When I was in my late teens, I started a spiritual search. I wanted to know what was the truth, or if there was an Absolute Truth – if there were answers to so many questions I had as to the meaning of life. I had some faith that I was a spiritual being, that I was the soul who dwelled within my material body, but who was I? And was there a Supreme Soul? I felt that there was, but had no knowledge of who He was or what He was like. What was the purpose of my life? Was there a purpose or meaning to life, or was it all just a crazy, meaningless accident? Why was I not satisfied or happy? I felt there was something deeply lacking in my life, and I didn’t know what it was.
This was the early seventies, so I couldn’t just Google “Absolute Truth” or “meaning of life” or whatever. So, I used to go to a large New Age bookshop in Sydney. It was full of thousands of books on various religions, books by Indian and western “so-called gurus,” self help books, books on diet and health, meditation, pop psychology, discovering your inner self, tarot, astrology, numerology, the occult etc. etc. I’d spend much of my wages buying so many strange books, and their ideas would rattle around in my head for a while, and then float out of my ears. But they didn’t touch my heart or really convince me. So, I’d buy the next book, and it would completely contradict the last one, and I felt like I had some material for interesting late-night discussions with other armchair philosophers and mental gymnasts, but there was nothing that gave me peace or inner satisfaction, or answered all of the questions I had.
Of course, if I was searching for the Absolute Truth today, I would go to the internet – the “information super highway” – where all truth and knowledge was to be found. I would just Google whatever question I had, and up would come a billion conflicting answers, the vast majority written by lost souls wanting to appear to be authorities by posting their mental speculations. It would actually be far more confusing than my New Age bookshop was. So how do we acquire spiritual knowledge?
The first point is that there are two main methods for acquiring knowledge. These are called the ascending and descending methods. In the ascending method, we attempt to gain knowledge and make advancement by using our own intelligence and reasoning ability, and our own strength and mental determination. We see the Absolute Truth as a mountain we can climb. We use our mental strength and we “figure it out.” But we cannot speculate our way into the kingdom of God. Although the mind is more subtle than the gross material elements making up our material body, the mind is still material. And what is limited and material cannot comprehend or capture that which is unlimited and transcendental to the material creation – that which is spiritual. There is no entry into the spiritual world or the mysteries of the Supreme Person by mental speculation.
Another ascending process is using our mental focus and determination to meditate our way to enlightenment. We perform great austerities, renounce the world, fast and practice celibacy, and raise the life force up through the chakras following the kundalini or ashtanga yoga process. And a few rare souls may have success following this process in attaining the impersonal Brahman effulgence of the Lord – the outer circumference of the spiritual world. But this method will not take us to the Supreme Soul. If we understand that the Absolute Truth is the Supreme Person, then we can realize that as a person He has a will of His own:
One should meditate upon the Supreme Person as the one who knows everything, as He who is the oldest, who is the controller, who is smaller than the smallest, who is the maintainer of everything, who is beyond all material conception, who is inconceivable and who is always a person. He is luminous like the sun and, being transcendental, is beyond this material nature.
So, if I understand that the Absolute Truth is a person, and not just a person, but the Supreme Person who has a will of His own – and that He is all-powerful and His will is always done – then our means of approaching Him becomes very different. He is not just an impersonal mountain we can climb by relying on our own strength and determination. Just imagine you were trying to climb the world’s tallest mountain – this would be difficult enough to begin with. But what if that mountain was not pleased with your attitude and didn’t want you to succeed. What if it kept moving and was hiding from you? Or when you tried to climb it the mountain shook you off. In other words, being successful in spiritual life depends on more than just your will. There are two wills involved, and God’s will is the Supreme will, which is “done on earth as it is in heaven.” The ascending process will not take us all the way to Krishna. So, what is the secret of attaining the Supreme Soul? Krishna makes it very clear to His friend and disciple Arjuna:
My dear Arjuna, only by undivided devotional service can I be understood as I am, standing before you, and can thus be seen directly. Only in this way can you enter into the mysteries of My understanding.
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 within their hearts, destroy with knowledge the darkness born of ignorance.
The secret of spiritual life is that God wants us to develop a loving relationship with Him. When He becomes pleased with us because of our attempts to love and serve Him, He will reveal Himself to us. He says in Bhagavad-gita [4:11]
All of them – as they surrender unto Me – I reward accordingly.
