Q. In his Chaitanya-caritamrita (Madhya 1.220 purport) Srila Prabhupada says that an acharya is self-effulgent. What does he mean by this?
A. In this purport and in the one before it, Srila Prabhupada discusses pseudo-Vaishnavas and how their opinion or vote doesn’t have any authority over a self-effulgent Vaishnava acharya. Here self-effulgent means obvious or self-evident. Srila Prabhupada is saying that sincere, discerning devotees will recognize a Vaishnava who is qualified to be acharya, others may not. Sincere and discerning are important words here. Sincere means free from pretense, deceit, and hypocrisy, and discerning refers to persons of good judgment, which in Vaishnavism means those who look to saints and scripture for answers. Two things are necessary for initiation—qualified gurus and sincere, discerning followers.
Someone may be self-effulgent, but if others do not know what to look for in a guru, they will not recognize such a self-effulgent acharya. If one has a superficial notion of the qualities of a self-effulgent acharya, misconstrues details for principles, and identifies with form over substance, one will not be able to see the obvious. Prabhupada himself was self-effulgent, but even many of his Godbrothers could not recognize him.
Q. What is the difference between an acharya and a guru? And what is the difference between an acharya and a founding acharya?
A. Srila Sridhar Maharaja discusses the difference between acharya and guru in the following passage from his book Sri Guru and His Grace.
Guru and acharya are the same (in that they both give initiation and relevant instructions) but generally it may be said that an acharya does more extensive work. And also the acharya must have extensive knowledge of the scriptures, whereas the guru may not have expressly deep knowledge of scripture, but may have real knowledge of their purport. He may not be able to quote scripture extensively, but feels the meaning of the scriptures. He may be a guru. But an acharya is one who preaches widely and is able to extensively quote scriptural evidence.
Prabhupada writes that the first business of an acharya is to make a literary contribution. While the word “acharya” refers to one who has good behavior or teaches by personal example, both Prabhupada’s statement and Pujyapada Sridhara Maharaja’s statement define an acharya as one who is a guru and more, one who is more in terms of founding a system of Vedanta or perhaps a mission within a particular system of Vedanta.
Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura referred to the Vaishnavas who founded systems of Vedanta— Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, etc.—as founder acharyas. In a lesser sense, Prabhupada and his Godbrothers, who like him founded missions within Gaudiya Vedanta or Gaudiya Vaishnavism, referred to themselves as founder acharyas of their particular missions. I say a lesser sense because such founder acharyas of particular missions within our lineage all teach the Gaudiya Vedanta given to us by the founding acharyas of Gaudiya Vedanta, the six Goswamis of Vrindavan, who founded the lineage itself and articulated the system of Vedanta—acintya bhedabheda—that made the ecstasy that Mahaprabhu embodied approachable by locating it on the scriptural map. Founder acharyas of particular Gaudiya missions in turn dynamically teach what has been given by the Goswamis, making relevant time-and-circumstance adjustments of details in order to deliver the principal teachings. It is important to note this distinction. If we do not, we run the risk of conflating a dynamic adjustment of details with establishing philosophical principles and mistakenly thinking that such details can never be altered. Such confusion freezes the lineage in time, rendering it less than spiritually vital.
Q. What do saints and scripture say about the qualifications of the guru?
A. In the Bhagavad-gita (2.54) Arjuna asks about the characteristics of a realized soul and Krishna responds by explaining the status of a jivanmukta, one who is liberated in this life. Such a person of wisdom has renounced sense desire born of the mind and is satisfied in the self. In his purport to this verse, Srila Prabhupada explains this simply by saying, “Such a transcendentally situated person has no sense desire resulting from petty materialism, rather he remains always happy in his natural position of eternally serving the Supreme Lord.”
Srila Prabhupada was also fond of quoting Mandaka Upanishad (1.2.12), samit-panih srotriyum brahma-nistham—Guru means one who has complete knowledge of the scriptural canon, and moreover is brahma-nistham. In other words, the guru’s knowledge is not merely theoretical and at the same time he or she has considerable theoretical knowledge along with realization. It is also said, sabde pare ca nisnatam brahmany upasamasrayam (SB 11.3.21), on which the revered Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura comments thus:
“One should surrender to a guru who is skillful (nisnatam) in understanding the meaning of the Vedas (sabde) and other scriptures. If he does not have this quality, the faith of the disciple will become weak, since he will not be able to destroy the doubts of the disappointed disciple. He should be capable as well in realizing the Lord (pare). Otherwise, his mercy will not bear results. The position of being fixed in realization of the Lord is described: he is not under control of anger and greed (upasamasrayam).”
Q. In one Gaudiya Vaisnava institution, the process of certifying a devotee as an initiating guru requires the candidate to vow loyalty to the managerial leadership board that presides over the institution’s gurus, have a good record of service, chant sixteen rounds of japa daily, and follow the four regulative principles (no meat eating, intoxication, gambling, or illicit sex). Is this not the basic qualifications of a guru?
A. One member of that sect, Jayadvaita Swami, recently referred to such a policy as “an exercise in creative managerial theology.” Time served, loyalty to the organization, chanting sixteen rounds of japa, and avoiding illicit sex, intoxication, meat eating, and gambling is hardly the qualification for serving as a guru. This is more a standard for being initiated, not for initiating. It is not that the guru and the disciple should have the same qualifications other than time involved, and while time spent in sadhana is not to be dismissed, it should result in other obvious qualifications. Unless one has those qualifications, “becoming” a guru is a recipe for disaster. Guru is heavy, not light—heavy with knowledge and realization. This truth should be evident to all sincere, discerning Vaishnavas. Otherwise, it is the disciples that certify the guru, others involved in managing an institution should see that dynamic as it takes place and honor it.
