The concept of the guru is unique to Indian theology. Rupa Goswami quotes a famous verse spoken by Kṛṣṇa (Bhāgavatam 11.17.27) in the Bhakti rasamrta sindhu –
“ācāryam mām vijānīyān nāvamanyeta karhicit |
na martya-buddhyāsūyeta sarva-deva-mayo guruḥ ||
Know the ācārya to be my manifestation, and never disrespect him (or her). Do not find fault with him because he looks like a mortal being. He is the personification of all the devas. “
Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura similarly writes that the guru is sākṣāt Hari- Hari himself. Yet, it is obvious that the guru is not Kṛṣṇa himself, because Kṛṣṇa is the only supreme independent being in existence. All other beings are dependent on Him.
There is similarity (abheda) and difference (bheda) between the guru and Kṛṣṇa. And this difference is acintya, that is, it is known only from śāstra (śāstra eka gamyam acintyatvam).
Similarly, there is acintya bheda-abheda between deities and Kṛṣṇa, between the Bhāgavatam and Kṛṣṇa, and so on.
The guru performs the knowledge-giving function of Kṛṣṇa.
Then in what sense is the guru Kṛṣṇa? The guru performs Kṛṣṇa’s function of giving knowledge about Him1. The only source of knowledge about Kṛṣṇa is Kṛṣṇa. No amount of searching or research can reveal Him. So Kṛṣṇa has to actually speak this knowledge, as He does in the Bhagavad Gita or the Bhāgavatam. He reveals this knowledge to individuals like Brahma, who pass it on to others like Nārada, and a paramparā is established for continuing the knowledge transfer. Clearly Brahma is not physically the same as Kṛṣṇa. But in the sense that he performs the function of Kṛṣṇa- that of giving knowledge about Kṛṣṇa, he is Kṛṣṇa.
All statements about the guru being Kṛṣṇa are to be understood in this way. The sākṣāt Hari statement from Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura is immediately followed by ‘kintu prabhor ya priya eva’ – that this sākṣāt Hari is beloved to Kṛṣṇa, being a devotee of Kṛṣṇa. Similarly, in the above verse, Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakur glosses the word ‘mām’ -me as ‘madiyam’ – mine. That is, ‘know the acarya to be my devotee..’
The exhortation in the above verse to not disrespect the guru as a mortal being is to ensure that one does not disrespect the guru’s knowledge as mortal. But this does not mean that we harbor the idea that the guru physically is Kṛṣṇa, or has qualities of Kṛṣṇa like omniscience. The guru has expertise in śāstra, but may not have expertise in other topics like finance, medicine or science.
Modern personality cults
Expecting the guru to answer questions in fields outside his or her expertise may lead to frustration. Unfortunately, as a guru’s popularity grows, the guru’s comments on topics way outside his or her expertise become taken as absolute truth. Also, if the guru teaches concepts that contradict scriptures, or makes mistakes in explaining the scriptures, these become set in stone as absolute truth also because the guru is seen as infallible. This is because people want to see the guru that way, and some gurus either may not want to disabuse people of such notions, or gradually come to believe in such mystical beliefs about themselves, and help propagate them. Eager disciples believe it uncritically, and so starts a personality cult.
In a pious fervor, the followers of the guru attack and denounce anyone who raises common-sense questions about the guru’s various pronouncements, or who points out scriptural inconsistencies in their teachings. And so the cult now self-perpetuates itself. Such fanaticism is mistaken for a sign of faith and of advancement.
A much overused and also much misunderstood concept is guru-krpā = ‘mercy’ of the guru. People think that whatever the guru does is mercy. If the guru scolds us, that is mercy. If the guru as much as looks at us, it is mercy. If the guru ignores us, that is mercy. People want the ‘mercy’ by hook or crook.
But the meaning of the word mercy in this context is simply the knowledge that the guru gives to the disciple.
If one really wants mercy, one ought to study from the guru carefully and apply the knowledge in one’s life.
How to approach the guru.
An important function of the guru is also that he/she helps us learn how to relate with Kṛṣṇa. Kṛṣṇa Himself will not manifest to a bhakta in the Caitanya Vaisnava tradition as God. He will appear as an ordinary person. In Vrindavan, Kṛṣṇa as a child loses his temper, breaks the pot, and so on. As He grows up, He continues to do activities like a human being. To deal with Kṛṣṇa requires a mixture of respect and love. He is perceived and loved by the devotee as a human being, but there is always the sense of respect of His position. The guru helps the student learn this attitude, because the guru also has to be approached like this- with a mixture of love and respect. If we cannot deal with the guru in this way, we cannot deal with Kṛṣṇa.
Rupa Goswami quotes another verse from the Bhagavatam 11.3.22
tatra bhāgavatān dharmān śikṣed gurv-ātma-daivataḥ |
amāyayānuvṛttyā yais tuṣyed ātmātma-do hariḥ ||
This verse teaches that the Bhagavat dharma has to be learnt from the guru (tatra bhāgavatān dharmān śikṣed). How should he be seen? He is to be seen as dear like one’s self (ātmā), and also as a devatā, that means as a worshippable person.
The guru is to be loved and also worshipped
The reason the guru is to be revered is because learning does not happen without respect. Knowledge is like water in that it flows only from a higher place to a lower place. If the student thinks of themselves as superior to the guru, knowledge cannot be transferred. This is why the above verse mentions that one should perform service which is free from the motive of deceiving the guru (amāyayānuvṛttyā). With such service, Hari is pleased and gives Himself (tuṣyed ātmātma-do hariḥ) to the disciple.
- भक्ति रसामृत सिंधु lectures, Bhakti Tirtha II, Shri Satyanarayana dasa Babaji, Jiva Institute, Vrindavan. 2017. ↩