It does not matter how learned or intelligent we are, or how determined we are, or how good a yogi we are – with the ability to sit for long hours in silent meditation – if we are not loving God and trying to serve Him, trying to please Him – He will remain a distant mystery to us. To succeed in spiritual life, we must receive God, the Absolute Truth, as He descends to us from the spiritual world. This is called the descending process. Krishna speaks to us from within as the Supersoul, the Lord in the heart; and from without via sadhus – saintly persons, through shastra or holy scripture, and through the guru, the enlightened spiritual master. And within or without, the message is the same:
The forgetful conditioned soul is educated by Krishna through the Vedic literatures, the realised spiritual master and the Supersoul. Through these, he can understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead as He is, and he can understand that Lord Krishna is his eternal master and deliverer from the clutches of maya. In this way one can acquire real knowledge of his conditioned life and can come to understand how to attain liberation.
[Caitanya-caritamrta Madhya 20:123]
So, it is by these descending methods that we can approach the Supreme Lord and be welcomed back to the spiritual world.
The Spiritual Master is the giver of Krishna. Just as a poor man living on the street cannot give us a million dollars, so only one who has the greatest treasure of love for God can give this gift to others. It is said, “by the grace of God one gets guru, and by the grace of guru one gets God.”
Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita:
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. And when you have thus learned the truth, you will know that all living beings are but part of Me – and that they are in Me, and are Mine.
In other words, Lord Sri Krishna is the property of His pure unconditional devotees, and as such only the devotees can deliver Krishna to another devotee – Krishna is never obtainable directly. Jesus also taught the importance of approaching God through His devotee:
For the Father Himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from the Father.
Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.
… that 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.
The spiritual master has his ear in the spiritual world and his mouth in the material world. Krishna speaks directly to us via the spiritual master, and his words are to be taken as the direct instructions of Krishna. Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami explains:
A bona fide spiritual master is the transparent medium through whom one can realise God or Krishna. He is Krishna’s representative and a soul completely surrendered unto God; thus he is able to transmit the message of Krishna purely and without personal motivation. He carries himself always as a most humble servant of the Lord and mankind, and never accepts any credit for himself.
All other means of attaining perfect knowledge hinge on making a relationship with a living spiritual master. The Absolute Truth descends via disciplic succession:
In order to learn the transcendental science, one must approach the spiritual master in disciplic succession, fixed in the Absolute Truth.
The Absolute Truth originates with Krishna and is reaffirmed with every great acharya [spiritual teacher] who is intimately connected in love with the Lord in the heart. All methods of acquiring absolute knowledge are linked to the living spiritual master. This is how we maintain quality control in the dissemination of the Absolute Truth.
Scripture on its own is not enough. Sanskrit, for instance, is very precise and brief like a skeleton or pithy outline of the truth. It needs to be fleshed out by a self-realised teacher. Otherwise, we simply read and speculate on its meaning – it becomes an ascending process rather than a descending process. And a mundane scholar has no entrance into the meaning of scripture. There are so many translations of Bhagavad-gita by proud professors and Sanskrit scholars who are out to be glorified as a great scholar. Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita, for instance, that:
This confidential knowledge may not be explained to those who are not austere, or devoted, or engaged in devotional service, nor to one who is envious of Me.
Why is it that some religious movements don’t remain pure – why are their original teachings contaminated and changed over the centuries? Because they were not reaffirmed by an unbroken chain of enlightened living spiritual masters. Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami said towards the end of his life that he had preached with a Bhagavatam in one hand and a pick-axe in the other. The devotee protects God against those who would misrepresent Him, or try to sully His reputation, or who mislead others about His perfect, compassionate and loving nature. The living spiritual master is the Guardian of Devotion.
The analogy is given that in India in the past, men would form a human chain on different branches of a mango tree, passing the ripened fruit down from hand to hand so that it was not bruised or ruptured. In the same way, the Absolute Truth is passed down from self-realised teacher to self-realised teacher, from acharya to acharya, without any change or distortion of its meaning. This is why Srila Bhaktivedanta would say:
We are simply looking for just one moon. There may be many stars in the sky, but all of their light together does not come near to equalling the brightness of the moon.
