One of the first things a serious spiritual aspirant learns is the necessity of surrendering to a spiritual master. ‘Try to learn the truth by accepting a bona-fide guru’, the Bhagavad-gita tells us. Many other Vedic texts exhort us similarly. These are frequently cited by Srila Prabhupada throughout his books. It would be an extremely inattentive student who failed to grasp the idea that without a spiritual master we cannot advance in spiritual life. We sing this every morning in the gurvastakam prayers, and I don’t think any devotee will dispute the point.
The question of who to accept is more of an issue. In Srila Prabhupada we saw the perfect example and, as the saying goes, he is a hard act to follow. He accepted some 5000 disciples, all of whom felt personally connected with him, and through his many books, lectures, letters, conversations and personal example, what to speak of the institution he created, he perfectly guided them. I doubt there is a single disciple who will say that his guidance and shelter were in any way insufficient.
From scripture we can understand that Srila Prabhupada was an uttama adhikari or maha bhagavata, a devotee on the highest level of spiritual attainment. This is defined as follows:
Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu said, “A first-class Vaishnava is he whose very presence makes others chant the holy name of Krishna.” Chaitanya Charitamrita (CC) Madhya Lila 16.74.
In his purport to this verse Srila Prabhupada extensively describes the qualities of the first-class devotee. He has unadulterated love for Krishna, sees the Lord everywhere, is ‘enlightened in self-realisation’, expert in Vedic literature and converts others to Krishna consciousness. He cites Sanatana Goswami, who says, “…an uttama-adhikari, (is) a first-class Vaishnava, a topmost Vaishnava who can deliver the whole world and turn everyone to Krishna consciousness.”
The spiritual master is also considered identical with Krishna:
“In his prayers to the spiritual master, Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti Ṭhakura confirms that all the revealed scriptures accept the spiritual master to be identical with the Personality of Godhead because he is a very dear and confidential servant of the Lord. Gaudiya Vaishnavas therefore worship Srila Gurudeva (the spiritual master) in the light of his being the servitor of the Personality of Godhead. In all the ancient literatures of devotional service and in the more recent songs of Srila Narottama dasa Ṭhakura, Srila Bhaktivinoda Ṭhakura and other unalloyed Vaishnavas, the spiritual master is always considered either one of the confidential associates of Srimati Radharani or a manifested representation of Srila Nityananda Prabhu.” CC Adi Lila 1.46 purport
And an associate of the gopis:
The spiritual master is very dear, because he is expert in assisting the gopis, who at different times make different tasteful arrangements for the perfection of Radha and Krishna’s conjugal loving affairs within the groves of Vrndavana. I offer my most humble obeisance unto the lotus feet of such a spiritual master. Gurvastakam Verse 6
It can hardly be disputed that Srila Prabhupada fits this description. Such great personalities are obviously rare, and we have been extremely fortunate to find him. However, now he has ended his manifest pastimes and entered samadhi, what should we do? Should we search for another maha bhagavata like him? From studying his books, it seems that we must. He often gives such an instruction, as with the following:
“The guru must be situated on the topmost platform of devotional service. There are three classes of devotees, and the guru must be accepted from the topmost class.” CC Madhya Lila 24.330.
Atmavit means a self-realized soul or bona fide spiritual master. Unless one is self-realized and knows what his relationship with the Supersoul is, he cannot be a bona fide spiritual master. Srimad Bhagavatam (SB) 3.28.2
“One should not become a spiritual master unless he has attained the platform of uttama-adhikārī. A neophyte Vaishnava or a Vaishnava situated on the intermediate platform can also accept disciples, but such disciples must be on the same platform, and it should be understood that they cannot advance very well toward the ultimate goal of life under his insufficient guidance. Therefore a disciple should be careful to accept an uttama-adhikārī as a spiritual master.” Nectar of Instruction Text 5 commentary.
