“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)
There are generally two kinds of gurus in the Vedic tradition. There is one spiritual master who provides instruction and guidance to an aspiring transcendentalist. This person is known as the siksha-guru, and he essentially provides an introduction into sanatana-dharma, or the eternal occupation of man. Not only do they give an introduction, but they also can provide continuing education depending on the student’s eagerness to learn. The second type of spiritual master is the diksha-guru, or the person who gives formal initiation.
“The Gayatri mantra is very important in Vedic civilization and is considered to be the sound incarnation of Brahman. Brahma is its initiator, and it is passed down from him in disciplic succession.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 10.35)
All religions have certain rites of passage prescribed for their followers and the Vedas are no different in this regard. In Vedic terminology, a rite or purificatory process is referred to as a samskara. There are many recommended samskaras for people starting from birth and going all the way until the end of their life. Even marriage is known as a samskara. Diksha provides formal initiation through the investiture of a sacred thread to the student. This is known as the upanayana-samskara. Along with the sacred thread, the student is given a mantra, which typically is the famous Gayatri mantra. The guru teaches the student how to chant this mantra regularly in order that they may make spiritual advancement. The most important aspect of formal initiation is that the student agrees to fully abide by the orders of the spiritual master. Initiation is the beginning of spiritual life, not the end.
The diksha-guru must be a recognized brahmana who is capable of bestowing a proper mantra on the student. The Padma Purana states that for this age, one must take initiation from a guru belonging to one of the four primary Vaishnava sampradayas in order for their mantra to have efficacy. In this age of Kali, having a guru has become sort of a fashion, with many bogus spiritual masters coming out of the woodwork. They each have a specific mantra. Some charge for their mantra, while others tell their students that they can become God by regularly chanting it. It is for this reason that the Padma Purana warns against accepting mantras from unauthorized persons.
Words mean things. Evidence of this fact can be seen in our day-to-day lives. There are so many words in use today that cause offense to certain classes of people. These words became so offensive that a movement was created to stop people from uttering them in public. Known as political correctness, this system is in wide use today in society. Many famous celebrities and television and radio broadcasters have suffered tremendous public relations damage due to uttering various racial epithets. Sometimes these words were uttered intentionally, while other times they were just honest mistakes. Nevertheless, society always came down hard on such people.
The Vedas tell us that words have special significance when it comes to religion. The Vedas are made up of mantras and hymns. Not all mantras are the same. Each mantra represents a specific combination of sounds uttered in sequence so as to produce a desired result. There are mantras for just about everything. The mantra given by a spiritual master is intended to fit the student’s qualities and work. If a student is a brahmana, the initiating mantra is intended to help the student understand Brahman, or God. If a person seeking spiritual perfection receives an inappropriate mantra, their religious efforts will essentially go to waste. For this reason, the Vedas insist that people of this age get their mantra from a bona fide disciple of a sampradaya that traces its lineage back to Shri Lakshmi, Lord Shiva, the four Kumaras, or Lord Brahma.
Before one can be formally initiated, they need some sort of introduction to spiritual life. This is where the siksha-guru comes in. Whereas the diksha-guru must be a brahmana by quality and work, the siksha-guru can actually be anyone. Upon taking birth, we accept our parents as our original teachers. This is why the Vedas declare that a person’s first object of worship should be their parents. In Vedic times, filial piety was so strong that sons and daughters would touch their parents’ feet and circumambulate them whenever they would depart. Our parents get us through the early years, but what separates us from the animals is our ability to know and understand God. This knowledge isn’t acquired on its own, for we need someone to teach it to us. Depending on our life’s circumstances, we may or may not follow all the prescribed samskaras during our lifetime.
For this reason, it is even more important that we have the good fortune of meeting someone who can ignite the spiritual spark inside of us. This person can be anyone, provided that they know and understand God. In many cases, the siksha and diksha gurus are the same, but it isn’t a requirement. The famous Dhruva Maharaja took initial instruction from his mother, Suniti. She wasn’t qualified to give him formal initiation however.
