Who Can Be Guru?

By editor - 15.5 2024

Much discussion occurs on the internet about “guru-tattva”. I have watched these discussions for years but refrained from participation because I find these discussions don’t understand or appreciate the true nature of hierarchy; most of these discussions think of a guru system as a linear succession of gurus. This post discusses the differences between linear progression and hierarchical expansion and then describes the qualifications of a guru.

Table of Contents 

1 The Guru Parampara is Hierarchical
2 Examples of Guru Appearances
3 Delegation of Authority in a Guru Parampara
4 Higher and Lower Gurus
5 Confusions in the Guru Parampara
6 Understanding the Conundrums
7 Variable Requirements of Gurus
8 Guru Requirements in the Vedic System
9 Problems of Religious Institutions
10 Separation of Management and Spirituality
11 Who is a Real Guru?
12 Flaws in Quantitative Measurements
13 Horizontal and Vertical Growth
14 The Greatness of Real Gurus

The Guru Parampara is Hierarchical

Much of the present thinking about guru paramparā envisions it as a linear progression, quite like the progression of kings. A king rules for some time and then dies. He then ceases to be a king. The progression of kings forms a linear chain, and the chain can be collectively thought of as an empire.

When a guru paramparā is thought of as an empire, then the idea of linear progression is applied to the paramparā as well. Under this belief, one argues: If there is no current living guru, then the paramparā will be broken, quite like an empire would cease to exist without a current ruler or king.

But a guru paramparā is not linear; it is hierarchical. Krishna is the original guru of all the paramparā systems, and He will remain a guru forever. His appearance in this world doesn’t make Him a temporary guru, and, by His disappearance from ordinary vision, He doesn’t cease to be a guru. Brahma, Lord Shiva, Goddess Laxmi, and the four Kumaras are the next-level gurus. Brahma and the four Kumaras are gurus for the duration of a particular universe, and Goddess Laxmi and Lord Shiva are gurus for eternity. The general principle of a guru paramparā is that as subsequent gurus appear, the previous gurus do not cease to be gurus (the previous gurus can sometimes be superseded, which is an exception to this general principle that we will discuss shortly). The continuation of the previous gurus as gurus presently refutes the notion of a linear succession and establishes their hierarchy.

This hierarchical system of gurus can be envisioned as an inverted tree that originates in a root, expands into trunks, then into branches, twigs, and so on. A particular paramparā is a subset of this tree; it comprises some branches, twigs, and leaves. Other paramparās are other branches, twigs, and leaves. A twig cannot exist unless the branch, trunk, and root also exist. Likewise, the guru paramparā cannot exist unless all the previous gurus are gurus at present. They may not be visible to us because we don’t seek their guidance. However, they can and do become visible if the need arises.

Examples of Guru Appearances

For those who have a deep and sincere desire to follow the guru paramparā, the previous gurus continue to appear and guide them personally—if and when a need arises. Even when the guru has disappeared from our mundane vision, he hasn’t ceased to be a guru; he continues to be a guru and guides those who ask for his help and if they truly require his help.

A good example of such a manifestation is found in the story of Dhruva; upon being insulted by his step-mother, Dhruva desired to attain the highest position in the universe. But he did not know how to achieve that. By seeing his intense desire, Sage Nārada appeared to guide him and gave him the 12-syllable mantra. Dhruva did not approach Sage Nārada, although he was sincere. Seeing his sincerity and determination, Sage Nārada approached Dhruva to enlighten him. Therefore, all that is needed to obtain spiritual guidance is our determination and sincere desire. Some spiritual master who is empowered to enlighten us will approach us if we are sincere.

Likewise, when Prahalāda’s mother was pregnant with Prahalāda, Indra wanted to kill the child. But seeing that Prahalāda is a great devotee, Sage Nārada appeared to dissuade Indra and took Prahalāda’s mother to his Ashrama where Prahalāda listened to the glories of Lord Viṣṇu from the womb. Again, Prahalāda did not approach Sage Nārada; rather, Sage Nārada approached Prahalāda’s mother and protected her in order to protect her child, even though she was married to the demon Hiraṇyakaśīpū.

