Question: I have been in discussion with a friend about the importance of accepting a spiritual master. He seems comfortable just reading Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami’s books and sort of accepts his parents as his spiritual teachers because they introduced him to Vaisnavism. I have mentioned to him about the benefits and reasons behind seeking out and accepting a spiritual master. But one thing we get stuck on is that you need a current living spiritual master. He seems to think that by following the instructions of previous acaryas he will be able to come to love Krishna? So why can’t he develop love for Krishna if he follows Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami’s instructions?
Your friend can develop love for Krishna by following Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami’s instructions. And a most important one of these instructions is that one needs to contact a living spiritual master. In fact, to say I don’t need to accept a living spiritual master is to change Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami’s teachings. Of course, when we say “a living spiritual master,” we mean one who is physically present in this world at the same time as his disciple. The spiritual master is living eternally whether in this world or at home with Krishna, and in the form of his instructions.
I will return to this point a bit later on, but firstly it is very important to realize that spiritual life is always voluntary. No one should ever be forced or coerced into doing anything in spiritual life against their will. We are endeavouring to attain spiritual love for God and for all of His children. And love can only be voluntary – it can never be forced. Many people like to associate with a pure devotee of the Lord or his disciples and students and hear and chant the holy names, but they may have little interest in coming to know the great Vaisnava acharya. Such people should simply be encouraged to chant and they will make much progress in this lifetime.
Some people may be afraid that if they accept a spiritual master that he may force them to do things they are not ready to do or give up things they are not ready to relinquish. And they should never feel that they are being pressured to move faster than they are ready to, or their fear can force them to give up spiritual life. But factually, the great devotees of the Lord will never force anyone to do anything against their will. They are simply motivated by compassion and love and feel great pain to see the suffering of those who are lacking in love for Krishna and suffering in the material world. Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad once prayed to his spiritual master, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati:
The jivas have reshackled themselves
With the heavy chains of ignorance and delusion,
And as they swim about in the vast ocean of material existence
in a frenzied attempt to reach the shore of peace, they perish.
This lance of misery pierces my heart
As it similarly afflicted you, Srila Prabhupada
Who suffered so upon seeing the suffering of the misguided humanity.
Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami took initiation from Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati
However, if we find someone is sincerely wanting to go further along the spiritual road, we should not hesitate to pass on the message of Lord Krishna as is found in Vedic scripture and taught by the great acharyas in disciplic succession. And there is one message which is reiterated repeatedly throughout scripture: the secret of success in spiritual life is to please the Supreme Lord, and the way to do this is by pleasing the Lord’s living representative in this world. It is said that “by the grace of God one gets guru and by the grace of guru one gets God.” To be assured of success in spiritual life we must seek out a bona fide spiritual master and surrender our hearts to him, love him and serve him:
In order to learn the transcendental science, one must approach the spiritual master in disciplic succession, fixed in the Absolute Truth.
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.
The Bhagavad-gita is quite clear here as to the qualification of the spiritual master: he must have seen the truth – he must be self realized. Lord Krishna Himself does not recommend that we enquire from or surrender to anyone with lesser qualifications than that. In the Srimad Bhagavatam, Lord Krishna Himself declares that:
One should know the acarya as Myself and never disrespect him in any way. One should not envy him, thinking him an ordinary man, for he is the representative of all the demigods.
[Srimad Bhagavatam 11:17:27]
This verse also appears in Caitanya-caritamrta [Adi 1:46] where His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad has commented in his purport:
This is a verse from Srimad-Bhagavatam (11:17:27) spoken by Lord Sri Krishna when He was questioned by Uddhava. … A spiritual master is not an enjoyer of facilities offered by his disciples. He is like a parent. Without the attentive service of his parents, a child cannot grow to manhood; similarly, without the care of the spiritual master one cannot rise to the plane of transcendental service.
The spiritual master is also called acarya, or a transcendental professor of spiritual science. Manu-samhita (2.140) explains the duties of an acarya, describing that a bona fide spiritual maser accepts charge of disciples, teaches them the Vedic knowledge with all its intricacies, and gives them their second birth. … In the Vayu Purana an acarya is defined as one who knows the import of all the Vedic literatures, explains the purpose of the Vedas, abides by their rules and regulations, and teaches his disciples to act in the same way.
Only out of His immense compassion does the Personality of Godhead reveal Himself as the spiritual master. Therefore in the dealings of an acarya there are no activities but those of transcendental loving service to the Lord. He is the Supreme Personality of Servitor Godhead. It is worthwhile to take shelter of such a steady devotee, who is called asraya-vigraha, or the manifestation or form of the Lord of whom one must take shelter.
