The “Savior-Guru” syndrome

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By Sankirtana dasa

“We offer our most sincere and humble obeisances to our spiritual master, who is all merciful and who is the savior of the fallen. He dissipates the darkness of nescience by opening our eyes with transcendental knowledge. He reveals this knowledge for the benefit of all people.” (Message of Godhead, Ch 1). There is no doubt in my mind about the saving grace of the spiritual master. We have undergone countless births in various forms of life and finally, by learning from him we come to know what the real purpose of life is. “To attain perfection in transcendental knowledge, is to accept the teachers and their teachings in the disciplic succession, the spiritual line. By cultivation, by practice, and through education in that line.”
(MoG, Ch 1) Definitely, the guru is our savior!

Why then the apparent ambiguous title of this paper? The Webster dictionary defines a syndrome as a group of signs that indicate a specific disorder or a disease. What is here the disorder we believe to have discovered and wish to share with the readers? Who is infected with it and what are the symptoms? I’d like to elaborate on this in the below paragraphs.

A practitioner of spiritual life always retains his own sweet will to decide to which extent he or she wants to apply himself or herself to the process. The exalted goal of the practice, pure and selfless service devotion to God, is clearly defined. Taken the object in consideration, we can assume that the attainment of this elevated goal is not easily achieved. Obviously, as in any other lofty achievement, one would think it requires also here strong determination and a persistent endeavor. Yet, we can find in Srila Prabhupada’s writings, statements that seem to indicate an approach that demands hardly any struggle: “There is no need of strenuous effort to free oneself from sinful reactions. One should unhesitatingly accept Krishna as the supreme savior of all living entities. With faith and love, one should surrender unto Him.” (BG. 18.66 pp) In the same purport, elaborating on the process of surrender, Srila Prabhupada writes: “One should always think himself helpless and should consider Krishna the only basis for his progress in life.” Thus one may take it that one simply needs to feel helpless, have faith in guru and Krishna and dutifully chant the holy names and one will attain perfection: “Where is the difficulty in Hare Krishna chanting? This is the only savior for the human society of this age.”
(Lecture, July 27, 1973)

However, chanting can be of different natures. Commenting on Queen Kunti’s observation of how the Lord can be approached only by the materially exhausted, Srila Prabhupada writes: “Actually the Lord’s holy name has such powerful potency. But there is a quality to such utterances also. It depends on the quality of feeling.” (SB 1.8.26 pp) So the quality of our chanting is a crucially influential factor. It seems that some devotees totally ignore this important fact. Some think that they have been saved by the very act of taking initiation from a guru and they reason that they´re too fallen to advance in any other way except for being depending on his mercy. It can be said with certainty though, that when following such conclusions they neglect to chant with increasing quality, they will make no or only very little progress in their spiritual pursuits. Although guru and Krishna are the saviors, unless we follow their instruction to sincerely call on Krishna’s name, we are not advancing. Actually chanting the Lord´s names requires constant effort, profound will-power and scriptural insight, because chanting really is a spiritually scientific process.

We know about the different stages of chanting. It is the namabhasa stage of chanting that elevates one to the position of offence-less chanting. Srila Rupa Goswami, in an analogy, compares the fallen conditioned soul to someone afflicted with the disease called jaundice. Due to being ill with jaundice, the patient cannot taste the sweetness of sugar. Likewise, because of impurities, we have no taste for the sweet experience of the holy name. Although chanting the Lord´s names is by nature a pleasant activity, we find it difficult. To compensate for the lack of feelings and experience which would be derived from chanting purely, we are advised to invest much effort and will-power. Our thoughts wander here and there whilst chanting but one must focus the mind back to the hearing of the chanting. By this practice we will gradually recover from our restlessness and taste the sweetness of chanting again. Fallen and foolish as we may be, we shouldn´t want to remain fallen and foolish. His Grace Bhurijana Prabhu recalls in his book ‘My Glorious Master’ how one time Srila Prabhupada spoke about the humility of advanced devotees. At that time Bhurijana Prabhu expressed: “My only qualification is that I am a fool.” Srila Prabhupada then looked at him sharply. “Yes, but you should not remain a fool.” (MGM 16)

The spiritual master opens our eyes with the torchlight of knowledge (om ajnana-timirandhasya) and by his guidance we learn to see things as they are. By his and Krishna’s grace we become conscious of our faults and learn how to improve our chanting. Attentive chanting whilst trying to give up impure desires are the basic characteristics of sadhana bhakti. By following this process and with the saving grace of guru and Krishna we can successfully overcome all shortcomings and defects. We will gradually regain the purity to constantly chant and will thus be blessed with the ability to serve Krishna unconditionally.

