Establishing the Proof: Who Is a Real Guru?

By BTG staff, published in Back to Godhead Magazine, Vol. 12, No. 8, 1977

A recent Gallup poll revealed that more than nineteen million American adults are now practicing some form of yoga, meditation, or other “self-renewal” process. To meet this great demand, many “gurus” have appeared on the scene, each teaching his version of spiritual truth. Some have attracted large followings, and every disciple undoubtedly feels that his guru is the best.

But for the serious seeker of truth, choosing a spiritual master cannot be a matter of mere sentiment. Spiritual life is factual and scientific, and we have to test the qualifications of any spiritual teacher by referring to the standard authority. This authority is scripture, especially the Sanskrit Vedic scriptures, which throughout history have provided the philosophical basis for the guru-disciple relationship. By referring to Vedic scriptures we can know the criteria for a bona fide spiritual master. Then we can easily see who is actually a spiritual master, and who is a fraud.

Examining the Guru’s Teachings

The first criterion, according to the Vedic scriptures, is the quality of the words the teacher speaks. (Even a fool may be highly esteemed—until he speaks.) In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Sri Krishna, the original spiritual master, tells his disciple Arjuna, “The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.” In other words, a genuine guru must have realized the Absolute Truth, the Personality of Godhead, and he must be able to impart this truth to his disciple, thus freeing him (or her) from repeated birth and death.

We should therefore immediately reject as outright charlatans those so-called gurus who pretend to have some spiritual knowledge, but who teach their disciples only how to gain some material advantage—a slimmer body, better sex life, success in business, and so on. Real spiritual life means getting free from the agony of birth and death. How can a common man, unable to distinguish spirit from matter—and thus himself caught in the cycle of birth and death—claim to be a spiritual master? Such cheaters generally take up the “guru business” just to earn a living. But the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the essence of all Vedic scriptures, sternly warns, “No one should become a guru unless he can free his disciple from birth and death.”

A true spiritual master must not only be able to distinguish spirit from matter; he must also be able to distinguish the minute, individual spirit (the soul) from the supreme spirit (the Supersoul, or God). Failure to make this important distinction disqualifies many of today’s so- called spiritual masters. In fact, blurring the difference between God and the living entity is the most common philosophical flaw among modern gurus. Their reasoning goes something like this: “The eternal spirit soul within the body is Brahman, and the supreme spirit beyond the body is also Brahman. Therefore, we are all equal to the Supreme Brahman—or in other words, everyone is God.”

But Lord Krishna Himself denies this idea in the Bhagavad- gita (15.7):“The living entities in this material world are eternally My fragmental parts.” It is certainly true that the Vedic scriptures, especially the Upanishads, teach meditation on Brahman, the eternal spirit. And they also teach the realization that each one of us, as a spirit soul, is also Brahman, separate from our material body.

But beyond this all the Vedic scriptures explain that although each of us is spirit, we are only minute sparks of the supreme spirit, God. In other words, God is supreme and infinite, and we are all His infinitesimal expansions; therefore, our duty is to serve Him. This simple axiom is the essence of theism, and all the world’s religions loudly declare it. For a guru to omit or distort this teaching is a serious philosophical lapse. Behind his negligence we will usually find a cheating mentality—a strong aversion for surrendering to the mastership of God. So, when the teachings of a spiritual master are inimical to bhakti, or loving devotion to God—when he teaches that there is no personal God, or that God is only an energy, or that we can become God—then we should reject him.

Examining the Guru’s Life

Just as it is a fraud for a so-called guru to offer only gross material benefits, or to collect money from his disciples for selfish aims, or to teach the disciples that they are God or can become God—so it is an even greater fraud for the so-called guru to proclaim that he himself is an incarnation of God. The Vedic scriptures predict the incarnations of God and describe their extraordinary qualities and activities. So any ordinary person who poses as a guru and says he is an incarnation of God exposes himself as the greatest fool in human society. The truth is that everyone, including the spiritual master, is an eternal servant of God.

Since we are all servants of the Supreme Lord, a bona fide guru must be a devotee of the Supreme Lord and teach others how to become His devotees. In fact, unless the guru is a devotee of Lord Krishna, he cannot understand transcendental knowledge—what to speak of imparting it to others. An ideal example of a qualified recipient of transcendental knowledge is Arjuna, whom Lord Krishna empowered to understand the Bhagavad-gita because of his devotional attitude.

Krishna explains in the fourth chapter, “O Arjuna, this very ancient science of the relationship with the Supreme is today told by Me to you because you are My devotee as well as My friend; therefore you can understand the transcendental mystery of this science” (Bg. 4.3). Though Krishna spoke the Bhagavad-gita five thousand years ago, His words still hold true today: only the Lord’s devotees can understand transcendental knowledge.