If we think that these stories pertain to a time long gone, then we can look closer in history. Veda Vyas is the guru of Mādhavāchārya although Mādhavāchārya appeared many centuries after the disappearance of Veda Vyas. Mādhavāchārya desired guidance from Veda Vyas, and Veda Vyas appeared to guide Mādhavāchārya. In this case, the guru appeared based on the seeker’s desire. The conclusion is that Veda Vyas hasn’t ceased to be a guru even today; he can appear to guide us if we are sincere and serious.

On a side note, whatever we think is “physical proximity” is an effect of communication. For instance, we see that things invisible to others are close to us in our dreams; that proximity is the result of communication. The proximity during the waking experience is also based on communication. God and His authorized representatives can appear in our sensual and mental experience because they can communicate with us. If the science of dreaming and waking perception based on communication is replaced by the modern materialistic idea of vision by physical proximity, then false ideas about “dead” and “living” gurus are created. Now, the progression of gurus is like a succession of kings in an empire. The previous king dies and ceases to be a king; the new king is crowned, and he will remain a king for some time.

Delegation of Authority in a Guru Parampara

However, not every guru in every age, place, or domain is permanently a guru. This simply means that they are authorized or capable of appearing in the visions of others for certain limited times, places, and domains.

For example, the present Manu is a guru only for the present Manavantara, but he will cease to be a guru in the next Manavantara. Within a day of Manu, there are many partial annihilations of the universe, and all the delegate gurus from Manu will also cease to be gurus after each partial annihilation. There are 14 Manus in a day of Brahma, so they too are eventually replaced, and then, Brahma reestablishes the new Manu, who then creates a new guru paramparā. Brahmas of the previous universal cycles are not gurus in the present universe; only the present Brahma is guru currently.

Brahma also authorizes gurus for specific types of instructions. For example, Sage Nārada is authorized to impart instructions on devotional practices, but the seven sages such as Vaśiśtha, Pulastya, and Atri have other domains of instruction. Sage Atri is authorized by Brahma to present rituals for the worship of demigods, Vaśiśtha is authorized to instruct mankind in the practice of hatha-yoga, whereas Pulastya is authorized by Brahma to present historical narrations of the universe known as the Purāṇa.

The conclusion is that all gurus are not eternally gurus; they can be gurus for a certain age, place, and particular type of knowledge. When they delegate their authority to other gurus, those gurus can also be authorized for a guru position for a certain age, place, and particular type of knowledge. They are not gurus in other domains, places, and ages; their authority is limited.

As a result, the instructions of different gurus can take precedence at different places, times, situations, and domains. Not everything stated by an earlier guru is applicable currently, so we cannot linearly extend the instructions into the future; we have to know which guru’s instructions apply currently.

The temporary hierarchical system of gurus is a tree in which trunks, branches, twigs, and leaves expand from a root, temporarily. Different branches expand in different places. Many branches are destroyed over time. And there are limitations of domain to which their instructions may apply.

Higher and Lower Gurus

When there is a limitation of domain, then the instructions of the gurus whose domain is larger supersede the instructions of those gurus whose domain is smaller. When there is a limitation of time, then the instructions of gurus whose duration lasts longer supersede those whose durations are smaller (e.g., Manu’s instructions apply for a longer duration than the gurus that follow from him). And when there is a limitation of place to which the guru is authorized, then the instructions of the gurus whose place in the universe is higher supersede the instructions of those gurus whose position is lower.

Then some gurus are transcendent to the material world; their instructions supersede those of everyone who is limited by time, place, situation, or domain. Thus, the instructions of the incarnations of the Lord can supersede even the instructions of Manu and Brahma. And the instructions of the pure devotees of the Lord can supersede the instructions of Manu and Brahma in the same way. The Lord and His pure devotees need not obey the instructions of Manu and Brahma, and they can even prescribe instructions that were never prescribed by Manu and Brahma or even contrary to their instructions.

