The Spiritual Master always performs his function from the platform of an intermediate devotee, whether he comes down from the position of a first class devotee to do the work of Guru, or does so as a bona fide intermediate devotee. Because the work of Guru is enacted from the intermediate stage, it is the duty of the madhyam-adhikari to initiate disciples.
A Spiritual Master may be one of three kinds. The first class Guru extends one foot from the spiritual world into the material world and takes souls from here to there. The Guru in the intermediate stage is situated here, but he has extended one foot there and is taking souls to the spiritual world. The lowest class of Guru has both feet here, but he clearly sees the highest plane and is trying to take the souls from here to that plane. In this way, we may roughly conceive of three kinds of Guru.
These are not three stages of Vaisnava, but three stages of Guru. A first class devotee takes the position of an intermediate devotee when he descends to play the role of an Acharya, one who teaches by example. He has one leg there in the spiritual world, and by the order of Krishna, he extends another leg here in the material world to do the duty of an Acharya. The Guru who has one leg here in the material world and extends another leg into the spiritual world is a madhyam-adhikari, or intermediate devotee. He also discharges the duty of an Acharya. The lowest class of Acharya has both legs here in the material world, but his vision is towards the spiritual world. He may also do the duty of Acharya. These are the gradations of Acharyas, and the different stages of Vaisnavas are another thing. They are mentioned in the Srimad Bhagavatam (11.2.45-47):
archayam eva haraye pujam yah sraddhayehate
na tad-bhaktesu chanyesu sa bhaktah prakrtah smrtah
«A devotee who faithfully worships the Deity, but does not properly respect the Vaisnavas or the people in general is called a materialistic devotee, and is considered to be in the lowest position of devotional service.» This is the lowest class of Vaisnava. The second class of devotees is given also:
isvare tad-adhinesu balisesu dvisatsu cha
prema-maitri krpopeksa yah karoti sa madhyamah
«The devotee in the intermediate stage of devotional service is called a madhyam-adhikari. He loves the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is a sincere friend to all the devotees of the Lord, shows mercy to the innocent, and disregards the envious.» The highest stage of Vaisnavism according to the Srimad Bhagavatam is described as follows:
sarva-bhutesu yah pasyed bhagavad-bhavam atmanah
bhutani bhagavaty atmany esa bhagavatottamah
«The first class devotee sees Krishna in everything, and everything within Krishna.» These are three stages of devotees. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu explains these three stages in terms of those devotees who chant the Holy Name of Krishna. One who has even once heard or uttered the Holy Name of the Lord may be considered a third class devotee. One who always chants the Name with faith is an intermediate devotee. And the first class devotee is so powerful that whoever sees him will feel the tendency to chant the Holy Name of Krishna. That is the nature of the highest kind of devotee.
The second class devotee may have some mundane touch, but he deprecates this completely and fully attends to his spiritual realisation. He is fully engrossed in spiritual life. His attraction for Godhead is there, but he has not fully escaped from the influence of maya, or illusion. Although he is weak, still his attempt to help others is laudable. He has not completely disassociated himself from his mundane nature, but he is conquering it gradually. He is gaining battle after battle and moving towards Krishna consciousness. He has good will. He is a preacher. He has reached the stage just before he finally disassociates himself from this world, takes his final leave, and enters the spiritual world.
The neophyte devotee may go to the temple and worship there, strictly following the rules of the scriptures, but as soon as he is outside the temple, he may do anything and everything. In his relations with others he may not deal in a spiritual way; scriptural dictations have only a partial influence over him. In his dealings with others he may have no spiritual principles at all. But the intermediate devotee applies the principles of the scriptures in his ordinary life. From the point of view of the scriptures he considers who he should make friends with, what sort of trade he should accept for his livelihood, and how he should select his friends.
When a devotee’s social life is also affected and controlled by his spiritual principles, he becomes a second-class devotee. When he adopts such a form of life, he is fit to help others. He won’t be affected by foreign, unfavourable association, and because he has already practised and is settled in that form of life, he knows how to deal with others and keep up his spiritual vitality. Because he has practised in that way, he can be eligible to initiate disciples. He is qualified to help others because he has already transformed himself in his dealings with the outside environment. He can keep up his standard by fighting with the agents of maya. He has already proved that he has kept up his spiritual position, so he can be relied upon and entrusted with the power of Acharya.
There is still another standpoint by which the qualifications of a devotee have been expressed to us in the revealed scriptures. One whose reliance, regard, and faith is in the sastra, who attentively observes all the rules and regulations and practices that are found in the scriptures, and whose practices and social activities are coloured by his faith in God is an intermediate devotee. And one who acts according to his faith in Krishna in every stage, whatever circumstances there may be, is a first-class devotee. His faith in Krishna is his main guidance. In whatever circumstances he may be in — with body, mind, and soul; in thought, word, and deed; in every way — he does everything for the service of Krishna. He is the topmost devotee of Krishna. So, from these different standpoints the stages of a devotee, a servant of Krishna, have been expressed to us in the scriptures.
