What is a guru? Who is qualified? How does one find a guru? What is the relationship between guru and disciple? What are the qualifications of the disciple? And more.
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Abbreviations used in these notes: BG for Bhagavad Gita
- Bhagavad Gita As It Is
- Mundaka Upanishad
The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another, as the air carries aromas. Thus he takes one kind of body and again quits it to take another.
Mundaka Upanishad 1.2.12
To learn transcendental subject matter, one must approach the spiritual master. In doing so, he should carry fuel to burn in sacrifice. The symptom of such a spiritual master is that he is expert in understanding the Vedic conclusion, and therefore he constantly engages in the service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Acharya – Teacher-by-example, authorized by an established disciplic line (sampradaya)
Ajnata sukriti – Pious activities performed without the actor’s knowledge
Ashrams – 1) Religious schools; 2) Four orders of Vedic social life: brahmacharya (student), grihastha (family life), vanaprastha (retired), sannyasa (renounced order)
Diksha guru – the guru who initiates you into a lineage. A person has only one diksa guru.
Guru – Gu-darkness, ru-dispeller. Guru is one is one who dispels the darkness of ignorance. Guru also means heavy (with knowledge).
Shikhsa guru – an instructing guru, a person whom you can ask questions and receive guidance from. A person can have many siksa gurus.
svadhyaya – self-study, study of the sacred scriptures. One of the niyamas (spiritual observances) of the eight-limb yoga path.
Vaidhi bhakti – recommended practices followed out of obedience to one’s teacher; a preliminary stage leading to spontaneous devotional service (raganuga-bhakti).
vartma-pradarsaka guru – the person who first introduces you to the devotional practice
The Four Regulative Principles
Students aspiring for initiation into the Gaudiya Vaishnava lineage are encouraged to follow these four behavioral guidelines:
- No eating meat, fish or eggs
- No intoxicants
- Limiting sexual activity to one’s life partner
- No gambling
Further, those interested in initiation into bhakti practice are encouraged to chant 16 rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra daily. (16 times around a mala of 108 beads — 108 x 16 = 1,728 mantra recitations daily.)
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
Test Your Knowledge
Haribol! Thank you for taking the quiz.
Would you like to take the quiz again? The answer is discussed in the podcast (Gurus: Questions & Answers)
Visit gitawisdom.org/quiz to try some more questions.
#1. What type of guru is authorized to give formal initiation to a disciple?
We’ll talk about three types of gurus here. The vartma-pradarsaka guru is the person who first introduces you to devotional practices.
A shiksha guru is an instructing teacher, someone who offers guidance and is there to answer questions. One can have more than one shiksha guru.
A diksha guru is authorized to officially initiate disciples into their lineage. When one accepts initiation from a diksha guru, they are agreeing to follow vows and seriously pursue spiritual life. The guru agrees to guide the disciple through as many lifetimes as is needed for the disciple to become liberated.
It’s possible that these roles may all be filled by the same person, though this is generally not the case.
#2. When a disciple is initiated into a Vaishnava lineage they are given a new name ending in das or dasi. What does the word das mean?
Upon initiation, disciples are given a name of Krishna, Radha or some place or activity associated with them, followed by das for men or dasi for women. The word das means “servant of”. For example, Krishna das means “servant of Krishna” and Yogesvara das means “servant of Krishna, who is the master of mystic yoga”.
Joshua: I’ll read some of the questions that we got over the transom here. What is the relationship between the guru and the disciple?
Well, I’ll tell you what it’s not. The relationship between a guru and disciple is not a surrogate parent and child relationship. That was another mistake that we made in the first generation of Krishna devotees in the West. Prabhupada was very kind and obliging, so some people saw him as the father they never had, and it was sentimental. And when it came down to actually doing the work, and that kind of sentimentality was no longer the main thing, they went away. People went away because they weren’t taking it in the right spirit. In psychology it’s called transference. You impose on someone the expectations that you had of someone else. So, people don’t always have happy relationships with their parents, and if you find a teacher, all of a sudden you have a parental figure to whom you can turn. But that’s risky, because that’s a material vision of a guru. A guru doesn’t play a material role, he plays a spiritual role; there to offer guidance for your spiritual progress.
So that’s what the relationship is not. What is the relationship? Well, that’s wide open.
There are some people who say, “Just tell me what to do.” They want someone to say, “You should do this then do that.” And there are some teachers who will do that. They’ll say, “Okay, now why don’t you do this, then do that. You have the inclination, the skill, you have the talent.”
