Gurus, Surrender, Cults… and the Real Thing

We have a significant problem on our hands: the Vedas are very clear that Śrī Guru is an absolute necessity, the very foundation of every educational and developmental methodology; yet gluts of cults knowingly or unknowingly exploit the guru principle for gross and subtle wealth. Searching from Harlem to the Himalaya, it is difficult to find even one truly realized Guru-Disciple pair; but everywhere we look we find thousands upon thousands of gurus and disciples in the transcendental disciplines who, upon close examination, aren’t giving or getting anything earth-shatteringly transcendental at all.

Some will say, “The very idea is wrong. The Vedas are wrong. You don’t need a guru.”

I don’t say that. Instead, I think, “The way we comprehend and understand the Guru Disciple relationship is wrong. And I don’t need that.

So, what’s wrong with it?

Ideal Gurus and Disciples

In his Gītā, Śrī Krishna expresses the perfect Guru-Disple relationship in a nutshell:

तद्विदधि प्रणिपातेन परिप्रश्नेन सेवया
उपदेक्ष्यन्ति ते ज्ञानं ज्ञानिनस्तत्त्वदर्शिनः

tad-viddhi praṇipātena paripraśnena sevayā
te jñānaṁ jñāninas tattva-darśinaḥ

Dīkṣā [enlightenment] can happen when you try to understand spirituality from a wise person who has actually experienced the reality of consciousness and perception. That person can enlighten you through your submission, rigorous inquiry, and service.

This statement has two parts. The first part establishes what a real guru is. The second part establishes what a real disciple does.

A real guru is ज्ञानिनस्तत्त्वदर्शिनः (jñāninas tattva-darśinaḥ) – a person who has “actually experienced the reality of consciousness and perception.”

A real disciple is someone who gets that experience too, from the wise, by means of three things:

  1. प्रणिपातेन
  2. परिप्रश्नेन
    Rigorous inquiry
  3. सेवया

In Bhakti Rasāmṛta Sindu, Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī exactly echoes this Gītā verse in what he identifies as  the three most essential initial steps of sādhana-bhakti:

  1. गुरुपादाश्रय
    This echoes Krishna’s advice to be receptive, humble and submissive to the guru
    (praṇipāta – submission)
  2. कृष्णदीक्षादिशिक्षण
    This echoes Krishna’s advice to ask many questions from many angles while trying to put everything into practice in the real world
    (paripraśna – thorough inquiry)
  3. विश्रम्भेणगुरोःसेव
    This echoes Krishna’s advice to make oneself useful
    (seva – service)

Now let’s examine how the gluts of fruitless or marginally-fruitful contemporary guru-disciples implement the above advice.

The Reality about Gurus

Krishna explicitly said that a guru must be tattva-darśana. This phrase literally means “sees reality” – which means a guru must directly experience the real essence of the subject they are teaching.

Compare this with the hoards of people willing to “accept disciples”. Some of them pull a coin from your ear (or some equivalent “miracle”) to impress you into believing they are tattva-darśanaḥ. Others claim they are tattva-darśana because they can surreptitiously hold their breath for 15 years (by not having sex, eating grains, standing on their tiptoes, or whatever). Others claim they are tattva-darśana because they have, “fully dedicated their lives to their spiritual master’s mission”. Others don’t even bother claiming anything at all, they just let your own desire for a messiah work its own magic.

Indeed that’s powerful magic! We are eager for a messiah. That’s why we don’t find much fault with any of the above – even though it is just like a person proving they are rich by showing us a picture of a mansion, or a doctor claiming we have cancer by pointing to our fatigue instead of showing the actual cancer cells. It takes significant knowledge of medicine to be able to tell a real doctor from a quack. The combination of our inherent laziness and our desire for a miraculous messiah make us accept the idea that we don’t really need all that troublesome, time-consuming, and complicated medical knowledge anyhow, because this doctor standing before us is obviously so charming and wonderful.