[Purport to Caitanya-caritamrta Adi 1:46]
Serving the pure devotee of the Lord with great affection, and chanting the names of God the pure devotee has given us, are the two most pleasing things we can do, and they lead to success in spiritual life. The living spiritual master has been sent by Lord Krishna to take care of those souls who are sincerely wanting to return to Him. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati described the role of the spiritual master in the following way:
The Reservoir of Grace whom the Supreme Lord, the personification of the Supreme Good, has made responsible for looking after my welfare, is my guru.
[Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati]
Sometimes it is said that one can achieve spiritual perfection by accepting as one’s spiritual master a guru who has physically departed from this material world, that all you have to do is carefully study his books and follow them to the best of your ability, and this will be just as good as if you surrendered unto him in his personal presence. However, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami made it very clear that one needs to make contact with a living spiritual master. At the end of a lecture he gave in London, England on September 3, 1971 the following conversation was recorded:
Lady: How does one contact the spiritual master? Through a book can you contact the spiritual master?
Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami:
No, you have to associate. … Yes, through books, and also personal. Because when you make a spiritual master you have got personal touch. Not that in air you make a spiritual master. You make a spiritual master concrete.
Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami made it very clear that although one can associate with a spiritual master through his books, personal association is also required, not that simply “in the air” one takes a spiritual master. It is essential to have direct personal interaction with one’s guru so that one can make sure that one is actually satisfying the spiritual master by one’s attitude, one’s words, and one’s actions. And the spiritual master has the right to choose who he will or will not accept as his disciple – it is not just a one way relationship.
Satisfaction of the self-realized spiritual master is the secret of success in spiritual life. So we have to know without any doubt that we have been accepted and we are pleasing him. If we simply read books and imagine that the spiritual master is pleased with us, our imagination can be wrong. We could be thinking, acting, and speaking in ways that are very much displeasing to him. Without his personal association we would not know whether he is pleased or not.
If we are to follow Krishna’s instructions, we must be able to inquire from the spiritual master and hear the answers he gives us. To directly communicate in this way with a physically departed spiritual master is not possible while one is still heavily under the influence of material nature. A disciple who is not spiritually advanced cannot be expected to hear messages from a departed spiritual master in response to his questions. Even if he claims or thinks he is able to do this, in all likelihood the answers he “receives” are simply his own imagination, not the answers of the departed guru.
At least in the beginning, the guru needs to be physically present to directly answer the questions of his disciples, and if necessary, to chastise and correct them. “Disciple” comes from the word “discipline” – it means one who is prepared to accept the discipline of the spiritual master, having vision and faith that such discipline is a manifestation of the guru’s love. It is the role of the spiritual master to instruct his disciple and discipline or chastise him or her if deemed necessary. It is the role of the disciple to inquire and learn from the spiritual master, and render service. This relationship must be established with a living spiritual master. Of course, once the relationship has been established, it is eternal and will continue on even if the spiritual master or disciple or both have left this world. But the relationship must first be established while the spiritual master is in this world.
In so many religious organizations we come across people teaching all sorts of nonsense in the name of various departed spiritual masters. Of course, the teachings of great devotees of the Lord are always wonderful, and we can learn so much from them. But we need to have the explanations and life’s example of a living spiritual master in order to properly understand and appreciate other great devotees. Much of the time we have people claiming to represent a particular saintly teacher who have no actual connection or relationship with that teacher. Instead, they misrepresent and distort the great devotee’s teachings.
For example, Jesus was initiated by John the Baptist. This was the original meaning of the baptism ceremony – it is symbolic of being spiritually cleansed when one surrenders his life to the representative of God. Jesus said of his spiritual master, John the Baptist:
No greater man has taken birth of woman than John the Baptist.
It is natural for one to feel like this about the great devotee who is his saviour. But after John was executed by King Herod, Jesus took his own disciples. He did not tell them that they should surrender to John the Baptist, or say that John was the only spiritual master for all of mankind for all eternity. He knew that people need a living spiritual master. Jesus said:
I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.
He never claimed to be the only representative of God for all time. And no matter how great we feel our spiritual master is, we should not maker similar claims about any of God’s representatives. We should not think that God can only have one pure son, or that great spiritual masters are not capable of creating perfect disciples to continue the dissemination of spiritual knowledge via disciplic succession. Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami once said:
I want to see a few sincere devotees, not many false devotees or pretenders. If there is one moon in the sky, that is sufficient for illumination. There is no need of millions of stars. My position is that I want to see that at least one disciple has become a pure devotee. Of course, I have got many sincere and pure devotees. That is my good luck. But I would have been satisfied if I could find only one.
He never said, “I will be the only acharya for the next ten thousand years.” It is sad and disrespectful to Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami that some people are suggesting that he was incapable of making at least one pure devotee out of thousands of disciples to carry on his mission. And it is disrespectful towards his pure disciples who are performing great austerities to carry on giving Krishna to others out of great compassion and mercy. No matter how great our spiritual master may be, it is a great offence to deny the perfection of others and create a personality cult around a particular devotee – and in the process changing his teachings.
