The Guru Must Be 'Living'

by Krishnakant

The above assertion is commonly made as a further reason why the so-called 'ritvik' idea possibly cannot be true. We will examine if the concept of the 'physically present' guru has any support from the teachings of Srila Prabhupada. If it does not then it can be safely discarded.

A search through the whole cannon of Srila Prabhupada's teachings does not reveal any support for the idea that there must be a 'physically' present spiritual master.

(Though the teachings do emphasise that the guru must be PHYSICAL -i.e. one cannot just follow the Supersoul in the heart, but must accept the external embodied representation of Krishna, who is the spiritual master. However this is not what is under debate here, since no one is arguing that the spiritual master must not come in a physical form. The issue is can one continue to follow him once he has physically departed?)

As well as NOT SUPPORTING the idea of a 'living guru', the ONLY time that Srila Prabhupada even discusses this term is to CONDEMN it: 

Madhudvisa: Is there any way for a Christian to, without the help of a Spiritual Master, to reach the spiritual sky through believing the words of Jesus Christ and trying to follow his teachings?
Srila Prabhupada: I don't follow.
Tamal Krsna Goswami: Can a Christian in this age, without a Spiritual Master, but by reading the Bible, and following Jesus's words, reach the...
Srila Prabhupada: When you read the Bible, you follow Spiritual Master. How can you say without? As soon as you read the Bible, that means you are following the instruction of Lord Jesus Christ, that means that you are following Spiritual Master. So where is the opportunity of being without Spiritual Master?
Madhudvisa: I was referring to a living Spiritual Master.
Srila Prabhupada: Spiritual Master is not question of...Spiritual Master is eternal. Spiritual Master is eternal...So your question is 'without Spiritual Master'. Without Spiritual Master you cannot be at any stage of your life. You may accept this Spiritual Master or that Spiritual Master. That is a different thing. But you have to accept. As you say that "by reading Bible", when you read Bible that means you are following the Spiritual Master represented by some priest or some clergyman in the line of Lord Jesus Christ.
(SP Morning walk, 2/10/68, Seattle)

So why then if there is no support from Srila Prabhupada for this idea of a 'physically' present guru, is the idea so persistent within our society? A lot has to do with the idea of the traditional guru that one would serve personally and be engaged by. In fact Srila Prabhupada does mention in his books about how the guru engages the disciple, how the disciple serves the guru, etc. Thus though there may not be any DIRECT evidence to support the 'living' guru idea. It is asserted that the concept is continually implied. In that guru-disciple relationships are obviously described within the context of the guru being in physical contact with the disciple. In other words the very nature of the guru-disciple relationship necessitates that the guru is physically present even though it may not be explicitly stated as such in the books. For instance the most basic and famous verse on this subject is Bhagavad Gita 4:34

"Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realised soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth."

This verse is used again and again as proof that the guru must be physically present, otherwise how can one 'approach' him, 'inquire' from him, and 'render service' unto him?

Though this sounds reasonable, the reason why this conclusion is incorrect is that in all these instances, the quotes speak of the DISCIPLE engaging in these activities. Which would mean that if a physically present spiritual master WAS necessary for a DISCIPLE, then the disciple would need to get 're-initiated' each time the guru left his body. This idea of course is absurd, and is repeatedly condemned by Srila Prabhupada: 

"So we should associate by vibration, and not by the physical presence. That is real association."
(Lectures SB, 68/08/18)

"There are two conceptions, the physical conception and the vibrational conception. The physical conception is temporary. The vibrational conception is eternal.[...] When we feel separation from Krsna or the Spirirual Master, we should just try to remember their words or instructions, and we will no longer feel that separation. Such association with Krsna and the Spiritual Master should be association by vibration not physical presence. That is real association. "
(Elevation to Krsna Consciousness, (BBT 1973), Page 57)

"Although according to material vision His Divine Grace Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarsavati Thakura Prabhupada passed away from this material world on the last day of December 1936, I still consider his Divine Grace to be always present with me by his vani, his words. There are two ways of association - by vani and by vapuh. Vani means words and vapuh means physical presence. Physical presence is sometimes appreciable and sometimes not, but Vani continues to exist eternally. Therefore, one must take advantage of the Vani, not the physical presence."
(CC, Antya 5 Conclusion)

Etc., Etc., Please see the many quotes to this effect at the back of the Final Order.

