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
upadekṣyanti 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:
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:
This echoes Krishna’s advice to be receptive, humble and submissive to the guru
(praṇipāta – submission)
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)
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:
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.
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.
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