A person who is too arrogant to accept a bona fide spiritual master, who thinks he can make it on his own, ends up simply following his own mind, thinking that he is doing the will of God, and often misleading others along the way. It is not just you and God relating in the spiritual world. We also have loving relations with innumerable other souls, and if we cannot relate humbly and lovingly to the pure devotees who love and serve God, we are not fit to enter the spiritual world. Love of God also includes loving God’s devotees. In fact, a person who is unwilling to learn from and serve a bona fide spiritual master is actually going against the example and instructions of God. Even Lord Krishna Himself and Lord Chaitanya accepted spiritual masters when they came to this world, as an example for others to follow.
Though we can learn from and greatly appreciate the teachings of past great devotees, we need a living spiritual master and a great devotee has to be able to say who he accepts as his disciple. It is a relationship between two people and I cannot claim to be the disciple of a devotee who is no longer in this world. It is like a person saying they were married to a person they never met. The spiritual master must have the opportunity to accept me as his disciple and say, “Yes, you can represent me and pass on my teachings,” knowing that I will not make up my own teachings and misrepresent him.
The relationship between a spiritual master and his disciple is a two-way-street, and the spiritual master has the right to accept or reject someone who approaches him, based on their sincerity or lack thereof. The spiritual master is the ambassador of Krishna, and we surrender to Krishna by surrendering to guru. For the guru-disciple relationship to be real, the disciple has to sincerely recognize his spiritual master as God’s representative, and the guru has to have the right to reject a candidate if he sees a lack of sincerity or duplicity in his dealings.
This principle is reiterated throughout the Vedic scriptures, and it was also the message of Lord Jesus Christ, who taught that we cannot ignore the loving servant of God and at the same time hope that God will be pleased with us:
… all may honour the son, just as they honour the Father. He who does not honour the son does not honour the Father Who sent him.
For the Father Himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from the Father.
[John 16:27, 5:23]
Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami explained in a lecture in 1969 that without accepting spiritual knowledge as it descends through the chain of enlightened spiritual masters, we have no actual way of knowing the Absolute Truth:
… Transcendental knowledge is knowledge from beyond this universe … We cannot even go to the end of the universe, so how can we go to the spiritual world? … Vedic knowledge must be accepted as it is descending from the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna … Therefore, the Vedic injunction is that one must approach a bona fide spiritual master, a guru. And what is the qualification of a spiritual master? He has rightly heard the Vedic message from the right source. Otherwise he is not bona fide. … You can very easily learn about Krishna from His devotee. His devotee can deliver Him to you: ‘Here He is, take Him!’ That is the potency of Krishna’s devotees.
[Excerpts from a lecture by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, October 6, 1969 – used as the introduction to Sri Isopanishad]
Krishna is situated in everyone’s heart as caitya-guru, the spiritual master within. When He is kind to some fortunate conditioned soul, He personally gives one lessons to progress in devotional service, instructing the person as the Supersoul within and the Spiritual master without.
[Caitanya-caritamrta Madhya 22:47]
Since one cannot visually experience the presence of the Supersoul, He appears before us as a liberated devotee. Such a spiritual master is none other than Krishna Himself.
[Caitanya-caritamrta Adi 1:58]
O My Lord! Transcendental poets and experts in spiritual science could not fully express their indebtedness to You, even if they were endowed with the prolonged lifetime of Brahma, for you appear in two features – externally as the acharya and internally as the Supersoul – to deliver the embodied living being by directing him how to come to You.
[Srimad Bhagavatam 11:29:6]
The Paramatma is always the caitya-guru, the spiritual master within, and He comes before one externally as the instructor and initiator spiritual master. The Lord can reside within the heart, and He can also come out before a person and give him instructions. Thus the spiritual master is not different from the Supersoul sitting within the heart.
[Srimad Bhagavatam 4:28:52, Purport]
Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami was able to personally associate with Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati
and was given instructions by his guru which became his life’s mission
Glorification of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is performed in the parampara system; that is, it is conveyed from spiritual master to disciple. Such glorification is relished by those no longer interested in the false, temporary glorification of this cosmic manifestation. Descriptions of the Lord are the right medicine for the conditioned soul undergoing repeated birth and death. Therefore, who will cease hearing such glorification of the Lord except a butcher or one who is killing his own self?
[Srimad Bhagavatam 10:1:4]
Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita:
To those who are constantly devoted and worship Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me. Out of compassion for them, I, dwelling in their hearts, destroy with the shining lamp of knowledge the darkness born of ignorance.
