The pure lives and exemplary character of great acharyas inspire us to follow in their footsteps in our attempts to practice spiritual life.
By Gauranga Darshana Dasa
Admiring the contributions of spiritual legends who transparently transmitted the transcendental teachings for our progress.
The greatest pride of a follower of a Vaishnava sampradaya (disciplic succession) lies in that person’s connection with the guru-parampara, the lineage of the great spiritual masters who lead the legacy of that Vaishnava school. The pure lives and exemplary character of these great spiritual commanders, the acharyas, inspire one to follow in their footsteps in one’s attempts to practice spiritual life. Their illuminating commentaries on the timeless scriptures enlighten their sincere followers, giving them the necessary direction on the devotional path.
“Is He God?”
A couple of decades ago, my father took me to a beautiful temple on the beach of a popular city in southern India. I was about to enter my teenage years, and I was impressed with the serene ambience of the new campus and the majesty of the monuments. Passing through the beautiful pathways in anticipation, we entered the magnificent temple hall. Previously I had visited many temples, some big and some small, of the Hindu deities. This time, however, I was amazed to see a huge well-furnished, well-maintained temple room, unlike the ones I had seen earlier. I gradually turned my attention to the beautiful altar, and to my surprise, I didn’t see any presiding deities of the forms of God I knew by then. I only saw three huge framed photos of sadhus, calm and peaceful and old, sitting in meditating postures.
I didn’t know how to respond, but I certainly didn’t expect or probably couldn’t appreciate that such a wonderful temple was for them. I was told that many people believe that the one in the middle of the altar, the oldest of the three, is God or God’s incarnation. I wasn’t sure if he himself claimed that or other people felt it to be true, but I just folded my hands, offered respects, and asked myself, “Is he God?”
“He Is God’s Man!”
About a decade later, as a graduate student, I visited another huge temple in another city, as a part of a college tour with my classmates and teachers. The temple complex was enormous, with many details that attracted my attention. When I entered, I was captivated by the presiding deities of Radha-Krishna. I had seen a few Krishna temples, but this one was unique. In front of the main altar was a smaller altar in which I saw the carved form of a saintly person sitting cross-legged. People were offering him respects. I later inquired about him and came to know that he was a great devotee of Krishna and taught devotion to Krishna to many people across the world by writing spiritual books and establishing temples. His followers worshiped him in gratitude for bringing them closer to God. I reverentially remembered another saintly person I knew of, Ramanujacharya, a great eleventh-century Vaishnava saint whose form I had seen in many Vishnu temples, worshiped with similar devotion. I was told the name of this saint – Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. I was thrilled and thought, “He is God’s man!”
Temporary and Transcendental Realms
A few years later, I went to the same city to do my post-graduation work and eventually came in touch with some followers of Srila Prabhupada and started reading his books. People in general believe that this world is our home, as it contains variegated facilities for our enjoyment, including cities, towns, mountains, rivers, seasons, and many comforts offered by modern technology. Earlier I had heard and considerably believed that the goal of life is to live happily in this world by striving for success and settling for acquiring necessary education, wealth, fame, friends, and so on. However, I came to know from Prabhupada’s books that humanity has been awarded a higher intelligence to understand that this planet serves as its residence not for long. Lost in its quest for material happiness that might, in the best case, last for a life of mere decades, humanity is fascinated by the fleeting glamor of this material world, considering it an eternal residence, and forgets the ultimate necessity of transcending it.
Quoting scriptures like the Gita, Prabhupada informed us that there is yet another world, which is completely spiritual, never subject to destruction. The Supreme Lord, being the ultimate well-wisher of all living beings, descends from there into this world as incarnations to reclaim the suffering souls and position them back in their eternal situation in that transcendental world. He also sends His representatives, the gurus or acharyas, to educate humanity with the knowledge to transcend this world. These gurus, empowered by the Lord, guide us on the spiritual path, inculcate the essential attitude in us, and thus invite us back to the spiritual world for an eternal life. I felt that Prabhupada is one such acharya.
