Among the naive, of course, one may pass for a spiritual master by wearing robes and a beard, bearing a twinkle in one’s eye, performing some magic tricks, or speaking riddles. But intelligent people won’t settle for these outer trappings
A Special Article by the Back to Godhead Staff
A recent Gallup poll revealed that more than nineteen million American adults are now practicing some form of yoga, meditation, or other “self-renewal” process. To meet this great demand, many “gurus” have appeared on the scene, each teaching his version of spiritual truth. Some have attracted large followings, and every disciple undoubtedly feels that his guru is the best. But for the serious seeker of truth, choosing a spiritual master cannot be a matter of mere sentiment. Spiritual life is factual and scientific, and we have to test the qualifications of any spiritual teacher by referring to the standard authority. This authority is scripture, especially the Sanskrit Vedic scriptures, which throughout history have provided the philosophical basis for the guru-disciple relationship. By referring to Vedic scriptures we can know the criteria for a bona fide spiritual master. Then we can easily see who is actually a spiritual master, and who is a fraud.
Examining the Guru’s Teachings
The first criterion, according to the Vedic scriptures, is the quality of the words the teacher speaks. (Even a fool may be highly esteemed—until he speaks.) In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Sri Krishna, the original spiritual master, tells his disciple Arjuna, “The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.” In other words, a genuine guru must have realized the Absolute Truth, the Personality of Godhead, and he must be able to impart this truth to his disciple, thus freeing him (or her) from repeated birth and death.
We should therefore immediately reject as outright charlatans those so-called gurus who pretend to have some spiritual knowledge, but who teach their disciples only how to gain some material advantage—a slimmer body, better sex life, success in business, and so on. Real spiritual life means getting free from the agony of birth and death. How can a common man, unable to distinguish spirit from matter—and thus himself caught in the cycle of birth and death—claim to be a spiritual master? Such cheaters generally take up the “guru business” just to earn a living. But the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the essence of all Vedic scriptures, sternly warns, “No one should become a guru unless he can free his disciple from birth and death.”
A true spiritual master must not only be able to distinguish spirit from matter; he must also be able to distinguish the minute, individual spirit (the soul) from the supreme spirit (the Supersoul, or God). Failure to make this important distinction disqualifies many of today’s so-called spiritual masters. In fact, blurring the difference between God and the living entity is the most common philosophical flaw among modern gurus. Their reasoning goes something like this: “The eternal spirit soul within the body is Brahman, and the supreme spirit beyond the body is also Brahman. Therefore, we are all equal to the Supreme Brahman—or in other words, everyone is God.”
But Lord Krishna Himself denies this idea in the Bhagavad-gita (15.7): “The living entities in this material world are eternally My fragmental parts.” It is certainly true that the Vedic scriptures, especially the Upanisads, teach meditation on Brahman, the eternal spirit. And they also teach the realization that each one of us, as a spirit soul, is also Brahman, separate from our material body. But beyond this all the Vedic scriptures explain that although each of us is spirit, we are only minute sparks of the supreme spirit, God. In other words, God is supreme and infinite, and we are all His infinitesimal expansions; therefore, our duty is to serve Him. This simple axiom is the essence of theism, and all the world’s religions loudly declare it. For a guru to omit or distort this teaching is a serious philosophical lapse. Behind his negligence we will usually find a cheating mentality—a strong aversion for surrendering to the mastership of God. So, when the teachings of a spiritual master are inimical to bhakti, or loving devotion to God—when he teaches that there is no personal God, or that God is only an energy, or that we can become God—then we should reject him.
Just as it is a fraud for a so-called guru to offer only gross material benefits, or to collect money from his disciples for selfish aims, or to teach the disciples that they are God or can become God—so it is an even greater fraud for the so-called guru to proclaim that he himself is an incarnation of God. The Vedic scriptures predict the incarnations of God and describe their extraordinary qualities and activities. So any ordinary person who poses as a guru and says he is an incarnation of God exposes himself as the greatest fool in human society. The truth is that everyone, including the spiritual master, is an eternal servant of God.
