Who Is a Guru, And Why We Need One
"One who is inquisitive to understand the ultimate goal of life must approach a proper guru," says Śrīla Prabhupāda in this lecture given in Mumbai, India, in November of 1974. Then he explains what that ultimate goal is, how that approach must be made, and who is the proper guru.
dvaipāyana-sakhas tv evaṁ maitreyo bhagavāṁs tathā
prāhedaṁ viduraṁ prīta ānvīkṣikyāṁ pracoditaḥ
"Śrī Sūta Gosvāmī said: 'The most powerful sage Maitreya was a friend of Vyāsadeva's. Being encouraged and pleased by Vidura's inquiry about transcendental knowledge, Maitreya spoke as follows" [Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 3.25.4].
This is the process for getting transcendental knowledge: to approach the proper person, the guru, and submissively hear from him. Tad viddhi praṇipātena paripraśnena sevayā [Bg. 4.34]. Although the process is very easy, one must know the process and follow it. For example, suppose your typewriter is not working. Then you have to go to the proper person, someone who knows how to fix it. He will immediately tighten a screw or fix something else, and it works. But if you go to a vegetable seller for repairing the machine, that will not be good. He does not know the process. He may know how to sell vegetables, but that doesn't matter: he does not know how to repair a typewriter.
Therefore the Vedic injunction is tad-vijñānārthaṁ sa gurum evābhigacchet [MU
The body is a machine made by nature (yantrārūḍhāni māyayā [Bg. 18.61]). For those who are very much attached to this machine, the meditative yoga system is recommended. In this system one learns to perform some gymnastics and concentrate the mind, so that eventually the mind may be focused on Lord Viṣṇu. The real purpose is to understand Viṣṇu, the Supreme Lord. So the yoga system is more or less a mechanical arrangement. But the bhakti system is above this mechanical arrangement. Therefore bhakti begins with the search for tad-vijñāna, spiritual knowledge.
So, if you want to understand spiritual knowledge, you have to approach a guru. One meaning of the word guru is "weighty." Therefore the guru is one who is "heavy" with knowledge. And what is that knowledge? That is explained in the Kaṭhopaniṣad: śrotriyaṁ brahma-niṣṭham [MU
One must hear from those who are in the line of preceptorial succession, or disciplic succession. As Lord Kṛṣṇa says in the Bhagavad-gītā, evaṁ paramparā-prāptam [Bg. 4.2]. If one wants standard transcendental knowledge, not upstart knowledge, one must received it from the paramparā system, the disciplic succession. Another meaning of the word śrotriyam mentioned above is "one who has heard from a guru in the disciplic succession." And the result of this hearing will be brahma-niṣṭham, "He is firmly fixed in the service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead." He has no other business. These are the two main qualifications of a bona fide guru. He does not need to be a very learned scholar with an M.A., B.A., or Ph.D. No. He simply needs to have heard from the authority in disciplic succession and be fixed in devotional service. This is our system.
In the verse under discussion we see that Vidura was hearing from Maitreya Ṛṣi and that Maitreya was very much pleased (viduraṁ prītaḥ). Unless you satisfy your guru very nicely, you cannot get the right knowledge. That is natural. If you receive your guru properly and give him a very nice place where he can sit comfortably, and if he is pleased with your behavior, then he will speak very frankly and very freely, which will be beneficial for you. This is the case with Vidura and Maitreya: Maitreya Ṛṣi was very much pleased with Vidura, and thus Maitreya imparted instructions to him.
Lord Kṛṣṇa recommends the same procedure in the Bhagavad-gītā: tad viddhi praṇipātena paripraśnena sevayā [Bg. 4.34]. "One must offer obeisances to the guru, inquire from him, and serve him." If you simply go and ask the spiritual master questions in a challenging spirit but do not accept his instructions and do not render service, then you're wasting your time. The word used here is praṇipātena, "offering obeisances with no reservation." So reception of transcendental knowledge is based on this praṇipāta. That is why Kṛṣṇa says later, sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja: [Bg. 18.66] "Give up everything else and just surrender unto Me." Just as we have to surrender to Kṛṣṇa, we have to surrender to Kṛṣṇa's representative, the spiritual master.
