The process of finding a guru is not a trial-and-error process. It is a safe undertaking clearly delineated in the authoritative scriptures and writings of saintly persons. If one is sincere, the Supreme Authority Himself guides the seeker in the form of scripture and the Lord in the heart. Thus a person is able to advance in his spiritual development and move closer to the goal of self-realization. This article edited from lectures given by Jagad Guru speaks to this most important and relevant topic.
GUIDANCE FROM SCRIPTURE
In scripture, we find innumerable cases of great personalities accepting a guru. In the Bible, we find that Jesus Christ took initiation from St. John the Baptist. And the disciples of Jesus also accepted Jesus as their guru. The Vedas are filled with many examples of wonderful personalities such as Narada Muni, King Pariksit, etc. accepting the guidance of a bona fide guru.
Not only are these exemplary actions described in scripture, but the direct instruction to seek out a guru is also given. In the Bhagavad-gita, the first instruction of the Supreme Lord to Arjuna is that one should seek a bona fide guru who is situated in the Absolute Truth. One can be fixed in the Absolute Truth by hearing and rendering service to such a guru.
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.
The Supreme Person instructs us to seek out a guru if we want to be happy. We have the Supreme Lord’s word that it is possible to find a guru who is untainted by lust, who is not going to exploit me, whose only desire is loving service to the Supreme, and who is fixed in unconditional love for Him. Not only is it possible, but it is necessary to find such a guru who is like a jewel amid the rubbish of exploitative people.
If people have no faith in scripture—the word of the Supreme Lord—then this is unfortunate. They have nowhere to turn. If they reject the authority of scripture, then they have no source of guidance. They can’t even turn to guru because ultimately knowledge of the qualifications of guru is found in scripture.
In this modern society we live in, many people have rejected scripture or pay only lip service to scripture. They don’t really accept scripture as the Lord’s word or take it seriously. They have no faith. Therefore, they experience confusion and frustration.
A faithful man who is absorbed in transcendental knowledge and who subdues his senses quickly attains the supreme spiritual peace. But ignorant and faithless persons who doubt the revealed scriptures do not attain God consciousness. For the doubting soul there is happiness neither in this world nor in the next.”
In spiritual life, faith is necessary. Faith is a vision; it is not blind. When one has faith in scripture, the Supreme Lord, and guru, his spiritual vision deepens. His faith in the word of the Supreme Person as not being separate from the Supreme and in guru as not being separate from the Supreme brings him closer to the Absolute Truth, and he sees things as they really are.
THE WRONG BASIS
Accepting a guru is the crucial point for advancement in spiritual life. A person reaches this point when he come to a crossroads in life where he sees that the material world is a place of misery and that he cannot go any further spiritually without proper guidance. When a person reaches this point, if he is truly sincere about giving his life to the Supreme Person, then it is arranged by the Supreme that he will come into contact with His representative. It is said, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come,” but one must have the vision to see who is a real teacher. The Supreme Person is within the hearts of all living beings and knows their desires; therefore, if one is sincere, He will give that person vision to see His devotee. If he is not sincere, then that person, being bereft of such vision, will be misled.
Accepting a guru means putting your life in that person’s hands. Therefore, one should be careful not to accept a guru on the wrong basis. For example, most people consider whether or not someone is a bona fide guru by sentiment. Passing sentiment may cause a person to think:
“Oh, I just feel I should surrender to this guru.”
“Oh, why is that?”
“I don’t know. I just feel it. He speaks with such great power and authority that I feel I should surrender to him.”
“Well, what is he teaching?”
“I don’t know, but I agree with all of it.”
“What does he do?”
“Everything he does is wonderful. It doesn’t matter what he does. I feel so good whenever I am with him.”
With passing sentiment and blind faith, one easily becomes cheated. If a person blindly accepts someone as his guru, it means that he is not putting any effort into checking the actual teachings and qualifications of the teacher. Either he is not seriously interested in knowing the Absolute Truth or, out of false sentiment; he is not checking that person’s qualifications because he is afraid he’ll find some flaw.
As a blind man, being unable to see, accepts another blind man as his leader, people who do not know the goal of life accept someone as a guru who is rascal and a fool.
