A Tale of Two Disciples

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An example of what to do in the service of one's guru, and of what not to do.

On the spiritual path, initiation by a qualified guru is of paramount importance. From the Bhagavad-gita and other authorized scriptures we learn that accepting a guru is necessary for getting an advanced connection with the Lord and going beyond the limitations of material nature.

Lord Krishna advises Arjuna (and all of us), “Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth." (Gita 4.34) A serious student should carefully and prayerfully choose a spiritual master and then serve that person with dedication. Just how one serves the guru and becomes eligible to see the truth is reflected in the story of Ishvara Puri. And how one’s service to the guru can be problematic, keeping one from the truth, is seen in the story of his godbrother Ramachandra Puri.

Of the Same Master

In Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, the illustrious multi-volume study of the life, precepts, and followers of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, we find the tale of two distinctly different disciples, both initiated into the science of bhakti-yoga by Madhavendra Puri, a self-realized spiritual master and the parama-guru (grand-guru) of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

The stories of the two disciples Ishvara Puri and Ramachandra Puri are instructive for anyone who wants to progress in spiritual life. One is an example of what to do in the service of one’s guru, and the other an example of what not to do.

Since Ramachandra Puri was a disciple of Madhavendra Puri, Lord Chaitanya regarded Ramachandra Puri as an elder, His spiritual uncle, almost on the level of His own guru, Ishvara Puri. Although Ishvara Puri and Ramachandra Puri had the same guru, Ramachandra Puri associated closely with persons cultivating jnana, or dry speculative knowledge, and was attracted to doctrines that oppose pure devotional service, whereas Ishvara Puri was always enamored by devotional topics.

By the arrangement of providence, Madhavendra Puri became incapacitated in his old age, unable to move or even to attend to the call of nature. With great humility and gratitude, Ishvara Puri devotedly and patiently cared for his beloved guru, bathing him and cleaning the wastes from his body. Ishvara Puri saturated the environment around his guru with the chanting of the holy names of God and enlivened his guru by speaking about the pastimes and divine qualities of Radha and Krishna. Later, Ishvara Puri showed humility when he met another great devotee, Sri Advaita Acharya, one of Lord Chaitanya's closest associates. Despite being a Vaishnava sannyasi himself, Ishvara Puri introduced himself to Sri Advaita by saying, “I am a shudra, a member of the lowest class.”

If we contrast this with the arrogance of his godbrother Ramachandra Puri, we see a vast difference between the two disciples. Because of Ishvara Puri's dedication to his guru and his exemplary humility, the Supreme Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu accepted Ishvara Puri as His own guru as an example to the world.

But Not of the Same Mind

On his deathbed, Madhavendra Puri felt intense separation from Krishna, crying in the mood of Srimati Radharani after Krishna left Vrindavan. He kept repeating this verse:

ayi dina-dayardra natha he
mathura-natha kadavalokyase
hridayam tvad-aloka-kataram
dayita bhramyati kim karomy aham

"O My Lord! O most merciful master! O master of Mathura! When shall I see You again? Because of My not seeing You, My agitated heart has become unsteady. O most beloved one, what shall I do now?" (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 4.197)

Both Ishvara Puri and Ramachandra Puri were with him at the end. The latter chided his guru.

"If you are in full transcendental bliss,” he said, “you should now remember only Brahman. Why are you crying?” (Antya 8.21)

Exasperated, Madhavendra Puri responded, "Get out, you sinful rascal! O my Lord Krishna, I could not reach You, nor could I reach Your abode, Mathura. I am dying in my unhappiness, and now this rascal has come to give me more pain. Don’t show your face to me! Go anywhere else you like. If I die seeing your face, I shall not achieve the destination of my life. I am dying without achieving the shelter of Krishna, and therefore I am greatly unhappy. Now this condemned foolish rascal has come to instruct me about Brahman.” (Antya 8.22–25)

The Supreme Personality of Godhead is realized in three phases: as Brahman, all-pervading spirit; as Paramatma, the localized form of the Lord as the Supersoul in the heart of every living being and in every atom; and finally as Krishna, the unique Supreme Person. The highest realization is of God as the supreme pure, beautiful, unlimited person. Madhavendra Puri had the highest realization of the Lord as the ultimate blissful person, Bhagavan Sri Krishna. So Brahman realization was not at all appealing to him.