At the very least, “tattva-darśan” means the guru must have fluent conversance (darśan) in all the details of their subject (tattva), which, in our context, means the śāstra. 90% of the guru’s on display today do not even know the Vedāṅga, what to speak of the Veda; they do not even know Sanskrit grammar, what to speak of the secrets locked in the Sanskrit mantras and ślokas of the Veda and Purāṇa. Most of them have not even carefully studied their own guru’s commentary on their own main śāstra, when, in fact, the minimum qualification is to thoroughly know not only the interpretations and implications of the primary texts of the primary ācāryas of one’s own school, but to also thoroughly know how those relate to the interpretations, implications and texts of the other significant Vedic schools.

You may look for the maximum qualification or you may look for the minimum qualification in a guru. You’ll be hard pressed to find either. This doesn’t mean you should give up, but it does mean you should be prepared for the reality that you will need to do a lot of homework and have a lot of patience to be able to tell the difference between a diamond and a cubic zirconia.

The Reality about Disciples

As mentioned, a real disciple is someone who directly experiences reality as a result of interacting with the wise guru in three ways:

  1. प्रणिपातेन
  2. परिप्रश्नेन
    Rigorous inquiry
  3. सेवया

The majority of modern “disciples” hardly do any of these at all. We think that we are disciples because we underwent some formality like changing our name or getting a mark on our foreheads or a pat on our back in front of a burning banana. End of story. Now we have the immigration document required for the Pearly Gates.

“Guru saves.”

Just as kitchari requires beans, rice and water – discipleship requires submission, inquiry, and service. Leave one out and you don’t get “kitchari.”

For example, we may give a donation, or feed our guru, but if we ask no questions and have no interest in changing our inner lives – we are not disciples. Or, if we expect gurus to answer our minuscule questions minutely but ask for yard-sale “merciful” discounts on the seva to be given in return – we are not disciples. Some ignorant people even lambast the very concept of practical service in reciprocation for education as, “prostitution.”  This is certainly not going to give us guru-darśana.

All the ingredients — “rice, beans, and water” — are required. The combination of praṇipāta (desire to change / submission) and paripraśna (through inquiry) is a particularly important, inseparable compound.

We may sometimes ask a question, but we don’t really listen carefully to the answer. Listening carefully (praṇipāta) would result in followup questions (paripraśna) and a change in how we experience and live life (seva). We don’t listen very carefully because we don’t really care. We have no praṇipāta — what we really want is a guru who will ratify and justify the convictions and opinions we already have. When such “disciples” become “gurus,” they create perversions of their school, and this is a phenomenon rampant to dangerously rabid proportions in contemporary Hindu / Vedic circles.

The Guru-Disciple Cult Reality

The above illustrates the danger of inquiry without submission, but now let’s look at the danger of submission without inquiry. This is where the cults come from. “Follow your guru!” is the essence of their “philosophy.” To distribute and share the power in larger cults they say, “Follow your guru’s friendly neighborhood local representative.” In a cult, the level of our submission and “surrender” is the only important barometer of our sincerity and “advancement.”

Cults are thriving these days, because the gurus are inept, and cults protect that. Too much inquiry would expose the guru’s ineptitude, so the cult-culture dissuades it. This is sometimes called “a culture of faith” and deceitfully purported to be the genuine Vedic culture.  It drums up the importance of submissive “surrender” (praṇipāta) loudly and enthusiastically enough to drown out the cries for help from rigorous inquiry (paripraśna). Those who ask too many questions are ridiculed and made to feel like something is wrong with them.

Of course, cults also drum up the importance of seva (practical service), because hey, since nobody, guru or disciple, is getting anything transcendental from this whole shebang after all, the guys on top can at least eek out a nice iPad and three hot meals a day (if only they were so renounced) as a sādhya salary for the sweat they seem to break by accepting all those ignorant obeisances and accolades every day.

Now What?

The world seems to be full of half-assed disciples and cult-gurus who encourage them to remain like that. If we want real enlightenment, what should we do? We should go back and read the section, “Ideal Gurus and Disciples,” strive for that, and let the rest of the world keep on in their merry escapades.

Vraja Kishor dās

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  1. But pr, there are some uneducated genuine gurus even in gaudiya samoradaya also such as Gaurav Kisora Das Babaji. I don’t think he knew Sanskrit and all. Do you think they are improper? Even Sanath a Goswami gives the example of Gopal Kumar who went to Goloka without studying sastras but just having faith in Lord. How will you reply to that?


