A surprisingly common misconception among modern adherents of Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism is that the guru ‘takes’ one’s karma. At the time of initiation, the guru is imagined to take on all karma of the disciple, akin to how Jesus takes the sins of his followers. From thereon, the guru is thought to suffer the reactions of the disciple’s future misdeeds if any. One result of such erroneous notions is that disciples live perpetually in guilt. For example, if the guru falls sick, they consider it their fault.
Two defects of attributing results to a person different from the doer
In Indian theology, it is impossible for anyone to do a Jesus-like ‘taking of sins’ – the person who commits offensive acts must suffer the results. In fact, to refute precisely such a proposal, Indian theologians commonly use two standard nyāyas –
kṛta-hāni- disablement of the results of performed karma,
akṛtābhyāgama – enablement of the results of unperformed karma.
That is, if a guru is able to take the sins of a disciple, then the disciple did not get the results of his or her actions (kṛta-hāni) and the guru received the results of actions he or she did not commit (akṛtabhyāgama). If any proposal has these two defects, they are rejected without any further consideration.
Why the defects of akṛtabhyāgama and kṛta-hāni do not apply to Bhagavān’s actions in the material world
As an example, consider Śrī Jīva Goswami’s examination of these two defects in the context of Bhagavān’s role in the material world. In Anuccheda 99 of the Paramātmā Sandarbha, he takes up the question of whether Bhagavān’s apparent interference in the material world- specifically empowering the devas to assist Him and empowering the asuras to fight Him- amounts to the defect of kṛta-hāni and akṛtābhyāgama. He writes,
atha kathaṁ so’pi viśuddha-sattvākhyo guṇaḥ prākṛto na bhavati ? kadā vā kutra taṁ vīryātiśayaṁ sañcārayati ? kathāṁ vā kṛta-hānya-kṛtābhyāgama-prasaṅgo na bhavati ?
Why should this guṇa, called viśuddha-sattva, not be material? When and where does He [Bhagavān] infuse this superlative śakti? And how is that [by the influence of viśuddha-sattva] the defect of the “disablement of the results of performed karma” and “the enablement of the results of unperformed karma” does not accrue?
The twin defects do not apply to Bhagavān because His acts are not under the control of karma. Because Bhagavān’s svarūpa is viśuddha-sattva, His empowerment of the devas occurs through viśuddha-sattva, a conscious substance which is altogether distinct from the three guṇas of prakrti.
A second reason why the above two defects do not apply to Bhagavān’s empowering the devas, or His empowering the asuras with rajas in order to be able to fight Him, is that He empowers through increasing the appropriate guṇas in the devas (sattva) and asuras (rajas). Thus, the asuras fight Bhagavān on account of the increased rajas, and the devas assist Bhagavān on account of their increased sattva, but both are still under the laws of karma, because both act under the control of māyā’s guṇas. Śrī Jīva Goswami explains this further in Anuccheda 100 – that māyā conforms to the līlā of Bhagavān. In other words, māyā orchestrates the ascendancy of one or the other guṇa (sattva so devas can assist, rajas to give power to the asuras, and tamas to give power to the yakṣas and rākṣasas) to enable the līlās of Bhagavan in a particular way.
Thus, the events that unfold involving the asuras or devas in Bhagavān’s līlā follow the law of karma (i.e. guṇas) while simultaneously conforming to Bhagavān’s will. That they conform to Bhagavān’s will is not known generally, which is why Bhagavān’s līlās are mistaken by many to be material in nature.
A genuine guru is beyond karma
It is not possible (as pointed out above) for someone to take another’s karma, but on the bhakti mārga, it is even more impossible. This is because a genuine guru on the bhakti mārga is not under the control of karma. As such, he or she lacks the ability to ‘take’ somebody else’s karma. This becomes amply clear upon even a cursory study of Śrī Jīva’s Bhakti Sandarbha.
For example, in Anuccheda 125, Śrī Jīva establishes how bhakti destroys aprārabdha karma- the stock of karma that has not manifested in this life. In Anuccheda 126, he shows how bhakti destroys all results of past karmas that bring suffering, and in Anuccheda 128, he shows how all prārabdha karma – that is results of karma which have manifested- are also destroyed. A little common sense is all that is required to understand that a guru, the person who is a siddha on the path of bhakti, cannot have any prārabdha or aprārabdha karmas attached to him or her. The guru is altogether beyond karma. It is nonsensical, then, to suppose that the guru will suffer by taking the karma of the disciple.
The notion that the guru takes the disciple’s karma is not accepted in Indian theology. On the path of bhakti, the guru is beyond karma, and harboring or propagating any notion to the contrary, is in itself an offense both to scripture and to the guru.