Why Study From a Guru?

By Babaji Satyanarayana Dasa, originally published at the Jiva Institute.

To engage in the practice of bhakti, a practitioner needs the requisite knowledge about the practice and the goal to be achieved. These are the questions that are often asked: “Does this knowledge have to be received from a qualified teacher? Is it not possible to receive the knowledge by myself with the help of books and lectures available on the internet? Why should I get entangled with a teacher? I have heard many stories about how gurus exploit their disciples in the name of surrender. I don’t want to be cheated. I like bhakti, but I don’t want to be a part of a group or an institution. I love my freedom. Why should God limit himself in a way that he can be approached only through a guru? God is for everyone and we are all equal, so can we not approach God directly?” Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī answers these questions in Anuccheda 208 of Bhakti Sandarbha. He cites a statement by Śrī Kṛṣṇa spoken to Uddhava. Below I give the translation and my commentary on it.

Translation of Anuccheda 208

Among them [the śravaṇa-guruśikṣā-guru, and mantra-guru], it is specifically by contact with the śravaṇa-guru that the immediate intuition of scriptural truths can manifest, and not otherwise, as stated by Śrī Kṛṣṇa:

ācāryo’raṇir ādyaḥ syād antevāsy uttarāraṇiḥ
tat-sandhānaṁ pravacanaṁ vidyā sandhiḥ sukhāvahaḥ

The ācārya is the lower piece of wood used for kindling a fire (ādya-araṇi); the disciple is the upper piece of wood (uttara-araṇi); instruction is the middle piece of wood used as a churning rod (tat-sandhānam); and knowledge is their union, which confers delight.

Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 11.10.12

The word ādyaḥ, lit., “the first,” means the lower piece of wood used for kindling a fire (adharaḥ araṇiḥ). The compound tat-sandhānam, lit., “their contact point,” means “the churning rod placed between these two” (tayor madhyamaṁ manthana-kāṣṭham). The word pravacanam, “spoken discourse,” means “oral instruction” (upadeśa). The word vidyā, “knowledge,” refers to the knowledge disclosed in scripture, which is manifested out of the union of these three, just as fire is generated by the contact of the lower, upper, and middle pieces of wood. 

A similar statement is found in the Śruti:

athādhi-vidyam, ācāryaḥ pūrva-rūpam antevāsy uttara-rūpam
vidyā sandhiḥ pravacanaṁ sandhānam iti adhi-vidyam

Now with regard to knowledge: The ācārya is the prior form, the disciple, the posterior; knowledge, their junction; and instruction, the medium.

Taittirīya Upaniṣad 1.3.3

Therefore, the Śruti makes the following statements [regarding the necessity of receiving knowledge from a guru]:

tad-vijñānārtham sa gurum evābhigacchet

To obtain immediate realization of the Supreme Reality, one should certainly approach a guru.

Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad 1.2.12

ācāryavān puruṣo veda

One who has accepted an ācārya becomes acquainted with the Absolute.

Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.14.2


 naiṣā tarkeṇa matir āpaneyā proktānyenaiva sujñānāya preṣṭha

O dearest one, this wisdom pertaining to the Absolute cannot be obtained by logic. Only when knowledge is received from a guru does it lead to the true understanding.

Kaṭha Upaniṣad 1.2.9

Commentary by Babaji Satyanarayana Dasa

In former times, the fire required to perform yajña was produced by churning wood of the śamī tree. This wood was called araṇi. To start the fire, friction was created between a lower piece of wood, an upper piece, and a churning rod in the center. Since at the time in question, matchboxes were not available, there was no other way of producing fire. In the same manner, there is no other way of obtaining knowledge except by approaching a guru.

In this analogy, the guru is compared to the base piece of wood, the student, to the top piece of wood, and the instruction received from the teacher, to the churning rod, since it churns the mind of the student. The knowledge generated in the student from this union is compared to fire. Just as fire was used to perform yajña, so too the knowledge received from an authentic guru leads one to the ultimate goal.

One may object that knowledge can be obtained by one’s own initiative simply by reading books. These days, most books are available in print form or on the internet. There are also audio and video lectures available. The guru was formerly needed when these were nonexistent. So, just as matchboxes or lighters are now the convenient way to ignite a fire, making the need to churn wood obsolete, so too there is no longer any need to seek knowledge from a guru. So why take the trouble to do so? 

