Teachers, see also Gurus
An acharya is a spiritual teacher who teaches not only by verbal instructions but by the way he acts in his own life. The Bhagavad-gita advises that anyone who wants spiritual knowledge should approach, serve, and sincerely inquire from a qualified acharya. An authentic acharya sees things as they are, and can reveal genuine knowledge to a sincere seeker.
Vedic literature says that real success in life can be attained by approaching such an acharya. Qualified acharyas present the truth as received from their own spiritual teacher. An acharya should be spotless in character, and be a devotee of the Supreme Person.
Adapted from Back to Godhead Magazine's Yoga Dictionary, #15-12, 1980
(The painting depicts how the spiritual master acts as the representative of Krishna, who is in the heart of the spiritual master and the disciple.)
People these days call any kind of expert a "guru," but for our purposes guru means a spiritual master, a teacher of Krishna consciousness, considered in relation to his or her disciple or student.
In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna recommends the guru-disciple system, parampara, as the way spiritual knowledge should be passed on. He says anyone seeking the Absolute Truth should approach a guru with humility, relevant questions, and a service attitude.
A spiritual master's responsibility is to help the disciple reestablish his or her relationship with Krishna by engaging them in various kinds of devotional service, such as chanting the Hare Krishna mantra. A genuine guru presents Krishna's teachings exactly as they've been passed down through the parampara system. Anyone can become a spiritual master, provided they strictly follow their own guru and understand the science of Krishna consciousness.
We like to quote our sources. This page is based on the following:
- Bhagavad-gita, 4.34:
"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."
- Mundaka Upanishad, 1.2.12, as referenced in Srimad-Bhagavatam, 4.21.35, Purport:
"In order to learn the transcendental science, one must approach the bona fide spiritual master in disciplic succession, who is fixed in the Absolute Truth."
- Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 15.108:
"It is the duty of every human being to surrender to a bona fide spiritual master. Giving him everything-body, mind and intelligence-one must take a Vaishnava initiation from him."
- Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 8.128:
"Whether one is a brahmana , a sannyasi or a shudra-regardless of what he is-he can become a spiritual master if he knows the science of Krishna."
- Upadeshamrita, Nectar of Instruction, 1:
"A sober person who can tolerate the urge to speak, the mind's demands, the actions of anger and the urges of the tongue, belly and genitals is qualified to make disciples all over the world."
- Srimad-Bhagavatam, 11.3.21:
"Any person who seriously desires to achieve real happiness must seek out a bona fide spiritual master and take shelter of him by initiation. The qualification of his spiritual master is that he must have realized the conclusion of the scriptures by deliberation and be able to convince others of these conclusions. Such great personalities, who have taken shelter of the Supreme Godhead, leaving aside all material considerations, are to be understood as bona fide spiritual masters."
- Srimad-Bhagavatam, 5.5.18:
"One who cannot deliver his dependents from the path of repeated birth and death should never become a spiritual master, a father, a husband, a mother or a worshipable demigod."
- Srimad-Bhagavatam, 4.12.32, purport:
"Patha-pradarshaka-guru means "the guru, or the spiritual master, who shows the way." Such a guru is sometimes called shiksha-guru. . .It is the duty of the shiksha-guru or diksha-guru to instruct the disciple in the right way, and it depends on the disciple to execute the process. According to shastric [scriptural] injunctions, there is no difference between shiksha-guru and diksha-guru, and generally the shiksha-guru later on becomes the diksha-guru."
- Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 1.35, purport:
"The expert spiritual master knows well how to engage his disciple’s energy in the transcendental loving service of the Lord, and thus he engages a devotee in a specific devotional service according to his special tendency. A devotee must have only one initiating spiritual master because in the scriptures acceptance of more than one is always forbidden. There is no limit, however, to the number of instructing spiritual masters one may accept. Generally a spiritual master who constantly instructs a disciple in spiritual science becomes his initiating spiritual master later on."
- Finding a Genuine Guru
- The quickest, surest, easiest way to learn anything is simply to find someone who knows and ask him.
