By Satyaraja Dasa

Shedding some light on an often-misunderstood concept.

As traditionally understood, there are three kinds of guru in spiritual life: (1) the shiksha-guru, who gives instruction; (2) the diksha-guru, who initiates with sacred mantras; and (3) the caitya-guru, the Lord in the heart, who is properly accessed through the other two.

Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami, the author of the Chaitanya-charitamrita, informs us that these three manifestations are identical to Krishna:

guru krishna-rupa hana shastrera pramane
guru-rupe krishna kripa karena bhakta-gane

“According to the deliberate opinion of all revealed scriptures, the spiritual master is nondifferent from Krishna. Lord Krishna in the form of the spiritual master delivers His devotees.” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi 1.45)

shiksha-guruke ta’ jani krishnera svarupa
antaryami, bhakta-shreshtha,—ei dui rupa

“One should know the instructing spiritual master to be the Personality of Krishna. Lord Krishna manifests Himself as the Supersoul and as the greatest devotee of the Lord.” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi 1.47)

Here, the Sanskrit word for the Supersoul, or the Lord in the heart, is antaryami. Other texts refer to Him as Paramatma. Some people feel they can call upon this form of the Lord at will, but it is actually quite difficult. Sometimes God may communicate directly with us, but that is rare. More often than not, we mistake our own conditioning and wishful thinking for the Lord’s communication. Therefore, spiritual adepts instruct us to verify our perceptions with God’s representatives—the first two kinds of guru described above.

Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami writes:

jive sakshat nahi tate guru caittya-rupe
shiksha-guru haya krishna mahanta-svarupe

“Since one cannot visually experience the presence of the Supersoul, He appears before us as a liberated devotee. Such a spiritual master is none other than Krishna Himself.” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi 1.58)

Clearly, then, one must take advantage of those great souls who act as gurus in this world. Therefore it is critical to distinguish between legitimate teachers and charlatans. Thus, the Mundaka Upanishad (1.2.12) teaches us how to identify the guru:

tad-vijnanartham sa gurum evabhigacchet
samit-panih shrotriyam brahma-nishtham

“To learn transcendental science, one must approach a bona fide spiritual master in disciplic succession. The bona fide spiritual master is fixed in the Absolute Truth. . . .”

This verse contains more information than one might at first think. Not only does it highlight the importance of accepting a spiritual master—using the imperative case (abhigacchet: “must accept”)—but it mentions two major characteristics of a bona fide teacher of spiritual sciences:

(1) The word shrotriyam indicates one who is proficient in Vedic knowledge (called shruti, or “that which is heard”). Traditionally, the student developed such proficiency at the feet of a master, and it was understood that one could not access this knowledge in any other way. Thus, a genuine guru must come in a historical succession of teachers, known as a sampradaya (“lineage”). The Puranas speak of four genuinesampradayas connected to Krishna: the Sri Sampradaya, the Rudra Sampradaya, the Kumara Sampradaya, and the Brahma Sampradaya. The Puranas also mention the four prominent systemizers of the teachings of these sampradayas: Ramanuja, Vishnusvami, Nimbarka, and Madhva. A true spiritual master should come in one of these four lines.

In addition, the knowledge the guru teaches must be in accordance with shastra (the sacred texts) and sadhus (previous gurus). This is all part of the first item: shrotriyam.

(2) The second characteristic—brahma-nishtham—means that the guru must be “absorbed in transcendence,” having traversed the path of spiritual illumination under the guidance of qualified teachers. By referring to spiritual authorities and traditional sacred texts, one should be able to discern whether or not someone is enlightened. The guru’s main concern must be God and the spiritual pursuit. He or she has no other interest. The bona fide teacher’s passion for the Supreme should be self-evident, thorough, and contagious.