Since we are all servants of the Supreme Lord, a bona fide guru must be a devotee of the Supreme Lord and teach others how to become His devotees. In fact, unless the guru is a devotee of Lord Krishna, he cannot understand transcendental knowledge—what to speak of imparting it to others. An ideal example of a qualified recipient of transcendental knowledge is Arjuna, whom Lord Krishna empowered to understand the Bhagavad-gita because of his devotional attitude. Krishna explains in the fourth chapter, “O Arjuna, this very ancient science of the relationship with the Supreme is today told by Me to you because you are My devotee as well as My friend; therefore you can understand the transcendental mystery of this science” (Bg. 4.3). Though Krishna spoke the Bhagavad-gita five thousand years ago, His words still hold true today: only the Lord’s devotees can understand transcendental knowledge.
Another important criterion for a guru is that he himself must be a disciple of a bona fide spiritual master—one who is part of a succession of spiritual masters coming from Lord Krishna Himself. A guru’s teachings cannot be genuine unless he has received his knowledge by this process of disciplic succession, because one who is not part of a genuine disciplic chain can have no access to the Vedic knowledge. So we cannot overemphasize the importance of the disciplic succession in determining the credibility of a spiritual teacher. No matter how learned a scholar one may be, he cannot understand the import of Vedic knowledge by the speculative approach. In other words, no one can know the Transcendence by his imperfect sense perception. As the Svetasvatara Upanisad (6.23) explains, “Only unto those great souls who simultaneously have implicit faith in both the Lord and the spiritual master are all the imports of Vedic knowledge automatically revealed.”
Examining the Guru’s Life
A genuine guru must not only speak the truth; he must also live it. In other words, his character must be perfect and his behavior exemplary. In the West we commonly see that a professor or philosopher achieves renown on the basis of his teachings alone, regardless of his personal life. But in Vedic society, if a man is a drunkard or in some other way violates the ideal principles he teaches, then he is considered not a teacher but a cheater. According to the Gita a real guru, who teaches by example, must have the qualities of peacefulness, sense control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, and faith in God. So-called gurus who indulge in abominable things like meat eating, cigarette smoking, and illicit sex, and who covet wealth for purchasing various other forms of sense gratification, are all disqualified. One who cannot control his senses cannot rightfully bear the title “guru.”
Since renunciation is a criterion for a genuine guru, then what about yogis who remain alone in silent meditation, seeking to stay pure by avoiding all material contact? Are they the ideal gurus? No—because such withdrawal from the mass of people does not help those who are suffering without God consciousness. One of the greatest God-realized gurus, Srila Rupa Gosvami, states in his Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu, “If one rejects material things which could be used in the service of Krishna [God], his renunciation is incomplete.” Everything should be used to serve God. By not withdrawing from the world. but rather by using worldly things (including money, cars, public media, buildings, and so on) to spread God consciousness, a genuine guru can actually attain complete renunciation and also help humanity.
Sometimes a so-called guru seeks to help humanity by performing some social welfare mission, such as opening hospitals or uplifting the poor. Such a man is generally an atheist, devoid of any real spiritual knowledge. A true spiritual master engages wholeheartedly in glorifying the Supreme Lord, fully convinced that this alone will bring the highest happiness, even within the material sphere. Such a true guru has complete faith in Narada Muni’s words in the Srimad-Bhagavatam: “As pouring water on the root of a tree energizes the trunk, branches, twigs, and leaves; and as supplying food to the stomach enlivens the senses and limbs of the body; so simply worshiping Lord Krishna through devotional service automatically satisfies the Lord’s parts and parcels, the demigods [who supply the rain, air, sunlight, and all other necessities for man].” So a bona fide spiritual master makes broadcasting the glories of the Supreme Personality of Godhead his only business. He never wastes time making materialistic plans or concocting dry philosophical speculations about God, for he knows full well that all people will be completely satisfied if they simply glorify God. Lord Krishna describes such genuine mahatmas (great souls) as follows: “Always chanting My glories, endeavoring with great determination, bowing down before Me, these great souls perpetually worship Me with devotion” (Bg. 9.14).
The perfect example of such a mahatma is Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, an incarnation of Krishna who appeared five hundred years ago in Bengal, India, to teach pure devotional service. Lord Caitanya taught that one should perfect his own life by practicing the science of Krishna consciousness, and that one should also teach others this science. In one sense, then, He taught that everyone could become a guru simply by telling others about the pastimes and teachings of Krishna. During His manifest existence on earth, Lord Caitanya acted as a devotee and always tried to engage others in chanting the glories of the Lord. Thus, He set the example of an ideal spiritual master.