- Establishing the Proof: who is A Real Guru?
- Everything that anyone seeking spiritual knowledge ought to be aware of.
- You Don’t Need a Guru, or Do You?
- Essential reading for anyone apprehensive about the idea of submission to a spiritual guide.
- Saints or Swindlers
- The genuine guru is he who has no interest in materialistic life. He is after God, and God only.
- Pure Teachers
- The quality of our education—spiritual or material—depends on the character of our educators.
We're looking for more recorded lectures and videos on this topic. Want to help?
- Can I practice Krishna consciousness without a spiritual master?
- Finding a spiritual master after Srila Prabhupada's passing
- How can one become a guru?
- Why do I need a guru?
- How can I find a spiritual master?
- What if I don't want a spiritual master?
- Why is the guru worshiped?
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As one cultivates Krishna consciousness, these qualities gradually develop. A pure devotee of Krishna is said to have innumerable good qualities. The following list from the scripture Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita contains many of the prominent ones.
A pure devotee is:
- not defiant
- equal to everyone
- aware that everything belongs to Krishna
- a performer of welfare work for everyone
- surrendered to Krishna
- indifferent to material acquisitions
- fixed in Krishna consciousness
- completely in control of bad qualities
- moderate in eating
- not obsessed with material things
- without false prestige
- a friend to all
- silent (speaks only about spiritual topics)
by Ekendra dasa
Finding a spiritual teacher is serious business, but it’s not impossible. Every human being is supposed to have a spiritual master. It’s said that when the student is ready, Krishna gives a teacher, and then the teacher gives him Krishna.
To find a teacher, it helps to know what the qualifications of a teacher are. It also helps to know what the qualifications of a student are, since, if you’re not really interested in doing what it takes to pursue a path of spiritual knowledge, better to be honest and wait until you are before you seriously accept a guru.
Finding and accepting the guidance of a spiritual teacher requires that you be serious about learning, and willing to make that learning a priority.
There are many kinds of spiritual teachers. In one sense, there’s something we can learn from everyone, so everyone is our guru.
In another sense, there are people whom we deeply respect and trust, who amplify the voice of Krishna within our heart. For a successful spiritual life, we need people who help us understand Krishna's teachings, which come down throughout history from master to disciple. The person most responsible for translating and distributing Krishna's teachings in the present day is Srila Prabhupada. The better we understand his writings, the more likely it is we’ll be able to see how to apply Krishna conscious principles in our life.
To find a spiritual teacher, it can help to have recommendations from trusted devotees, and testimonials (if available) from other students and disciples. Accepting a spiritual master is a lifelong commitment, and the more we know a person, the better we’ll be equipped to make a choice about entering such a relationship with them.
In general, it is very helpful to have relationships with our spiritual elders, especially people whom we are inspired by and whose advice we naturally seek. It’s very helpful to offer service to our respected superiors and seek their good wishes. It is by the good wishes of Krishna’s devotees that we are able to make any progress at all in our spiritual lives.
If we ourselves are following the process of Krishna consciousness, learning as much as possible about the qualifications of a spiritual master, and what’s expected of us as students, over time we will develop relationships with a healthy variety of spiritual teachers. From these relationships it will eventually become clear who inspires us the most in our spiritual practice.
The Spiritual Master and the Disciple: a compilation of many quotes from all of Prabhupada's writings on the dynamics of the relationship between teacher and student.
Transcendental Diary: the published diaries of Hari Sauri dasa, who served as Prabhupada's servant for years, documenting his struggles and joy as a disciple able to have close personal contact with the guru on a daily basis.
What is the Difficulty?: Another disciple of Prabhupada, Sruta Kirti dasa, relates his own often humorous and touching memories of what it was like to serve Prabhupada.
Can’t I figure everything out myself? What do I need a guru for? Can’t I just read a book and learn that way?
Teachers help us progress faster. They can see (if we let them) what we’re doing wrong, and help us correct it. Books can’t do that. Plus, you can close a book. A teacher may pursue you.