The strict hierarchical relationship in the guru paramparā appears to be broken in such cases, but it is not contrary to the guru system, because the contravening instructions are always presented by someone whose spiritual position is higher to the person whose instructions are being contravened. A good example is the instructions of Manu. By the principle of precedence, Manu’s instructions apply to everyone in a Manavantara, so they must apply to us because we are living in that Manavanatra. The exception to that rule is that a spiritual personality whose spiritual position is higher than that of Manu and Brahma can override Manu’s instructions. The followers of such instructions are not breaking the principle of paramparā precedence because they are following a spiritual authority that is higher than Manu.

Some people try to impersonalize this personal principle. Instead of saying that a higher spiritual personality overrode the instructions of Manu, they might say: Things can be changed based on time, place, and circumstance, implying that they are qualified to make such changes, although their spiritual position isn’t higher than that of Manu. Just because a previous spiritual personality whose position was higher than that of Manu superseded Manu’s instructions, and he rationally explained his actions to others based on the demands of time, place, and circumstance, doesn’t mean that everyone can do the same kind of change. Manu’s instructions can only be overridden by a personality whose spiritual position is greater than that of Manu. Unless overridden by a superior personality, the instructions of Manu apply.

Confusions in the Guru Parampara

A good example of this superseding arises in the case of Sri Chaitanya who took initiation from Iśvara Purī, although Sri Chaitanya did not simply repeat the teachings of Iśvara Purī; He instead taught new things. Likewise, even when the lineage of Iśvara Purī can be traced back to Mādhavāchārya, Sri Chaitanya is not a disciple of Mādhavāchārya. Mādhavāchārya propounded a Vedānta philosophy of Dvaita which was superseded by the philosophy of Bhedābheda, and Sri Chaitanya’s philosophy of Achintya Bhedābheda superseded Bhedābheda. This superseding constitutes progress.

Thus, apart from adjustments based on time, place, and circumstance, there can be changes resulting from the desire for improvement or advancement in the understanding of perfection. The progression in the Vedānta positions is a good example. Since there is a progression, therefore, changes are occurring in the guru paramparā; things that were previously said are often contravened by things that are later said. Furthermore, this idea of progression seems to revive the idea of a linear chain, that we so emphatically rejected previously.

Such gurus, who might appear after the previous gurus, are strictly speaking not their disciples. They are free to enunciate new principles, that may go beyond or contravene previous instructions. As a result, the successive gurus in a paramparā may not always follow the commands of their predecessors.

Understanding the Conundrums

Let’s recapitulate the discussion so far. We started by saying that a guru paramparā is hierarchical, not linear. We explained this hierarchy as the limited applicability of instructions to a certain time, place, situation, or domain. We also noted how, contrary to linearity, a hierarchical system clearly explains why instructions of one time, place, situation, or domain may not apply to another. However, in a strictly hierarchical system, the thing lower in the hierarchy cannot contradict the thing higher. We contradicted this principle of hierarchy by saying that things that follow in this hierarchy can supersede the things that were previously stated either due to the spiritually superior nature of the person or even due to a more complete understanding of reality which is also spiritually superior. Since things can seem to progress from less to more complete, therefore, the principle of hierarchy—in which previously enunciated principles cannot be violated—is violated. Now, we get the idea of linear progression, thereby reinstituting the principle of linearity that we previously rejected. Since things can get more perfect, therefore, they can also get less perfect; this linearity is then actually a cycle.

To resolve the above-mentioned conundrums between linearity and hierarchy, we have to realize that the twigs and leaves that follow may not always be attached to the branches; they can also be directly attached to the trunks or even the root. Quite like a twig can sometimes be grafted into a trunk instead of a branch, similarly, something that seems to follow later in time can be higher, if it is the offshoot of something spiritually superior.

The guru paramparā is that hierarchical structure in which things that follow—i.e., twigs and leaves—can be grafted into something higher, but they should not be grafted into something lower. Thus, something that follows can be superior to that which preceded it, and even as the things that follow can seem to contravene those that preceded it, these are strictly speaking not the violation of the guru paramparā because they are presenting something superior. Conversely, if something that follows is inferior to the things that preceded it, then it is considered a violation of the guru paramparā.

