Must We Submit to a Guru?

Krishna plays his flute. Photo by Dharma Kshetra Yoga 2019

Krishna plays his flute. Photo by Dharma Kshetra Yoga 2019

The role of Guru has come under scrutiny of late, with a seemingly constant barrage of scandals in the yoga world. Many serious practitioners are torn between loyalty to a lineage and speaking what is in their hearts. Where can we, as modern yogis and yoginis, find answers and guidance to this quandary?

In the same place we have already been finding it: the classic texts of Yoga. In Chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gita, the virtuous soldier Arjuna sees his guru and acharya firmly in the enemy camp of the evil Duryodhana, who epitomizes selfish desire. These teachers are prepared to do heinous acts to preserve a lineage of royalty. Arjuna, well-versed in etiquette, tells Krishna it is improper to fight against those preceptors, even though they are clearly in the wrong:

“Indeed, it is better in this world to eat 
Begged scraps of food than to kill gurus, those noble elders.
By slaying those gurus desiring material wealth, 
All of my pleasures will be stained by their blood.” *

Krishna, Arjuna’s best friend and charioteer, understands Divine Law (dharma) and tried previously to stop the war, so it may be surprising that he advises Arjuna to directly oppose these gurus. Then just two verses later, Arjuna asks Krishna himself to be his guru and Krishna accepts, initiating Arjuna into Brahma Vidya yoga. Is Krishna’s teaching inconsistent?

Note that Krishna is urging Arjuna to fight against specific gurus, namely his Grandfather Bhishma and Master Teacher (Acharya) Drona. Bhishma is only fighting on the side of evil because of a promise he made decades back to always protect the throne of his country. Duryodhana usurped that throne and is obviously the pretender, but Bhishma feels he can not go back on his word. Bhishma is consciously, though regretfully, supporting that which he knows is wrong. Acharya Drona also knows he is on the wrong side, but he feels obligated to the corrupt prince who signs his paycheck.

This verse makes it clear that any guru or acharya who is ruled by material desire is our enemy on the spiritual path. Krishna as guru is putting his life on the line to serve and protect Arjuna, thus making him a worthy instructor. Also note that Bhishma and Drona face Arjuna; these teachers and Arjuna are seeing in two opposite directions. Krishna and Arjuna aren’t looking at each other - they are facing the same direction, working toward identical goals.

The Gita is clear: if you encounter a guru or acharya who is putting the material world of politics and wealth above your welfare, and who is opposed to what you know at your core to be right, it is your duty to oppose them. As Krishna says, if we wish to obtain higher realms, we do not surrender our inner selves and our moral compass - we rise up and fight for what we know to be proper. Rise up, yogis and yoginis, rise up!

*translation by Atmadarshan