Does Haribhakti-vilāsa state that the guru takes the disciples’ karma?

Some days ago, I wrote this article, explaining that the guru cannot take anyone’s karma. To this, a reader quoted the following verse which comes at the beginning of the Haribhakti-vilāsa written by Śrī Gopāla Bhatta Goswami and commented on by Śrī Sanātana Goswami.

sad-guruḥ svāśritaṁ śiṣyaṁ varṣam ekaṁ parīkṣayet
rājñi cāmātyajā doṣāḥ patnī-pāpaṁ sva-bhartari |
tathā śiṣyārjitaṁ pāpaṁ guruḥ prāpnoti niścitam ||

In the sāra-saṅgraha also, it is stated:

The sad-guru should examine a potential disciple for one year. [For it is said:] The guru definitely receives the pāpa accumulated by a disciple, just as the fault of the minister [attaches] in the king and the pāpa of the wife in her husband.

The commentator writes:

guruṇā tv avaśyam eva śiṣya-parīkṣā kāryety atra hetum āha—rājñīti

The guru should definitely examine the disciple. The reason for this is in the verse above.

If we take the meaning of the word pāpa to mean ‘sin’ in the sense of results of past karma, then this verse directly contradicts what I wrote in the previous article. Nowhere in the above verse does it say that the disciple becomes absolved of sin due to the guru’s taking it, in a Jesus-like manner. Therefore, the verse contradicts only the part where I wrote that the guru cannot get the sin of the disciple.

I requested Śrī Babaji to explain this verse, who (as usual) gave a very illuminating answer. I share the essence of his answer below.

The primary meaning of the word pāpaṁ here is not sin

Before giving a meaning to any verse, one has to understand the context in which it is spoken, and the tātparya or intended meaning of the verse. Also, if the primary meaning of the verse does not make sense, then one must resort to a secondary meaning. Too often, people take a single verse out of its context, and forget about reconciling that verse with other verses and the overall tradition one belongs to, that may contradict its meaning.

The tātparya of this prakaraṇa is the common-sense concept that the guru should examine the disciple to avoid any future troubles. That is all. It is not to teach some mystical transfer of sins from the disciple to the guru like Jesus Christ.

If we take the meaning of the word pāpaṁ as sin, then the following (nonsensical) conclusions must follow.

a) Any practical person would view the act of ‘giving dikṣā’ as a sinful act, because the guru will inevitably get sin for giving it to the disciple. This is because no prospective disciple is free from sin.

b) The solution for this problem offered above — examination of the disciple for one year — is not a solution at all. It takes years to know anyone in depth, and even so, one cannot predict how much stock of sin the person has accumulated in the past, or whether the person is going to commit sin for one or the other reason in the future.

If we take the literal meaning of the word pāpa as sin above, the sacred institution of dikṣā, becomes reduced to an exercise in accrual of sin to the guru. Such a meaning makes a mockery of dikṣā.

To think that the guru, a siddha on the path of bhakti, gets the sins of the disciples is unacceptable because it directly contradicts hundreds of verses in the Bhāgavata, the Bhakti rasāmṛta Sindhu, the Bhagavad-Gītā, and the Sandarbhas. These books clearly state (over and over again) that bhakti destroys all sins, even in the sādhana stage. The guru is a siddha, so sin simply is out of the question for him or her.

Also, as I have mentioned before, there is the problem of akṛtābhyāgama – enablement of results of unperformed karma, and kṛta-hāni, disablement of the results of performed karma, that cannot just be wished away. Śrī Jīva Goswami himself discusses and dispels these two knotty issues in the Sandarbhas.

How to interpret the word pāpa

For all these reasons, one must interpret the word pāpa in the above verse differently. There is of course a well-established procedure for interpretation which I have discussed elsewhere on this site. Briefly, there are three meanings of words:  abhidhā (primary or direct), lakṣaṇā (secondary or indicative), and vyañjanā (suggestive). As an example, in the statement, “The Jīva Institute is situated on Jīva Road,” certainly the intent of the speaker is not that the Institute is actually on the road, because such a thing is not possible. Therefore, rejecting the primary meaning of “on the road,” one is expected to understand the meaning as “beside the road.”

In the same way, the word pāpa can simply be taken to mean ‘trouble’. The meaning is then simple and clear: If the guru does not carefully screen a disciple, then the disciple may bring trouble or ill-repute to the sampradāya the guru belongs to, or create some obstacles to the guru’s service. This kind of screening does not require the guru to magically judge the (infinite) stock of sins of the disciple beforehand nor the tendency of the disciple to commit sins. It just needs some common sense and judgement of character to check if the person is fundamentally unstable. This is all that is meant here.

Such screening is indeed routinely done by a king of a potential minister-appointee, and by an unmarried person of a potential spouse. The consequences of poor choices in both cases are unnecessary headaches. Not some magical transfer of sin. Nothing new here!

Sin cannot touch the guru

I had already mentioned some references from the Bhakti Sandarbha in the previous article that support this point. If one wants more, I recommend studying the first chapter of the Bhakti rasāmṛta Sindhu. In particular, one should study verse 1.1.17 onwards where the following verses are cited from the Bhagavatam: 6.1.15-19, 6.2.10-19 and 12.13.23.

The very criterion for being a guru is surrender to Bhagavān. If the person is not surrendered, he or she cannot be a guru. If the person has surrendered, then he or she cannot suffer sins. There is ample evidence to support this from the Bhagavad-Gītā even. See verse 18.66 for example, and also verses 18.17, 4.23, 4.36, 4.37, 5.10 and 2.38.

And of course, one could study the Bhakti Sandarbha’s Anucchedas 125, 126 and 128.


In modern times, people with incomplete knowledge of the scriptures and Sanskrit and little training in scriptural interpretation like to pluck out one verse from this scripture or the other and cite it to try and win debates. Such a method will keep them forever tied in confusion. One must learn methods of interpretation and have complete knowledge of the primary scriptures- for the Caitanya tradition, these are the Sandarbhas. I am just glad we have Śrī Babaji in our midst, a scholar of Sanskrit, a sharp mind, and who has received superb training from his guru in a vast variety of subjects in Indian theology and philosophy. Otherwise we would be consigned forever to the echo-chambers of cherry-picked verses that reinforce false ideas.

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