Krishna consciousness works best when three items are in place: guru (spiritual master or teacher), shastra (scripture), and sadhu (keeping company with other serious students).
The shastra is the knowledge upon which everything is based. It’s the starting point, the guide. It shows us the goal. How we apply that knowledge is another thing. Do we accept some things and not others? Do we consider part three of the scriptures to be of utmost importance while choosing to ignore part four?
The guru, the teacher, can see where the student is at, and help them adjust their course. A good teacher is always a good student also. They can preach because they practice. A sincere student can progress farther and faster with a teacher than without one: it's true for football, piano, and spiritual life as well.
The most important element in Bhakti yoga, or any genuine spiritual path, is to learn from a teacher who is pure. Pure teachers are rare, but we can learn how to recognize them and thus avoid being misguided. Such discretion is an important characteristic of progressive spiritual life.
Bhagavad-gita, Chapter Two, says that a pure teacher speaks exactly what God, Krishna, has taught, without change. He gives up all desire for personal gratification and wants only to please Krishna. He cannot give up, or be led away from, the Lord’s service even for a moment.
A person who attains this exalted level of Bhakti receives direct guidance from Krishna and displays all the qualities of a pure devotee.
The pure teacher controls his senses, acts always in Krishna consciousness, and has firm faith that devotional service to Krishna fulfills all obligations and includes all other goals.
The pure devotee of God is a teacher by example because his behavior and teachings are in perfect harmony. Such a person is an enlightened teacher (acharya), an instrument for Krishna’s work in the world.
To serve such a person is the path to enlightenment and liberation, and an absolute necessity for the proper execution of the Bhakti practice.
There are many enlightened teachers (acharyas) in the Bhakti line of the Hare Krishna movement. Some of the more prominent ones are Srila Prabhupada, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, Bhaktivinoda Thakura, and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
An interview with Gour Govinda Swami
Devotee: How can one recognize a sadhu (pure devotee of Krishna)?
Gour Govinda Swami: Cry before Krishna. Only He can help you to find a sadhu. You can’t recognize a sadhu. You have no vision to see the sadhu. If you try by yourself to recognize sadhu, then you will be cheated. If you are serious, then cry before Him. “O Krishna! I am your servant!”
patitam mam vishame bhavambudhau
krpaya tava pada-pankaja-
—Quoted from Sri Caitanya Caritamrita, Antya-lila 20.32
Mahaprabhu has taught us this. This is crying before Krishna. “O nanda-tanuja, son of Nanda Maharaja, I am your kinkara, your servant. Somehow or other I am fallen here in this dreadful ocean of material existence and I have been drowning from time immemorial. But I want to serve you. How can I serve you? How can I become a speck of dust at Your lotus feet? Please help me.” Just cry. Without the help of sadhu you cannot approach Krishna. You can’t utter Krishna’s name. When you cry like that, Krishna is there in your heart as paramatma. He will say, “Oh now he is crying for Me.” Then he makes an arrangement.
This is the proper way. If by your own effort you try to recognize a sadhu, you will be cheated. You can’t see a sadhu. You have no vision at all. You see only all outward, external things. You can’t see the real thing. There are many persons who are only outwardly sadhus. You will be enchanted by their external activities: “Oh, he is a great sadhu! Yes, he is producing gold!” You will be cheated.
You can’t get a real sadhu in this way. A real sadhu is one who is completely absorbed in Krishna, day and night, twenty-four hours. He has gotten Krishna. He is with Krishna. He can give you Krishna. You can’t see him. You have no vision. Only you can cry for Krishna from the core of your heart. This is not an external cry. It is internal. Then Krishna, who is in your heart, will see that you are crying and he will help you. He will make arrangement for you to meet such a sadhu. That is the arrangement of Krishna. When you meet such a person you will feel some spontaneous attraction from the core of your heart. That attraction is the proof.
Devotee: To meet a sadhu is so rare. How can one get the opportunity?
Gour Govinda Swami: It’s a fact that it is rare, but if you are really crying for it then Krishna can make an arrangement. It is impossible for you, but nothing is impossible for Krishna.
