Guru Down to Earth

Lecture about the relationship between spiritual teacher and disciples or students in terms of different expectations and experiences.

SB 6.14.23

citraketur uväca
bhagavan kià na viditaà
yoginäà dhvasta-päpänäà
bahir antaù çarériñu


King Citraketu said: O great lord Aìgirä, because of austerity, knowledge and transcendental samädhi, you are freed from all the reactions of sinful life. Therefore, as a perfect yogé, you can understand everything external and internal regarding embodied, conditioned souls like us.


In every relationship people have different expectations and if those expectations are reasonable and when they are met there is a good relationship. We can clearly see in Prabhupada’s own life, when he first came to the West, he had certain expectations of what a disciple would be and then he had to adjust those expectations. Prabhupada expected that when people make vows they would keep them, whether a marriage or an initiation vow.  I remember that Prabhupada was quite startled in the beginning of the movement when certain people not only didn’t keep their vows, but drastically changed their whole attitude. One example of Prabhupada adjusting his own expectation as a guru or Founder-Acarya is regarding marriages. In the beginning of the movement Prabhupada personally arranged many marriages because he thought, here is a boy and there is a girl who claim to be surrendered to me, both say that all they want in life is to serve, so help each other serve!

Then it turned out, in sociological terms, when people have very powerful conversion experiences, for a certain amount of time they may be very zealous and idealistic and then this euphoria and spiritual ecstasy settles down and their human side resurfaces and they have to deal with it. So people made vows in the ecstasy of that new experience which they couldn’t keep – whether marriage vows, initiation vows or just vows to do a particular service. So from the point of view of the guru, he is learning to have more reasonable expectations based on where you are and what the people are.

Also, what is a reasonable expectation for a disciple to have for the guru? What should a disciple think of the position of the guru? The simplest definition of a guru is one who is representing Krishna. Not only Krishna, but he is also representing the great acaryas. In the 6th chapter of the NOD Prabhupada translating Rupa Goswami’s teachings says that the duty of a disciple is to follow in the footsteps of the great acaryas under the guidance of a bonafide spiritual master.

A bonafide spiritual master doesn’t create a new way of Krishna Consciousness – that is done by the great Acaryas. There is Acharya (with a capital “A”) and acarya (with a small “a”). We all should be acarya, but the great Acaryas are the ones who are guiding the whole direction of Vedic civilization. The Acarya is the one who establishes the way to serve Krishna in a particular age, in a particular circumstance. A bonafide guru is helping the disciples to do what the guru is doing: to follow the Acarya. So everyone is following the great Acaryas and those who are more experienced help those who are less experienced. That’s it, that’s my simple understanding. As I sometimes say, “I just work here.”

All of us, everyone here, helps other devotees, who may be not as experienced as you in certain areas, to understand Krishna Consciousness better. So everyone is acting as a guru. Prabhupada referred about 200 times to the verse: yäre dekha, täre kaha ‘kåñëa’-upadeça (Cc. Madhya 7.128). “Whomever you meet, tell them Krishna’s instruction and by My order become a guru”.

Prabhupada really insisted that every man and woman – even children – should be guru. What kind of guru, çikñä- or dékñä or vartmapradarçaka-guru, that just depends upon your situation and the circumstances, but everyone should be a guru. Prabhupada considered that if you don’t become a guru you are being selfish. In other words, being a guru is not a trophy, it is not a status symbol. It is about being willing to sacrifice a little bit of my selfish time when I do what I want to do and help other people. So it is an act of giving. Prabhupada concluded that if you are a good person then you should help other people. And if you do that, you are a guru.

Another point in the guru-disciple relationship is that the guru should be liberated, follow the principles and practice bhakti yoga. If he or she is doing that then that person is considered liberated as also explained in the Bhakti-rasämåta-sindhu, but even liberated souls may be still works in progress. Prabhupada wrote to Professor Staal in a conversation in 1970 that began when I approached him, that “all my disciples are pure devotees.” What he meant by that was that they are giving their life and following all the principles. So in that sense all of one’s activities are pure.

Prabhupada was in a sense behaviorally focused on what you were doing. If you had a good intention and were doing the right thing, then fine.

