Approaching a Bona Fide Guru
dvaipāyana-sakhas tv evaṁ
maitreyo bhagavāṁs tathā
prāhedaṁ viduraṁ prīta
Śrī Sūta Gosvāmī said: The most powerful sage Maitreya was a friend of Vyāsadeva’s. Being encouraged and pleased by Vidura’s inquiry about transcendental knowledge, Maitreya spoke as follows.
Questions and answers are very satisfactorily dealt with when the inquirer is bona fide and the speaker is also authorized. Here Maitreya is considered a powerful sage, and therefore he is also described as bhagavān. This word can be used not only for the Supreme Personality of Godhead but for anyone who is almost as powerful as the Supreme Lord. Maitreya is addressed as bhagavān because he was spiritually far advanced. He was a personal friend of Dvaipāyana Vyāsadeva, a literary incarnation of the Lord. Maitreya was very pleased with the inquiries of Vidura because they were the inquiries of a bona fide, advanced devotee. Thus Maitreya was encouraged to answer. When there are discourses on transcendental topics between devotees of equal mentality, the questions and answers are very fruitful and encouraging.
This is the Vedic process for receiving knowledge. One must approach the proper person, the guru, and submissively listen to him expound transcendental knowledge. As Śrī Kṛṣṇa advises in Bhagavad-gītā (4.34):
“Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him.”
Transcendental knowledge is not very difficult, but the process must be known. Sometimes a dictating machine or a typewriter may not work, but if we go to a technician who knows the machine, he can immediately repair it. The process must be known. If one goes to a ditchdigger to repair a dictating machine, he cannot help. He may know how to dig ditches, but not repair a machine. Therefore the śāstras enjoin that if one wants transcendental knowledge, one must approach the proper person. The word tad-vijñāna refers to transcendental knowledge, not material knowledge. A medical practitioner may have material knowledge of the body, but he has no knowledge of the spirit soul within. He simply studies the mechanical arrangement of the body, which is a machine (yantra) made by nature. The body is actually stated in Bhagavad-gītā (18.61) to be a machine:
hṛd-deśe ’rjuna tiṣṭhati
“The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone’s heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine made of the material energy.”
For those who are attached to this bodily machine, the yoga system is recommended. One who is overly attached to the bodily conception is taught to concentrate the mind by some physical gymnastics. Thus in haṭha-yoga one undergoes various physical disciplines, but the real purpose is to understand Viṣṇu, the Supreme. The various yoga systems are given for the machine of the body, but the process of bhakti is transcendental to mechanical arrangements. It is therefore called tad-vijñāna, transcendental to material understanding. If one actually wants to understand spiritual life and spiritual knowledge, one has to approach a guru. The word guru means “heavy,” heavy with knowledge. And what is that knowledge? Tad-vijñāna. That heaviness is brahma-niṣṭhā – attachment to Brahman and to Para-brahman, Bhagavān. That is the guru’s qualification. Brahmaṇy upaśamāśrayam. According to Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad (1.2.12), tad-vijñānārthaṁ sa gurum evābhigacchet: “In order to understand that transcendental science, one must approach a bona fide spiritual master.” Similarly, as stated in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (11.3.21):
jijñāsuḥ śreya uttamam
“Any person who seriously desires to achieve real happiness must seek out a bona fide spiritual master and take shelter of him by initiation.”
The Upaniṣads inform us that the guru is one who has received knowledge by hearing the Vedas. Śrotriyaṁ brahma-niṣṭham. The Vedas are called śruti, and the bona fide guru is in the line of hearing from the disciplic succession. As stated in Bhagavad-gītā (4.2), evaṁ paramparā-prāptam. A bona fide guru does not impart some self-styled, concocted knowledge; his knowledge is standard and received from the paramparā system. He is also firmly fixed in the service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead (brahma-niṣṭham). These are his two qualifications: he must have heard the Vedic knowledge through the disciplic succession, and he must be established in service to the Supreme Lord. He does not have to be a very learned scholar, but he must have heard from the proper authority. God gives us the ears to hear, and simply by hearing we may become great preachers. We don’t need Ph.D.’s or academic examinations. One may even remain in his position; no changes are necessary.
