But that doesn't mean I renounce common sense or
ignore the strict spiritual system of checks and balances.
Every morning in each Hare Krsna temple, devotees assemble to hear the Srimad-Bhagavatam class. As we gradually make our way through the different volumes, we cover a wide variety of topics related to spiritual life. One day a speaker was reluctant to read the verse and purport because he felt they were unsuitable for the youngsters present. We were reading the Fifth Canto, and Sukadeva Gosvami was describing various sexual deviations and their hellish results. Some devotees favored continuing, while others wanted to skip a few verses.
One devotee reminded everyone of Srila Prabhupada's desire that children also hear Srimad-Bhagavatam. He further qualified his opinion by saying (seemingly self-righteously), "You may have your ideas, but I blindly follow my guru."
Knowing this phrase and its connotations to be the cause of some doubt to many persons interested in Krsna consciousness, I began reflecting upon what it means to "blindly" follow one's guru. Many times, usually after explaining the relationship between guru and disciple, we are asked, "But do you mean to say that the disciple is supposed to do everything the guru asks?" At this point it becomes apparent that the questioner is entertaining mental visions of the worst kind subservient, starry-eyed disciples begging pennies on a street corner for yet another Rolls-Royce for their guru. Or worse still scenes of a large commune where hundreds of bewildered followers blindly take their own lives at the whimsical demand of their now insane leader. How does the acceptance of a genuine spiritual master, with the implicit faith and service attitude this entails, differ from the naive submission and consequent exploitation often involved in other "spiritual" relationships?
To my mind, the question is not whether we are prepared to do anything the guru asks of us, but whether a soul surrendered to hisguru has, or retains, any intelligence, discrimination, or free will. "Blind" following can be the cause of perfection or havoc, depending on how it is understood.
A Lesson from the Mahabharata
In the Mahabharata (the history of greater India), there is an interesting incident concerning Arjuna, the perfect disciple, and Krsna, the Supreme Lord and perfect guru. During the Battle of Kuruksetra, King Yudhisthira was severely defeated in single combat with Karna and retreated from the battlefield to rest. Upon hearing of Yudhisthira's serious wounds, Arjuna was worried and ordered Krsna to take his chariot to his brother's tent. Yudhisthira was suffering intense pain, fatigue, shame, and anxiety because of the superior strength of Karna. All his hope for victory lay in Arjuna, but he was afraid that even Arjuna did not possess the ability to defeat such a strong enemy.
When Arjuna and Krsna entered the tent, Yudhisthira assumed that Karna must have been killed, because Arjuna was known as Vijaya "one who never leaves the battlefield without defeating his enemy." Relieved of his fear, Yudhisthira rose up on his bed and began to glorify Arjuna and Lord Krsna. After some moments, Arjuna explained the actual situation: he had left the battlefield out of concern for Yudhisthira.
Immediately the pressure felt by Yudhisthira exploded in a torrent of disappointment and bitter regret. He cursed Arjuna and accused him of being a hero in name only. He said that Arjuna was unfit to carry such a powerful weapon as the famed Gandiva bow. He told him that he should give it to a warrior who could wield it more effectively.
Arjuna reacted by fiercely unsheathing his sword, but Lord Krsna stopped him with His hand and inquired, "How is it that you are about to attack your older brother?" Arjuna replied with a warrior's pride, "O Krsna, I have a secret vow that I will immediately slay anyone who suggests that I give up my Gandiva bow to another."
Lord Krsna reasoned, "Arjuna, how can you kill your king and older brother, decorated as he is with all saintly qualities, just because of a few words spoken in anxiety, frustration, and anger?"
"But Krsna," Arjuna objected, "what about my vow?" Krsna answered, "You are a fool, for you do not know how to properly apply religious principles. Do not be a fanatic, but consider the time and circumstance."
Krsna told Arjuna a story: There was once a saint who made the solemn vow to never tell a lie. One day some innocent people came by his asrama fleeing from a gang of ferocious bandits. The bandits soon arrived and demanded, "Did you see them? Which way did they go?" The saint honestly pointed to the citizens' hiding place. The dacoits then butchered the defenseless people and took away their wealth. As a result of his blind foolishness, the saint had to suffer for the sufferings he had callously caused. Therefore a person must have proper discrimination when applying the principles of religion; the subtleties of the rules of honesty, ethics, morality, and nonviolence are sometimes difficult to discern.
