MORE THAN ANY PLACE in the world, India is the land of gurus. Nearly every Hindu, in India or abroad, has a guru to turn to for advice. The Vedic scriptures present the teachings of great gurus like Maitreya, Kapila, and Vyasa. From the teachings of gurus such as Sankara, Ramanuja, and Madhva have come powerful spiritual movements. And in modern times, India has sent a glut of gurus to the West, each espousing a different philosophy.
In the Caitanya-caritamrta, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu describes the function of the genuine spiritual master:
yare dekha, tare kaha 'krsna'-upadesa
amara ajnaya guru hana tara' ei desa
"Instruct everyone to follow the orders of Lord Sri Krsna as they are given in the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam. In this way become a spiritual master and try to liberate everyone in this land." The prime function of the spiritual master is to transmit knowledge about Krsna. By that knowledge the guru lifts the disciple out of the darkness of ignorance and engages him in devotional service to the Lord.
Knowledge of Krsna is not of the guru's own making, something he has discovered by research. The genuine spiritual master receives knowledge from his own guru, who received it from his spiritual master. In this way the chain should reach all the way to the source of knowledge, Krsna Himself. If the guru has no connection to a disciplic succession, his teachings will be baseless, no better than anyone else's words, for they will be separated from Krsna. The Padma Purana says, "Unless one is initiated by a bona fide spiritual master in the disciplic succession, the mantra one might have received is without any effect."
Srila Rupa Gosvami describes the qualities of a bona fide spiritual master: "A sober person who can tolerate the urge to speak, the mind's demands, the actions of anger, and the urges of the tongue, belly, and genitals is qualified to make disciples all over the world." A guru is judged not just by what he preaches, but by what he practices. The Sanskrit word guru means "heavy." A spiritual master is heavy with transcendental knowledge.
Every year, hundreds of new gurus arise in India and around the world. Most of them, however, hardly meet the qualifications of a genuine guru. Few are connected in disciplic succession. To gain followers, many water down the Vedic teachings or make up their own. It's easy to find a guru who will tailor his philosophy to suit a disciple's beliefs. I once met a guru in India who told me, "My son, whomever you like to worship, tell me; I will give you a mantra for him."
Other gurus give their teachings in exchange for money, and then lower their standards for disciples who can pay but can't follow rules. Srila Prabhupada once remarked, "The sisya [disciple] says, 'My dear guru, if I do not eat meat and fish, my health will fail.' … The guru thinks, 'If I say, 'Don't eat meat,' then this disciple will go away, and there is no chance of getting money from him.' That kind of compromise is not required. And nobody requires to have a guru if he has got such an attitude."
Almost every Indian can name a family guru to whom he goes once in a while for advice. But approaching a spiritual master is not just a leisure activity; it is a process of full surrender. Srila Prabhupada admonishes, "Don't make guru a fashion, just like you keep a pet dog. People generally do that. 'Everyone has a guru. Let me collect one.' That kind of guru will not help you. You must be convinced: 'Here is a guru to whom I can surrender.' "
In modern times, one person who was truly worthy of our surrender was His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He was a true acarya, or one who teaches by example. His every word and every action was something we can emulate. Unlike so many gurus who come from India, Srila Prabhupada did not lower his standards or change his habits to suit Western materialistic ways. Rather, he was the true representative of his own spiritual master and the entire disciplic succession coming from Lord Krsna Himself. Such should be the gurus we want in our heritage for years to come.
Ravi Gupta, age sixteen, lives at the Hare Krsna center in Boise, Idaho, USA. The center is run by his parents. Ravi, who was schooled at home, is a fourth-year student at Boise State University.