The Spiritual Masters

Echoing the command of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, Srila Prabhupada urged his strict followers to become gurus and spread Krishna consciousness everywhere.

To honor the fiftieth anniversary of Srila Prabhupada’s leaving India to found the worldwide Krishna consciousness movement, BTG presents Part One of a ten-part series celebrating Srila Prabhupada’s unique, transcendental position in ISKCON, as well as every follower’s foundational relationship with him. The year is 1972. In New Vrindaban, West Virginia, it is Srila Prabhupada’s Vyasa-puja Day.1 As the sun climbs to the meridian, the thick mist shrouding the foothills gives way to a spotless blue. Inside a hilltop pavilion, hundreds of devotees and guests – politicians, journalists, and academics among them – have gathered to observe the seventysixth anniversary of Prabhupada’s birth. It is to the guests especially that Prabhupada directs his address.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this ceremony… Of course, those who are my students, they know what is this ceremony. Those who are visitors, for their information, I may inform you something about this ceremony. Otherwise, it may be misunderstood. An outsider may see it that, ‘Why is a person being worshiped like God?’ There may be some doubt.”

Doubt, indeed. The 1960s and ’70s have seen a spike in the number of opportunistic gurus coming to the West, streamlining Vedic revelation to suit modern tastes, and reaping the profits. To establish trust, Prabhupada begins to demystify “the guru” by connecting him to other gurus in parampara, a disciplic succession of authentic spiritual masters descending from Lord Krishna Himself, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The demystification continues:

On the top of the mango tree there is a very ripened fruit, and that fruit has to be tasted. So if I drop the fruit from up, it will be lost. Therefore it is handed over, after one, after one, after… Then it comes down. So all Vedic process of knowledge is taking from the authority. And it comes down through disciplic succession.

Well aware of modern antipathy to authority, Prabhupada then compares the guru to that venerable American pedestrian, the mailman:

Just like a post peon comes and delivers you, say, one hundred dollars. So he is not delivering that one hundred dollars. Your friend has sent you one hundred dollars, and his business is to hand over that one hundred dollars as it is, without any change, without taking one dollar from it, no, or adding. No addition, no subtraction. His honesty, his perfection, is that he delivers you that hundred dollars which is sent by your friend.… He may be imperfect in so many other ways, but when he does his business perfectly, he is perfect. Similarly…we receive perfect knowledge from Krishna through the agency of spiritual master.

Guru Is One, Gurus Are Different

The guru as God’s mailman, down to earth yet out of this world. Because they carry God’s message, all genuine gurus are in a sense “one” – that is, identical. Those guests who go on to read Prabhupada’s teachings will learn how all genuine gurus are also different, each one delivering the message, as Prabhupada writes, “according to personal capacity.”In the very first text of the Sri Caitanya-caritamṛta, the definitive biography of Lord Krishna ’s golden avatar, Lord Caitanya, Srila Krishna dasa Kaviraja Gosvami begins by offering his respectful obeisances to gurun, his many spiritual masters. In the book’s Introduction Srila Prabhupada notes: “He uses the plural here to indicate the disciplic succession. He offers obeisances not to his spiritual master alone but to the whole parampara, the chain of disciplic succession beginning with Lord Krishna Himself.”

Later in the first chapter, text 35, Kaviraja Gosvami offers his respects to “my initiating spiritual master and all my instructing spiritual masters.” Prabhupada comments:

A devotee must have only one initiating spiritual master because in the scriptures acceptance of more than one is always forbidden. There is no limit, however, to the number of instructing spiritual masters one may accept. Generally a spiritual master who constantly instructs a disciple in spiritual science becomes his initiating spiritual master later on.

The last sentence indicates the natural, normative guru-disciple relationship sustainable over time. Although Prabhupada was uniquely empowered to spread Krishna consciousness worldwide in less than a dozen years, it is worth noting that he entrusted the thousands of disciples he was initiating to the care of his local leaders and senior devotees.3 Now decades on, to glimpse how his movement’s gurudisciple culture can become more local and sustainable, the way he himself describes it, let’s continue to examine Prabhupada’s presentation of Sri Caitanya-caritamṛta’s foundational first chapter, “The Spiritual Masters.”