“The summary is that one has to first of all seek the association of pure devotees who not only are learned in the Vedanta but are self-realized souls and unalloyed devotees of Lord Sri Krishna, the Personality of Godhead.” Srimad Bhagavatam 1.5.34 purport
So how shall we find such an advanced devotee? We now have many spiritual masters in our society, but I doubt that any of them will claim to be equal to Srila Prabhupada. Nevertheless, he wanted us all to become gurus. There are so many statements to this effect. As early as 1967 he began to make this clear.
“Lord Chaitanya wanted everyone should be a spiritual master provided he follows the order of Lord Chaitanya. The Lord’s mission was to defeat the mayavada philosophy and establish the philosophy of Krishna consciousness because Krishna is the Supreme Lord the Personality of Godhead. anyone following the order of Lord Chaitanya under the guidance of his bonafide representative, can become a spiritual master and I wish that in my absence all my disciples become the bonafide spiritual master to spread Krishna consciousness throughout the whole world. I want it…” (Letter to Madhusudan, 11/2/67)
“Every one of us should become spiritual master because the world is in blazing fire… spiritual master is not a new invention. It is simply following the orders of the spiritual master. So, all my students present here who are feeling so much obliged… I am also obliged to them because they are helping me in this missionary work. at the same time, I shall request them all to become spiritual master. Every one of you should be spiritual master next. and what is their duty? Whatever you are hearing from me, whatever you are learning from me, you have to distribute the same in toto without any addition or alteration. then all of you become the spiritual master. that is the science of becoming spiritual master. ‚[…]don’t be satisfied that you have understood [and] that’s all. no. This should be distributed. just like in my old age i have come to your country carrying the order of my spiritual master to distribute it, you are all young boys and girls, take this message and distribute it. the whole suffering humanity will be happy. That is our mission. thank you very much.” (Vyasa-puja address, Hamburg 9/5/69)
And he continued such instructions to the end of his preaching:
“So, we got this information from his divine grace Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur, and that knowledge is still going on. you are receiving through his servant. And in future the same knowledge will go to your students. This is called parampara system. evam parampara prap… it is not that you have become a student and you’ll remain student. No. One day you shall become also guru and make more students, more students, more. That is Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s mission, not that perpetually… yes, one should remain perpetually a student, but he has to act as guru. That is the mission of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.” (Lecture, Hyderabad 12/10/76)
This is Lord Chaitanya’s instruction, as Srila Prabhupada so often cited.
“Instruct everyone to follow the orders of Lord Śrī Krishna as they are given in the Bhagavad-gītā and Śrīmad-Bhagavatam. In this way become a spiritual master and try to liberate everyone in this land.” CC Madhya Lila 7.128
Sometimes he specified that he would authorise some of his disciples as guru, saying also that they should pass a Bhaktivedanta degree. It never happened, of course, unless you count the eleven ritviks he appointed in 1977. Nonetheless he repeatedly said throughout his preaching that all his followers should become gurus themselves.
So what should we make of this? Some argue that the instructions to become guru pertain only to siksha, but sastra equates diksha and siksha:
One should know the instructing spiritual master to be the Personality of Krishna. Lord Krishna manifests Himself as the Supersoul and as the greatest devotee of the Lord.
Purport: There is no difference between the shelter-giving Supreme Lord and the initiating and instructing spiritual masters. If one foolishly discriminates between them, he commits an offense in the discharge of devotional service. CC Adi 1.47
The Lord also says in the verse cited above (CC Mad 7.128) that by becoming a spiritual master one should ‘try to liberate everyone in the land.’ Siksha or diksha, it is a grave responsibility.