The guru is the external representative of Kṛṣṇa. The internal guru is Kṛṣṇa Himself (īśvaraḥ sarva-bhūtānāṁ hṛd-deśe 'rjuna tiṣṭhati [Bg. 18.61]). It is not that Kṛṣṇa is only in Goloka Vṛndāvana, the spiritual world. He is everywhere, within every atom and within everyone's heart (goloka eva nivasaty akhilātma-bhūtaḥ [Bs. 5.37]). The manifestation of Kṛṣṇa in the heart is the Paramātmā, or Supersoul. I am an ātmā, an individual soul, you are an ātmā. We are both situated locally—you are situated within your body, and I am situated within my body. But the Paramātmā is situated everywhere. That is the difference between the ātmā and the Paramātmā. Some people think there is no difference between the ātmā and the Paramātmā, but there is a difference. They are one in the sense that both of them are cognizant living entities, but they are different in that the Paramātmā is all-pervading and the ātmā is localized. Kṛṣṇa confirms this in the Bhagavad-gītā: kṣetra-jñaṁ cāpi māṁ viddhi sarva-kṣetreṣu bhārata [Bg. 13.3]. "Besides the individual soul in each body, I am also present as the Supersoul." The word kṣetra-jña means "the knower of the kṣetra, or body." So I am the knower or occupier of my body. The body is just like a house, with a tenant and a landlord. The tenant may occupy the house, but the landlord is the proprietor. Similarly, we ātmās are simply tenants of our bodies; we are not the proprietor. The proprietor is the Paramātmā. And when the proprietor says, "Get out of this house, get out of this body" you have to leave your body, and that is called death. This is Vedic knowledge.
So, one who is inquisitive to understand the ultimate goal of life must approach a proper guru. An ordinary man interested in the bodily comforts of life doesn't require a guru. Today, however, a guru is generally taken to mean someone who can give you some bodily remedy. People will approach some so-called saintly person and ask, "Mahātmājī, I am suffering from this disease." "Yes, I have a mantra that will cure you." That sort of guru is accepted—to cure some disease or give some wealth. No. Lord Kṛṣṇa says in the Bhagavad-gītā [4.34],
tad viddhi praṇipātena paripraśnena sevayā
upadekṣyanti te jñānaṁ jñāninas tattva-darśinaḥ
One should approach a guru to learn about tattva, the Absolute Truth, not to acquire some material benefit. One should not search out a guru to cure some material disease. For that there is a medical practitioner. Why should you search out a guru for that purpose? A guru is one who knows the Vedic śāstras, or scriptures, and who can teach us to understand Kṛṣṇa.
Of course, we cannot understand Kṛṣṇa fully. That is not possible. We have no such capacity, because Kṛṣṇa is so great and we are so limited. Kṛṣṇa is so great that even He does not understand Himself. He does not know why He is so attractive. Therefore, to understand what makes Him so attractive He came as Lord Caitanya, adopting the ecstatic emotions of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī. So to understand Kṛṣṇa fully is not possible, but if we try to understand Him as far as our limited capacity allows, that is our perfection. That is why Kṛṣṇa says,
janma karma ca me divyam evaṁ yo vetti tattvataḥ
tyaktvā dehaṁ punar janma naiti mām eti so 'rjuna
"One who knows the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take his birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode, O Arjuna" [Bhagavad-gītā 4.9].
If we think that Kṛṣṇa is a human being like us, then we are mūḍhas, fools and rascals. We will be mistaken if we think, "Since my body is made of material elements, Kṛṣṇa's body is also made of material elements." In the Bhagavad-gītā Kṛṣṇa says that the material energy belongs to Him: daivī hy eṣā guṇamayī mama māyā [Bg. 7.14]. This material world is Kṛṣṇa's. We cannot say mama māyā, "This material energy is mine." No. We are under the control of the material nature. But Kṛṣṇa is the controller of the material nature: mayādhyakṣeṇa prakṛtiḥ sūyate sa-carācaram [Bg. 9.10]. That is the difference between Kṛṣṇa and us. Understanding that this material nature is working under the direction of Kṛṣṇa is real knowledge.
