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Accepting a Guru is Always a Free Choice

In this article we explain what a surrender to a guru actually means and how this differs from the so-called guru relationship of the Mayavadi school of thought.

His Divine Grace guru Srila Prabhupada walks with disciples

There have always been two types of transcendentalists: the impersonalists and the personalists. Both of them seek liberation from the illusory identification with the body in their respective ways.

The impersonalists' idea of liberation beyond the body means annihilation of an individual self and merging with the Brahman, which is the all-pervading aspect of the Supreme Absolute Truth. The personalists, however, do not want to give up their individuality. Quite the opposite, the perfection of the personal path is brought about by full revival of individuality without any trace of material contamination and engaging the pure self in devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The following example illustrates the distinct differences between the two types of transcendentalists.

There are many rivers, but ultimately they all flow within the ocean and thus cease to exist as separate rivers. This can be compared to the impersonalists' idea. There might be many individual beings, but at the time to liberation, they all become Brahman. Yet, within the rivers there can be found many living entities such as fish. When the river flows into the ocean, the fish continue to live. So according to the personalists' conception, even though the material body might merge with the mass of material energy, the individual souls (jivatmas) continue to exist even after liberation and in spiritual bodies (svarupa) they then serve the Supreme Lord Sri Krsna in one of the five different rasas or relationships. As the Bhagavad-gita confirms:

Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be. (Bg.2.11)

Lord Krsna clearly says here that individuality both ours and the Lord's is an eternal fact and the Lord is eternally the recipient of the individual souls' service.Furthermore the Lord says nainam chindanti sastrani : "The soul can never be cut into pieces by any weapon" and therefore the idea of Brahman divided into innumerable parts at one point and merging together is not supported by the statements of the Bhagavad-gita. In fact, the philosophy of the impersonalists is just like throwing out a baby along with the bath water. The bodily conception of life is certainly an illusion and one should get rid of it as he gets rid of a bathing water. However, one should not discard the very idea of individual existence just as one should not loose the baby while throwing away the water in which the baby was bathed. For a devotee, the material body is the gift of the Lord and since the Lord is true, the material body is also true. It is not false. The devotee uses the material body in the service of the Lord.  Iron rod which is put into the fire ultimately becomes firey by gradual heating. Similarly material body used for spiritual activities becomes spiritualized by gradual advancement in Krsna consciousness. One then serves the Lord in one's pure spiritual body (siddha-deha).

Materialistic conception of “body” however is that it is perishable, full of ignorance and completely miserable. Therefore, people in general carry the same idea in mind when they are informed of the personal forms of the Lord and His devotees. For such materialistic men, the form of the gigantic material manifestation is supreme. Consequently they imagine that in the ultimate stage everything is impersonal. Because they are too materially absorbed and because they personally experience the pangs of material existence arising from material activities, the concept of personality after liberation from matter very much frightens them. When they are informed that spiritual life is also individual, personal and full of activities, they become afraid of becoming persons again. A diseased man also eats, also sleeps and he also evacuates, but all his activities are painful due to his disease. If he hears that in the healthy stage there is also sleeping, there is also eating and and there is also evacuating, he thinks it is the same as in the diseased condition. Similarly, an impersonalist being disgusted by material existence, wants to give up the very idea of individuality and make all his activities zero.

The personalist's conception of surrender is different. Lord Krsna says:

Abandon all varieties of religion and simply surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear. (Bg.18.66)

While the impersonal idea denies the distinction between the Supreme and the part and parcel of Supreme, the personalists endeavor to solely give up the sense of overlordship. They willingly abandon the false idea of being the ultimate controller and they try to satisfy the desires of the Lord. Their individual sense of choice never diminishes. They engage in the service of the Lord in full surrender by their free will and with such free will they engage in varieties of services to the Lord. Therefore, after explaining the whole theistic science of the Bhagavad-gita and chalking up the path of perfection, the Lord concludes:

Thus I have explained to you the most confidential of all knowledge. Deliberate on this fully, and then do what you wish to do. (Bg. 18.63)