So how do we find a bona fide instructing spiritual master? The answer is that God will send us one if we are sincere in our desire to learn. The key is to be able to recognize who is a bona fide guru and who isn’t. A bona fide spiritual master is one who is a pure devotee of Krishna. Sometimes a spiritual master may rub us the wrong way with their initial instructions. A pure devotee has taken full shelter of the Supreme Lord, and thus is completely confident in all of their beliefs. Sometimes if we see someone who is so sure in what they believe, we can get turned off. This may also occur when we hear from a spiritual master. We must decipher, however, if the guru is acting in Krishna’s interest. As long the spiritual master’s devotion to the Lord is not in doubt, we will eventually overcome any obstacles that we might impose on ourselves.
Whether a person is a siksha or diksha guru, the important point is that we must learn about Krishna from them. This instruction can be taken by sitting face-to-face in front of a spiritual master and listening to their words. However, direct association is not a requirement. If we listen to a recording of the guru’s instructions, then the effect is the same. In a similar manner, learning the guru’s teachings found in books and other written instruction is also just as good as in-person association. In many instances, this type of distance learning is more beneficial because the hearing process becomes more isolated. Visual distractions and social conventions are eliminated, allowing one to learn in a comfortable environment.
Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, believes so strongly in the concept of receiving instruction from a guru, that He Himself took initiation from gurus during His various advents on earth. In the Treta Yuga, Krishna came to earth as the handsome and pious prince of Ayodhya named Rama. As the eldest son of the king, Lord Rama was groomed to be a kshatriya warrior from His birth. On one occasion, the venerable Vishvamitra Muni came to the kingdom and asked Maharaja Dasharatha to allow Rama to accompany him in the forest. At the time, Rakshasa demons were terrorizing the sages living in the forest and disrupting their sacrifices. Dasharatha hesitatingly agreed, and so both Rama and His younger brother, Lakshmana, accompanied Vishvamitra.
“Then, after Vishvamitra had prepared himself for performing a sacrifice in the forest of Dandaka, Rama, twanging His wonderful bow, came by the side of the sage to protect the sacrifice.” (Maricha describing Rama’s protecting of Vishvamitra, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 38.13)
Both Rama and Lakshmana took instruction in their youth from the royal priest, Vashishta. Since Rama was God Himself, He required no instruction, but He abided by the orders of a spiritual master just to set a good example. Later on, Vishvamitra imparted special mantras unto both Rama and Lakshmana during their initiations. As an expert brahmana, Vishvamitra knew of mantras for just about any occasion. Since Rama and Lakshmana were warriors, Vishvamitra gave them mantras specifically intended to augment their fighting ability. By uttering these sacred Sanskrit words, Rama would be able to turn one of His arrows shot from His bow into something as powerful as a nuclear weapon. This again proves the fact that words mean things. Vishvamitra didn’t just give this mantra out to anyone, for he reserved it for the most pious princes of his time.
In this age of Kali, everything is topsy-turvy as far as adherence to dharma goes. For this reason, God has simplified things. There is one mantra that everyone can chant. Made famous by Lord Chaitanya some five hundred years ago in India, the maha-mantra is open to anyone. Lord Chaitanya, an incarnation of Krishna, purposefully distributed this mantra freely throughout India. He humbly requested that everyone simply chant, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. One does not have to be a Hindu nor do they require formal initiation to chant this.
“The spiritual master awakens the sleeping living entity to his original consciousness so that he can worship Lord Vishnu. This is the purpose of diksha, or initiation. Initiation means receiving the pure knowledge of spiritual consciousness.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 9.61)
As we progress in chanting, other aspects will fall into place. The great Shrila Rupa Goswami has written in great detail about how one can go about becoming a devotee in his book, Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada has translated this and many other great Vedic texts. Though he is no longer physically present in this world, Shrila Prabhupada continues to teach through his multitude of books and recorded lectures. He is a siksha-guru that everyone can approach. If we submit ourselves to a Vaishnava spiritual master and follow their instructions, we are sure to awaken our love for God.