Home program in Vancouver, Canada: May 1993
On the path of perfection in spiritual life, it’s essential to receive guidance from a guru, a spiritual master or guide, because we can’t directly or immediately approach God on our own.
If you want to meet the president or prime minister, you can’t expect to just knock on his door and get an audience. First you need an appointment from his secretary, or an introduction by a mutual friend. It is even more so with God. We each have a direct relationship with God because we are His children, but realizing and acting in that direct relationship is possible after we’ve become pure, which is a process. A spiritual master selflessly trains and guides us in reviving our relationship with God, and is always willing to help in difficult times.
All sorts of people present themselves as spiritual masters. So trying to find a genuine master can be confusing. By what qualities can a spiritual master be recognized? They
- are well versed in the Vedic scriptures and follow their principles
- identify themselves as a humble servant of God and never claim to be God
- act with full control of their senses, and never fall under their control
- are impeccable in their moral character
- are fully dedicated to serving God, at all times, with body, mind and words
- follow a guru who belongs to a genuine line of gurus, a line that extends all the way back to Krishna, the original spiritual master of everyone
When we strictly follow the guidance of such a spiritual master, our success in spiritual life is guaranteed.
Spiritual Masters in the Hare Krishna Movement
Often, people who don’t live near Hare Krishna temples want to know how they would go about finding a spiritual master in the Hare Krishna Movement (ISKCON).
First, it’s important to understand that accepting a spiritual master is not something done blindly. It is not a formality. The relationship between the spiritual master and the disciple is the most important relationship in one’s life. It is entered into with great care. When one accepts a spiritual master, one accepts him as one’s guide for life. One is to accept him as God’s representative and follow his instructions. Initiation is not just a ritual; it is a very grave matter.
It is said that when a person is ready to accept a guru, then Krishna will send the guru to him. There is not a list of gurus to pick from. Although each guru in ISKCON has been authorized by ISKCON’s governing body, one has to select as a guru the person who inspires one in spiritual life after developing a relationship with them.
If your present situation doesn’t allow you regular access to spiritual masters in ISKCON, one option is to buy recordings of lectures by gurus from the tape ministries listed on Krishna.com. If you find that one of these spiritual teachers particularly inspires you in Bhakti, then you could write to him and start a student/teacher relationship. You could also buy books by ISKCON gurus, many of which are sold on Krishna.com. Most sannyasis in ISKCON are gurus, so if someone is called “Swami” or “Goswami,” there’s a very good chance that he accepts disciples.
Examining the Guru’s Teachings
A recent Gallup poll revealed that more than nineteen million American adults are now practicing some form of yoga, meditation, or other “self-renewal” process. To meet this great demand, many “gurus” have appeared on the scene, each teaching his version of spiritual truth. Some have attracted large followings, and every disciple undoubtedly feels that his guru is the best.
But for the serious seeker of truth, choosing a spiritual master cannot be a matter of mere sentiment. Spiritual life is factual and scientific, and we have to test the qualifications of any spiritual teacher by referring to the standard authority. This authority is scripture, especially the Sanskrit Vedic scriptures, which throughout history have provided the philosophical basis for the guru-disciple relationship. By referring to Vedic scriptures we can know the criteria for a bona fide spiritual master. Then we can easily see who is actually a spiritual master, and who is a fraud.
The first criterion, according to the Vedic scriptures, is the quality of the words the teacher speaks. (Even a fool may be highly esteemed—until he speaks.) In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Sri Krishna, the original spiritual master, tells his disciple Arjuna, “The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.” In other words, a genuine guru must have realized the Absolute Truth, the Personality of Godhead, and he must be able to impart this truth to his disciple, thus freeing him (or her) from repeated birth and death.
We should therefore immediately reject as outright charlatans those so-called gurus who pretend to have some spiritual knowledge, but who teach their disciples only how to gain some material advantage—a slimmer body, better sex life, success in business, and so on. Real spiritual life means getting free from the agony of birth and death. How can a common man, unable to distinguish spirit from matter—and thus himself caught in the cycle of birth and death—claim to be a spiritual master? Such cheaters generally take up the “guru business” just to earn a living. But the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the essence of all Vedic scriptures, sternly warns, “No one should become a guru unless he can free his disciple from birth and death.”
