Karma and Sri Guru
Published on January 30th, 2010 | by Harmonist staff10
Karma in the life of a devotee is a very complex subject. In sastra it is said that chanting a mere reflection of the holy name of Krishna (namabhasa) has the power to destroy one’s manifest (prarabdha) karma. In his book Madhurya Kadambini, Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura also describes how prarabdha karma is eradicated through the perfection of sadhana bhakti. This is in keeping with the idea that one’s karma is destroyed at the time of initiation, in as much as initiation being part of sambandha-jnana is completed when one graduates from sadhana bhakti. According to Sri Jiva Goswami, prarabdha karma is the last vestige of karmic bondage that a devotee must undergo. In other words, the unmanifest stages of a devotee’s karmic bondage are destroyed first, and the prarabdha karma is the last to be removed by the grace of Bhakti devi.
What happens to a devotee who has become free from the fetters of karma but has not yet developed pure love of Krishna (prema)? The Lord takes over the devotee’s body and sustains it himself so that the devotee can further cultivate prema. This, however, does not mean that such a devotee will be free from sickness, calamity, or distress. It means that none of these are due to prarabdha karma. They are the special arrangement of the Lord to make his devotee more dependent on him, to increase the devotee’s eagerness and love.
Therefore, a fully qualified Vaishnava guru does not suffer from karma. If the guru has attained the stage of nistha (fixed devotion), hindrances resulting from good and bad karma are completely eradicated (purna-nivrtti), although there is still the minute possibility that anarthas arising from karma may reemerge. When he or she attains asakti, the last stage of sadhana bhakti wherein the mind is completely attached to Krishna, karmic impediments are absolutely eradicated (atyantiki- nivrtti). This is the terminology of Sri Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura. Sri Rupa Goswami has also explained that sadhana bhakti frees one from all distress (klesaghni) appearing in the form of karma, the root of which is ignorance (avidya). How so? Bhakti is the highest knowledge (raja vidya).
Although it is said that the guru takes the karma of the disciple, this means that the guru takes it away by engaging the disciple in sadhana bhakti and blessing him or her. Hearing and chanting about Krishna under the guidance of sri guru combined with the guru’s grace destroys one’s karma. Of the two, effort in sadhana and the grace of the guru, the latter is more important, linga bhuyastvat tad hi baliyah tad api (Vs. 3.3.45). Thus the guru must have the power to bless the student and engage him or her in sadhana bhakti. Such a qualified guru does not have to experience the karma of the students in a Christ-like fashion.
Srila Prabhupada has said, “This is Christian theory. ‘You do something, and I suffer for that.’ No. You have to suffer. You have done something wrong; you must suffer. This is the real philosophy.” He also said, “He (someone) committed the murder, but he thinks his father should suffer the punishment! Is that a sane proposal? ‘No, you have committed the murder; you must be hanged.’ Similarly, when you commit sinful activities, you must suffer—not Jesus Christ. That is God’s law.”
This tells us that the guru, being free from karma, does not again come under the influence of karma when he or she initiates disciples. Nor does the guru have to suffer karma. However, Rupa Goswami says that if the guru accepts too many unqualified disciples this constitutes an offense that can disturb bhajana. This means that should the guru’s disciples misbehave the guru will have to deal with their misbehavior, and that will make the guru’s work that much more difficult. Also, if the disciple leaves the guru’s service, karma that has been suspended so that the disciple can engage in sadhana bhakti will again come to arrest such a wayward disciple. This will certainly trouble the guru’s mind and heart. In these ways, the guru’s bhajana may be disturbed. One should not burden the guru in this way.
Sometimes Srila Prabhupada humbly spoke like this about himself, saying that he accepted too many unqualified disciples and had to suffer as a result. Certainly it was clear that he was disturbed by some of their activities. Yet if one scrutinizes his teaching, it also becomes clear that the karma of the disciple is gradually destroyed in proportion to his or her adherence to the guidelines of sri guru. Thus if the guru is qualified, the onus is on the disciples to follow sincerely. If they do so, the disciples will themselves become free from karma as they attain Krishna consciousness.
Srila Prabhupada states, “An initiated devotee is given the chance for becoming free from the entanglement of karma wheel. Initiated means beginning, not perfection. The spiritual master’s business is to guide him to the perfectional point. But if one does not strictly follow the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master, his initiation does not bear any meaning. The initiation performance is an agreement by the disciples to abide by the order of the spiritual master. Therefore, if the spiritual master is bona fide and the disciple is serious to abide by his order, then the success is sure. But if a disciple follows strictly the devotional way of life, he is no longer a karmi and all his activities, which may appear to be like ordinary work, or it may be activity according to scriptural injunction, are counted as devotional service. And devotional service in all circumstances is free from the actions and reactions of karma.”
