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When disciples challenge their gurus

Saturday, 16 June 2007 / Published in Articles, Kesava Krsna Dasa / 4,930 views

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.


  1. 0
    Caitanya candrodaya dasa ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Hare Krisna Kesava krsna prabhu.

    It is interesting to note that in all areas of ISKCON where there is a strong mood of respect and veneration to gurus an amazing thing happens, devotees do attract new people. It often happens regardless of the qualification of the gurus, and rightly so as the principle is applicable in all cases regardless of adhikara, but its evident that the enthusiasm in guru disciple relationship appears to be the main driving force and fundamental reason for attracting mercy of Lord Caitanya in practical preaching. Or could it be that people without good fortune to receive this message will not generally be born in areas where there is an offensive or diminished mood in terms of guru-nistha? Possibly , but most likely not. Of course we should note that there is also a systematic effort by ritvik apa-sampradaya and many sympathizers to diminish any guru-nistha of devotees in thier gurus. It seems to be a form of systematic propaganda of a guru-avajna attitude mixed with apa-siddhanta priciples. Sadly again movement just does not expand in such situations and nobody seems to notice the connection… with nama-aparadha as a principle, after all padma purana listed nama-aparadhas are connected not only to personal chanting but to preaching of sankirtana and the spreading the holy name.

    your servant


  2. 0
    trivikramaswami ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    This certainly a delicate issue. The disciple has to see his guru as good as God, but what if there is no gurus currently on the planet who have that adhikary. You can’t create such a person. Therefore Srila Prabhupada left the GBC as the final authority. This is the first time in Vaisnava history that we see a functioning worldwide institution with a committee in charge. We are in uncharted waters!

    But one thing is clear. Srila Prabhupada did say we should keep the Acarya in the center. Without accepting this point how can we expect this society to remain united for the next 10,000 years? His books are the “law books for humanity”, in all our temples his murti is worshiped daily, classes are given from his books. His mood of preaching and book distribution is the model for all temples. If one of his followers, who happens to have the duty of initiating in his Iskcon society, undermines or minimizes the instructions found in his books and lectures then how can we expect a sincere Iskcon devotee not to protest, even if the one minimizing him happens to have given him initiation?

  3. 0
    shiva says:

    The qualification for being a diksa guru in ISKCON is that the devotee is seen to be steady in his sadhana for quite some time as well as having the support of his peers and seniors. We should keep in mind that persons who are given sanction to give diksa initiation in ISKCON are not therefore automatically worshipable as mahabhagavat vaisnavas who are experienced with and experiencing the highest levels of bhakti rasa.

    Many people argue that 1) only a mahabhagavat is qualified to hold the seat of an acharya in ISKCON, many others argue that 2) anyone who is in ISKCON should be free to be a diksa guru based on the faith of potential disciples sans institutional meddling, others go the extreme position that 3) nobody should be giving the chance to act as a diksa guru in ISKCON forever or until some unknown time in the future arrives where one or more “self efflugent” acharyas will become an obvious choice to be the new acharya(s).

    The problem with the first proposal is twofold. First Srila Prabhupada wrote that second and even third class vaisnavas can give diksa. Secondly; who will judge who is a mahabhagavat and who is not? Certainly only a mahabhagavat can reliably judge whether or not another person is a mahabhagavat. Only someone directly experienced with the highest level of bhakti rasa can tell if another person is also on that level. If you know Radha Krishna personally then you will recognize someone else who knows them personally. Someone may have faith that someone else is a mahabhagavat but without actually being on that highest level you cannot know with 100% reliability if someone else is on that level. So how does the second or third class devotee know for certain if someone is a mahabhagavat devotee? Only if the mahabhagavat brings them up to his level, in essence making them mahabhagavat devotees as well.

    The problem with the second proposal is that ISKCON can easily lose credibility as a reliable source of gaudiya vaisnavism if anyone regardless of character, motivation, intelligence, learning, realization, etc, is given free reign to give diksa to whomever wants to take initiation. While in ordinary vedic society there are no institutional legal restrictions on who can give diksa, the fact of ISKCON being a legal entity able to be held liable, and also a religious organization with specific rules, management structure, etc, puts it in a different category then ordinary vedic society. ISKCON is not vedic society, it is a religious organization. I agree that anyone should be able to give diksa is they want, but that should be done within the same cultural framework of vedic society i.e. they should do it within the wider society.

    The first problem with the third proposal(s) is that it is unrealistic to expect ISKCON to conform to an ahistorical paradigm shift in the way that diksa is given. Simply put the founder of ISKCON makes it quite clear in his writings and lectures how he wanted his followers to become gurus. To take an isolated ambiguous comment on the topic of diksa and then subject it to extrapolations which contradict numerous direct and unequivocal commentaries on the topic, in the face of overwhelming opposition, is nothing more then a quixotic quest and should be given up by all intelligent people as unreasonable and unrealistic. It is a waste of time and energy. The second problem is that different people have faith in different people as being “self effulgent”. What is self evident to one person may not be seen by another.

    To be a diksa guru in ISKCON comes with responsibility. ISKCON law is not rubber stamping mahabhagavat liberated gurus. They are sanctioning people who have shown responsibility in the past to give diksa to those who seek it. A responsible guru in ISKCON will make it clear to any disciple or potential disciple that his simply being given the sanction to give diksa is not an endorsement of himself or others as liberated souls on the highest level of bhakti rasa. This is important to understand by gurus and disciples and potential disciples. Integrity is paramount if you want ISKCON to be accepted as authentically representing the tradition. Gurus need to be responsible in not allowing over inflated perception of what level of bhakti they are on. Otherwise unrestrained false belief in the spiritual level of a diksa guru can only lead to disrepute both for the guru and for ISKCON. The only qualified gurus are those who can be honest. The only qualified disciples are those who seek to know what level of realization their prospective guru is experiencing. When those two come together then that relationship is supported by the caitya-guru.

  4. 0
    Karuna ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Jaya Prabhus, pamho
    all glories to Srila Prabhupada

    In the bhagavatam we find the following story:

    Asvathama driven by anger and vengeance kills chuldren and unarmed warriors by treachery. He is captured and the Lord orders Arjuna who had already declared during the battle to be His surrendered disciple isn’t so sure this should be done. The Lord orders him again but Arjuna counter arguments and proposes to see what the mother of the slain children thinks about it. The Lord then accepts Arjuna’s proposition and devises an alternative solution after hearing the mother’s arguments.
    Now during the battle of Kurukshetra one of the roles of the Lord is He plays the part of the perfect spiritual master and Arjunsa the perfect disciple. So how do we reconcile. Of course they had also previously been friends, which they still obviously continued to be, and this can have continued to influence the interaction between them even after the “formal” acceptance of the Lord as his spiritual master by Arjuna.
    I personally think that the idea here again is that the books propose general directives to guide master and disciple relationships, but not everybody will have a same individual realtionship with his master. Also realationships may mature and are dynamic by nature. Take a father/son relationship for example. in the beginning it’s neutral, for a little time the father might then have a very pampering attitude with his baby, then the father takes a more authoritative posture, gradually as the son matures he (the son) will develop a more friendly relationship, during his father’s old age he might even act paternally towards him and finally if all goes well he will experience a deep profound love for his father. As far as I understand the science of science is the science of relationships so shouldn’t we take all this in consideration.

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