Finding a Genuine Guru
Why should I accept a spiritual master?
Spiritual life is like trying to find a post office in a strange city—we can waste our time speculating, trying to follow our hearts, or we can get serious and find someone who knows what’s what.
I remember that, before I met my spiritual master eight years ago, I had always hoped I would meet someone who could guide me to a higher truth. It wasn’t a clearly formulated idea—more like a secret wish. I would read books by people I thought had some higher understanding, and I would take some ideas from this author, some from that. But there wasn’t anyone I could respect as really knowing. No doubt, they had their insights, ideas that seemed fresh and brilliant. But there wasn’t anyone about whom I could say, “This man truly has knowledge. Let me approach him and ask him to be my teacher.”
Then, in 1968, I met my spiritual master—His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. And after I had studied and tested his teachings, and after my doubts (my protectors!) were satisfied, I decided to become his disciple. Now, as a student of Srila Prabhupada, I travel to colleges throughout the central United States, speaking with people about Krishna consciousness and trying to answer their questions according to what my spiritual master has taught me. Many of the students I talk to want answers to the same questions I once struggled with—questions like, “To live a spiritual life, is it necessary to accept a spiritual master?” “Is there only one spiritual master, or can there be more than one?” “Where does the spiritual master get his knowledge?” and “How can I find my spiritual master?”
A student at a university in Michigan recently asked me, “If I’m a spiritual person, why can’t I find spiritual truth on my own? Why go to someone else? Why can’t I just reach the truth by my own experience?” The image is familiar: a sincere seeker, gleaning clues to the truth wherever he can find them, putting the pieces together by his own intuition and sensitivity until finally he solves the puzzle of life. Noble, is it not?
Yes, but how naive! When I want knowledge about any material subject (be it chemistry, physics, mathematics, geography, grammar, or even how to make a wristwatch), the quickest, surest, easiest way is simply to find someone who knows and ask him. Imagine yourself in a big city you’ve never been in before. Suppose you want to find the post office. How would you do it? Would you start walking around and try to guess which way to go? You might. But if you were really serious about mailing your package, you’d approach a policeman or postman, get yourself a clear set of directions, and then go straight to your destination.
Spiritual life is like trying to find a post office in a strange city. We can waste our time speculating, trying to follow our hearts, or we can get serious and admit that we don’t know where we’re going, and that we need to follow someone who knows what’s what. This is the first step in factual spiritual life.
Question: “But if I’m sincere, why can’t I become self-realized just on the strength of my sincerity?” You can, but only by sincerely following the right process. Suppose you sincerely want to become a doctor. That sincerity is the first thing you need. But if you’re genuinely sincere, you won’t try to become a doctor by buying some medical textbooks in the college bookstore and studying at home. No. You’ll go to medical school, study under qualified experts, and in this way gradually become a qualified doctor yourself. In the same way, if you’re sincere about becoming self-realized, you should sincerely try to find a bona fide spiritual master and study under him.
Question: “But isn’t it higher to find the truth on your own, to struggle for it and finally achieve realization?” You have to decide which you’d rather be—noble or self-realized. If you’re serious about self-realization, you should welcome all the help you can get. To put off finding the truth just to enjoy the romance of being a “perpetual seeker” would be ludicrous.
Question: “But I’ve read the Bhagavad- gita, among other spiritual books, and it seems to me that I can understand them and practice spiritual life on my own.” Then you haven’t understood the Bhagavad- gita, because near the end of the Fourth Chapter Lord Krishna clearly says, “Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth” (Bg. 4.34).
You shouldn’t accept a spiritual master merely as a matter of fashion—because all the big rock stars have spiritual masters, or because yoga and meditation are “in.” Nor should you approach a spiritual master to find out how to get better grades, how to relax, or how to improve your sex life. These things have nothing to do with self-realization, the goal of real spiritual life. Of course, if you want something else, there are many so-called yogis and gurus who, for a modest fee, will be happy to oblige you. That may be big business, but spiritual life is another thing entirely.
