'ke āmi', 'kene āmāya jāre tāpa-traya'
ihā nāhi jāni--'kemane hita haya'
In the Vedic tradition, the importance of a guru is stressed constantly. Indeed, to someone who knows that the value of the spiritual master is changing the consciousness from illusion to enlightenment, this fact cannot be emphasized enough. It is mentioned in the Bhagavad-gita, which is considered the book of foundation for any person sincerely interested in spiritual matters.
tad viddhi praṇipātena
upadekṣyanti te jñānaṁ
“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)
Upon hearing the importance of approaching a guru, the natural question is where to find such a person. It is not like there is a guru store. The bona fide spiritual master is by nature humble, so it is not like they advertise their services to the entire world, proclaiming to know everything. One of the most important spiritual masters in a line coming from Lord Brahma would not like to admit that he was a guru. Rather, if anyone praised Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura as such, he would refer to himself only as servant.
This is the genuine self-reflection of the person carrying the highest knowledge. They are ready to serve every person who needs help. From reading the Bhagavad-gita, which is also a kind of dialogue between guru and disciple, we see that the transformation isn’t effected by a magical touch. Krishna did not tell Arjuna, “Take two of these and call me in the morning.” There was question and answer. A person should not only approach a bona fide guru, they should also ask the right questions.
1. Who am I?
There is another, more recent historical example to consult in this context. Some five hundred years ago, Shrila Sanatana Gosvami had a harrowing journey in escaping from his high post in the government and meeting with Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who was Krishna Himself descended to earth to teach the timeless Vedic principles and shine the light on the path of love and devotion, the way to connect with God that is open to one and all, not dependent on knowledge, renunciation, or material opulence.
Sanatana Gosvami was already very knowledgeable, but showing proper etiquette he asked Chaitanya Mahaprabhu some important questions. One of the first things he asked was about identity. This seems like a silly thing to bring up with the guru. After all, in the first meeting they will likely ask your name and occupation. They have not seen your driver’s license or passport, so they can’t just guess your name.
Sanatana Gosvami asked the question as it pertains to the real identity of the living entity. Things are always changing for me. At one point I was an infant the size of a football. At that time I could hardly do anything. I don’t even remember that period in my life. Now I am older, capable of rational thought and acting independently, to an extent. Since I am no longer an infant, that form does not properly identify me. Who am I, really?
2. Where did I come from?
Again, this seems like an odd thing to inquire about. Every human being takes birth due to contact between a mother and a father. This is not a secret. The fact may be hidden from a child who is not able to understand the mature subject matter, but eventually they realize. Why would you ask a guru this question?
It relates to the time continuum. I know that in this life a mother and a father were needed, but where was I before that? For instance, I heard of things happening before I was born. Where was I during that time? Did I not exist? Surely, I must have been somewhere, but how do I find out?
3. Why am I here?
I took birth due to the actions of the parents. Now what? Is there a purpose beyond that? At this very moment I am alive, but why? Is it due to randomness? Are we all just a collection of chemicals, meant to act as we wish? I know that many times if I follow through on my desires, I am left miserable afterwards. If I am denied something, that may actually benefit me. There must be a reason for my being placed in the circumstances that I find at present.
4. Where am I going?
Due to the limited independence I have, there is some influence as far as future destination. For instance, when I woke up this morning, I made the decision to drive to work. Therefore in the past I knew where I was going to be later on. Since there was so much history prior to my birth, it stands to reason that the world will not end after my death. Where will I be when all of that is going on? Will I be watching from some place? Will I still have consciousness?
5. What is the goal of life?
Acknowledging the fact that I am alive today, how should I act? I see that wealthy people are as lost as I am. They don’t have a better handle on things. I see that poor people want to become wealthy. I see the unmarried person desperate to find a mate. I see the married person miserable and looking for a way out. I see parents who were previously working now not sure what to do with their empty nest. Should I pursue a path that I know will not bring permanent happiness?
The bona fide guru should be able to answer all of these questions, and not just from random thought. They should reference the impeccable authority that is the Vedic tradition. Sanatana Gosvami also asked Lord Chaitanya why the threefold miseries of life constantly gave him trouble. These miseries come from the nature around us, the body and mind, and other living entities. No person is completely immune from these miseries, despite how much they may try to protect themselves.
The answers to these questions are rather straightforward, though there is so much nuance that a person can spend an entire lifetime studying, going deeper into the subject matter, and reminding themselves. I am a spirit soul, part and parcel of God, who is a person. As spirit, I exist perpetually. Never was there a time that I did not exist; nor will there be a time in the future where I cease to be.
na tv evāhaṁ jātu nāsaṁ
na tvaṁ neme janādhipāḥ
na caiva na bhaviṣyāmaḥ
sarve vayam ataḥ param
“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.12)
I don’t know exactly where I was in a past life, but since I took birth in the material world I can surmise that my consciousness at the time of the most recent death was on the material energy.
Originally, at some point in the past, I was in the spiritual world, enjoying with the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Due to a desire to enjoy separate from Him, I now find myself in the material world. As to where I am going, that depends on me and my consciousness. If I stay focused on the temporary and miserable world, then I will stay here. It may be in a different species, and the cycle might continue for thousands of years, but avoid the spiritual world I will.
The threefold miseries give me so much trouble because that is the nature of the land. It is one of the consequences to choosing against Krishna, the all-attractive Lord of the universe. From knowing these things, the goal of life becomes obvious. Be Krishna conscious. Take advantage of the human form of body and the ability to reason. Know, understand, love and serve the person to whom we are always intimately tied. Service to Krishna, known as bhakti-yoga, is the goal of every existence, every birth. The person who is conscious of Him at the time of death no longer has to take birth in the spinning wheel of reincarnation, known as the samsara-chakra. Upon hearing the questions of the sincere student, the guru can provide the practical help needed to achieve the goal.
For supreme truth to know,
Advised to guru to go.
Suppose initiative in the task,
What to them should I ask?
Why threefold miseries upon me,
And in future will I continue to be?
Referencing shastra answers easily to give,
Guidance how in bliss of bhakti to live.