“The grammatical word jugglers cannot bewilder a devotee who engages in chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Simply addressing the energy of the Supreme Lord as Hare and the Lord Himself as Krishna very soon situates the Lord within the heart of the devotee. By thus addressing Radha and Krishna, one directly engages in His Lordship’s service.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita Adi-lila 7.73 Purport)
The formulaic cable television shows now regularly feature debates between so-called experts in various fields. With the debates usually dealing with issues of politics and public policy, these guests attempt to make clever arguments in favor of their position, trying to sound very erudite in the process. Most of these experts are in fact lawyers by trade, chosen to be on television more for their speaking ability than their actual knowledge of the field they are discussing.
We have all been to parties and other social gatherings where we have encountered the resident “expert”. This person has an opinion about everything and can’t stop talking. They are thoroughly convinced of their ideas but they are more or less blowing hot air. When we hear someone who isn’t an expert discussing issues that we know a lot about, we get insulted very easily. “Who does this person think he is? He is speaking nonsense. He has no idea what such and such really involves.” Whether it involves sports, news, or issues relating to our occupation, we all have intimate knowledge of the things that we are passionate about.
According to Vedic philosophy, true knowledge involves the theoretical and the practical, referred to as jnana and vijnana in Sanskrit. Theoretical knowledge forms the foundation, but it is through practical experience that we truly begin to understand something. The same way that many people pretend to be experts in various subjects, many people pretend to be experts in matters of religion. They have all these dreamed up ideas, but they don’t practice any sort of service to God. They develop their own ideas of God and what happens to us after we die. This sort of mental speculation will always lead us down the wrong path since our material minds aren’t capable of understanding God on our own. Simply being able to speak well doesn’t make one an expert either. The Mayavadis are very expert at using word jugglery to argue their position that God is impersonal and that we are all God. They quote from the Vedanta-sutras and use high class words in their arguments, but their knowledge is nevertheless useless since they fail to recognize Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
To truly understand God, we have to take instruction from a real expert in the field, a bona fide spiritual master. A spiritual master, or guru, is one whose only passion is Krishna and who devotes his whole life to Him. He has learned theoretical knowledge through studying the Vedas and by following the instructions from his own spiritual master, and he has acquired practical knowledge through practicing the principles of devotional service. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna, God Himself, instructs His dear friend Arjuna to seek out a spiritual master.
“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 key is to enquire submissively. If we are hostile towards our spiritual master, then we will never learn anything. We encounter these situations often when engaging in friendly talks with others. If we state a strongly held belief or opinion, many people question us or take the opposite position simply as a way of starting an argument. This is called playing devil’s advocate, which Wikipedia defines as:
"In common parlance, a devil's advocate is someone who takes a position he or she disagrees with for the sake of argument. This process can be used to test the quality of the original argument and identify weaknesses in its structure."
Taking this sort of approach with a spiritual master isn’t a good idea. A devotee of Krishna is very kind by nature and readily willing to impart instruction to those who sincerely seek it. However, if a guru notes a tone of hostility in a person, they will not be likely to continue instructing them. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pose questions to our guru, but these questions shouldn’t be in a challenging spirit. Questions should be relevant to the topics being discussed and they should be asked with the intention of furthering one’s knowledge of the Vedas. The Puranas, Mahabharata, and Ramayana all have great examples of how one should conduct themselves in front of a spiritual master. In the Bhagavata Purana, known as the Shrimad Bhagavatam, Maharaja Parikshit, a great king descending from the Pandava family, takes instruction from Shukadeva Goswami. In a very submissive manner, asking questions very nicely, Parikshit shows us that if we respect our spiritual master, then he will reward us with the highest knowledge. The Bhagavatam details the life and pastimes of Lord Krishna when He descended to earth. It was due to Parikshit’s inquisitiveness and service to Shukadeva Goswami that we are able to benefit from such stories today.
In the Ramacharitamanasa, an incident is described where Lord Rama, an incarnation of Lord Krishna, visits the hermitage of Maharishi Valmiki in the forest. Along with His wife Sita and younger brother Lakshmana, the Lord was wandering through the forest serving an exile period ordered by His father. Now Rama was God Himself, yet when He saw Valmiki, the Lord immediately prostrated Himself before the great sage and asked him very nicely where He and His family could go and set up a cottage. Valmiki was very pleased with Rama, for he knew His divinity. Instead of telling them where to set up camp, Valmiki gave a beautiful description on the qualities of a devotee, stating that Sita, Rama, and Lakshmana should always live in the hearts of such people. If the the Lord Himself submits to a spiritual master, then we should also follow suit.
Knowledge of Krishna and the Vedas has been passed down from time immemorial through the guru-disciple relationship. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna explains that He first imparted spiritual knowledge to the sun god at the beginning of creation, and that same knowledge was then passed down through the chain of disciplic succession, or the parampara system. Periodically this chain gets broken and Krishna Himself comes to reinstitute it.
Lord Krishna is the original guru, but He Himself has told us to take instruction from a spiritual master, so we should heed His advice. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada is the spiritual master for this age. Though we cannot personally approach him, he left behind a wealth of knowledge in his books and recorded lectures. One can find answers to all of life’s questions by steadily reading and rereading these wonderful books. Following the instructions of the spiritual master, we can become the greatest experts in the most important science, the science of devotional service.