“Spiritual understanding is nothing like an electrical charge from the master to the disciple, as foolishly claimed by some propaganda-mongers. Everything is full of sense and logic, and the exchange of views between the master and disciple is possible only when the reception is submissive and real.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.3.20 Purport)
A person who previously had no educational background in spirituality, who was accustomed to consuming adult beverages on a regular basis, eating animal flesh, and gambling for fun, all of a sudden turns into a spiritual leader, an emblem of devotion to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. It is known to all that the transformation took place through contact with another spiritual leader, who was kind enough to guide the misguided soul along the proper path. In this way the relationship between the guru and disciple is noteworthy, one deserving of further analysis.
In the cursory review, perhaps it looks like the guru has a magical spark that he can pass on to others through contact. You know, sort of like a power of healing type thing. In the 1980s American film, Fletch Lives, there is a scene where a television evangelist picks out “sinners” from the audience members, guesses their transgressions,and then absolves them by placing his hand on their head. To the audience members, it looks like there is a magical healing power in the minister, but behind the scenes he is fed the information through an earpiece. The members of the audience filled out their information prior to entering, so the special “sinners” were strategically selected and not just randomly healed. Moreover, nothing about the contact with the minister’s hand could do anything to stop the negative reaction from coming, sort of like how if we let go of an object from our hand, it will fall to the ground no matter what anyone says.
The real forgiveness takes effect in the future deeds, wherein the healed party no longer participates in dangerous activity. In the Vedic tradition, the spiritual master has the ability to guide the disciple along this proper path and thus minimize the sinful reactions due them. If you live off of violence to other animals, you are sure to suffer the same fate in the future. If you have lied previously, others will lie to you in the future. If you cheated others, they will cheat you going forward, and so on. To be forgiven means to have the negative reactions removed, and in each spiritual tradition there are certain rituals and penances a person can adopt to try to minimize the damage.
But better than just wiping the slate clean is changing your behavior going forward. This way you’ll avoid doing the wrong things again and filling up your slate with negative reactions. The transformation in behavior cannot take place through any magical touch. The spiritual master’s hand is not like an eraser that can wipe things away. He also does not carry an electrical charge that changes the physiology of the affected party.
What, then, is the secret to the transformation? What makes a person go from constantly lamenting over temporary misfortunes to suddenly being so invigorated with the desire to serve the Supreme Lord that they become aloof to both happiness and sadness? The power is in submissive hearing. Hearing alone won’t do the trick, for if you are in a challenging spirit, how will you soak in the information? Imagine if you had the challenging attitude while learning to read and write in elementary school. Where would that have gotten you?
To be inquisitive is surely beneficial when learning high topics, especially when there are so many different spiritual leaders who claim that their path is the right one. Yet just because there is submission doesn’t mean that logic is absent. The teacher and student must both be qualified. The teacher must have the perfect information, knowledge he is willing to share only with those who will know how to respect it. The student must be submissive and inquisitive at the same time. If he listens properly, he will ask the right questions in response to the instruction.
“Arjuna said: I have heard Your instruction on confidential spiritual matters which You have so kindly delivered unto me, and my illusion is now dispelled.” (Bhagavad-gita, 11.1)
The ideal example of the teacher-student relationship can be found in the Bhagavad-gita, one of the most famous scriptures in the world. In this work Krishna is the teacher and Arjuna the student. Ironically, prior to the events in question, Krishna and Arjuna were friends and cousins. Arjuna was a famous warrior and on this particular day Krishna volunteered to be his charioteer. But this was not like a golfer getting advice from the caddy. The caddy offers input, but the golfer is always deemed to be in the superior position. For Arjuna to get the right information, he had to assume a subservient role.
That change wasn’t that difficult to accept considering that Krishna is the Supreme Lord. This and many other facts were revealed to Arjuna, who absorbed the information with the proper attitude. At the beginning of the Gita, Arjuna was hesitant to fight in a religious war due to the casualties he might inflict to the other side. This kind-heartedness was rooted in ignorance, and fortunately Krishna was there to set him straight. At the end of the instruction, the illusion was gone, and it had nothing to do with a touch provided by Krishna.
As God Himself, Krishna did show the universal manifestation to Arjuna. For Arjuna to see it, he required special eyes, which Krishna kindly provided. Nevertheless, it was not the vision which changed Arjuna’s perspective; it was his submissive hearing of the highest truths of Vedanta philosophy coupled with a firm confidence in the fact that Krishna was his and everyone else’s well-wisher. Through this type of hearing, along with insightful questions, Arjuna arrived at the proper conclusion, that life is meant to be devoted to service to God. Depending on the time, circumstance, and individual, that service can manifest in different ways, but the common factor is the link in consciousness to the Supreme Lord. The spiritual master holds that link with him at all times, and when he meets a qualified disciple, he kindly teaches them how to create and maintain the same link.
Guru can make disciple change much,
But shift not due to electrical touch.
Saves the disciple from path tragic,
Yet the power not anything of magic.
Secret is in the student’s propensity to hear,
To listen to guru who in divine surrender lives without fear.
Krishna and Arjuna friends in the past,
But now ignorance consuming Arjuna fast.
Teacher and student then became the roles,
Highest knowledge Krishna to Arjuna told.
Transfer successful because of combination,
Hearing Krishna’s words gave path to salvation.