To practice spiritual life, one needs to study from a teacher. There are various types of spiritual paths such as Jñāna Yoga, Aṣṭāṅga Yoga, Rāja Yoga and Bhakti Yoga. At present, there is also of a fusion of different paths and thus the boundaries among these paths are blurry. Practices of one path have been incorporated into other paths. For example, originally kīrtana was only part of Bhakti Yoga. But at present, adherents of JānaYoga, Aṣṭāṅga Yoga, Rāja Yoga all engage in it. To be successful on a path, one has to understand it clearly and practice it properly. For that, one needs a qualified teacher. Such a teacher does not only need the prerequisite knowledge to teach, he also must have the proper intention. In Anuccheda 203 of Bhakti Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī describes two types of teachers, namely with and without attachment. For one’s own benefit, it is important to know their characteristics. Below I present the translation of this anuccheda and my commentary on it.
Translation of Anuccheda 203
There are some definitive statements regarding the qualifications of a teacher in the Brahma-vaivarta Purāṇa:
vaktā sarāgo nīrāgo dvi-vidhaḥ parikīrtitaḥ
sarāgo lolupaḥ kāmī tad uktaṁ hṛn na saṁspṛśet
upadeśaṁ karoty eva na parīkṣāṁ karoti ca
aparīkṣyopadiṣṭaṁ yat loka-nāśāya tad bhavet
“An instructor (vaktā) can be of two types—with attachment (sarāga) or without attachment (nīrāga). The attached instructor (sarāga-vaktā) is greedy and covetous, and his words are unable to touch the student’s heart. Such a teacher only offers instruction, but he does not test the student. Instruction given without testing leads to the destruction of society.”
And further on [a reference to the unattached instructor (nīrāga-vaktā)]:
kulaṁ śīlam athācāram avicārya paraṁ gurum
bhajeta śravaṇādy-arthī sarasaṁ sāra-sāgaram
“An aspirant who is eager to hear should accept a highly realized preceptor (param-guru), who is adept in tasting transcendental aesthetic experience (sarasa), and who is an ocean of the essence of immediately realized truth (sāra-sāgara), without consideration of his family, conduct, or behavior.”
Elsewhere in the same Purāṇa, we find the following statement that is symptomatic of the param-guru’s adeptness in tasting rasa (sarasatva) [because only the preceptor who is genuinely absorbed in such taste can convey the same experience to others]:
kāma-krodhādi-yukto’pi kṛpaṇo’pi viṣādavān
śrutvā vikāśam āyāti sa vaktā paramo guruḥ
“That instructor (vaktā) is a highly realized preceptor (param-guru) on hearing from whom even a person engulfed in desire and anger, or even a dejected soul steeped in despair, attains the experiential condition of the blossoming of the heart (vikāśa).”
Because a guru of this caliber may not be available, some people accept many teachers, desiring to learn the fundamentals of logical analysis and the philosophical distinctions between different wisdom schools, as Śrī Dattātreya said:
na hy ekasmād guror jñānaṁ su-sthiraṁ syāt supuṣkalam
brahmaitad advitīyaṁ vai gīyate bahudha rṣibhiḥ
“Although the Absolute Truth, Brahman, is nondual in nature, It has been extolled in manifold ways by different sages. For this reason, knowledge obtained from just a single teacher cannot attain perfect stability or completion.” (SB 11.9.31)
The meaning here is self-evident.