In response to this doubt, Śrī Jīva cites the principal verse of this anuccheda to affirm the absolute necessity for taking a guru. The practice of churning wood to generate a fire was not just because matchboxes or lighters did not exist in the past, but because it was an essential part of the injunction to execute the yajña. A yajña has to be performed in the precise manner prescribed to attain the desired result. If any detail is altered, then it will not yield the desired result. In Mahābhārata (Vana-parva, Chapter 135), there is a story to illustrate the necessity of learning from a guru.

There was a brāhmaṇa boy named Yavakrīta, who refused to attend the traditional school, called a gurukula, where students go to live with a guru. When he grew up, he realized that he could not function as a brāhmaṇa without an education. On this basis, he decided that he must somehow obtain knowledge. But at this point, he did not want to go to a teacher, because he would feel somewhat ashamed to be with much younger students. He heard that it was possible to obtain anything by observing penances. So he went deep into the forest and engaged in severe penances in the hope of acquiring knowledge. Many years passed, but there was still no result. 

One day, Yavakrīta, went to the nearby river to take a dip, and there he saw an old man sitting and pouring sand from the bank into the river with his hands. Yavakrīta became curious to know what the old man was trying to achieve. He approached him and asked him why he was pouring sand into the river. The old man replied in all seriousness, “I need to cross the river. I do not know how to swim, and there are no boats available, so I have decided to build a bridge across it.” 

When the young brāhmaṇa heard this, he could not control his laughter. The old man asked him, “What is so funny? Do you think there is an easier way to cross the river?” Yavakrīta replied, “I am laughing at your ignorance. You cannot build a bridge by pouring sand into the water. Any fool knows this much.” 

At this, the old man retorted, “If you think you can obtain knowledge without approaching a guru, then I can also build a bridge in this way. I will do it by my own effort.” The brāhmaṇa was shocked to hear this. Then the old man revealed his identity as Indra, who had appeared there out of compassion for the brāhmaṇa. Indra then asked him to find a qualified guru and study the Vedas from him.

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10 Responses to Why Study From a Guru?

  1. I am confused. I thought this forum was more so for those following in the line of Bhaktivinoda Parivar. The devotee who wrote this article has a completely different conception from Bhaktivinoda Parivar, some would even say he has criticized the dust of holy feet of both BV and BSST…I am surprised to find this here.

  2. A few days ago I was meditating on what it would be like to start and / or continue without losing the appropriate harmonizing flow in this that continues resonating me about Srila Tripurari Maharaj emphasizes so much, “Details and Foundational Principles”. What clouds see the essence although the form change or complement? Connecting it in a sense to the blog of “Cast and Pure” and the video of “Universal Master”, I concluded saying to myself: I will start again and again, in the refuge of such a guru… Thank you very much. Pranama =)

    • This will be my last comment on this post, the idea is simple. The devotee who wrote the article does not believe in Bhagavat Parampara and thinks it to be bogus, therefore by collateral there is some opposition to Bhaktivinoda Parivar, even if its not direct, still it is there. We should respect him from a distance offer our pranams, not propagate his work. Propagation is a form of support.

      Respecting from a distance, that is harmonization. This is Kirtan, Kirtan means a fight, and a fight means there is some opposing party as we can see. Divine sound is in the line of Bhaktivinoda Parivar and all that oppose it should not be promoted and if there is directed attack then there should be defense.

      • I asked if you had heard him criticize out parivara. I have known him for over 25 years, and in my personal discussions with him I did not find that he was offensive to our line. And some of these discussion involved the dynamic nature of our parivara.

        I should also mention that after the passing of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, some of his leading students questioned the veracity of his diksa. This was then well received by his adversaries and years of rumor spread far and wide. Thus is is understandable that some Gaudiyas have grown up with doubts about our lineage. Our task is not to fight with them, but rather, when the opportunity presents itself, to explain our dynamic spiritual perspective and give them the historical facts they may be lacking.

        • Swami Maharaj please accept my dandavat pranams. I responded to your questions several times with my answer to only see that the system was not putting my feedback in the que. I will post my feedback again below.

          My question for you is have you never read the article by B.G. Narashinga Maharaj about the Vrindavan anti-party?

        • I am familiar with that book. It is rather adversarial. However, Satyanarayana das babaji did not feel that his position on our parivara and a number of other topics covered in the book represented his perspective accurately.

          One needs to be careful what one reads, even some things coming from our parivara.

  3. I have posted two feedbacks to this now in response to you Swami BV Tripurari Maharaj and my responses are not going through.

    • I have a longer initial response to the first question that was made by you Maharaj but the system for some reason wont let me send it through. I would like to send it to you via email.

  4. Dandavats, Is there any value in preaching without taking shelter of guru?

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