Who Is a Guru, And Why We Need One

By A.C.Bhaktivedanta SWAMI PRABHUPADA - 3.7 2018

“One who is inquisitive to understand the ultimate goal of life must approach a proper guru,” says Srila Prabhupada 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.

suta uvaca
dvaipayana-sakhas tv evam maitreyo bhagavams tatha
prahedam viduram prita anviksikyam pracoditah

“Sri Suta Gosvami said: ‘The most powerful sage Maitreya was a friend of Vyasadeva’s. Being encouraged and pleased by Vidura’s inquiry about transcendental knowledge, Maitreya spoke as follows” [Srimad-Bhagavatam 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 pranipatena pariprasnena sevaya [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-vijñanartham sa gurum evabhigacchet [MU

The body is a machine made by nature (yantrarudhani mayaya [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 Visnu. The real purpose is to understand Visnu, 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-vijñana, 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 Kathopanisad: srotriyam brahma-nistham [MU

One must hear from those who are in the line of preceptorial succession, or disciplic succession. As Lord Krsna says in the Bhagavad-gita, evam parampara-praptam [Bg. 4.2]. If one wants standard transcendental knowledge, not upstart knowledge, one must received it from the parampara system, the disciplic succession. Another meaning of the word srotriyam mentioned above is “one who has heard from a guru in the disciplic succession.” And the result of this hearing will be brahma-nistham, “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 Rsi and that Maitreya was very much pleased (viduram pritah). 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 Rsi was very much pleased with Vidura, and thus Maitreya imparted instructions to him.

Lord Krsna recommends the same procedure in the Bhagavad-gita: tad viddhi pranipatena pariprasnena sevaya [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 pranipatena, “offering obeisances with no reservation.” So reception of transcendental knowledge is based on this pranipata. That is why Krsna says later, sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja: [Bg. 18.66] “Give up everything else and just surrender unto Me.” Just as we have to surrender to Krsna, we have to surrender to Krsna’s representative, the spiritual master.

The guru is the external representative of Krsna. The internal guru is Krsna Himself (isvarah sarva-bhutanam hrd-dese ‘rjuna tisthati [Bg. 18.61]). It is not that Krsna is only in Goloka Vrndavana, the spiritual world. He is everywhere, within every atom and within everyone’s heart (goloka eva nivasaty akhilatma-bhutah [Bs. 5.37]). The manifestation of Krsna in the heart is the Paramatma, or Supersoul. I am an atma, an individual soul, you are an atma. We are both situated locally—you are situated within your body, and I am situated within my body. But the Paramatma is situated everywhere. That is the difference between the atma and the Paramatma. Some people think there is no difference between the atma and the Paramatma, 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 Paramatma is all-pervading and the atma is localized. Krsna confirms this in the Bhagavad-gita: ksetra-jñam capi mam viddhi sarva-ksetresu bharata [Bg. 13.3]. “Besides the individual soul in each body, I am also present as the Supersoul.” The word ksetra-jña means “the knower of the ksetra, 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 atmas are simply tenants of our bodies; we are not the proprietor. The proprietor is the Paramatma. 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, “Mahatmaji, 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 Krsna says in the Bhagavad-gita [4.34],

tad viddhi pranipatena pariprasnena sevaya
upadeksyanti te jñanam jñaninas tattva-darsinah

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 sastras, or scriptures, and who can teach us to understand Krsna.

Of course, we cannot understand Krsna fully. That is not possible. We have no such capacity, because Krsna is so great and we are so limited. Krsna 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 Srimati Radharani. So to understand Krsna 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 Krsna says,

janma karma ca me divyam evam yo vetti tattvatah
tyaktva deham punar janma naiti mam 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-gita 4.9].

If we think that Krsna is a human being like us, then we are mudhas, fools and rascals. We will be mistaken if we think, “Since my body is made of material elements, Krsna’s body is also made of material elements.” In the Bhagavad-gita Krsna says that the material energy belongs to Him: daivi hy esa gunamayi mama maya [Bg. 7.14]. This material world is Krsna’s. We cannot say mama maya, “This material energy is mine.” No. We are under the control of the material nature. But Krsna is the controller of the material nature: mayadhyaksena prakrtih suyate sa-caracaram [Bg. 9.10]. That is the difference between Krsna and us. Understanding that this material nature is working under the direction of Krsna is real knowledge.