Other Types of Guru

Besides these three types of guru, the Eleventh Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam speaks of twenty-four others. They appear in the beginning of a section called the Uddhava-gita, where Krishna’s devotee and cousin Uddhava meets with Krishna just prior to His departure from this world, asking Him for spiritual instruction. Krishna begins His reply by saying,

atmano gurur atmaiva
purushasya visheshatah
yat pratyakshanumanabhyam
shreyo ’sav anuvindate

“An intelligent person, expert in perceiving the world around him and in applying sound logic, can achieve real benefit through his own intelligence. Thus sometimes one acts as one’s own instructing spiritual master.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.7.20)

In his commentary, Srila Jiva Goswami specifies that this intelligence that arises from within, when properly utilized, inspires one to find and follow a spiritual master in the external world (gurv-anusharane pravartaka ity arthah). Thus, the twenty-four gurus outlined in the Bhagavatam do not preclude accepting a diksha- or shiksha-guru.

Still, Krishna goes on to tell Uddhava that those who possess self-discipline might seek Him out through their faculty of reason, and even though He is beyond material nature—and even beyond their well-utilized reason—they can understand Him as the cause of all causes.

Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura, in his commentary, points out the limits of reason: Though one may be able to achieve some understanding of the impersonal and Paramatma features of the Absolute, Krishna in His original form as the Supreme Person is certainly beyond the scope of inference alone.

In other words, it is possible with one’s intellect to conclude that there is a cause of all causes, since through observation one can perceive that the world functions in a causal manner. It may even be possible to understand, with logic, that God has both impersonal and personal aspects. But without bhakti and the practices of hearing and chanting about Krishna under the tutelage of a teacher in disciplic succession, one cannot properly access Krishna as the Supreme Lord.

The Avadhuta’s Gurus

As the Uddhava-gita continues, Lord Krishna explains to Uddhava that their forefather King Yadu knew a young avadhuta, a renunciant with no fixed dwelling who had given up all possessions and worldly responsibilities. Yadu observed how this young man had a peaceful and joyous demeanor, even though he didn’t have any of the usual amenities of life. And so Yadu asked him how this was so: “Why are you so happy despite having nothing of your own?”

The avadhuta answered that he was fortunate enough to have had many preceptors who had shown him the way. He then began to describe each of these teachers one by one, along with the lessons he had learned from them. The first five are the principal material elements—earth, water, fire, air, and ether (sky).

Earth: The avadhuta said, “A sober person, even when harassed by other living beings, should understand that his aggressors are acting helplessly under the control of God, and thus he should never be distracted from progress on his own path. This rule I have learned from the earth. A saintly person should learn from the mountain to devote all his efforts to the service of others and to make the welfare of others the sole reason for his existence. Similarly, as the disciple of the tree, he should learn to dedicate himself to others.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.7.37–38)

Water: Water teaches us that learned persons, like water in its natural state, should be pure—transforming and cleansing everyone they come in contact with.

Fire: From fire one can learn how to remain unaffected by the things one consumes. Yogis continue with their practice regardless of the state of their digestion. Put more generally, this instruction means that yogis must persevere regardless of circumstance.

Another lesson the avadhuta took from fire: Never accumulate material acquisitions; burn through them as needed, but never hoard.

Air: A true yogi, the avadhuta said, interacts with the objects of the senses just as the air does—without becoming attached to anything. Sometimes the air takes on the odors of the objects it passes over or through, but it simply carries the odors, never identifying with them. Similarly, even when the yogi seems to have taken on the qualities of material objects, he is unaffected by the world around him because he knows he is ultimately transcendental to it.

Sky: “Both the individual soul and the Supersoul,” the avadhuta said, “can be understood by comparing them to the nature of the sky: although the sky extends everywhere and everything rests within the sky, the sky does not mix with anything, nor can it be divided by anything.” ( Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.7.42)

The above is a general outline of the guru principle and an analysis of the first five in a list of twenty-four gurus described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam. In an upcoming article I will discuss the other nineteen gurus identified by the avadhuta.