Lord Krishna say to Uddhava in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.20.17),
“The human body, which can award all benefit in life, is automatically obtained by the laws of nature, although it is a very rare achievement. This human body can be compared to a perfectly constructed boat having the spiritual master as the captain and the instructions of the Personality of Godhead as favorable winds impelling it on its course. Considering all these advantages, a human being who does not utilize his human life to cross the ocean of material existence must be considered the killer of his own soul.”
Transparency in Transmission
Does a guru become so on his own? Who makes him a guru or acharya? Is there someone who bestows upon him the power and authority to connect people to God or guide them to the spiritual realm? I got simple yet profound answers to these questions in my discussions with devotees and in my own attempts to study scriptures.
An acharya is a transcendental professor of spiritual science who has faithfully followed and imbibed the teachings of his own bona fide teacher. The lineage of teachers thus created ultimately connects to the Supreme Godhead, from whom all spiritual knowledge originates. Thus all the acharyas in a Vaishnava school are pure representatives of Krishna by dint of their dedication to His devotional service and by repeating His teachings.
At the beginning of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the sage Saunaka praises Srila Suta Goswami for his vast learning and his ability to speak the Bhagavatam to enlighten all the sages assembled at Naimisharanya. Suta Goswami attained this qualification by dint of his simplicity (saumya) and his submissiveness (snigdha) to his gurus, who had endowed him “with all the favors bestowed upon a gentle disciple” (Bhagavatam 1.1.8). Receiving the favor of the guru depends on the disciple’s sincerity in following the guru’s instructions. Such a sincere follower is connected to the parampara, and when he speaks, his words are as good as Krishna’s words, due to his transparency in transmitting the transcendental message descending from Krishna through the parampara (evam parampara-praptam . . . , Gita 4.2).
In the last chapter of the Srimad-Bhagavatam (12.13.19), Srila Suta Goswami says, “I meditate upon that pure and spotless Supreme Absolute Truth, who is free from suffering and death and who in the beginning personally revealed this incomparable torchlight of knowledge to Brahma. Brahma then spoke it to the sage Narada, who narrated it to Krishna-dvaipayana Vyasa. Srila Vyasa revealed this Bhagavatam to the greatest of sages, Shukadeva Goswami, and Shukadeva mercifully spoke it to Maharaja Parikshit.”
Commenting on this verse in the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust edition of the Bhagavatam, Srila Prabhupada’s disciples write, “The words tad-rupena, tad-rupina and tad-atmana in this verse clearly indicate that Lord Krishna Himself originally spoke Srimad-Bhagavatam to Brahma and then continued to speak it through the agency of Narada Muni, Dvaipayana Vyasa, Shukadeva Goswami and other great sages. In other words, whenever saintly devotees vibrate Srimad-Bhagavatam, it is to be understood that Lord Krishna Himself is speaking the Absolute Truth through the agency of His pure representatives.”
True Teacher: His Realization and Responsibility
I became inquisitive and wanted to understand what are the qualities of a true guru who can guide us on the spiritual path and how to find such a person. I found answers in Srila Prabhupada’s books to many such basic yet important questions that I myself had and that I had heard from others as well.
A guru or an acharya is someone who has realized the real import of divine scriptures. Leaving aside all external considerations, such great personalities take complete shelter of the Supreme Godhead (shabde pare cha nishnatam brahmany upashamashrayam, Bhagavatam 11.3.21).
The guru is well versed in krishna-tattva, the science of Krishna, and is the direct representative of Krishna. Lord Krishna tells Uddhava, “One should know the acharya as Myself and never disrespect him in any way. One should not envy him, thinking him an ordinary man. . . . “ (Bhagavatam 11.17.27). I could appreciate, after reading this, why Prabhupada and Ramanujacharya are also worshiped along with Krishna or Vishnu in Their temples.
An acharya teaches by his own example. Taking shelter of such a teacher constitutes the most vital aspect in the lives of spiritual seekers. Srimad-Bhagavatam mentions that being a guru is a very responsible position and one who cannot deliver his dependents from the cycle of birth and death by teaching them the process of bhakti must not accept the position of a guru (gurur na sa syat . . ., Bhagavatam 5.5.18).