What I have come to recognize over the years while meeting different devotees in different parts of the world is that there is always a group of persons who believe they found an alternative to the scientific process of sadhana bhakti. They commonly declare that they have a “unique” advantage over others due to the mercy of an especially elevated “savior-guru”. According to them, it is by the strength of the purity of the guru that one makes advancement and their guru, of course, is the best. Following such conclusion, the service they render to their guru is all there is and all that counts. Instead of strict adherence to the sadhana bhakti process they demonstrate a high degree of “guru-bhakti”. Their preaching usually consists of the glorification of the guru’s deeds and qualities and they put much stress on the absolute necessity to get his mercy. Hardly ever do they explain the scientific process of sadhana bhakti. They are adamant on the mistaken idea that lining up lots of new candidates for initiation is the guru’s greatest concern and interest. Such devotees generally are indifferent to the mood, mission and practice as established by the Founder-Acharya of our worldwide movement. They are staunch followers of their own guru and are happy to have been “saved” by him.

There´s a Bengali proverb that says, “Too much devotion is a symptom of a thief” (ati bhakti corera laksana). Not acknowledging and dealing with one´s own material desires indicates dishonesty and/or lack of sincerity and on the long run causes such devotees to become weak and restless. Sometimes they even end up indulging in illicit connection with someone else’s wife (or husband), thereby causing great embarrassment to their guru and the community of devotees. To what degree their guru is aware of these weaknesses in the practice and preaching of such disciples, I don´t know. Nevertheless, from what I have seen, the general pattern is that usually some of the new converts take up the same mood which they learned from the persons who introduced them to the “savior-guru” and also become “unique”. In this way their numbers increases steadfastly and with it the perpetuation of their tradition of a self-invented mood and mission.

What to do when one comes across such a scenario? I’d like to have the answers myself. I usually try to protect others from the misleading ideas of such preachers by making efforts to explain the process of Krishna Consciousness in an interesting and attractive manner. I also try to maintain a good example of “guru-bhakti” by having a strict, visible sadhana by chanting with the devotees in the recommended early morning hours. But generally the “unique” devotees keep up a protective wall around their ideas and life styles. I would like to understand better how to build bridges and actually help them to critically consider things so that they could see how they have digressed. Any practical advice (comments) from your own experience in this regard is appreciated.

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1 ekendra das

I’m glad you wrote this article. Often we try to look back at history and see what went wrong. Good. We should also address what is wrong in the present so as to prevent things from going off track in the future.

Let’s face it. We need formal educational structures in ISKCON so that at least such misunderstandings can be put into perspective. I think that the more we put our energy into standardized educational development then the less weight these issues will have to influence communities.

Comment posted by ekendra das on June 9th, 2007
2 Kesava Krsna dasa

Dear Sankirtana prabhu,

Over the years I have met old devotee friends and strangers alike who had drifted to ‘greener pastures.’ At first, my dealings with them were based on either retaining the friendship and avoiding potential differences of opinion. But trying to be congenial can entice them, with their new-found faith to espouse the glories of their new master whilst belittling Srila Prabhupada’s teachings and purpose.

I am not one to belittle these masters and will not say anything bad. And we too should keep tabs on our wish to defame them. We can however be a little firm with those who have deserted Srila Prsbhupada with why’s and determin the reasons for them doing so, if they resort to ‘I have something higher’ talk.

The usual responses from them are related to low esteem and lack of personal direction. I have seen ambitious practitioners who could not progress here, to try their luck elsewhere under the guise of ‘higher association.’ This is not to generalize and say all those who leave are ambitious. Whatever their concerns were, they acted upon them and left.

If we happen to meet them we can give a warm Haribol! But be under no illusion to hear Srila Prabhupada belittled.We should be clear that Srila Prabhupada gave his life for us and everything required to advance in Krsna consciousness. With this stance we can always say something like “When are you coming back?” But it is not always going to win them over.

The best policy is to just be a true reflection of what Srila Prabhupada intended us to be - humble but firm. Try to be the vaisnava as portrayed by our previous acaryas. And to be totally genuine and authentic. It is by these qualities we can at least make them feel at home with us. On this basis we may have some air-time to say what we want without being confrontational.

