Only the unattainable guru makes no mistakes
Posted May 29, 2004
With Zachary Sunderman ("To be a Guru") I read the straightforward letter from my elder godbrother Satsvarupa das Goswami on the Chakra web site. My reaction, however, was different from Mr. Sunderman's. I appreciate that he has written with respect and affection, whilst pointing out that, in his opinion, any stain of imperfection would disqualify a guru from his or her teaching position. "If the guru turns out to be a normal human being, then there's no gain in being his disciple," he writes.
From the point of view of a beginning disciple, it is very easy for the relationship with one's guru to degenerate into hero-worship. The saying is, "Love is blind." For a newborn baby the mother seems scarcely more than an extension of herself, existing only for her benefit. When the child becomes somewhat more mature, she may experience feelings of rebellion, even anger, toward her parent; at a still more mature level, she has forged a new relationship between adults in which there is an element of friendship and understanding combined with mutual respect and, if anything, a deepening of the love she felt as an infant. A newlywed sees his or her spouse in the light of utterly unrealistic adoration. The flaws which darken the heart of every jiva soul become more apparent after long familiarity. If, however, a couple can weather the strains that develop over years and rededicate themselves to each other in maturity, normally such familiarity awakens not contempt, but a real appreciation for hundreds of wonderful unsuspected qualities in the beloved of which they were unaware at the time of marriage.
Just as with other relationships, an immature devotee sees the guru in an artificial light; the guru may seem wholly other, of a different nature, than such mere jivas as oneself. It is a common tendency to focus total energy upon a person embodying all one's aspirations of the moment. Yet, there should be a qualitative difference between a spiritual relationship and the idolatry of a favourite singer or movie star, or a "crush" whose object is one's favourite middle school teacher. A feeling that one's guru is unfailingly, absolutely perfect may help a neophyte to aspire to the same perfection he projects upon his guru; it may help one to follow sincerely the path of spiritual growth the guru has outlined, to observe the yamas (inoffensiveness, honesty, trustworthiness, sense control and readiness to share) and niyamas (cleanliness, contentment, determined practice, introspective study, and service to Sri Krsna), to learn the sastra and traditional commentaries from which the guru preaches -- in short, to develop the true discipline and manifest the good qualities essential to progress.
It is not good, however, to remain forever a neophyte. This is a sort of arrested development all too common within many spiritual groups, ISKCON, unfortunately, included. A better plan is continued mutual development, well expressed by Robert Browning in his poem "Rabbi Ben Ezra", which begins with this lovely verse:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith, "A whole I planned;
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!"
The guru is not simply to be forever idealised as an unattainable goal; this is, in fact, little more than a romantic projection, akin to the feelings of Tristan projected upon Iseult, rather than a genuine caring for the remotely conceived person embodied within the guru concept. Guru-worship for its own end, rather than a vehicle to develop one's own guru-ness through service and introspection, amounts to the ego-annihilation of the mayavadin.
Mr. Sunderman does not condemn Satsvarupa Maharaja for his little lapse in service; this shows mercy and broadmindedness -- good qualities in a devotee. Another essay could be written on the problems of sannyas in the modern era. For now, suffice it to say that teaching people to repress, deny or hate the physical expression of love is a sufficient condition for developing a diminished self; an artificial imposition on the mind will occasion a festering sore in the heart. Srila Prabhupada acknowledged that awarding sannyas to young men was in the nature of an "experiment", for the purpose of preaching. Unfortunately, that experiment has been largely a failure, and sannyas should now be restricted to those who have lived at least fifty years as devotees, who have experienced and fulfilled the responsibilities of a healthy marriage, who have made generous provision for their dependents, and who have the freely offered consent of their spouse. Satsvarupa Maharaja, however, despite taking sannyas at a tender age, has led a largely exemplary life and qualifies as one of the successes of Prabhupada's experiment.