The Lord lets the individual to "do as he wishes to do".  This is because one has to voluntarily surrender to the Lord. Such surrender is not caused by anything but the pure free will of the soul proper. One's decision to  surrender to will of the Lord is never hampered by anything. Krsna is prepared to bestow His mercy upon all living entities, and as soon as a living entity desires the Lord's mercy, the Lord immediately gives him an opportunity to meet a bona fide spiritual master. The bona fide spiritual master appears to the living entity as soon as the living entity desires to solve the miseries of material existence, namely birth, death, old age and disease. brahmanda bhramite kona bhagyavan jiva

guru-krsna-prasade paya bhakti-lata-bija

Madhya 19.151

”According to their karma, all living entities are wandering throughout the entire universe. Some of them are being elevated to the upper planetary systems, and some are going down into the lower planetary systems. Out of many millions of wandering living entities, one who is very fortunate gets an opportunity to associate with a bona fide spiritual master by the grace of Krsna. By the mercy of both Krsna and the spiritual master, such a person receives the seed of the creeper of devotional service." Madhya 19.151

This is further confirmed in the Bhagavad-gita:

The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone's heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine, made of the material energy. (18.61)

The Vedas, like the Mundaka Upanisad, as well as the Svetasvatara Upanisad compares a relationship of two kinds of souls residing in the heart to two friendly birds sitting on the same tree. One of the birds (the individual atomic soul) is eating the fruits of the tree, and the other bird (Paramatma) is simply watching His friend. Although as birds they are the same in quality, one of these two is captivated by the fruits of the material tree, while the other is simply witnessing the activities of His friend. Although they are friends, one is still the master and the other is the servant. The jiva soul is struggling very hard on the tree of the material body, but as soon as he agrees to accept the other bird as the supreme spiritual master, the subordinate bird immediately becomes free from all lamentations. Both the Mundaka Upanisad (3.1.2) and Svetasvatara Upanisad (4.7) confirm this statement as follows:

"Although the two birds are on the same tree, the eating bird is fully engrossed with anxiety and moroseness as the enjoyer of the fruits of the tree. But if in some way or other he turns his face to his friend who is the Lord and knows His glories—at once the suffering bird becomes free from all anxieties."

The Lord in the heart manifests externally in the form of the bona fide spiritual master and under his guidance, the jiva soul learns how to cultivate spiritual consciousness.

The spiritual consciousness is already there in the heart of every living entity. It is simply reawakened by the spiritual sound vibration coming from the channel of the bona fide spiritual master.

”Pure love for Krsna is eternally established in the hearts of the living entities. It is not something to be gained from another source. When the heart is purified by hearing and chanting, this love naturally awakens." (Madhya 22.107)

In order for such hearing and chanting of the glories of the Lord, executed with the sole aim to re-awaken our eternal relationship with the Lord, to take place, both the bona fide spiritual master uncontaminated by the material modes of nature and the receptive disciple must be present. The combination is compared by the acaryas to the interaction between husband and wife. If the husband is potent and the wife is fertile, by their mutual dealings, conception takes place. Similarly if the spiritual master is bona fide and authorized by the disciplic succession and the disciple is sincere, the hearing and chanting of the Lord has a spiritual effect and the seed of devotional service fructifies.

However, if the eagerness on the part of the disciple is absent, the instruction of the spiritual master goes in vain.Therefore a bona fide spiritual master does not accept a disciple who is not eager to hear from him. There is no necessity of approaching a spiritual master unless one is in need of solving the real problems of life. One who does not know how to ask the spiritual master proper questions has no business to approach him.

Therefore one must be jijnasu, inquisitive. He must inquire from the spiritual master about the ultimate aim of human life. Questions on how to improve one's bodily enjoyment in the material world are deliberately left unanswered by a bona fide spiritual master. Furthermore, one should render service. Unless one renders service to the spiritual master, the inquiries on the spiritual matters will not be effective.

