Spiritual Master and the Disciple

“Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.” (Bhagavad-gita 4.34)

“According to their karma, all living entities are wandering throughout the entire universe. Some of them are being elevated to the upper planetary systems, and some are going down into the lower planetary systems. Out of many millions of wandering living entities, one who is very fortunate gets an opportunity to associate with a bona fide spiritual master by the grace of Krishna. By the mercy of both Krishna and the spiritual master, one such person receives the seed of the creeper of devotional service.” (Chaitanya-charitamrita Madhya-lila 19.151)

Who is the spiritual master?

Why do I need a spiritual master?

We cannot approach Krishna by exercising our mind, intelligence or senses. We can approach Krishna through Krishna’s representative, the spiritual master, by our inquiry, submission and service. We may speculate, experiment and perform penance and austerity, but all we’ll get is the labor we undertake. In Bhagavad-gita (11.53-54), Krishna confirms:

I cannot be known by penance, austerity nor by the study of the Vedas. Only by pure, unalloyed devotional service can I be seen as I am standing before you now.

The living entity begins the path of devotional service when he gets the opportunity to associate with a pure devotee of the Lord, the spiritual master.

brahmanda bhramite kona bhagyavan jiva
guru-krishna-prasade paya bhakti-lata-bija

The living entity wanders in different species of life on different planets throughout the universe. If he is fortunate, he meets the pure devotee of the Lord, who sows the seed of devotional service in his heart. In this way, the door to liberation is opened to him. (Chaitanya-charitamrita Madhya-lila 7.19.51)

The seed of devotional service is the holy name of the Lord. If the conditioned soul waters the seed of devotional service by chanting Hare Krishna under the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master, his creeper of devotion will grow and penetrate the layers of the universe into the spiritual world, to the planet of Krishna, where it will take shelter at the lotus feet of the Lord. There the creeper will mature and produce the fruit of devotional service: krishna-prema, or love of Krishna.

The ultimate goal of human life is to enjoy the fruit of devotional service, love of God. The instructions or aim of every scripture is to awaken our eternal relationship with the Lord. Our original love of God is pervertedly exhibited in the material world as love of women, wealth and prestige. In Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna says it is lust only that covers the real knowledge of the living entity. Lust is our original love of Krishna transformed by contact with material nature. The spiritual master knows how to transform our lusty desires back into pure love of Krishna by engaging us in devotional activities.

Krishna’s messenger

The spiritual master is the transparent medium through whom we can see Krishna. Srila Prabhupada often gave the example of spectacles. If our eyes are defective, we shall get a transparent medium in the shape of spectacles, which will help to correct our defective vision. Another example he used to give is that of the postman. The spiritual master is a messenger, or a servant of God. He delivers the message of Godhead. He never manufactures anything, and he never adulterates. His perfection is that he brings the message of Krishna without any addition or subtraction. Srila Prabhupada used to say, “Anyone can become a spiritual master. It does not depend upon mundane scholarship or any other material qualification.”