Devotee: Should the disciple conceive of his Gurudev as an uttam-adhikari situated on the topmost level of devotional service?
Srila Sridhar Maharaj: Yes, and not only should he see his Gurudev as an uttam-adhikari, a devotee of the highest order, but he will even see Gurudev as the special delegation of the Lord Himself, or of His supreme potency. In the madhura-rasa, he will ultimately see his Gurudev as Radharani’s delegation, Sri Rupa Manjari.
In this way, there are different visions of our Spiritual Master. Our vision of our Spiritual Master varies according to our gradual progress in Krishna consciousness. In the primary stage of devotional service the order is given to the disciple to see the Guru as Krishna Himself, saksad Dharitvena samasta sastrair. Then he will see the Guru as the potency of Krishna, and finally he will see him as a specific kind of potency of Krishna, according to his inner demand. He will find his Spiritual Master situated in a particular mood of devotion, either in servitude, friendship, parenthood, or conjugal love. This differentiation will continue until one will see Krishna Himself with the internal energy (svarup-sakti) within Krishna.
Devotee: Some people think that one must be a devotee of the highest order who has descended into this world to act on the second class platform in order to initiate disciples. They do not accept any gradation of Gurus. According to them, one must seek out and take initiation only from the highest kind of Guru.
Srila Sridhar Maharaj: I also had such an idea at first, but my understanding underwent some transformation and my conception changed. I did not venture to make disciples myself in the beginning, after the departure of Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Prabhupad, but I had some transformation through three events. Then I came to take up this work humbly, modestly. The other day this same question was put to me by one devotee. I told him the story of Krishna’s headache. Perhaps you know the story.
Once, when Krishna was in Dvaraka, He told Narad Muni that He had been attacked with a severe headache, and the only cure was the feet dust of His devotees. Narad went to so many devotees in Dvaraka, but no one came forward to give him any feet dust. They said, «Oh, it is impossible. We can’t do that. We can’t go to hell.»
Frustrated, Narad returned to Krishna. Krishna said, «Oh, I am suffering very severely now. Have you got any feet dust?» «No, sir, no one was prepared to give feet dust.» Narad was benumbed. Krishna told him, «You may try in Vrndavan.»
At once, Narad intimated everything to the gopis, and the gopis immediately came with feet dust. They said, «Krishna is suffering? He needs feet dust? Please take our feet dust and go immediately.» Narad was astounded. «What is the matter?» he thought. «No devotees would offer Krishna any dust from their feet, but these people are doing it.» He told them, «Do you know what is the consequence of your actions?» The gopis replied «Yes. Eternal hell. We don’t care for that! If slight relief is there for our Lord, that is our only concern.»
This is one point that came to my mind at that time. And another was this: Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu says, «Amara ajnaya Guru hana tara’ ei desa: on My order, become Guru and deliver the land.» So, we should think, «I am fallible, but I am confident that what my Guru has given to me is an uncommon, vital, and nectarean thing. And he has asked me to give it to others. It does not matter. I shall take the risk. He has ordered me. I am his servant. He will look after me.» With this spirit of risk, the disciple will approach the responsibility thinking, «I may go to hell, but I must carry out the order of my Gurudev. I may die, but I must carry out the order of my commander.» With this spirit he is to approach the task, and there will be no danger if this consciousness is maintained; but if he deviates from that connection and goes self-seeking for a mundane purpose, he’ll be doomed. Otherwise, no destruction can touch him.
This internal spirit should be maintained, and that is the real qualification of a disciple: «Yes, I am ready to die to carry out the order of my Gurudev. I feel that this is nectar, and I must distribute it to others to save them.»
There is another example of this spirit of risk in Ramanuja’s case. There was an alwar, a South Indian Guru, who had the highest type of mantra. Ramanuja wanted that mantra from him. The alwar told Ramanuja, «If you don’t disclose this mantra to anyone, then I shall reveal it to you.» Ramanuja agreed, and with this pledge, Ramanuja approached him and received the mantra. It had already been announced to the public that Ramanuja was receiving that mantra, and so many people were standing outside waiting. They had heard that Ramanuja had accepted this condition and received the mantra from that Guru. As soon as Ramanuja came out, the mob that was waiting there impatiently began asking him,
«What kind of mantra has he given you? What is the mantra? Is it of the highest order that will deliver us all?»
«Then what is it?»
«This is the mantra.»
He gave it out, and his Guru chastised him. «What have you done? Don’t you know what is the result?»