The age-old Vedic literature of India tells us clearly how to enter into spiritual life: “One must approach a spiritual master if he desires spiritual realization” (Mundaka Up.. 1.2.12). Also, “The aspirant should surrender to a spiritual master if he is genuinely inquisitive about the highest goal of life” (Bhag. 11.3.21). And in the Puranas, a more recent part of the Vedic literature, it is said, “There are many so-called gurus who are very expert in plundering the money of their disciples, but rarely can one find a spiritual master who can free his disciples from all material anxieties.”
The highest goal of life, self-realization, puts you beyond the happiness and distress, the pleasure and pain, of this material world. Life in this material world is full of perplexities, and a person who sincerely wants to find a solution to the perplexities of life should search out a genuine spiritual master.
In approaching the genuine spiritual master, a person should show the same submissiveness as Arjuna did in the Bhagavad-gita, where he said to Lord Krishna, “Now I am confused about my duty and have lost all composure because of weakness. In this condition I am asking You to tell me clearly what is best for me. Now I am Your disciple and a soul surrendered unto You. Please instruct me” (Bg. 2.7).
Who is the spiritual master?What are the qualifications of the spiritual master?How can I find a bona fide spiritual master?
No one can have greater knowledge than God in any subject matter—spiritual or mundane—because He knows everything. Therefore, the original spiritual master is Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. But if we are seeking to revive our spiritual consciousness, or God consciousness, we must now be out of touch with God. So how can we take direction from God? The great spiritual master Krishnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami answers this question:
“The conditioned soul [a person who is not self- realized] cannot revive his Krishna consciousness by his own effort. But out of his causeless mercy. Lord Krishna compiled the Vedic literature and its supplements, the Puranas” (Caitanya-caritamrita, Madhya 20.122). Thus, by hearing the Vedic literature with great faith and attention, we can actually take spiritual direction from God.
When we talk about the Vedic literature, we’re talking about the oldest, most comprehensive, most scientific spiritual literature in the world. The Vedic literature includes the Upanishads, the Vedanta-sutra, the Mahabharata, the Puranas, and (most importantly) the Srimad-Bhagavatam and the Bhagavad-gita. Where do these great books of wisdom come from? Not from imperfect thinkers of this world. They come from the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna; He spoke the Vedic knowledge to the first created being, lord Brahma. Lord Brahma then passed down this same knowledge to his sons and disciples, who did the same for their own followers. Then, five thousand years ago. Lord Krishna Himself again appeared in this disciplic succession as His literary incarnation, Vyasadeva, and wrote down that same Vedic knowledge.
Now, the main idea is this: to know whether someone is a bona fide spiritual master, we have to check the Vedic literature, because the characteristics of the bona fide spiritual master are specifically described there. For thousands upon thousands of years, seekers have reached perfection by following the Vedic directions on the path of perfection.
Question: “But what if I want to follow the Bible instead of the Vedic literature?” There’s no use arguing the merits of the Bible over the Vedic literature. Both the Bible and the Vedic literature are scripture, and therefore they are in agreement, not opposition. The only difference is that the Vedic literature contains much more specific information about God than you’ll find in the Bible. They’re like dictionaries. The small desk dictionary and Webster’s Third International are both valid authorities, and they are in agreement. Yet the big dictionary has more information. The Vedic literature is like the big dictionary.
Question: “What if I don’t accept the Vedic literature?” Then you’re unfortunate, because you won’t be able to take advantage of the knowledge it contains. For example, if you want to know who your father is, you have to find out from your mother. She’s the authority. If you don’t want to take her word for it, that’s your privilege. But then you’ll never know for sure. In the same way, if you don’t accept the Vedic literature, you’ll never grasp the time-tested spiritual wisdom it contains.