It is not possible to understand in detail how things are going on, but we can understand the summary: janmādy asya yataḥ [SB 1.1.1]. "Everything has emanated from the Supreme Absolute Truth, Kṛṣṇa." That much knowledge is sufficient. Then you can increase your knowledge—how the material nature is working under the direction of Kṛṣṇa, how Kṛṣṇa's energies are interacting, and so on. That is advanced knowledge. But if we simply understand Kṛṣṇa's statement in the Bhagavad-gītā—mayādhyakṣeṇa prakṛtiḥ sūyate sa-carācaram: [Bg. 9.10] "This material energy is working under my direction"—that is perfect knowledge.
The modern scientists think that matter is working independently, that everything has evolved due to chemical evolution. No. Chemical evolution cannot produce life. Life comes from life. As Kṛṣṇa says in the Bhagavad-gītā, ahaṁ sarvasya prabhavo mattaḥ sarvaṁ pravartate: [Bg. 10.8] "Everything emanates from Me." This is the reply to the scientists. And the Vedānta-sūtra confirms, athāto brahma jijñāsā, janmādy asya yataḥ: [SB 1.1.1] "Now one should inquire into the Supreme Brahman, which is that from whom everything emanates." The Supreme Brahman is Kṛṣṇa.
The whole world is a combination of two things: jaḍa and cetana, dull matter and living entities. Both come from Kṛṣṇa. As He says in the Bhagavad-gītā,
apareyam itas tv anyāṁ prakṛtiṁ viddhi me parām
jīva-bhūtāṁ mahā-bāho yayedaṁ dhāryate jagat
"Besides the inferior, material energy, there is My superior, spiritual energy, the living entities who are exploiting the material nature" [Bhagavad-gītā 7.5]. Why is the spiritual energy superior? Because the living entities are utilizing the material nature. For example, we advanced living entities, human beings, have created the modern civilization by utilizing matter. That is our superiority. In this way we have to acquire tattva-jñāna, understanding of the Absolute Truth.
The Vedānta-sūtra confirms that human life is meant for understanding the Absolute Truth: athāto brahma jijñāsā. And the explanation of the Vedānta-sūtra is the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. The Vedānta-sūtra states that the Absolute Truth is janmādy asya [SB 1.1.1], that from whom, or from which, everything has emanated. Now, what is the nature of that source? This question is answered in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam: janmādy asya yataḥ anvayād itarataś ca artheṣu abhijñaḥ. That source is abhijñaḥ, cognizant. Now, matter is not cognizant, so that source must be life. Therefore the modern scientific theory that life comes from matter is wrong. Life comes from life. And the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam continues, tene brahma hṛdā ya ādi-kavaye. "He imparted the Vedic knowledge unto Lord Brahmā." So unless one is a living entity, how can he impart knowledge?
The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is the natural explanation of the Vedānta-sūtra by the same author, Vyāsadeva. In the verse under discussion it is said Vidura was dvaipāyana-sakha, a friend of Dvaipāyana. Dvaipāyana means Vyāsadeva. Vyāsadeva compiled the Vedānta-sūtra and then explained it in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (artho 'yaṁ brahma-sūtrāṇāṁ). If we read some artificial commentary on the Vedānta-sūtra, we'll misunderstand. Generally, the Māyāvādīs [impersonalists] give prominence to the commentary by Śaṅkarācārya, called the Śārīraka-bhāṣya. But that commentary is unnatural. The natural commentary is by the author himself, Vyāsadeva.
