When disciples challenge their gurus
By Kesava Krsna dasa
Within this age of quarrel and hypocrisy, it should not surprise us to see friction between the disciple and spiritual master. Improper as it is, disciples sometimes cite a buzzword like ‘maturity’ to lend credence to their challenge, even in the public domain.
Is there such a thing as a legitimate challenge? If so, is there a time and place when and how to do so? If not, why do they occur? Is there any victor is such acrimony? Can they be disparate allies in the spiritual cause?
Being one of countless teeming living creatures sitting in a room within a building on a street, in a city within a country within a continent upon this globe earth, floating in space situated within the vast mystical stem of the lotus upon which Lord Brahma, our original universal spiritual master regularly meditates, we are told: “…Lord Chaitanya explained that of the many thousands and millions of living entities wandering in the material world, one who by the grace of Lord Krsna and the spiritual master gets the seed of devotional service is very rare and fortunate.”[TLC page 53]
Before taking initiation, the benefit of compatibility should help reduce any potential quarrel. Srila Prabhupada says, “…that acceptance of spiritual master must be selected you see, after careful examination, just like, one selects his bride or bridegroom after careful examination.” [BG 2.7-11, New York, March 2-1966]
A cautionary message is also sounded for aspirant sentimentalists who may be attracted to a spiritual master for all the wrong reasons, citing good looks, showy behavior, nice personality, powerful aura and the rest. Srila Prabhupada urges vigilance: “Yes. Blind following and absurd inquiries. These things are condemned in this verse. [BG 4.34] Blind following means “Oh, there is a swami. So many thousands of people are following. Let me become his disciple.” [BG 4.34-39, Los Angeles, January 12-1969]
In the same lecture he gives the correct course of action: “Suppose you are going here. You are coming to learn something. When you are convinced that “Swamiji knows the thing,” when you are convinced, then you accept. Then you ask for initiation. Otherwise don’t do it hesitatingly or knowing half.”
Nowadays of course, in the physical absence of Srila Prabhupada, his disciples and some grand-disciples are eligible gurus. Among the numerous disciples, we find the younger ones tend to see their masters as maha-bhagavats, whilst the senior or mature followers or those who have witnessed guru fall-downs will still hold great respect, but see them as perfecting sadhakas.
In this case, can such rare good fortune be taken for granted? Is it correct that a mature vision which has realistically assessed things, conclude his spiritual master to be less than maha-bhagavat? Or would it be a hindrance to his spiritual life?
It will certainly be problematic when on this basis the disciple sees traits of bhrama, pramada, vipralipsa and karanapatava, thus expecting the guru to pass faulty spiritual judgments on the issues of the day. A ‘mature’ disciple may feel he can challenge the spiritual master.
This challenge need not be outside of usual policy making and managerial concerns where differences of opinion are common place. It is where a chronic matter has failed to be resolved to such an extent, the disciple feeling vindicated, wishes to amplify the matter to a wider audience, perhaps for commiseration and support. Is this a healthy case of freedom of expression? Or is it a motivated ruse to seek a moral victory over the guru?
The guru/disciple relationship works both ways, and the onus is on the guru to be above suspicion. By far the easiest way to achieve this is to be steeped in chanting the holy names. Unfortunately, there is such a thing as being a busy-body, or an excuse to be manually engaged as a cover for lack of taste in chanting. Constantly being absorbed in meetings and decision making, apparent contradictions – like saying one thing, and doing another – can cause confusion for disciples. Genuine disciples want their spiritual masters to be immersed in Nama-bhajana.
Still, humility is required by the disciple come what may. It can be difficult being humble if one is learned or very senior. It takes great strength to be genuinely humble. So the stronger devotees are the humble ones. Yet this foundation appears to be one way traffic with a proud disciple having to do all the groveling, can be a painful experience, especially if he thinks he knows as much or more than the guru. Is such a disciple blameless at all if he wishes to correct a perceived wrong?
Here are some answers to refute what would probably be a malevolent trend. As for observing faults like mistakes, illusion, cheating and imperfections we are advised in [NOI-6] not to do so, and in Krsna Bhajanamrta verse 39: “No one should find fault with a vaisnava for his activities or behavior. What person is free from the influence of Kali-yuga or has pure behavior and action?”
