Is it possible to humbly submit to one’s guru and still think for oneself?

By Vishakha Devi Dasi

Is Lord Krishna giving contradictory instructions when he tells Arjuna to surrender to a guru and to also think for himself?

One of the more famous verses of the Bhagavad-gita appears toward the end of its fourth chapter (4.34):

tad viddhi pranipatena
pariprashnena sevaya
upadekshyanti te jnanam
jnaninas tattva-darshinah

“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.”

Pranipata: Yielding to Another’s Authority

If we take the term “spiritual master” here to mean a teacher, which is so, then to approach that person for knowledge is not extraordinary; rather, it’s commonly done and common sense. One who lacks knowledge learns from one who’s knowledgeable. What is extraordinary is the attitude and behavior expected of the prospective student of a spiritual master: submission and surrender.

Srila Prabhupada’s explains:

So this pranipata is required. Everyone has got his personal, puffed-up attitude, “Why shall I surrender?” That is the material disease. We do not wish to surrender. We think that “I am equal with him [the spiritual master]. Why shall I surrender?” But our Vaishnava philosophy, especially, begins with this pranipata. Just like Sanatana Goswami has left his highly-salaried post, ministership, and he has come to surrender unto Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. That is the beginning of spiritual life. He’s approaching Chaitanya Mahaprabhu very humbly. He’s not proud of his past position – that he was a minister, he was a moneyed man, rich man, born of a brahmana family and so on, so on. He’s humbly presenting himself that “I am the most fallen. I am the most fallen.” So “I never knew the actual goal of my life. I do not know what is beneficial to me.” That is the position of everyone. (Lecture, Vrindavan, October 19, 1972).

In my many years of schooling I understood that we students were to be respectful to our teachers, but not meekly obedient and ready to conform to their authority – submissiveness wasn’t among the expectations (pranipata means prostrating oneself at a person’s feet in humble submission). Rather, we students sometimes challenged our teachers’ authority, power, and will. But in spiritual life that defiant attitude is unacceptable. It blocks realization of the transcendent message. In Srila Prabhupada’s words: “Knowledge cannot be acquired by challenge. Knowledge is acquired by submission. That is the process.” (Morning walk, Bombay, March 23, 1974)

Srila Prabhupada made periodic visits to Bombay over the course of about three years in the early 1970s. Routinely during those visits, he and a small group of his students would stride briskly on the firm white sands of Juhu Beach, a wide, peaceful beach close to ISKCON’s Hare Krishna Land in Juhu. I was fortunate to be on many of those walks, and we were often joined by a Dr. Patel and his friends – and often a fiery exchange between Srila Prabhupada and Dr. Patel would ensue.

Dr. Patel: I cannot submit without understanding. That is what I was taught in my school.

Prabhupada: Because you do not submit, therefore you do not understand.

Dr. Patel: No, I cannot submit till I understand.

Prabhupada: No, no. Tad viddhi pranipatena. Pranipata. First of all, pranipata.

Dr. Patel: I am doing pranipata to you. Do you think I am disrespecting you? If you take, then you pardon me.

Prabhupada: No, no. No, no. It is not the question of disrespecting, but that is not full surrender. You think that you know better than me.

Dr. Patel: I want to learn myself.

Prabhupada: But that will be very good. If you don’t talk, simply hear, it will be beneficial.

Dr. Patel: All right. Accha.

Prabhupada: Then you’ll understand. But your habit is as soon as we begin talks, immediately you talk. Without hearing. And therefore you do not understand.

Dr. Patel: Accha. Let us hear.

Prabhupada: Then if you cannot understand, you’ll inquire. Not that you will think, “I know better than him. Therefore I shall talk.” It will never help you to understand.