Question: “But can’t someone meet a genuine spiritual master without having studied anything?” Certainly. A fortunate person might meet a perfectly bona fide spiritual master just by the will of providence. But then again, that fortunate person might not be you. You might meet a cheater instead. How will you know? Suppose you’re looking for a good mechanic. Even if you don’t know anything about cars or mechanics, you still might be lucky enough to find a mechanic who’s expert and honest. But if you know the qualifications of the man you’re looking for, your chances are much better. The same goes for finding a spiritual master. Knowledge is reliable; luck isn’t. And surrendering to a spiritual master is too important a decision to leave to luck. You have to surrender to the spiritual master, but not blindly or sentimentally. First you should study him carefully to find out whether he has the qualifications spelled out in the Vedic literature.
The qualifications of the bona fide spiritual master can be summed up in two words: shrotriyam and brahma- nishtham. The word shrotriyam means that the spiritual master must have received the revealed Vedic knowledge from his spiritual master, who in turn received it from his, and so on in a line of spiritual masters extending back to the original spiritual master, Krishna Himself. This is called the disciplic succession. To be bona fide, a spiritual master has to belong to this disciplic succession coming from the Lord.
The bona fide spiritual master does not invent anything new. He’s a messenger, not an inventor. His duty is to transmit the Vedic knowledge as the Lord originally spoke it and as the disciplic succession has handed it down. Just as a postman delivers your letters without subtracting anything or adding anything of his own, so the spiritual master delivers the spiritual message of Vedic knowledge as it is, without adding or subtracting anything.
How can you tell whether the spiritual master meets this qualification? Very easily. The words of Krishna are recorded in the Bhagavad-gita, and you merely have to compare. For example, in the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna says, “Always think of Me and surrender to Me” (Bg. 9.34). So the bona fide spiritual master instructs his disciples to think always of Krishna and surrender to Krishna. If a so-called guru advises his disciples to think of something impersonal or void instead of Krishna, or to surrender to someone other than Krishna, how can he be bona fide? We should immediately reject him as worthless.
Nor can the spiritual master advertise that he himself is God. The bona fide spiritual master always presents himself as a humble servant of God, never as God Himself. Any so-called guru who claims to be God, or who tells his disciples that they can become God, is a charlatan. The bona fide spiritual master acts as a humble servant of the Lord and instructs his disciples to do likewise.
Now we come to the genuine spiritual master’s second qualification: brahma-nishtham. The word brahma- nishtham means that the spiritual master has full faith in the Supreme (in Krishna) and is always absorbed in Krishna consciousness. The spiritual master must be free from all material attachments. He must be the master of his senses, not their servant. For instance, if someone is addicted to liquor, women, or cigarettes, there is no question of his being a guru. There are so many examples of so-called gurus and swamis who advertise themselves as being on the platform of eternity, bliss, and knowledge, but who fall down from their yoga practice to have sex with their disciples. Thus, they fail to meet the standard of brahma-nishtham.
To be truly brahma-nishtham, the spiritual master must be a devotee of Krishna. Krishna says in the Bhagavad- gita, “Always think of Me. Become My devotee. Worship Me and offer homage to Me” (Bg. 9.34). So the bona fide spiritual master always thinks of Krishna, he is a devotee of Krishna, and he always worships and glorifies Krishna. Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita that no one is dearer to Him than one who preaches His glories. Therefore, another qualification of the bona fide spiritual master is that he glorifies Lord Krishna all over the world. Such a spiritual master is directly empowered by Lord Krishna Himself. Even other devotees and transcendentalists offer respect to such an exalted personality and honor him with the title “prabhupada,” meaning “one at whose feet sit many masters.”
First, let’s see why so many seekers fail to find a bona fide spiritual master. In the Bhagavad- gita, Krishna says, “I am in everyone’s heart, and from Me come knowledge, remembrance, and forgetfulness” (Bg. 15.15). In other words, as long as we want to forget Krishna, He will help us forget Him. We can easily see how so many imitation gurus can cheat their disciples. Because most people want material sense pleasure instead of genuine spiritual life, Krishna sends them to a cheater. But as soon as we sincerely desire to revive our eternal loving relationship with Krishna, Krishna will send us to a bona fide spiritual master.
