Question: Is it correct to say that we shouldn’t necessarily take everything our ācāryas say literally? We don’t blindly follow as Śrīla Prabhupāda has written in the purport to Bhagavad-gītā 4.34, correct?
Answer: We should accept our previous ācāryas (parama-guru etc.) in whatever way our own guru has accepted them. Having firm faith in our guru is the key to all success in Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Of course, that pre-supposes our having accepted a bona-fide spiritual master, one who knows the science of Kṛṣṇa.
tad viddhi praṇipātena paripraśnena sevayā
upadekṣyanti te jñānaṁ jñāninas tattva-darśinaḥ
“Just try to understand this knowledge by approaching a self-realised person who has seen the truth. Make submissive inquiry and render service unto him. The tattva-darśi, the seer of the truth, will instruct you and give you initiation into this sacred path.” (Gītā 4.34)
Statements by our guru, or previous ācāryas, that may be seen as relative are not the statements made regarding the Absolute Truth, but statements concerning relative topics like politics, weather, health, etc. Absolute statements about relative subjects are rare, but sometimes occur. Most statements, true or false, about relative subject matters are relative in any case.
Why ‘we don’t blindly follow’ as Śrīla Prabhupada has mentioned in the purport to Bhagavad-gītā 4.34 is in reference to not blindly accepting a spiritual master in the first place, as is the case in many instances in today’s Vaiṣṇava world. It does not refer to how one should follow the guru after having accepted initiation. If the guru is bona-fide (sad-guru) and knows the science of Kṛṣṇa, then yes – one could follow blindly, as in the case of ‘the rope is a snake.’ However, if the guru one accepts has meagre knowledge of the science of Kṛṣṇa, or has become envious of pure Vaiṣṇavas, then the disciple has to be attentive and intelligent enough to save himself.
Although Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism has spread all over the world, it can be said that it is weaker now in proper siddhānta and proper behaviour than ever before. Quantity does not always guarantee quality. The ‘big institution’ can simply become a ‘big mess’, failing in its original purpose. In fact, it is usually the case when quantity increases, quality decreases, or when quality increases, quantity will decrease. This we can see practically – the big institutions become absorbed in expanding their properties and numbers, whereas smaller independent groups of devotees and preachers, though fewer in numbers, are more concerned with quality and proper conception.
We once heard that in the ________ Mahārāja camp there were 200 devotees at a kīrtana in Los Angeles and all were crying in ecstasy! I for one did not take it seriously because I know for certain that real ‘ecstasy’ is not that common – it is very, very rare, su-durlabha. That everyone was crying, I could believe because shedding tears comes easily for sahajiyās and sentiment-mongers. But to say that they were all in ‘ecstasy’ is self-deception.
The key to everything is guru-niṣṭhā, firm faith in guru. Reading many śāstras and hearing many opinions can, and oftentimes does, become a case for bewilderment. While reading śāstra and listening to hari-kathā one should always keep in mind the question, “Who am I serving? Under who’s āśraya (shelter) am I reading and hearing hari-kathā?” Reading śāstra without āśraya of our guru is knowledge-seeking and does not produce bhakti. Here is a nice quote from Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja in that regard:
“Our Godbrother, Nisikant Sanyal said that when we are requested by a Vaiṣṇava to write or read any book, then that constitutes devotion. But when of our own accord we read any devotional book, that won’t give us devotion. That will be karma or jñāna. To surrender unconditionally to the instruction coming down to us, that is bhakti. All else is imitation. We find this warning everywhere. This we should understand. Even reading the scriptures is not devotion unless done on the order of the Vaiṣṇava. Independent reading is only knowledge-seeking.” (Follow the Angels Ch.1)
All our reading, researching, listening to hari-kathā, etc. is to one end and one end alone, and that is guru-padāśraya and guru-niṣṭhā, to take shelter at the lotus feet of Śrī Guru and His Grace with firm faith and conviction — without which, we are lost, a ship without a rudder or a captain.