Thus, there can be false, corrupted, or inferior religions that violate the principles that were previously enunciated. There can be true religions that strictly follow the principles enunciated by previous gurus. And there can be a religion that is truer and superior to the religion that previously existed.

When a false, corrupted, or inferior religion that violates the previously enunciated principles appears, then it is considered the violation of the guru paramparā, and is called an apa-sampradāya; it is a sampradaya in some sense because it is based on something that existed previously. For example, many modern religions may partly espouse moral virtues like kindness, charity, brotherhood, etc. and they are based on virtuous principles that were enunciated earlier. Since they have a previous religious basis, therefore, they are in some sampradāya. However, because they are not completely following the sampradāya, therefore, they are apa-sampradāya. Conversely, there can also be religions in which the previously enunciated principles are strictly followed, and then religions where they are superseded. The latter are strictly speaking a new sampradāya which may have a foundation on previously enunciated principles but may have other superseding principles.

Thus, there can be false religions that violate the hierarchical structure, true religions that strictly follow the hierarchical structure, or truer religions that supersede it. Since they can appear one after another, therefore, there can be linear progression and decline, producing a cycle. And since they have some basis in previous ideas, therefore, there is a hierarchical system.

Variable Requirements of Gurus

If we consider the entire material existence comprising of an infinite number of universes, then there are an infinite number of possible religious systems. There are different religious systems in different parts of the present universe. Some of these religious systems are superior and others are inferior. Some of them are following the strict hierarchical system, some are violating the system, and some are superseding the system. Each system delivers different results and helps the soul progress to a certain level of spiritual perfection. Accordingly, there are different expectations of the gurus in these systems.

In some religious systems, gurus have relatively low requirements, in others, they have high requirements. We cannot mix the requirements of one system with another, because they take a person to a different level of spiritual perfection. If one crosses a certain level, then he can be born in another religious system where he can progress further. The material journey doesn’t end with death; there can be a continuous progression, through different religious systems, meant to take a soul to different levels of elevation.

Therefore, there can be no universal requirement definition for a guru. The requirement is always specific to a religious system. Someone who becomes a guru, priest, or teacher in one system may be unqualified to be a guru, priest, or teacher in another system. Someone who is not a guru, priest, or teacher in one system may be overqualified for the position of a guru, priest, or teacher in another system. Of course, the perfectly self-realized soul can be a teacher in all religions, although he may be overqualified for it.

Most people try to equate the teachers, gurus, preceptors, or priests among different religions without understanding that each religious system takes a person to a different level of advancement. Even the followers of a lower system can be very low; nevertheless, they can benefit from teachers or priests that are somewhat superior to them, although they may be imperfect. If the standards of an imperfect religion are applied to a perfect religion, then that perfect religion is also transformed into something imperfect due to the lack of guru’s qualifications. The correct understanding is that the qualifications of a guru are always relative to the religious system.

Guru Requirements in the Vedic System

The Vedic texts themselves present many paths of progression such as karma-yoga, jñāna-yoga, dhyāna-yoga, and bhakti-yoga. The guru in the system of karma-yoga is one who has perfected detachment, but he may not have perfect knowledge or mystical powers. A guru in the system of jñāna-yoga is one who has perfect knowledge but may not have mystical powers and perfect detachment. A guru in the system of dhyāna-yoga is one who has mystical powers but may not have perfect knowledge or detachment.

The bhakti-yoga system delivers the results of the previous three. Therefore, a guru in the bhakti-yoga system is one who has perfect devotion to God, along with perfect knowledge, mystical powers, and complete detachment. By detachment, such a person is perfectly liberated. By knowledge, he perfectly understands the material and spiritual worlds. By mystical power, he can communicate with anyone anywhere in the universe. And by devotion, he is always situated in inexhaustible bliss. It is, therefore, harder for a person to become a guru in the bhakti-yoga system than in other yoga systems.