Arjuna was relieved to hear Krsna's brilliant judgment, but still he could not forget his vow. Again Lord Krsna helped him out: "There are various kinds of deaths according to scripture," He continued. "One form of death is for a superior person to be insulted and dishonored by his junior."
Arjuna took the hint and began to revile Yudhisthira for his attachment to gambling and his lack of ksatriya (warrior) qualities. He blamed him for the whole war. Because Yudhisthira was a humble devotee, he already felt guilty for the mass killing. He meekly listened to Arjuna's rebukes. Arjuna, his anger expended, then fell at his brother's feet and begged forgiveness. They warmly embraced, realizing how Krsna had saved them yet again. Previously, when Krsna had spoken the Bhagavad-gita, He had tried to convince Arjuna that his duty and therefore the topmost morality for him was to fight and kill. In this instance, however, Krsna advised Arjuna differently. Although Lord Krsna is the supreme autocrat, we see that He always instructs according to reason and scriptural evidence.
Srila Prabhupada wanted his disciples to use their discrimination. He would often ask their opinion before making a decision, and he would sometimes challenge their convictions: "Why do you say Krsna is God? How do you know? What's wrong with not being Krsna conscious?"
Sometimes he would take the role of an atheist or coax a disciple to do so. He would argue with logic and common sense. He wouldn't accept answers like "So-and-so said" or "It says in the scripture." He wanted us to know exactly why we do what we do and say what we say.
Srila Prabhupada often told us to "do the needful." The needful, however, will inevitably vary according to different situations. Srila Prabhupada often demonstrated that preaching is a higher principle than an inflexible attachment to rules and regulations. There are as many different situations as waves in the ocean, and each requires Krsna conscious consideration. Witlessly brandishing dogma is not conducive to progress.
To have blind faith in one's guru is required, but such faith should not encourage foolish loyalty to persons like Bhisma and Drona, who had chosen the side of irreligion. Arjuna's blind faith in them was a barrier impeding the correct course of action.
Faith is obviously an essential ingredient for any endeavor, especially in spiritual life. The guru teaches his students about transcendental subjects inaccessible to the material mind and senses. After one has thoroughly ascertained, by using a high degree of intelligent discrimination, that a spiritual teacher is bona fide, one must eventually take initiation. The spiritual master is Lord Krsna's representative and should therefore be accepted to be as good as God. A disciple who has implicit faith in the scriptures and the words of his guru will realize the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
The disciple has to surrender his will to that of his guru, just as after accepting a person as your doctor, you have to be obedient to his commands. Spiritual life means to surrender your soul, or your self, to the shelter and guidance of your spiritual master.
Checks and Balances
Now, although we have to surrender to the spiritual master, are there any checks and balances by which we can protect ourselves from possible exploitation from unscrupulous "gurus"? Let us carefully consider: In everyday life the spiritual master does not baffle his disciple with apparent contradictions. But there are concepts presented by the guru that may contradict the disciple's ideas, conditioning, or even sensory perception. Our background is materialistic and often atheistic. We are prone to be rebellious toward the authority of the Supreme Lord, and we are full of the four defects of conditioned life: we make mistakes, we're illusioned, we have a tendency to cheat, and we have imperfect senses. So it's not surprising if the guru says things that contradict our preconceived opinions.
The real qualification of the guru is that he speaks according toguru, sastra, and sadhu. These are the checks and balances of the system of receiving transcendental knowledge. "Guru" means that theguru must always speak in line with his own guru. In London, Srila Prabhupada said that it's not difficult to be a guru. All we have to do is follow our guru's instructions, repeat his message, and not become proud. "Sadhu" means authorized saintly persons, past and present. And 'sastra" means the genuine scriptures.
