Found in Sanga, Sanga 2005.

Gifts of Sri Guru

January 15th, 2005 | No Comments

Q. I attended two of your lectures last week when you were speaking in the area. I am very appreciative of the time you took and your example of deep reflection and surrender. As a disciple of Bhakti Tirtha Swami, who is now confronting his greatest challenge, I would be most grateful if you would share with me your perspective on deepening the inner connection with one’s spiritual master.

A. Thank you for your kind words. I think that the answer to how one can deepen the relationship with one’s guru lies in the desire to do so, and this is often born of apparently disconcerting circumstances. This appears to be your situation.

Otherwise, the spiritual master is the embodiment of the scriptures. We can find the guru and that which he or she lives for in sastra. When Srila Prabhupada left the world, I had the good fortune of associating with my siksa guru, Pujyapada B. R. Sridhara Maharaja. He helped me to enter more deeply into the spirit of the sastra and this in turn helped me to better understand all that Srila Prabhupada represents.

Your guru, Sripad Bhakti Tirtha Swami, has written many books, and these books are all drawn from a common source and brought to life by his realization. This common source is sastra. You must learn to bring the sastra to life as he has done and then live with him in the realm beyond the mind and senses. These two, mind and senses, as well as intellect, can tell you very little about Sri Gurudeva. To know him you must go to him through the sastra. In so doing, use your head to soften your heart. Do this with guidance, and the tender faith (komala sraddha) that you have at present will become strong. It will become sastriya sraddha, faith well informed by sastra. With this kind of faith, you will know that your spiritual master is always with you.

[Editor’s note: Swami Tripurari and the Sanga editorial staff would like to acknowledge Bhakti Tirtha Swami’s 35 years of sincere service to the worldwide Gaudiya Vaisnava community. We pray that Bhagavan Sri Krishna will continue to bless the Gaudiya community with Bhakti Tirtha Swami’s inspiring association.]

Q. Some Gaudiya sects teach that because the guru is a devotee he or she should be worshipped after Krishna is worshipped, not before. Neither should Krishna be offered the prasad of the guru, rather the guru should be given the prasad of Krishna. What is your opinion?

A. In Gaudiya Vaisnavism there are two systems of worship—one ascending, the other descending. Both systems are valid but in his institution Srila Prabhupada introduced the ascending method in order to stress that one must approach Krishna through the guru. However, he also told his disciples that they could learn more about procedures for arcana from Gaudiya Matha and the Radha-Ramana Mandira in Vrindavana.

In the ascending method one offers the article first to the guru with the idea that the guru will then offer it to his or her own guru and so on until the item is offered to Krishna. Externally the ritual appears inconsistent with this idea because the devotee offering arati physically offers the article to everyone on the altar. Therefore with regard to ritual it is important to understand that the spirit in which the ritual is performed is more important than the external formalities.

The offering of food also presents a bit of a dilemma. In his Harinama Cintamani, Thakura Bhaktivinoda describes the details of offering food to Krishna. There he says, “The spiritual master is to be worshipped first; only then may one worship Lord Krishna. The spiritual master should be offered different paraphernalia like a nice seat, shoes, foot bath, cloth, etc.; then with the spiritual master’s permission one may worship the Deities of Sri Sri Radha and Krishna. Food should be first offered to the Deities and then offered to the spiritual master, then to the demigods and other Vaisnavas. Without the spiritual master’s sanction one cannot engage in Radha-Krishna worship. Before chanting the holy name, the disciple should remember the spiritual master and his instructions.”

The idea is that we cannot offer the guru’s prasad to Krishna, and we cannot offer food to Krishna without first worshipping the guru. So in offering bhoga we first worship the guru, taking his or her permission to worship Krishna. Then we worship Krishna and offer his prasada to the guru. If we worship in this consciousness, the ascending and descending methods of worship are harmonized.

Q. In the early days of the movement Srila Prabhupada gave disciples what we call harinama initiation very liberally, asking them only to avoid the four pillars of sinful life (meat eating, intoxication, gambling, and illicit sex) and to chant a minimum number of rounds of nama japa. His requirements for initiation gradually increased to the point that one had to vow to chant 16 rounds every day as well as to avoid the four pillars of sin without fail for the rest of one’s life. While I understand that there must be certain requirements for diksa, or what we call second initiation, the above-stated requirements seem somewhat severe for receiving first initiation. I know of many devotees who have given up on the idea of ever getting initiated due to these strict standards. What is your opinion on this, and what do you require of your prospective disciples in order to bestow harinama initiation?

A. Srila Prabhupada’s standards for initiation were stricter than those required by his spiritual master. Perhaps this is because the so-called normal behavior that Srila Prabhupada encountered in the West was so much more permissive than normal behavior in India. Srila Prabhupada confronted western permissiveness by setting very strict standards for initiation, and those who took initiation from him were required to vow to adhere to those standards for life. However, the truth be told, very few of his approximately 5,000 initiated disciples were always able to keep the vows that they took at initiation. Therefore it may be time to reconsider the idea of requiring people to take such strict vows for initiation, knowing that hardly anyone will be able to keep them. Especially considering that as far as the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition is concerned, sraddha (faith) is the only requirement for initiation.