To summarize, we can see that six chief criteria mentioned in the authoritative Vedic scriptures determine the authenticity of a guru. First, the guru’s teachings must be fully spiritual: he must not cheat his disciples by promising them material benefits; rather, he must teach them how to become free from material life and obtain liberation from the miseries of repeated birth and death. Second, the guru must have attained the highest realization of the Absolute Truth—the personality of God—which is beyond the incomplete impersonal conception. In this way the guru will be competent to distinguish between the infinite Supreme Spirit (God) and the infinitesimal spirit souls. Fully aware of this distinction between God and the individual soul, he should engage himself as a devotee of the Supreme Lord and teach devotional service to his disciples. The third criterion is that the guru must have received his knowledge from a bona fide spiritual master through the authorized process of disciplic succession, as explained in the Vedic literature. The fourth is that the guru’s character must be pure: he must rigidly follow all the religious principles governing saintly behavior. Fifth, he must engage himself and others in the glorification of the Lord as the ultimate activity for human society, and he should not divert his energies to material welfare work. And sixth, a guru of the highest order must spread the message of God (Krishna) consciousness throughout the world.
Now, let’s apply these six criteria to the Founder-Acarya of the Krishna consciousness movement, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, so that we can see whether he is in fact a bona fide spiritual master.
First, are Srila Prabhupada’s teachings purely spiritual—free of any material tinge—and can they liberate one from the misery of repeated birth and death? Yes. Srila Prabhupada bases all of his teachings on the Bhagavad-gita, and throughout the Bhagavad-gita Krishna declares that His devotee attains the highest perfection: “Devotional service is the highest activity… Only by devotional service can one achieve transcendental knowledge… One engaged in devotional service is already liberated from birth and death…” Again and again Lord Krishna declares that bhakti, devotional service, is the best method for spiritual realization. Although the Vedas teach many other paths besides bhakti (such paths as knowledge, severe austerities, karma-yoga, and mystic yoga) the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the final word in Vedic literature, refers to all these as kaitava-dharma, or “cheating religion.” In truth only unalloyed devotional service (bhakti) can give satisfaction to the soul; other practices are of value only insofar as they lead to bhakti. Thus, at the conclusion of the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna declares, sarva-dharman parityajya: “Give up all other so-called religious activities and surrender unto Me alone” (Bg. 18.66). On Krishna’s authority, Srila Prabhupada is teaching only bhakti-yoga, love of God.
Second, has Srila Prabhupada realized the Absolute Truth, the Personality of Godhead, and is he imparting that realization to his disciples? Yes. It is said that one can recognize the fully God-conscious spiritual master by his ability to raise many fallen souls to the level of god consciousness. Unquestionably, Srila Prabhupada exhibits this strength to a remarkable degree. Simply by coming into contact with Srila Prabhupada, thousands of people have devoted their lives to Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Srila Prabhupada’s disciples are popularly known as “Krishnas” and “Hare Krishna people”—evidence of how totally dedicated to God they have actually become. Also, Srila Prabhupada’s disciples strictly avoid the four sinful activities: meat eating, illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling. These four activities, the pillars of sinful life, are an integral part of our modern society. That so many young people have given them up so unreservedly is certainly revolutionary, and is but another tribute to the bona fide guru.
Third, has Srila Prabhupada received his knowledge from a bona fide spiritual master through the authorized process of disciplic succession? Yes. Srila Prabhupada is the present representative of the most authorized disciplic succession, the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya-sampradaya. The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna, has blessed this disciplic succession by appearing first as its original preceptor and again, only five hundred years ago, as Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu. In the beginning of creation, Lord Krishna taught the Vedas to Brahma, the “cosmic engineer,” who in turn instructed his son and chief disciple, Narada Muni. Narada then passed down the transcendental knowledge to Vyasadeva (the literary incarnation of God), who compiled all the Vedic literature, including the Upanisads, Vedanta-sutra, Puranas, and Mahabharata (which contains the Bhagavad-gita). During the twelfth century the great Madhvacarya, who defeated both Buddha’s voidist philosophy and Sankara’s impersonalist philosophy, also appeared in this disciplic succession. Srila Rupa Gosvami, the most renowned authority on Krishna-bhakti, and Jiva Gosvami, India’s greatest scholar, are two more links in this unbroken chain of spiritual masters. And today Srila Prabhupada represents the entire line as the disciple of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura. Certainly no other genuine guru has such credentials—what to speak of the cheaters who concoct their own philosophies and deceive the public for their personal aggrandizement.
