Intimate Guru-Seva: The Spiritual Catalyst
When I was younger, I spent as much time surfing with my friends as I could. Because most of the surfing spots on the island of O‘ahu were coral reefs, and these were the days before surfboards had leashes, our surfboards frequently had holes in the fiberglass surface that would let water into the Styrofoam core. Because I had a good eye and hands for the job, I regularly patched dings in my boards and those of my friends. Anyone who has worked with fiberglass knows that, while the resin and fiberglass together give strength to the surfboard, the resin hardens only when we add a catalyst beforehand. Of all the elements, the catalyst is the essential constituent in the process, the component that makes the whole system effective. Spiritual practice also has a number of elements that work together to ensure its success. And as with surfboard manufacture and repair, it has one essential constituent that serves as its catalyst: devotion to sri guru.
Saints and scriptures have all characterized guru-bhakti as absolutely essential to spiritual progress. Krsnadasa Kaviraja says in Sri Caitanya-caritamrta that the spiritual master’s instruction is “the active principle in spiritual life”: acaryera mata yei, sei mata sara. The Bengali word Srila Prabhupada renders as “active principle” here is sara. Another way to understand this word is essence, or essential principle. Consequently, surrendering to the guru is itself the essence of spiritual life, and failing to do so means we completely miss the point of spiritual endeavor, rendering our attempts at progress useless.
Srila Jiva Goswami says in Bhakti Sandarbha that satisfying the guru is the main cause of attaining divine love and service. In support of this assertion, he cites the Agama-sastra: “As an alchemist’s touch turns copper into gold, so the spiritual master’s touch makes his disciple transcendental like Lord Vishnu himself.” He further cites the Godhead as declaring, “First one should worship his guru, and then afterward one should worship Me. One who does this attains perfection; one who does not finds that all his efforts are in vain.”
Moreover, Sri Jiva cites Srimad-Bhagavatam, where Sri Krishna himself says, “I, the soul of all beings, cannot be satisfied as much by ritual worship, by generating progeny, by observing penances, or by self-control, as I am by faithful service rendered to one’s spiritual master.” It seems, then, that service to the spiritual master is what accounts for any success in our attempts at making spiritual progress.
With these truths in mind, devotees in the temples founded by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and his followers around the world begin each day with a meditation on the guru by singing Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti’s Gurvastakam. In the eighth of his prayers, Cakravarti Thakura says,
yasya prasadad bhagavat-prasado
yasyaprasadan na gatih kuto ‘pi
“By the spiritual master’s mercy, one may receive Krishna’s blessings; without the guru’s grace, no one can make any spiritual progress.” So from the beginning of Gaudiya Vaishnavism’s spread in the West, Srila Prabhupada established the central position of the guru in the lives of sadhakas.
But, as in surfboard repair, where we attain optimal results by adding just the right catalyst in just the right manner, we attain optimal results in cultivating Krishna bhakti by developing a particular kind of service to the guru. Bhaktirasamrta-sindhu tells us that practical spiritual life is built on the foundation of taking shelter of the spiritual master, which includes several components. There, Srila Rupa Goswami explains those first components of sadhana: “guru-padasrayas tasmat krsna-diksadi-siksanam/ visrambhena guroh seva. . . .” A sadhaka takes shelter of a guru, accepts initiation, takes instruction from and serves the guru with faith, with trust. Sometimes we see the word visrambha translated as respect or reverence, and a relationship with the guru rooted in reverence is undoubtedly helpful, especially in earlier stages of practice. But a quick exploration of that word reveals that the character of the relationship with the spiritual master should come to be quite different from the kind of distance implied in words such as respect and reverence.
Srila Rupa Goswami himself defines visrambha later in Bhaktirasamrta-sindhu in the context of discussing the mood of friendship. He says that visrambha is a “deep, familiar trust” between two friends as equals, “free from any sort of restriction or control.” In his commentary on this verse, Srila Jiva Goswami further explains that this deep trust implies not only freedom from excessive reverence and fear, but also a sense that the friends are in no way different from each other. Elsewhere, Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti says it is a sense that one’s own life, body, mind, intelligence, clothes, and everything else are one with those of the object of love. So visrambhena guroh seva points to service based on a deep sense of identity with the guru, to the extent that the disciple has no doubt whatsoever that the guru has only his or her best interests in his heart. The disciple then has complete freedom to reciprocate, acting with no interest other than the guru’s. In this way, such mature affection for the guru, which should never be mistaken for mundane sentiment, manifests itself as an intense focus on the guru’s heart. This focus in turn forges a sense of mamata, which Srila Jiva Goswami defines as “complete identity with the beloved such that the identity and feelings of one and their beloved are not separate.” This mood appropriately describes the feeling the Vrajavasis have for Krishna. As Srila Prabhupada often defined Krishna consciousness as the realization that “I am Krishna’s, and Krishna is mine,” we may also define mature guru-bhakti as the sense that “I am the guru’s, and he (or, more to the point, his desire) is mine.”
So just how deeply does this identification run? How far does this intimacy extend?