Srimad Bhagavatam 8.24.50
An intelligent student does not want to be cheated. He makes sure that he is not taken astray and that he is led to the highest perfection.
Blind following is condemned and so also is the business of accepting someone as guru on the basis of popular opinion. If we are content to have a guru as long as he’s “one of the big ones” and as long as he’s “impressive,” then this is a great mistake. A foolish person thinks, “There are a lot of people following this guy, so he must be a guru. It must be safe to follow him because, after all, a lot of followers can’t be wrong.”
It is crazy to go along with something just because others are going along. It is just like the cows—they follow other cows along to the slaughterhouse, not knowing that they are all going to be killed. In like manner, some people follow a teacher simply because everyone else is following him. At the end, they all go to hell together.
Just because others say someone is okay doesn’t mean that person is actually okay. Look at how many people followed Hitler. So many people had faith in him, but he was nonsense. It just goes to show how foolish people can be. Many people may be following somebody, but they may be going in the wrong direction. They may be following someone who is wrong.
Leaders who have fallen into ignorance and who mislead people by directing them to the path of destruction are, in effect, boarding a stone boat and so too are those who blindly follow them. A stone boat would be unable to float and would sink in the water with the passengers. Similarly, those who mislead people go to hell and their followers go with them.
Srimad Bhagavatam 6.7.14
Destruction is the sad fate of those who do not properly check out who is a real guru. If we do not want to be misled ourselves, we must follow the actual guidelines in finding a bona fide teacher.
HOW TO KNOW WHO IS GURU
How can we tell who is a bona fide guru? We can find out who the representative of the Supreme Lord is from the Lord Himself. The Supreme Authority tells us how to recognize the bona fide guru. The Supreme Person is present in the form of scripture and the Paramatma (Lord in our heart). In these two forms, the Supreme Person guides us in our search.
The qualities of a bona fide guru are adequately described in the revealed scriptures, so we can check a person’s qualities, activities, and teachings with scripture and in that way see whether or not he is a guru. Does he manifest the qualities of a guru as stated in scripture? Do his activities and teachings harmonize with scriptural injunctions? A bona fide guru is the living representative of the Supreme Being, and he certainly manifests the qualities enumerated in scriptures. He is the perfect example of a devotee in both words and actions. His life is in complete harmony with the teachings of the scriptures.
In this process of checking with scripture, an important point to consider is that a bona fide guru may not necessarily use the same terminology or refer to the Lord by the same name used in a particular scripture. In looking at the life of a guru, we’re not talking about language, customs, or time and place, which may vary accordingly but the essential teachings being imparted must be identical with those in scripture. Guru means one who passes on the Supreme Person’s message purely without changing it. He does not create his own philosophy, nor does he alter the essence of the Supreme Person’s teachings. He may change the method of teaching according to the time, place, and circumstances or culture, but he does not change the essential message. For example, all great spiritualists propagate the foremost scriptural message to love the Supreme Being. And yet representatives of the Supreme Lord throughout history have called the Supreme Person by various names and titles. They have addressed Him differently, but they have all worshipped Him with love and devotion. The essential message has remained unchanged.
If a person says or does something that contradicts what the Lord or the devotees of the Lord have said in scriptures, we have to reject such a person. If a person alters the Supreme Person’s teaching even just slightly (he adds something, no matter how small), he makes a new teaching. In a mathematical equation, for example, if you alter one digit, the final answer is different. Similarly, a person may change 1% of a teaching and keep 99%, but it becomes totally wrong. Therefore, we cannot accept such a teaching or such a person.
The Supreme Person is within our hearts and He can tell us whether a person or a teaching is of Him or not. The Lord expands Himself as the Paramatma in the heart of every living entity. Everyone can be a direct medium to Paramatma. There’s nothing that prohibits anyone from hearing the Lord in the heart. One should not think that only guru can hear the Lord in the heart or that only another person can hear the Lord in the heart. Being the Lord, He is fully capable of answering any doubts that may arise in one’s heart. For example, a person may ask, “Is this person really Your representative? Can I completely trust him?” The Supreme Lord will tell you the answer from within your heart. Without this confirmation from Him, a person should not seek accept any person as guru.
