Knowledge Through Parampara

By Satyanarayana Dasa, originally published at the Jiva Institute of Vaishnava Studies.

Question: Is parampara a two way street? Many times I have heard that we should not jump over our personal Guru and go straight to the writings of the previous acaryas. Although I understand and accept that we should not have the arrogance of jumping over our Guru, I have also experienced that by understanding the teachings of the previous acaryas we can understand our own Guru’s teachings in their proper context. Therefore I am wondering if the parampara is more like a two-way street in that we need our personal Guru to understand the acaryas and also need the acaryas to understand our personal Guru. Is this a proper understanding of how the parampara works?

Answer: It is not a proper understanding because parampara is not a two-way street. Parampara is like a pipeline through which knowledge flows from its source, just like you get water through a pipe or an electric current from the source.

It is not that the teaching of our guru is different from the previous acaryas or lesser than the previous acaryas. The guru is the present presentative of the parampara, which includes the previous acaryas. The very word parampara means the conduit or medium through which the knowledge is passed from guru to disciple. In the same way, the guru represents the teachings coming from the founder of the sampradaya through an unbroken chain of guru and disciple. If one studies the works of the previous acaryas, it does not mean that one jumps over one’s own guru, unless one’s guru has specifically forbidden to study them.

We understand the teachings of the previous acaryas through our guru. Indeed, that is the function of the present guru, to impart the teachings of the previous acaryas. He or she is the carrier of that knowledge and there is no two-way street. Otherwise, why have a guru if you can understand the acaryas by reading yourself? So first one has to understand the basic teachings of one’s parampara from one’s guru, and in the light of that one can study the works of the previous acaryas (if one is not specifically forbidden to do that).

Truly speaking, whatever one learns or studies, one should do so under the guidance / permission of one’s guru. The guru is like a key which opens the doors to the teachings of the parampara. If one studies independently, one will be only influenced by one’s own material samskaras. Shastra gives us knowledge that we have not experienced in our material life. When we study shastra without the guidance of a genuine teacher, we are bound to interpret it according to our material concepts and thus we will have wrong understanding. We only have our material mind and intelligence to understand, and with these faculties we cannot understand the true import of shastra by ourselves. Therefore Krishna says that a person is conditioned by ignorance, which has no beginning, and thus the knowledge of atma, which means both, the self and God, it not possible by one’s own self. Only a guru who knows the Truth can impart this knowledge (SB 11.22.10).

It is by keeping this in mind that Prahlada says that one cannot fix one’s mind on Krsna by one’s own effort or by the effort of other unqualified people (SB 7.5.30). He continues to say that one’s awareness turns towards Krsna only by the grace of a great devotee of Krsna (SB 7.5.32). In the same vein sage Prabuddha, one of the Nava-yogendras, advises that if one is inquisitive about the Absolute Reality, one should take shelter of a genuine teacher and study from him or her (SB 11.3.21-22):

tasmad gurum prapadyeta jijnasuh sreya uttamam
sabde pare ca nisnatam brahmany upasamasrayam
tatra bhagavatan dharman siksed gurv-atma-daivatah
amayayanuvrttya yais tusyed atmatma-do harih

Similarly, Krsna also advises that one approach a qualified teacher to attain knowledge (Gita 4.34):

tad viddhi pranipatena pariprasnena sevaya
upadeksyanti te jnana jnaninas tattva-darsinah

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