Most people think they have no need for a spiritual master. In a sense, they are right. People interested only in an animal-like existence do not need a spiritual master. A spiritual master is required for a person who is inquisitive about transcendental knowledge. Often, even people who claim to be interested in the spiritual path say they do not need a spiritual master. They say, "Let each man be his own guru," or "Let God Himself (who is in everyone's heart) be your guru."
The difficulty with each man's being his own guru is painfully obvious. A genuine guru can free his disciple from the perplexities of life. Since we are all suffering from birth, death, old age, and disease, and since we are unable to stop these miseries, how can we be our own guru? Admitting his own frailty, Arjuna approached Lord Krsna and submitted himself: "Now I am confused about my duty and have lost all composure because of weakness. In this condition I am asking You to tell me clearly what is best for me. Now I am Your disciple, and a soul surrendered unto You. Please instruct me." The Bhagavad-gita informs us that each person's real identity is eternal spirit soul, free from suffering. But as long as he continues to identify himself with his body, thinking himself an American or a black man or a white man or a woman or a cat or a dog, then he will continue to suffer repeated birth and death. We may invent different philosophies to suit our individual tastes, but as long as we are forgetful of our eternal relationship with God, we will continue to lament. As soon as Krsna accepted Arjuna as His disciple, He exposed this mistake: "While speaking learned words, you are lamenting for what is not worthy of grief. Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor for the dead." We admit that we need help in repairing our auto, in fixing our teeth, in arranging our finances, but often we think that in spiritual matters every man is his own best guide. The spiritual science is in fact the most subtle and difficult to comprehend and therefore one in which we certainly need help from a person who knows the truth. It is ignorant pride that prevents us from admitting we need the help of a spiritual master.
Once I spoke with a Quaker who was very glad when he heard me say that the guru is in the heart: the Supreme Lord is the guru within. Lord Krsna as the original guru confirms this: "I am seated in everyone's heart, and from Me come intelligence, memory, and forgetfulness…. I, dwelling within the heart, destroy the darkness of ignorance with the torchlight of knowledge." But out of His compassion the Supreme Lord not only manifests Himself as the guru within, but also appears externally in the world as the pure devotee of God or the spiritual master in disciplic succession. Krsna as the Supersoul is within a person's heart, and when one is serious, the Lord directs him to take shelter of His representative, a genuine spiritual master. Directed from within and guided externally by the self-realized spiritual master, one attains the path of Krsna consciousness, the way out of material suffering.
"O my Lord! Transcendental poets and experts in spiritual science could not fully express their indebtedness to You, even if they were endowed with a prolonged lifetime, for You appear in two features externally as the spiritual master and internally as the Supersoul [the Lord in the heart] to deliver the embodied living being by directing him how to come to You." (Sri Caitanya-caritamrta) The Lord in the heart and the guru, the spiritual master, are needed together, just as a train needs two rails to run on.
So who is the spiritual master? The real master is one who does not invent anything. This is the point. He repeats what has gone before. And this is the whole fault of bogus teachers. They are not in line with the standard teachings of the scriptures and the recognized spiritual masters.
The spiritual master can be likened to a pharmacist who is authorized to give a certain medicine. There are plenty of medicines in a drug store, but one cannot simply go in and say, "It's all medicine just give me anything." No, only the authorized pharmacist can point to the medicine required for your illness. So spiritual knowledge already exists fully in the scriptures, but one needs an expert advisor.
And what is his authorization? "To learn transcendental subject matter one must approach the spiritual master. The symptom of such a spiritual master is that he is expert in understanding the Vedic conclusion, and therefore he constantly engages in the service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead." (Mundaka Upanisad) The genuine guru is God's representative, and he speaks about God and nothing else. He represents the Supreme Lord, just as a viceroy represents a king. The guru will not manufacture anything.
Everything he says is in accordance with the scriptures and the previous spiritual masters. He will not give you a mantra and tell you that you will become God or that you can do anything you like. A real guru's mission is to appeal to everyone to become a devotee of God. Because the Supreme Lord Himself sends the pure devotees to appeal on His behalf, one cannot please God without pleasing His servant. "By the grace of the spiritual master, one gets the mercy of Krsna; unless one pleases the spiritual master, one's location is unknown."
Often, people shy away from thinking they need a spiritual master, because they are afraid they will be cheated. Our spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, commented on this: "If you are sincere, you will find a sincereguru. Because people want everything very cheaply, they are cheated. We ask our students to refrain from illicit sex, meat-eating, gambling, and intoxication. People think that this is all very difficult a botheration. If someone else says, 'You may do whatever nonsense you like simply take my mantra and worship me, then people will like him. The point is that people want to be cheated and therefore cheaters come." One has to be sincere, and also intelligent. Just as when someone is considering attending a school he must at least have a preliminary knowledge of what a school is, so also, unless one has a preliminary knowledge of transcendental matters, how can he inquire from his spiritual master? Books like Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam give us education in spiritual life, which will help us understand the necessity for a spiritual master and help us distinguish between the real thing and the false.
The great opportunity of human life is that one can use the elevated human consciousness to understand himself and God in an eternal loving relationship. To miss this opportunity is the greatest tragedy. Unless one is enlightened in his lifetime, then at death he has to face an ocean of nescience: taking repeated birth and death. But every person hag a very efficient boat in the human body, and he has an expert captain when he finds a genuine spiritual master; and the scriptural injunctions are like favorable winds. If we do not cross the ocean of the nescience of material existence, in spite of all these favorable facilities, then we are intentionally committing suicide.