According to our Vedic system, the ācārya [spiritual master] must understand the Vedānta-sūtra and explain it. Then he'll be accepted as an ācārya. Therefore both of the main sampradāyas [spiritual communities], the Māyāvādī sampradāya and the Vaiṣṇava sampradāya, have explained the Vedānta-sūtra. Otherwise, they would not have been recognized as authoritative. Without understanding the Vedānta-sūtra, nobody can understand what is Brahman, the Absolute Truth. Similarly, here it is said that Vidura understood transcendental knowledge (ānvīkṣikyām) from Maitreya. Who is Maitreya? Dvaipāyana-sakha, the friend of Vyāsadeva. One friend knows the other friend—what his position is, what his knowledge is. So since Maitreya was the friend of Vyāsadeva, that means he knows what Vyāsadeva knows.
So we have to approach a spiritual master who is in the disciplic succession of Vyāsadeva. Many people claim, "Oh, we are also following Vyāsadeva." But that following cannot be superficial. One has to actually follow Vyāsadeva. For example, Vyāsadeva accepted Kṛṣṇa as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This is stated in the Bhagavad-gītā, in the section where Arjuna says to Kṛṣṇa, paraṁ brahma paraṁ dhāma pavitraṁ paramaṁ bhavān: [Bg. 10.12] "O Kṛṣṇa, you are Para-brahman, the Supreme Person." But one may say it was because Arjuna was the friend of Kṛṣṇa that he accepted Him as the Supreme. No. Arjuna gave evidence: "Vyāsadeva also accepts You as the Supreme Lord." Similarly, Vyāsadeva begins the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, his commentary on the Vedānta-sūtra, by saying oṁ namo bhagavate vāsudevāya: "I offer my obeisances unto Vāsudeva, Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead."
So if we actually are interested in understanding spiritual knowledge, we must approach an ācārya, and an ācārya is one who follows Vyāsadeva. In the verse under discussion, Maitreya, the friend of Vyāsadeva, is the ācārya. He is so exalted that he has been described as Bhagavān. In general, the word bhagavān indicates Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead (kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam [SB 1.3.28]). But sometimes other powerful persons, such as Lord Brahmā, Lord Śiva, Nārada, Vyāsadeva, or Maitreya, are also addressed as Bhagavān. Although the actual Bhagavān is Kṛṣṇa, such persons are sometimes called Bhagavān because they have attained as much knowledge of Kṛṣṇa as possible. It is not possible to have cent percent knowledge of Kṛṣṇa. Nobody can do that. Even Brahmā and Śiva cannot do that. But those who follow Kṛṣṇa's instructions fully are also sometimes called Bhagavān. However, that Bhagavān is not an artificial Bhagavān. A real Bhagavān must know what Kṛṣṇa has taught and follow His instructions.
So, here it is said, viduraṁ prīta, "Vidura pleased Maitreya." Their conversation wasn't simply talking between friends. No. Vidura was eager to receive transcendental knowledge, and Maitreya was pleased with him. How can one please the spiritual master? That we have mentioned before: praṇipātena paripraśnena sevayā. You can please the guru simply by surrendering to him, inquiring from him, and by rendering him service: "Sir, I am your most obedient servant. Please accept me and give me instruction." Arjuna also followed this process. At the beginning of the Bhagavad-gītā He said to Kṛṣṇa, śiṣyas te 'haṁ śādhi māṁ tvāṁ prapannam: [Bg. 2.7] "I am Your disciple and a soul surrendered unto You. Please instruct me." Even though Arjuna was a very intimate friend of Kṛṣṇa, still, while learning the Bhagavad-gītā from Him he surrendered to Kṛṣṇa and said, "I am no longer your friend; I am your disciple. Now I am under Your full control. Please instruct me."
So this is the process of approaching a guru. You must be very inquisitive and ask questions, but not to challenge the spiritual master. It is said, jijñāsuḥ śreya uttamam: You should approach the spiritual master to understand the spiritual science. You shouldn't try to defeat him. One should not say, "I know better than you. Let us talk." No. That is not the proper way to approach a guru. You must find a guru to whom you can surrender (praṇipātena). If you cannot surrender to the guru, then don't waste your time and his time. First of all surrender to the bona fide guru. This is the process of understanding transcendental knowledge.
Thank you very much. Hare Kṛṣṇa.
