Some people argue, “What is the necessity of having a spiritual master when God is there? Why can’t I just have God directly as my guru just as Arjuna did?” The answer is that we are not standing face to face with God as Arjuna was. Of course since God is omnipresent, He is certainly present with us. That’s a fact. But in our present state of conditioned consciousness we can neither hear Him nor see Him. So how we will receive instructions from Him for our deliverance from birth and death?” To this question someone could answer, “Since God is present in the form of scriptures, if we simply follow the instructions in the scriptures, we will become delivered.” This a valid principle. And in the scriptures we find that over and over again we are instructed to take shelter of a bona fide spiritual master. It is also enjoined in the scriptures that unless one has a spiritual master he is not qualified to study the scriptures. The scriptures guide us in this way because if we approach scriptures with our conditioned consciousness, we can easily misunderstand them. Therefore a bona fide spiritual master is required to help us properly understand the scriptures. In short, the will of God is revealed to us through the transparent via medium, the bona fide spiritual master.
And Is a Living Guru Required?
Sometimes we hear it said that one can achieve spiritual perfection by accepting as one’s spiritual master a guru who has physically departed from this material world. The argument we hear is that is that all you have to do is carefully study his books and follow them to the best of your ability, that this will be just as good as if you surrendered unto him in his personal presence. Although on the surface this sounds like a very reasonable proposition, when we minutely analyze the details of this approach to the guru/disciple relationship this becomes an obvious impracticality.
This impracticality was confirmed by my spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. At the end of a lecture he have gave in London, England on September 3, 1971 the following conversation ensued:
Indian Lady: How does one contact the spiritual master? Through a book can you contact the spiritual master?
Srila Prabhupada: No, you have to associate.
Shyamasundara: “Can you associate through a book?” she asked.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, through books, and also personal. Because when you make a spiritual master you have got personal touch. Not that in air you make a spiritual master. You make a spiritual master concrete.
Srila Prabhupada made it very clear that although one can associate with a spiritual master through his books, personal association is also required, not that simply in the air one takes a spiritual master. Why is it important to have this personal contact with one’s spiritual master? It is essential to have direct personal interaction with one’s guru so that one can make sure that one is actually satisfying the spiritual master by one’s attitude, one’s words, and one’s actions.
Satisfaction of the realized spiritual master is the secret of success in spiritual life. So we have to assuredly know without any doubt that we are pleasing him. If we simply read books and imagine that the spiritual master is pleased with us, our imagination can be wrong. We could be thinking, acting, and speaking in ways that are very much displeasing to him. Without his personal association we would not know for sure whether he is pleased or not.
Krishna instructs in the Bhagavad-gita how we are to associate with the bona fide spiritual master. He states:
tad viddhi praṇipātena
upadekṣyanti te jñānaṁ
“Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth.”
If we are to obey Krishna’s instructions, we must be able to inquire from the spiritual and hear the answers he gives us. To directly communicate in this way with a physically departed spiritual master is not possible for one is still under the influence of the material nature. A neophyte on the pathway of spiritual enlightenment cannot be expected to be able to accurately hear messages from a departed spiritual master in response to his questions. Even if he claims to be able to do this, in all likelihood the answers he “receives” are simply his own fanciful imagination, not the answers of the departed guru the student claims to be following. The guru therefore needs to be physically present to directly answer the questions of his disciples.
One does not need to be spiritually disadvantaged by the physical disappearance of a great spiritual master, such as ISKCON Founder-Acharya His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, thinking that now there is no more opportunity for spiritual progress. All one has to do is find a sincere disciple of Srila Prabhupada and fully take shelter of him. Srila Prabhupada has written in his purport to the Srimad Bhagavatam (2.9.43), “One who is now the disciple is the next spiritual master. “ This is the time-honored, authorized-by-Lord Krishna system. The spiritual master makes disciples and trains them how to become spiritual masters so that after his departure they will also able to make disciples and train them to become future spiritual masters.
In this way throughout history the system of disciplic succession has continued to provide sincere seekers of spiritual enlightenment the facility to reawaken their eternal spiritual identities, thus regaining their constitutional positions of eternity, knowledge, and bliss.