It is always best to assume that we are in the modes of ignorance, and at least we will be right on that point. When knowledge is staggeringly finite, humility is the best policy. On the spiritual path one tries to make progress to the modes of goodness and then transcend, for it is not always possible to transcend the modes all at once. God alone is perfect, and we are always imperfect, even in our so-called liberated state. It is because we are imperfect that we have to take shelter of the perfect.
Lord Caitanya advises that we take shelter of a sadhu, who is a holy man of spotless character, sastra, which is scripture, and guru, who is the perfect spiritual master. The scriptures should be the guidelines for the other two. The guru is liberated because he follows scriptures, and the sadhu is pure and honest because he accepts scriptural principles. The insistence on the authority of the scripture is to discourage people from inventing their own religions and to warn others against following such fabricators.
Actually, only God can establish a religion that is bona fide. Religion refers to man’s relationship with God or the Supreme Absolute Truth; it is neither a mere ritual, nor a set of regulations, nor a conglomeration of mental speculations concocted by man. Actual religion is to know God and one’s relationship to Him. And this is not possible unless God reveals who and what He is and reveals man’s relationship to Him. It is not that we can artificially say, “Oh, I think God is this, so I think if I do this or this I will become God, and then I’ll be happy.” One who invents in this way may be well intentioned, but he is actually misguiding himself and others.
The purpose of the Bhagavad-gita is to reveal to man what God is and to establish man’s relationship with God. Lord Krsna says, “In order to deliver the pious and annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I advent My self millennium after millennium.” (Gita 4.8) The Gita is like a play enacted for this purpose. Arjuna, who is actually an elevated devotee, puts himself on the level of an ignorant man in order that Krsna may reveal His Divine Self to him and enunciate the dharma of Kali Yuga. In the beginning of the Eleventh Chapter, Arjuna requests, “If You think, my Lord, that I am able to behold Your cosmic form, O Lord of all mystic powers, then please reveal to me Your universal Self.” (Gita 11.4) Krsna then reveals to Arjuna “whatever you want to see,” contained in His body all at once. He shows him “hundreds of thousands of varied divine forms, multicolored like the sea.” In an attempt to describe this unprecedented sight, Sanjaya said, “If the radiance of thousands of suns were to burst forth all at once in the sky, that might resemble the mighty splendor of the Lord.” (Gita 11.12) Actually, the form revealed on the Battlefield of Kuruksetra, which is called the visva-rupa or universal form, is not the ultimate form of the Lord. Arjuna, being Krsna’s devotee, knew that this form was not ultimate. The visva-rupa is a material form revealed in the material universe to those who cannot easily accept the personal two-armed form of the Lord as ultimate. Therefore, the Lord reveals Himself impersonally as the cosmos, containing all varieties of living beings, mountains, forests, earths, planets and so on. This was revealed as an example whereby man can have some criteria for verifying an incarnation of the Lord. If someone is claiming to be God and is trying to establish a religion, then one has the right, like Arjuna, to request to see his universal form. If he reveals this universal form, then one would have no doubts about offering him worship. It is not that Krsna played word games with Arjuna by telling him, “This is My universal form that is before you, O Arjuna, but you cannot see it now because your vision is faulty.” No, Arjuna requested to see the vision, and Krsna delivered it immediately. Our Vision of God is not dependent on our limited perception, otherwise we would never see Him. Krsna delivered not only the vision but the means whereby Arjuna was to see it. “But you cannot see Me with your present eyes. Therefore do I give you divine eyes, so that you can behold My mystic opulence.” (Gita 11.8)
Actually Arjuna was not interested in seeing this form, for being a pure devotee he was interested only in the personal two-armed form of Krsna. It is not possible to render service or enter into a loving relationship with the visva-rupa. Upon seeing this form, Arjuna, though a great warrior, trembled and lost all equilibrium, being unable to understand the fierce form displayed. Therefore, after the visva-rupa was revealed to him, Arjuna requested to see once again God’s personal form. “After seeing this universal form which I have never seen before I am gladdened, but at the same time my mind is disturbed with fear. Therefore please reveal Your form as the Personality of Godhead.”(Gita 11.45)Then Krsna returned to His human-like form, which “even the demigods are ever eager to see.” Thus the visva-rupa is a revelation to show man the extent and opulence of the Supreme and to give him a guideline with which to reject imposters who claim to be God without having the powers of the Supreme.
The rest of the Gita is devoted to the outlining of the various paths wherein one can enter into a relationship with Krsna by means of meditation on the Supersoul within the heart, study of the scriptures (jnana-yoga), work in a spirit of renunciation (karma-yoga), and the culmination, devotional service unto the Lord (bhakti-yoga). Thus, in the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krsna establishes a science of religion by showing what God is and how man can relate to Him and ultimately attain Him.
