What is Guru? – Part 1

Illuminations 68

What is a Guru? – Part 2 (can be read here)

What is a Guru? – Part 3 (can be read here)

The sastra clearly states that taking shelter of a spiritual master is a fundamental step in the practice of Krishna consciousness. But who is a guru, and what does it mean to take shelter of a guru? Although this question seems simple, there are nuances that are not known to everyone, as well as features related to the unique circumstances of the relationship between guru and disciple that has developed in ISKCON.

I could write much on this important topic, but this newsletter is only a brief overview of the topics. Due to the fact that the topic is very deep, I will divide this newsletter into several parts (each part will be published in a separate newsletter). I hope that this material will be useful to everyone: those who are looking for a diksa or siksa guru, and those who already have a guru, and those who are or are going to play the role of a siksa or diksa guru in the future.

I wish you always think of Krishna,

Mahatma das.

We must all become gurus

Srila Prabhupada wanted all of his disciples to become gurus. Since everyone who comes to ISKCON is a siksa disciple of Srila Prabhupada, this means that he is asking each of us to be a guru. Most devotees feel that they lack the qualifications to become a guru, so it is difficult for them to understand this instruction. But whenever you help another person, especially a younger person, in Krsna consciousness, you are acting like a guru.

Guru means preceptor, teacher, or one who shows the way. If you know more than someone else, you can help him take the next step in Krsna consciousness. In a broad sense, you are his teacher or guru.

Srila Prabhupada’s Position

Before discussing the similarities and differences between diksa and siksa gurus, it is important to understand that Srila Prabhupada is the main siksa guru for all of us. Those who begin practicing Krishna consciousness establish contact with Srila Prabhupada as their siksa guru before they even think about accepting a diksa guru.

Everyone can have the same intimate relationship with Srila Prabhupada as the disciples who have received initiation from him because he is available to everyone through his books, lectures, and service. This relationship does not replace the need for a diksa guru and does not negate the benefits one can derive from a living siksa guru. It just highlights the real fact that we are all related to Srila Prabhupada.

He guides us all and we all serve him (by serving in ISKCON); all the gurus represent him. The service of all ISKCON gurus is to help their disciples get closer to Srila Prabhupada. In this regard, in March 2013, the GBC Council issued the following statement: “Srila Prabhupada, as the founding Acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, is the main guru for all members of ISKCON. All members of ISKCON, of all generations, should take refuge in Srila Prabhupada. All members of ISKCON have the right to develop a personal relationship with Srila Prabhupada (and we encourage them to do so) through his books, teachings, ministry, and through his ISKCON society.”

There are many gurus

In traditional Indian society, the mother is considered the first guru. So the child is taught to touch the mother’s feet when he sees her for the first time in the morning. Even when Brahmananda Prabhu’s mother came to Srila Prabhupada, Prabhupada instructed him to touch his mother’s feet.

When one subject is studied for many years in India, students often call their teacher their guru. You can even find ashrams where students live with their guru to study subjects such as music, drama, dance, wrestling, astrology, or Sanskrit.

Gurus give honors

Although the details of etiquette may differ in different respects, the basics of the guru-disciple relationship in the material realm are similar to the guru-disciple relationship in Krishna consciousness. The guru teaches and disciplines his disciples, and the disciples honor, respect, and follow their guru as the representative of God.

There are many representatives of God

In the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Krishna says, acaryam mam vijaniyat, “You should know that I am an acarya (teacher).” This sloka is usually applied to diksa gurus, but when we study it in the context of Vedic culture, we find that many people represent “God” to their subjects. The king is accepted as naradeva, the representative or manifestation of God on Earth. The Shastra says that even the guest is a representative of God and should be given the same respect that we show God. And, as already mentioned, the mother and father, as well as the teacher, represent God.

The Ramayana even teaches that “the husband is the wife’s guru,” striya bharta hi daivatam. Thus we see that reverence for the other as a representative of God does not only take place in official guru-disciple relationships within the spiritual disciplic line.

For this reason, the Srimad-Bhagavatam states that a person should not take on the role of superior unless he is able to deliver his charges from the cycle of birth and death. In other words, if someone takes on a leadership role, he is obliged to be a guru for his charges.

