The Guru’s Gender or Agenda? What’s the Real Issue?


There has been “much ado about nothing” in regard to the appropriate gender for gurus. Should “being a guru” be allowed for females? One could just as easily ask, “Should it be allowed for males?” After all, the original guru is arguably Purnamasi. But let’s not argue over that which is literally “nothing”. We are not these bodies, which being temporary manifestations of the bahiranga sakti, are illusory (and judging by the hype, boy are we under illusion!).

What is really an issue, of course, is the qualification of the guru. He- or she- we will call him “he” only for brevity and to stop another gender war- should, obviously, be qualified. The first qualification to be a vaisnava guru is to be a vaisnava. What this means is that something is known by its symptoms. If it looks, smells, feels and sounds like an elephant, it probably is one (leaving “taste” out for our vegetarian sensibilities). Similarly, if a person has the 26 qualities of a vaisnava, he probably is one. In addition, not in exclusion, he should be conversant in the science of Krsna so that he can impart faith in those that hear him.

If one has knowledge of the science of Krsna, but does not display vaisnava qualities, he may get a following, even a very large one, due to people being very impressed, even overwhelmed, by his erudition, but those people that follow him may not be able to take advantage of that knowledge. Their guru has not shown himself as an example of how this knowledge of bhakti should be applied- how it can melt the heart, and cause it to shine with softness of compassion, desire to elevate, desire to dispel ignorance, humility, detachment from name and fame, and so on. The guru may even use his erudition in the knowledge of bhakti to gain power over others, name and fame and so on. Knowledge of bhakti can be misused, and often is misused, for purposes antagonistic to its very essence.

For this reason, a disciple should be careful to analyze not just “what” his prospective guru is saying but “why” he is saying it. If most of his lectures are about “the good ole times of how I rubbed shoulders with Pra-pad- or how Pra-pad glorified me or showed I was special in this or that way, or how Pra-pad singled me out…” with nothing really valuable to be learned or gained by the listener in respect to clarity in how to proceed on the path of bhakti, then what we are looking at is the face of anarthas, surfacing under the guise of an anga of bhakti (kirtan of Bhagavatam).

Or, if the lecture is about the subtleties of the science of bhakti, quoted from this and that source, and certainly showing much aptitude in the science of bhakti, but in the end, the guru discourages the disciples from progressing, while indicating his own superiority, then we are also looking at the face of anarthas. For example, after discussing raganuga, he may say “this is all very elevated, but when you chant purely (hidden message- “as I do”) and when guru is pleased with you (“that’s me, by the way”) automatically it will be revealed.. (“by me, when I feel like it”). Why then discuss it at all? (“To impress you”)

On the other hand, we have the example of Srila Prabhupada. In a conversation with Tamal Krsna, he said that the disciple should become as good as the guru- he said “like father, like son”. He also immediately empowered his disciples with knowledge and sometimes huge amounts of responsibility, encouraging them by calling them “gifts sent by my spiritual master”. He encouraged devotees also to read the books of the previous acaryas which he planned to translate in due course, and become skilled themselves in the subtleties of the science. He took young boys whose minds had barely recovered from the haze of drugs, and turned them into preachers. He didn’t say “No you can’t” But “Yes you can”.( and most amazingly, often they could!) He even said, famously, “Impossible is a word in a fool’s dictionary”

In regard to raganuga, of course, he had to make temporary restrictions from premature practices- but devotees take them to be permanent, even though on numerous occasions throughout his books, he told us that while vaidhi bhakti was OK to begin with, we should in due course rise above the regulations and perform it from the heart- “raganuga- that is real bhakti.” Although he was only with us for 12 short years, towards the end, he instructed us to not be so concerned about making new devotees now, but “boil the milk”- the milk, of course, can only be an analogy for our love for Krsna. It needs to be boiled and thickened into prema, and the method (recipe) is there in Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu, Sri Krsna Bhavanamrita and other books by the acaryas, which saturate our mind with nectar and draw it away from sense objects.

A genuine vaisnava guru, or a person who delights in others attaining or advancing in pure love for Krsna, will encourage each devotee separately, according to his or her adhikara. To a newcomer, he will encourage the vaidhi bhakti practices. To older devotees who are at anartha nivritti, or the stage of being aware of and reducing their anarthas, he should encourage them to the next stage, which is ruci in love of God. He will not say indiscriminately, to a whole audience- or without good reason to a long-practicing individual: “You are not ready. When guru is pleased with you, then automatically you will get lobha” but encourage them to advance in lobha with immediacy (lobha) by associating with those that have it- Rupa Goswami, Raghunatha Das Goswami, Visvanatha Chakravarti Thakura and so on, through their books.