It is not possible to understand in detail how things are going on, but we can understand the summary: janmady asya yatah [SB 1.1.1]. “Everything has emanated from the Supreme Absolute Truth, Krsna.” That much knowledge is sufficient. Then you can increase your knowledge—how the material nature is working under the direction of Krsna, how Krsna’s energies are interacting, and so on. That is advanced knowledge. But if we simply understand Krsna’s statement in the Bhagavad-gita—mayadhyaksena prakrtih suyate sa-caracaram: [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 Krsna says in the Bhagavad-gita, aham sarvasya prabhavo mattah sarvam pravartate: [Bg. 10.8] “Everything emanates from Me.” This is the reply to the scientists. And the Vedanta-sutra confirms, athato brahma jijñasa, janmady asya yatah: [SB 1.1.1] “Now one should inquire into the Supreme Brahman, which is that from whom everything emanates.” The Supreme Brahman is Krsna.

The whole world is a combination of two things: jada and cetana, dull matter and living entities. Both come from Krsna. As He says in the Bhagavad-gita,

apareyam itas tv anyam prakrtim viddhi me param
jiva-bhutam maha-baho yayedam dharyate jagat

“Besides the inferior, material energy, there is My superior, spiritual energy, the living entities who are exploiting the material nature” [Bhagavad-gita 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-jñana, understanding of the Absolute Truth.

The Vedanta-sutra confirms that human life is meant for understanding the Absolute Truth: athato brahma jijñasa. And the explanation of the Vedanta-sutra is the Srimad-Bhagavatam. The Vedanta-sutra states that the Absolute Truth is janmady 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 Srimad-Bhagavatam: janmady asya yatah anvayad itaratas ca arthesu abhijñah. That source is abhijñah, 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 Srimad-Bhagavatam continues, tene brahma hrda ya adi-kavaye. “He imparted the Vedic knowledge unto Lord Brahma.” So unless one is a living entity, how can he impart knowledge?

The Srimad-Bhagavatam is the natural explanation of the Vedanta-sutra by the same author, Vyasadeva. In the verse under discussion it is said Vidura was dvaipayana-sakha, a friend of Dvaipayana. Dvaipayana means Vyasadeva. Vyasadeva compiled the Vedanta-sutra and then explained it in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (artho ‘yam brahma-sutranam). If we read some artificial commentary on the Vedanta-sutra, we’ll misunderstand. Generally, the Mayavadis [impersonalists] give prominence to the commentary by Sankaracarya, called the Sariraka-bhasya. But that commentary is unnatural. The natural commentary is by the author himself, Vyasadeva.

According to our Vedic system, the acarya [spiritual master] must understand the Vedanta-sutra and explain it. Then he’ll be accepted as an acarya. Therefore both of the main sampradayas [spiritual communities], the Mayavadi sampradaya and the Vaisnava sampradaya, have explained the Vedanta-sutra. Otherwise, they would not have been recognized as authoritative. Without understanding the Vedanta-sutra, nobody can understand what is Brahman, the Absolute Truth. Similarly, here it is said that Vidura understood transcendental knowledge (anviksikyam) from Maitreya. Who is Maitreya? Dvaipayana-sakha, the friend of Vyasadeva. One friend knows the other friend—what his position is, what his knowledge is. So since Maitreya was the friend of Vyasadeva, that means he knows what Vyasadeva knows.