In the olden days, you would live in the ashram of the guru. The gurus were sometimes couples, husbands and wives, who instead of sending their children to someone else’s ashram, they’d open a school in their home.
So, you’d have a female and male presence and they would come to know the students from being with them every day. They would get a sense of their psychology and could guide them in a particular direction or answer questions about partnering.
Student: I’m assuming that, in the bhakti tradition, the guru plays a role in having the initiate follow the four tenets, the main tenets, of the bhakti path. But I’ve been hearing about different levels of commitment or adherence to the principles—raganuga bhakti and vaidhi bhakti—and I was wondering if you could tell me what those are?
Joshua: We’re all beginners here. We are performing bhakti in practice. Vaidhi bhakti means that we follow the prescribed practices, like chanting a number of rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra on beads, because it’s recommended; that’s a daily practice.
If you’re going to be initiated, you’ll be chanting on these beads sixteen times around on each bead, which takes about an hour and a half of meditation per day. The other tenets, or guidelines, that you were describing include a very strict vegetarian, if not vegan (preferably vegan, but certainly at least vegetarian) diet. And, it’s food that’s offered with prayer. So, that’s part of your spiritual practice.
No intoxicants like drugs or cigarettes. Technically speaking: no coffee or tea (even though that’s also kind of become somewhat fluid, shall we say), no sex outside of your life partnership, and no gambling. No frivolous throwing away of money and so on. Those guidelines are the basics.
Then to receive initiation, which is what these three strands of beads represent, you follow that practice for at least a year under the supervision of someone who is authorized to recommend you. It’s usually a temple president, sometimes a senior disciple like myself, who will be asked to mentor somebody.
Student: Shiksha guru?
Joshua: Well, we can look at that. The kind of teacher we’ve been talking about is known as the diksha guru. Diksha is the initiation ritual, and each person has only one diksha guru. There’s only one person who gives you the formal initiation into your devotional practice.
A shiksha guru means an instructing teacher. You can have many shiksha gurus. There are many teachers, many people who are wise or experienced or have been around long enough that they’ve learned a thing or two, and you can take good guidance from them. There is also what is known as the vartma-pradarshaka-guru. A vartma-pradarshaka-guru is the first person who introduces you to the devotional path. They may not end up being either a shiksha guru for you or your diksha guru but someone who serves as that initial post—the person who first brings you to a devotional practice. That is known as the vartma-pradarsaka-guru. Yeah?
Student: So, according to the Gita or to the Upanishads, does it ever say that it’s required to have a guru?
Joshua: Right. Good. That’s one of the questions that came over the e-mail. Do you have to have a guru? You don’t have to have anything except air and water and some food every now and then. The question is: what is the most favorable circumstance for making substantial spiritual progress? Sa gurumevābhigacchet (Mundaka Upanishad 1.2.12). For that purpose, yes, a guru is required. There comes a point where you can’t make substantial additional spiritual progress unless you have the personal guidance of a qualified guru. You can advance quite far on your own—there are many people who become very wise spiritual practitioners who do not pay allegiance to a particular guru—but there comes a point where, in order to go further on the path, you have to be able to interact with someone who knows you better than you know yourself. And that’s the point. We have impressions of ourselves. We carry these impressions around, according to the Bhagavad Gita, the way the air carries aromas. We have these mental constructs that are often formed as reactions to experiences early in life, or to trauma or to whatever it may be. And you don’t overcome those on your own just by doing your asana practice and chanting your mantras. Just because you have some spiritual practice doesn’t mean that your psyche has now been totally resolved and all of the dilemmas from the past have disappeared. Doesn’t happen. There has to be that interaction with a teacher—even just to read verses from Bhagavad Gita. I know very few people who can actually understand the Bhagavad Gita on their own. You learn Gita in the company of others.
Student: Some of these gurus aren’t alive. So, do you have to meet the guru?
Joshua: Right. Well, that’s another very good question. Does your guru have to be present in order for that person to be your guru? Alright. So, this has aroused some controversy over the years. That’s actually a somewhat politically sticky question. There are some schools of thought that say this grand guru was the last one. After that person, everyone else is just following—and really that’s the only person. Some divisions of Christianity, for example, will only acknowledge Jesus as the teacher. After Jesus, there is no one else. Others will say no. There are intermediaries. In Orthodox Judaism, also, there are certain messiah-like teachers and after them… that’s it.