Visvanath Cakravarti has said that a disciple who is deeply absorbed in the service of the guru may even ignore practices such as hearing and chanting, knowing that by guru-seva alone he can easily attain complete perfection in devotion. More remarkably, he says, such a disciple, completely absorbed in guru-seva, may even ignore the divine bliss arising out of hearing and chanting, and he or she does not even seek out the kind of secluded place suitable for such bhajana. This assertion in no way minimizes the practices of sadhana bhakti. Our experience, in fact, is that the guru teaches us to engage progressively in cultivating those practices. Rather, it strongly underscores, as Visvanatha says in his commentary, “the supremacy of service to the guru” over all else. It is our affectionate service to the guru that activates other devotional practices and makes them pleasurable to Krishna.
The sense of identity with the guru, this kind of mamata, then, gives the disciple at least a glimpse into the guru’s heart. This should yield a more mature, more intimate relationship with the guru than the sort of “official” beginning relationship based solely on reverence, and perhaps a more dynamic understanding of guru-tattva. This more mature connection will affect a deeper sense of surrender, which may express itself practically in a number of ways.
We can find an illustrative example at the end of my gurudeva’s pastimes with us. Although critically ill, Srila Prabhupada said that he wanted to visit Govardhana Hill by bullock cart. In those days, the roads around Vraja were not paved as they are today, so the ride would have been very hard on Prabhupada, especially in his frail condition. His ayurvedic physician advised against the trip, averring that it would have been tantamount to committing suicide. Two parties developed among the disciples caring for him at the time. One party thought that, as faithful disciples, we should accommodate Srila Prabhupada’s desire, however painful it may seem to us. The other party argued, even to Srila Prabhupada himself, that they could not let him make the trip because of the danger. Rather than judging either party superficially, which may lead us to view those who objected to the trip as disrespectful of the spiritual master, an open-minded consideration may show instead that their position expressed a more intimate understanding, affectionately supporting his comfort and health and thereby his commitment to spreading Krishna consciousness by presenting transcendental literature and teaching worldwide.
Another instance where a disciple demonstrated a mature focus on Srila Prabhupada’s heart, on his essential desire, was during one of his arrivals in the US. Devotees would customarily meet Srila Prabhupada at the airport then gather at the local temple for a more formal reception. On one such occasion, Swami Tripurari (a brahmacari at the time) had spent the day at the airport, distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books. He changed from street clothes into his monk’s robes to join the other devotees in greeting Prabhupada as he arrived at the gate. However, because it was Friday, the busiest day at the airport, when the rest of the devotees in the community returned to the temple for Srila Prabhupada’s formal reception, he elected to remain at the airport and continue his service. In the meantime, at the temple, Srila Prabhupada noticed his absence and asked about it. When informed that he had remained at the airport distributing more books, Srila Prabhupada expressed his pleasure, praising his disciple’s service attitude.
We can see this identity with the guru’s heart perhaps most vividly in Srila Prabhupada’s own service to his spiritual master. While Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura took seriously Mahaprabhu’s desire that his movement be taken everywhere, and his son and disciple, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, took practical steps toward systematic propagation of the Mahaprabhu’s teachings beyond the Indian subcontinent, Srila Prabhupada brought this transcendental revolution to fruition, giving Mahaprabhu to all kinds of people around the world. In fact, although he worked with his Godbrothers for decades, he ultimately found it necessary to work outside the formal framework of the institution his own guru had created for this work. It was then that he was able to translate, publish, and distribute many authentic Vedic texts, establish temples on every continent except Antarctica, and train thousands of disciples to carry on his work.
Reflecting on Prabhupada’s mission, one of his prominent Godbrothers, Srila B. R. Sridhara Maharaja, concluded that Srila Prabhupada had been personally empowered by Nityananda Prabhu to give Krishna consciousness to everyone. After reading the poems Srila Prabhupada had written aboard the Jaladuta and on his arrival at Boston Harbor, he reasoned that Srila Prabhupada had emptied himself of all desires except serving his spiritual master by working hard to spread Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s message. Srila Sridhara Maharaja also recalled how Srila Saraswati Thakura sometimes said that if he had another ten years to live, he would have gone to New York City and preached from there. Our Srila Prabhupada, Srila Sridhara Maharaja opined, gave Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati those ten years, “plus two more.” His preaching was successful beyond what most could have imagined.
The essence of devotional service for a disciple, then, seems to be dedication to the service of the spiritual master without any reservation, with complete confidence that such service will carry us to Krishna’s lotus feet. This confidence finds support in Visvanatha Cakravarti Öhakura’s assurance that those of us who regularly chant his eight beautiful verses of praise of the guru during the brahma-muhurta will certainly attain direct service to Vrndavana-natha, Sri Krishna.
Using just the right hardener in appropriate amounts yields the strongest shell for a surfboard, giving the surfer the greatest confidence in the board for riding even the most powerful waves. In a similar way, real devotion—confident, intimate, affectionate service—to the spiritual master most effectively “cures” our spiritual practice, transforming it into pure devotional service. Such visrambhena guroh-seva best equips the practitioner for confidently riding even the waves arising from deep within the ocean of the nectar of devotion.