We also find the Lord instructing that anyone who knows the science of Krishna can become guru with the following:
“Whether one is a brāhmaṇa, a sannyāsī or a śūdra — regardless of what he is — he can become a spiritual master if he knows the science of Krishna.” CC Madhya 8.128
And in the purport Srila Prabhupada says:
“Sometimes a caste guru says that ye krishna-tattva-vetta, sei guru haya means that one who is not a brahmaṇa may become a siksha-guru or a vartma-pradarshaka-guru but not an initiator guru. According to such caste gurus, birth and family ties are considered foremost. However, the hereditary consideration is not acceptable to Vaishnavas. The word guru is equally applicable to the vartma-pradarshaka-guru, siksha-guru and diksha-guru. Unless we accept the principle enunciated by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, this Krishna consciousness movement cannot spread all over the world.” CC Madhya 8.128 purport.
The question that arises then is do I have to be a maha bhagavata? If sastra enjoins that one must accept such a devotee as guru, then surely it behoves me to attain such a status before accepting the role. Well, not necessarily, it seems. Firstly, we have already seen from the above statement from NOI 5 that, “A neophyte Vaishnava or a Vaishnava situated on the intermediate platform can also accept disciples,” but it goes on to say that the disciples, “cannot advance very well.” So, who would accept such a guru? Srila Prabhupada says that the disciples of such gurus should be on the ‘same platform’ as them, but he ends the commentary with a strong recommendation that one accept an uttama adhikari.
There are other places where Srila Prabhupada talks about ‘second class gurus’, as with the following:
“As stated hereinbefore, there are three kinds of devotees of the Lord. The first-class devotee does not at all see anyone who is not in the service of the Lord, but the second-class devotee makes distinctions between devotees and nondevotees. The second-class devotees are therefore meant for preaching work, and as referred to in the above verse, they must loudly preach the glories of the Lord. The second-class devotee accepts disciples from the section of third-class devotees or nondevotees. Sometimes the first-class devotee also comes down to the category of the second-class devotee for preaching work.” SB 2.3.21 purport.
Here Srila Prabhupada appears to be saying that it is mostly the second-class devotees, the madhyama adhikaris, who preach and accept disciples. Only ‘sometimes’ does the first class or uttama bhakta do so. There is further evidence about these two types of gurus in Easy Journeys to Other Planets. There Srila Prabhupada provides a list, which is a paraphrase of the instructions given by Lord Chaitanya to Sanatana Goswami, found in Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya Lila Chapter 22 Verse 115 onwards. Below I quote points 3 and 13:
“3. The candidate must be prepared to satisfy the spiritual master in every way. A bona fide spiritual master who is fully cognizant of the methods of spiritual science, learned in the spiritual scriptures such as the Bhagavad-gita, Vedanta Srimad-Bhagavatam and Upanishads, and who is also a realized soul who has made a tangible connection with the Supreme Lord, is the transparent medium by which the willing candidate is led to the path of the Vaikunthas. The spiritual master must be satisfied in all respects, because simply by his good wishes a candidate can make wonderful progress along the path. 13. He must not take on unlimited disciples. This means that a candidate who has successfully followed the first twelve items can also become a spiritual master himself, just as a student becomes a monitor in class with a limited number of disciples.” Easy Journeys to Other Planets, Chapter 1 Non-material Worlds.
Clearly then there is a role for the ‘second-class’ guru, who is here compared to a ‘monitor’ in a class. This monitor is specifically an Indian phenomenon, but as far as I can tell it is like a tutor in university, who helps other students understand the teachings of the professor. What I understand from this is that if one is not himself a professor or first-class devotee, described in point three above, then he or she should assist others to comprehend the lessons of the more advanced teacher.
It requires honesty on the part of the guru. Is he or she “a realized soul who has made a tangible connection with the Supreme Lord”? This I understand means one who has realised their eternal relationship with the Lord, i.e. attained svarupa siddhi, Krishna prema. If not, then they must accept the monitor role. Otherwise, if they act as if they were the first-class guru, then they may become guilty of providing “insufficient guidance”, as stated in the Nectar of Instruction above.