So there are some pockets, some communities that say, for instance, that Prabhupada was the last teacher, and after Prabhupada everybody else is just a representative of Prabhupada. They’re actually only initiating on his behalf. What was that called? Ritvik. Ritvik teachers. That’s not the actual tradition. It may be an admirable sentiment. You know that Prabhupada was such a great teacher. Who could possibly live up to that? But to deny that such a great teacher was capable of empowering followers to also then become teachers is actually insulting to him. So, the more scripturally accurate understanding is that there will be successor gurus who are qualified. Maybe no one as great as the founder-acharya, the first teacher, but there are a lot of wonderful people out there, and if you know how to identify them you will find a teacher.
Student: Prabhupada said he wanted you all to become gurus.
Joshua: Yes. He wanted all of his students to become initiating teachers. I know one of my godbrothers in Florida, who is an initiating teacher in the Krishna society, who says something interesting. He says right now we have a few dozen gurus who have thousands of disciples. What we really need are thousands of gurus with a dozen disciples. And that’s what he does. He only has 12 or 14 students to whom he’s given initiation. That’s my way of thinking as well. It’s a smart way to go about it. When you give initiation to someone, you take their karma on yourself. This is the traditional explanation—that you know I’m going to liberate you from birth and death. If you don’t make it, if you mess up, I will come back in your next lifetime and get you. I’ll come back to help you again. So, you’re obligating this person to come back into the material world to help you. That’s some serious responsibility.
So if you’re taking thousands of disciples, imagine the responsibility involved. One of my godbrothers, who’s an initiating guru, says that after he gives initiations, he gets sick. He feels himself absorbing that responsibility and that condition from the many people he’s giving initiation to. So, it’s a very serious thing. But they’re there.
Student: Can you take us through the process of what it would be like to be initiated and go through that sort of ceremony?
Joshua: First, you write a letter requesting initiation. And the prerequisites are that there’s a disciple examination. There are essay questions—a certain body of knowledge that you’re meant to master before you should present yourself for initiation. That’s important. Without already acting like an initiated disciple, you could fall away. You might decide that you’ve had enough of this, and you’re going to go do something else now. So you want to be sure that you’re serious about it. There are qualifying examinations and quizzes, and a paper to be written. And then there’s affiliation with a temple or a temple president who gets to know you. There’s attendance at programs on a regular basis. That’s also encouraged. Then when the one-year trial period is over, the temple president may choose to write a letter of recommendation. With those prerequisites in hand—having passed the exams, having a letter of recommendation, a one-year trial period, and so on—the teacher will invite you to receive initiation. The disciple comes before the teacher and the teacher asks him, “Please tell me what are the four principles that you agree to follow?” and then you recite the four principles: no gambling, vegetarian diet, and so on. And, “How many rounds on beads?” A minimum of 16 rounds every day. So you’re making a promise that you’ll follow these principles. And then the teacher, who has chanted on your beads, hands the beads to you.
Student: The teacher chants on your beads?
Joshua: The teacher chants a round of the mantra on the beads, gives you your beads and says, “Your spiritual name is____ ,” and then gives you your initiate name. And then after each of the candidates for initiation has received their name and their beads, there’s a fire ceremony. And in the room there’s a pit with decorations according to traditional designs with colored dyes. And a fire is built with ghee and spices and bananas put into the fire. The fire is considered the mouth of Vishnu. So these offerings are made into the mouth of Vishnu. There’s recitation of mantras. A lot of chanting and dancing. There’s a big feast.
Student: Is there a significance to the name that’s given?
Joshua: Yes. It is a name of Krishna, a name of the Supreme Being, with the suffix das for men and dasi for women. Meaning, I am now servant of the Supreme Being. Sometimes the names may reflect some quality of the individual. For example, Prabhupada had an architect student who received initiation and got the name Vishwakarma. Vishwakarma is known as the architect of the demigods. Someone else was known for some very particular thing and got a name that was reflective of their qualities. Often, it’s a name that just sounds like what their name was before. My name is Joshua and Prabhupada gave me the name Yogesvara. There are some consonants often just in the sound of the name.
Student: There seems to me—from talking about this sort of thing with a bunch of different people with varying levels of commitment and objectives within the community—that there are those who favor a more systematized, formal, rule-based practice than those who kind of go rogue a little bit with it. And I was wondering if there’s any contention there. That maybe you could tell me what pushti marg is. I’ve been hearing talk about that, and I was wondering what that is. Because I can imagine what someone who didn’t want to follow rules would say about those who do. And I was wondering what the other side of the coin is.