Thankyou for this clear explanation of karma,Sri Guru and initiation. I would like to understand more about ‘suspended karma’. What does that refer to where it is mentioned if a disciple leaves his Guru’s service karma that had been suspended may reappear? Also can a relationship with one’s initiating Guru be detroyed due to neglect/offense or can it always be rekindled?
See my reply to Adviata das. Otherwise, I think that the answer to your second questions lies with the particular guru. He or she may choose not to take charge of an offensive disciple and reject him or her. Can this be overcome and the relationship between the two be rekindled? Probably, but not necessarily.
Revered Maharaj, pranams.
This was a very interesting and enlightening essay. Could you, however, kindly provide us with exact quotes from shastra on the following statements:
1. “This is in keeping with the idea that one’s karma is destroyed at the time of initiation, in as much as initiation being part of sambandha-jnana is completed when one graduates from sadhana bhakti.”
2. “According to Sri Jiva Goswami, prarabdha karma is the last vestige of karmic bondage that a devotee must undergo.”
Was it not established in Madhurya Kadambini that prarabdha karma is destroyed in the stage of sadhana bhakti ?
3. “Also, if the disciple leaves the guru’s service, karma that has been suspended so that the disciple can engage in sadhana bhakti will again come to arrest such a wayward disciple.”
Are u Edwin Bryant? Dandavats to you. I personally liked the article but I guess we will wait for the answers to your questions.
Here is a quick reply to your questions:
1. divyam jnanam yato dadyat
kuryat papasya sanksayam
tasmad dikseti sa prokta
“The process that bestows divyam jnanam and destroys sin (karma) is called ‘diksha’ by the spiritual persons who have seen the Truth.”
This is the standard definition of diksa. Still we find that all karma does not disappear at the time the mantra (divya jnanam) is imparted. This is explained in the Padma Purana thus,
aprarabdha-phalam papam kutam bijam phalonmukham |
krameëaiva praliyeta visnu-bhakti-rattmanam
‘For those engaged in bhakti to Visnu, step by step the
aprarabdha, kutam, bija and prarabdha-karmas are destroyed.’
So through bhakti, beginning with taking shelter of the guru, receiving diksa, etc., one’s karma is gradually destroyed. And in his Madhurya Kadambini Sri Visvanahta tell us that anarthas arising from good and bad karma are only completely destroyed upon attaining bhava (as one graduates from sadhana-bhakti).
The idea that diska is part of sambandha jnana should be clear, for diksa, as stated earlier, involves transmitting transcendental knowledge and this knowledge concerns the nature of one’s relationship with Bhagavan in the form of the mantra.
Thus that which is begun at the time of initiation, the bestowal of divya jnana and the removal of karma, is a gradual process that is completed when the student attains bhava. At that time knowledge of one’s relationship with Bhagavan is realized and karma has been destroyed. It is perhaps novel to explain this by way of saying that initiation is not done in a day. But that this is the implication of the above is my outlook. Sripada B.V. Narayana Maharaja has taken a similar position in his comments on Bhakti rasamrita-sindhu-bundu.
2. In Bhakti rasamrita-sindhu Rupa Goswami cites the Bhagavata, wherein it is stated that a low born person can immediately perform the duties of the highest caste once he or she has taken to bhakti. This then is a reference to the idea that bhakti has the power to remove one’s prarabdha karma and that it does so immediately. However, Sri Jiva Goswami explains that “immediately” must be qualified. He gives the example of penetrating a pile of leaves with a pin. Although it is done immediately, nonetheless each leaf is penetrated individually one after the other. Thus prarabdha karma is eradicated gradually. Sri Jiva goes on to say “What should be understood from the words “immediate destruction of sinful reactions in this life which have caused bad birth” is that there is destruction of the sufferings to be experienced in this life (caused by the bad birth) through the action of bhakti.” By this he implies that it is the suffering due to one’s prarabdha that is destroyed but not prarabdha that has determined, for example, who one’s parents are in this life. Bhakti does not change this aspect of one’s prarabdha. Thus while prarabdha and aprarabdha karma are destroyed by bhakti, nonetheless some aspects of one’s prarabdha cannot be changed until death. These aspects are the last vestige of one’s karma.