For this purpose there is the varṇāśrama-dharma, composed of four varṇas and four āśramas. Unless society is divided into these eight categories, it is simply an animal civilization. There must be some systematized, regulated arrangement. For instance, there are different divisions for the body: the head, the arms, the belly and the legs. Without the four corresponding divisions, no society can be conducted very well. There will simply be chaos. The words sthāne sthitāḥ mean “remaining in the varṇāśrama-dharma.” Even a śūdra can understand what is Brahman, and in that case he becomes a brāhmaṇa automatically. It is necessary that one hear attentively. That is all.
It is stated that Vidura heard from Maitreya Ṛṣi, and that Maitreya Ṛṣi was very pleased. Unless one satisfies his guru, one cannot receive proper knowledge. That is quite natural. If one receives his guru properly and seats him comfortably, and if the guru is pleased with one’s behavior, the guru can speak very frankly and freely, and this will be very beneficial to the student. By going to a spiritual master and asking for his instructions and then not following them, one simply wastes his time. Nor should one approach the spiritual master with a challenging spirit, but should go with the aim of rendering service. The word nipat means “to fall down,” and pra- means “without reservation.” Transcendental knowledge is based on praṇipāta. Therefore Kṛṣṇa says: sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja. “Just surrender unto Me.” Just as we surrender unto Kṛṣṇa, we have to surrender unto His representative, the spiritual master. The guru is Kṛṣṇa’s external representative, and the internal guru is Kṛṣṇa Himself situated in everyone’s heart. It is not that Kṛṣṇa is simply in Vaikuṇṭha or Goloka Vṛndāvana. He is everywhere; He is even within the atom. Goloka eva nivasaty akhilātma-bhūtaḥ (Brahma-saṁhitā 5.37). That is the definition of Paramātmā, the Supersoul. I am ātmā, a spiritual soul, and you are ātmā. We are all situated locally, you within your body and I within mine, but the Paramātmā is situated everywhere. That is the difference between ātmā and Paramātmā. Those who are mistaken say that there is no difference between them, but there is a difference. They are one in the sense that both are cognizant and both are living entities (nityo nityānāṁ cetanaś cetanānām), but they are different quantitatively. Kṛṣṇa states in Bhagavad-gītā (13.3):
“O scion of Bharata, you should understand that I am also the knower in all bodies.” Kṣetra-jña is the proprietor of the kṣetra (the body). The individual soul is actually not the proprietor but the occupant. In a house, there is a tenant and a landlord. The tenant is the occupant, and the landlord is the proprietor. Similarly, the ātmā is simply the occupant of the body; the proprietor is Paramātmā. When the landlord tells the tenant to leave the house, the tenant must do so. Similarly, when the Paramātmā says that we have to leave the body, we have to do so.