Srila Prabhupada, on account of his purity and transparency, is unknown to the world, but his message is known. Everyone knows the Hare Krishna movement. No one calls us the “Bhaktivedantas,” in the same way the followers of Sun Yung Moon are called the “Moonies” or the followers of Guru Maharaji are called “Guru Maharajis.” They call us the “Hare Krishnas.” Srila Prabhupada was so transparent that he never imposed himself or put himself forward. Once there was some discussion about different gurus, and someone mentioned Yogananda. Prabhupada said, “Who is that Yogananda? He has written a book, Autobiography of a Yogi. He is writing about himself—he is not writing about Krishna. Guru does not present himself; he presents Krishna.” That was Srila Prabhupada’s greatness. He presented the great message of the great Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna. Srila Prabhupada never cared to have his own person glorified. Once Kirtanananda Maharaja wanted to write a biography about him, but Srila Prabhupada said, “What is the use of people hearing about me? I am just an ordinary person. What benefit will they derive from hearing about me? Let them hear about Krishna.” The real qualification of the spiritual master is that he is a messenger. He does not have to manufacture anything—he only has to present Krishna’s message as it is. Srila Prabhupada used to say, “If I have any credit at all, it is that I have presented the Bhagavad-gita As It Is. I have not manufactured anything.” This feature of Srila Prabhupada distinguishes him from so many other religious teachers. All of them profess to have created something new and wonderful; whereas Srila Prabhupada never attempted to enchant people with something novel or unique. He presented Krishna consciousness as it is. Srila Prabhupada once told us how he met Swami Nikalananda, who was having a very successful following in the upper circles of New York City’s wealthy society. Nikalananda used to wear Western clothes, smoke cigarettes, drink tea and coffee. When he met Srila Prabhupada, he suggested to him, “You had better change your dress and learn how to eat with a knife and fork, because these Western people are not going to take to these old-fashioned Indian customs.” Srila Prabhupada said, “No, I will teach them how to eat with their hands.” And he did exactly that. He never compromised. He might have adjusted things, but he never compromised the principles of Krishna consciousness.

The person of the spiritual master and his Instructions

Some devotees never had the opportunity to meet Srila Prabhupada personally, but that is not a disqualification for spiritual life. One can associate with Srila Prabhupada personally on the transcendental platform through his teachings, his devotees and his movement. We sometimes hear devotees say, “I did not have any personal relationship with Srila Prabhupada. I never associated with him.” But this is a misunderstanding. The person Prabhupada and the instructions of Prabhupada, the devotees of Prabhupada and Srila Prabhupada’s mission are all one. No one should think that he does not have a personal relationship with Srila Prabhupada. How could anyone not have a personal relationship with Srila Prabhupada? He was the most dynamic, transcendental personality of this age. His personal presence has influenced the whole world from Maine to China. The stamp of Srila Prabhupada’s personality can be found in almost every major city of the world. Personally meeting Srila Prabhupada does not mean sitting next to him. So many devotees personally served Srila Prabhupada, lived with him, ate with him and spoke with him, but we do not see them in the movement now. They left, because although they enjoyed the personal, physical presence of Srila Prabhupada, they were in fact not associating with Srila Prabhupada; whereas others who simply read the books of Srila Prabhupada and met his devotees were enthusiastic and made advancement in Krishna consciousness.

Personal association is a matter of embracing the words and instructions of the spiritual master. Srila Prabhupada used to say, “The body of the spiritual master is not as important as his instructions. Worship his instructions.” He once wrote in a letter, “What we see of the activities of the spiritual master is not the spiritual master. Sometimes the moon appears to be moving behind the clouds. The clouds are moving over the moon, but it appears that the moon is moving. Actually, the moon is stationary.” Similarly, we should not see the spiritual master in a material context. We may not have talked with Srila Prabhupada, or we may not have sat in his room, but that does not mean we have no personal relationship with him. Srila Prabhupada is a transcendental personality, and he has neither friend nor enemy. He has no particular home. He is like Krishna.

Krishna says:

I envy no one, nor am I partial to anyone. I am equal to all. But whoever renders service unto Me in devotion is a friend, is in Me, and I am also a friend to him. (Bhagavad-gita 9.29)


In proportion to how much one surrenders unto Me, I reveal Myself to him. (Bhagavad-gita 4.11)

Srila Prabhupada once said, “If you love me, I love you. If you do not love me, I do not love you.” To love Srila Prabhupada means to know Srila Prabhupada. We know him by his words and deeds, not by seeing his body. We have to know him by his instructions, which are eternal. His instructions are not something secret, private or cultish. His movement is not a fan club. Whatever Srila Prabhupada instructed will remain good for all time. His devotees, or representatives, are delivering those same instructions today. Anyone who follows those instructions also has a personal relationship with Srila Prabhupada. Such a person is also a devotee of Srila Prabhupada.

How is one initiated by the spiritual master?