If a guru appears to make a statement or give an order contrary to any of these principles, the disciple may inquire, "My dear spiritual master, I cannot understand your statement; please explain it according to the principles of guru, sastra, and sadhu. "In an extreme case, Bali Maharaja attained perfection by refusing to follow his guru's order that he not surrender to Lord Visnu. TheMahabharata enjoins us to reject a guru who does not know what is to be done or not to be done. It is the duty of a disciple to bring up any doubts he has. Many times in the Bhagavad-gita Arjuna says things like "This is my doubt, O Krsna, and I ask you to dispel it completely." It's the duty of an expert guru to dispel every doubt of his disciple.
If a disciple does something against the principles of guru, sadhu, and sastra and tries to justify his misdemeanor by saying "Myguru told me to do it," his action is no less censurable. A guru who fell down from the principles of spiritual life began to urge his disciples to take drugs along with the chanting of the holy names for "better results." His sincere and intelligent disciples refused to follow such an erroneous order, but those who took spiritual life cheaply or who were blind sentimentalists eagerly began abusing their bodies and minds with different kinds of drugs, pretending that it was all spiritual. Some of them even said, "I'll follow my guru to hell," forgetting that the purpose of accepting a guru is to go back to Godhead. Their position was as foolish as that of a demented patient who declares, "I don't care if my doctor is going to cause my disease to increase; I'll still follow his direction." A sincere disciple may be prepared to go to hell with his guru but to preach, not as an inmate!
Now let us consider the place for blind faith and blind following. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, Srila Prabhupada's spiritual master, told Srila Prabhupada on different occasions to preach in the West. He said it would be good for him and good for those to whom he preached. He also instilled in Srila Prabhupada the importance of book distribution. He had a vision for spreading Krsna consciousness, and Srila Prabhupada meticulously followed his order. Srila Prabhupada used to say, "Whatever success may come is due to my Guru Maharaja I blindly follow his order."
Blind faith means not to allow material considerations to interfere with the order of one's guru. The story of the printing of Caitanya-caritamrta by Srila Prabhupada's disciples (described in SrilaPrabhupada Lilamrta, Volume 6) serves as a striking illustration. When Srila Prabhupada ordered his disciples at the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust to print seventeen books in two months, they initially replied that it was an impossible task. Srila Prabhupada chided,"Impossible is a word found in a fool's dictionary." So they set to work, fully enlivened by the powerful order of their spiritual master. When the huge task was completed in the allotted time, everyone knew that both the order and its execution were the causeless mercy of Krsna's pure devotee.
The guru is the representative of the Supreme Lord, who is the source of all intelligence, and so it is not surprising for a sincere and dedicated disciple to feel and realize the guru's divine grace. Blind following means, therefore, that your undaunted eyes are fully open, but you're not proud of your achievements, thinking you have greater vision than your guru.
In fact, pride, familiarity, and consequent negligence in executing the directions of the spiritual master are serious impediments to spiritual advancement. To protect us, Srila Prabhupada writes, "A disciple should always remain a fool before his spiritual master." But Srila Prabhupada also expected his disciples to behave intelligently and with common sense. Therefore, just as a disciple should feel like but not be a fool, he should follow his guru blindly but not be blind.
So we should use our brains and not dogmatically say "So-and-so said" as an absolute truth in every circumstance. Should a child listen to the unpleasant descriptions in the Fifth Canto? Well, the general principle is that everyone should hear the Bhagavatambecause it is Krsna Himself in the form of sound, but there's still room for some discrimination.
In a lecture in 1972, Srila Prabhupada said that originally all Vedic literature was especially meant to instruct those men who would disseminate the information to others in a manner suitable to their understanding. When instructing others, sensitivity and tact are obviously required. Not everything said bluntly to an adult should be repeated verbatim to a child. Otherwise, in the name of religion, a child's rights to develop as a balanced, mature individual may be violated. Because of a clumsy or opinionated presentation, the child may end up with the impression, for example, that all sex is abominable, resulting in hell, or that sex means the abominable sex described in the Fifth Canto. Who knows what lasting impression will come to his mind?
Srila Prabhupada has said, "A devotee is as thoughtful as a nondevotee is speculative." We should present the truth according to our own realization, giving due consideration to the audience and the circumstances.