To receive this Vedic knowledge, we must approach the proper guru. The guru’s qualification is given in every śāstra. In Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (11.3.21) it is said:
jijñāsuḥ śreya uttamam
One should not accept a guru unless one is inquisitive to know the ultimate goal of life. An ordinary man interested in bodily comforts does not need a guru. Unfortunately, at the present moment, the word guru refers to someone who can give bodily medicine. One approaches a Mahātmājī and says, “I am suffering from this disease. Please help me.” And the Mahātmājī says, “Yes, I have a mantra that will heal you and give you success. Give me a little money and take it.” This is not a real guru. One should approach a guru to learn about tattva, the Absolute Truth. One should not search out a guru to cure some material disease; rather, one requires a doctor. Similarly, people think that if a person can make him successful in business, that person is a guru. The śāstras do not confirm this either. A guru is one who knows the Vedas and the Vedic conclusion. The Vedic conclusion is the understanding of Kṛṣṇa. Vedaiś ca sarvair aham eva vedyaḥ: “By all the Vedas, I am to be known.” (Bhagavad-gītā 15.15)
It is not that we have to understand Kṛṣṇa fully. That is not possible. We have no capacity to understand the unlimited. Advaitam acyutam anādim ananta-rūpam (Brahma-saṁhitā 5.33). With our limited knowledge we cannot understand the unlimited; indeed, even Kṛṣṇa does not understand Himself. His attraction is unlimited, and to understand why He is so attractive, He became Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu and took on the ecstatic emotions of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī (rādhā-bhāva-dyuti). If Kṛṣṇa cannot comprehend the limit of His own attraction and bliss, it is certainly not possible for us with our limited knowledge. If we can simply understand Kṛṣṇa in part, that is our perfection. Therefore Kṛṣṇa says: janma karma ca me divyam evaṁ yo vetti tattvataḥ. If we misunderstand Kṛṣṇa and take Him to be a human being like us, we become mūḍhas, fools. Kṛṣṇa’s body is not composed of material elements like ours, and if we think this way, we are mistaken. The material nature belongs to Kṛṣṇa, and He is its controller. We are under the control of material nature, and that is the difference.
One who has real knowledge knows that prakṛti, material nature, is working under Kṛṣṇa’s direction. It is not possible to understand how all this is going on, but we can understand it in summary. Janmādy asya yato ’nvayād itarataś ca: everything emanates from the Supreme Absolute Truth, Kṛṣṇa. This much knowledge is sufficient. We can then increase this knowledge to understand just how material nature is working under Kṛṣṇa’s direction. Modern scientists mistakenly think that material nature is working independently and that things evolve by some chemical process only. However, life does not merely come from life or some chemical evolution. As Kṛṣṇa states in Bhagavad-gītā (10.8):
mattaḥ sarvaṁ pravartate
“I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from Me.” The same conclusion is also given in Vedānta-sūtra, wherein it is stated, janmādy asya yataḥ: “Brahman is He from whom everything emanates.” “Everything” includes living entities and inert matter. Both matter and the living entities come from Kṛṣṇa. Indeed, the whole world is a combination of matter and spirit, prakṛti and the living entity.
Material energy is inferior, and spiritual energy is superior. Why? Superior energy (jīva-bhūta), the living entity, is controlling material nature. Actually he is not controlling, but is trying to utilize it. For instance, human beings are advanced living entities, and they have created modern civilization by utilizing dull, inert matter. This is our superiority. However, we are also prakṛti as well as parā prakṛti. In this way, we have to understand tattva-jñāna.
Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is a commentary on Vedānta-sūtra. Vedānta-sūtra explains that the Supreme is the source of everything, and the nature of that source is explained in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (1.1.1): janmādy asya yato ’nvayād itarataś cārtheṣv abhijñaḥ sva-rāṭ. That source is abhijña, cognizant. Matter is not cognizant; therefore the theory of modern science that life comes from matter is incorrect. The identity from whom everything emanates is abhijña, cognizant, which means He can understand. The Bhāgavatam (1.1.1) also states, tene brahma hṛdā ya ādi-kavaye: Kṛṣṇa instructed Lord Brahmā in Vedic knowledge. Unless the ultimate source is a living entity, how can He impart knowledge? Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam was compiled by Vyāsadeva, who also compiled the Vedānta-sūtra. Generally the Māyāvādīs emphasize the commentary made on the Vedānta-sūtra by Śaṅkarācārya, the Śārīraka-bhāṣya, but that is not the original commentary on Vedānta-sūtra. The original commentary is given by the author himself, Vyāsadeva, in the form of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. To understand the actual meaning of the Vedānta-sūtra, we must refer to the commentary made by the author himself. As stated by Śrī Kṛṣṇa Himself in Bhagavad-gītā (13.5):
chandobhir vividhaiḥ pṛthak
“The knowledge of the field of activities and of the knower of activities is described by various sages in various Vedic writings – especially in the Vedānta-sūtra – and is presented with all reasoning as to cause and effect.”