The fact that the bhakti-yoga system is supreme also means that the requirements of gurus in this system are higher. Anyone who is not perfectly detached from the material world is disqualified. Anyone who doesn’t have a perfect understanding of the material and spiritual worlds is disqualified. Anyone who doesn’t have mystical powers is disqualified. And anyone who is not always situated in inexhaustible bliss is disqualified. That doesn’t mean that a person cannot help, guide, or teach others; they can, to the extent of their realization, perfection, knowledge, detachment, and devotion. But they cannot become gurus, or the perfect guide, without perfecting themselves.

For example, merely following the regulations of sannyasa doesn’t qualify a person to be a guru in the bhakti-yoga system; perfect following of sannyasa however enables the person to guide and initiate other people in sannyasa. Likewise, a perfected scholar of Vedic scriptures is not automatically qualified to be a guru; however, he is qualified to teach the Vedic scriptures to others. Finally, expertise in people management, fund collection, etc. doesn’t qualify the person to be a guru in any yoga system whatsoever.

Problems of Religious Institutions

Religious institutions are modern-day inventions. In former times, a guru never created organizations. They would just practice and perfect their yoga system, and whoever approached them for guidance would receive it free of charge. The problem in this age is that people are not approaching perfect persons for guidance because they have no idea what perfection is. So, even if a perfect person exists, nobody is ever going to ask him for guidance.

Therefore, the requirements of religions have changed; instead of seekers going to the guru, the gurus must now reach even those who are not truly seeking. When a genuine seeker approaches a guru, an organization is not required. However, when the guru has to reach the seekers—most of whom are not interested—then an organization is required because the message is not specifically targeted from a guru toward a seeker. The new process, in which an organization performs “outreach” to spread the message of religion, is quite like spraying bullets over a wide area in the hope of hitting some target.

To run this organization, many people are required. To organize these people, managers are required. For their upkeep, money is required. Thereby, a religious institution develops the need for fund collectors and people managers. Such people may not be perfectly detached according to the standards of karma-yoga; they may not have perfect knowledge according to the standards of jñāna-yoga; they may not have mystical powers according to the standards of dhyāna-yoga, and they may not have developed inexhaustible bliss according to bhakti-yoga standards. Effectively, they are not qualified to be a guru in any yoga system. But because they are part of an organization that depends on their expertise for its sustenance, therefore, they seem to be very important in an organizational context.

Thus, a dichotomy is created between true spiritual gurus and organizational managers. Management expertise is not spiritual expertise, but in the context of a religious organization, it gains in value significantly. Organizational managers thus ascend to positions of power and authority based on their expertise in fund collection and people management. As they gain prominence, they are elevated to positions of gurus. In short, a spiritually disqualified person becomes a guru due to organizational necessities.

Such has been the fate of religions such as Christianity and Islam, where money, management, and expansionist victories allowed people who were spiritually not qualified to be gurus, to become priests, cardinals, popes, imams, and religious leaders. This has also been the fate of many religious institutions in Hinduism that put the institutional requirements of money, management, and expansion above the true spiritual qualifications of detachment, knowledge, mystical power, and inexhaustible bliss.

Separation of Management and Spirituality

All great Acharyas understood this problem of religious institutions and distinguished between management powers and spiritual authority. The managers are supposed to do fund collection, people management, project planning, and project execution. And a spiritual authority exists to guide everyone—including the managers—on how to perfect their yoga practice. Thereby, a clear distinction is always made between “management authority” and the “spiritual authority” or the guru. The requirements of the guru in a religious organization are not different than those that existed in the past; such requirements are not based on time or place. However, the requirements of institutional managers are new and adaptable to the social situation.

The problem is that most people are not serious about perfecting their yoga practice. They don’t like detachment, perfection in knowledge, cannot tolerate austerities, don’t have a desire for mystical experience, and have no idea about the bliss of the relationship to God. They find all these things too abstract, distant, hard, or intangible. Fund collection, managing people, organizational politics, project planning, and execution, instead seem very tangible. As the saying goes: A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. Most people don’t want to lose the birds in hand for the birds in the bush. Thereby a contradiction between immediate needs and ultimate goals is created. The organization has many immediate needs, but the organization exists for an ultimate goal. These two things are not naturally aligned. And the absence of this alignment produces many subsequent problems.