As Srila Prabhupada says here, and as Sri Krishna tells His student Arjuna, the prerequisite for acquiring knowledge is a humble, submissive attitude. The necessity of this attitude is further confirmed in the beginning of the Bhagavata Purana. The first of its eighteen thousand verses establishes the supremacy of Sri Krishna, the Absolute Truth, as the cause of everything, as aware of everything, and as the fully independent original teacher who first gave knowledge. Then, in the very next verse, we hear, “As soon as one attentively and submissively hears the message of Bhagavatam, by this culture of knowledge the Supreme Lord is established within his heart.” (Bhagavatam 1.1.2)

Submission is a prerequisite for acquiring spiritual knowledge. We may take a lack of submission to be the arrogance of not recognizing a genuine authority. Sri Krishna has strong opinions about that and similar qualities, identifying them as the royal road to hell: “Pride, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness and ignorance – these qualities belong to those of demoniac nature, O Arjuna.” (Gita 16.4) Through millennia, representatives of God have said similarly: “The humble and meek shall inherit the earth.” (Psalms 37:11, Matthew 5:5)

Srila Prabhupada was sometimes obliged to remind his wayward followers of this basic principle of spiritual life. “You have to decide yourself whether you are prepared to surrender to our principles, but if you keep your independence either in Mayapur or N.Y., your position is the same. To associate with me you are always welcome, but not with your independence. That will not help me or you.” (Letter, October 22, 1971)

But We’re Supposed to Be Independently Thoughtful Too

At the same time, along with his insistence on submission, surrender, and giving up one’s independent and defiant nature, Srila Prabhupada did not want blind followers.

Blind following means, “Oh, there is a svami. So many thousands of people are following. Let me become his disciple.” This is called blind following. You do not know what is that svami, whether he is a svami or he is rascal. You do not know. But because everyone is going, “Oh, let me become his disciple.” This is blind following. Without any knowledge, blind following. The svami says that “You give me money. I will make you immediately God.” So this is blind following. (Lecture, January 12, 1969, Los Angeles)

Rather, Srila Prabhupada wanted his followers to be independently thoughtful: “Krishna Consciousness Movement is for training men to be independently thoughtful and competent in all types of departments of knowledge and action.” (Letter, December 22, 1972)

And the Bhagavatam itself confirms that it is intended expressly for those who are thinkers: “O expert and thoughtful men, relish Srimad-Bhagavatam, the mature fruit of the desire tree of Vedic literatures.” (Bhagavatam 1.1.3) In this verse the Sanskrit word used for thoughtful is bhavuka, which also refers to those who have a taste for the beautiful or poetical; it refers to those who are happy, well, auspicious, and prosperous.

Srila Prabhupada writes, “Our Krishna Consciousness philosophy is practical, easier, and based on sound reasoning and philosophy. We place it before impartial, thoughtful men of the world, and we are certain that they will find it sublime.” (Letter, March 15, 1970)

So how do we reconcile the necessity of meek and humble acquiescence as one aspect of spiritual requirements and deliberation and free choice as the other? That conundrum is resolved toward the end of the Gita (18.63), where Krishna tells Arjuna,

iti te jnanam akhyatam[text]
guhyad guhya-taram maya
vimrishyaitad asheshena
yathecchasi tatha kuru

“Thus I have explained to you knowledge still more confidential. Deliberate on this fully, and then do what you wish to do.” In this verse the word for “deliberate” is vimrishya, which means to act after due consideration. And the very next word, asheshena, means entirely, wholly, without anything remaining, perfectly. Krishna wants each of us to come to Him after thinking the matter through thoroughly, for then we won’t waiver; we’ll be fixed in our purpose and resolve.

If we return to the Bhagavad-gita verse quoted at the beginning of this article, we get further understanding of how this apparent contradiction is reconciled. Besides pranipata, submission and surrender, Krishna also wants Arjuna to inquire (pariprashna – question, inquire about) from a qualified spiritual teacher and to serve (sevaya) that person.

Doubts are a sign that we’re processing and weighing what we’ve heard; doubts can be a sign of intelligence. If we make intelligent inquires based on our doubts, they’ll be gradually cleared and we’ll become more fixed in our determination to progress spiritually. And service means we reciprocate for the invaluable knowledge we’ve received. Krishna is reciprocal in His relationships (He promises, “As they surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly”), and we’re meant to be reciprocal in ours; we’re expected to serve our spiritual teacher with our life, wealth, intelligence, and words. Then Krishna, pleased with our service and service attitude, kindly allows us to grasp His teachings and apply them to varying times, places, and circumstances.

This ability is the proper use of independent thoughtfulness. And we can be blessed with it by being submissive to a qualified spiritual master.