«Yes, I know: eternal hell, but your mantra cannot but be fruitful, so they will be saved, although I may go to hell.» If you can take this sort of risk, your Guru will bless you, and you cannot be doomed. This sort of risk should be taken by the disciple and only on the force, on the basis, of that spiritual inspiration. If he does so, he can never be doomed. The eye of the Lord is there. God is there. Guru is there. He cannot but be saved. They cannot leave him in danger and relish thinking, «The person who is carrying out our orders is going to hell.» Can they tolerate such a thing? Are our guardians living or are they dead?
We must be so much selfless that we can think, «I may go to hell, but I must carry out my Guru’s order. So, through me, the work may go on.» This sort of conviction in the process, in the mantra, gives us the strength to carry out the work of Acharya. If I think, «This medicine is helping me; I am in the curing process, and this medicine is helping me», then, if I see a similar case, I may hand the medicine over to him.
Jiva Goswami says, «Jnana sathya vitta sathya: if I have some money and another person is suffering with no money, if I keep tight my money, and he lies fasting without food, then I’ll be responsible for his suffering.» So, if I have some knowledge, if I can help my neighbour, but don’t do that, I’ll be responsible. By not helping him, I commit an offence against society.
Once I asked one doctor, «Do you know about disease perfectly? Then why do you venture to treat a patient? You have meagre knowledge. You don’t know his body fully. You treat him, and you are wrong.» The doctor submitted to me. But an answer came in my mind that if we require every doctor to perfectly know everything about disease, then the whole method of treatment will vanish. Because they are all half-knowing and there is not anyone to be found in full knowledge, should this curing process be abolished? It is not possible.
In good faith, with whatever knowledge we have, we must sincerely help others. In that spirit one may take up the work of Acharya; otherwise he will be blamed. But we must be careful that whenever a Guru of superior quality is there, we must help others to accept him. We must not be a trespasser. It is also mentioned in the Hari-bhakti-vilasa that when a greater person is available, those of a lower type should not venture to make disciples. Suppose a farmer has fertile land and two kinds of seed. The good seed should be planted first. If the better seed is not available, then ordinary seeds may be sown. For the sake of the harvest, the better seed should be given the first chance. If we are detached, if we are pure in heart, and if we are selfless, the better seed should always be sown first. The lower kind of seed should be withdrawn. So, when a higher type of guru is available to any circle, the lower type of guru should not interfere.
Devotee: But a devotee always thinks of himself as the lowest, so he will always want to take someone to the higher Guru.
Srila Sridhar Maharaj: The degree of devotion to Krishna will take us to the point of thinking, «I am nothing, I am the lowest of the low.» But when the inspiration to act as Guru will flow, the necessity to teach will come to us through the order of Krishna: «You have to do it.» In that case, Krishna wants to do it. It is His flow. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu says, «Sanatan, Krishna’s grace is flowing through Me to you; it is passing through Me, but I don’t understand all these words.» I feel something like that. I am carrying out my Acharya’s order. Being so low, still I have accepted this duty as I have been ordered by my Acharya to do. With this necessity within, one may do the work of an Acharya.
It is not only external, but internal also. The Acharya has asked us, «Go on with the preaching; you are qualified. If you don’t do so, then why did I give it to you? As I spread this message, you must also spread it.» If one feels such a sincere urge within his heart, he must do that work. If we do not serve society with whatever we have imbibed from him, then we will be responsible to our Guru. He will chastise us saying, «You have taken so much energy from me, and now you are keeping it within you? You must let this loose to help others.» If one gets this sort of inspiration, he should try to fulfil the order, but still, difficulty is there. To become a guru, to capture the position of a guru, the respect of guru, that is one thing; to discharge the duty is another. Sincerity is necessary. This is of course difficult. There is no doubt that it is difficult; if one is unsuccessful, he will be lost, and others will also be lost. In the name of helping others he will deceive others, if he himself is full of deceit. So, we must be careful about what we have received from our guru, and we must also take care to see whether we are eligible to discharge this duty, whether we are eligible to do good to others.
Devotee: You can give spiritual guidance without giving initiation. You can explain what you heard from your Spiritual Master to others. So, what is the necessity of giving initiation?
Srila Sridhar Maharaj: That is also a trap to catch the Guru. You give instructions on spiritual life to others, and those that take your instructions will say, «I cannot go to anyone else. I can accept only what I have heard from you. I cannot accept anyone to be guru other than you.»
Devotee: But you can say, «If you accept me, then I tell you to accept him.»
Srila Sridhar Maharaj: If he sincerely feels so, he can say, «If you have real faith in me, then I tell you to go to that gentleman.» He may say this, if he sincerely believes that another person is superior to him. But if he sees that within the society, the constitutional Acharya is going down, he will think, «How can I recommend this sincere gentleman to connect with him?» At that time, he will have to come down himself and take the responsibility of continuing the work of his Guru. It all depends on sincere realisation.