Another important criterion for a guru is that he himself must be a disciple of a bona fide spiritual master—one who is part of a succession of spiritual masters coming from Lord Krishna Himself. A guru’s teachings cannot be genuine unless he has received his knowledge by this process of disciplic succession, because one who is not part of a genuine disciplic chain can have no access to the Vedic knowledge. So we cannot overemphasize the importance of the disciplic succession in determining the credibility of a spiritual teacher.

No matter how learned a scholar one may be, he cannot understand the import of Vedic knowledge by the speculative approach. In other words, no one can know the Transcendence by his imperfect sense perception. As the Svetashvatara Upanishad (6.23) explains, “Only unto those great souls who simultaneously have implicit faith in both the Lord and the spiritual master are all the imports of Vedic knowledge automatically revealed.”

A genuine guru must not only speak the truth; he must also live it. In other words, his character must be perfect and his behavior exemplary. In the West we commonly see that a professor or philosopher achieves renown on the basis of his teachings alone, regardless of his personal life. But in Vedic society, if a man is a drunkard or in some other way violates the ideal principles he teaches, then he is considered not a teacher but a cheater. According to the Gita a real guru, who teaches by example, must have the qualities of peacefulness, sense control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, and faith in God. So- called gurus who indulge in abominable things like meat eating, cigarette smoking, and illicit sex, and who covet wealth for purchasing various other forms of sense gratification, are all disqualified. One who cannot control his senses cannot rightfully bear the title “guru.”

Since renunciation is a criterion for a genuine guru, then what about yogis who remain alone in silent meditation, seeking to stay pure by avoiding all material contact? Are they the ideal gurus? No—because such withdrawal from the mass of people does not help those who are suffering without God consciousness. One of the greatest God-realized gurus, Srila Rupa Goswami, states in his Bhakti-rasamrita- sindhu, “If one rejects material things which could be used in the service of Krishna [God], his renunciation is incomplete.” Everything should be used to serve God. By not withdrawing from the world. but rather by using worldly things (including money, cars, public media, buildings, and so on) to spread God consciousness, a genuine guru can actually attain complete renunciation and also help humanity.

Sometimes a so-called guru seeks to help humanity by performing some social welfare mission, such as opening hospitals or uplifting the poor. Such a man is generally an atheist, devoid of any real spiritual knowledge. A true spiritual master engages wholeheartedly in glorifying the Supreme Lord, fully convinced that this alone will bring the highest happiness, even within the material sphere.

Such a true guru has complete faith in Narada Muni’s words in the Srimad-Bhagavatam: “As pouring water on the root of a tree energizes the trunk, branches, twigs, and leaves; and as supplying food to the stomach enlivens the senses and limbs of the body; so simply worshiping Lord Krishna through devotional service automatically satisfies the Lord’s parts and parcels, the demigods [who supply the rain, air, sunlight, and all other necessities for man].”

So a bona fide spiritual master makes broadcasting the glories of the Supreme Personality of Godhead his only business. He never wastes time making materialistic plans or concocting dry philosophical speculations about God, for he knows full well that all people will be completely satisfied if they simply glorify God. Lord Krishna describes such genuine mahatmas(great souls) as follows: “Always chanting My glories, endeavoring with great determination, bowing down before Me, these great souls perpetually worship Me with devotion” ( Bg. 9.14).

The perfect example of such a mahatma is Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, an incarnation of Krishna who appeared five hundred years ago in Bengal, India, to teach pure devotional service. Mahaprabhu taught that one should perfect his own life by practicing the science of Krishna consciousness, and that one should also teach others this science. In one sense, then, He taught that everyone could become a guru simply by telling others about the pastimes and teachings of Krishna. During His manifest existence on earth, Mahaprabhu acted as a devotee and always tried to engage others in chanting the glories of the Lord. Thus, He set the example of an ideal spiritual master.

To summarize, we can see that six chief criteria mentioned in the authoritative Vedic scriptures determine the authenticity of a guru. First, the guru’s teachings must be fully spiritual: he must not cheat his disciples by promising them material benefits; rather, he must teach them how to become free from material life and obtain liberation from the miseries of repeated birth and death.

Second, the guru must have attained the highest realization of the Absolute Truth—the personality of God—which is beyond the incomplete impersonal conception. In this way the guru will be competent to distinguish between the infinite Supreme Spirit (God) and the infinitesimal spirit souls. Fully aware of this distinction between God and the individual soul, he should engage himself as a devotee of the Supreme Lord and teach devotional service to his disciples.

The third criterion is that the guru must have received his knowledge from a bona fide spiritual master through the authorized process of disciplic succession, as explained in the Vedic literature. The fourth is that the guru’s character must be pure: he must rigidly follow all the religious principles governing saintly behavior. Fifth, he must engage himself and others in the glorification of the Lord as the ultimate activity for human society, and he should not divert his energies to material welfare work. And sixth, a guru of the highest order must spread the message of God (Krishna) consciousness throughout the world.

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