The great Vaisnava acharyas can be described as Lord Chaitanya’s Moon, and a great spiritual master is overjoyed if he has even one disciple who has perfectly understood and applied his teachings, knowing that by Krishna’s arrangement the disciplic succession is now in perfect hands.
An acharya is one who fully understands the conclusions of the revealed scriptures and whose behaviour reflects his deep realisation. He is a living example, for he teaches the meaning of the scriptures both by word and deed.
Referring to Past Authorities
We have the teachings of great spiritual personalities like Lord Brahma [Brahma Samhita, Srimad Bhagavatam etc.], Narada Muni [Narada Pancaratra, Srimad Bhagavatam, Narada Purana, Narada Bhakti Sutra] and Vyasadeva (Vedavyasa) who was the author/compiler of the Vedic scriptures. The disciple of Vyasadeva in our disciplic line is Madhvacharya.
Madhvacharya [b.1238] was a great authority and commentator on Vedic knowledge. Madhva took sannyasa at age eleven, and from that time defeated many of the greatest scholars in India. He travelled all over India and was recognised as the greatest scholar of his time. He travelled to the Himalayas to meet and take instruction from Vyasadeva. His commentaries on Bhagavad-gita, Srimad Bhagavatam and many other Vedic scriptures are still studied and quoted today. He also wrote many devotional songs and initiated many disciples.
We have the writings and commentaries of many great Vaisnava acharyas coming down to Lord Chaitanya, the Six Goswamis who wrote hundreds of books, Caitanya-caritamrta and Caitanya Bhagavata by Krishna das Kaviraja and Vrindavan das Thakur, Haridas Thakur [Harinama Chintamani, Caitanya Bhagavata etc.]
Bhaktivinoda Thakur and Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati wrote prolifically in many languages, and today we have the wonderful books and spoken words of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda. The writings of all of these great authorities are in perfect harmony and they all acknowledge Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the Cause of all Causes and the Supreme owner, controller and dear-most friend of all living beings.
Scripture means the Vedic teachings and other literatures in pursuance of the Vedic version, written by great authorities. Veda means “knowledge.” True scripture descends from the spiritual world. It can be spoken directly by God or one empowered by God, inspired by the Lord in the heart. And it is passed down through disciplic succession so that it remains unpolluted by mental speculation. The analogy is given that if I want to know who my father is – say I have never met him, he is living in another place, or has left this world, I have no way of figuring out who he is by my own speculation or inquiry. I have to ask my mother as she is the only person who can know for sure. She is the authority on who was the seed giving father of my body. In a similar way, the Vedas are likened to our Mother because they tell us who our actual Supreme Father is.
The Lord in the Heart
If I sincerely want to know the truth, then what I hear from guru, other great authorities past and present, and from scripture, is confirmed by the Lord in the heart. When all of these methods of descending knowledge are in harmony, then we know we are on a safe platform. Our faith gradually grows as our questions are answered and our doubts are removed. The wisdom we are receiving from these sources will be confirmed from within only if we apply it. This is real faith based on spiritual experience, not simply a blind faith which denies our inner doubts and is not experienced as a reality. Blind faith is only propped up by fanaticism and fear. “Don’t doubt, brother – doubt is the work of the devil!” So, we need to sincerely pray to the Lord in the Heart to show us what is true, what is real, so that we know how to approach Him.
Krishna states in Bhagavad-gita:
I am seated in everyone’s heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness.
Lord Jesus Christ also taught of the importance of making a relationship with the Lord in the Heart:
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?
[1 Corinthians 6:19]
If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Counsellor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and is in you.
All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
So, to properly understand scripture, to understand spiritual knowledge, one must be experiencing yoga – connected in love to the Lord in the heart, who perfectly explains spiritual knowledge and empowers his pure devotee to pass it on intact. Each living spiritual master has an intimate connection with the Lord in the heart, and therefore he is able to give a perfect purport or explanation of the verses of scripture. So the words of the living spiritual master are always perfect because he is directed by the Lord in the heart. And these perfect words are confirmed within the heart of the sincere listener by the Lord in his heart. This is why it is said:
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]
Lord Jesus Christ, as a perfect spiritual master, also described that he was directed by the Lord, who was always with him, because he is always pleasing to the Lord:
… I do nothing on My own, but speak exactly what the Father has taught Me. And He who sent Me is with Me. The Father has not left Me alone, for I always do those things that please Him.