There is a tendency among certain people who are not the brightest – especially outside of ISKCON – to try to base spiritual qualifications on esoteric, non verifiable criteria. In other words, “My guru is the only pure devotee.” At the present time I think there are about 38 only living pure devotees on the planet. However Prabhupada gave us a spiritual science, and we say that: This is not a sectarian religion, this is a spiritual science.” But if you want to use that language you have to be prepared to back it up. Any science indicates making claims that can be publicly verified. If I say, “Last night I was dancing with Krishna”, then my point would be, “prove that I wasn’t dancing with Krishna or let me try to prove that I was.” I can’t prove that I was, you can’t prove that I wasn’t, and in this world, as P.T. Barnum says, “there’s a sucker born every minute”. It is not that hard to find some gurupie followers and form a little cult.

So if I say that I am a pure devotee and I am seeing Krishna, prove that I am not seeing Krishna! So this whole type of thing is not scientific. There is a statement by Prabhupada in his books where he says that the uttama-adhikäré or first class guru has three qualities. They are all verifiable, they are not subjective. Therefore these three qualifications can be part of a spiritual science. They are (not in necessarily in that order):

  • The guru should have a thorough knowledge of scripture, really understand and present scripture in an expert way
  • The guru should be following
  • The guru should be a teacher

If you take any one of these three away you’ve got a problem. If the guru knows the scripture very well and practices, but is not really inclined to teach and help people, then how can he be a guru?  If the guru is a teacher and is practicing but doesn’t know the scriptures very well, Prabhupada says he is a madhyama, a second class guru. Of if the guru knows the scriptures and teaches, but doesn’t practice – that’s another problem. So from Prabhupada’s point of view – if a disciple is dedicated to his mission, the disciple has learnt in a mature, realized way Prabhupada’s book and is practicing – what more can you ask of someone, and did Prabhupada ask more than that? “Learn my books, practice and dedicate your life to teaching.” If someone is doing that, there is no other special qualification.

Among people who are following those qualifications, obviously you have to find someone that works for you in the sense that it has to be the right chemistry. One factor is that we bring a lot of baggage to our relationships. I’ve been doing this guru service for half my life now and different people come into this relationship. If they had a bad relationship with their father suddenly their guru becomes their father and all kinds of junk comes out. Some people are very needy. There are all kinds of psychologies. Some people do better in separation because they don’t fall into the familiarity-breeds-contempt trap and they need more independence and space. They flourish in a situation where they can just go out on adventures for their guru and bring back trophies. Some people need a lot of TLC (tender loving care), some people need to be taken care of, some need attention.

So a disciple has to find a guru that works for him. I remember in Los Angeles one devotee approached me who had been aspiring for a guru. He was intellectually inclined and wanted to study and the guru had the old idea that colleges are slaughter house – they are, but Prabhupada himself went to college and constantly used what he learnt in college in his preaching and he ordered me to stay in college. That was the first instruction I got from him.

Not every guru is everything for everyone. It is a relationship. Just if someone is a good devotee doesn’t mean that he is a good husband or wife for you. You have to find someone you get along with. Gurus also have different expectations. Some gurus insist upon a certain standard, they want very formal worship, and some don’t. So it is a relationship that has to work on both sides.

Another point is the expectation regarding knowledge. Jayadvaita Maharaja was walking with Prabhupada along the beach and asked if the guru is omniscient. Prabhupada was surprised and asked “What? Of course not! Only Krishna is omniscient.”

Prabhupada said, “my qualification is that I didn’t concoct anything.” There is no statement in any scripture I know that says that a guru has to know everything about the material world. Look at guru-disciples relationships in the scriptures, like Narada Muni. He would inspire someone, become his guru and give him some general program. There are many cases where the guru gives a certain sadhana and then gives the disciples a mission in life. Think of Prabhupada’s relation with Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur. When Prabhupada accepted him he took on a Gaudiya Vaishnava sadhana and Bhaktisiddhanta inspired him and gave him a mission and a vision: You should preach in English, in the West. Prabhupada was very inspired by that, made it his life’s mission and was very successful.

