Found in Sanga, Sanga 2004.

Q. My understanding is that the guru should be one’s best friend. I do not want a guru who has the mood that, “I’m up here and you’re way down there.” Rather I seek a relationship wherein both the guru and disciple can speak their minds freely, without concern for formalities. I have a relationship like that with a disciple of Srila Prabhupada. We are great friends and are completely honest with each other. However, he is reluctant to initiate me or even consider himself my guru. Can I accept my best friend as my guru?

A. Srila Rupa Goswami says, “One should serve one’s guru with affectionate confidence—visrambhena guroh seva.” The word visrambha indicates deep and abiding. It also implies the kind of confidence that comes from a sense of equality. This equality derives largely from embracing the same inner mood as one’s guru, which is indicative of the disciple’s spiritual advancement.

Thus one’s relationship with one’s guru should ultimately be an affectionate one arising out of deep and abiding faith that includes awe and reverence. Reverence is appropriate because of the nature of the gift that the guru is giving to the disciple. If the disciple fully takes advantage of this gift by following the guru’s instructions, his or her awe and reverence will eventually turn to affection, and in spiritual perfection the disciple will feel a qualified sense of equality with the guru, even while being an eternal servant. Again, the sense of equality derives from being similarly spiritually situated.

The service of the guru is to facilitate the spiritual elevation of the disciple. It is not the business of the guru to keep the disciple down and at a distance, but rather to bring the disciple up to where he or she is. So you are correct when you say that one should think of one’s guru as one’s best friend, but to do this in a spiritual sense involves making advancement. To the extent that one does not make advancement, the full sense of spiritual friendship will be lacking. Still, the guru will view the student in terms of his or her potential, showing much affection for the disciple, even when this seems unwarranted in as much as the spiritual distance between the two remains great. This is the guru’s prerogative, not the disciple’s.

While your friend may be wise and helpful, he may not be all that spiritually advanced; that is, he may not be advanced enough to serve you affectionately in the capacity of a sat-guru. Therefore, it is likely that his reluctance to initiate you involves to some extent personal integrity on his part. However, being aware of his own lack of qualification, it would be more helpful if he made that clear to you. He would serve you best by qualifying the relationship as being one that while affectionate and helpful is not exactly analogous to that of guru and disciple. In this way, he would have instructed you by his words and example to look for elements from your relationship with him and more in a relationship with a sat-guru.

Q. I don’t find authoritarian power trips at all attractive; therefore, I am reluctant to be reverential toward sadhus and gurus. Is this wrong?

A. Caution is not wrong, but at the same time it is important to be respectful toward a genuine sadhu or guru. A genuine guru is the representative of Krishna. Thus Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura writes that the guru is to be worshiped as saksad-dharitvena. Realization of this means that reverence for the guru will naturally be there in the beginning, and will remain for the sincere student as long as the guru actually commands it by his or her realization. However, students who are not well informed or spiritually mature may be reverential to an unworthy person. Later when the mistake is realized, they may be unwilling or unable to show respect even to those who are actually worthy of reverence. In this way they deceive themselves by thinking that no one is worthy of respect, that there are no true saints or gurus.

Only sincerity can save a person from this situation. Bhagavad-gita says that sincerity is invincible—na hi kalyana-krt kascid durgatim tata gacchati. Vaisnava aparadha (disrespecting a Vaisnava) is not just a card that authorities play to control people, although the term may be abused in this way. Vaisnava aparadha is a sin of the soul, and its most detrimental form is in relation to a qualified guru. To avoid this offense you should scrutinize the scriptures, clean your heart by chanting Krishna Nama, and pray for the ability to identify which sadhus and gurus are genuine. Respect for genuine sadhus and gurus will call your progress, whereas caution alone, especially if it is mixed with irreverence, will not help you spiritually.

Q. In his book Harinama Cintamani, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains that the guru reveals the disciple’s spiritual identity (svarupa), but if the disciple is not satisfied with it the guru may make necessary adjustments. How is this reconciled with the idea that the svarupa of the jiva is inherent and cannot be changed?

A. What Bhaktivinoda Thakura is writing about in this section of Harinama Cintamani is the manifestation of the disciple’s inherent svarupa, which is being perceived to some extent by both the guru and his disciple. As the disciple’s inherent svarupa manifests, the guru helps to identify it. In doing so, the guru questions the disciple and makes suggestions, and the disciple responds, much like a doctor questions a patient and adjusts the diagnosis in consideration of the patient’s feedback. So it is not that the disciple’s svarupa changes, but rather in identifying it there is a period of examination that may lead at first in one direction and then another until both parties are satisfied that the proper conclusion has been reached.

Q. It has been said that the guru takes the disciple’s karma at initiation. Does this mean that the guru will physically suffer if the disciples are not keeping the vows they took at initiation?