Only God is able to establish religion in this way, and because of this Lord Krsna is called the guru of gurus by Sankaracarya. This means that spiritual masters acknowledge Him to be the ultimate authority. One is not really a guru if he doesn’t follow the sastras for guidance, for by manufacturing his own way he is liable to mislead others. A guru is not a man who writes his own scriptures and gathers disciples for his own glorification. When Sanatana Gosvami asked Lord Caitanya how one can know whether or not the guru is a bona fide avatara, Lord Caitanya answered, “The medium is sastra. The medium is guru.”
Whether the guru is a genuine avatara must be determined through the sastras. An incarnation never says, “I am an incarnation.” Nor does an avatara canvass for students. Because of his superior qualities, he is automatically accepted. The scriptures give evidence that at such and such a time an avatara will descend from Krsna’s abode, his father’s name will be this, His birthplace will be that, and so on. All these evidences were given in the sastras for Caitanya Mahaprabhu, but Caitanya never claimed to be an avatara, although He is the Supreme Godhead Himself.
Aside from being foretold by scriptures, a guru can be verified by parampara. That is to say he himself may not be mentioned in the scriptures, but he must follow in a line of disciples from an avatara who is mentioned. For example, our spiritual master is in the disciplic succession stemming from Lord Caitanya in the Fifteenth Century. Of course, LordCaitanya, being an avatara, could have begun His own disciplic succession, but He accepted the succession coming from Lord Krsna, Brahma, Narada, Vyasa, etc.
The guru never contradicts scripture. This means that he never contradicts Lord Krsna. When Lord Krsna says, “Offer Me fruits and grains,” the guru doesn’t say that one should offer Him meat, eggs and wine. When Krsna says, “Worship Me,” the guru does not say worship the void. When Krsna says, “Surrender unto Me,” the guru does not say surrender unto one’s own mental speculations. Like the wheels of a train, guru and Krsna run down the same track.
One may ask. “Why is the guru necessary? Isn’t scripture enough?” Actually the Protestant movements within Catholicism asked this very question, and they ultimately rejected the Pope as their guru and relied completely upon individual interpretation of the Bible. Before this, the Church of Rome had remained unified for 1500 years, but as soon as they rejected their unifying head, the Pope, they did not simply splinter into two or three groups but into hundreds and hundreds of various Protestant sects. Christianity lost its power due to this faction.
The rejection of the Pope by the Protestants may be justified, for since the time of Peter the divine powers of the Papacy have been steadily declining due to corruption, and during the Babylonian Captivity the line of disciplic succession was broken. Granted the Catholic Church has been plagued with nepotism and simony, but this does not mean that the process of disciplic succession under a singular head should be rejected per se. The Pope or guru should be rejected, however, if he contradicts scripture or the divine holy sages (sadhus) who write scripture under the dictations of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Factually the Protestants argued that because the Pope and the Church had, in their worldliness, deviated from the message of Christ, they were fully justified in rejecting them and relying solely upon scriptures.
This is an understandable course but a very dangerous one, especially when one is following the Bible for scripture. The Bible is filled with many allegories, proverbs, metaphors, parables and paradoxes and consequentely can be interpreted in infinite ways. Therefore, Protestantism, with the doctrine of individual interpretation, could not remain unified. In The Everlasting Gosple, William Blake poked fun at the inevitable diversity of Biblical interpretation in this way:
The Vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy.
Thine has a great hook nose like thine,
Mine has a snub nose like to mine.
Thine is the friend of all mankind;
Mine speaks in parables to the blind.
Thine loves the same world that mine hates;
Thy heaven doors are my hell gates.
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.
