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Question: In Amrita Vani by Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur I found the following passage:

To consider the spiritual master an ordinary human being is the gravest, most deadly offence one can commit when chanting the holy name. If we consider the spiritual master a mortal being, we will never profit from our practices. Rather, various obstacles and problems will surface and drown us in an ocean of material desire. No one other than the spiritual master is capable of protecting us from bad association. Because the living entities consider the spiritual master an ordinary human being, they are unable to surrender to his lotus feet.

So, my question is: why is this the deadliest offense? What does it mean not to see Guru as a mortal human being?

Answer: Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur wants to emphasize the connection between the guru and the mantra. This is a common theme in our tradition that as we chant a mantra, we want to remember how we received that mantra. It is not that we receive a mantra and say, “Thank you, now I am out and away, goodbye, Guru Maharaja!” In a way, we are always receiving the mantra. It is like we are always receiving the mantra as the sun rays are always shining on us. In this case, of course, it is the maha-mantra which the guru receives from the guru parampara. Srila Prabhupada has said on at least one occasion that anyone who is chanting the maha-mantra, it is to be understood that that person has received the mercy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. It is, of course, an over-interpretation, but it is, in a sense, like they have received initiation from Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.

What do ‘ordinary’ and ‘not ordinary’ mean in regard to the guru? That is a big topic and sometimes it is said that two sorts of tattva are most difficult to comprehend. One is siva-tattva and the other is guru-tattva. We might wonder why is siva-tattva difficult, but that is another topic.

Why is guru-tattva difficult? Guru is understood to be, in a certain sense, non different from the Lord. Saksad dharitvenauktas tatha. haritva is the abstract form of the word Hari. Hari is a very generic name for God. It is as close as we get to the word “God” in Sanskrit (however, “Hari” is a name, while “God” in English is a title). So, it is a kind of general name, and the suffix ttva at the end makes it “hari-ness”, which you can translate as “divinity”. Here you can stumble on the Jewish, Islamic, etc. notions of God where there is a profound chasm between us and God. In Indian religious notions, it is much more like a continuum. There is not this total break in between us and God. When we say divinity, it does not necessarily mean having full powers of the supreme Lord, but there is a sense of emphasizing specialness: there is something special about the guru that is extraordinary, more than what is ordinary. Samasta sastrair, the point emphasized in all sastras and said by all sages. But then the third line — kintu, “however”, prabhor yah priya eva tasya — that same person who is saksad haritva—directly divine—is, however, very dear to the Lord. In other words, dear to the Lord means different from the Lord; and there is another reason to appreciate the guru as not ordinary but extraordinary. What is that reason? Because he is dear to the Lord.

There is this very nice scholarly book by Bhrgupada Prabhu named “As Good as God”. It is about the guru in the Gaudiya tradition. He did research interviewing some forty Gaudiya Vaisnava gurus, in different Gaudiya Maths, in ISKCON, and in other branches of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, in order to unpack what it means to be guru in the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. He came up with six or seven roles that Gaudiya Vaishnava gurus perform. One of them is that the guru acts as a parent—as a father, or mother. Parents care for their children, being always concerned about their children. Another role of the guru is that he acts like a feudal lord. The third role is teacher. In India, it is common that one regards one’s teacher for a particular skill as guru. There are other gurus (for example, for music, art, Ayurveda, astrology) and there is also the sat-guru, which is of higher status. Bhrgupada Prabhu also has two further categories as roles the guru performs. One is that he is a preserver of tradition, and the opposite is that he is one who innovates in order to spread the mission. What occurred to me is that in the case of Srila Prabhupada, there is one additional role, which is entrepreneur. He was a spiritual entrepreneur. He took a role like a corporate CEO. He established a GBC and he was thinking in terms of each temple being a franchise, everything being standardized. But how does all this relate to your question?

The point is that the guru has different roles, and when Srila Bhaktisidantha Saraswati Thakur says, “This is the gravest offense,” he is emphasizing that the guru takes great responsibility for the disciple, such that he (or indeed possibly she) takes on a variety of roles to help the disciple in chanting the holy names. On the other hand, you don't want to take away from the spiritual master, his being a person. Srila Prabhupada once said that ‘liberated’ does not mean having four hands and eight legs. Just a few days ago, I was in Gainesville, Florida, where we had a conference about Vedic cosmology. There was a meeting about the museum of Bhagavata cosmology they were going to establish in the big temple in Mayapur, and there were some issues. Now the whole museum project is in the hands of some devotees who are associated with the Bhaktivedanta Institute of Higher Studies in Gainesville. Brahma Tirtha Prabhu, who directs the BIHS, invited me to attend some meetings of the museum planning group. In one of their sessions, one devotee who had been one of the leaders of our movement in our earlier years, Harikesa Swami, who is now known as Hari, was invited to come and share his memories about the exchanges he had with Srila Prabhupada about the 5th Canto because he was the personal servant when Srila Prabhupada was translating it. One point that he made that very much stuck me was that Srila Prabhupada was not pontificating or speaking like a Pope in the sense that he was saying the final word as a law. He was speaking like any devotee who was trying to make sense of the 5th Canto descriptions of the universe. They were having very open conversations on equal terms, like “we could understand like this, like that.” Hari said he could imagine Srila Prabhupada sitting in these meetings (in Gainesville) about how to understand some of these things said in the Bhagavatam, expressing himself like another devotee trying to understand, as an equal with the other devotees.

So, not ordinary, no. Extraordinary? Yes. A person? Also, yes. There is also a book by Sivarama Swami named “Siksa Guru” which should get much more attention than it has. It is compiled from different quotes from Srila Prabhupada. There are cultural differences in our society and we overly focus on diksa-guru at the expense of the siksa-gurus. It might also be a good idea for you to read this.

—From the conversation with Vraja Mohini devi dasi during the online Saturday KrKSanga on December 9, 2023