Is Guru “as Good as” Śāstra?

If we observe the various spiritual and religious groups in Indian history we see that they can be grouped in two categories: pantha and paramparā. The difference between them is that a pantha is based on the teachings of a guru, but a paramparā is based on the teachings of śāstra – which is disseminated through gurus.

A pantha is based on the teachings of a guru, but a paramparā is based on the teachings of śāstra.

Both have gurus. The difference is that the pantha’s guru is the origin of their philosophy, but in a paramparā the guru is the teacher, preserver, and maintainer of the a specific understanding and interpretation of śāstra established by the founders of the paramparā.

It may seem that pantha gurus are more inventive and innovative than paramparā gurus, but this is not necessarily true. Paramparā gurus are more than preservers or  “refrigerators” of ancient ideas. They must be extremely innovative and inventive to keep the ancient truth of śāstra alive and relevant to modern situations, points of view, advances of information, and so on. Thus, the difference between the pantha and paramparā is not really that one is liberal and inventive while the other is conservative and insular. The real difference is that a pantha does not have full support from the ancient wisdom of Vedic śāstra, while the paramparā does.

The difference between the pantha and paramparā is not really that one is more liberal and inventive than the other. The real difference is that a pantha does not have full support from the ancient wisdom of Vedic śāstra, while the paramparā does.

One might think that gurus are not essential in a paramparā, since anyone can go and read the śāstra for themselves. This is not true. The śāstra is very mysterious and confusing, because it deals with very sophisticated and deep subjects. A paramparā represents a very beautiful, sophisticated, and harmonious interpretation of śāstra resulting from millennia of philosophical and spiritual endeavor by dozens of great persons in previous paramparās. If we start from scratch and read śāstra without the guidance of paramparā gurus, it is extremely unlikely that we would arrive at an understanding with the same depth and broadness.

If we start from scratch and read śāstra without the guidance of paramparā gurus, it is extremely unlikely that we would arrive at an understanding with the same depth and broadness.

Thus, gurus are as essential in a paramparā as they are in a pantha, and they are also as creative and modern. Again, the only real difference is that the pantha guru doesn’t align with the ancient wisdom of śāstra, while the paramparā guru does.

If guru is our ultimate authority, we belong to a pantha. If śāstra is our ultimate authority, we belong to a paramparā.

Members of a pantha and members of a paramparā both consider the words of a guru to be “as good as śāstra,” but they have very different reasons for feeling this way. In a pantha, members feel there is no need for śāstra, because the guru’s word is everything. To them, the guru’s word is “śāstra.” In a paramparā, however, members feel that the guru’s words are “as good as śāstra” because their guru does not say anything that is not clearly and demonstrably supported by śāstra.

In a pantha, members feel there is no need for śāstra, because the guru’s word is everything. To them, the guru’s word is “śāstra.”

Buddha underscores how important the śāstra is to paramparā. All Vaiṣṇava paramparā accept him as an avatāra of Viṣṇu himself, and Śrīmad Bhāgavatam states this explicitly, yet Vaiṣṇavas do not follow do not follow his teachings (except coincidentally, where they  happen to be harmonious with  śāstra), because he rejected the Veda. This demonstrates that paramparā will reject any guru, even an avatāra of Viṣṇu himself, if his or her teachings are not based directly on the śāstra.

Paramparā will reject any guru, even an avatāra of Viṣṇu himself, if his or her teachings are not based directly on the śāstra.

The Buddhist lineage is a pantha, not a paramparā. Guru Nanak’s Sikhism is another, more recent example of a pantha.

Pantha vs. Paramparā, Round One!

So… Which is superior, a pantha or a paramparā?

Common sense suggests that the paramparā is superior – because it more fully avails of all the philosophical and spiritual effort humanity has made over thousands of years, and it much more fully avails itself of the ancient records of wisdom, the Veda.

Of course, Vedic śāstra concurs:

“Knowledge is born from Śāstra.”

— Vedānta Sūtra 1.1.3

“Logic and argument alone cannot conclusively prove or disprove things.”

— Vedānta Sūtra 2.1.11

“Śruti [Śāstra] is the ultimate root of the veracity of all  concepts.”

— Vedānta Sūtra 2.1.27

“The Veda is the only eye through which anyone – human, ancestor, or god – can see the Supreme and come to understand the ultimate objective and means.”

— Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 11.20.4

“Debate cannot determine things that are beyond comprehension.”

— Mahābhārata Bhīṣma.5.22

Paramparā is superior, but it runs the risk of degrading into a pantha if it allows its gurus to reach conclusions that are significantly different from the interpretations of śāstra established by the founders of that paramparā. It also runs the risk of becoming a pantha if it allows its disciples to over-extend the concept that “guru is as good as śāstra,” and thus never take the trouble to understand the guru’s words in context of the śāstric conclusions established by the paramparā founders.

Paramparā runs the risk of degrading into a pantha if it allows its disciples to over-extend the concept that “guru is as good as śāstra,” and thus never take the trouble to understand the guru’s words in context of the śāstric conclusions established by the paramparā founders.

The gurus of a paramparā must guard against this by teaching their disciples the importance of śāstra, and directly teaching the interpretation of śāstra established by the paramparā founders. Not every disciple is intellectually equipped to fully comprehend and represent the paramparā but this does not negate the duty for the guru to find and educate disciples who are. It is also important that gurus dissuade those who are not thoroughly educated or intellectually capable from involving themselves in debates over the conclusions embraced by their paramparā, for this will only ruin those disciples by making them partisan, and thus aparādhic at heart, and will only fill the ether with confusion about the paramparā’s conclusions. This is a particularly urgent concern in the internet age, where anyone at all can find an audience.

Vraja Kishor dās

www.vrajakishor.com

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