The idea behind sraddha as the standard for initiation is that once one is initiated into chanting harinama, one will be encouraged toward spiritual practice, which will in turn cause bad habits to begin to disappear. Indeed, without chanting, one’s bad habits are unlikely to ever go away. The example cited is Nityananda Prabhu who gave harinama liberally to anyone who had faith in Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and Krishna. In Gaudiya Vaisnavism this is the only scriptural qualification for receiving harinama. Explaining the conclusion of the Bhagavad-gita, Mahaprabhu instructed Srila Rupa Goswami, ei ajna-bale bhaktera ‘sraddha’ yadi haya sarva-karma tyaga kari’ se krishna bhajaya, “If a devotee has faith in this order (become my devotee), he or she worships Krishna and gives up all other activities.” In this way sraddha and saranagati are synonymous. Srimad-Bhagavatam states:

tavat karmani kurvita na nirvidyeta yavata
mat-katha-sravanadau va sraddha yavan na jayate

“As long as one is not satiated by fruitive activity and has not awakened faith in hearing and chanting about me, one has to act according to the regulative principles of the Vedic injunctions (varnasrama dharma).”

Mahaprabhu also told Sri Rupa:

‘sraddha’-sabde-visvasa kahe sudrdha niscaya
krsne bhakti kaile sarva-karma krta haya

“Sraddha is confident, firm faith that by rendering transcendental loving service to Krishna one automatically fulfills all subsidiary duties (varnasrama dharma).”

Through the association of sadhus, either accidentally or by choice, faith is acquired. Once faith is awakened in someone, that person then deliberately associates with sadhus with the intention of finding his or her guru. When one’s guru is found, one takes shelter and receives the guru’s blessing to chant Krishna nama. This in essence is harinama initiation. At that time the guru will instruct the disciple how to lead a life of spiritual practice (bhajana kriya). As the disciple advances in bhajana kriya, the guru may then introduce further restrictions and practices.

In my case I consider each student individually and advise him or her accordingly as to how to engage in spiritual practice—its spirit and details tailored to each individual.

Q. In our movement there are so many cases of re-initiation. Is it necessary to take re-initiation if one’s guru leaves the movement?

A. In some cases accepting a siksa guru is sufficient, but if the previous guru has become an aparadhi (offender), re-initiation is necessary. This is the general rule. However, there are often extenuating circumstances, and in my experience every case needs to be dealt with individually, placing oneself in the learned and affectionate hands of a qualified devotee.

Q. Hindu religious culture dictates that only persons born in brahmana families are allowed to perform yajnas and certain other socioreligious functions. Sri Jiva Goswami mentioned this in one of his Sandarbhas and seemed to accept this idea. Also in Jaiva-Dharma, Bhaktivinoda Thakura agrees saying that everyone, regardless of birth, has the right to practice bhakti but those who are not born in brahmana families are not eligible to perform yajnas until they acquire seminal birth in a brahmana family. He further explains that if one violates social customs, one is guilty of secular impropriety, and members of society who take pride in their social respectability do not condone such activities. Thus Sri Jiva Goswami and Bhaktivinoda Thakura wrote that only hereditary brahmanas should perform Vedic rites, even if otherwise one is spiritually qualified. This conclusion, however, contradicts what Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati taught in this regard. How should we reconcile this?

A. In the Sanga titled “Women Diksa Gurus,” I cited how Gaudiya acarya Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura said the opposite of Jiva Goswami with regard to this issue. His answer is in keeping with the power of bhakti, while Sri Jiva’s is in consideration of social concerns of the time. The same applies to the difference between what Bhaktivinoda Thakura wrote on this point in Jaiva-Dharma and the position of his disciple Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. The socioreligious stance is that Vedic rituals are performed by hereditary brahmanas. However, Bhagavata-dharma, or Vaisnavism, teaches that the power of bhakti purifies one beyond the position of a hereditary brahmana, thus one is qualified to perform any Vedic ritual.

This is another case of absolute versus relative considerations. In preaching we might consider the relative position, which in this case are the socioreligious rules of varnasrama culture. However at heart we abide by the absolute vision of Bhagavata-dharma. This is what Srila Prabhupada did when he allowed women to perform seva puja for the temple Deity except in some places in India, where he felt that strong opposition from orthodox Hindu brahmanas might cause problems for his movement. Our position is that Vaisnavism is always above brahmanism, but it seems that over the centuries the details of preaching this point has been subject to certain time and place considerations.

Q. What does Krishna mean when he says in Bhagavad-gita to give up all dharma and surrender unto him, and how does this relate to having a guru?

A. The basic idea of surrender in the Gita—sarva dharman parityaja—is to give up socioreligious pursuits (dharma), including the worship of any demigod or demigoddess, and serve only Krishna. Krishna calls on us to serve him alone. Faith that by doing so one is relieved of any other duties both religious and secular amounts to eligibility for treading the path of bhakti. In this sense, bhakti proceeds from saranagati. As we engage in the practices of bhakti under the care of a guru—such as hearing, chanting, and remembering—we acquire both theoretical and practical knowledge of spirituality, saranagati intensifies, and our taste for hearing and chanting increases.

Thus our concern should be twofold: we should take exclusive shelter of Krishna, forgoing all other spiritual practices, and we should begin a guru-guided life of hearing and chanting, evaluating our progress by the extent to which our interest in hearing and chanting is increasing. Saranagatas will feel themselves making progress daily. If you do not feel like this, you have to do whatever it takes to focus your mind and give your heart to your nama japa, mantra, and kirtana. Nama and mantra are the real gifts of Sri Guru. Use them wisely; they are your real wealth.

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