“When the parampara system was lost, Arjuna was again selected to rejuvenate it. The acceptance of Arjuna of all that Krishna says should be emulated; then we can understand the essence of Bhagavad-gita, and then only can we understand that Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 10.14 Purport)
It’s a fine day in the neighborhood. It’s calm and peaceful and the weather is nice. As usual, the morning paper arrives at the door. On this day, the young son picks it up, imitating the actions of the father. They flip through the pages, pretending to be reading. But in fact, they have yet to learn reading and writing. They can only look at the words. If this person spent an entire year looking at the same words, would they suddenly learn how to read? This example can be used to help explain how the parampara system is needed for understanding the king of education that is the Bhagavad-gita.
pavitram idam uttamam
su-sukhaṁ kartum avyayam
“This knowledge is the king of education, the most secret of all secrets. It is the purest knowledge, and because it gives direct perception of the self by realization, it is the perfection of religion. It is everlasting, and it is joyfully performed.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.2)
Today the Bhagavad-gita is merely words, after all. Though originally spoken by Shri Krishna and then heard by Arjuna, in the book form the content is characters and symbols. A person who knows Sanskrit can decode the text and produce the exact same sounds that came out of the mouth of Shri Krishna, but does this mean that they will understand the words?
The question is an interesting one, as the words were put into book form for a reason. Why write something down if you don’t want anyone to read it later on? If I leave a note on the front door telling the delivery man to leave the package at the doorstep, what more is needed? Is further elaboration required? Why is it not the same with the texts of the Vedic tradition? Why are there commentaries included with the translations?
tad viddhi praṇipātena
upadekṣyanti te jñānaṁ
“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.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 4.34)
The answer can be found within the Gita itself. Shri Krishna advises Arjuna to seek out a spiritual master. The guru has seen the truth and can thus impart the same knowledge to the disciple. Armed with that knowledge, the recipient ideally can one day attain the same realization. Krishna does not advise Arjuna to contemplate the matter over and become enlightened on his own effort. He does not say that one day things will magically appear within Arjuna’s mind.
The spiritual master has seen the highest truth, the supreme spiritual force running through the entire cosmos. That supreme spirit is within both the tiny room and the infinitely vast outer space. He is within the heart of the ant and also the heart of the elephant. He is present in both the dumb and the genius.
Such an incomprehensible force can only be understood through proper authority. The human mind cannot come to the realization on its own. What makes an authority, then? To whom should we go? How can we tell if someone has seen the truth? Parampara, or disciplic succession, is valid when it has its root at the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Shri Krishna is that root, for He explains in the Gita that the wisdom given to Arjuna existed long before their time together on earth.
imaṁ vivasvate yogaṁ
proktavān aham avyayam
vivasvān manave prāha
manur ikṣvākave ‘bravīt
“The Blessed Lord said: I instructed this imperishable science of yoga to the sun-god, Vivasvan, and Vivasvan instructed it to Manu, the father of mankind, and Manu in turn instructed it to Ikshvaku.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 4.1)
The guru is authorized to present works like the Bhagavad-gita because they are familiar with the underlying culture. A simple parsing of words will not bring the real meaning to the verses. Realization comes from practice, and practice done under authority yields the desired result. A person who sees duality, who thinks in terms of friends and enemies, my nation against your nation, cannot possibly understand the energy that transcends birth and death and everything in between. They can’t possibly understand how a personality is behind the creation and destruction of the universe and how that supreme individual can have features that are not limiting.
What to speak of a single lifetime, if the same individual were to spend thousands of years reading only the verses of the Bhagavad-gita they are not guaranteed to come to the proper conclusion. The true meaning to the work is given in the concluding verses, where Shri Krishna advises Arjuna to abandon all varieties of religion and surrender unto Him.
mām ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja
ahaṁ tvāṁ sarva-pāpebhyo
mokṣayiṣyāmi mā śucaḥ
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 18.66)
One who reads the Bhagavad-gita but fails to understand that Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead has not derived the proper meaning. They can read the same book hundreds of more times and still not reach the right end. Yet by hearing from the proper authority source, who follows the mood of Arjuna, the right understanding can come very quickly. It is for this reason that the acharyas of the Vaishnava tradition are considered so benevolent. They adjust to the time and circumstance to make the complex understandable, to give to every person their birthright: pure love and devotion to God.
Child newspaper in hand to take,
Then attempt at reading to make.
With so much invested despite,
Failing since lacking proper sight.
With Bhagavad-gita same to apply,
Never to understand no matter how hard to try.
But when bona fide spiritual master going through,
Only then the proper conclusion coming to you.