I like to stay somewhat informed about the theories of modern science, so a couple of years ago I read a book called Einstein for Dummies. It’s one of a large collection of For Dummies books that can supposedly make anyone understand even the most difficult subjects. The problem is, I came away feeling like less than a dummy when I couldn’t understand the book.

My experience made me wonder: Can anyone learn anything if it’s taught clearly enough? My first thought was that the answer is yes: If the teacher breaks things down into easily digestible pieces and leads the student step by step, then the student should be able to learn anything. After further thought, though, I changed my mind. Not everyone has the same ability to grasp ideas. Some people are just smarter than others.

Riding that train of thought, I arrived at another question: Can everyone understand the Bhagavad-gita? Here again I was inclined to say yes.An excellent teacher of an ordinary subject may not be able to reach every student, but how could the perfect teacher of the Bhagavad-gita—God Himself—fail to get through to anyone?

Even a perfect teacher, however, will fail to reach the unwilling student, whether the subject is material or spiritual. Therefore, understanding Krishna’s lessons requires something from us. Krishna freely gives His mercy in the form of His instructions, but we have to be willing to accept that mercy. Vaishnava authorities say that spiritual awakening requires mercy (kripa) from five sources: Lord Krishna, the scriptures, pure devotees, one’s own guru, and oneself. To be merciful to oneself (atma-kripa) means to take advantage of the other blessings offered to us. So to gain the mercy of the Bhagavad-gita, we have to at least be willing to accept it. We do that by accepting Krishna as the authority on the subject He’s speaking about and believing what He has to say.

Accepting Krishna’s authority implies following His guidance. He presents both philosophy and practice. He reveals the Truth, and He asks things of us. His ultimate request, repeated throughout the Bhagavad-gita, is to develop love for Him. And love, or bhakti, is the key to understanding His teachings: “To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.” (10.10)

Another instruction of Lord Krishna’s related to understanding His teachings is that one must serve and inquire from a guru who knows the truth and is a pure devotee of the Lord. A guru is one whose knowledge has matured into realization, one who not only knows about Krishna, but knows Krishna.

We begin with an intellectual grasp of Krishna’s teachings. By following the guidance of a genuine guru, we come to experience them as spiritual truth. To put it another way, buddhi-yoga, the yoga of intelligence, culminates in bhakti-yoga, the yoga of pure love for God.

Without dismissing everything I’ve just said, there’s another point I should make: Awakening to spiritual truth need not involve the intelligence at all. Spiritual sound can reach the soul directly, bypassing the subtle coverings of mind, intelligence, and false ego. One can realize Krishna—and thus everything else—just by chanting Hare Krishna. Still, chanting must be done purely, and studying the Bhagavad-gita helps us develop the purity we need.
Nagaraja Dasa