So the point here is that one who is “constantly devoted” can hear the Lord in the heart and determine the difference between the Supersoul and his own mind with its desires, attachments and speculative wishful thinking. For one who is not constantly devoted, or who is only a little devoted, it is not possible to hear the Lord in the heart sufficiently well to know how to attain perfection. Conditioned souls can’t perceive God speaking within, so God speaks from without as the spiritual master. This is why scripture says:
Since one cannot visually experience the presence of the Supersoul, He appears before us as a liberated devotee. Such a spiritual master is none other than Krishna Himself.
[Caitanya-caritamrta Adi 1:53]
So in the Caitanya-caritamrta we are instructed that “such a spiritual master is none other than Krishna Himself.” Krishna sends His pure devotee just to help the conditioned souls and the spiritual master’s instructions are non-different from the instructions of Krishna from within. Also, in Srimad Bhagavatam it is stated that Krishna actually “appears as the acharya,” [S.B.11:29:6] – that he is the external manifestation of the Lord in the heart.
There are two very important points to consider here. The first is that if a conditioned soul is incapable of hearing the Lord in the heart, he will also not be able to contact and hear the departed Vaisnava acharya “in the air.” It requires the same degree of spiritual purity to contact the Lord in the heart and the pure devotee from within. And this is the big problem many people have trying to determine what a departed great devotee wants them to do, how to serve him and thereby be pleasing to God. They cannot hear him from within and so they speculate.
The living acharya is expert at engaging people in service appropriate to their own abilities and appropriate to the time place and circumstances. The method of effectively delivering Lord Chaitanya’s message differs according to the social conditions of a particular place and time. Not that the message itself changes, but the method of applying the teachings is expertly tailored by the living spiritual master so that it is suitable and relatable to the audience.
The second point that needs to be made here is that, as Srimad Bhagavatam and Caitanya-caritamrta are stating above, the living acharya is actually a manifestation of Krishna – he is non-different from Krishna and described by Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami and scripture as the “The Supreme Personality of Servitor Godhead.” If I lived in India 5000 years ago when Krishna was present, and I came in contact with Krishna and ignored Him and passed up the opportunity to associate and serve Him, I would be considered most foolish and unfortunate. And this was the case with many who came into contact with Krishna and did not have the spiritual vision to recognize Him as being the Supreme Lord.
Duryodhana, for example was related to Krishna as a cousin – the same as Arjuna. Both had much association with Krishna, but Arjuna recognised Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, whereas Duryodhana saw Him as an ordinary man. In this way, due to his envious nature, he was foolish and unfortunate. In a similar way, if I come in contact with Krishna’s living representative and consider I don’t need to hear from him and serve him, I can also be considered quite foolish and unfortunate. It is such a rare and precious opportunity that God has given us, in bringing us in contact with the bona fide spiritual master. It is insane to waste it if we have even a slight appreciation for the importance of this opportunity. To reject or not appreciate Krishna’s great devotee when Krishna arranges for me to meet him is the same as rejecting Krishna. And to contact a pure living acharya and then reject him is not the same as someone who is very sincere but has no opportunity to associate with a bona fide spiritual master. The rareness of this wonderful opportunity is described in the Caitanya-caritamrta:
According to their karma, all living entities are wandering throughout the entire universe. Some of them are being elevated to the upper planetary systems, and some of them are going down into the lower planetary systems. Out of many millions of wandering living entities, one who is very fortunate gets the opportunity to associate with a bona fide spiritual master by the grace of Krishna. By the mercy of both Krishna and the spiritual master, one gets the creeper of devotional service.
[Caitanya-caritamrta Madhya 19:151]
When one is face to face with the sun, there is no longer darkness for one’s eyes. Similarly, when one is face to face with a sadhu, a devotee, who is fully determined and surrendered to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, one will no longer be subject to material bondage.
It is so wonderful hearing the stories of dealings between great devotees and their spiritual masters. How Prahlad Maharaj and Dhruva Maharaj met Narada Muni, how Madhva Acharya met Vyasadeva, how Lord Chaitanya met and was instructed by Ishvara Puri, how Rupa and Sanatan met Lord Chaitanya, how Krishnadas Kaviraj met Rupa and Raghunath dasa Goswamis, Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s dealings with Jagannatha dasa Babaji, how Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati surrendered to Srila Gaurakishora dasa Babaji. And the wonderful stories told by Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad about meeting his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Maharaja, and how Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda met and surrendered to to the lotus feet of Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad.
These stories are so amazing, instructive and inspiring for devotees to hear. It is very sad that some people are asserting that it will not be possible for devotees on this planet to have such dealings with a living spiritual master for the next ten thousand years – for the remainder of Lord Chaitanya’s sankirtan movement. Fortunately, this is not the case, and the Brahma Madhva Gaudiya Sampradaya will continue on in the normal way, with each successive spiritual master having the potency to produce perfect disciples to carry on the movement of Lord Chaitanya.