The impersonalist philosophers declare that the highest stage of knowledge is reached when the knower, the knowledge, and the object of knowledge become one entity. From their point of view then ultimately there is no difference between the spiritual master and the disciple -both are one, both are Brahman. They say, only in the state of illusion(maya), do the disciple and the spiritual master manifest as two individual beings. They fail to explain why Brahman becomes temporarily covered by maya. This is why they are called Mayavadis. They think everything is maya.

Sripada Sankaracarya, who is the founder of the Mayavada school of thought recommended worship of 5 demigods (pancopasana) for his followers. Such worship was meant only to help those who are still in the bodily concept of life. It was a facility for the neophyte progressing in the spiritual knowledge, to imagine some form of the Brahman. Sädhakänäà hitvärthäya brahmaëo rüpa-kalpanaù. However,  according to the Mayavadi theory, ultimately such worship should be abandoned. Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada explains:

“The example given by them is that you rise up to a upper place with a wooden stair, and as soon as you reach there, you throw it away, so that you'll not be able to come back again. Similarly, their philosophy is: "With some imagination of form, you worship, and as soon as you realize Brahman, throw it away. No more." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.3.22 -- Los Angeles, June 19, 1972)

The Mayavadi concept of spiritual master is similar. They think that the soul (impersonal Brahman) of the spiritual master incarnates into a material body for the purpose of guiding those who are still in illusion. They say that the Brahman takes a form of a guru in a bodily form so the souls trapped in bodily conception of life can relate to him and as soon as they reach perfection the relationship with the spiritual master ends.

Yasomatinandana: Spiritual master gives knowledge, and then a disciple is eternally indebted to spiritual master.

Prabhupada: Yes.

Yasomatinandana: It is not that, like Mayavadis, they serve the spiritual master in the beginning and then they...

Prabhupada: Then they...

Yasomatinandana: ...themselves become...

Prabhupada: ...throw him away, "Go away. I have now learned." Guru-mara-vidya, to, the knowledge of how to kill guru. Guru-mara-vidya. Their, the philosophy is that you cannot rise up. You take a ladder. But as soon as you rise, throw away the ladder. No more. No more needed. That is Mayavada philosophy.

(Morning Walk -- December 5, 1973, Los Angeles)

For the Mayavadis therefore reaching perfection necessarily means relinquishing the connection with the spiritual master. Although Narottama dasa Thakura sings: "One who has opened my eyes, my spiritual master, he's my father, life after life," the Mayavadis say: "Go away now."

The devotee never rejects the spiritual master and he continues to honor him even after reaching the stage of perfection.

Mr. Malhotra: Other traditions, guru disciple, then the disciple becomes guru, then disciple. The gurus may change.

Prabhupada: They cannot change. If there are change of guru, the disciple acts, but does not, he'll never say that I have become equal or one with guru. That is not so.

Mr. Malhotra: I am thinking about this, Swamiji, that your Guru Maharaja is preaching through you, and you are preaching through them.

Prabhupada: Yes.

Mr. Malhotra: So disciple is guru through his disciples.

Prabhupada: That's all right. Evam parampara praptam [Bg. 4.2]. But that does not become, he has become. He may be representative of guru, representative of God, but it does not mean that he has become God.

Mr. Malhotra: But he becomes guru with his disciples.

Prabhupada: That's alright.

Mr. Malhotra: Never equal to his guru.

Prabhupada: Not equal, representative. I send one representative of this man, and he may be very expert, doing very good business, still he cannot be equal to me. He is acting as my representative, that's another thing. But not that he has become the original proprietor.

Mr. Malhotra: But as your disciples, you are taken as guru.

Prabhupada: But they will never say that they have become equal to me. "I have advanced to be my guru." Never say. Just like this boy, he is offering obeisances. He may be expert in preaching more than me, but he knows that "I am subordinate." Otherwise how he shall offer obeisances? He can think, "Oh, now I am so learned. I am so advanced. Why shall I accept him as superior?" No. That continues. Even after my death, after my disappearance, he will offer obeisances to my picture.

Mr. Malhotra: But amongst his disciples he will be worshiped...