Otherwise, just to augment the guru’s superiority over the disciple, he may force them into a situation of stagnation. This will happen if the devotee, by instructions designed to keep him down, does not strive for the next level. This next level does not come automatically or when an ego-driven person bestows it, because one gratified their senses sufficiently, but when, encouraged by a really compassionate person (vaisnava guru), he is encouraged that he can rise, by the limitless mercy of the parampara.

Is this a problem for us? Many of our devotees who have been practicing Krsna consciousness for thirty or forty years still feel themselves unqualified for raganuga, believing that without any effort towards it, lobha will suddenly descend on them when they have grovelled sufficiently to, given enough money to and/or served sufficient quantity and quality of fancy dishes to their gurus- an idea fueled not by humility but by the fallacious message that is encouraged by the self-serving “guru”. Real humility will not make us stagnate, but when takes the guise of humility it may do so. The same goes for mercy.

That stagnation is very likely unless we make concerted effort towards the next level, is evidenced in these words by our empowered- and empowering- acarya, Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura:

On the path of gradual development, care must be taken to to become steadily elevated to a higher level, no matter what the present level. By good fortune, the tendency of the soul is to elevate itself gradually, but there are certainly obstacles along the path, and so the soul may fail to reach the ultimate goal. Those who desire to reach a higher standard must always be conscious of this fact.

In progressing from one level of life to the next, two things should be considered. The aspirant should be firmly fixed in one position to take a firm step to the next higher level. Then in order to advance successfully to the higher level, when one foot gives up the previous place, that foot must firmly fix itself in the higher level before the other foot can follow on to that new level. Simultaneously, the aspirant must give up attachment to the lower level, becoming firmly established on the higher level. By moving too quickly, the aspirant will fall. By moving too slowly the results will come slowly …Some people lament that they have not attained devotion to Krsna but at the same time they do not make any real attempt to raise themselves to the level of Krsna bhakti. They remain bound to one of the levels and do not attempt to progress to the practices of the next higher level- this is known as niyamagraha. If people stop at one stage, how can they expect to progress to the top?

Thus, many devotees on the level of vaidhi-bhakti make no attempt to progress to bhava bhakti, but then lament they have not attained bhava. Again many people remain attached to the rules of varnasrama and are indifferent to bhava and prema. This bondage to one level is an obstacle to their advancement.

That he writes about our bondage means that he wants us to rise out of it. Such non-envious well-wishing motivation is inseparable from the vaisnava character and psyche, and if he is capable of assisting us in this “next step” he is certainly our guru. Any person who guides us to the next level in our Krsna consciousness is necessarily our guru, whether we call him that or not, whether we recognize him for the favour or not. If he guides us from vaidhi to raganuga, it is an enormous step, which cannot be retracted at any time. Such a person is worthy of our reverence and deference, and being the most influential person for us spiritually, we should seek initiation from him. However, the effect of ISKCON is so strong that even in a situation such as this, a person may not recognize such a self-manifest guru. There may be many reasons for this, not the least the belief that the diksa guru needs the rubber-stamp of approval from the GBC.

A genuine guru has only one agenda- not to please and appease any sectarian concerns- but only please, serve and love Krsna, by showing ideal character, by desiring everyone’s well-being and happiness and using his knowledge of sastra, not to impress and show his superiority, but in the mood of a servant, to render beneficial actions- to elevate. When he sees a desire in the disciple to go to the next level, he becomes very excited and when he sees such a desire absent in his disciples, he tries to bring it out:

Simply we should be very, very eager. Tatra laulyam ekam mulyam. Laulyam means very greediness or… We can say, “How I shall approach Krsna?” This greediness required, not greediness for sense gratification. Then we shall be implicated more and more. The greediness… Greediness is very good. Kamam krsna-karmarpane. Strong desire…

-Srila Prabhuapda

In regard to the question of agenda, of what benefit is it to initiate more than a thousand disciples or even more than a hundred? Certainly it benefits the guru materially, but spiritually it is a disaster for both guru and disciple. The guru fails to honour the sastric prohibition against accepting many disciples, and thus is prone to fall into maya- gross or subtle. Meanwhile, the disciples never have the opportunity for close and personal siksa, which everyone needs, as our anarthas are deep-rooted and hard to identify, and we also need to learn how to apply the theory practically according to our adhikara, psycho-physical nature and circumstances. Those who justify it by pointing out that Srila Prabhupada initiated thousands are drinking from the ocean of poison, imitating Lord Siva. Srila Prabhupada could digest the poison of huge numbers of followers and be unaffected. He was a nitya siddha, however, with the 26 qualities of the vaisnava in outstanding proportions. We should be careful not to imitate him.