For Mr. Sunderman, "A guru is not supposed to be someone who is imperfect, prone to error, able to fall into the darker side." This is an idealised view of the guru, but, as Mr. Sunderman himself points out, "We have to face the fact that it isn't easy to find a real guru who fits this description."
In a very real sense, however, the phenomenon of the apotheosis of ISKCON's Founder Acarya A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, by unanimous agreement a genuine guru, had already begun taking place within his lifetime among us. As a longtime disciple of His Divine Grace, I had, and still have, no difficulty deferring to his perfect understanding of spiritual matters, as well as to his generally sound guidance on material matters. But I must take issue with those who claim Srila Prabhupada to have been perfect, free of error, or unable to fall into darkness.
He was certainly not perfect in his judgment of people -- many, many of my godbrothers were callow youths unworthy of the responsibilities he placed into their hands, and some of those disciples actively and overtly abused his trust in them. Neither was Srila Prabhupada utterly free of error -- on material matters, he sometimes repeated hoary and factually incorrect canards such as the theory, refutable by any student of anatomy, that women's brains are smaller than those of men. Nor was Srila Prabhupada beyond the sway of darkness -- he lent unnecessary credence to such risible nonsense as astrology and, by his excessive aversion to science and modern medicine, caused many devotees to waste time (and ISKCON's reputation) in alleging the supposed falsity of lunar landings or in futile attempts to disprove the evolution of species, and even to risk their lives in the hands of charlatan "faith healers". He perpetuated false myths such as the alleged uncontaminability of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers, which, while as vital to India as ever, are now among the most heavily industrially-polluted rivers in the world.
So I disagree with Mr. Sunderman's theory that a guru is not someone about whom we can say, "Well, he's human." Srila Prabhupada was, is, and will forever be the guru of the thousands of disciples he initiated during his twelve years in our midst; through his books he will be the siksa-guru for many millions of other devotees into the future, but he was a human being. As such, he ate, slept, farted, scratched and picked his nose, exactly as do billions of other human beings on this small blue-green planet.
What set Prabhupada apart from others, including other teachers who later got cult followings in the West, was that his teachings were grounded in scholarship -- "guru, sadhu and sastra." and that his teachings were generally sound, since he willingly adjusted "according to time, place and circumstance." Perhaps it was from some lamentable tendency to compare Srila Prabhupada to the trumped-up godmen who alleged divinity on the basis of magic tricks like powdering ashes with their hands or palming cheap electroplate rings, or because they were young men groomed by grasping parents for the role of alleged "guru", or because they had taken a vow of silence, or wore a turban and beard, that things "went off the rails." We saw all too readily the failings of these pretenders, and justifiably wanted to set Prabhupada wholly apart. Seeing the many imitators as obviously -- even laughably -- imperfect, many of us incorrectly attributed utter perfection to our own guru -- and, in the process, set an impossible standard for his successors.
Finally, Mr. Sunderman writes, "We shouldn't have to stand by our guru as he corrects his spiritual life -- it makes no sense for the disciples to have to guide and support the spiritual master. It is the other way around." But love is not a one-way path. The disciples do, in fact, "guide and support the spiritual master." A guru readily acknowledges his debt to his disciples, and with more genuine humility than many of them acknowledge their debt to their guru. Just as the guru must admonish the disciple who falls into error, the disciple must also correct the guru who commits an error. Whilst this is, admittedly, not an easy thing to do in the atmosphere of adoration that readily develops around an avuncular and wise personality, Srila Prabhupada himself provided opportunities for his disciples to correct his understanding from time to time. He was not trying to develop a mere coterie of sycophants, but intelligent, mature devotees who knew sastra, who could write persuasively and who could engage in debate. When he asked a question, it was not to humiliate a disciple, but to provide an educative moment, and often the education went both ways.
In the Invocation to the Sri Svetasvatara Upanisad, the disciple and guru pray jointly for protection and education through spiritual strength and ongoing study on the part of both student and teacher in a spirit of mutual goodwill. We would do well, in this regard, to take that idea as our motto and guiding principle.