Catholic guru-tattva

25 04 2020

Because the Supreme Personality of Godhead does not actually touch or mix with matter, there are three intersections of Krishna and the material manifestation that are the hardest nuts to crack theologically. The first is Siva-tattva: in Krishna consciousness, Lord Shiva is the Supreme Personality of Godhead as He touches and mixes with matter. Shiva presides over the mode of ignorance (tamas), He is God as He works in matter. That is why in the Puranas He is known as Mahadeva, the Great God. But He is not Krishna: if Krishna is milk, Shiva is yogurt which is milk altered in a process to make it “not-milk”. Nevertheless, Shiva is unique in the material manifestation: He stands on the border between the spiritual and material worlds.

Dhama-tattva is the second intersection. In Gaudiya theology, Krishna is non-different from His qualities, His entourage, His dress, His paraphernalia, etc. This includes the land itself, Goloka Vrindavan, Krishna’s stomping ground filled with cows and those who take care of them. Vrindavan is also Krishna, it’s spiritual and not material. Krishna is also other sacred places associated with His pastimes: Mathura, Dwarka, Jagannath Puri, and so on. Vrindavan is an actual town here on Earth, called specifically Gokula Vrindavan to distinguish it from the one in the spiritual sky. Is it the same or different from the other spiritual one? For the purposes of those trapped in the material world, it’s the same, to the point that those who die in Vrindavan return after death to spiritual Vrindavan, the Eternal Abode of Krishna. But there are fallen people in the earthly Vrindavan, pigs that eat stool, rats, etc. What about all of them? They are spiritual and not material. It also looks like just another dirty modern city. That doesn’t matter. Why? Well, that’s the mystery. It is said that even the bad people in Vrindavan, the drunkards and fornicators, get reborn as dogs or pigs in their next life, but still in Vrindavan, and once they die in that body, they go straight to Goloka Vrindavan.

The third intersection is guru-tattva: the spiritual master who is as good as God but not God. The guru is the eternal servant of Krishna. The brahmana or Vaisnava is not Krishna, but even Krishna wills more the worship of His servants rather than His own worship. Towards the end of the Seventh Canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam, Srila Prabhupada writes the following about the true devotee:

From the Vedas we learn that the Personality of Godhead is the Supreme Person. Every living entity is an individual person, and the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Kṛṣṇa, is the Supreme Person. A brāhmaṇa who is well versed in Vedic knowledge and fully conversant with transcendental matters becomes a representative of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and therefore one should worship such a brāhmaṇa or Vaiṣṇava. A Vaiṣṇava is superior to a brāhmaṇa because whereas a brāhmaṇa knows that he is Brahman, not matter, a Vaiṣṇava knows that he is not only Brahman but also an eternal servant of the Supreme Brahman. Therefore, worship of a Vaiṣṇava is superior to worship of the Deity in the temple. Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura says, sākṣād dharitvena samasta-śāstraiḥ: in all the scriptures the spiritual master, who is the best of the brāhmaṇas, the best of the Vaiṣṇavas, is considered to be as good as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This does not mean, however, that the Vaiṣṇava thinks himself God, for this is blasphemous. Although a brāhmaṇa or Vaiṣṇava is worshiped as being as good as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, such a devotee always remains a faithful servant of the Lord and never tries to enjoy the prestige that might accrue to him from being the Supreme Lord’s representative.

This thought is continued in the following purport:

…The brāhmaṇas preach the cult of Kṛṣṇa consciousness all around the world, and therefore, although they worship Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the Lord also recognizes them as worshipable. The relationship is reciprocal. The brāhmaṇas want to worship Kṛṣṇa, and similarly Kṛṣṇa wants to worship the brāhmaṇas. In conclusion, therefore, brāhmaṇas and Vaiṣṇavas who are engaged in preaching the glories of the Lord must be worshiped by religionists, philosophers and people in general…

I have not spoken much about this essential aspect of Krishna consciousness, so I will address it now. In every authentic religious path, you never, ever get to where you need to go by yourself. And no, you can’t just grab a book to guide you. You actually need a living, breathing person to lead you over the bridge of nescience and onto the path of knowledge. You are not going to get there by yourself. So that is why you owe more to that person than you owe to God, in one sense at least. This person is none other than the spiritual master or guru. Once you surrender to your guru, he absorbs your sins, but in exchange, you do whatever he says, you never doubt him, and you renounce your own will in favor of his. And only in that way are you delivered. Srila Prabhupada once asked a group of his disciples who is stronger than Lord Balarama (Krishna’s brother and also the Supreme Personality of Godhead). “I am,” Srila Prabhupada replied, “Because I brought Lord Balarama to you.”