Two things were wrong with Ramachandra Puri’s behavior here: he corrected his guru, and he recommended that his guru focus on Brahman instead of his beloved Lord, Krishna. Because of this offensive behavior, Ramachandra Puri’s devotional mood diminished and he later even criticized Lord Chaitanya. This caused him to lose all good material and spiritual fortune. On the other hand, Ishvara Puri, due to his humble service attitude, could understand his guru’s heart and so was able to console him and go deeper in spiritual realization. "Ishvara Puri received the blessing of Madhavendra Puri, whereas Ramachandra Puri received a rebuke from him. Therefore these two persons, Ishvara Puri and Ramachandra Puri, are examples of the objects of a great personality’s benediction and punishment. Madhavendra Puri instructed the entire world by presenting these two examples." (Antya 8.32)

As a consequence of offending his guru, Ramachandra Puri acquired the tendency to criticize and find fault with others. He lost his taste for devotional ecstasy and would instruct people in dry philosophical speculation. This is the unfortunate terrible result of guru aparadha (offense to the guru) and Vaishnava aparadha (offense to devotees).

Ramachandra Puri, a Fault-finder

Later at Jagannatha Puri, where Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was residing, Jagadananda Pandita, an associate of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, saw the Lord with two other devotees, Paramananda Puri and Ramachandra Puri, talking, embracing, and offering obeisances. Jagadananda invited them all to eat at his home, arranging for sumptuous Jagannatha prasada to be brought. After they had eaten, Ramachandra Puri requested Jagadananda to eat, and served him himself.

After Jagadananda had finished his meal, however, Ramachandra Puri criticized Lord Chaitanya and his followers.

“I have heard,” he said, “that the followers of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu eat more than necessary. Now I have directly seen that this is true. Feeding a sannyasi too much breaks his regulative principles, for when a sannyasi eats too much, his renunciation is destroyed.” (Antya 8.15–16).

Because of Ramachandra Puri's criticism, Lord Chaitanya reduced His eating, much to the dismay of His devotees. Ramachandra’s faultfinding increased, and although the devotees condemned him, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu restrained them, and later Ramachandra Puri suffered immensely both materially and spiritually for his offenses.

Lessons from Ramachandra Puri's Example

What important lessons do we learn from Ramachandra Puri’s interactions with his highly advanced guru?

First, a sincere aspiring devotee should avoid finding fault with devotees and criticizing them, particularly the guru. This is a poisonous action. Finding fault with Krishna and His dedicated servants is extremely detrimental to one’s spiritual advancement. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, Srila Prabhupada's guru, advised that aspiring devotees consider and work on their own faults rather than those of others. The following verse from Mahaprabhu’s teachings to Rupa Goswami highlights the results of the “mad-elephant offense”:

yadi vaishnava-aparadha uthe hati mata
upade va chinde, tara shukhi’ yaya pata

“If the devotee commits an offense at the feet of a Vaishnava while cultivating the creeper of devotional service in the material world, his offense is compared to a mad elephant that uproots the creeper and breaks it. In this way the leaves of the creeper are dried up.” (Madhya 19.156) Srila Prabhupada explains this further:

If a person derides a pure devotee, he is never recognized by the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In other words, the Supreme Lord never excuses one who offends a pure devotee. There are many examples of this in history. A great mystic yogi, Durvasa Muni, offended the great devotee Ambarisha Maharaja. The great sage Durvasa was to be chastised by the Sudarshana chakra of the Lord. Even though the great mystic directly approached the Supreme Personality of Godhead, he was never excused. Those on the path of liberation should be very careful not to offend a pure devotee. (Bhagavatam 4.31.21, Purport)

Disrespecting one’s spiritual master and other Vaishnavas has a pernicious effect on one’s spiritual life. Unfortunately, sometimes some disciples, influenced by maya, the illusory energy, become proud of their so-called spiritual status and knowledge and try to correct or instruct their guru or other advanced Vaishnavas. Maya tricks such offensive disciples into thinking that they are more spiritually advanced than they actually are and that they are acting with proper knowledge, when the opposite is true.

Second, all disciples are not equal. They may take initiation at the same time, but their levels of sincerity, surrender, obedience, desire, and respect differ. As the representative of Lord Krishna, the guru is the instrument of both blessings and rebukes. Lord Krishna says, “As all surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly. Everyone follows My path in all respects, O son of Pritha." (Gita 4.11) So a disciple receives the guru’s mercy according to his or her degree of sincerity and seriousness.

Srila Prabhupada said, “It is said that by the grace of Krishna one gets a guru, or a spiritual master, and by the grace of the spiritual master, one gets Krishna." (Matchless Gifts, chapter 6) When disciples serve their guru with love, respect, and humility, the guru rewards them with spiritual insight and deeper connection to the Lord. When they disrespect or neglect the guru, however, considering the guru an ordinary person and acting with disdain or arrogance, neglecting the spiritual master’s instructions, then they don't make any real spiritual progress and may even lose their material status.