Otherwise both Sri Visvantha and Sri Jiva have commented that one’s prarabdha is removed first followed by one’s aprarabdha karma. They have done so in honoring the Bhagavata’s statement that one engaged in chanting the holy name (bhakti) is “immediately” qualified to perform karmic duties that one would otherwise not have been qualified to perform. However, the Bhagavata verse does not say that all of one’s prarabdha is immediately removed by once chanting the holy name, and it references only the removal of the prarabdha that would have inhibited one from engaging in the karmic duties of the priestly class.
Furthermore in 11.371–374 of his Hari-bhakti-vilasa Sri Sanantana Goswami has explained in his comments on the Bhagavata 6.2.46 regarding the efficacy of kirtana with regard to its power to remove karma that “Even if ‘cutter of the knots of karma’ here means ‘breaker of all prarabdha karma’, still, it is not suitable for the worship of the Lord that the body dies as it does when all prarabdha is destroyed. For this reason, what is intended is the destruction of only bad prarabdha.” It should, however, be noted that Sanatana Goswami offers other alternative understandings as well. Thus he makes it clear that there are more ways than one to think about this issue.
3. My use of the word “suspend” merely refers to the idea that karma is gradually eradicated by bhakti, and that in the course of eradicating it if one falls away from bhakti, one’s remaining karma lies in waiting to arrest one in a way that it would not have had one remained engaged in bhakti.
Gauravijaya, no I am not Edwin Bryant. That is another devotee.
Very nice article.
One question I have though – if somebody takes on the role of guru but is actually unqualified for that role, does he then accumulate the karma of his ‘disciples’?
Also Hari Bhakti Vilasa 1:70 seems to suggest that the guru does take the reactions of his sisya:
rajni camatyaja dosah patni-papam sva-bhartari
tatha sisyarjitam papam guruh prapnoti niscitam
“The faults of the counselor fall on the king, the sins of a wife fall on her husband and similarly, a spiritual master attains the sins of his disciple. That is certain.”
In this case they have a karmic relationship.
This means he has to deal with them.
Dear Maharaj. Dandavat pranams at your feet. Sri Sri Guru Gaurangau Jayatah!
I had communicated to you previously (September 2006) regarding the present topic by personal e-mail and at that time you had referred me to this piece by you which had previously appeared either in vnn or your sanga monthly Q&A newletter. If you do not mind I would like to take this opportunity to further ask and clarify some things.
Here is an excerpt from Srila Prabhupada’s “Perfect Questions Perfect Answers”
Excerpt from the book, Perfect Questions Perfect Answers, Conversations Between His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and Bob Cohen (later Brahmatirtha dasa), a Peace Corps worker in India:
Çyämasundara: One time you said that sometimes you feel sickness or pain due to the sinful activities of your devotees. Can sometimes disease be due to that? Caused by that?
Çréla Prabhupäda: You see, Kåñëa says:
ahaà tväà sarva-päpebhyo
mokñayiñyämi mä çucaù
“I will deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.” So Kåñëa is so powerful that He can immediately take up all the sins of others and immediately make them right. But when a living entity plays the part on behalf of Kåñëa, he also takes the responsibility for the sinful activities of his devotees. Therefore to become a guru is not an easy task. You see? He has to take all the poisons and absorb them. So sometimes—because he is not Kåñëa—sometimes there is some trouble. Therefore Caitanya Mahäprabhu has forbidden, “Don’t make many çiñyas, many disciples.” But for preaching work we have to accept many disciples—for expanding preaching—even if we suffer. That’s a fact. The spiritual master has to take the responsibility for all the sinful activities of his disciples. Therefore to make many disciples is a risky job unless one is able to assimilate all the sins.
kåpä-sindhubhya eva ca
vaiñëavebhyo namo namaù
[“I offer my respectful obeisances unto all the Vaiñëava devotees of the Lord. They are just like desire trees who can fulfill the desires of everyone, and they are full of compassion for the fallen conditioned souls.”] He takes responsibility for all the fallen souls. That idea is also in the Bible. Jesus Christ took all the sinful reactions of the people and sacrificed his life. That is the responsibility of a spiritual master. Because Kåñëa is Kåñëa, He is apäpa-viddha—He cannot be attacked by sinful reactions. But a living entity is sometimes subjected to their influence because he is so small. Big fire, small fire. If you put some big thing in a small fire, the fire itself may be extinguished. But in a big fire, whatever you put in is all right. The big fire can consume anything.
Bob: Christ’s suffering was of that nature?
Çréla Prabhupäda: Mm-m?
Bob: Was Christ’s suffering—
Çréla Prabhupäda: That I have already explained. He took the sinful reactions of all the people. Therefore he suffered.
Bob: I see.