To overcome the conflict between ultimate goals and immediate needs, all religious institutions create a false dogma—just try to fulfill the immediate institutional needs and that will certainly lead to the ultimate goal.

Christianity perfected this false dogma to the greatest extent. In Christianity, you just accept Jesus as the savior, go to Church every Sunday, donate your money and talent to the Church, and that will automatically lead to salvation. There is no discussion of detachment, the perfection of knowledge, mystical experience, and inexhaustible bliss. Just do what the Church says, and you will get salvation. This false dogma about religion is Churchianity—i.e., exclusively relying on an institution for one’s salvation. All modern religious institutions follow the same false dogma of Churchianity to various degrees. They get engrossed in immediate needs of fund collection, people management, project execution, organization expansion, and forget the ultimate goals—detachment, knowledge, mystical experience, and bliss attainment.

By collapsing the distinction between “management authority” and “spiritual authority”, emphasizing the organizational mission over the perfection of yoga, or claiming that following the organizational authority is itself the route to spiritual perfection, the institution destroys spiritual progress.

For instance, a hallmark of spiritual progress in bhakti-yoga is continuously growing happiness in chanting the names of God. Sri Chaitanya states the following in the first verse of Siksastaka: ānandāmbudhi-vardhanaṁ prati-padaṁ, or “the ocean of bliss expands at every step”. Those who are chanting the names of God sincerely can attest that the happiness in chanting increases continuously. You can experience the increase every month, every week, if not every day. But this goal of continuous progress, increasing happiness, and growing attachment to the chanting of the names of God, is ignored when religion is institutionalized. This is because the gurus are not continuously growing in bliss, although they advocate rules and regulations; they do not bring up the absence of their progress, despite practice.

If we follow a practice that doesn’t lead to the landmarks on the path toward the goal, then the implication is that we are on the wrong path. We need to change what we are doing, and unless we do so, we will not progress. Over time, we will seek happiness in other things, lose interest and conviction in the spiritual path, and we might even abandon the path eventually.

Since the happiness of chanting is not growing at every step, most people now seek happiness in other things. And the immediately available source of happiness is organizational involvement, the pursuit of money, power, political influence, project success, etc. Even as a person is doing all these things, while the happiness of chanting is not increasing at every step, the practitioner slowly loses interest in the spiritual path, and surrenders himself fully to the facilities of the organization, with no spiritual results. The whole point of the religious organization is lost because the person is spiritually stuck. Such spiritually stuck individuals cannot create spiritual growth in anyone else. Those who come to a religion through the efforts such teachers or “gurus” are also going to be equally stuck in their life.

Who is a Real Guru?

A real guru is one by following whose instructions one can make continual spiritual progress. In the bhakti-yoga path, this means continually increasing happiness while chanting the names of God. There is no other measure of your success; organizational expansion is not spiritual progress. Of course, you can continue executing the purpose of the organization, namely, expanding the message of the religion. However, the work done for expanding the message is not identical to your spiritual progress. There can be an expansion of the message while those spreading the message are stuck spiritually.

The fact is that spiritual progress can be made without being involved in a religious organization, and participation in a religious organization does not guarantee any spiritual progress. Some people might argue: Lord Krishna states that one who imparts the knowledge of devotion to others becomes very dear to me. So, how can we say that spreading the message of God is unrelated to spiritual progress? And the answer to this question is: Lord Krishna makes the statement about a teacher being very dear to Him after the statement of surrender to Him. If we only try to spread the message of surrender without surrendering ourselves, then we are advertising something that we don’t ourselves believe in. If we truly want to please God, then we must spread the message of surrender in a mood of surrender.