In verse 54 of the same work we find this: “If a father or spiritual master or husband are not possessed of outstanding qualities, even then they are always worshipable.” Since a disciple has committed himself for life, he has no option but to hold high regard; verse 43 says: “Among all vaisnavas the initiating spiritual master [diksha guru] and the instructing spiritual master [siksha guru] are special.”
Srila Prabhupada himself was occasionally challenged by some of his disciples, not that it would have surprised him too much. In the same 1969 speech, commenting on his own purport to BG 4.34 he states: “So inquire from him submissively. Where you cannot submit, if you think that “Oh, what is this spiritual master? I can challenge him.” Then there is no question of accepting as your spiritual master.”
Sometimes the association of the guru is appreciable, and sometimes not so, in which case a disciple had better keep a distance. In the western world we are taught to be assertive as befitting the ascending quest for perfection. The eastern way of submission and humility is seen as effete or cowardly. But subordination to the guru has to be ingrained. Srila Prabhupada reconciles these two approaches: “Yes. Clear understanding. Don’t accept anything. First of all there must be submissiveness, no challenge. But at the same time, you must clearly understand. Because you have submitted, it is not that you have to understand something dogmatic. No. Submission must be there, but at the same time, you should have clear understanding. This is science, not that if something is pushed and you are “Oh, my spiritual master has said; therefore I accept it.” That is fact, that you should, but at the same time, by inquiries, by inquisitiveness, you must clear everything.” [Same talk]
We take note how any misunderstanding – chronic or acute – has to be cleared by humble inquiry, preferably in private. In fact the only time a challenge can be issued is when and if – God forbid – a guru falls badly from the standard. If he becomes offensive, bewildered, is inexperienced or ignorant, who has deviated or is falsely proud, then [K.B’amrta – 59] recommends: “If the spiritual master commits a wrongful act breaking vaisnava regulative principles then in that case one should in a solitary place confront him for his rectification using logic and appropriate conclusions from sadhu, Sastra and guru references, but one is not to give him up.”
What happens if a guru in good standing is challenged in public by a disciple? It can only be an attempt to outwit or defeat the guru, because the end result of a challenge is victory. The result will be denigration of the spiritual master. [K. B’amrta 56] laments: “In this world, what kind of person is there who can remain alive at the expense of his father’s or guru’s defamation or disgrace?”
To do such a thing to one who has given the treasure of the holy name at initiation must confound reason, however strongly a disciple feels. Srila Prabhupada writes: “A bona-fide spiritual master chants the holy names – Maha mantra – and the transcendental sound vibration enters into the ear of the disciple, and if a disciple follows in the footsteps of his spiritual master and chants the holy name with similar respect, he actually comes to worship the transcendental name.” [TLC page 204]
Even so, with intent for victory, will a disciple ever win a challenge? [CC Madhya 10-176]: “Brahmananda Bharati admitted that when there is an argument between the spiritual master and the disciple, the spiritual master is naturally victorious, although the disciple may put forth a strong argument. In other words, it is customary that the words of the spiritual master are more worshipable than the words of the disciple.”
If however there remains a persistent divergence of opinions, the quiet way is suggested, and the superiority of the guru can never be discounted; “Why are you asking about the same subject matter which has already been explained to you? Why are you so forgetful?” A spiritual master is always in the superior position, so he has the right to chastise his disciple this way.” [Krsna Book, chapter 28]
If a disciple is truly learned, he will relish hearing topics about Krsna as Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu exemplified; “The Lord further pointed out that because Sanatana was in Krsna consciousness, he was naturally, by the grace of Krsna, already conversant with everything. “Because you are a humble devotee,” the Lord continued “you are asking Me to confirm what you already know. This is very nice.” [TLC page 53]
By displaying humility a disciple creates a congenial atmosphere which can gladden the guru: “Thus the speaker and the audience [or disciple] is very intimately connected; the speaker is enlightened by the presence of the audience. The speaker, or master, can speak very nicely on transcendental subject matters before an understanding audience.” [TLC page 155]
If for 10,000 years of the golden age the Vedic tradition spearheaded by Iskcon is to flourish, we must nip in the bud any likelihood of dissent in this most sacred of relationships, lest we divert everyone’s path from Godhead to hell: “…if one thinks the spiritual master to be an ordinary man prone to die, is certainly a resident of hell.” I would rather we all go the other way.
Ys, Kesava Krsna dasa.
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