Time always tells. If after some time should their saviours cease to be, we will discover where their real allegiance lies. But overall, avoiding conflicting situations should be our way. It is very rare to find genuine vaisnavas anyway.

Ys, Kesava Krsna dasa.

Comment posted by Kesava Krsna dasa on June 9th, 2007
3 Unregistered

In the final paragraph of his purport to Nectar of Instruction verse 5 His Divine Grace says:

“Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura has given some practical hints to the effect that an uttama-adhikārī Vaiṣṇava can be recognized by his ability to convert many fallen souls to Vaiṣṇavism. One should not become a spiritual master unless he has attained the platform of uttama-adhikārī. A neophyte Vaiṣṇava or a Vaiṣṇava situated on the intermediate platform can also accept disciples, but such disciples must be on the same platform, and it should be understood that they cannot advance very well toward the ultimate goal of life under his insufficient guidance. Therefore a disciple should be careful to accept an uttama-adhikārī as a spiritual master.”

Unfortunately many people do not seek to find a highly advanced Guru but instead the accept someone who is popular or regarded as “advanced” within their region. Sometimes the disciple also thinks that by sadhana he can make advancement, or that by associating with many Vaishnavas he will get their blessings and make advancement. What then might happen, hypothetically speaking, if someone takes diksa from a kanistha Vaishnava who is doing a good imitation of being a Vaishnava on a higher level? Might the disciple later regret that he accepted the person who his friends said was “advanced”? Do things like this happen, ever?

Comment posted by Murali Das on June 10th, 2007
4 Unregistered

Dear Prabhus,

Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.

What does it mean that guru is the external manifestation of the Supersoul? To me, it means that the guru is teaching the same things that Krsna is teaching. The guru is teaching the same things through his words and life, that Sri Krsna is teaching in the Bhagavad Gita. The guru is telling me from the outside the same things that Sri Paramatma is telling me from the inside via the agency of buddhi.

Of course, I’m covered by at least some envy, and some Maya (maybe an by an inconceivably huge amount of both)…so the buddhi…the “form-direction” of the Supersoul partially takes on the “form” of my envy and my Maya, and at least partially distorts the signal from Paramatma. This is how I understand the things based on my reading of the associated descriptions in the Second Canto, and my own experience.

I understand buddhi as the “voice” of Supersoul as it comes in contact with material nature, as it comes in contact with my modes, or another person’s modes.

It is like light coming through a stained glass window. The light is the “voice” of Supersoul. The different colours of the glass are the different combinations of sattva, rajas and tamas that cover and cloud the consciousness and perceptions.

The coloured light is the “form-direction” of the Supersoul, the at least partially distorted message of Paramatma, the buddhi.

So when I hear from someone who is pure, truly pure, “saksad hari” pure, then another factor comes in. All of a sudden I’m hearing from outside what Sri Krsna is telling me from inside, but I’m hearing it from someone who isn’t filtering the message through his own modes. Sri Paramatma’s message comes to me through the stained glass of my goodness, passion and ignorance, through my buddhi. The pure person speaks the message of Sri Paramatma through a clear glass.

There’s a resonance. When I hear the true guru speak, there’s something deep inside me that responds. It’s like I have Velcro inside, and what he says does not just bounce off me, but sticks deep inside. It cuts through the “noise”.

What I hear from Srila Prabhupada seems to cut trough my insides, to go beneath all of the noise, and to connect with something deep inside me.

I’ve heard from other Vaisnavas, and I’ve had experiences of deep resonance with certain things that they say. Even though I may not accept those Vaisnavas as authorities in my life, many things that they’ve said still feel very real to me at a deep level.

Now to be honest, I’ve also heard things from many of these same Vaisnavas, young and old, punks and swamis alike, that kind of rubbed me the wrong way, and which still kind of rub me the wrong way.

It’s not that what they said necessarily shocked my sensibilities, or confronted my societal conditioning, it just felt wrong. It felt like I was hearing their conditioning speaking, rather than hearing Sri Paramatma speak through them. The same holds true for certain behaviours that I noticed or experienced.

At times these people could speak in ways that seemed to set my heart on fire, at other times they seemed as lost as I was.

My feeling is that the truly pure person remains pure, remains steady. They consistently speak, write and behave in a way that I’ll be able to resonate with at a very deep level. I find this comforting, inspiring, energizing, reassuring, humbling, scary, challenging, eye-opening and awesome. It’s an adventure.