Initiation vows

The spiritual master has a great responsibility in accepting a person as a disciple, because the spiritual master has to accept the reactions of that person’s sinful deeds. Therefore the disciple should be responsible in accepting the spiritual master and not commit further sinful activities, so that the spiritual master does not become overburdened with reactions to sinful deeds.

During the initiation ceremony, the disciple makes a vow before the Deity and the spiritual master that he will surrender his life, body, mind, words and wealth to Krishna, God. He promises to renounce sinful activities in the form of meat eating, intoxication, illicit sex and gambling. The disciple agrees to execute the orders of the spiritual master without reservation, and especially to chant sixteen rounds and follow the regulative principles of devotional service—rising early in the morning, taking bath, attending mangal-arati, attending Srimad-Bhagavatam class, distributing books and taking prasadam.

The qualifications of the disciple are that he must be inquisitive to know the Absolute Truth, he must be submissive, and he must be prepared to render service to he spiritual master without any consideration of material prestige. In the material world, no one wants to serve anyone. Everyone is trying to enjoy the service of others.

In spiritual life, however, there is no question of accepting service, because everyone is Krishna’s servant. The disciple should never expect any concession from the spiritual master or Krishna due to his material wealth, position, nationality or any other external consideration.

Orders of the spiritual master

GUEST: Does the disciple require personal association with the spiritual master?

HANSADUTTA: The disciple has to execute the orders of the spiritual master. That is real association. To execute the orders of one’s spiritual master is real association with the spiritual master. Srila Prabhupada used to say of his spiritual master: “I only associated with him for a few minutes.” He always lamented that he did not associate with him personally and serve him personally. Still, because he was carrying out his spiritual master’s order, he associated with him on the transcendental platform. On the material platform, there is no benefit unless there is material contact, but on the spiritual platform, we are never separated.

Determination means carrying out the orders of the spiritual master. That is the life and soul of the devotee. His only possession is the order of the spiritual master, and his very life should be fixed on trying to execute that order. If one adopts this attitude, then Krishna will give him all help. To manufacture our own ideas is not good. We should carry out the orders of our spiritual

Srila Prabhupada was ordered by his spiritual master to go to the West to preach. He always desired to do that, although he had to wait so long. When he was finally able to, he was so old that he only had a few years left to live. “Still,” he decided, “let me take a chance. I will go to America and preach.” He had no hope of success, but he thought, “I have to do this, because it is my only possession. This is the order of my spiritual master.”

After Srila Prabhupada came to America, he had so much difficulty, and his situation did not seem very promising. At last, he even inquired when there would be a boat returning to India. Then he got some encouragement from some friendly acquaintances, and one thing led to another. Finally, he met someone who rendered him some practical help. He began preaching, and the Hare Krishna movement was the result.

The order of the spiritual master may sometimes transcend our understanding. We may not understand why the spiritual master is asking us to do something, and we may think it is impossible to carry out his order—it may seem extravagant or extraordinary. The attitude of the devotee should be to try, as a matter of duty, and depend on the mercy of Krishna to help him, because without the mercy of the Lord, nothing can be done, and the desire of the spiritual master is identical with that of the Lord.

Therefore the worship of the spiritual master is very important. Without the mercy of the spiritual master, nothing can be achieved. We have seen this repeatedly in our movement. Whenever someone tries to do something against the order of the spiritual master, it is always unsuccessful.

To neglect the chanting of the holy name of the Lord is disastrous. There is no excuse for neglecting the chanting of Hare Krishna. The first and foremost instruction of the spiritual master to his disciple is to chant the holy name of the Lord. At the time of initiation, the spiritual master instructs his disciple, “Chant sixteen rounds on your beads every day and be happy.” He does not ask him to do anything else. Of course, the disciple has to follow four principles—no meat eating, no intoxication, no illicit sex and no gambling—but that is not difficult. The spiritual master does not ask him to do anything except chant sixteen rounds and be happy.

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