In the previous anuccheda, it was said that the internal devotional disposition (bhāva) and prowess (prabhāva) of a sādhu influences the person who associates with him. This is also true of his behavioral characteristics, which may not always conform to socially accepted norms of behavior. This is why it is recommended that one associate with a sādhu of virtuous conduct. This is summed up in the following statement:
hīyate hi matis tāta hīnaiḥ saha samāgamāt
samaiś ca samatām eti viśiṣṭaiś ca viśiṣṭatām
“By associating with people of inferior nature, one’s intelligence becomes degraded. By associating with those of the same caliber, it remains at the same level, but by associating with those who are uniquely distinguished, one’s intelligence becomes similarly qualified.” (Hitopadeśa 1.41)
Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī cites Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya to illustrate that the qualities of a sādhu or guru reflect in a student, just as the color of a proximate object is reflected in the crystal (BRS 1.2.229). Therefore, the teacher should be of good conduct, otherwise his ill-character will influence the student adversely. Moreover, if a teacher is not realized himself and lacks faith in the teachings he expounds, they will not touch the heart of his student. For this reason, sage Prabuddha stipulated that the guru should be directly realized in the Truth, pare-brahmaṇi niṣṇātam (SB 11.3.21).
There are professional speakers of Śrīmad Bhāgavata in Vṛndāvana and elsewhere, who draw big crowds. But their lectures do not have much positive influence on the audience. This is because such speakers themselves do not follow the teachings of the book. They use the teachings only to earn money and attract followers. Such professional speakers are analogous to a spoon that is used to serve sweets—the spoon itself never tastes the sweets that it dispenses. In Vṛndāvana there are schools to train professional speakers of Śrīmad Bhāgavata. The objective of these schools has nothing to do with God-realization.
Another important point made here is that the teacher should also test the student. He should not impart knowledge to an unqualified student. If he does, it will only bring ruination to society, because the unqualified student will misuse the knowledge for a material purpose. In the past, gurus were very strict and would not teach everyone. They would make sure that the student’s interest was in bhakti alone and not in profit. This would only be possible if the teacher himself was not covetous and greedy. There is a story about Rāmānujācārya relaying that his guru refused to accept him as a student no less than eighteen times. Narottama Dāsa Ṭhākura was similarly refused by Lokanātha Gosvāmī for a long time.
At present, such strict testing of students is generally missing. Teachers are very eager to acquire students, and there is much competition between them. For this reason, the standard of bhakti has gone down in comparison to what it used to be fifty or sixty years ago.
There may appear to be a contradiction between the first couplet of verses cited in this anuccheda from the Brahma-vaivarta Purāṇa and the third verse quoted from the same source. The first two verses effectively warn the prospective student not to hear from an attached instructor (sarāga-vaktā), who is covetous and full of material desires. This warning carries the imperative for a student to first examine the character of the teacher.
The third verse, however, declares that one should not have any concern about the family background and character of a teacher. This apparent contradiction is resolved because the third verse is spoken in reference to a teacher who is sarasa, meaning that he is absorbed in tasting transcendental aesthetic experience (rasa) and is thus without any ulterior motive. If one is fortunate enough to encounter a guru of this stature, the question of his family background and character loses all relevance. One’s investigative powers are better served simply to study under him.
As confirmed in the following verse from the same Purāṇa, the words of the highly realized sarasa guru are invested with the transformative power to induce a blossoming of the heart (vikāśa) that conduces to rasa, even if heard by a person afflicted by desire, lust, and greed. Certainly, if the words of a teacher can free the student from lust and greed, then the teacher himself must be free from these base qualities.
If one cannot find a guru of the caliber described in this and the previous anucchedas, then one should endeavor to learn the truth from different teachers. Dattātreya is an example of this approach. He speaks of twenty-four gurus (SB 11.7.33-35). Of course, these were not human gurus who personally taught him through aural instruction. Rather, his teachers were for the most part either the great elements of nature or select members of the animal kingdom. It was Dattātreya himself who learned from them through his own intuitive powers by carefully observing their behavior. He counted even insentient phenomena, such as the earth and the air, in his list of gurus.
This example is not meant to obviate the need for a single living human preceptor, especially for those on the path of bhakti. In bhakti, one should have only one mantra- or dīkṣā-guru and study from him. If there are subjects that the dīkṣā-guru is unable to teach or if he is physically incapable of doing so, then one can study, with his permission, from other teachers who have a complementary mood and are not inimical toward him.
By Satyanarayana Dasa