The Guru Principle
by Michael Dolan/B.V. Mahayogi
The idea of accepting another human being as teacher, mentor, or guru, terrifies us. It implies giving up our independence. It may even mean surrender. We prize our independence so much that we would prefer to "rule in hell than to serve in heaven," as Milton's fallen angel put it.
Afraid of investing faith in another living human being we idealize the previous acharyas to the point of considering them gods. Often, we are so afraid of elevating a human being to the status of mentor, that they exalt the ancient teachers to the point of gods. Buddha was not a god and yet is worshipped as such. Jesus led his followers on the path to faith. Many of today’s Christians believe that they have a personal relationship with Jesus, eschewing all help from living mentors. They feel that anyone who sets himself up as a guru is a despot. Even just mentioning the word guru is enough to disqualify one as a fool who falls for ridiculous new age ideas.
Much of this is misinformation or willful blindness. Of course there have been abuses. Teachers are often accused of abuse. In the news this morning, I saw the story of a 50 year-old teacher who “brainwashed” a 15 year-old girl into becoming his sex partner. He kidnapped her and made her travel thousands of miles away to California where they were discovered in their clandestine love nest in a cabin in the mountains. But such a hideous maniac does not represent all teachers. Should we ban science classes because of the reprehensible conduct and behavior of one pervert? Should we ban teachers? Or punish the offenders?
While we might admit the necessary evil of “teachers,” guru is a foreign word which smacks of despotism. But a true guru is not a despot.
|Gaura Kishore das Babaji|
God Himself may be a despot from time to time. There is no questioning his order. Not a blade of grass moves without his will. He can make or mar. When it comes time for us to leave this world, we must go. No protest will stay the hand of death. His will is despotic. The story of Job in the Bible records how the humble Job was tested with poverty, with pestilence and plague, with boils and misery. God’s authority is absolute.
But while God Himself is a despot, the guru represents God’s mercy. The true guru does not demand absolute loyalty. His guiding hand is affectionate and forgiving. He is naturally merciful. While we might sometimes stray from the path, guru is there to offer his guiding hand again and again in spite of our inability to follow. Guru knows that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
The guru’s purpose is never self-enrichment, but compassionate enlightenment. Christians often demure at the use of the word guru. And yet, if we take the example of Christ as a mentor and teacher of his disciples, as the preacher of the sermon of the mount and the prophet who taught through parables, Jesus is principle guru in the Christian faith. In many resprects we can see that his teachings are congruent with those of a traditional eastern guru. And apart from his teachings, his example also speaks volumes. Jesus lived humbly among fishermen and carpenters who walked through the desert to proclaim the kingdom of heaven. He never used his teachings and disciples to gather riches here on earth; rather he promised riches in heaven with God the father.
Those gurus who use their name and fame to create riches and attract followers may not be the holy men they claim to be. One may question the need for such wealth and when one sees money, name and fame, and even sexual pleasure and power as the focus of a religious teacher, that teacher may be abandoned as self-serving and corrupt.
When people see such gurus and teachers enriching themselves and enjoying sexual indiscretions with their students they naturally lose faith in following any spiritual mentors at all. But the fault in any one spiritual mentor should not make us lose heart and give up the path of faith. Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.
A true guru will be seen to follow the traditions of his faith. He should be capable of giving new light, but will never ignore the old truths. An advanced spiritual mentor does not work in a void. An enlightened guru does not avoid the wisdom of thousands of years of scriptures. He works in tandem with scriptures and saints. There is a certain vogue in avoiding tradition. Clever men disguised as gurus eschew both scripture and tradition, claiming to have discovered something “new.”
“If the truth is within,” they say, “why do you need a book?”
Of course, these charlatans publish books and maintain websites with paypal links. I needn’t mention names. You know who they are: Gurus who proclaim that you don’t need a guru. Scientific “religions” that profess that you don’t need religion. Ignore the wisdom traditions at your own peril.