Due to imperfect senses and due to a tendency to cheat, which are characteristic of every man, the scriptures are better received through a perfectly realized medium. If one wants to study chemistry, mathematics, geography or physics, he does not simply check a chemistry or physics book out of the library and sit down and begin reading. No, he buys the books, attends the lectures in the university, takes notes of the professor’s lectures, does the assigned reading, takes the examination, and finally writes a thesis under the guidance of his professor. If mundane science is so difficult that one needs a teacher in addition to the textbooks, how much more does one need a teacher for the supreme science—the science of God. Not to speak of physics or chemistry, if one wants to learn how to drive a car, he does not simply sit down with a textbook. He has someone who knows how to drive a car teach him. If a teacher is needed just to learn about a mundane exterior process, how much more does one need a teacher to understand the mystical interior process of self-realization? So just as professors and textbooks are necessary for the understanding of a material science, the guru and scriptures are necessary for the understanding of the spiritual science of Krsna. Therefore, Lord Krsna says in Bhagavad-gita, “Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.” (Gita 4.34)
Personally I have had practical experience in trying to understand the Bhagavad-gita both alone and with a guru. When I was teaching at Ohio State University in 1964, my officemate, Dr. Mohan Lal Sharma, who was Punjabi, gave me a number of Hindu scriptures to read. We were both interested in the literature of Nineteenth Century American Transcendentalism (Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne), and in order to show me a mystical background that extended beyond the Bible, he loaned me a copy of Bhagavad-gita and Sankaracarya’s Viveka-cudamani. I read the Gita twice and was very interested, but somehow or other I could not understand the meaning of Krsna either as a person or a force. Sankaracarya made much better sense to me because he insisted on the Self much as Whitman did, but I misinterpreted this to mean my own finite self in perfection. After all, according to Sankara, nothing exists but the Self. I was right in the sense that I did not exist apart from the Self, but I was wrong in relegating the Self to my own finitude. When I read in Bhagavad-gita that Lord Krsna said that He was the Self seated in the hearts of all, I identified this Self with the Self in Sankara and so considered Krsna to be none other than a personified spokesman for my own finite self. The idea that Krsna was God delivering a message to me, a finite creature who was but a part of Him, never crossed my mind.
In 1965, in New York, I re-read Gita for the third time in a different translation, and just because there was a cover picture of Krsna standing in a chariot and instructing Arjuna, I conceptualized Krsna to be the higher Self that was within me instructing the lower self. In both cases, I was relegating the Infinite to my own finitude. I remembered nothing about the first reading, and the second reading left me so dissatisfied that I put the book aside for the Zen Teaching of Huang Po. Because I could not superimpose the Personality of Krsna on my own finite personality, I found impersonal discourses in terms of the one mind to have more meaning. But this only carried me so far, and I got very tired of walking down St. Mark’s Place saying to myself, “That which you see before you is the one mind—begin to reason about it and you at once fall into error.” As a mantra, this has limitations. At this point, I felt a sudden urge, a deep need, to find someone who could teach me something about realization.
Feeling I had exhausted all American literary and psychedelic possibilities, I left for India in 1965 with some vague notions of finding a guru who could direct me. I only emerged from this trip in 1966 with the conviction that India didn’t have the answer and that she was only capable of giving me the dysentery. However, on the trip I read Bhagavad-gita again and was told by a Nepalese boy who played a flute that wherever the flute is played Krsna is present. Although he called himself a Buddhist, his eyes lit up when he spoke of Krsna, and it was obvious that Krsna was much more real to him that the Tathagatas of the Sutras, which he probably never read. And when in India, while trying to sleep on a train from Bombay to Delhi that stopped at every station where the sounds of hawkers, music and cows would awaken me, I somehow strongly felt that the sounds I was hearing were weaving themselves into a song which was the song of Bhagavad-gita. This was a song not only of India, but of the entire creation. Somehow or other, I realized the Gita, but not Bhagavan. I heard the Song, but knew nothing of the singer. Krsna was still a perplexing question mark that I preferred not to give much thought to.
It was only after I returned from India that I met His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada walking down Houston Street near Second Avenue. After listening to him talk about the Bhagavad-gita every morning for several months, Krsna suddenly became more than a name in a book. He became that person for whom I have always yearned.
I feel safe in saying that the Gita would have always remained enigmatic to me had not the explanations of the spiritual master and the Hare Krsna mantra which he delivered to me opened that locked door. Actually we are all prisoners of conditioned life, and no amount of literature within the prison can free us. We can only be freed by someone from the outside. Then once freed we can read these great literatures in their true light.
Guru, sadhu, sastra. These can always be compared, and they should never contradict. The sadhus are the servants of the Lord. And the scriptures are the words of the Lord. They do not contradict because Krsna is the center of all of them. The Protestants used to complain that the Pope came between the individual and God and obscured God. But this is not the case with the real guru. The real guru is a transparent medium through which God is perceived. He actually delivers his disciples to God. He is likened to a cowherd boy who leads the cows down to the water. Once the cows are at the reservoir, they drink of the waters of the Lord themselves. In the same way the guru leads the soul out of the slum of conditioned life, down the narrow streets of purification, on to the broad avenues of the dharma, into the heavenly city of God. Therefore the sastras say, “By the grace of Krsna one gets guru, and by the grace of guru one gets Krsna.” When Krsna sees that a student is sincere, He sends the spiritual master who can instruct him in the ways of purification so that finally he may be able to attain ultimate happiness—the reestablishment of his eternal relationship with Krsna.