Prabhupada: That's all right, but he remains a disciple of his guru. He will never say that "Now I have become guru, so I don't care for my guru." He will never say. Just like I am doing, but I am worshiping my guru still. So I remain subordinate to my guru, always. Even though I have become guru, still I am subordinate to my guru.

(Room Conversation with Life Member, Mr. Malhotra -- December 22, 1976, Poona)

In this connection, there is also an instructive pastime in the life of Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, namely in His meeting the Mayavadi leader Prakasananda Saraswati. Prakasananda challenged Lord Caitanya to explain why He simply chants and dances while the engagement of the sannyasi is to study the Vedanta. To this Lord Caitanya answered: guru more murkha dekhi' karila sasan [Cc. Adi 7.71]. "My Guru Maharaja saw Me a fool number one, and he has chastised Me." He is God Himself, but he is showing us the example that for a devotee there is never a point where he becomes artificially proud of being liberated, or proud of being God. His liberation is always depend on the mercy of his spiritual master and he remains always an infinitesimal parcel of the Lord prone to a fall down. Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada comments:

Liberated soul never says that "I am liberated." As soon as he says "liberated," he's a rascal. A liberated soul will never say that "I am liberated." That is liberated. Caitanya Mahaprabhu, He is God -- guru more murkha dekhi' karila sasan [Cc. Adi 7.71]. "My Guru Maharaja saw Me a fool number one, and he has chastised Me." He's God. This is the example. If one remains always a servant ever-lastingly of guru, then he is liberated. And as soon as he thinks that he is liberated, he's a rascal. That is the teaching of Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Guru more murkha dekhi'. Caitanya Mahaprabhu is murkha? Why He's posing Himself that murkha? "I am fool number one." That means that is liberation. You must be ready always to be chastised by guru. Then he's liberated. And as soon as he thinks that "I am beyond this chastisement, I am liberated," he's a rascal. Why Caitanya Mahaprabhu says guru more murkha dekhi' karila sasan? This is sahajiya-vada. He is thinking, "Oh I have become liberated. I don't require any direction of my guru. I'm liberated." Then he's rascal.

(Room Conversation -- August 16, 1976, Bombay)

Since the impersonalists believe that the Brahman must manifest in a concrete material body to guide the neophyte who might not be able to yet relate to the impersonal concept of the Absolute, they insist that there must be a guru in a bodily form always present to continue the disciplic succession. Thus a bona fide acarya, they say, must appoint a so-called living sadhu to succeed him. But this idea goes against the very principle of the minute independence of the jiva discussed above. If the successor acarya is selected by the predecessor and not by the disciple himself, where is the surrender on the part of the disciple? The great acarya might have given a suggestion about the successive acharya's qualifications, but the act of surrender itself is always an individual choice based on hearing. It is for this reason for example that Lord Krsna presents to us the Vedic knowledge. Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada explains:

... not only does a living entity enjoy or suffer in this world according to the dictation from the Supreme Lord situated locally in the heart, but he receives the opportunity to understand Vedas from Him. If one is serious to understand the Vedic knowledge, then Krsna gives the required intelligence. Why does He present the Vedic knowledge for understanding? Because a living entity individually needs to understand Krsna.

(Bg 15.15 purport)

Similarly, without hearing sufficiently from the spiritual master and understanding his instructions, there is no question of surrender to him.

The real consideration for choosing a spiritual master therefore is not a formal appointment from the previous acarya, but whether the master is conversant with the science of Krsna. This is confirmed by Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu:

kiba vipra, kiba nyasi, sudra kene naya

yei krsna-tattva-vetta, sei ‘guru' haya

"Whether one is a brahmana, a sannyasi or a sudra -- regardless of what he is -- he can become a spiritual master if he knows the science of Krsna."