He [the guru] who has given us the gift of transcendental vision is our lord, birth after birth. It is by his mercy that divine knowledge is revealed within our hearts, bestowing pure love for Krishna and destroying ignorance. The Vedic scriptures sing of his character.

That’s a very beautiful ideal, but the reality is very, very sloppy. In Kali Yuga, “the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not,” but the darkness still gives it its best shot. It seems as if every time a breakthrough in Krishna consciousness happened, it was covered up again for centuries. Lord Chaitanya’s appearance in the fifteenth century was followed by a largely dormant period of decadence until the revival of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in the 19th century, which subsequently lapsed again after the death of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura in the 1930’s. A revival had to wait until one of Bhaktisiddhanta’s disciples crossed an ocean and made “Hare Krishna” into a household word.

Even after the initial explosion of the Hare Krishna movement, it almost fell apart completely with the disappearance of Srila Prabhupada from the material world. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) decided that eleven inexperienced young men should divide the movement among themselves as Zonal Acharyas after Srila Prabhupada’s departure, and the results were largely disastrous. Many of these supposed pure devotees fell due to the abuse of drugs and sex. Some were involved in various crimes, one went to prison, and a few left the movement entirely. They had been declared pure devotees by fiat, and instead of becoming like their spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, they wanted to be Prabhupada, to their own spiritual and psychological detriment. The devotees of these Zonal Acharyas had to weather a turbulent spiritual storm. Many left the movement as well, and those who decided to stay often sought initiation from other gurus after their initial gurus “fell down”.

Eventually ISKCON backpedaled on the whole concept of the Zonal Acharya, and now it has in place a hybrid system of approved gurus that the Governing Body Commission (GBC) signs off on. Many have complained about this, but the idea goes back to Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati himself, and failure to have a bureaucratic apparatus overseeing things may just devolve into infighting among rival gurus. It’s not a perfect system: How do you consider a man as good as God, yet he is still under the authority of a governing board elsewhere?

This particular issue has fascinated me because it was a rather contentious matter in my own life. Especially in my engagement with Eastern Orthodoxy, I had this idea that I would find my own spiritual father who would save me from myself. Of course, that did not happen, and it is probably best not to formulate the issue in that way. All the same, I knew that I could not make it on my own on one level, but at some point, I just gave up looking for guidance. After that, I was sort of between things, and honestly, I’m still there.

In the West, the idea of the guru is most synonymous with the idea of the Founder. From the time of St. Benedict, groups of men and women pursuing consecrated holiness have put themselves under a particular person who established a Rule of Life. The Rule is like the impersonalized Guru: it’s his way of continuing to lead after he is gone. The religious house or order then takes on a special charism given to it by the Founder, and spiritual progress is measured by faithfulness to the Rule. However, it always helps to get the Founder canonized by the Church as soon as possible: that gives the Rule and the Order the divine seal of approval. And from here we get orders like the Benedictines, the Dominicans, the Carmelites, etc.

There is also the expectation that the clergy in general must be set apart and perhaps the holiest echelon of society due to its intimate contact with the Holy Mysteries. In the Christian East, there was a realistic expectation that personal holiness was something that was more likely found in the monastic cell than on the altar. In the West, due to a greatly emphasized Eucharistic theology, the priest became the locus of holiness for the Catholic mind. Contemplative monasticism itself, especially for men, was less appreciated outside the ability to contribute to an active apostolate. Even among contemplative nuns, their spirituality was often defined by how much they “prayed for priests”.