There is nothing “new” about reality. Real truth is eternal truth. Some of the most innovative ideas are thousands of years old. In ancient times, Buddha came to declare something “new,” and much of his analysis and teachings are still fresh. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, while reforming the wisdom traditions of Judaism into a new faith said he came not to destroy the old law but to re-affirm it. While his teachings were “new” they gave greater depth to the eternal truths. He rediscovered the perennial wisdom for a new generation. Thousands of years later, we are tasked with rediscovering the truth again. While charlatans claim to have something “new,” those steeped in the wisdom traditions can deliver the eternal truths without re-inventing the wheel.
It is often heard that we must not worship gurus. We do not need to resurrect the Egyptian man-god who ruled over slaves as they built the pyramids. Beware of despotic gurus who would enslave us.
And yet, Christ himself is an example of the guru as man-god. He is worshipped by his followers as “the way the truth and the light.”
This is really nothing new. In fact it is common practice. Many of those who represent divinity have been worshipped by their followers as God or gods.
|Bhaktivedānta Swāmī "Prabhupāda"|
Indeed it is said, by Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura:
साक्षाद्-धरित्वेन समस्त-शास्त्रैर् उक्तस् तथा भाव्यत एव सद्भिः
किन्तु प्रभोर् यः प्रिय एव तस्य न्दे गुरोः श्री-चरणारविन्दम्
uktas tathā bhāvyata eva sadbhiḥ
kintu prabhor yaḥ priya eva tasya
vande guroḥ śrī-caraṇāravindam
"Since guru is dear to God, all revealed scriptures and spiritual authorities affirm that guru should be honored as God Himself”
Because the humble servant of God is dear to the Lord; because guru carries divinity within his heart; because the spiritual mentor teaches faith in the Godhead both through his teachings and practices, he should be honored.
One is not to conclude, however, that the guru is a man-god. Guru is not a man-god. If guru were God then devotion to guru would be exactly the same as devotion to God. This kind of adoration leads to obvious perversion. In many “religious” groups, so-called “spritual mentors,” priests, and gurus take advantage of the naïveté of their followers to abuse them sexually. Such cases are well-advertised.
The Aztecs were notoriously fooled by the Spanish Conquistadors into believing that Cortez and his men were “man-gods.” Horses were unknown on the American continent and when the Aztecs first saw horsemen galloping before the volcanos of the valley of Mexico they were astounded. These centaurs flashed in the sun with their golden armour and silver swords. “These must be the gods,” they thought. Indeed the mythology of the Mayans had predicted the return of a golden-haired god, half-man half-beast. The Aztecs were shocked. Soon, news of the man-gods reached their ruler, Moctezuma who had awaited just such omens. Still, he had heard rumors of the cruelty and savagery of the new gods. He had sent them cacao and chocolate which was the food of the gods. But they prefered meat and the yellow stool called “gold.” Moctezuma decided to test these gods. He instructed his men to feed Cortez and his men very well, giving them the meat they wanted and corn. But then to observe them closely and see if they moved their bowels. Moctezuma’s agents were to collect samples of any urine and stool the gods might pass and bring it to his priests. They did so. And after the priests examined the results it was concluded that these were not gods at all. Their stool and urine smelled worse than that of the Aztecs who ate mostly corn. The stench of meat was strong in their stool. These were not gods but frauds. Moctezuma was enraged and declared war, sending his best warriors armed with knives made of obsidian to cut the so-called gods to pieces. He promised his men that they would cut out the hearts of Cortez and his men. They would eat the hearts of these gods, seasoned with corn tortillas and chiles and tomatoes. There followed the famous “Noche Triste” where half the conquistadors were slaughtered before the inevitable destruction of Moctezuma and his pagan gods.
|At Uxmal, a Mayan pyramid in Yucatan|
Guru is not a supernatural man-god who controls the wind and the rain. A true guru is a proper spiritual mentor who can guide us on the path of faith. His faith is deeper, his vision is greater. He has walked the path of spiritual awakening and is further on than we are. An advanced devotee is as good as God not by becoming Krishna but by being a most dear and confidential servant of those who serve in that higher realm. Such great personalities take on the sacred responsibility of acting as spiritual masters for the benefit of sincere and faithful truthseekers.