The reason why some people think that the formal side of the relationship between guru and disciple in Krishna consciousness is unique is mainly because we have grown up in a society that did not have the traditional Vedic model of relationship manifested in such a strong respect for senior.

Who can be a guru?

In ISKCON in past years (and some devotees may still have) there was a misunderstanding of who a guru was and what his position was. As mentioned earlier, in the broadest sense of the word, anyone who helps you in Krsna consciousness is a guru. For example, when a person is giving a lecture, he or she is your guru (teacher) and therefore should be respected as such. Of course, after the lecture, such a person may take on a different role in your relationship, but during class, you honor him as the representative of Vyasadeva.

What did Srila Prabhupada mean when, during the formative years of ISKCON, he stated, “I want all of my students to become gurus by 1975”? All of his disciples were young devotees, not sufficiently experienced and mature in Krishna Consciousness, so it seemed that they were not ready to become diksa gurus so soon. One thing is for sure, Prabhupada often talked about his passing and how he relied on his disciples to continue the Krishna consciousness movement. The main thing for this task was to give instructions and initiations to the disciples. One might logically remark that he should have asked his godbrothers to fulfill this role since it seems obvious that his disciples did not have the necessary guru qualifications, which we find described in the sastras .while many of his godbrothers were very mature and initiated disciples for decades.

Prabhupada did not ask his godbrothers to become ISKCON gurus; he asked his students about it. Also, Prabhupada didn’t say, “I want you to become a guru, but it will take you many years to become qualified, and you may never qualify.”

One might ask why he did not say this because in the sastra the spiritual master is defined as an unalloyed, pure devotee, an uttama bhakta (highest level devotee) – one who is one hundred percent engaged in Krishna consciousness, and has no tendency to criticize others, always thinks how to save fallen souls, and never falls. So the question naturally arises as to what Prabhupada meant when he told his young disciples that he wanted them all to become gurus soon. And such a question can be even more confusing in light of the fact that many of the gurus of 1977 failed to maintain their Krishna consciousness strictly, although they were among the most mature devotees in the movement at that time.

 Are guru and “pure devotee” synonyms?

To answer this question, we must first understand how our sastras and Srila Prabhupada define the term “pure devotee.” Prabhupada once said, “Devotee is a high title. We’re trying to be loyal.” So if we are trying to be a devotee and the qualification of a guru is to be a pure devotee, then a guru is rare, especially in ISKCON. Thus, it would appear that in 1977 few, if any, were capable of fulfilling the role of guru. But by “pure devotee” Prabhupada sometimes meant something else.

Once Prabhupada was asked how many pure devotees there are on the planet. He responded by asking, “How many devotees are there in ISKCON?” He was told that there are about a thousand devotees in ISKCON. Then he said, “That’s how many pure devotees there are on the planet!”

According to the sastra, the stage of madhyama-adhikari (intermediate level of bhakti ) is the initial stage of pure devotional service. Madhyama begins from the stage of nistha, steadfastness in bhakti. And stability in bhakti comes after unwanted material desires and tendencies are sufficiently neutralized (anartha nivritti). At this stage of bhakti, the devotee is motivated only by the desire to please Krishna, and not by jnana (the desire for liberation or the removal of suffering) or karma (the desire for material gain).

In The Nectar of Devotion, pure devotional service is defined as service free from jnana, karma, etc. This freedom comes at the level of madhyama. So madhyama-adhikari is a pure devotee. (In a broader sense, madhyama is the initial stage of uttama-bhakti).

Also, kanistha devotees (beginning stage of bhakti ) may act as madhyamas, but as long as they are kanisthas, they cannot always be in the madhyama stage. In other words, there is a difference between acting on the madhyama platform and staying permanently on the madhyama platform, just as there is a difference between experiencing bhava (spiritual emotion) and constantly staying on the bhava stage (preliminary stage of love of God).

One who is fixed in the madhyama stage is a pure devotee and engages in pure devotional service (service not motivated by jnana, karma, or other material desires). Therefore such a pure devotee can accept disciples. And Prabhupada encourages such devotees to accept, if not diksa disciples, then at least siksa disciples.

Are diksa gurus special?

It is a mistake to assume that because someone is a diksa guru in ISKCON, he is necessarily on a higher level of bhakti than others. This misconception often arises from a misunderstanding of the definition of a pure devotee (as mentioned above), or from the thought that because one is giving diksa, one must be special or have special powers that others do not have.