In the first letter I wrote to Prabhupada in 1969 when I joined the Berkely temple as a student, I asked him whether I should stay in college or drop out and Prabhupada told me I to stay. He said, “I want you to be nicely educated so that you can preach to similarly educated people.” So that became my mission in life. Therefore I tend to focus on certain things and I am notorious for having certain views on things, and in my own completely self-justifying, self-flattering version of my own life I am trying to carry out Prabhupada’s instruction. The beauty is that there are so many of us and every member of ISKCON brings in a unique understanding of Krishna Consciousness and of serving Krishna.

I just want to share some of my own realizations (of course when I say realization it has to be true): In my own life I feel confident that I am basically doing my job properly. I am acting as a guru in ISKCON. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I am expert in all material things. It doesn’t mean that I can give someone expert advice in psychological or financial matters or in terms of vocational training or say that you should marry a certain person, because what if it blows up in our faces? When I was a temple president Prabhupada wrote a letter and said, “I am not doing marriages any more”, because all kinds of things were happening.

One of a guru’s and a Vaishnava’s six qualities is “dakña” – expert – from which we have the English world “dexterous, dexterity”. A big part of expertise is to know what you don’t know. There is a famous dialogue written by Plato, the “Apology”, which describes the trial of Socrates when Socrates is making his defense speech. He knows that it was said of him that he was the wisest man in Athens. There was an island called Delphi where there was a temple to Apollo (Surya) with a lady priest who attended Apollo. People asked questions and the answers this priestess gave were considered to be Apollo speaking through the priestess. That was the oracle. Someone had gone to Delphi and asked “who is the wisest person in Athens?” and the answer was “Socrates”. So Socrates said in his trial, “maybe the reason why the oracle said that was that at least I know what I don’t know and most of the people I meet pretentiously think that they know what they don’t know.

So a part of wisdom and expertise is to know what you know and what you don’t know. We are supposed to be çästra-cakñu, to see through scriptures, and yet there are certain elevated descriptions in sastra which are – I don’t want to use the world hyperbole – e.g. the phala-çrutis, the fruit verses like “whoever reads this story will never be defeated in battle”. So what happens if two kings both read the story? Or if someone accidentally fasts on a certain Ekädaçé, a flower airplane comes from Vaikuntha and takes the person away. The acaryas teach that this is not true for everyone, but it may be true for some.

So there are certain idealized descriptions of a guru or a disciple, and there are idealized descriptions of husband and wife. And as we know in the real world there are not so many perfect husbands and wives, and yet there are good marriage because people are at least pursuing those ideals and measuring themselves against those ideals. Therefore they can have successful Krishna Conscious relationships.

One problem with these idealized descriptions of the guru can be if he/she sees himself/herself through scripture in terms of those highest descriptions: “Yepp, that’s me, and even if I don’t always experience all those symptoms I’ll just write that off to humility.”

Another really interesting technique is that those disciples who are most flattering and reverential, you decide that these are the real disciples that have faith. And in the Freudian sense of the Super Ego, as a guru I can begin to see myself through the eyes of those people who are “most surrendered”, and I filter out other views no matter how accurate they are. Then I surround myself with my circle of the most flattering disciples, I read descriptions in the scriptures and that’s how I understand myself. Then I can be in denial about certain things. Everything I do which is not consistent with those high descriptions is just some kind of pastime.

Religious societies offer the most extraordinary possibilities for hypocrisy because the higher the ideals, the more likely you won’t meet them and yet you can become  attached to the ideals as self-description because they are so flattering. Narada says to Vyasa: na manyate tasya niväraëaà janaù: “You have done a terrible thing because you have encouraged people in sense gratification.” And once people have experienced that they don’t want to give it up. So once people have tasted the nectar of being exalted and worshipped, you are just infallible. So even if you make a mistake it is not really a mistake. It can be a thrilling experience. So a person may not want to give this up.

Of course even this is an extreme picture and fortunately I don’t think we have too many gurus in ISKCON that go all the way in this type of delusion, but it can effect us. It can affect husbands, if they read descriptions of the lord and master of the home. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Absolute power is nowhere so easily available as in religious societies because we claim to be representing God and Krishna is the Absolute authority.  I remember when I was given real authority in the Hare Krishna movement. I have been in the movement for a long time – about two months – and a couple of other guys joined. Naturally they knew nothing and one time I was told to walk them down to the sankirtan party which was two blocks away on Telegraph Avenue in Berkley. I remember how I walked out of the temple door with these two guys who were under my authority. It was almost like “Werewolf under the full moon” or something. I felt this incredible surge of absolute authority, and I think in the first block of our walk I gave them at least 15 instructions. We were just walking one block down the street and at a certain point they just turned to me and said, “What are you doing?”