How can a ‘second-class’ guru provide sufficient guidance? I believe they must directly connect their disciples to the first-class guru. Of course, every bona-fide guru can only be worthy of the name if they faithfully repeat the instructions of their own spiritual masters, thereby maintaining the line of parampara. But in the case of a non-realised guru, I would see this taking practical shape by their connecting their disciples directly to Srila Prabhupada’s instructions, much more than lecturing them and giving prescriptive instructions of their own. Here is a clue from Srimad Bhagavatam:
“Here is the remedy for eliminating all inauspicious things within the heart, which are considered to be obstacles in the path of self-realization. The remedy is the association of the Bhagavatas. There are two types of Bhagavatas, namely the book Bhagavata and the devotee Bhagavata. Both the Bhagavatas are competent remedies, and both of them or either of them can be good enough to eliminate the obstacles. A devotee Bhagavata is as good as the book Bhagavata because the devotee Bhagavata leads his life in terms of the book Bhagavata and the book Bhagavata is full of information about the Personality of Godhead and His pure devotees, who are also Bhagavatas. Bhagavata book and person are identical.” SB 1.2.18
Srila Prabhupada and his teachings are identical, so we can associate with him through his books. This is confirmed here:
“If there is no chance to serve the spiritual master directly, a devotee should serve him by remembering his instructions. There is no difference between the spiritual master’s instructions and the spiritual master himself. In his absence, therefore, his words of direction should be the pride of the disciple.” CC Adi 1.35 purport
Again, it is critical that we get the association of the topmost devotee, not just the second class one:
“The summary is that one has to first of all seek the association of pure devotees who not only are learned in the Vedanta but are self-realized souls and unalloyed devotees of Lord Sri Krishna, the Personality of Godhead.” S.B. 1.5.34 purport
This means hearing from them:
“One should take shelter of a pure devotee, who has nothing to do with this material world but is simply engaged in devotional service. By serving him only, one can transcend the qualitative material condition. In this verse it is recommended (yogesvara-upasanaya) that one serve the lotus feet of the topmost yogi, or the devotee. To serve the topmost devotee means to hear from him about the glories of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” SB 4.22.22
My understanding is that if the guru has not yet attained the highest level and awakened their eternal loving relationship with Krishna, they should be mostly engaged in helping their disciples understand Srila Prabhupada’s books, which should be seen as the primary means of deliverance. This is confirmed by the GBC:
“Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is the original guru whose Divine Grace descends through the medium of the guru parampara. As such, a devotee is ultimately delivered by Sri Krishna acting through a combination of various manifestations of His mercy. These include, but are not limited to, the chaitya guru, Srila Prabhupada, the guru parampara, one’s diksha guru, other siksha gurus, the Holy Name, sastra, and the nine processes of devotional service. Within these cooperative elements, Srila Prabhupada, as the Founder-Acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, is the preeminent guru for all members of ISKCON. All members of ISKCON, for all generations, are encouraged to seek shelter of Srila Prabhupada. All members of ISKCON are entitled and encouraged to have a personal relationship with Srila Prabhupada through his books, teachings, service, and his ISKCON society.” GBC Statement on Position of Srila Prabhupada. Resolution 303, adopted February, 2013
Srila Prabhupada often told us that in his absence we should continue to associate with him via his books:
“Reporter (2): What will happen to the movement in the United States when you die? Prabhupada: “I will never die. I shall live forever in my books, and you will utilize. Press conference– July 16, 1975, San Francisco.