Joshua: What’s being referred to is the fact that some people feel incapable of, for example, making good on a promise of chanting 16 rounds—an hour and a half of chanting every day. It just may not be feasible, and yet they want the initiation. So, they might go to a different school, a different community where the teachings are parallel, but where there may be less requirements for initiation. Some of those other communities are, in every other respect, very much the same as the Krishna Consciousness school where those vows are required for initiation. But, for whatever reason, the teacher from that other parallel school may not have those restrictions.
Pushti marg is the path of grace. It’s a parallel path to the Caitanya Krishna path that devotees follow. It comes from the teacher Vallabhacarya. Vallabhacarya was a contemporary of Caitanya Mahaprabhu in the 1500s who taught pretty much the exact same thing that has always been taught in the bhakti tradition, with one slight difference. It’s kind of like in Christianity the difference between grace and action. Faith and Action. Some schools will say that all you need is faith and God will do everything else. Other schools will say, no, you have to make the effort and then God steps forward to help. So the Pushti Marg, or the Path of Grace, says that our position is like that of a kitten. A kitten is picked up by the mother cat in her jaws and carried around, and the kitten doesn’t have to do anything. It’s just carried around. The other school is the school of the monkey—the baby monkey. The baby monkey has to hold on to the mother’s back. You have to make an effort to hang on there. So the mother will take you around, but you’ve got to work for it. So the Pushti Marg says we’re like the kitten. We are carried by our faith in God, and God cares for us. You don’t have to perform great deeds.
Student: Would you even care to say what Prabhupada might say about the Path of Grace?
Joshua: Prabhupada urged his students to offer the Vaishnava pranam after every class, which is, “My dear Vaishnava Prabhu.” We call anyone who’s looking to serve Krishna, “You’re my master, my Prabhu.” So there was always that sense of respect and the feeling that we’re one big family. We’re different branches of the same family tree. Some neophytes, some beginners, may have a we’re-more-spiritual-than-you-are kind of thing. But that’s silly. That’s naive and childish.
The mature perspective is: So they happen to have a different lineage? So what? This is my cousin, my family, my brother and sister in Krishna consciousness.
Student: There is ajnata sukriti though.
Joshua: Ajnata sukriti. You might almost call that unwarranted grace. Sukriti is a pious thing and ajnata means unintentional. You do something, and you didn’t even mean for it to be a service, but God is so kind. He says, “Oh, look at this nice service,” and accepts you even if you didn’t mean it as a service. Sometimes, we would go chanting on the streets and people say, [mockingly] “Hare Krishna.” They’re chanting. It’s considered a wonderful thing.
There is a story in the Puranas of a Muslim who was attacked in a forest by a wild boar. Now boars are considered by Muslims to be untouchable. And the word in Arabic for untouchable is “haram.” So he was trying to shoo the boar away saying, “haram, haram, haram.” And the boar killed him. The higher authorities, the divine authorities, took it that what he was chanting was, “Ha Rama.” Which means, “Where’s my beloved Lord Rama?” Ha Rama. Even though it was not his intention, they liberated him from further birth and death just because he came close to chanting the name of Rama. People may in jest or anger do something, but the nature of creation is such that the good part is what’s recognized. So, Maybe we’re here because of some ajnata sukriti that we did in a previous life. We might not have been intentionally seeking a spiritual path, but we got a plate of prasadam at Ratha Yatra in our last lifetime, for example, so here we are.
Student: It seems like, to me, what I’ve been learning so far is that there’s so much emphasis on intention. The purpose, the motive, the thoughts and the sentiment behind why we do this. That sounds kind of like an ends-justify-the-means, in some respect.
Joshua: Well, you shouldn’t exploit it. Don’t try to finagle something out of it. That’s a rather uncouth idea.
Student: It’s like giving people the benefit of the doubt.