So we have to approach a spiritual master who is in the disciplic succession of Vyasadeva. Many people claim, “Oh, we are also following Vyasadeva.” But that following cannot be superficial. One has to actually follow Vyasadeva. For example, Vyasadeva accepted Krsna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This is stated in the Bhagavad-gita, in the section where Arjuna says to Krsna, param brahma param dhama pavitram paramam bhavan: [Bg. 10.12] “O Krsna, you are Para-brahman, the Supreme Person.” But one may say it was because Arjuna was the friend of Krsna that he accepted Him as the Supreme. No. Arjuna gave evidence: “Vyasadeva also accepts You as the Supreme Lord.” Similarly, Vyasadeva begins the Srimad-Bhagavatam, his commentary on the Vedanta-sutra, by saying om namo bhagavate vasudevaya: “I offer my obeisances unto Vasudeva, Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”

So if we actually are interested in understanding spiritual knowledge, we must approach an acarya, and an acarya is one who follows Vyasadeva. In the verse under discussion, Maitreya, the friend of Vyasadeva, is the acarya. He is so exalted that he has been described as Bhagavan. In general, the word bhagavan indicates Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead (krsnas tu bhagavan svayam [SB 1.3.28]). But sometimes other powerful persons, such as Lord Brahma, Lord Siva, Narada, Vyasadeva, or Maitreya, are also addressed as Bhagavan. Although the actual Bhagavan is Krsna, such persons are sometimes called Bhagavan because they have attained as much knowledge of Krsna as possible. It is not possible to have cent percent knowledge of Krsna. Nobody can do that. Even Brahma and Siva cannot do that. But those who follow Krsna’s instructions fully are also sometimes called Bhagavan. However, that Bhagavan is not an artificial Bhagavan. A real Bhagavan must know what Krsna has taught and follow His instructions.

So, here it is said, viduram prita, “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: pranipatena pariprasnena sevaya. 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-gita He said to Krsna, sisyas te ‘ham sadhi mam tvam 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 Krsna, still, while learning the Bhagavad-gita from Him he surrendered to Krsna 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, jijñasuh sreya 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 (pranipatena). 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 Krsna.
The Shelter from All Dangers

In this talk Srila Prabhupada 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)

‘sadhya’-‘sadhana’-tattva puchite na jani
krpa kari’ saba tattva kaha ta’ apani”

[Sanatana Gosvami 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-caritamrta, Madhya-lila 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 ma 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 Mahaprabhu 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.

Sanatana Gosvami understood that, and therefore he asked Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu,

‘ke ami’, ‘kene amaya jare tapa-traya’
iha nahi jani—’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, padam padam yad vipadam: [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 Sanatana Gosvami is representing us in asking these questions of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.

By the mercy of Caitanya Mahaprabhu, 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 Krsna 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 Sanatana Gosvami did. He was a government minister, very educated and well placed, but he approached Caitanya Mahaprabhu and humbly surrendered. So we should also approach Lord Caitanya or His representative and surrender (tad viddhi pranipatena [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 Krsna says in the Bhagavad-gita, tad viddhi pranipatena pariprasnena sevaya: “To understand the transcendental science, approach a spiritual master and humbly surrender to him, inquire from him, and serve him.” Sanatana Gosvami is a perfect example. He is submitting himself very humbly before Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.

So, first of all surrender (pranipatena); then ask questions (pariprasnena). 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.

Sanatana Gosvami completely surrendered to Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Sanatana 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.” Sanatana was inquisitive about sadhya, the goal of life, and sadhana, 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 Dasa Thakura says, guru-mukha-padma-vakya cittete kariya aikya: “Make the orders of the spiritual master your life and soul.” And then, ara na kariha mane asa: “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 Krsna 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.” Krsna is already giving direction in every respect. We want to do so many things, and Krsna is giving us the facility. As He says in the Bhagavad-gita [18.61], isvarah sarva-bhutanam hrd-dese ‘rjuna tisthati bhramayan sarva-bhutani. As the Supersoul in the heart, Krsna is giving facilities to all living entities in their wanderings throughout the various species. But when one becomes very eager to understand Krsna, or God, He is glad to give instruction: “Go to such-and-such person and submissively inquire from him. You’ll be enlightened.” Guru-krsna-prasade paya bhakti-lata-bija: [Cc. Madhya 19.151] By the mercy of the spiritual master and Krsna one can make spiritual advancement. One must simply be sincere.

Thank you very much. Hare Krsna.