Third, the tender plant of devotion can be destroyed quickly by offending one’s guru. Such an offense offends the Supreme Lord. "If one’s spiritual master rejects him, one becomes so fallen that he, like Ramachandra Puri, commits offenses even to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu did not consider the offenses of Ramachandra Puri, for the Lord considered him His spiritual master. However, his character instructed everyone about the result of offending the spiritual master." (Antya 8.99–100)

Fourth, when a devotee offends another devotee, especially his or her guru, and doesn’t repent or rectify the offense, the door is opened for more and greater offenses.

Fifth, we should associate with persons dedicated to Krishna and devotional service. Such persons try to serve others with humility and kindness, and their company is beneficial, drawing out similar qualities in us.

Sixth, a disciple should thoughtfully and carefully respect his or her guru’s godbrothers and godsisters, who are as venerable as the guru. Even if a disciple thinks that their instructions are improper, the disciple should show Vaishnava etiquette and not criticize them. Lord Chaitanya emphasized this point by His tolerant and carefully considered response to the obnoxious behavior of his spiritual uncle, Ramachandra Puri. A disciple who finds that instructions from the guru’s godsiblings are improper should respectfully and confidentially inquire about what to do from the guru or other mature, caring, practical devotees.

Lessons from Ishvara Puri's Example

What blessed lessons are to be learned from the example of Ishvara Puri?

First, the disciple should care for the guru like a menial servant. This attitude guarantees success in spiritual life. The disciple should carefully serve the guru's vani (instructions) and, if the opportunity arises, the guru's vapu (body).

Second, the full blessings of the Lord come to a fully surrendered disciple. That is, whatever sincere service one performs for the guru (whether diksha-guru or shiksha-guru) gives personal satisfaction to the Supreme Lord because the guru is His representative.

Third, humility is the key to achieving pure, uninterrupted love for Krishna. As Lord Chaitanya wrote, "One should chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking oneself lower than the straw in the street; one should be more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige, and should be ready to offer all respect to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the holy name of the Lord constantly." (Sikshashtaka 3)

Fourth, only to one who has complete faith in both Krishna and guru, like Ishvara Puri, are the true imports of Vedic knowledge automatically revealed.

All of these lessons are true if one’s guru remains qualified; however, if a guru repeatedly acts contrary to shastra and the previous spiritual masters in the line, the disciple can disconnect from such an unqualified person. This must be done according to Vaishnava etiquette. More information on this topic can be found in the Krishna Bhajanamrita, by Narahari Sarakara Thakura, a dear associate of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Additionally, disciples in ISKCON who have concerns about the behavior or conduct of their guru may contact the Guru Services Committee of the Governing Body Commission. Srila Prabhupada writes, "According to shastra, the duty of the guru is to take the disciple back home, back to Godhead. If he is unable to do so and instead hinders the disciple in going back to Godhead, he should not be a guru. Gurur na sa syat (Bhag. 5.5.18). One should not become a guru if he cannot enable his disciple to advance in Krishna consciousness.” (Bhagavatam 8.20.1, Purport)

The Guru as Krishna’s Grace

To get the opportunity to take initiation from a qualified spiritual preceptor is a great fortune, a wonderful expression of God’s grace. Dr. Graham Schweig (Garuda Dasa) puts it this way:

God and the soul combine in their own ways within the archetype of the spiritual guide. For both, the spiritual master is a type of extraordinary confluence of divinity and humanity, as each tradition exalts ways in which the guide becomes directly and effectively the grace of God in the flesh. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati explains that the ceremony of diksha (initiation) in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, is that "by which the spiritual preceptor admits one to the status of a neophyte on the path of spiritual endeavor."*

What initiates do after the initiation – the quality of service they render to their guru – is a barometer of their spiritual progress. For one who disrespects the guru, considers the guru an ordinary human being, or neglects the guru's instructions, the result is very dangerous. For those who follow the Lord’s instructions by serving the guru submissively and asking relevant questions humbly, the path to success is guaranteed.

* “Vishvanatha’s Gurvashtaka and the Understanding of Guru in Chaitanyaite Vaishnavism,” Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1 / Fall 2003, pp. 124–125.

About the Author: 

Krishnanandini Devi Dasi

Krishnanandini Devi Dasi, a Certified Family Life Educator (CFLE), is president of the (ISKCON) Grihastha Vision Team and Co-Director of the Dasi-Ziyad Family Institute (www.dzfi.org). She and her husband, Tariq, have designed and implemented several curricula relating to marriage, family, and youth, including the Young Pioneer Project, the S.E.L.F. Healthy Relationship Course©, Parenting for the 21st Century©, and more.