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:
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
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:
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:
Thus as regards the need for physical contact between the Guru and disciple:
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:
Thus regarding the argument for PRE-initiation 'physical interaction' with the guru:
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?
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.