The Affectionate Guardian
By Swami B.V. Tripurari, originally published in Joy of Self, Mandala Publishing, March 1997.
Godhead alone can guide us in our search, yet he chooses to do so through a particular agent. God is our guru, and yet our guru is not God. Although this may sound contradictory at first, Gaudiya Vedanta makes clear this apparent contradiction, revealing a most charming notion of eternal guidance that can dispel all human apprehension.
In the modern world, we have seen a good number of totalitarian regimes and less-than-spiritual religious leaders. From politicians to popes, gestapos to gurus, we have learned to be cautious about claims of absolute knowledge. It is no wonder then that we are hesitant when Gaudiya Vedanta speaks of the necessity of and utter dependence on the guru.
Who will mediate between humanity and divinity? Don’t all souls have the potential for a personal relationship with God, without the need of a chaperone? In the language of love, “Three is a crowd.” Furthermore, dependence on another, it would seem, hinders one from standing on one’s own two feet. Can we not think for ourselves? Do the enlightened themselves have gurus? If they had any necessity at some point in their eternal progress, it would seem at best that such necessity was a relative one, rendering the principle of guru dispensable at some point. All of these doubts and misconceptions regarding the principle of guru must be cleared up if we are to be successful in our search, for the guru is an eternal necessity for all souls.
Gurus are, in the simplest of terms, teachers. What do they teach? They teach how to serve God. To do so, they themselves must be servants of the Godhead. If they teach service to God, what have we to fear from them? If, on the other hand, they teach service to themselves and take the position of being the enjoyers of all of our service, there is good cause for reservation. If they teach that they are God, they are not gurus.
Those who posit absolute monism teach that all individuality is illusion. For such monists, all is ultimately “one” and there is no other. In place of this doctrine of absolute monism, Joy of Self suggests a more nuanced understanding of ultimate reality that finds room for individuality without compromising unity. The text posits a form of devotional Vedanta—a doctrine of wise love—in which the individual self unites in love with its source, experiencing a unity of will with the Absolute: a oneness in purpose but a nuanced ontological difference in identity.
The philosophy of monism posits that atomic particles of consciousness are but an appearance, an illusion. This philosophy has been thoroughly dealt with in the many writings of Gaudiya Vedanta’s self-realized acaryas, or spiritual masters. It would be prudent for the serious spiritual aspirant to go through both these acaryas’ commentaries on sacred literature, such as Bhagavad-gita and Srimad Bhagavatam, as well as the books they themselves have authored. It should suffice herein to underscore the tenet of the Gaudiya Vaisnavas that the atomic soul is not an illusion, while at the same time in material life the soul is absorbed in an illusory identity. Removing this illusory identity in the context of the culture of devotional Vedanta, we realize our likeness to the Godhead but not that we ourselves are the entirety of the Absolute. In the latter conception, both God and atomic soul ultimately cease to have any relevance, as does any means of such realization. In later chapters these important points will be dealt with in greater detail.
Although gurus are not God, neither are they to be considered as merely atomic souls bound in the net of material illusion. Gurus are servants of God as are all souls, yet they are servants who have realized the truth of their eternal servanthood. With regard to service, it should be noted that service in itself is not a bad thing. The value of service depends on who is served. If it is indeed God whom we are taught to serve, such service is in no way demeaning, for the Godhead is the perfect object of love. Service reposed in God through the agency of guru is the most dignified engagement for all souls. Those who conceive of themselves as nothing more than eternal servants of the Godhead represented in their own guru are fit to serve in the capacity of guru themselves.
Gurus are those souls who have emptied themselves of all selfish considerations arising from material misidentification. As such, they are filled with the spiritual sakti, energy of Godhead, to do God’s work in this world. As the ambassador of the United States is highly regarded in a foreign country, similarly the guru, although not God himself, should nonetheless be highly honored, for it is God alone whom the guru represents. Moreover, gurus represent Godhead in the manner in which God chooses to interact with humanity. Thus in one sense gurus are more important to us than God himself, yet they never think themselves so.
Real gurus have no disciples, though many see themselves as such, and gurus honor their vision, inspired as it is by the Godhead. Their own angle of vision is that they are servants of all, for all are but parts and parcels of God. They do not see others independently of their relationship with the Absolute. Their task is thus to share this vision with all whom they encounter.
Gurus are our bright spiritual prospect appearing before us to instruct us through both precept and practice. Their affection for the bound souls is itself without bounds. They never tire of revealing the spiritual reality. Thus genuine spiritual aspirants are forced not by ordinary law but by all reason and ultimately love and affection to submit to the guru’s instruction and to love sri guru eternally, for who could have shown us greater love?
How shall we find such an affectionate guardian? Because the path of devotion and transcendence has been traversed by others, a map has been charted and left for us to follow. On that map, first and foremost we are directed to the information counter. Sacred literature charts our course, and in doing so, points us in the direction of sri guru, the captain of our ship. From sacred literature we can learn the qualifications of the agent of the Absolute, and therein we are implored to take the guru’s shelter. With these two, map and guide, scripture and guru, on the boat of our human birth, fueled by the wind of our own sincerity, we are well equipped to cross the ocean of material suffering and reach the shore of eternal joy.