(Madhya 8.128)

Furthermore Srila Jiva Gosvami, directly advises all the devotees of the Hare Krsna movement not to accept a spiritual master in terms of hereditary or customary social and ecclesiastical conventions. The disciple is always left to choose his spiritual master on his own. Indeed, none of the previous acaryas in the disciplic succession were ever appointed by their predecessors. The successor acarya proves himself by his personal capacity and recruits disciples from the ranks of non-devotee class of men by preaching. Srila Prabhupada explains:

Prabhupada: So far designation is concerned, the spiritual master authorizes every one of his disciple. But it is up to the disciple to carry out the order, able to carry out or not. It is not that spiritual master is partial, he designates one and rejects other. He may do that. If the other is not qualified, he can do that. But actually his intention is not like that. He wants that each and every one of his disciple become as powerful as he is or more than that. That is his desire. Just like father wants every son to be as qualified or more qualified than the father. But it is up to the student or to the son to raise himself to that standard.

(Room Conversation -- June 29, 1972, San Diego)

The spiritual master only speaks what Krsna says. Therefore we have to hear and see whether the spiritual master speaks what Krsna says before we surrender to him. One must select the spiritual master with proper discrimination and not blindly. The sastras such as Hari bhakta vilasa enjoin that before we take a guru we study him carefully to find out whether we can surrender to him. We should not accept a guru suddenly out of fanaticism. It is not a cheap thing. After we accept the spiritual master we must follow his instructions. Therefore it is important that we test whether the person is qualified to be a spiritual master. The qualification of a spiritual master is that he must have realized the conclusion of the scriptures by deliberation and arguments and thus be able to convince others of these conclusions. So unless one is at least conversant with the preliminary knowledge of transcendental matters, how will he ascertain the bona fides of a spiritual master? For instance, if we want to purchase something, we must at least have some idea of what that thing is, otherwise we will be cheated. If we want to purchase a mango from the market, we must at least know what type of food a mango is and what it looks like. Therefore one's independent thoughtfulness is always recommended. One should not give too much importance to institutional appointments, but simply consider with cool head who is the bona fide spiritual master.

Srila Prabhupada describes the consequences of mixing the pure Vaisnava philosophy with impersonal ideas by giving example of a great institution which was lost due to ambition of motivated disciples to occupy the post of their spiritual master. Such is the history of Gaudiya Matha society of his Guru Maharaja His Divine Grace Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura.

At a certain point of his divine lila, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta had to undergo surgical operation and therefore made a scrap paper in case he would leave this mortal plane. On the paper he listed three disciples who would have become the trustees of his Gaudiya Matha. One of the disciples kept the paper and later this was presented in the high-court and a property was given to him. On this basis, after Srila Bhaktisiddhanta's demise, the disciple artificially became a so-called acarya. But the other disciples were not satisfied and in order to counteract him, they conspired and voted in another false acarya. In this way two false acarya groups began to fight over the assets of the institution. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta instructed his disciples to form a governing body and conduct missionary activities cooperatively. He did not designate anyone to become his successor.  Srila Prabhupada explains:

...none of them were advised by Guru Maharaja to become acarya. His idea was "Let them manage; then whoever will be actual qualified for becoming acarya, they will elect. Why I should enforce upon them?" That was his plan. "Let them manage by strong governing body, as it is going on. Then acarya will come by his qualification." But they wanted that... Because at heart, they were, "After demise of Guru, I shall become acarya," "I shall become acarya." So all the acaryas began fight.

(Room Conversation with American Banker -- September 21, 1973, Bombay)

Therefore a sadhu comes out automatically by preaching work. A bona fide acarya is self-effulgent. He shines like the sun and there is no need to bring any torchlight to point at him. He shines through his teachings and it is up to us to accept him or not. This is the real meaning of surrender.

Hanuman: One thing he's saying, this gentleman, and I would like to know, is your successor named or your successor will...

Prabhupada: My success is always there. Yes. Just like the sun is there always. It may come before your vision or not. The sun is there. But if you are fortunate, you come before the sun. Otherwise you remain in darkness. Sun is open to everyone. Our Krsna consciousness movement -- Krsna is open to everyone. But if you are fortunate, you come to the light. If you are unfortunate, do not. That is your choice. Krsna says, sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja [Bg. 18.66]. You do it. Now it is your choice. You surrender to Krsna or don't surrender. That is your business

(Room Conversation with Sanskrit Professor, other Guests and Disciples -- February 12, 1975, Mexico)

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