If I find a bona fide spiritual master, what should I do?How does the spiritual master give knowledge?
Surrender to him. The Bhagavad-gita advises, “Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth” (Bg. 4.34). If you find a qualified spiritual master, in whom you have full confidence, you should surrender to him wholeheartedly and render service to him. If you approach the spiritual master with a submissive attitude and ask him sincere questions about spiritual life, he will certainly bless you with enlightenment.
Sometimes we hear folk tales in which a spiritual master enlightens his disciple by touching him, by transferring his power through some kind of electric shock. There are others who supposedly impart enlightenment by their twinkling glances, by talking in riddles, or by whispering secret mantras into the disciple’s ear. None of these methods has anything to do with the genuine Vedic process of spiritual enlightenment.
The Vedic method is simply this: The spiritual master is a self-realized soul, and by hearing and following the spiritual master’s instructions, the disciple can also become self- realized. No secret mantras. No magic mushrooms or cactus buttons. No mystical hocus-pocus. The spiritual master simply imparts to his disciple the instructions he has heard from his own spiritual master, and the disciple becomes self-realized by hearing these instructions in a humble mood.
The disciple places his sincere questions before the spiritual master, and the spiritual master answers these questions authoritatively (with reference to the authorized scriptures and his predecessors in the disciplic succession).
What does it mean to be a servant of the spiritual master?
The disciple should think of himself as a menial servant of his spiritual master. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, a great spiritual master of the late nineteenth century, prayed to his guru: “O pure devotee, O spiritual master, please accept me as your dog.”8 A dog always depends on his master’s mercy and stays ready to carry out his master’s order. In the same way, a bona fide disciple places himself in the position of a dog before his spiritual master and tries to satisfy him by carrying out his orders. In fact, the bona fide disciple respects his spiritual master as much as God Himself.
Question: “But why do I have to treat the spiritual master like God? Didn’t you say he’s a humble servant of God?” Exactly. The spiritual master is a humble servant of God, and he tries to bring everyone back to the humble service of God. But there is no way to become Krishna’s servant directly. You have to become a servant of the servant of Krishna. The guru serves Krishna by acting as His representative in this material world. Therefore, as we have said, the guru is as good as God.
The spiritual master doesn’t accept our service on his own behalf, any more than the President’s representative (such as the Secretary of State) accepts service on his own behalf. Rather, the spiritual master thinks, “Because I have accepted the responsibility of acting as Krishna’s representative, it is my duty to accept service from my disciples and to offer that service to Krishna.” In this way, through the genuine Vedic system of spiritual discipline, the spiritual master revives our natural spiritual consciousness by training us to act as eternal servants of the Supreme Lord.
Question: “Still, it all sounds so dry and austere.” Spiritual life requires a little austerity. But it’s not dry austerity. The spiritual master’s orders are called “the regulative principles of freedom.” In other words, although we may feel (especially at first) that the spiritual master’s instructions are just giving us trouble, by following these instructions we wash away material contaminations and enjoy transcendental bliss from within—and not just in some afterlife, but here and now.
In this age especially, the sacrifices that the disciple must undergo are very simple. In previous ages, the disciple had to perform rigorous physical exercises and adhere to strict vows of renunciation. But in this age the most important “austerity” is simply to chant and hear the Hare Krishna mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The Puranas confirm, “Chant the holy name, chant the holy name, chant the holy name of the Lord. In this age of quarrel and hypocrisy, there is no other way, no other way, no other way to achieve self-realization” (Brihan- naradiya Purana) This chanting of Hare Krishna is easy and enjoyable, and it can make your life sublime.
The science of devotional service is full of transcendental potency, and we can realize this potency if we hear from a bona fide spiritual master and render service to him in a humble, submissive mood. Then we are sure to receive spiritual understanding and to advance on the path that leads out of material perplexity and back to home, back to Godhead.