Thus, when it comes to seeking a guru, we’re really not alone. It’s not that we’re in a position where we have to protect ourselves from cheaters. We have protection from charlatans because The Lord protects us from within our heart and via scripture. If we listen and check what a person says with scripture and with the Lord in the heart, then there’s nothing to lose. If it contradicts, then we reject it. If it doesn’t contradict, it’s all right.
People only have to know that the Lord is there to give them instruction, and they simply need to have enough common sense to take that instruction. In this process, they are not only benefitted but also protected.
SEEING GOD’S REPRESENTATIVE
Most people tend to see with the external eyes only. They look at someone and judge, “Oh, I don’t like him because he doesn’t look like a guru. He’s young and he speaks in a different way.” Such people are immersed in the visuals—bodily features, age, nationality, clothes, manner of speaking, etc. What are these? They are mundane considerations based on false identification with the material body. People look at a person’s outer garment—the material body—and think they are already seeing the person. In reality, the living being is the spirit soul inhabiting the material body, and the spirit soul cannot be perceived with material vision. Furthermore, the living being’s spiritual advancement or greatness can never be gauged using the eyes.
People have to go beyond the outer labels. If someone has a completely different way of speaking and a different appearance but is speaking the truth, then he is to be seen as a medium of the truth. The externals have to be transcended if we want to actually see the Lord’s representative.
There is a saying, “A saint can be seen through the ears, not by the eyes.” A person can be known for what he is by what he is saying—by whether it is the truth or whether it is nonsense. If a person is passing down the truth as it comes from the Supreme, then he is actually the representative of the Lord. But if he is making up things, then he is not.
There are many fake teachers who are very saintly-looking. They look “holy.” But as soon as they open their mouths, they immediately reveal themselves to be without any knowledge; they reveal themselves to be fools. Therefore, many of them practice mauna or silence. In this way, it is very easy to make people think they know so much.
For example, if I don’t know anything but keep quiet, then nobody will know whether I know or don’t know. But if I am a fool, as soon as I start speaking, immediately people will know, “Oh, he doesn’t know anything.” Therefore, as a strategy, if I’m not able to answer your question, then I will impress you by being “so far out that I don’t even speak.” In that way, I won’t need to be exposed, and you will not know that I do not know the answer to your questions.
Another trick is this: If I don’t know the answer to your question, I speak in riddles. You ask me a simple question and I speak in riddles in order to make you think that you’re stupid and that I’m just so far out that you don’t understand or comprehend me. This is the trick of the fake teacher to make his followers continue worshipping him.
When a person is very sincere and serious about finding a guru, at that point, by God’s arrangement, he will be able to perceive from within his heart and from the instructions that God gives us in scripture who is really the medium of the Absolute Truth. A sincere person recognizes the Lord’s representative through the process of hearing and checking what he has heard with the bona fide sources of information—scripture and the Lord in the heart. By the Lord’s grace, a person is introduced to guru.
It is not up to guru to convince anyone that he is the Supreme Person’s representative by trying to act or look in a way that fits into one’s preconceived notions of how guru should be. If guru were to try to fit into your concept—which is completely different from someone else’s—then he is no longer the Lord’s servant. He becomes your servant—serving your concept that you’ve gotten from your conditioning in this material world. He doesn’t need to dress or look in a way that you believe is “holy” or “heavy.”
It is not the guru’s business to make anyone think that he is the Lord’s representative. Guru has faith that the Supreme is giving each person what they want—just how much of a relationship they want with Him and what kind of a relationship they desire. Guru understands that God even gives the atheist the lack of vision so that this person doesn’t see Him. Guru has full faith that if certain people want to know and serve the Lord, then they will see His representative.
The Lord is within the heart of each and every one of us. He gives us what we want and pray for. If people want to serve the Supreme Person, then He will show them who His representative is and how they can go about giving their life to Him. But if people just sort of want to know Him or have a little more distant relationship, then He lets them have that desire too. If a person does not want to serve the Lord at all, He’ll give him the lack of vision by which he won’t recognize His representative and the truth that he is imparting.