There is a term in the Bhagavatam which is äpad-dharma which means emergency dharma. Let’s say your neighbor’s house is on fire and you know that there are children in the house and their parents are gone. Obviously what you do is break into the house and take the children out because it is an emergency. Now let’s say there is no fire and you just break the windows of your neighbor’s house and take their children out. You are going to be up the Vaitaraëé river without a paddle. Vedic Culture was practical, they were real people. Therefore several times in the Bhagavatam you find the statement that, “a person should never do this if it is not an emergency, anäpadi. Throughout the sastra you find this category of äpad-dharma, your duty in a time of emergency.

So in my view, looking at the history of ISKCON, those of us who were in the first generation, the fact that Srila Prabhupada gave up his external presence in this world when we were very young created some type of äpad-dharma. When Prabhupada left I was 29 years old and had been in the movement for eight years and suddenly I became God on earth. I should have called myself Bhumi-pada, clay feet. Normally if you are designing the ideal spiritual society you wouldn’t put 29year old people practicing for eight years in the position that I was put in. When Prabhupada called me in his room and asked me to be the GBC of Latin America I was 25 years old. I was sent down to take charge of the lives of men, women and children. All these things at such early ages, taking such immense responsibility and authority, it was just a very special situation. In normal human societies that have been around longer people in a more advanced stage take on these types of duties.


From Q & A:

If we look at Vedic Culture as it was functioning at ancient times I think there was definitely a sense of law and order. The guru couldn’t just do anything. In fact there is one amazing story in the 9thCanto of Srimad Bhagavatam about King Kalmasa-pada (Stainfoot, because he had stains on his feet) where his guru Vasiñöha Muni cursed him and he counter-cursed his guru. So there was tension. There is one story in Mahäbhärata where the kings kill all the Brahmins.

Gurus previously operated in a very explicit and somewhat demanding cultural context. In India with some exceptions (e.g. the Madhvas) there are not these heavy religious institutions like the churches in the West, so there was a lot of freedom. But then you get a situation of great diversity. So don’t have the cultural pressure of a traditional society, nor do you have a heavy institution, so the guru can do anything. Then you get these totally out-of-control so called gurus. Some of the most famous ones, with the most disciples in India, turned out to be a homosexual pedophile. And some of his followers still think he is God because that shows that God can do anything.

So it is a combination of these factors if things like that happen, but if you go back earlier in Indian history there was a tremendous amount of cultural pressure if gurus were too eccentric. An example of that is Jada Bharata or his father Åñabhadeva. Åñabhadeva was certainly a sage, but because he acted eccentrically people attacked him. The same thing happened to the Avantépura brähmaëa. He was harassed wherever he went. People even made fun of Çukadeva Goswämé because he was wondering naked. So there was very serious cultural pressure to conform to certain standards. Sages, gurus and brähmaëas who didn’t conform were often harassed. I think it is more a modern thing where you don’t have a heavy institution nor the cultural pressure, and throwing in a heaping table spoon of Ramkrishna “Do-your-own-thing” you get this out-of-control pseudo Vedic Culture where the guru can do anything.

Prabhupada said to me that the main thing is enthusiasm. At the same time I see in retrospect if I had been more mature and enthusiastic I could have avoided certain problems for myself and others. Even those of us who are now member of the “American Association of Retired Prabhus” we have to find Prabhupada and that extraordinary enthusiasm, that dynamic relentless will to spread this movement, and do it in a mature way. It’s like a dialectical process. The thesis was this unbridled enthusiasm to take no prisoners, kill the demons. Then there was a reaction to that and everyone wants to settle down, down, down. So what we need is a synthesis where we have all the enthusiasm and love for Prabhupada and the confidence that he gives us, feeling Prabhupada’s confidence within us and that dynamic spiritual energy, and at the same time being mature, wise and intelligent. That is the most powerful combination: enthusiasm with wisdom.