As such, a spiritual master who is preaching the glories of God should be accepted as the representative of God and be given all respects due Him.
According to my training, this is what Jesus Christ means says, “I am the way the truth and the light.” Christ is echoing the above quoted Sanskrit verse referring to the guru principle. Jesus does not say, “I am the only way,” but “I can show you the way, follow me.” I sincerely feel that his message is not exclusive, although it has been interpreted that way. Jesus is not claiming that he is God. He stresses that he can deliver us by showing us the way towards a higher light. Nor is Christ demanding allegiance to a church. I believe that with these words he is pointing the way towards true enlightenment and faith which will be found in surrender to God’s will and engagement in his service, guided by an experienced mentor.
Christ is not excluding the idea of guidance; he is, in fact stressing the need for accepting the divine principle which is passing through him. The guru principle is not exclusive to a particular personality. The guru principle is seen whenever divinity passes through someone, making that person instrumental in giving us spiritual guidance. God is not perfect if he cannot assert Himself or descend to help others. If God is perfection, then guidance towards that perfection must be a function of the Absolute Truth. The divine agent through whom this function manifests is guru or the divine guide. And if God is compassionate, then this function must be expressed, not once as in the descent of the Christ avatar, but infinitely. If God is infinitely compassionate, it is unthinkable that he would only offer one opportunity for salvation, limited by language and nationality to those who have access to one book or one faith. If God is infinitely compassionate, he must offer inifinite opportunities to the fallen conditioned souls who have turned away momentarily to enjoy the vicissitudes of the illusory principle called maya.
Human life is meant for inquiry into the nature of reality. The Vedas tell us athāto-brahma-jijñāsa: “Now is the time to inquire into the nature of consciousness.” But consciousness implies higher consciousness. We are finite consciousness. What is the nature of higher consciousness? This question implies a higher quest: The search for Śrī Kṛṣṇa. But this search is practically a quixotic quest. How can the finite search out the infinite? The good news is that Kṛṣṇa is also searching out the finite conditioned souls who are lost in this illusory world. And since Kṛṣṇa is infinite, not only is his compassion infinite, but his capacity to seek out and inspire the lost souls is also infinite.
If God can descend to help us, He must be able to do so in limitless ways. The finite cannot know the infinite, but the infinite can make himself known to the finite and does so in the form of innumerable spiritual mentors. Many saints walk among us. Our own lack of humility denies us their contact.
While it may be instructive and useful for some to worship Buddha and Jesus as gods, it is even more helpful for us to recognize the holy men among us who can lead us to a higher understanding. In our own line, I have seen many friends worship the gurus who lived in the 20th century as the only way for salvation, as “the way the truth and the light.” They were great indeed: Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, Bhaktivedanta Swami, Bhakti Rakshak Shridhar. But they are now no longer with us. To whom should we look for guidance?
I think we can be optimistic about encountering the divine mercy of Kṛṣṇa in myriad forms and representatives as the guru principle.
Any time the guru principle descends we may profit by recognizing it. Of course, as in the example of the Aztecs, we should exercise discretion and not blind faith. But we have been taught by our higher guardians that there is only one guru but he appears in a variety of forms, internally and externally. The guru may represent the paramatma principle or even higher aspects of divinity.
Guru is one and many. In 11th Canto there’s a section called the Uddhava Gīta; there Kṛṣṇa gives direct instruction to his friend Uddhava. He says, na hy ekasmād guror jñānaṁ su-sthiraṁ syāt su-puṣkalam One certainly cannot get complete knowledge from only one Guru. (Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 11.9.31)
Śrīdhar Mahārāja comments in his definitive text Śrī Guru and His Grace:“In the highest stage of devotion, we must see not only one Guru; we must see that Guru is everywhere. In the land of Kṛṣṇa, all are Gurus; our transformation should be towards that. Everything in the spiritual world, the entire environment, is our Guru, and we are servants. To enter into Vaikuṇṭha, or Goloka, means that on all sides we must see Guru and pay our respects. There is gradation of course, but all are Guru.