“Keep doing everything with an eye on God and guru.
Inherent in that is your good since Atma or your soul is your real guru.” Lahiri Mahasaya
For the spiritual seeker wishing to understand the need for a guru (or more specifically to understand the guru-discipleship relationship), there are many expositions of this in the writings of Paramhansa Yogananda and Swami Kriyananda. Here, I want to focus more on our expectations of what it is like to live with a master. For what sincere seeker of Truth wouldn’t want to live in an ashram at the feet of a master? In the Hindu tradition, it is said that there is no greater blessing in the three worlds than to have a true guru. Many have experienced that blessing and, equally, many have turned their backs on it.
There is a story (from the Sufi tradition if I’m not mistaken) about a young truth-seeker who, like many, had spent (wasted?) a great deal of time seeking truth in books, philosophy, religion, human love, even in wine (in vino veritas). But he eventually came to realize that he would not find the truth he was looking for in these things and, more importantly, that he was unable to find it by himself. It was then that he heard of a master who lived in a faraway place with his disciples and who might be able to help him in his search for truth. And so he began the long journey to find this master. Every sincere spiritual seeker will be aware of the difficulties and obstacles he had to overcome and the hardships he had to endure on his journey. Eventually, he found the master deep in a forest, or on a mountain top, in a big city backstreet or perhaps in the quiet depths of his own self (all places where masters are to be found). And, just as he’d been told, the master was living with his disciples in truth, in joy, in bliss (in Ananda). He fell at the feet of the master and implored him: “Please master, let me stay here and live with you and follow you so that I, too, might find truth. The master looked at him compassionately and perhaps with a faint smile (as though having been expecting him for some time) said: “Of course. Of course you can stay here and live with me… but don’t follow me, because from the moment that you begin to follow someone, you cease to follow truth.”
What does it mean to live with a master, but not follow him? Perhaps it is a subtle warning not to regard the outer form or personality of the master standing before us, but to see the one true master behind him (the Father for Christ, Divine Mother for Yogananda), because no true master ever vaunts himself as a master. Similarly, Jesus was quite clear as to who is the true disciple: “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). As Yogananda explains: “Jesus Christ, like every other great Master, didn’t come on earth to attract people to Him. He came to attract them to Truth, that Truth which, as He said, will set you free.”
The task of the true disciple, therefore, is to attune himself not with the master’s personality, but with his God-consciousness. “Guru”, the Sanskrit word for master, means the one who dispels darkness; in other words, the one who allows us to see clearly. He is like a magnifying glass through which we can see the truth more clearly. And just as we don’t look at a magnifying glass but through it, so we should look through a master at the truth. Put simply, the master is the means not the end.
Living with a master, however, is not the idyllic existence that perhaps many of us imagine it to be. The Bible (see: John 6:66) tells us that many disciples turned away from Jesus, and we know from Yogananda’s account of his time in America that many disciples, even close ones, left him, too. It seems incomprehensible to us to have a master of the spiritual stature of Jesus or Yogananda before us in the physical form and to turn our backs on him and yet it was far from uncommon.
In his Autobiography of a Yogi (p. 122-24), Yogananda describes his fervent quest to find his true guru and his years of living in his guru’s ashram as a disciple. He explains how many students came to Sri Yukteswar’s ashram and generally left because they sought “a guru made in their own image” and were unable to support the daily humbling blows to their egos and their vanity by a guru who wanted nothing from them but their spiritual improvement. They left, according to Yogananda, “preferring life’s countless humiliations before any humility. Master’s blazing rays, the open penetrating sunshine of his wisdom, were too powerful for their spiritual sickness…”.
There are countless examples of these blows to the ego in the writings of some of Yogananda’s early disciples, such as Mildred Lewis (Treasures Against time. Paramahansa Yogananda with Doctor and Mrs. Lewis), Durga Mata (Trilogy of Divine Love), Kamala (The Flawless Mirror) and, of course, in the books by Swami Kriyananda, particularly in The New Path. So it is debatable whether, in fact, we are unfortunate or fortunate not to be –what is often though somewhat misleadingly termed—“direct” disciples of a master, in other words, disciples who had lived with the master in his physical form. How many of us would have survived the master’s direct daily blows to our egos in a spirit of unconditional love and obedience?
Would we be able to accept the discipline inherent in the word disciple? Would we be willing to undergo the tapasya (austerity) required by one committed to living under the direct guidance of a master? It satisfies the ego to pronam (bow) before the image of a master, to make offerings before his statue, to chant his name, and to do all these things with great emotion. But emotion is not devotion. Emotion is a sentiment, whereas devotion is love directed towards God and it is a love that is unconditional.
In The New Path, swami Kriyananda talks of this unconditional (divine) love between master and disciple, recording Yogananda’s words when he met his guru, Sri Yukteswar: “When I met my master, he gave me his unconditional love, as I have given you mine. He then asked me to love him the same way, unconditionally. But I replied, ‘Sir, what if I should ever find you less than a Christlike master? Could I still love you the same way?’ My master looked at me sternly. ‘I don’t want your love,’ he said. ‘It stinks!’” It is for each one of us to ask ourselves whether our love would survive the stern gaze of our master if we were living in his physical presence.
The birthday of a master is an auspicious time for opening ourselves to his consciousness and blessings. So even in the absence of Yogananda’s physical presence, let this day be an opportunity for renewing our vow of discipleship, asking through him that Divine Mother discipline us, guide us, teach us to attune ourselves to Her divine ray, until, at last, through daily meditation, service and devotion, we unite our souls with Her Infinite Spirit.