“So you European, American students, you take full advantage of this Vedic culture. I am therefore so much laboring hard that we, before my leaving this body, I may give you some books you can enjoy after my death. So utilize it. Utilize it. Read every sloka nicely, try to understand the meaning, discuss amongst yourselves. Nityam bhagavata-sevaya. That is our mission. Nasta-prayesv abhadresu nityam bhagavata-sevaya [SB 1.2.18]. Abhadra, we have got so many dirty things within our heart. So these dirty things can be cleansed simply by Krishna consciousness.” Srila Prabhupada lecture Srimad Bhagavatam 1.1.1 – New York, July 6, 1972:
“Therefore our method is to accept the perfect guru to understand the subject matter. But still, if one reads the books as it is from authorities, there is chance of understanding.” Room conversation – April 22, 1976, Melbourne
I believe this should be our culture. Establish Srila Prabhupada as our principal teacher by instigating regular ishta gosthi discussion sessions around his books. Those accepting the role of guru can act as tutors in this regard, joining such discussions and assisting their disciples to go more deeply into the books. This means that such gurus cannot have vast numbers of disciples, maybe only a handful, but this is in keeping with the instructions of Lord Chaitanya that Srila Prabhupada explains above in Easy Journeys, (the relevant verse in Chaitanya Charitamrita is Madhya Lila 22.118). If you are a second-class guru then you should not accept a lot of disciples. Even if unable to sit with their disciples, at least the gurus should ensure that the disciples are regularly discussing Srila Prabhupada’s books. When they have doubts or questions that they cannot answer through such discussions then they can discuss these directly with their gurus, who can then help clear their doubts and strengthen their faith. But everything should be centred around Srila Prabhupada’s books. That is where our instructions should come from.
How to conduct such discussions is another important topic. They should be of the vada type, seeking to establish the truth rather than a debate or didactic ‘top-down’ lecturing by a non-realised soul. Passive hearing should be avoided. Srila Prabhupada says:
“To hear and explain them is more important than reading them. One can assimilate the knowledge of the revealed scriptures only by hearing and explaining. Hearing is called sravana, and explaining is called kirtana. The two processes of sravana and kirtana are of primary importance to progressive spiritual life. Only one who has properly grasped the transcendental knowledge from the right source by submissive hearing can properly explain the subject.” SB 1.1.6 purport.
“Hearing is solidified by the process of chanting. One who has perfectly heard from the perfect source becomes convinced about the all-pervading Personality of Godhead and thus becomes enthusiastic in glorifying the Lord.” SB 2.2.36 purport
By such a practise we will train devotees to think for themselves, to bring out instructions and guidance from Srila Prabhupada’s teachings rather than looking up to others to tell them what to do. Teach them how to think, not what to think. Make them ‘independently thoughtful’, as Srila Prabhupada wanted. He said:
“So especially you (leaders) must encourage the students to read our books throughout the day as much as possible, and give them all good advice how to understand the books, and inspire them to study the things from every point of view. In this way, by constantly engaging our tongues in the service of the Lord, either by discussing His philosophy or by chanting Hare Krishna, the truth is that Krishna Himself will reveal Himself to us and we shall understand how to do everything properly. Now we have got so many students and so many temples but I am fearful that if we expand too much in this way we shall become weakened and gradually the whole thing will become lost. Just like milk. We may thin it more and more with water for cheating the customer, but in the end it will cease to be any longer milk. Better to boil the milk now very vigorously and make it thick and sweet, that is the best process. So let us concentrate on training our devotees very thoroughly in the knowledge of Krishna consciousness from our books, from tapes, by discussing always, and in so many ways instruct them in the right propositions.” (SPLetter to Hamsaduta, 22nd June, 1972)
There were many such instructions. I think if we can institute a culture with Srila Prabhupada’s books firmly at the centre it will serve many purposes. Devotees’ faith and conviction will grow, they will not be shaken if their second-class spiritual master experiences difficulties, which we have seen, as their main connection will be with Srila Prabhupada, and there will be greater unity in the society. It would not be difficult to implement; devotees would simply require training in how to discuss in a vada fashion, enabling them to make a deep connection with Srila Prabhupada.
In that respect, I and my good wife Cintamani-dhama have put together a set of discussion principles gleaned from Srila Prabhupada’s teachings on our website <improvingsanga.com>. Please take a look and get in touch if you would like to know more.
In service to Srila Prabhupada,
Krishna dharma das