The Shelter from All Dangers
In this talk Śrīla Prabhupāda declares, "Everyone has to understand the goal of life, why there is a struggle for existence, and whether there is any remedy, a process whereby we can live very peacefully, without any disturbances. These are the things to be learned in human life, and one should approach a bona fide spiritual master to learn them." (July 1976, Washington, D.C)
'sādhya'-'sādhana'-tattva puchite nā jāni
kṛpā kari' saba tattva kaha ta' āpani"
[Sanātana Gosvāmī said to Lord Caitanya:] "Actually, I do not know how to inquire about the goal of life and the process for obtaining it. Please be merciful to me and explain all these truths" (Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Madhya-līlā 20.103).
Human life is meant for understanding tattva, the Absolute Truth. That is the special advantage of human life. But if a human being is not trained to inquire about the Absolute Truth, he is at a great disadvantage.
In human life there is a chance to make a solution to the whole problem—the struggle for existence, for the survival of the fittest. This struggle is going on life after life. But now, in human life, one can end that struggle by understanding the goal of life and being trained in how to achieve it. If that opportunity is refused to human society by the guardians, by the government, it is a great disservice.
Human beings should not be kept in the darkness of animal propensities. How many plants and creepers there are! How many animals! How many aquatics! We have come through all these species after many thousands and millions of years of evolution. And now we have a chance to escape from this painful process. Therefore the human being is advised to try to understand the goal of life: tamasi mā jyotir gama. "Don't stay in darkness. Go to the light." That is the Vedic injunction.
So, from the very beginning of life, children should be trained to inquire about the goal of life. But if they are kept in darkness, simply taught to eat, drink, be merry, and enjoy—that is not civilization. They must be given the opportunity to inquire more and more about the goal of life. What is the goal of life? To revive our intimate relationship with God.
As Caitanya Mahāprabhu explains, we are intimately related to God, but somehow we have fallen into this material world, and we are mistakenly accepting this body as our self. We are being trained only to see to our bodily interests, just like cats and dogs. The animals are interested in the body only. They have no other interest. But if a human being is kept in the same darkness, simply concerned with his body, that is a great disadvantage.
Sanātana Gosvāmī understood that, and therefore he asked Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu,
'ke āmi', 'kene āmāya jāre tāpa-traya'
ihā nāhi jāni—'kemane hita haya'
"Who am I? Why should there be such a struggle for existence? Why not an easy life, a peaceful life? Why do some elements give us opposition? I want to be happy, but there is opposition. Why?"
Even with a fly we have to fight. I am sitting, not doing any harm to the fly, but it attacks me and bothers me. Or you may be walking on the street, committing no offense, but from a house a dog begins to bark, "Why are you coming here? Why are you coming here?" There is no cause for his barking, but because he is a dog his business is to bark, "Why are you coming? Why are you coming?"
Similarly, the immigration department restricts our freedom to go from one place to another. The immigration official barks, "Why are you coming? Why are you coming?" In many places we have been refused entry—"No, you cannot enter. Go back."—and I had to go back.
So, in this material world you cannot live peacefully. Not at all. There are so many impediments. The scripture says, padaṁ padaṁ yad vipadām: [SB 10.14.58] "At every step there is danger." Danger not only from the lower animals but also from human society. No, our life is not very happy in this material world.
Therefore we should be advanced in inquiring, Why are there so many impediments? How can I become happy? What is the goal of my life? Asking these questions is human life, and Sanātana Gosvāmī is representing us in asking these questions of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu.
By the mercy of Caitanya Mahāprabhu, or by the mercy of His servants, one can be enlightened as to what is the goal of life, why there is a struggle for existence, why there is death, why there is birth. I do not want to die, I do not want to enter into a mother's womb and remain in a packed-up condition for so many days, I do not want to become an old man—but these things are forced upon me. Why? Our real business is to answer this question, not to arrange for economic development.
Whatever economic development we are destined to get, we shall get it. Whatever happiness or distress we are destined to get, we shall get it. We don't try for distress, but it comes; it is forced upon us. Similarly, although you don't try for it, the little happiness you are destined to obtain will also come. Therefore the scripture advises, "Instead of wasting your time bothering about so-called happiness and distress, better to engage your valuable time in understanding what is the goal of life, why there are so many problems, why you have to struggle for existence. This is your business."