yasya deve parā bhaktir yathā deve tathā gurau
tasyaite kathitā hy arthāḥ prakāśante mahātmanaḥ
“Only unto those great souls who have implicit faith in both the Lord and the spiritual master are all the imports [truths] of Vedic knowledge automatically revealed.” (Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 6.23)
Accepting the āśraya of guru is actually the first step in bhakti-yoga. If this step is omitted, then all other practices are futile. In the following verse, Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī gives us the first four steps in the practice of sādhana-bhakti.
guru-pādāśrayas tasmāt kṛṣṇa-dīkṣādi-śikṣaṇam
viśrambheṇa guroḥ sevā sādhu-vartmānu-vartanam
(1) Submission to the feet of the guru (spiritual master); (2) Receiving training from him in spiritual initiation and practices regarding Śrī Kṛṣṇa; (3) serving the spiritual master with affectionate zeal; (4) Following in the path of saints. (Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu 1.2.74)
If one has lost faith in his dīkṣā-guru due to the guru having meagre knowledge of the science of Kṛṣṇa, having abandoned the principles of bhakti-yoga or having become envious of the pure Vaiṣṇavas, then one may be left with little recourse but to take shelter of the holy name and the śāstra. However, the example of being cast into the ocean without a boat or a captain is appropriate here. In the ocean a life-jacket, or even a lifeboat, may keep one afloat for some time, but not forever – one must reach land or board another ship sooner or later, otherwise death is certain. One cannot simply float around the ocean forever. Similarly, if one has lost faith in his guru for genuine reasons, then taking shelter of the holy name and the śāstra will sustain one for some time, but not for all time. With the help of the holy name, śāstra and sincerity within, we must again find the āśraya of sad-guru. Otherwise, we remain in limbo. We may attain some karma-miśra-bhakti or jñāna-miśra-bhakti, but we will never reach the goal of jñāna-śūnya-bhakti, pure devotional service. Guru-pādāśraya is the greatest of our necessities to be fulfilled.
Question: In one place, Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja has said –
“The position of ācārya is a relative thing, and the position of the disciple is also relative, just like the relationship between mother and child, father and son, wife and husband. Although to his godbrothers a guru will be seen in a relative position, to his disciple, the guru is absolute. So to adjust between the relative and absolute is a difficult thing; it is an eternal problem.”
Yet in another place, Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja seems to make an opposite statement, saying that the disciple sees the guru as relative –
“Otherwise, as long as possible, the rank should be respected. Both the relative and absolute consideration- side by side. The disciples should be encouraged by the relative consideration mostly. And godbrothers will have more feel for the absolute consideration.”
Answer: Yes, in this last statement Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja is explaining how to maintain the balance in a triple relationship between the ācārya, the ācārya’s godbrother and the ācārya’s disciple – a difficult relationship indeed. Śrīdhara Mahārāja says that the rank must be respected and so the godbrother gives respect to his ācārya godbrother as in the absolute position in order to encourage the newcomer. The disciple on the other hand, though normally seeing his guru as absolute, in the triple relationship, sees the relative position of his guru in that his guru and his guru’s godbrother are in fact just that – godbrothers. Śrīdhara Mahārāja explains in this way:
“In trying to understand the relationships between guru and godbrother and guru and disciple, we will find very subtle points of sentiment. Just as when Kṛṣṇa entered into the arena of Kaṁsa, he appeared differently to different persons – the disciples will have one view of their guru and his godbrothers will have another view and disposition. The disciples of a genuine guru will see their guru as being with Kṛṣṇa, but that may not be seen to his godbrothers. In mādhurya-rasa, Kṛṣṇa is seen in one way, and in vātsalya-rasa, Mother Yaśodā sees Him in another way. The servants see Him in another way. The ṛṣis like Garga Muni will see Him in another way. As Kṛṣṇa likes to show Himself, He will be seen.”
I appreciate your questions because I think you are intelligent and sincere, but at this time, I think the Lord in your heart is your best friend and guide. Search with all earnestness and you will find what you are looking for.