Also Srila Prabhupada's own example taught that this physical connection with the guru was not necessary:

So far as personal association with Guru is concerned, I was only with Guru Maharaj 4 or 5 times, but I have never left his association, not even for a moment. Because I am following his instruction, I have never felt any separation. There are some of my Godbrothers here in India, who had constant personal association with Guru Maharaja, but who are neglecting his orders. This is just like the bug who is sitting on the lap of the king. He may be very puffed up by his position but all he can succeed in doing is biting the king. Personal association is not so important as association through serving.
(Letter to Satyadhana, 20/2/72)

Thus as regards the need for physical contact between the Guru and disciple:

  1. This concept is not supported by the teachings of Srila Prabhupada.

  2. Indeed the very OPPOSITE is taught by Srila Prabhupada.

  3. It would necessitate having to 'find' a new guru each time the guru left his body.

We can further see the absurdity of this idea when the VERY people who are pushing the point that you MUST have a 'living' guru and therefore you must take initiation from them. Do not THEMSELVES have a 'living guru' nor have they had one for 21 years and in some cases even before that had little physical connection with their guru.

Thus it has to be conceded that the disciple does not need a 'physical' relationship with the guru. This then leads us to the final objection which can be leveled, which is that though this acceptance of the 'vani' may suffice ONCE the devotee has become initiated, PRE-initiation there has to be PHYSICAL interaction. The problem with this 'selective' argument is that there is no mention in Srila Prabhupada's teachings that 'pre-initiation' activities necessitate 'physical' interaction, but that 'post-initiation' activities don't. This argument becomes even more absurd when one considers that the usual reasons that are given for the need for a 'physical' guru - the need to be specifically engaged. The need to render personal service, the need for specific guidance in one's devotional life, the need to be chastised etc., become MORE relevant ONCE one is initiated.

This then leaves us with the only possible argument that can be used to justify 'physical interaction' PRE-initiation - the need for pariksa or mutual testing between the guru and disciple. However Srila Prabhupada did not teach that this has to be done personally nor did he practice this. On the contrary, almost immediately after he established a centre, he instituted a system whereby all the pariksa for the guru would be done on his behalf by the temple president. Also the aspiring disciple would be convinced to join based usually on simply reading Srila Prabhupada's books - that for him was HIS pariksa. The majority of Srila Prabhupada's disciples were initiated even without having met Srila Prabhupada. In fact the system of being represented by the temple president and also being examined by the representative of Srila Prabhupada is mentioned in the books as the system of initiation within ISKCON:

"Due to the necessity of these activities, we do not immediately initiate disciples in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. For six months, a candidate for initiation must first attend arati and classes in the sastras, practice the regulative principles and associate with other devotees. When one is actually advanced in the purascarya-vidhi, he is recommended by the local temple president for initiation. It is not that anyone can be suddenly initiated without meeting the requirements. When one is further advanced by chanting the Hare Krsna mantra sixteen rounds daily, following the regulative principles and attending classes, he receives the sacred thread (brahminical recognition) after the second six months."
(C.c.,Madhya 15:108)

"In our Krsna consciousness movement, the requirement is that one must be prepared to give up the four pillars of sinful life-illicit sex, meat-eating, intoxication and gambling. In Western countries especially, we first observe whether a potential disciple is prepared to follow the regulative principles. Then he is given the name of a Vaisnava servant and initiated to chant the Hare Krsna maha-mantra, at least sixteen rounds daily. In this way the disciple renders devotional service under the guidance of the spiritual master or his representative for at least six months to a year. He is then recommended for a second initiation, during which a sacred thread is offered and the disciple is accepted as a bona fide brahmana."
(C.c., Madhya 24:330)

Thus regarding the argument for PRE-initiation 'physical interaction' with the guru:

  1. Srila Prabhupada does NOT teach this as a pre-requisite.

  2. In fact the books speak of the necessary pre-initiation activities being completed through the use of representatives.

  3. Srila Prabhupada practically demonstrated that there was no need for pre-initiation physical interaction in the way he personally ran ISKCON with most devotees taking initiation even without having met Srila Prabhupada.

However finally the argument will be given that yes all this may be so, but at least when Srila Prabhupada was here he was on the planet. But so what? If it is admitted that physical interaction is not necessary, then why is it necessary that the guru has to be on the planet? This would be a restriction that served no purpose. The argument that at least the disciple had the 'potential' to consult with Srila Prabhupada can not have any merit since if it is not even necessary to actually CONSULT with Srila Prabhupada, then how can just the POTENTIAL for consultation have any relevance?


  1. The 'living' guru concept has no basis in Srila Prabhupada's teachings, for either pre- or post-initiation activities.

  2. That pre- and post initiation guru-disciple relationships can be conducted without the need for a 'living guru' IS taught by Srila Prabhupada.

So from every angle, in terms if what is taught, and in terms of practicalities, there is no need for the Guru to be physically present.