“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, Bhagavad-gita, 4.34)
“God isn’t real. God is just a figment of the imagination. God is everything. I am God and so are you. Religion is the opiate of the masses. It was created as a way of coping with the knowledge of inevitable death. Trust in the savior and everything will be okay. Just be a good person and you’ll go to heaven in the next life.”
With these different theories, how to know who is correct? How to validate something that is beyond comprehension? In the Vedic tradition emphasis is put on the need for a guru. This is the spiritual guide, as guru can also refer to any person who is generally offered respect.
The concept should not be foreign to us. Advancement in practically every area of life comes through the help of some authority figure. Even the geniuses of science and technology needed to be taught how to read and write. They weren’t suddenly enlightened through being struck by lightning. There was an instructional period, and the person offering the instruction was an acknowledged authority figure.
The idea is that the concept of the Almighty is too complex to be learned through the ascending process of knowledge. There is too much information to consume, as the infinite nature of time ensures that no one will ever be able to know everything. In addition to ingesting the information, there is the issue of processing. Man tries his best to notice patterns and then make predictions based on them, but there is always something new arising. That is the nature of progress, after all.
The descending process is the only way to truly know God. The knowledge descends from authority figures, with the current link known as the guru. Nowhere in Vedic literature is it stated that a person should simply meditate and become enlightened within. Meditation is recommended, as it is beneficial in so many ways. But without proper guidance from authority, meditation will not be done properly.
Let’s say that a person acknowledges the need for acceptance of a spiritual master. What exactly is the nature of the relationship? What is important to establish? There are two kinds of relationships after a person has come closer to the guru, with the formal move known as upanayana.
1. Physical proximity
This is not difficult to understand. You are close to the guru. You are constantly by their side. The recommendation from the Bhagavad-gita to approach a knower of the truth is taken literally. The benefit to this relationship is that direct service can be rendered, particularly to the body of the spiritual master.
You can make their life a little easier. You can ask questions directly. You can watch how the guru behaves. If the spiritual guide is an acharya, then they also lead by example. Ideally, there will be an easier time following the instructions since the teacher is right next to you.
Physical proximity is not automatically a ticket to enlightenment, however. I can be close to a well and remain thirsty. I can be standing right next to the refrigerator in the kitchen and remain hungry for hours and hours. Just because you are near someone doesn’t mean that you understand them. In fact, you could be the greatest enemy to the guru, remaining close by so that when they pass on you can assume their role of leader of the students.
2. Philosophical proximity
This is where you are in line with the guru’s desires. They ask you to constantly chant the holy names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. They request that you always remain conscious of Krishna, which is one name for God. They ask that you speak about bhakti, devotion, and the spiritual science wherever you go and to whomever you encounter.
This relationship is more beneficial because it doesn’t necessarily require the physical presence of the guide. Moreover, the goal of the teacher is to get this very alignment. They are not so interested in having someone follow them around. They would rather the world become infused with the bhakti spirit, since that is the solution to all problems. Mankind’s difficulties can be traced back to their forgetfulness of God, who is the best well-wishing friend. Proximity in consciousness with Him, in the link known as yoga, is the aim of the human form of life.
Enlightened never by itself inspired,
Shastra declaring that guru required.
Not guaranteed for bhakti affinity,
When serving him in close proximity.
Better in philosophy to match,
Acting for God’s attention to catch.
Most happy when in this occupation to see,
Knowing that in devotion only happy can be.
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