How can one currently become a diksa guru in ISKCON?

Currently, in ISKCON, a devotee becomes a diksa guru as follows (this procedure may change in the future). A committee is formed of those who know the candidate, and they confirm that he is a faithful follower of Srila Prabhupada and ISKCON, has a good sadhana, has the ability to properly guide others in Krishna consciousness, and is undoubtedly at the level of madhyama-adhikari. The GBC is then informed that the candidacy has been recommended by the local committee. After six months, if less than three GBC members have any concerns about this devotee taking disciples, the potential guru is informed that he can start giving initiations to disciples.

If more than three GBC members have any concerns about this candidate, these concerns are discussed with him. It is subsequently decided whether he can initiate or not, and if not, what he needs to do to get permission to initiate. The concerns may be related to his ability to follow the regulative principles, his loyalty to ISKCON, or issues of integrity. But these questions are not limited to diksa gurus. All who aspire to take on a leadership role in ISKCON also face these questions.

The reason I am describing this procedure is to point out that by attaining the status of a diksa guru, a devotee does not become overnight different, more special or experienced, and is not elevated to the level of a “super devotee” by some then divine energy diksa guru. In other words, a diksa guru in ISKCON is a service that some devotees are inspired to take on. Thus, there are devotees who are very experienced in Krishna Consciousness – sometimes even more experienced than some diksa gurus – who do not feel that they can best serve Srila Prabhupada by accepting diksa disciples.

The role of a diksa guru in ISKCON is service to Srila Prabhupada and the community, a service that many of you who read this newsletter (believe it or not) may someday be asked or inspired to do. But long before you can officially take on this service, you will most likely have the opportunity to act as a guru for those who are younger than you.

By mid-April 2013, I will have permission to formally give initiations to students. When I receive a letter from the GBC Secretary informing me that I can now give initiations, will a special guru-shakti descend on me immediately? Will I become more special, unique, or qualified than those who don’t initiate? Will my level of Krsna consciousness automatically increase?

It would be nice to have such a “renewal” as an added benefit from taking on this ministry. Side benefits (mercy) of course exist for all of us when we please Srila Prabhupada, and if I can please Srila Prabhupada with this service, then I will receive his mercy. And by that grace, I will move on. And if I surrender myself to this service, like any other service, I will be authorized to do so. But other than that, there is no unique spiritual power that only those who become diksa gurus receive.

Who is a siksa guru?

To better understand the diksa guru and his role in ISKCON, we also need to understand the position and role of the siksa guru. One thing that I think is vital to the survival and development of ISKCON is that devotees are aware of the importance of having a siksa guru in their lives. There are several reasons why it is important to understand the position of a siksa guru – some of them philosophical and some of them practical. So let’s look at the position of a siksa guru in general and his position in ISKCON in particular.

Krishna is the original Guru

Srila Prabhupada often said that the guru is one. He meant that the guru is Krishna and all gurus represent Krishna, both by giving Krishna’s message and by taking service on behalf of Krishna. As mentioned above, in ISKCON many people tend to view diksa gurus as a special category of gurus and a special category of devotees. This can lead to devotees only looking for diksa gurus, not realizing that there are many siksa gurus available who can guide them and give them the same shelter that a diksa guru gives. This applies both to those who are initiated and to those who do not have initiation.

Even for those who have not chosen a diksa guru, it is very important, and in some cases necessary, to receive guidance from a siksa guru, even if they do not plan to take diksa in the near future (or even in this lifetime).

The Nectar of Devotion describes five ways of accepting a guru. And only one of these five ways refers to formal initiation. This means that the other four also refer to the siksa guru-disciple relationship, whether the person has a diksa guru or not.

“He mentions the following basic principles: (1) take shelter of the lotus feet of a bona fide spiritual master, (2) take initiation from the spiritual master and learn devotional service from him, (3) obey the orders of the spiritual master with faith and devotion, (4) follow in the footsteps of the great acaryas (teachers) under the guidance of the spiritual master, (5) ask the spiritual master how to advance in Krishna consciousness. (“The Nectar of Devotion”, chapter 6).