A. Karma in the life of a devotee is a very complex subject. In sastra it is said that chanting a mere reflection of the holy name of Krishna (namabhasa) has the power to destroy one’s manifest (prarabdha) karma. In his book Madhurya Kadambini, Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura also describes how prarabdha karma is eradicated through the perfection of sadhana bhakti. This is in keeping with the idea that one’s karma is destroyed at the time of initiation, in as much as initiation being part of sambandha-jnana is completed when one graduates from sadhana bhakti. According to Sri Jiva Goswami, prarabdha karma is the last vestige of karmic bondage that a devotee must undergo. In other words, the unmanifest stages of a devotee’s karmic bondage are destroyed first, and the prarabdha karma is the last to be removed by the grace of Bhakti devi.

What happens to a devotee who has become free from the fetters of karma but has not yet developed pure love of Krishna (prema)? The Lord takes over the devotee’s body and sustains it himself so that the devotee can further cultivate prema. This, however, does not mean that such a devotee will be free from sickness, calamity, or distress. It means that none of these are due to prarabdha karma. They are the special arrangement of the Lord to make his devotee more dependent on him, to increase the devotee’s eagerness and love.

Therefore, a fully qualified Vaisnava guru does not suffer from karma. If the guru has attained the stage of nistha (fixed devotion), hindrances resulting from good and bad karma are completely eradicated (purna-nivrtti), although there is still the minute possibility that anarthas arising from karma may reemerge. When he or she attains asakti, the last stage of sadhana bhakti wherein the mind is completely attached to Krishna, karmic impediments are absolutely eradicated (atyantiki-nivrtti). This is the terminology of Sri Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura. Sri Rupa Goswami has also explained that sadhana bhakti frees one from all distress (klesaghni) appearing in the form of karma, the root of which is ignorance (avidya). How so? Bhakti is the highest knowledge (raja vidya).

Although it is said that the guru takes the karma of the disciple, this means that the guru takes it away by engaging the disciple in sadhana bhakti and blessing him or her. Hearing and chanting about Krishna under the guidance of Sri Guru combined with the guru’s grace destroys one’s karma. Of the two, effort in sadhana and the grace of the guru, the latter is more important, linga bhuyastvat tad hi baliyah tad api (Vs.3.3.45). Thus the guru must have the power to bless the student and engage him or her in sadhana bhakti. Such a qualified guru does not have to experience the karma of the students in a Christ-like fashion.

Srila Prabhupada has said, “This is Christian theory. ‘You do something, and I suffer for that.’ No. You have to suffer. You have done something wrong; you must suffer. This is the real philosophy.” He also said, “He (someone) committed the murder, but he thinks his father should suffer the punishment! Is that a sane proposal? ‘No, you have committed the murder; you must be hanged.’ Similarly, when you commit sinful activities, you must suffer—not Jesus Christ. That is God’s law.”

This tells us that the guru, being free from karma, does not again come under the influence of karma when he or she initiates disciples. Nor does the guru have to suffer karma. However, Rupa Goswami says that if the guru accepts too many unqualified disciples this constitutes an offense that can disturb bhajana. This means that should the guru’s disciples misbehave the guru will have to deal with their misbehavior, and that will make the guru’s work that much more difficult. Also, if the disciple leaves the guru’s service, karma that has been suspended so that the disciple can engage in sadhana bhakti will again come to arrest such a wayward disciple. This will certainly trouble the guru’s mind and heart. In these ways, the guru’s bhajana may be disturbed. One should not burden the guru in this way.

Sometimes Srila Prabhupada humbly spoke like this about himself, saying that he accepted too many unqualified disciples and had to suffer as a result. Certainly it was clear that he was disturbed by some of their activities. Yet if one scrutinizes his teaching, it also becomes clear that the karma of the disciple is gradually destroyed in proportion to his or her adherence to the guidelines of Sri Guru. Thus if the guru is qualified, the onus is on the disciples to follow sincerely. If they do so, the disciples will themselves become free from karma as they attain Krishna consciousness.

Srila Prabhupada states, “An initiated devotee is given the chance for becoming free from the entanglement of karma wheel. Initiated means beginning, not perfection. The spiritual master’s business is to guide him to the perfectional point. But if one does not strictly follow the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master, his initiation does not bear any meaning. The initiation performance is an agreement by the disciples to abide by the order of the spiritual master. Therefore, if the spiritual master is bona fide and the disciple is serious to abide by his order, then the success is sure. But if a disciple follows strictly the devotional way of life, he is no longer a karmi and all his activities, which may appear to be like ordinary work, or it may be activity according to scriptural injunction, are counted as devotional service. And devotional service in all circumstances is free from the actions and reactions of karma.”

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