This brings us to the fourth point: the extraordinary purity of Srila Prabhupada’s character. Unlike those pseudo gurus who preach one thing and practice another, Srila Prabhupada exemplifies all the qualities of a mahatma (great soul) described in the scriptures. He is peaceful, tolerant, merciful, austere, totally self-controlled, humble, perfectly clean (externally and within his heart), and friendly to everyone. Above all, he has perfect, unshakable faith in Lord Krishna. Anyone who has met him can testify that, without question, he is a modern saint in the most profound sense.
Fifth, does Srila Prabhupada teach glorification of God as the only means for self-realization, and does he shun materially motivated welfare work? Yes. In perfect accord with the scriptures and the preceding spiritual masters, Srila Prabhupada is exclusively propagating the sankirtana movement—the congregational chanting of God’s names and engagement in His devotional service. Many parts of the Vedic literature proclaim that of all spiritual practices, sankirtana is the most effective for this materialistic age: the Brhan-naradiya Purana explains that no other method of God-realization is possible for the people of this age, the Kali-santarana Upanisad declares that the holy name will cure the chanter of the poisonous effects of the present materialistic age of Kali; and the Narada Pancaratra says that the Hare Krishna mantra (composed entirely of God’s names) is equal to all other mantras and sacrifices combined. Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu also taught glorification of God through sankirtana, and He particularly stressed the Hare Krishna maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. As for material well-being, Lord Caitanya explains in the Caitanya-caritamrta (Madhya 22.62) that anyone who glorifies Lord Krishna through devotional service automatically performs all subsidiary activities. In other words, he attains both spiritual and material fulfillment. So what need is there for materialistic philanthropy?
Since Srila Prabhupada is teaching the conclusion of the scriptures and is supported by the past authorities, the knowledge he is giving is the purest and most authorized. None of today’s gurus is even nearly as qualified in this respect. If a would-be guru is not teaching the message of the disciplic succession from Krishna, and if he does not put forward the philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita, and if he does not stress the glorification of God by chanting His holy names-then he cannot be accepted as genuine.
Finally, the conclusive evidence that Srila Prabhupada is the only real guru today is that he is effectively spreading God (Krishna) consciousness throughout the world. Some persons object when we praise Srila Prabhupada so highly. They think we are saying no one can become a guru except our guru. But actually Lord Caitanya says that everyone—especially those born in India—should make his life perfect by practicing Krishna consciousness and then teach Krishna consciousness to others. Only Srila Prabhupada, however, has taken up the Lord’s order with so much determination and so much success. Twelve years ago, while living in Vrndavana, the land of Krishna, Srila Prabhupada saw that his elder Godbrothers were not carrying out the order of Lord Caitanya and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura to spread the message of Krishna consciousness. Now that Srila Prabhupada has taken up that order, he deserves not criticism but praise. Indeed, the entire world should cooperate with such a selfless universal teacher.
The Miracle of Srila Prabhupada’s Books
Certainly there is abundant evidence of Srila Prabhupada’s greatness, but the most conclusive of all is his books. First, Srila Prabhupada is the only guru who has presented the Bhagavad-gita purely, without misleading commentary. As long ago as the end of the nineteenth century, many Hindu gurus came to the United States claiming to be great saints and scholars of the Bhagavad-gita. They presented the Gita in many versions—nearly one hundred—but not one produced even a single devotee of Krishna. In other words, these false gurus put forth the Bhagavad-gita with self-interested interpretations, simply to popularize their own philosophies. Thus they ignored the Gita’s real philosophy of surrender to Krishna. And the result? Although many people admired the Bhagavad-gita, no one could understand it, and no one cared to become a devotee of Krishna. However, since Srila Prabhupada’s publication of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, thousands of people have become purified by this knowledge and have taken up devotional service to Lord Krishna.