Initiating and Instructing Gurus

In the years since Prabhupada’s passing, the spotlight on the initiating spiritual master may have led members of his movement to believe that to initiate disciples requires more qualification than to instruct them. In his comments to text 34, Prabhupada disagrees: “The initiating and instructing spiritual masters are equal and identical manifestations of Krishna , although they have different dealings.” In his comments to text 47, Prabhupada raises the point to a warning: “There is no difference between the shelter-giving Supreme Lord and the initiating and instructing spiritual masters. If one foolishly discriminates between them, he commits an offense in the discharge of devotional service.”

Of course, the potential to have many instructing gurus doesn’t remove the requirement to accept initiation from one guru. In The Nectar of Devotion, Chapter Six, “How to Discharge Devotional Service,” Prabhupada identifies the first two principles of devotional service as “(1) accepting the shelter of the lotus feet of a bona fide spiritual master,” and “(2) becoming initiated by the spiritual master and learning how to discharge devotional service from him.” We need both rites of passage on our journey home to Krishna .

Writing in Lord Caitanya’s time, Srila Narahari Sarakara compared the relationship with one’s guru to the relationship with one’s father:

A faithful son may go out for earning money and subsequently bring to his father the wealth gained, and later the son may ask for some allowance from the father, and whatever he receives from the father he is entitled to spend on his own enjoyment. Similarly, a disciple may hear some instructions from another advanced Vaiṣṇava, but after gaining that good instruction he must bring it and present it to his own spiritual master. After presenting it, he should hear the same teachings from his own spiritual master with appropriate instructions. (Sri Krishna bhajanamṛta, text 48)

When a devotee once asked Prabhupada which was more important, studying the scriptures or serving a person whose life exemplified the scriptures, without hesitation Prabhupada indicated the latter: Because the guru “can pull your ear.”

In Prabhupada’s movement today, an initiating guru is like a parent, and instructing gurus are like well-wishing relatives. Their comparative influence depends on how those relationships develop practically. My initiating guru is always my initiating guru, just as a parent is always a parent, yet I may develop closer relationships with some of my Siksa-relatives, especially if I see them often and my initiating parent lives far away. Nonetheless, if all gurus are well-wishers, serving cooperatively within the founder-acarya’s mission, harmony and spiritual progress prevail.

The Power of Commitment

Heavy with spiritual knowledge, all genuine gurus are teachers. At the same time their impact on our lives varies according to the depth of their commitment to us.4 Continuing his commentary to text 34, Prabhupada writes:

Gurun is plural in number because anyone who gives spiritual instructions based on the revealed scriptures is accepted as a spiritual master. Although others give help in showing the way to beginners, the guru who first initiates one with the maha-mantra is to be known as the initiator, and the saints who give instructions for progressive advancement in Krishna consciousness are called instructing spiritual masters.

Notice the progressive commitment from introducing to initiating to instructing. Whoever instructs us the most is naturally more influential in our lives. “Generally a spiritual master who constantly instructs a disciple in spiritual science becomes his initiating spiritual master later on.” Even if the guru doesn’t say a word, the guru is always teaching, especially by example, the most powerful teacher. “Example is better than precept,” and “Actions speak louder than words.”

Once in India a Western devotee approached Prabhupada with a desire and a doubt. His desire was to sail down the Ganges with a party of devotees dancing and chanting Hare Krishna , dock in hamlets, and enliven the local villagers. His doubt was that he didn’t speak their language. “Oh, they don’t care what you say,” Prabhupada replied. “They just want to see how you behave.”

“So You, Every One of You, Become Guru”

For the devotees listening to Prabhupada’s Vyasa-puja address, their appreciation of his unique position is increasing. Speaking from a thronelike crimson seat, Prabhupada is a guru of gurus, “a master at whose feet all masters sit.” Although their commitment to him is as green as their summer surroundings, his commitment to them is absolute, and his ongoing request difficult for most of them to imagine: “become guru.”

Prabhupada’s request is no other than the request of Lord Caitanya Himself. In the Sri Caitanyacaritamṛta, Madhya-lila, Chapter 7, text 128, the Lord tells the brahmaṇa Kurma: “Instruct everyone to follow the orders of Lord Sri Krishna [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 first sentence of Prabhupada’s commentary to the text says it all: “This is the sublime mission of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.”