In the second part (next newsletter) we will discuss the unhealthy pattern of guru-disciple relationships that I have observed in ISKCON over the years.

Note: The following section applies to those who are not yet initiated and are not yet a diksa guru candidate (does not feel ready to accept diksa ).

Since those who are not ready for diksa would benefit from being guided by a siksa guru, I would like to elaborate on the reasons why a person cannot choose a guru to take refuge with:

– At present, a person considers himself unworthy to take diksa.

– Feels that in this life he will not be ready to chant 16 rounds or follow the four regulative principles.

– The person did not find someone whom he could consider his diksa guru.

The person considers Prabhupada to be his guru and he thinks that accepting another guru will interfere with this relationship.

– A person is not sure if there is a person in ISKCON who is worthy to become his guru.

“His diksa guru has fallen and one cannot trust another guru.

– A person does not think that he can be a good student.

There may be other reasons for not taking shelter of a siksa guru. Although these problems are more common when seeking a diksa guru, once one takes shelter of a siksa guru, they become less significant.

Taking Refuge of a siksa Guru

Let’s take a look at the above list of reasons that can cause a person to not seek a guru and discuss these reasons in relation to a siksa guru.

– At present, a person considers himself unworthy to take diksa.

Lack of qualifications for diksa is not currently an obstacle to taking shelter of a senior Vaishnava or having a deep spiritual relationship with this person and receiving regular personal guidance from him. Also, it increases the chances of becoming more worthy to receive diksa.

– Feels that in this life he will not be ready to chant 16 rounds or follow the four regulative principles.

 The feeling that in this life one cannot become worthy of diksa should have nothing to do with taking refuge, receiving regular and close guidance from a senior Vaishnava, and having a deep spiritual relationship with him. In addition, the chances of one day becoming worthy of diksa will be higher if one takes shelter of a siksa guru.

– The person did not find someone whom he could consider his diksa guru.

One should not look at the siksa guru in the strictly formal guru-disciple context. The relationship with a siksa guru may be more informal and friendly, perhaps more like a relationship with a coach, advisor, or mentor. Faith cannot be imposed artificially, so if the instructions given by the siksa guru help the devotee, his faith is likely to develop naturally. If this happens, the relationship between guru and disciple will become strong. If the relationship doesn’t develop to that extent, it’s not a problem. A person still receives valuable guidance necessary for his advancement.

The person considers Prabhupada to be his guru and he thinks that accepting another guru will interfere with this relationship.

One simply needs to ask his siksa guru to help him deepen his relationship with Prabhupada and act as an intermediary between him and Prabhupada.

– A person is not sure if there is a person in ISKCON who is worthy of becoming his guru (or even worthy of becoming anyone’s guru).

To receive guidance from a senior Vaishnava, it is not necessary to approach him in the mood of a faithful and devoted disciple. Learn from it, get guidance from it, and see if it helps you (because you don’t have to accept it blindly). In this way, you can naturally develop a closer relationship. If it doesn’t, still take the wise guidance you get from him and express your gratitude for it, reciprocating in any way possible.

“His diksa guru has fallen and one cannot trust another guru.

The sastra advises a person to take shelter of a guru if his own guru has fallen (there is no specific mention of re-initiation). Of course, many in ISKCON find it most natural to take shelter of Srila Prabhupada if their guru falls down. However, some devotees feel a vacuum as there is a need for a lively personal connection. Of course, faith cannot be forced, but it is always beneficial to have a relationship with a more exalted Vaishnava and receive his guidance.

– A person does not think that he can be a good student.

Generally, siksa gurus do not take vows, so chanting 16 rounds or following the four regulative principles is not necessary to be a siksa disciple. The real requirement is to be sincere in advancing in Krsna consciousness. Whatever shortcomings a person feels in himself, it is likely that they will be corrected more quickly if one is constantly under the guidance of a mature devotee.

Since association with experienced Vaishnavas is one of the most important principles of Krishna consciousness, both at the stage of sadhana and at the level of liberation, we should develop this kind of association and close relationship with senior devotees, even before we feel ready to become a worthy disciple.

Rupa Goswami advises us to “take shelter of a guru,” but he does not say that you cannot take shelter unless you are going to take diksa from that person. In fact, devotees sometimes have a closer relationship with their siksa guru than a diksa guru.

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