If one is sincere, how does he pray for the vision to see the Lord’s representative? There is a danger in saying, “I don’t see you as the Lord’s representative, but I want to.” This is wrong. What if that person is not His representative and you want to see him as such? The Supreme Person will give you what you want. He’ll let you see that person as His representative even though he may not be. Therefore, one should be careful in asking for vision. The method is not to ask the Lord, “Please give me the vision that this person is Your representative.” Rather, one should sincerely pray, “Dear Lord, please let me know whether or not this person is Your representative.” This is a different way of asking, and He will respond accordingly.
GURU’S POWER AND AUTHORITY
If a person has doubt that someone is the Supreme Lord’s representative, yet he seems to be teaching the same thing as scripture without altering anything, the first thing to do is to check the person’s teachings with the Lord in the heart: Is this correct or not?
Secondly, we must see the person’s influence on those who hear him. Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur, a great spiritual master, describes that guru does not preach or teach as an official ecclesiastical teacher. He is actually able to influence those who hear him.
If two people are saying the same thing, but one is a parrot and the other is a bona fide guru, how can you tell one of them doesn’t know what he is saying? A parrot or a tape recorder can pass down the message of the Supreme Person without changing it, but that is not a guru. Guru means one who knows the message. He doesn’t just repeat it; he knows it because he has realized it. The Supreme Person states:
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.
Guru presents the truth based on his actual realization. As a result, those who hear him will experience the truth in what he is saying. The listeners will see that guru knows what he wants people to understand. Because he has realized what he is preaching, guru has an invisible influence on the listener. He is able to influence a person’s heart to change. He is able to change the mind of the listener. This important factor is authority.
The Bible describes how people, after hearing Jesus preach, experienced great wonder and amazement. Why? Because Jesus did not teach as the scribes did. The people were used to hearing the professional preachers in the synagogues or temples. But Jesus spoke with an authority that was invisible.
On the other hand, a person who does not really know the message of the Supreme Person will not speak with authority. He can try to repeat what he has heard, but he will not be able to influence others because he is not empowered by the Lord and he is not linked to Him. In other words, he may have heard that “you should surrender to the Supreme Lord,” but he himself has not done it. He himself has not gone through what he needs to go through to get to that point where he knows the message of the Supreme. So he cannot speak with authority because he does not know it. He has heard it, but he has not applied it. He is on the outside looking in, not having tasted the nectar of the Lord’s message. You can tell that he has not tasted it.
A charlatan has to try to make people think that he has authority, but he can only attract similarly superficial people. And he will not be able to influence them to love the Supreme Lord because he himself does not love Him.
Everyone needs to become a lover of the Supreme Person. No one can become a lover of the Supreme unless they are influenced by a lover of the Lord. Only a lover of the Lord can influence you to become a devotee of the Lord. Professional preachers can influence you to want to become a professional preacher. But only a lover of the Lord can influence your heart to want to become a lover of the Lord.
A person who doesn’t know the Absolute Truth is not the medium of the Absolute Truth. He always has to be thinking because he’s afraid that he might say the wrong thing. He’s always calculating with his words. He cannot speak spontaneously because he runs out of words and the ideas don’t even connect. He is afraid because he’s not connected with the Lord and the Lord doesn’t speak through him.
On the other hand, a bona fide guru doesn’t worry about speaking. He just sits there and the Supreme speaks through him. Since the Lord is never wrong, guru is always right. He puts himself in the hands of the Supreme Person and says, “I don’t know what to say. Go ahead and say whatever You want to say.” Guru is not afraid that what he’s going to say is contradictory because he knows the Supreme doesn’t contradict Himself. Sometimes it appears that He does, but He doesn’t really.
If one hears a bona fide guru speak about the names, activities, and glories of the Supreme Person, then such a listener experiences change. A connection is made from guru using his mouth to speak to the listener using his ears to capture the message. The message goes through the mind and all the way to the heart. And the person experiences a taste and glimpse of the Lord Himself. He receives a little glimpse of the spiritual world.
This is a further test of a guru: You must have confirmation from the Lord within your heart and from scripture. Furthermore, aside from whatever qualifications you see, you must also have the perception from within your own heart of being influenced by guru to want to become a lover of the Lord. This is guru’s power and authority.