Q. Can a bona fide guru break the rules?
A. The guru cannot change the essential principles of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, but he or she can adjust details regarding their practical application. For example, saints and scripture tell us that chanting harinama is the authorized process for self-realization in this age. Therefore, bona fide Gaudiya Vaishnava gurus will not instruct their students to forgo chanting altogether. The guru may however adjust the means and methods of chanting in consideration of time and circumstances. Doing so does not break any rules.
Case in point: Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura asked his followers to begin their spiritual practice by chanting one round of japa, adding more rounds as their taste for harinama increased. His disciple Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura expected his followers to chant as much as possible, but he laid more stress on service: service to Vaishnavas, the matha (temple), preaching, etc. If due to circumstances on any particular day his disciples had no service, they were expected to chant sixty-four rounds, but if they were involved in intense service they were permitted to chant less—much less. His bottom line instruction on japa was not to let their mala fast, “malika upavasa na,” so in consideration of their service, his disciples were required to spend at least some time every day chanting.
Srila Prabhupada also laid stress on service, particularly preaching. With few exceptions, he required his disciples to chant a minimum of sixteen rounds a day, approximately a two-hour meditation. One exception went to a devotee in New Vrindavan who took care of the cows from before dawn to after dark. He told Srila Prabhupada that he would have to decrease his service if it he was required to chant the daily prescribed sixteen rounds of japa. In reply Srila Prabhupada told this disciple that he was pleased with his service and he should simply chant as much japa as was practical in his situation.
So the number of rounds that the guru prescribes for a disciple is a detail, and we know this because we see that it has been adjusted at different times under different circumstances. In one sense each individual is a different circumstance, so if the guru could cater to each individual’s particular circumstances perhaps that would be ideal. Indeed, it is possible that some devotees serving under the guru will make more spiritual advancement chanting four rounds than others who chant sixteen rounds; and some who chant sixteen may make more progress than others chanting sixty-four. The point is that chanting harinama is not a mathematical formula, rather it is a heart exercise. It is certainly not about numbers per se, as we see that previous acharyas have allowed their disciples to chant less than sixteen rounds at the time of initiation.
As for who is qualified to make adjustments for preaching purposes; the fact is that making adjustments in consideration of time and circumstance is the very heart of effective preaching. It does not threaten the quality of practice but brings it to life and empowers it. Every preacher must do this on some level, so if one’s seva is to initiate, one must be able to make this call. Such discrimination is characteristic of intermediate devotees who engage in preaching.
Q. Some devotees say that the universal qualification for initiation into Gaudiya Vaisnavism requires that one follow the four regulative principles and chant sixteen rounds of japa. Prescribing anything less is a deviation that will “destroy bhakti.”
A. The scriptures say that faith in guru and Krishna is the only qualification for receiving initiation into Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Harinama initiation is really only a precursor to mantra diksa, which is actual Vaishnava diksa, therefore many Gaudiya acharyas give harinama very freely, setting no number of rounds at all as an encouragement to begin one’s practice. This is not something that I do, but how can one destroy bhakti by encouraging devotees to chant harinama, whatever the number of rounds? Chanting harinam is svarupa-siddha-bhakti, which can only purify one. And Vaishnava diksa is not dependent on any purascharya (process of purification) for it be effective or for the mantra, what to speak of the name, to be empowered:
diksa-purascarya-vidhi apeksa na kare
jihva-sparse a-candala sabare uddhare
“One does not have to undergo (apeksa na kare) initiation (diksa) or execute the activities required before initiation (purascarya) or adhere to regulative principles (vidhi). One simply has to vibrate the holy name with his lips. Thus even a man in the lowest class can be delivered.”
So the power of the Holy Name is not diminished when a devotee chants a lesser number of rounds. This will not destroy bhakti.
As for the so-called regulative principles, they have been explained in various ways by different acharyas. Srila Prabhupada for the most part defined illicit sex as sexual activity (even with one’s spouse) not specifically meant for the purpose of procreation. However, at times he defined it as sex outside of marriage. Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti defined it as sexual relations with a woman other than one’s wife. Both acharyas gleaned their definitions from the same scriptural canon, so it’s not that one is correct and the other is incorrect. The apparent difference illustrates that the important point here is the principle, which is that sexual activity should be restricted in a manner that leads to transcending it, and that in the context of sravanam kirtanam—hearing and chanting about Krishna. If one is to actually follow Srila Prabhupada in the service of an acharya, he or she must be free to determine if any adjustment is necessary or useful in assisting a disciple to achieve this end. While Srila Prabhupada’s disciples should follow his mandates, those who serve as his successors in the capacity of gurus must follow him in terms of his ability to adjust details when necessary so the desired result is more readily attained.
In other words, a guru must be free to be a guru; free to relay his or her wisdom as to how the disciple can achieve the goal, all of course in accordance with sastra. Just as one-size-fits-all does not apply in choosing a guru; similarly one-size-fits-all does not always apply to instructing disciples. If the guru is truly qualified, the spiritual bearing of his or her disciples and the disciples’ enthusiasm for devotional service should do away with concerns that the adjustment of details is watering down or destroying the institution of sadhana-bhakti.
And who could be a better guru than Narada? He told Mrigari the hunter, whose joy was to kill his prey slowly, to chant the holy name and kill the animals he hunted quickly instead and at the same time to chant harinama. By this adjustment Mrigari gradually developed jiva-daya, or kindness to all beings, and was delivered. Narada had such leeway and was successful because he was a real guru with deep experience and faith in the purifying power of harinam. Real gurus are the need of the hour. Let devotees freely choose their gurus based on their faith, and let those who are chosen know what the service involves.