Among Srila Prabhupada’s other books are the Srimad-Bhagavatam (a work in progress) and the Caitanya-caritamrta, two of the most important Vedic scriptures. To date Srila Prabhupada has written more than sixty volumes, and he is currently producing one complete book nearly every month. These publications (and their author) have won the praise of leading scholars throughout the world, as the following comments will attest.
Professor Garry Gelade of Oxford University writes, “This [Srimad-Bhagavatam] is a book to be treasured… The clarity and precision of Srila Prabhupada’s commentaries on the text can rarely have been equaled. No one of whatever faith or philosophical persuasion who reads this book with an open mind can fail to be moved and impressed.”
Dr. Shaligram Shukla, Professor of Sanskrit at Georgetown University, praises Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is. “It is a deeply felt, powerfully conceived, and beautifully explained work…I have never seen any other work on the Gita with such an ardent voice and style.”
And Dr. Kailash Vajpeye, Visiting Professor of Indian Studies at the University of Mexico, expresses himself in this way: “Of all commentaries on the Bhagavad-gita that have appeared until now in the West, this present edition by Sri A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada is the best… Srila Prabhupada’s Sanskrit scholarship is without parallel. His penetration into the meaning of the text indicates the deepest realization and understanding of the profound meaning of the Gita.”
From every angle of vision and on every count, it is clear that Srila Prabhupada is jagad-guru—a pure devotee empowered by the Supreme Personality of Godhead to teach Krishna consciousness to the entire world. Indeed, more than a century ago Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura one of the great spiritual masters in the line of disciplic succession, predicted the advent of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Srila Bhaktivinoda wrote, “A personality will soon appear to preach the teachings of Lord Caitanya and move unrestrictedly over the whole world with His message.”
In 1965, at the advanced age of seventy, with no companion and practically no money (about five dollars)—but with the ardent desire to execute the instruction of his guru—Srila Prabhupada left his home in Vrndavana, India, and sailed to America. On his arrival in Boston Harbor, Srila Prabhupada wrote, “I do not know, Krishna, why You have sent me here. These people are all demonic, engaged in meat eating and illicit sex. How will they be able to hear the message of Krishna?” Srila Prabhupada wasn’t patronized by any organization in the United States, nor was he helped by His Godbrothers in India. Yet as a surrendered servant of his spiritual master, he tried to spread Krishna consciousness, beginning from a humble storefront on New York’s Lower East Side. The success of the worldwide Krishna consciousness movement today is a testimony to Krishna’s favor upon His pure devotee.
Srila Prabhupada started the Krishna consciousness movement single-handedly, and in only eleven years he has laid the foundation, organized the framework, and imparted the philosophy for a universal movement to establish God consciousness throughout human society. In only eleven years Srila Prabhupada has circled the globe more than a dozen times—preaching, translating, opening more than one hundred centers, managing worldwide affairs, and accepting thousands of disciples—all at a pace that none of his youthful followers has been able to match. His sixty-plus books have been translated into fifteen major languages, and they are standard texts in colleges and universities throughout North America, Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia.
Srila Prabhupada has taught businessmen to do business for Krishna, artists to paint and sculpt for Krishna, and scientists to use their brainpower and know-how for Krishna. He has taught mothers to raise Krishna-conscious children, actors to perform dramas depicting the pastimes of Krishna, and anyone and everyone to chant Hare Krishna and eat prasada, food offered to Krishna. He has transformed his fortunate disciples (who had formerly been brainwashed by today’s demonic propaganda of sense gratification) into peaceful, self-controlled brahmanas, the most intelligent members of human society. Srila Prabhupada is jagad-guru, the spiritual master of all of us (all of us who agree to hear him submissively), and he is teaching the world how to have peace, both individually and internationally, by using everything in the service of its rightful owner—Krishna—and by chanting Krishna’s holy names.
The glory of Srila Prabhupada as the representative of God surpasses any attempt to define his greatness. Beyond the proofs cited in these few pages, a closer study of Srila Prabhupada’s life and teachings will reveal many more unprecedented achievements and afford further transcendental enlightenment. The reader of this humble attempt to praise a great soul has been very kind to consider our presentation. To you our concluding words are these: we respectfully request you to read the books of this highly exalted bona fide spiritual master. If you submissively hear his message, certainly it will touch your heart and benefit you eternally.