Çréla Prabhupäda: He said—that is in the Bible—that he took all the sinful reactions of the people and sacrificed his life. But these Christian people have made it a law for Christ to suffer while they do all nonsense. [Bob gives a short laugh.] Such great fools they are! They have let Jesus Christ make a contract for taking all their sinful reactions so they can go on with all nonsense. That is their religion. Christ was so magnanimous that he took all their sins and suffered, but that does not induce them to stop all these sins. They have not come to that sense. They have taken it very easily. “Let Lord Jesus Christ suffer, and we’ll do all nonsense.” Is it not?
Bob: It is so.
Çréla Prabhupäda: They should have been ashamed: “Lord Jesus Christ suffered for us, but we are continuing the sinful activities.” He told everyone, “Thou shalt not kill,” but they are indulging in killing, thinking, “Lord Jesus Christ will excuse us and take all the sinful reactions.” This is going on. We should be very much cautious: “For my sinful actions my spiritual master will suffer, so I’ll not commit even a pinch of sinful activities.” That is the duty of the disciple. After initiation, all sinful reaction is finished. Now if he again commits sinful activities, his spiritual master has to suffer. A disciple should be sympathetic and consider this. “For my sinful activities, my spiritual master will suffer.” If the spiritual master is attacked by some disease, it is due to the sinful activities of others. “Don’t make many disciples.” But we do it because we are preaching. Never mind—let us suffer—still we shall accept them. Therefore your question was—when I suffer is it due to my past misdeeds? Was it not? That is my misdeed—that I accepted some disciples who are nonsense. That is my misdeed.
Bob: This happens on occasions?
Çréla Prabhupäda: Yes. This is sure to happen because we are accepting so many men. It is the duty of the disciples to be cautious. “My spiritual master has saved me. I should not put him again into suffering.” When the spiritual master is in suffering, Kåñëa saves him. Kåñëa thinks, “Oh, he has taken so much responsibility for delivering a fallen person.” So Kåñëa is there.
na me bhaktaù praëaçyati
[“O son of Kunté, declare it boldly that My devotee never perishes.”] Because the spiritual master takes the risk on account of Kåñëa.
Bob: Your suffering is not the same kind of pain…
Çréla Prabhupäda: No, it is not due to karma. The pain is there sometimes, so that the disciples may know, “Due to our sinful activities, our spiritual master is suffering.”
Bob: You look very well now.
Çréla Prabhupäda: I am always well… in the sense that even if there is suffering, I know Kåñëa will protect me. But this suffering is not due to my sinful activities.
I had pointed this passage out to you for some discussion. Here it appears that Prabhupada when he says that “He [the guru] has to take all the poisons and absorb them. So sometimes—because he is not Kåñëa—sometimes there is some trouble”, it appears that he is using a particular preaching strategy and not necessarily preaching siddhanta. Do you agree with this assessment Maharaj?
You had mentioned to me that Srila Prabhupada preached in different ways at different times to different people, and that the conversation with Bob Cohen is an example of his preaching to someone whom he assumed was coming from a Christian background, someone to whom he chose to emphasize the importance of following the discipline of the guru after initiation.
However, as you know, many people in ISKCON take everything Prabhupada said at face value and as gospel truth without any distinction between siddhanta and preaching strategy.
There is also the following discussion by HH Devamrita Swami:
This discussion also I believe represents many common misunderstandings.
However, could you please explain statement below from the purport of Srimad Bhagavatam?
A devotee sometimes accepts a sinful person as his disciple, and to counteract the sinful reactions he accepts from the disciple, he has to see a bad dream. Nonetheless, the spiritual master is so kind that in spite of having bad dreams due to the sinful disciple, he accepts this troublesome business for the deliverance of the victims of Kali-yuga.” (S. bhag. 8.4.15 purport)
How can this be harmonized with the siddhanta expressed in your article that the sad-guru never has to experience karma of his disciples in a Christ-like manner. Can this be an example of a distubance in the guru’s bhajan?
I would appreciate any comments/clarifications you can provide in this regard.
Radha Krsna dasa
Radha Krsna das wrote:
Basically in all that you have cited Prabhupada is pointing out that Krsna never suffers the karma of others but someone who is less than Krsna yet acting on his behalf may suffer in some way. This means that the guru’s bhajana may be disturbed or that he or she is not fully representing Krsna. In the latter case, less than fully qualified gurus may suffer (such as in dreams) and fully qualified ones may speak as if they are not fully qualified out of humility and realization of how perfect Krsna is. They don’t suffer the karma of their students because they fully represent Krsna, but they may feel themselves unqualified and speak accordingly.