In this Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement we are giving people a chance to understand the problems of life and how to solve them. It is not a sectarian movement or a so-called religious movement. It is not a religion. It is an educational and cultural movement. Everyone has to understand the goal of life, why there is a struggle for existence, and whether there is any remedy, a process whereby we can live very peacefully, without any disturbances. These are the things to be learned in human life, and one should approach a bona fide spiritual master to learn them.
This is what Sanātana Gosvāmī did. He was a government minister, very educated and well placed, but he approached Caitanya Mahāprabhu and humbly surrendered. So we should also approach Lord Caitanya or His representative and surrender (tad viddhi praṇipātena [Bg. 4.34]). One shouldn't challenge, "Can you show me God?" No, this is not the way to approach the spiritual master. God is everywhere, but now you do not have the eyes to see Him. So this challenging attitude will not help us. We must be submissive. As Kṛṣṇa says in the Bhagavad-gītā, tad viddhi praṇipātena paripraśnena sevayā: "To understand the transcendental science, approach a spiritual master and humbly surrender to him, inquire from him, and serve him." Sanātana Gosvāmī is a perfect example. He is submitting himself very humbly before Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu.
So, first of all surrender (praṇipātena); then ask questions (paripraśnena). Don't waste your time questioning the spiritual master unless you are surrendered. You must be ready to accept the answers he gives. Then you may make an inquiry. If you think, "I have to test his answers because I am more learned and more advanced then he," then don't go to the spiritual master. First of all settle up in your mind that whatever answers the spiritual master gives, you'll accept. Then you can make an inquiry.
Sanātana Gosvāmī completely surrendered to Caitanya Mahāprabhu. Sanātana said, "Actually, I do not know how to inquire from You. So kindly tell me what the subject matter of inquiry should be and what the answers to such inquiry are. I am a completely blank slate; I am simply submitting myself to You." Sanātana was inquisitive about sādhya, the goal of life, and sādhana, the process by which one can attain the goal. But he said, "I do not know anything about these things, so I am simply depending on Your mercy." That is surrender.
In this way we can make advancement in our spiritual education. But we must also carry out the orders of the spiritual master. As Narottama Dāsa Ṭhākura says, guru-mukha-padma-vākya cittete kariyā aikya: "Make the orders of the spiritual master your life and soul." And then, āra nā kariha mane āśā: "Do not think otherwise." Simply accept what he says. **
Of course, first of all you must select who will be your spiritual master. You must know his qualifications. If you want to purchase gold, you must at least know where gold is available. If you are so foolish that you go to a butcher shop to buy diamonds or gold, then you'll be cheated. Similarly, if out of ignorance you approach the wrong person for spiritual guidance, you'll be cheated.
So, finding a bona fide guru requires intelligence and sincerity. If you are serious about understanding the goal of life, spiritual knowledge, then Kṛṣṇa will help you. He is situated in everyone's heart, and he understands when you are sincerely seeking the Absolute Truth. Then He gives direction: "Go to this person." Kṛṣṇa is already giving direction in every respect. We want to do so many things, and Kṛṣṇa is giving us the facility. As He says in the Bhagavad-gītā [18.61], īśvaraḥ sarva-bhūtānāṁ hṛd-deśe 'rjuna tiṣṭhati bhrāmayan sarva-bhūtāni. As the Supersoul in the heart, Kṛṣṇa is giving facilities to all living entities in their wanderings throughout the various species. But when one becomes very eager to understand Kṛṣṇa, or God, He is glad to give instruction: "Go to such-and-such person and submissively inquire from him. You'll be enlightened." Guru-kṛṣṇa-prasāde pāya bhakti-latā-bīja: [Cc. Madhya 19.151] By the mercy of the spiritual master and Kṛṣṇa one can make spiritual advancement. One must simply be sincere.
Thank you very much. Hare Kṛṣṇa.