Transcendental knowledge is therefore very logical. According to the Vedic system, the ācārya must understand Vedānta-sūtra (also called Brahma-sūtra) before he can be accepted as an ācārya. Both the Māyāvāda-sampradāya and the Vaiṣṇava-sampradāya have explained the Vedānta-sūtra. Without understanding Vedānta-sūtra, one cannot understand Brahman. It is said that Vidura understood transcendental knowledge from Maitreya, and it is stated that Maitreya is a friend of Vyāsadeva’s. This means that both Vidura and Maitreya know what Vyāsadeva knows. We have to approach a spiritual master who is in the disciplic succession from Vyāsadeva. Everyone may claim to be following Vyāsadeva, but one must actually follow him. Vyāsadeva accepted Kṛṣṇa as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and Arjuna also accepted Kṛṣṇa as Para-brahman, the Supreme Person. One may say that because Arjuna was a friend of Kṛṣṇa’s, he accepted Him in this way, but this is not the case. Arjuna gave evidence that Vyāsadeva also accepted Kṛṣṇa.
pavitraṁ paramaṁ bhavān
puruṣaṁ śāśvataṁ divyam
ādi-devam ajaṁ vibhum
devarṣir nāradas tathā
asito devalo vyāsaḥ
svayaṁ caiva bravīṣi me
“Arjuna said: You are the Supreme Brahman, the ultimate, the supreme abode and purifier, the Absolute Truth and the eternal divine person. You are the primal God, transcendental and original, and You are the unborn and all-pervading beauty. All the great sages such as Nārada, Asita, Devala and Vyāsa proclaim this of You, and now You Yourself are declaring it to me.” (Bhagavad-gītā 10.12–13)
Vyāsadeva accepted Kṛṣṇa as paraṁ brahma, and Vyāsadeva began his commentary on Vedānta-sūtra with the words oṁ namo bhagavate vāsudevāya. If we are actually interested in understanding, we must approach a representative of Vyāsadeva like Maitreya. Maitreya is also addressed as bhagavān, although of course the Supreme Bhagavān is Kṛṣṇa Himself (kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam). But the word bhagavān also refers to other powerful persons like Lord Brahmā, Lord Śiva, Vyāsadeva or Maitreya. The actual Bhagavān is Kṛṣṇa Himself, but these great personalities have attained as much knowledge of Kṛṣṇa as possible. It is not possible to have cent per cent knowledge of Kṛṣṇa. Not even Nārāyaṇa Himself is capable of that. Yet those who follow Kṛṣṇa’s instructions fully are sometimes called Bhagavān. There are many artificial Bhagavāns, but a real Bhagavān is one who knows what Kṛṣṇa has taught. Vidura was very eager to receive transcendental knowledge, and because of this, Maitreya was very pleased with him. One can please the spiritual master simply by surrendering to him and rendering service, saying, “Sir, I am your most obedient servant. Please accept me and give me instructions.” Although Arjuna was a very intimate friend of Kṛṣṇa’s, before receiving Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā he surrendered himself, saying, śiṣyas te ’haṁ śādhi māṁ tvāṁ prapannam: “Now I am Your disciple and a soul surrendered unto You. Please instruct me.” (Bhagavad-gītā 2.7)
This is the proper way to ask for knowledge. One does not approach the spiritual master with a challenging spirit. One should also be inquisitive to understand the spiritual science. It is not that one considers himself superior to the guru. One must first find a guru to whom one can surrender, and if this is not possible, one shouldn’t waste his time. By surrendering to the proper person, one can very quickly come to understand transcendental knowledge.