Founder Acharya His Divine Grace
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

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Post-modern Perspectives on the Guru-disciple Relationship
By Kripamoya Das   |  Apr 07, 2016

Despite the success of Vaishnavism as a worldwide phenomenon, there are yet some persistent difficulties faced by converts in understanding and implementing the ancient guru-disciple tradition. Partial understandings of source texts combined with highly selective use of quotes has only served to exacerbate the divisions of thought. This is particularly true of the writings on the delicate subject of guru-disciple.

This is probably as much as can be expected considering the prevailing climate. Whether we term it ‘post-modernism’ or not, the current intellectual and philosophical climate in the industrialised world has contributed to a particular perspective on the Vedas and the guru-disciple culture which is at its heart. The post-modern paradigm has several elements which may be helpful to the spirituality required to fully understanding the guru-disciple relationship. Conversely, it has some that directly militate against it:

1. Relational rather than hierarchical – Post-modern people are suspicious of the mainstream in any area of life and much prefer flat or networked organisations to hierarchies. Post-moderns want to humanise the world and are drawn to marginalised people; they are relationship centred. They give a higher priority to building a relationship than maintaining a building or structure. This view of the world probably helped to create the Hare Krishna movement back in the 1960s and 1970s.

However, as the role of the guru in the Hare Krishna movement has become augmented with organisational position and corollary power, there have been more complaints about the ‘position of guru’ being used to preserve the ‘institutional hierarchy.’ As the movement has gone from the social fringes to a more ‘mainstream’ position, the post-modern observers have re-categorized it from a ‘spiritual movement’ to a ‘religious institution.’ Although there is only a difference in size and complexity, that is enough for some to regard the guru-disciple relationship as an instrument of a religious hierarchy – and to react against it.

2. Spiritual rather than rational – Post-modern people, it is said, are more inclined to honour feelings along with rationality. They are drawn to signs, symbols and mysticism and love to hear stories of miraculous or mysterious experiences. Social psychologists suggest that this may have something to do with the ‘feminisation’ of society – and they may be partially right, since some aspects of masculinity are being challenged – but it may also be because spirituality itself has been subjugated to the principle of mere religious conformity for a prolonged period. The mystical element of religion, the tangible experiences of a higher reality, have been so rationalised away that people now crave this very real dimension of life.

Though all of this would seem to support people entering into the guru-disciple relationship, it has actually led, in some cases, to blind acceptance of self-declared, somewhat under-enlightened guru figures and belief in their pseudo-spiritual revelations. This alarming state of affairs has, by turn, led to the growth of evangelical rationality, as evidenced by the profusion of the ‘anti-God’ books written by neo-atheists. Within the Hare Krishna movement, this post-modern trend has often led to initial credulity of the guru’s qualifications, without any prior checking, followed by disenchantment some time later. Some post-modern Hare Krishna members have consequently become very influenced by the ‘new atheist’ writings and have placed rationale as their new guide to reality, completely foregoing their previous convictions in direct mystical experience. In this condition, some have rejected the Vedas entirely.

3. Explorative rather than possessive – Post-modern people dislike boundaries. ‘To travel is more important than to arrive.’ To explore is OK, to say that you have arrived is pride, and to then package what you’ve discovered is exploitation. They distrust notions of progress and tend to refuse to judge anyone else. They don’t like the differences between one person and another or between one religious group and another, and tend to want to de-emphasise them, preferring to think of every person and every path as equal. Again, this makes the Bhagavad-gita very interesting reading for them since Lord Krishna speaks of the soul present in every physical form and the inherent equality of all life. But the post-modern mind doesn’t like there to be any superior path to God-realisation because that makes others ‘inferior.’ Similarly, they don’t like the guru to be a person who knows it all and who can teach them. Rather, they want the guru to be more of an equal – a ‘soul friend.’ Of course, the guru is the best friend of the soul, but he is more, and must be regarded as more if the real benefit of having a guru is to be ever obtained.

4. Inclusive rather than exclusive – Because they don’t like to judge or pigeon-hole others, post-modern people tend to want to draw out the possibilities in others and seek to include them. Rather than regarding others in terms of their spiritual commitment or membership of a spiritual group, they would prefer to see them in terms of their potential. They are most likely to find some aspects of religious identity – where a spiritual practitioner chooses the company of like-minded others – as cultural aloofness or elitism. Buildings and organisational structures are not as important as the building of communities based on spiritual relationships.

