a genuine guru. They look for something cheap, some solution for their material problems. They do not seek guru to discover the ultimate goal of life, so they find gurus who can only offer possible solutions for the temporary and relative goals the disciples truly seek. They don’t approach a guru who can deliver the ultimate goal because this is not their need. Moreover, a genuine guru does not even entertain such insincere disciples. Genuine gurus are, truly, extremely rare – because they are not in demand.
If there were only genuine disciples, unqualified gurus would lose their profession, because nobody would accept them. So in reality, unqualified gurus exist because of unqualified disciples, just as imitation jewelry sells as long as there are buyers for it. If there were only genuine disciples, only genuine gurus would exist, because unqualified gurus would not be in demand. Moreover, a genuine disciple would not last very long with an unqualified guru. Either the disciple will leave the guru, being dissatisfied with him or the guru will spurn him away, not being to able to accommodate him.
Then, the real question is, “How can I become a genuine disciple?”
To be a genuine disciple, one has to sacrifice one’s material life completely. This is described in Kaṭha Upaniṣad. Vajasravas once performed a sacrifice during which he was supposed to donate all his possessions, yet he was donating only his old and milk-less cows. His son Naciketā was not happy to see this. He wanted to leave his deceptive father, so he asked, “I am also your possession, to whom will you give me?”
His father did not reply. Naciketā repeated his question. Again, his father did not reply.
When he asked the question a third time, his father angrily said, “I will give you to death.”
Naciketā went to the Kingdom of Death. Yamarāja, the lord of death, was away, so Naciketā had to wait at his door. He did this for three days and nights without eating or drinking. When Yamarāja returned, he was pleased with the boy and asked him to request three boons. The third boon Naciketā requested was to obtain spiritual knowledge. In response to his request, Yamarāja personally instructed him in the science of ātmā and Paramātmā.
In this story, the father represents the insincere disciple and the son represents the genuine disciple. The father was only making a show of doing a sacrifice in which he was supposed to give up all his material things. The son, on the other hand, was willing to sit and wait at the door of Yamarāja for three days and nights without eating and drinking. The three days and nights signify the renunciation of everything produced by the three guṇas of nature. Sitting at the door of Yamarāja signifies that Naciketā was willing to sacrifice his life. By this he proved that he had no material interests and was willing to give up everything for a spiritual cause.
Yamarāja represents the genuine guru. Such a guru is represented by the lord of death because one can attain the true blessing of a genuine guru, spiritual knowledge, only when one is willing to accept the death of all one’s material desires and attachments. This is also the significance of the First Chapter of Bhagavad Gītā, where Arjuna is expected to kill all his relatives.
Mantra 1.2.23 of Kaṭha Upaniṣad says that God cannot be attained by eloquence, intelligence or a lot of study. God reveals Himself only to one who is blessed by Him (in the form of guru). In mantra 9 of the same chapter, it says God cannot be understood by logic, God can only be understood by the guidance of a qualified guru. Similarly, Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad (6.23) says that the subjects discussed in the Upaniṣad become fully revealed only to a person who has pure devotion to guru as much as for God. Similarly, Chāndogya Upaniṣad (6.14.2) says that only one who has a qualified guru can know the truth.
From all this we must conclude that taking shelter of a genuine guru is absolutely essential for attaining spiritual knowledge and realization. This principle cannot be minimized just because one sees exploitation or lacking in the dealings between guru and disciple. If we sow barren seeds, naturally we get no crop, but this does not mean that seeds are not essential for a harvest.
If we want to be stable in our life, we have to be aware of our ego’s response. Make a habit of observing our emotions and ego. Then gradually we gain control and we can choose what response we want instead of just reacting on sheer emotion.
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