There’s also a related issue. Not only do I filter what I hear from inside, but I also filter what I hear/read from outside. I filter what I hear/read from the pure person. Somehow, at least some of it gets through. The more I sincerely read and hear from the pure person, the more seems to get through. That which gets through also gradually changes me little by little, so that even more can get through.

The more I sincerely chant, the more truth seems to get through some of my filters and past some of my defenses. This is also where the four regulations come in for me. The more I am able to follow the four regulations, the more I can be established in a more sattvic way of being. The more sattvic I can be, the more clearly I can receive from guru and Supersoul, and the more clearly I can repeat what I’ve received.

This next part is important, I believe. If I’m filtering Paramatma from within, and if I’m filtering the guru from without, then the purer the guru, the greater the chance that his teachings will get past my filters and defenses. The greater will be the chance that those teachings will resonate with the inner voice of Paramatma, and with what I deeply and ultimately know to be true.

It would seem to me that the purer the guru, the more effective and efficient is this whole process. Our own purity is also a huge factor in this process. And I would say that our own purity is many ways our own responsibility. Someone else doesn’t do it for us.
Hare Krsna. Your servant, Alex

Comment posted by Alex on June 10th, 2007
5 Unregistered

Thank you all for your comments. I am glad to read how Ekendra Prabhu sees the need of education to prevent the continuation of misunderstandings. Kesava Krishna Prabhu’s advise is well taken. Murali Prabhu seems to say that he does not think that sadhana is the key element for progress. The Guru’s position seems more important. It makes me think: We see amongst Srila Prabhupada’s disciples a variety of levels of advancement, many even left. And we see amongst his disciples how they have a variety of levels of disciples, some are more and some less advanced. One can explain this by the logic of proper sadhana and attitude to the process. I do not see how one can explain it by the elevated position of Guru. To quote the NOI: Advancement in KC depends on the attitude of the follower (Preface).

Comment posted by sankirtana.lok on June 11th, 2007
6 Unregistered

My understanding is that a disciple must completely surrender and serve Krishna and his reprentative (Gurudev) if he wants to make progress to a higher stage of devotion. However if the disciple has a Guru who is a kanistha Vaishnava (See NOI purport to verse 5) then progress will be difficult.

Srila Prabhupada wrote: “A neophyte Vaiṣṇava or a Vaiṣṇava situated on the intermediate platform can also accept disciples, but such disciples must be on the same platform, and it should be understood that they cannot advance very well toward the ultimate goal of life under his insufficient guidance. Therefore a disciple should be careful to accept an uttama-adhikārī as a spiritual master.”

Comment posted by Murali Das on June 11th, 2007
7 Unregistered

Dear Murali Prabhu,
Thank you for sharing your understanding. Your point is well taken. Maybe we could investigate to what we exactly fully surrender to. It seems to me that service and surrender to Guru and Krishna are already clearly defined. The devotee who acts as Guru and who is purely motivated will not ask the disciple to go outside the parameter of the process. “To practice the regulative principles of bhakti-yoga one should, under the guidance of an expert spiritual master, follow certain principles: one should rise early in the morning, take bath, enter the temple and offer prayers and chant Hare Krishna, then collect flowers to offer to the Deity, cook foodstuffs to offer to the Deity, take prasadam, and so on. There are various rules and regulations which one should follow. And one should constantly hear Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam from pure devotees. This practice can help anyone rise to the level of love of God, and then he is sure of his progress into the spiritual kingdom of God. This practice of bhakti-yoga, under the rules and regulations, with the direction of a spiritual master, will surely bring one to the stage of love of God. (Bg 12.9)
I do not find any difficulties with the level of advancement of the initiator Guru. We are well taken care of by the practise of the scientific process of sadhana bhakti and as long our Guru(s) do not divert as into some other process we are assured of success by their’’s and Lord Krishna’s mercy. Don’t you think so?
Bhakta Alex writes in his extensive and interresting comment…”My feeling is that the truly pure person remains pure, remains steady. They consistently speak, write and behave in a way that I’ll be able to resonate with at a very deep level.” So if our leaders are focused in their own persue of spiritual perfection and we follow them, where is the problem? We definitely are all well guided by the Uttamadhikari, Srila Prabhupada.

Comment posted by sankirtana.lok on June 13th, 2007
8 Unregistered

Thank you Bhakta Alex for sharing for your insight,
y/s Sankirtana dasa

Comment posted by sankirtana.lok on June 13th, 2007

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