Again, all of this may sound very good but a rejection of good discrimination can cause ineffectiveness in helping others. Different people have different spiritual needs, for instance, and require different approaches of teaching and guidance. And an extreme example of inclusivity in eating, for example, would see a vegetarian post-modern person sit down for a non-vegetarian meal out of respect for the dietary decisions of a friend. But not everyone’s dinner is suitable for an aspiring transcendentalist, and judgement is therefore required. Krishna speaks of categories of faith, practise, friends, types of personal discipline and stages of mystical revelation, and reality – according to Him, the One who sees reality as it really is – is made up differences between things, at least as much as similarities.

So although inclusivity is important, not everything or everyone can always be included in everything. Social inclusivity is no doubt the hallmark of Vedic culture since no-one is left out and everyone is on the path back to God. However, the disciplines necessary to develop higher states of awareness rest upon the ability to carefully discriminate between what to do and not; what to study and recite and not; what to eat and drink and what to avoid. After initiation the disciple is meant to honour the instructions of his guru above all others; and to practise the disciplines he has been given as a daily choice. Failure to do this – to try to establish a moral and spiritual equivalence amongst all instructions and all people – simply leads to the ultimate loss of regard for the guru and an inability to honour ones vows.

5. Culture friendly rather than ‘anachronistic’  Post-modern religion, if a person chooses any religion at all, is religion a la carte. People select the ingredients with which they feel most comfortable. That will, inevitably, include elements of contemporary political or philosophical thought, speech, dress and culture being added to traditional time-honoured practises. They tend to view history as progressive and incrementally revelatory, a procession of human enlightenment leading to some ultimate revelation of peace and truth for all humanity. Ideas expressed in the past – simply because they were in the past – are less relevant than those expressed today. What this linear view of history does is to relegate the Vedas to a less enlightened period of human development, a period that produced some good ideas and noble thoughts, but cannot claim to have all the answers.

While intellectually a post-modern thinker may be drawn irresistibly to the logic of Vedanta he will almost unconsciously place a limitation on his beliefs since he anticipates another set of ‘Vedic’ revelations coming along soon. The guru-disciple relationship itself is also subjected to this view of history. The submission required to understand the Vedas may be regarded as an anachronism, as is the guru himself. The spiritual aspirant or disciple regards the guru as a helpful notion – for the people of another country, in another era – but can’t see the relevance of such an antiquated relationship in ‘today’s world.’ After initiation, the ‘post-modern disciple’ may begin to regard the vows he made as historical and therefore less relevant than those he might make today. By constantly reinventing himself in the light of his new experiences and understandings, such a disciple must be extremely careful not to reinvent himself out of his commitment to his guru’s instructions.

The added difficulty for anyone approaching the Vedas and the guru today is that none of us are accustomed to serving anyone in order to gain knowledge. If we need to learn something we simply pay a class or course fee, sit in front of the teacher, listen carefully and make notes. We don’t have to ‘surrender’ to the teacher or ‘make submissive enquiries,’ or make any extra effort to please the teacher by ‘rendering him service,’ all of which are recommended in the Vedas. There is no relationship we are obliged to enter into, and there is no question of ‘obedience.’ Logic also commands us to answer the question: “If the Vedas are written down and are now published in the form of a book, why can I not just pick up the book and read it?”

In the modern world, since 1450 at least, we Europeans have learned about the Divine through the medium of the printed word on paper. Great Protestant Christian martyrs have been publicly burned to death in England for daring to declare that God can be revealed through English language print. They suffered a painful end for insisting that no priest was required as an intermediary. If any lands are totally unsuitable for the guru-disciple method of teaching it must surely be the Protestant countries. These are the countries which rebelled against the notion that a priest was required to pass down messages from God or to take our prayers to Him. The Vedas would agree – to an extent. They explain that God does indeed reveal himself in the form of the written word – but that we can learn even more if we have a genuine guru.

In the early 21st century the internet search engine promises to provide us all the information we can possibly take in. Never before in human history have we been able to access so much information, store it and share it with whomever we like. The invention of information technology has revolutionised human communication in a way never thought possible some decades ago. Surely this has changed the way we can learn and understand the Vedas?

But there is a difference between information and knowledge, and a difference again between knowledge of something and a true understanding of it. The development of a true apprehension of higher reality comes as a result of incremental mystical revelation. And that, say the Vedas, can only be obtained by serving the guru – the one who is speaking the words of God – and serving him as a representative of God.