A true spiritual master must not only be able to distinguish spirit from matter; he must also be able to distinguish the minute, individual spirit (the soul) from the supreme spirit (the Supersoul, or God). Failure to make this important distinction disqualifies many of today’s so- called spiritual masters. In fact, blurring the difference between God and the living entity is the most common philosophical flaw among modern gurus. Their reasoning goes something like this: “The eternal spirit soul within the body is Brahman, and the supreme spirit beyond the body is also Brahman. Therefore, we are all equal to the Supreme Brahman—or in other words, everyone is God.”
But Lord Krishna Himself denies this idea in the Bhagavad- gita (15.7):“The living entities in this material world are eternally My fragmental parts.” It is certainly true that the Vedic scriptures, especially the Upanishads, teach meditation on Brahman, the eternal spirit. And they also teach the realization that each one of us, as a spirit soul, is also Brahman, separate from our material body.
But beyond this all the Vedic scriptures explain that although each of us is spirit, we are only minute sparks of the supreme spirit, God. In other words, God is supreme and infinite, and we are all His infinitesimal expansions; therefore, our duty is to serve Him. This simple axiom is the essence of theism, and all the world’s religions loudly declare it. For a guru to omit or distort this teaching is a serious philosophical lapse. Behind his negligence we will usually find a cheating mentality—a strong aversion for surrendering to the mastership of God. So, when the teachings of a spiritual master are inimical to bhakti, or loving devotion to God—when he teaches that there is no personal God, or that God is only an energy, or that we can become God—then we should reject him.
Examining the Guru’s Life
Just as it is a fraud for a so-called guru to offer only gross material benefits, or to collect money from his disciples for selfish aims, or to teach the disciples that they are God or can become God—so it is an even greater fraud for the so-called guru to proclaim that he himself is an incarnation of God. The Vedic scriptures predict the incarnations of God and describe their extraordinary qualities and activities. So any ordinary person who poses as a guru and says he is an incarnation of God exposes himself as the greatest fool in human society. The truth is that everyone, including the spiritual master, is an eternal servant of God.
Since we are all servants of the Supreme Lord, a bona fide guru must be a devotee of the Supreme Lord and teach others how to become His devotees. In fact, unless the guru is a devotee of Lord Krishna, he cannot understand transcendental knowledge—what to speak of imparting it to others. An ideal example of a qualified recipient of transcendental knowledge is Arjuna, whom Lord Krishna empowered to understand the Bhagavad-gita because of his devotional attitude.
Krishna explains in the fourth chapter, “O Arjuna, this very ancient science of the relationship with the Supreme is today told by Me to you because you are My devotee as well as My friend; therefore you can understand the transcendental mystery of this science” (Bg. 4.3). Though Krishna spoke the Bhagavad-gita five thousand years ago, His words still hold true today: only the Lord’s devotees can understand transcendental knowledge.
Another important criterion for a guru is that he himself must be a disciple of a bona fide spiritual master—one who is part of a succession of spiritual masters coming from Lord Krishna Himself. A guru’s teachings cannot be genuine unless he has received his knowledge by this process of disciplic succession, because one who is not part of a genuine disciplic chain can have no access to the Vedic knowledge. So we cannot overemphasize the importance of the disciplic succession in determining the credibility of a spiritual teacher.
No matter how learned a scholar one may be, he cannot understand the import of Vedic knowledge by the speculative approach. In other words, no one can know the Transcendence by his imperfect sense perception. As the Svetashvatara Upanishad (6.23) explains, “Only unto those great souls who simultaneously have implicit faith in both the Lord and the spiritual master are all the imports of Vedic knowledge automatically revealed.”