It was perhaps inevitable that the Pope would be deemed the Highest Priest and thus spiritual father of all Christendom, This could be due in part to an interpretation of Christ’s injunction to St. Peter to “feed my sheep”. But as with the whole guru issue, there are good Popes and bad Popes, and legions of theologians willing to explain all of the distinctions between them. The Pope may not be as good as God, but he speaks for Him. I don’t want to get into the fine print of the theology at this point. I bring it up only to express once again that Catholics in the last two hundred years have given an unwarranted amount of consideration to the Office of the Papacy, as if it could save Catholics from themselves and be a beacon of certainty in uncertain times. I don’t think any office can do that, at least not where it counts.

Another intention that I have here is to address the issue of authority especially among the “laity” in the era of social media. Arguably wayward followers have always been unnecessarily critical of their leaders. Social media is a recent development that allows people to communicate their opinion to great numbers of people easily and it also allows others to almost instantaneously react to that opinion. There is a reason why silence was a characteristic of the cloister, and it was also a characteristic of the disciple before his guru. There is no way that one comes out spiritually unscathed from talk and communication in general: if you speak enough, your speech becomes idle talk ipso facto. Speech is addictive, the sense of being heard is a rush, and it almost inevitably builds up the ego.

We live in a time when commentators, both paid and unpaid, can build followings of thousands online, and those followings further bolster the pride of the followed. It seems that one of the best ways to build a following is to criticize. If you set yourself up as the righteous crusader against an uncaring and heretical establishment, people who also feel wronged will flock to fight under your banner out of righteous indignation, or at least give you money to do so. Not only are you doing “God’s work,” but you are even getting paid to do it. You’re building a cottage industry by doing the right thing, just like Jesus expelling the money changers from the temple. Or so you tell yourself.

My main concern against the new class of mercenary commentators is “Where does it end?” If you make your living (either materially or merely psychologically) from tearing down established authority because of its transgressions, are you ever going to find an instance when you’re going to say: “You know what, I’m just going to shut up and obey now. I’ve said enough.” Yes, some of the issues are really serious, and it doesn’t seem like anyone is watching the watchers. But how long is too long to carry on a crusade? When will the guru ever be good enough for you? And isn’t the fact that you’re getting paid, either in clicks or something more lucrative, mean that you have no actual incentive to stop?

I’m not going to turn this into a personal “pity party”, but I’ve been burned by “gurus” (not in the classical Vedic sense) more than once. I have a hard time putting faith in anyone but myself and my own conscience at this point. I used to think that this was the healthiest option, until I concluded it wasn’t. Most importantly, I learned that finding the right spiritual guide is a two-way street. The cliche in India is that when the disciple is ready, the guru appears. One must aspire to discipleship, it doesn’t just fall in your lap because you think about it once in a while. You have to be worthy of the guru. Or you must be worthy of a pure Church or institution. It takes work to be a sheep, you have to choose to follow the shepherd due to a profound and unwavering conviction that you can’t get there on your own.

In 2020, I have to mention the necessary stipulation that, of course, in some circumstances the misbehavior of superiors might be serious enough to merit a challenge. I don’t have to elaborate on this, but my contention is that the stick gets bent towards the side of challenge too often due to the nature of our social interactions. We’re all little masters, little kings, who don’t want to give up our crowns. This is really, really hard for me to accept given my personal history. But at a certain point, I’m just going to have to surrender. And the fact that I can’t at this point is a personal problem that is the result of bad decisions that I have to play out. So be it.

This is a great act of faith, but it becomes less burdensome on the intellect once consideration is given to one’s own pettiness and vices. To cite another cliche, you get the leaders you deserve. Be better, and maybe the Lord will send you a worthy guide. Or you could just wallow in a spirit of endless criticism and victimhood and see where that gets you. At a certain point, if you keep looking at trash, you become trash. Once you realize that life is short and you aren’t given much time here, the Lord will enter your life through a real personal relationship that will transform you.

I don’t know if I have ever seen the perfect, but I know it exists. I know that there is someone out there who is better than I am, closer to the Lord, and that’s the only thing that keeps me going. Otherwise I am lost.



3 responses

10 03 2021
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Catholic guru-tattva | Reditus

18 12 2020
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Catholic guru-tattva | Reditus

21 11 2020 said said

Catholic guru-tattva | Reditus

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