Is Guru More of an Authority Than Śāstra?
I encounter a lot of people who feel that Śrīla Prabhupāda (our guru) is the primary authority, and all other gurus before him and even the śāstra itself have to be understood in a way that conforms with his teachings.
This is a complex and delicate issue although in theory it is very simple.
The Simple Theoretical Truth
The very simple theoretical fact is that śāstra is the ultimate authority, and guru represents śāstra and therefore carries the authority of śāstra. Guru conforms to śāstra. This conformity establishes equivalency, endowing guru with the “weight” of śāstra.
Vedic culture is unequivocal on this point: śāstra is the ultimate authority. To suggest that guru (not śāstra) is the ultimate authority is against the Vedic conclusion. Period. If you are doubtful about this, I recommend you read the opening section of Śrī Jīva’s Tattva-sandarbha, which is itself replete with elaborate references.
The Complicated Practical Reality
The complicated reality is that teachers (guru) and textbooks (śāstra) are inseparable. By studying the textbook a student comes to better understand the lesson given by the teacher. And by paying attention to the teacher’s lessons, the student better understands what is written in the textbook.
Teachers teach the textbooks, therefore they are as authoritative as the textbooks. However, if a teacher contradicts the textbook, the school district corrects or terminates him and his authority in the school becomes nil. So although the guru and śāstra share the same authority, it is the śāstra which is the root source of the authority, and the guru which shares that authority by virtue of conformity to it.
I Think My Teachers Taught Something That’s Not In The Textbook
This means either (a) your teacher needs to be reported to the district, or (b) you misunderstood. Being that the teacher is an authorized graduate, option B is far more likely.
“OK, but what did I misunderstand? (a) the teacher, or (b) the textbooks?” Or (c) both?
Probably C, so the next question: “What should I do about it?”
The answer is not “Nothing, just accept what you think you heard your teacher say, there is no need for textbooks when you have such a great teacher.” Nor is the answer the opposite extreme, “Nothing, there is no need for teachers when we have textbooks.”
So, what’s the answer? What should we do when it seems like our teacher is at variance with his teachers and their textbooks? The answer is study harder.
If you know that your teacher is a bonafide master of his subject, then you have to study both his teachings and the textbooks he uses, until you realize how he has masterfully expressed the textbook science in a way that is relevant to a very specific time place and circumstance.
The Telephone Effect
If you let students graduate with the idea that its OK to understand the teacher in a way that is variant from the previous teachers and the textbooks, what is going to happen soon to your school? It’s not going to be “your” school anymore. It’s going to change dramatically very soon, and start teaching all sorts of things you never originally intended.
Even if the guru is pure and bona-fide, the disciple is not. We disciples understand guru’s instruction through our own knowledge-filters and with our own bias. What happens when such a disciple acts in the role of guru (by trying to communicate what he or she has learned to others)? They can only give the version they comprehended – which is slightly different from the original version (śāstra). Now, what will happen on the next iteration? The “slight” differences will become less slight. And after a few iterations? The original teachers would hardly recognize it as their own subject.
Thus, it is catastrophic to believe that śāstra conforms to guru. Such a theory destroys paramparā and demotes it to the status of a pantha (a systematized idea without conformity to śāstra).
How to Study
Śāstra is the ultimate authority.
The guru — every guru — must conform to it.
The disciple — every disciple — must make the effort to harmonize the divergent statements of his guru and śāstra.
It is not an easy or simple thing to do. Śāstra has many apparently contradictory statement, because they are directed to different people in different circumstances. Similarly, guru often appears to contradict himself, because he speaks to many different people in many different circumstances.
Therefore it takes a great deal of scholarship and humility to really understand either and both guru or śāstra. “Cut and paste paṇḍits,” “FaceBook commentators,” and “WWW mudslingers” will only prove exhausting for those making the effort. We have to find living gurus who have realized the conformity and harmony of all the above, and we should study in their study-groups. But this will be impossible without purely sincere and humble motive.