    1. There are two ways to be tattva-darśan, I explained it in the article. The first is to have darśan of tattva as Śrī Gaura Kiśora had. But at least there must be darśan of the śāstra’s description of tattva.


      1. As a young inquirer I asked one of the original very newly minted ISKCON 11 whether the only thing separating the soul from the Supersoul is the false ego. To which he responded yes. I then asked whether he could see that Supersoul. A little annoyed/taken aback by the question he responded that to see the Supersoul means to have heard from the bonafide acharya. I wanted to know if he like Śrī Gaura Kiśora had actual tattva-darśan, because that seemed to me to be who Srila Prabhupada instructed one needs to hear from. Your response above seems to beg the question… can one be a vedic scholar, know Sanskrit grammar inside and out, quote and explicate conclusions of the acharyas and yet lack the tattva-darśan realization of an absolutely sincere soul such as Śrī Gaura Kiśora. Academic understanding doesn’t necessarily imply realization of a Śrī Gaura Kiśora does it?


        1. Academic understanding is pariprashna with some pranipat and no seva. People who function as guru generally must have full knowledge of shastra, better than scholars, more thorough. Śāstra and Śrī Rūpa are very clear on this point. One can function as a guru for a small number of people without scholarship, but one cannot answer questions effectively without knowing śāstra.


          1. I hesitated to use the term academic. My real question – there can be scholarship, and seva and still a difference in tattva-darśan… absolute sincerity that transcends everything else… no? Not against scholarship, but that the sincerity of a Śrī Gaura Kiśora remains the ripened fruit one needs above all else. That even in the presence of spiritual scholarship and seva, if one’s heart doesn’t actually melt completely… the other seems like decor.


          2. You can’t have kitchari without rice beans and water. We may think Gaura Kishor wasn’t a scholar but he was. He just didn’t make a big deal of it. He had not misconception on tattva Siddhanta. He perfectly understood the Bhagavat Siddhanta as explained by sri jīva in the sandarbha.


          3. Sometimes rice, water, and beans, combinations more resemble some alt-construction material than kitchari.


  2. Thanks Prabhu ji for shedding light on an important topic for those on the path of Bhakti aspiring for Krishna Prema. You have drawn a nice parallel between BRS and BG 4.34. Kudos for that.

    Every one has to start as a disciple prior to being a Guru. I mean everyone is a disciple except for the Adi Guru Krishna himself. A correct Guru need to have gone through perfect discipleship prior. If someone doesn’t then the result is the kind of Gurus you mentioned in the article. A teacher in Sanskrit is supposedly called Guru. So the primary purpose of the Guru should be to teach. Micromanaging or being a CEO of an org. could, if at all required be secondary or tertiary roles. And as for the student what he/ she is supposed to do you have nicely put forth with the example of Kitchari. So if one is really interested in the Kitchari Prasadam of Krishna Prema, one better not miss out on any of the three ingredients required.

    However, one thing requires a bit more of clarification. The Bhagavatam says of ” Nityam Bhagavata sevaya” which gets translated as rendering service to either/ or/ both Book Bhagavatam and person Bhagavata. So if one renders service only to person Bhagavata, then would the Tattva Darsana happen by itself or the person Bhagavata being merciful would give you that? What if the service is being rendered to a departed person Bhagavata. How would the disciple get Tattva Darsana, in that case?


    1. Your question is answered by the kitchari example.

      Furthermore, the interpretation that “nityam bhāgavata sevayā” means “by constant service to a pure devotee” and NOT “by constant service to the Bhāgavatam” is taking the verse out of context. Read the two preceding verses and THEN read the nityaṁ bhāgavata sevayā verse. Then you can understand that the topic is Krishna kathā, and the speaker of Krishna kathā is THEREFORE ALSO important. The message is to hear about Krishna constantly, so of course the person who is speaking is also a part of the package. But to say that it is only about the person speaking, and not about what he or she says – this is a regular, common deception.


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