Having a guru is the greatest blessing in the three worlds — causal, astral, physical. - Adi Shankaracharya
The concept of a guru or teacher was well established in my mind throughout my childhood. In India, every teacher is called a guru — whether one teaches painting or the path to finding God.
At the age of four, I wanted to learn dance and was enrolled in an evening dance class. When my family moved to another city, I started learning karate and Indian classical singing and learned from different teachers. A few years later, I started learning tabla (an Indian drum-like instrument) and lo! I again found myself spending time with that teacher who was well versed in the instrument.
My definition of a guru wasn’t spiritually accurate then but accepting a teacher and learning from them was not foreign to me.
When it comes to learning a new skill in life like playing the tabla, running a business, or winning the Olympics, one of the first thoughts in people’s mind is , “I need a teacher.” Without a teacher, one either remains lost or reaches his goal having wasted much time and effort.
I went against my preconditioning to believe, with the advent of YouTube and online courses a few years ago, “I don’t need anyone now! Google is my teacher!” I did learn a lot of new professional skills and picked up interesting hobbies through the power of the Internet but carrying this attitude into my spiritual life was, in hindsight, not a good idea.
I struggled for months trying to find guided meditations on YouTube because I wanted to establish a meditation habit. I read book after book but nothing worked. I could hardly meditate for five minutes. Perhaps it was ten minutes if I was in a good mood!
That was not the only problem. I was stressed about work. I was stressed to the point of losing hair and not getting proper sleep. Long story short, I needed help not only with meditation but also with a hundred other similar negative tendencies (big and small) that I had developed.
I was an entrepreneurial kid in college. I read Steve Job’s biography by Walter Isaacson five times cover-to-cover. I was intrigued by Steve’s visit to India (when he was my age) and his love for a book called Autobiography of a Yogi written by Paramhansa Yogananda
It was the only book on Steve’s iPad and everyone who attended his funeral was given a copy of the book. Excited enough, I read the Autobiography. I was mesmerized by the technique of Kriya Yoga. It was the limelight of the book. Kriya Yoga is a technique that was re-introduced by Mahavatar Babaji and spread in the West by Yogananda.
I hastily searched Google for a way to learn this mysterious Kriya Yoga technique and found Ananda Sangha. It was the answer to my prayers. A few months later, I gladly accepted Yogananda as my guru and was later initiated into Kriya Yoga.
Why a Guru?
When it comes to the spiritual path, we are deluded into thinking of it as our ‘private space’ – a space where we cannot let anyone else enter. We are naturally hesitant to give our power away to someone else.
The truth is, you might be able to manage without a teacher for a worldly skill like painting or singing. You can hear your own voice and see your brush strokes to self-correct, especially if you have an innate talent.
The spiritual path is not a musical composition or piece of art. Changes in the spiritual path take place on levels subtler than the material. It may take years before you see them manifested on the physical plane, and at that point you may have already gone very far down the wrong road.
I have often heard stories from friends and devotees who, on the premise of spiritual individualism, continued to follow a slew of practices they thought were right for them but ultimately gave them little benefit after months or years of pursuing them.
People often leave a spiritual path with the thought that it does not work — that the path itself was somehow wrong. I have discovered that it is so much better to be guided by the example of someone who has made it all the way on the path you want to follow — by a God-realized guru who can show you the right way to go.
The Problem with Surrender
It can be so very difficult to feel that you have to surrender and give up your sense of spiritual freedom. I certainly had my share of problems surrendering to a guru or universal force. While I was growing up I thought praying to God was the last resort when I failed to accomplish something that I wanted and could no longer control the circumstances. This felt like a state of complete helplessness that should always be avoided.
After coming on the path, I began to realize that my idea of surrender was completely wrong. A guru never imposes their will on you. In fact, they only come into our lives for our own good when we are ready. God sends a guru to you, as Sri Yukteswar said in The Holy Science, only when your heart sincerely calls out with love.
I first saw Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi on a bookshelf in a shop at the airport shop. I did not actually want to read it. However, I had heard so much about the book and, in hindsight, Yogananda’s eyes on the cover were very captivating. I bought it along with some other business books. These were the only kind of books that I generally read.
The Autobiography spent months in my cupboard, collecting dust before I could bring myself to read it. Obviously, I was not ready. I finally began reading it during a time when I was completely clueless and exploring different opportunities in life . This actually was the perfect time to be directed toward God. Only when I was open-minded enough did God lead me to the path. The key to my path and what I was looking for had been lying in my own cupboard for quite some time.