Proponents of a Pure Process
How exactly does a guru guide people? What methods does he employ? Does he himself prescribe practices, or does he repeat standard spiritual practices followed for ages?
Srila Prabhupada says that the duty of a guru is to find the means, according to time, place, and circumstances, by which people can come closer to Godhead. Great acharyas like Madhvacharya, Ramanujacharya, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, and Srila Prabhupada translated the scriptural recommendations on devotional service into exact practical methods to follow daily. For instance, some of Srila Prabhupada instructions to his followers were to chant sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra on their beads daily, attend morning prayers and arati, worship the tulasi plant, and study the scriptures he had translated and commented on. Early on, I was impressed and inspired to hear these practical and scientific guidelines based on scriptures and to witness devotees sincerely following them.
Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.2.31) mentions that because the acharyas take complete shelter of Krishna’s lotus feet, they leave behind on earth the method to cross the material ocean. And Krishna, being very merciful to them, accepts this method and bestows His mercy upon those who follow it in the acharya-sampradaya. The acharyas also initiate and empower followers to carry forward the spiritual teachings for future generations. One who has faith in such authorized processes and who practices them sincerely attains success on the spiritual path.
Do the spiritual seekers approach an acharya, or does the acharya approach them?
Compassion is the driving force behind the activities of the acharyas. They certainly guide people who approach them, but even if people do not come, they themselves go out to preach God’s message. Their travels, teachings, writings, practices, and outreach are all imbued with their spirit of compassion to enlighten the poor-hearted people, and they are devoid of any personal agendas and selfish motivations (Bhagavatam 10.8.4). They endeavor to assist Krishna in reclaiming the rebellious souls and reuniting them with Him by being the true distributors of His compassion. I witnessed and experienced this voluntary spirit of inspiring people in sincere followers of Srila Prabhupada.
Srimad-Bhagavatam says that the real philanthropy is to distribute Krishna consciousness and reawaken the dormant love for God within people’s hearts. Saintly Vidura says to the sage Maitreya,
“O my lord, great philanthropic souls travel on the earth on behalf of the Supreme Personality of Godhead to show compassion to the fallen souls, who are averse to the sense of subordination to the Lord.” (Bhagavatam 3.5.3)
Srila Prabhupada, in his seventieth year, arrived alone in America to spread Krishna consciousness, having left a comfortable home in holy Vrindavan. While thousands of Vrindavan residents were absorbed in daily worshiping and serving Radha-Krishna, not even thinking of going to nearby Mathura, Prabhupada contemplated how to take the Vrindavan experience to the western world. He underwent many challenges during his tireless attempts for four decades to establish a worldwide spiritual movement, and ultimately he became successful by Krishna’s grace.
Transferring the Tributes
One quality of the acharyas that deeply impressed and inspired me, more than their scholarship and accomplishments, was their humility. Shifting the blame upon others and claiming and craving credit for oneself are common qualities I observed in many people I met. I even found these qualities in myself at times, although my conscience said they’re improper. In contrast I saw the enlightened acharyas transfer the credit to the Lord and other Vaishnavas with all humility, never boasting of their accomplishments. I witnessed many of their followers sincerely attempting to imbibe these qualities, and some naturally behaved so, setting an ideal example.
Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura wrote in the beginning of his Sarartha Darshini commentary on the Bhagavatam:
I studied the Bhagavatam for a long time by the mercy of guru. After studying the Vaishnava-toshani commentary of Sanatana Goswami and the Sandarbhas of Jiva Goswami, by the mercy of Sridhara Svami I write this commentary on the Bhagavatam. I am not learned or qualified. It is either my own foolishness or the causeless mercy of the Lord that makes me write. If its cause is my foolishness, it will produce mockery, and if its cause is mercy of the Lord, it will produce bliss with every word for the devotees. (Translation by Bhanu Swami)
Thus Vishvanatha Chakravarti was ready to accept blame and transfer credit.