The purpose of a true religious organization is two-fold: (a) help genuine seekers make continuous spiritual progress, and (b) bring the message of the religion to those who don’t have it. The former function is identical to that which existed formerly in the form of Ashrams where genuine seekers would learn from a true guru. The latter function is new—it can bring those who don’t know about the religion to its practice. However, the latter function is the progression of the previous function. One who has surrendered to God, and is then teaching the message of surrender in a surrendered mood, is very dear to God. Those who have surrendered, but are not teaching the message of God, are also dear, but not as dear as those who teach the message of surrender in a surrendered mood. Finally, those who haven’t surrendered to God, but are trying to teach the message of surrender, may be living with inner contradictions. They can progress on the path to surrender by following the instructions of the true guru and they will then be very dear to God.

The most fundamental duty of each individual is to progress spiritually. The goal of propagating the message of the religion is secondary. This is because even if you can propagate the message and bring millions of people to the organization, but they are all subsequently stuck in their life unable to make continuous progress, then the endeavor of religious propaganda is ineffective. This propaganda makes sense if we bring someone to a path, and then help them achieve the goal. A true guru is one who can help a person achieve that goal after bringing them to the path of continuous improvement.

When organizational leaders take on the positions of a guru, then the former function ceases, and only the latter function continues. Thereby, the organization becomes a Church in which billions of people can claim to have a membership, but factually nobody is making spiritual progress. They think that organizational membership itself equals spiritual perfection leading to salvation. And the false gurus perpetuate that illusion because they are themselves not making continual and incremental progress.

Thus, to the question: “Who can be a guru?” the answer is that the person must have perfect detachment, perfect knowledge of the material and spiritual worlds, mystical powers, and inexhaustible bliss due to devotion to God. Not everyone qualified in this way, however, wants to be a guru. So, many people qualified to be guru may never become gurus. If some qualified person takes on the role of a guru, then by following their instructions, the disciple can make continual progress. If a guru qualifies, but the follower does not make progress, then it means that the follower is not sincere and does not strictly adhere to the instructions of the guru. Just as there are qualifications of a guru, similarly, there are qualifications of a disciple. Initiation from a perfect guru doesn’t mean that the disciple is automatically qualified to become a perfect guru. The qualification of the disciple is that he makes continual progress, and he can become a guru upon perfection.

Of course, many people will find themselves stuck in their spiritual life because they are following the imperfect guru. The imperfect person commits so many mistakes that he will give you incorrect guidance. Many organizational leaders will use your energy to propagate the organizational mission, while you are not making spiritual progress. When you cannot contribute to the organizational mission or the organizational leader can find other easier ways to fulfill the mission, they will abandon you. The new recruits they take, however, are not going to make spiritual progress either. Such a religious organization becomes a system of revolving doors in which the sincere people come in and leave due to the absence of progress. And those who stay behind relentlessly pursue materialistic power.

Flaws in Quantitative Measurements

By looking at Christianity and Islam, we can see that such institutions can grow to huge numbers and last for a very long time. Both Christianity and Islam started as very small groups and today they have billions of followers. By measuring their quantitative influence, one can say that the religion has “grown”. There can be more temples, churches, mosques, synagogues, people, money, and influence. But that doesn’t mean spiritual progress. Even as the organization is expanding, people are not getting more detached, more knowledgeable, having more mystical experiences, and are not increasing their bliss. Over time, and the time can be very long, most erstwhile followers of these religions become atheists, agnostics, or detached from religion.

However, since they are growing in the short run, they claim to be doing quite well. This is why one needs to know the qualifications of a guru—to distinguish between organizational expansion and spiritual progress. Organizational expansion is quantitative while spiritual progress is qualitative. A large organization that also comprises qualitatively improving individuals is great. However, an expanding organization with people stuck in their qualitative development is not. Such an organization is indistinguishable from a growing business, expanding empire, or a society increasing its population. When qualitative development stops, the religious institution relies on quantitative expansion to create the illusion of progress. The religion becomes an empire or business and its gurus become kings and businessmen.