I found that I kept failing to improve myself as long as I resisted surrendering to the Guru. There were tons of habits I wanted and needed to change but as Swamiji tells us in his video The Need for a Guru, it was like washing a dirty shirt:
You try to get a bubble that’s in the shirt underwater and it just moves somewhere else. So I’d concentrate on one fault and my energy being removed from another fault that fault would come up. And I realized I needed help.
I was desperate to grow and improve. It was only when I surrendered to the guru that he was able to start working on me.
The Way the Guru Works
Once you reach a point of desperation to find God and have so much dissatisfaction with the existing ways of life, you may realize (as I finally did) that you cannot get out of the ego by affirming your way out of it.
Yogananda told a story of a man who, when faced by a demon, chanted mantras into a powder and threw it at him. When it didn’t work, the demon said, “Before you could chant your mantra, I went into the powder myself!” We are already tainted with the same force that we are trying to overcome.
The true guru has long transcended the ego and has attained Infinite Consciousness, and thus alone can guide you to the right understanding.
When you have a guru, it does not mean that you give up your common sense and free will to another human being. The guru doesn’t command you to do things the way he or she wants them to be done. They work through magnetism. Just like a bar of steel becomes a magnet by placing it near a steel bar that’s already magnetized, the guru magnetizes our consciousness to propel us towards God’s light.
The myriad tendencies in the consciousness of a worldly man cancel themselves out, which keeps him spiritually unmagnetized. The guru helps one to increase the magnetism, to develop our inner magnetism and achieve spiritual freedom.
Many gurus in India take a vow of silence. They are called maunis and they have disciples. They teach not by prescriptions and sermons but through the disciples’ intuitive attunement to the guru’s consciousness. Yogananda too spoke heartily and at length with visitors but emphasized the need for silence when alone with his disciples. “Silence,” he said, “is the altar of Spirit.”
This is why the prime responsibility of every disciple and the most important aspect of the spiritual path is, as Swami Kriyananda said, attunement to the guru’s consciousness and to the ray of light our Masters have brought to the world.
How much a guru is able to change a disciple depends on the disciple’s attunement. Through that inner attunement, the outer characteristics of a person also change to make him more joyful, kind, compassionate, devotional, etc.
I for one was far from devotional — even after being brought up in an extremely religious environment, I ran away from puja (worship) as fast as I could. During hawans (fire ceremonies) at home, I was mentally absent. I could not understand why people believed in God and of what use it was to pray to Him.
In a short span of a few months, my outlook changed drastically. I not only believe in the existence of God but also now know nothing works without His presence. I am much kinder and evenminded. Stress, anxiety, and distractions have been replaced by joy, concentration on God, and service.
This change is not the result of merely reading Yogananda’s words or listening to other disciples talk about these virtues. It has come from an inner change of consciousness through attunement, meditation, devotion, service, and following the teachings of the Master.
The Problem of Feeling Devotion to the Guru
When I started learning about the path, I and many fellow students initially faced problems relating to and feeling devotion towards the guru. We were brand new, not aware of who Yogananda really was, and thus found it difficult to develop love for him. I understood as I progressed, that the guru doesn’t want anyone to be devoted to him personally; Yogananda often said his disciples were not his but disciples of God. The guru is only a channel — a manifestation of that Infinite Light to which we all aspire.
The guru is the window that helps us see that light in a human form.
If you love God, you will love most of all, the great souls who manifest Him purely. Yogananda was one of such Great Souls. He was an avatar. I ultimately came to realize that loving the guru is not different from loving God.
I used to be confused between praying to my guru or praying to Divine Mother. I now see and understand that they are One. The guru is just an egoless channel of the Divine.
Indeed, Yogananda cautioned against developing highly personal love towards himself. He encouraged his disciples to “know him in meditation” and receive his consciousness, not his outward manifestations alone.
When the importance of inward communion dawned on me, I was relieved because I got the answer to my worrisome thought, “…But I don’t have a living guru!” This is not to diminish the value of the living presence of a great master (What would I not give to meet Master in his body?), rather it underscores the omnipresence of the Great Masters.
To keep company with the guru is not only to be in his physical presence (as this is sometimes impossible) but mainly means to keep him in our hearts and to be one with him in principle and to attune ourselves with him. -Sri Yukteswar, The Holy Science
Yogananda clearly told his disciples:
To those who think me near, I will be near.
He is HERE. As I stare into his eyes through his photo on my desk, I can often feel his smile widening as I stare into his eyes through his photo on my desk and I can also feel the love coming from his eyes. We just need to feel his presence, be in tune, and keep calling him. After all, that’s our only work as disciples.
Not everyone needs a guru. But if you want God and want to know Him, you do need a guru. If you reach a place of anguishing monotony from worldly occupations but don’t know how to change, only a true guru (satguru) can show you the path.