As recorded in the Bhaktivedanta VedaBase, in hundreds of lectures, conversations, letters, and public and private events, Prabhupada cited the above verse as a reminder of the Lord’s request. From the beginning through the middle to the end of Prabhupada’s worldwide ministry, these reminders to his followers were relentless. Here are three examples:

I want that all of my spiritual sons and daughters will inherit this title of Bhaktivedanta, so that the family transcendental diploma will continue through the generations. Those possessing the title of Bhaktivedanta will be allowed to initiate disciples. Maybe by 1975, all of my disciples will be allowed to initiate and increase the numbers of the generations. That is my program.” (Letter, 3 January 1969)

So you, every one of you, can become guru. You may say that, “I am not interested to become a guru,” but Caitanya Mahaprabhu says that if you are not interested, that is not very good. You should be interested. You must be guru. That is success of your life.” (Conversation, Tehran, 13 March 1975)

Because people are in darkness, we require many millions of gurus to enlighten them. Therefore Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s mission is, He said, that “Every one of you become guru.” [If you say,] “But I have no qualification. How can I become guru?” There is no need of qualification. “Still I can become guru?” Yes. “How?” Whomever you meet, you simply instruct what Krishna has said. That’s all. You become guru. (Lecture, Honolulu, 21 May 1976)

“Strictly Follow”

While he was spreading Krishna consciousness worldwide, Prabhupada foresaw the disorder that would likely befall his movement after his passing. He even referred to it indirectly in one of his Bhaktivedanta purports:

The main business of human society is to think of the Supreme Personality of Godhead at all times, to become His devotees, to worship the Supreme Lord, and to bow down before Him. The acarya, the authorized representative of the Supreme Lord, establishes these principles, but when he disappears, things once again become disordered. The perfect disciples of the acarya try to relieve the situation by sincerely following the instructions of the spiritual master. (Srimad-Bhagavatam, 4.28.48, Purport)

Prabhupada knew that some of his leading disciples, out of immaturity, might try to imitate his unique position as jagat-guru, a universal teacher. At the same time, his relentless reminders to become genuine gurus indicate a greater concern: that in their supreme esteem for their founderacarya his followers wouldn’t mature to become gurus in their own right and shelter others in Lord Caitanya’s mission. How then would Krishna ’s mercy reach every town and village, as the Vedic scriptures had foretold, and how would every sincere aspirant receive the personal care and guidance they would need to make the journey home, back to Godhead?

In his writings, therefore, Prabhupada made it clear that the most important qualification to become a guru was to “strictly follow” the instructions of guru and Krishna : “A person who is liberated acharya and guru cannot commit any mistake,” Prabhupada wrote an early disciple, “but there are persons who are less qualified or not liberated, but still can act as guru and acharya by strictly following the disciplic succession.” (Letter, 26 April 1968)

A similar message appears in Prabhupada’s purport to the Srimad- Bhagavatam, Canto Four, Chapter 18, text 5:

This Krishna consciousness movement directly receives instructions from the Supreme Personality of Godhead via persons who are strictly following His instructions. Although a follower may not be a liberated person, if he follows the supreme, liberated Personality of Godhead, his actions are naturally liberated from the contamination of the material nature. Lord Caitanya therefore says: “By My order you may become a spiritual master.” One can immediately become a spiritual master by having full faith in the transcendental words of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and by following His instructions.

One needn’t be a superman – or a superwoman – to be a regular spiritual master. Liberated or nonliberated, a guru is genuine if he or she “strictly follows” the orders of guru and Krishna . By Prabhupada’s reckoning, his movement may have more local gurus than it knows. They simply need to be formally approached for guidance, and formally encouraged to give it. “We require many millions of gurus. . . .” Pens scribbling, cameras rolling, his American guests listen to Prabhupada close his Vyasa-puja address. As he looks into their eyes, Prabhupada is concerned that they’ve correctly heard and understood his message.“So this is the position of a spiritual master. Don’t misunderstand that, ‘This person is sitting very comfortably and taking all honors and contribution.’ It is needed just to teach them how to respect the representative of God. This is the sum and substance of Vyasa-puja.

Thank you very much.”

Suresvara Dasa joined the Hare Krishna movement in 1970. Since 2011, on behalf of a committee of ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission called “Srila Prabhupada’s Position,” he has been traveling the ISKCON world, presenting the seminar series “Srila Prabhupada, Our Founder-acarya.” To find out how to bring the series to your area, please write to SureSvara at