If a religious organization is expanding quantitatively but its members are not getting qualitatively better, then we must understand that they are not following a true guru. It may be because the real guru’s instructions are being disobeyed. Or it may be that false gurus are being followed. The sincere aspirant, who wants qualitative spiritual progress and not just quantitative organizational expansion, may want to avoid such an organization. He can do so by finding the true guru and sincerely following their instructions.

Horizontal and Vertical Growth

The distinction between qualitative and quantitative progress can also be described in terms of the inverted tree-like structure. Qualitative progress in this tree structure means rising vertically to a qualitatively superior state while quantitative growth of the organization means horizontal expansion of the base of the inverted tree. The spiritual authority can help the members of a religious organization progress vertically to a qualitatively superior position, while the managerial authority can help the organization expand horizontally.

If this distinction between horizontal and vertical progress is collapsed, and the managerial authority ascends to a higher position in the organization without acquiring the qualitatively superior state, then even as the organization expands, the members of the organization start losing respect for the leaders. They might criticize the leaders, or actively disobey them, leading to their eviction. The result is organizational fragmentation. But even those who stay in the organization may not follow the authorities happily and voluntarily. Most of them may just be averse to voicing their dissent out of fear of being expelled. In fact, they may be disengaged and unenthusiastic.

Numerous examples of fragmentation are found in all religions. Christianity for instance has thousands of Church denominations. Islam has fewer denominations because it has employed greater force in subduing or killing those who disagree. Hinduism is also fragmented into many denominations such as Shaiva, Vaishnava, and Shakta, with many sects and subsects in each of them. We can find such fragmentation in every major religion that has a large number of followers. Thus, by practical experience, we can see that as any religion grows but lacks true spiritual gurus, it starts getting fragmented. It can maintain its integrity only through intimidation and brutality.

Once these sects separate out from the original spiritually inclined tradition, they start actively competing against each other. In some cases (e.g., between sects in Islam), they have violent enmity toward each other. In other cases, they might constantly criticize each other, try to draw people from one sect to another, or undermine others. This fragmentation, which then leads to inner conflicts within the religion further takes away focus from true spiritual goals. Now, the managerial leadership of one sect is further involved in fighting with the managerial leadership of other sects, as spirituality declines.

Therefore, measuring progress through quantitative expansion (not accompanied by continuous spiritual growth) is rife with problems. Such expansion leads to (a) a revolving door of true seekers, (b) disengaged members, (c) fragmentation of the institution into sects, (d) conflict between the sects, (e) leadership that is constantly firefighting numerous internal and external conflicts of the organization, (f) accepting compromises meant to quell the dissent and conflict, and (g) absence of growth in detachment, knowledge, mystical experience, and inexhaustible bliss. As the symptoms magnify, people can no longer diagnose the problem back to the lack of spiritually advanced gurus. Without a diagnosis, there is no fix.

The Greatness of Real Gurus

If anyone follows the instructions of a true guru, they will make continuous progress and will receive personal guidance from the true guru, whenever it is required. Even if everyone else thinks that the true guru is dead and gone, such a guru is not dead and gone; he is always there, and he can appear in the life of a sincere follower, to provide specific instructions that can help the seeker get unstuck in their spiritual life and expand God’s message.

There are dozens of mystical processes of contact between two individuals that don’t require a public appearance. Just as God can be publicly visible or selectively visible to specific individuals, in the same way, the perfect guru can be publicly visible or selectively visible to specific individuals. The skeptic who depends exclusively on public visibility might say: If it cannot be proven by public appearance, then it cannot be considered a guru’s instruction. But there is an answer to this skepticism: It is not just appearances; it also involves instructions. By following the instructions received through such appearances, we make rapid progress, and thereby we can confirm that such appearances are not imaginary. Since everything is confirmable by practical experience, therefore, by performing that test, we can decide.

Meanwhile, those who disregard this mystical process of guidance by a true guru will remain stuck in their life. They may speak very loudly, but they are not progressing in their bliss. Instead of fighting and arguing about “guru-tattva” with people who are not progressing, one can quietly make progress in their life. When such progress is seen, then one realizes: The path of yoga perfection is independent of any organizational constraints.