A genuine guru must not only speak the truth; he must also live it. In other words, his character must be perfect and his behavior exemplary. In the West we commonly see that a professor or philosopher achieves renown on the basis of his teachings alone, regardless of his personal life. But in Vedic society, if a man is a drunkard or in some other way violates the ideal principles he teaches, then he is considered not a teacher but a cheater. According to the Gita a real guru, who teaches by example, must have the qualities of peacefulness, sense control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, and faith in God. So- called gurus who indulge in abominable things like meat eating, cigarette smoking, and illicit sex, and who covet wealth for purchasing various other forms of sense gratification, are all disqualified. One who cannot control his senses cannot rightfully bear the title “guru.”
Since renunciation is a criterion for a genuine guru, then what about yogis who remain alone in silent meditation, seeking to stay pure by avoiding all material contact? Are they the ideal gurus? No—because such withdrawal from the mass of people does not help those who are suffering without God consciousness. One of the greatest God-realized gurus, Srila Rupa Goswami, states in his Bhakti-rasamrita- sindhu, “If one rejects material things which could be used in the service of Krishna [God], his renunciation is incomplete.” Everything should be used to serve God. By not withdrawing from the world. but rather by using worldly things (including money, cars, public media, buildings, and so on) to spread God consciousness, a genuine guru can actually attain complete renunciation and also help humanity.
Sometimes a so-called guru seeks to help humanity by performing some social welfare mission, such as opening hospitals or uplifting the poor. Such a man is generally an atheist, devoid of any real spiritual knowledge. A true spiritual master engages wholeheartedly in glorifying the Supreme Lord, fully convinced that this alone will bring the highest happiness, even within the material sphere.
Such a true guru has complete faith in Narada Muni’s words in the Srimad-Bhagavatam: “As pouring water on the root of a tree energizes the trunk, branches, twigs, and leaves; and as supplying food to the stomach enlivens the senses and limbs of the body; so simply worshiping Lord Krishna through devotional service automatically satisfies the Lord’s parts and parcels, the demigods [who supply the rain, air, sunlight, and all other necessities for man].”
So a bona fide spiritual master makes broadcasting the glories of the Supreme Personality of Godhead his only business. He never wastes time making materialistic plans or concocting dry philosophical speculations about God, for he knows full well that all people will be completely satisfied if they simply glorify God. Lord Krishna describes such genuine mahatmas(great souls) as follows: “Always chanting My glories, endeavoring with great determination, bowing down before Me, these great souls perpetually worship Me with devotion” ( Bg. 9.14).
The perfect example of such a mahatma is Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, an incarnation of Krishna who appeared five hundred years ago in Bengal, India, to teach pure devotional service. Mahaprabhu taught that one should perfect his own life by practicing the science of Krishna consciousness, and that one should also teach others this science. In one sense, then, He taught that everyone could become a guru simply by telling others about the pastimes and teachings of Krishna. During His manifest existence on earth, Mahaprabhu acted as a devotee and always tried to engage others in chanting the glories of the Lord. Thus, He set the example of an ideal spiritual master.
To summarize, we can see that six chief criteria mentioned in the authoritative Vedic scriptures determine the authenticity of a guru. First, the guru’s teachings must be fully spiritual: he must not cheat his disciples by promising them material benefits; rather, he must teach them how to become free from material life and obtain liberation from the miseries of repeated birth and death.
Second, the guru must have attained the highest realization of the Absolute Truth—the personality of God—which is beyond the incomplete impersonal conception. In this way the guru will be competent to distinguish between the infinite Supreme Spirit (God) and the infinitesimal spirit souls. Fully aware of this distinction between God and the individual soul, he should engage himself as a devotee of the Supreme Lord and teach devotional service to his disciples.
The third criterion is that the guru must have received his knowledge from a bona fide spiritual master through the authorized process of disciplic succession, as explained in the Vedic literature. The fourth is that the guru’s character must be pure: he must rigidly follow all the religious principles governing saintly behavior. Fifth, he must engage himself and others in the glorification of the Lord as the ultimate activity for human society, and he should not divert his energies to material welfare work. And sixth, a guru of the highest order must spread the message of God (Krishna) consciousness throughout the world.
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.