Srila Prabhupada, in his purport to the first verse of the Bhagavatam, encourages readers to read the explanations of the Bhagavatam by the previous acharyas:
Within the past five hundred years, many erudite scholars and acharyas like Jiva Goswami, Sanatana Goswami, Vishvanatha Chakravarti, Vallabhacharya, and many other distinguished scholars even after the time of Lord Chaitanya made elaborate commentaries on the Bhagavatam. And the serious student would do well to attempt to go through them to better relish the transcendental messages.
And at the end of his translation of Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Prabhupada wrote:
I think that His Divine Grace Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura is always seeing my activities and guiding me within my heart by his words. . . . It is to be admitted that whatever translation work I have done is through the inspiration of my spiritual master, because personally I am most insignificant and incompetent to do this materially impossible work. I do not think myself a very learned scholar, but I have full faith in the service of my spiritual master. . . . If there is any credit to my activities of translating, it is all due to His Divine Grace.
Can we do something for such acharyas? Yes. We can serve them by working to the best of our capacity to fulfill their desire to connect all conditioned souls to Krishna. But it is childish to think that we can fully repay them for what they have given us.
The acharyas’ examples are a great source of inspiration. Their contribution for the spiritual uplift of the people is a thankless task. And one who takes benefit of their efforts is eternally indebted to them. Prithu Maharaja told the four Kumaras,
“How can such persons, who have rendered unlimited service by explaining the path of self-realization in relation to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and whose explanations are given for our enlightenment with complete conviction and Vedic evidence, be repaid except by folded palms containing water for their satisfaction? Such great personalities can be satisfied only by their own activities, which are distributed amongst human society out of their unlimited mercy.” (Bhagavatam 4.22.47)
Disciple’s Duty: From Knowledge to Realization
One can be connected to a bona fide Vaishnava sampradaya through a guru who is the representative of all the previous acharyas in that parampara. A guru is like a parent. Just as a child’s growth depends on the attentive care and guidance of the parents, a disciple’s advancement in spiritual life depends on the guidance of the guru. Tasmad gurum prapadyeta jijnasuh shreya uttamam (Bhagavatam 11.3.21): Anyone who seriously desires real happiness must seek a bona fide spiritual master and take his shelter by initiation.
Lord Krishna says,
“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 disciple makes the best of his association with the guru or acharya in proportion to his eagerness, sincerity, and service attitude. For example, Vidura’s qualities of faith and submissiveness inspired Maitreya to bestow upon him the knowledge of the Bhagavatam. In expressing his gratitude to Maitreya (Bhagavatam 3.7.18), Vidura gives us a wonderful instruction: One may receive knowledge from the scriptures and the spiritual master, but realizing this knowledge is possible only by sincere service to the guru, without which one’s philosophical understanding remains theoretical.
By serving the feet of the spiritual master, one is enabled to develop transcendental ecstasy in the service of the Personality of Godhead, who is the unchangeable enemy of the Madhu demon and whose service vanquishes one’s material distresses. Persons whose austerity is meager can hardly obtain the service of the pure devotees who are progressing on the path back to the kingdom of Godhead, the Vaikunthas. Pure devotees engage one hundred percent in glorifying the Supreme Lord, who is the Lord of the demigods and the controller of all living entities. (Bhagavatam 3.7.19–20)
Thus through these few years of learning from scriptures and devotees, I continue to make my feeble attempts, to the best of my God-given capacity, to follow the teachings of the acharyas and inspire others to connect to Krishna.
Practice the Process
Humanity finds its glory in the great souls who did God’s work and brought people closer to God consciousness. They presented a process of devotional service to the Supreme Lord that can be practiced by everyone – not just brahmacharis and sannyasis, but householders, the young, the old, and children. The saner section appreciates the acharyas’ commendable contributions to humanity. We are indebted to them for showing us a spiritual way out in the midst of the materialistic ways of life. All we need to do is to accept their teachings from wherever we are in our life’s journey and practice the process prescribed by them. We can thus perfect our human life, which, once lost, is very difficult to obtain again.