The Qualified Guru

And, how can your own mind become the Guru?

The Columbia River Gorge, seen from our retreat site in Stevenson, WA.

Vedanta, and Eastern traditions in general, emphasize the need of a teacher, the guru. My mantri guru, Swami Aseshanandaji, lectured every Sunday. In all the Sundays I attended, I do not think he ever failed to state, “A teacher is necessary. An exemplar is needed.” And he always followed it up with Shankara’s four qualifications of the teacher. That teaching was burned into my mind at a time when a number of famous teachers were involved in scandals. I remember thinking that a lot of exploitation and wrong teaching by so-called teachers in all traditions could be avoided if people knew these qualifications. They are obviously of universal application:

  • Akamahata— the teacher must be devoid of selfish desires, and should only want for you to attain Self-Realization and nothing else
  • Shrotriya— the teacher should know the essence of the scriptures and have the ability to transmit them
  • Avrijina— the teacher should lead a pure and unostentatious life
  • Brahmavid— the teacher should be a knower of the Divine

The first three assure that one’s teacher is authentic. The fourth marks the difference between a qualified dharma teacher and a true Guru. A dharma teacher is a guide who can teach the precepts and the philosophy according to the tradition. A Guru is one who can see into one’s karmas and samskaras, and explain how to overcome obstacles to Self-knowledge. The superior Gurus can transmit the power to overcome these quickly. A famous verse from Shankaracharya’s Bhaja Govindam stotram states:

“From the company of the good arises non-attachment, from non-attachment arises freedom from delusion; from freedom from delusion arises steadfastness; and from steadfastness arises liberation in this life.”

In the West, we have passed through a time when having a guru became a kind of fad, and there was little discernment according to the four qualifications above, with disastrous results. Scandals in all the traditions have caused a general suspicion around taking a teacher, what to speak of surrendering oneself to the teacher. This, combined with the famous “independence” of westerners, has resulted in a situation where people decide a teacher is not necessary. “I’ll just read books, meditate my own way, watch some videos, or gather ideas from all over and make my own system.” And why not? If God is the essence of one’s Soul why should a teacher be necessary? Why can’t one simply listen inside for the “still small, clear voice within?”

“Sat-Chit-Ananda is the only guru.” — Sri Ramakrishna

On the surface this sounds so reasonable. However, the fundamental fallacy in it concerns whether the seeker has viveka, discrimination between the Self and the non-self, or not. Without spiritual discrimination, can one really tell the difference between the Light of Atman and the light of the ego? Where is that “voice” coming from? If one does not have this viveka, then the mind-ego complex will lead one astray, lost in the confluence of desire, aversion, and opinions. One of the hallmarks of a person established in viveka is same-sightedness, samyak drishti. He or she views all situations from the same steady platform of the Self. There is no “jockeying” of position to maintain a comfort zone for the ego based on attraction and aversion in or to any given circumstance.

Thus, this fourth qualification of the teacher holds the key to whether one possesses the ability to guide oneself, much less others. Brahmavid is further broken down into four levels of its own. If one’s mind does not possess the qualities of the first level, then one needs to take an external teacher who does. The tradition has told us for millennia that the one Guru manifests as all gurus. Our sincere longing for Truth, for Liberation, attracts us to a qualified teacher. On the other hand, insincerity leads us to unqualified teachers or causes us to leave authentic ones when our egos are bruised.

We can refer to Babaji Bob Kindler’s chart above on the Four Levels of a Knower of Brahman. The four levels are Brahmavit, Brahmavidvara, Brahmavidvariya, and Brahmavidvarishtha. This teaching is associated with what is known as the Seven Levels of Higher Knowledge (Jnana-Bhumikas). The first level of a Brahmavit has attained the first four levels. Each succeeding level of a knower of Brahman attains the next higher Jnana-Bhumika, until all are attained in the Brahmavidvarishtha, the best of the knowers of Brahman. Here are the seven levels explained:

The Seven Levels of Higher Wisdom

The ancient sage Vasishtha sums it up nicely:

“The painful rounds of birth and death in ignorance will never cease until one has reached the first level of jnana-wisdom. To attain that, seek virtue and develop indifference to the world. Then take recourse to the spiritual teachings transmitted by an illumined preceptor.”

Sage Vasishtha states here that one cannot overcome birth and death in ignorance unless one attains the first level of wisdom. This level is called Shubhecha, Right Aspiration, and means that one possesses detachment, knowledge of scriptures, and wisdom. Detachment, vairagya, is attained only after becoming established in viveka, discrimination between the Self and the non-self. Without both viveka and vairagya, one’s understanding of the scriptures will be tainted with misinterpretation. True knowledge of the scriptures — and by “scriptures” he means the scriptures dealing with the path of Liberation — grant wisdom to the detached, self-controlled adept. Vasishtha states that without Shubhecha one must seek virtue and take recourse to the teachings transmitted by an illumined preceptor. Thus, it is a form of delusion to think that one can teach oneself the highest Truth, the Pearl of great price, when the mind is not qualified, that is, when one has not attained the first level of knowledge. Sri Ramakrishna states that in time the mind itself becomes the Guru, but clearly, he means the mind purified by viveka and vairagya, and schooled by a true teacher.

“As soon as the mind becomes schooled by the provisional guru, then the archetypical Soul, the inner Guru, comes forward. In the end, one’s own mind is that selfsame Guru.” — Babaji Bob Kindler

Lord Vasishtha has another statement that is very telling and a warning to those who think that the scriptures are antiquated:

Trying to attain enlightenment without knowledge of the vidya shashtras is like attempting to grow crops only at night.

One of the hallmarks of Truth is that it does not change over time, place, or circumstances. The way people and cultures try to live by this Truth may undergo changes, but Truth itself does not change. The non-dual scriptures are statements and revelations of this Eternal Truth. They are found in most if not all religions; however, the scriptures of India abound with those of the non-dual type.

Additionally, a deeper explanation of the Seven Levels of Higher Wisdom can be found immediately here:

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