Joshua: Yes, exactly. Exactly. There is a story in the Srimad Bhagavatam of Ajamila. Ajamila was the son of Brahmins, he came from a Brahmanical family, but he fell away from it. He basically gave up his spiritual practices and led a somewhat debauched life. He married, had children, and he was very enamored of his eldest son whom he named Narayana. In India, parents very often name children after names of gods and goddesses. So Ajamila named his son Narayana which is a name of God. At the time of death, he was calling for his son to come, “Narayana! Narayana!” So representatives of the Lord of Death, Yamaraj, and Lord Vishnu, appeared at the same time and they had a debate. The Yamadutas, the representatives of Yama, were saying, “He’s coming with us. His whole life was just one big mistake and he needs to be corrected.” The Vishnudutas said, “No, no, no! He was chanting the name Narayana when he passed away, when his soul left his body and therefore, he’s qualified to come with us now to the spiritual world.” They had a serious debate about this. The Yamadutas were saying, “But he wasn’t calling God. He was calling his son. His intention was calling his son.” The Vishnudutas were saying, “It doesn’t matter. The name is so transcendental that, whatever his intentions were, he gets the benefit.” There’s a tradition of debating these things throughout history. But generally, people are given the benefit of the doubt. Even if someone’s unintentionally offering some service, they’ll receive the benefit.
Student: The bum that walked in with the toilet paper.
Joshua: That’s a story from the early days in 1966 when Prabhupada began teaching, there was no international movement, there was just this one little storefront. Sometimes there would be nobody there. Imagine, this great teacher, and there were only two people that would come and show up for his classes. And one evening, this drunk stumbled in because it’s in the Bowery. Twenty-six Second Avenue in the Bowery. The Bowery in the 60s was basically a flophouse—a public flophouse. There were three pubs on every street. Three bars and drunks lying sprawled out in doorways everywhere. This one guy stumbled in totally three sheets to the wind, and he was wearing a raincoat. Prabhupada was sitting giving class and there was a tiny little bathroom attached to the room. This drunk must have been there before because he walked in, reached into the pocket of his raincoat, pulled out a roll of toilet paper, and placed it on the table next to Prabhupada. He stumbled to the back, flopped down next to the wall and promptly fell asleep. Prabhupada said, “Just see, he’s somewhat out of order, but he’s offered service. This is Krishna consciousness.” The follow up to that story is that the next week that same fellow came back shaved, bathed, properly dressed, and chanted and danced with the devotees, having found this superior form of intoxication.
I asked Prabhupada once when we were sitting out on the lawn of the temple in London (There were about 10 of us sitting on the lawn, and we all had our beads and Prabhupada had his beads.), “Prabhupada, how is it that there may be 10 people and all of them are equally unqualified for bhakti. They’re unqualified for initiation for devotional life, and one of them becomes a devotee and the others don’t. How is that?” He looked at me as if to say, “You rascal!” He said, with almost a sneer, “Don’t try to find a formula for causeless mercy. It’s causeless. It’s ultimately up to the mercy giver.” And then he quoted Shakespeare, “The quality of mercy is not strained. It falleth like the gentle rain from heaven on the earth below.” The rainwater falls on the ocean which doesn’t need it. It falls on a dry place that does need it. We’re not necessarily qualified, but the teacher comes, and out of his compassion for us who are suffering in this world gives us Krishna.
So maybe we don’t qualify for initiation. He gives you your qualification. That’s the guru. The guru gives you your qualification for initiation. We don’t have any qualification, but his kindness is that he sees that we’re floundering around here in the material world. And he comes of his own volition, often at great personal expense. Prabhupada nearly died coming over. He had two heart attacks on the boat coming over from India. That’s a guru. That’s a teacher.
Student: What if there is somebody else out there right now who you don’t even know that suddenly appears?
Joshua: If you work on what you can work on, your own spiritual practices, the sidduch as we say in Yiddish, the match, will get made. You don’t need to worry. The meeting will be set up for you. Rest assured, your sincerity is recognized and you don’t need to be concerned that, “Oh, maybe I’ll never find my teacher.” That will be arranged.
Student: What about the idea of just meditating on the deities? You have a deity that is meaningful to you. You get what you need from that in your own personal swadhyaya, self-study.
Joshua: That’s wonderful. But if you wish to reach the stage where you’re not just meditating on that deity, but that deity starts to talk to you, you need a guru.
Student: Interesting. You risk idolatry at some point. Maybe not you personally. Like you’re fixating on a thing. Not so much the object, but just that there’s this thing there and it’s serving a purpose.
Joshua: Well that’s a good point. A qualified teacher will help you avoid improper meditation on the deity. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything. Sometimes, what we think is a spiritual experience is really our own imagination. Having a teacher to guide you gives you the equipment, the wherewithal, to make those distinctions.
Okay, I hope that gives you a little bit of insight into the initiation process and the meaning of a guru. Between now and next time, if you’d like to, read in the Bhagavad Gita chapter four, verses 34 and 35. They go together. It’ll give you a little more background on a teacher. Thank you all very much for coming.