This article is from the book An Instrument of Thy Peace.
Is a guru indispensable in the field of spirituality? It may be that a guru is not easily found, but I can assure you that he is no less indispensable–whatever the impediments may be. What can you learn if there is no one to teach you? What can you receive unless there is someone to give? There is a saying in India that even if you want to learn to make a pot from a lump of clay, you have to go and apprentice yourself to someone who knows the skills. If you want to prepare a simple dish, you have to ask about the recipe from someone who has done it. Maybe there are certain ingredients that you don’t know at all, or you don’t know where to buy them. Then the person might tell you that there is a shop in such and such a street and there you will find all the things you need. At each moment you had to be helped and shown the way.
Who is a real guru? A real guru is one who has advanced on the path. He may not be a Jesus or a Buddha, but he is sincere, earnest and dedicated to the quest for God. He has attained a state of purity and self-control, he is established in truth, and he is ahead of you on the spiritual path. He can teach you what you have to learn; he can show you the path that you have to tread, and he can guide you along that path. It is not as easy in the West to find a competent guru as it is in the East, and this is surely an obstacle for a Westerner. But if you cannot find a guru who is established in the highest samadhi and Self-realisation, you need not wander about without guidance and advice. Take one who is ahead of you on the path, and he will be in a position to lead you.
In this modern age, spiritual teachings are available everywhere, but you must be cautious. Select the teachings of a guru who is practical, who is sincere to the core and whose teachings strike a responding cord within your heart, and then launch yourself sincerely in sadhana. You should not keep waiting to commence sadhana because you think that first you must find a guru. The guru will come one day, but on no account should sadhana be delayed. One should take up spiritual practice, and when the time comes, the divine will provide you what is necessary. There are fortunate ones who get a guru right from the very beginning–even before they have really started on the path of spiritual life and realisation. That is very good, but in the absence of such a phenomenon, right from the beginning one should proceed with sadhana.
What can you do before you find a true guru? They say that without a guru no spiritual sadhana is possible, but this is a misconception. Whether a guru comes or not, when you have realised that the goal is to attain God, you should immediately start practising sadhana in earnest. Be humble, truthful, kind and compassionate. When you are in touch with these things, you must start practising, whether the guru comes or not.
Every little thing in this universe requires someone to teach you the skills, and why should there be a sole exception only in the spiritual life? People will ask, “Cannot God Himself be my guru?” Yes, but God contacts you through a manifest form. Very rarely indeed does God come directly and invisibly within the heart. Ultimately, it is God alone that is the supreme Guru of Gurus–the Indweller within you who prompts you, guides you and takes you to the spiritual path. But He also comes in and through the physical guru. We should not always think that we are supreme exceptions who don’t need a manifested guru. There are rare exceptions in this universe, but we should not think that we are one of them. It is subtle ego to think that God Himself has come to us. By and large, the main reason for this question as to whether a guru is necessary is that the subtle ego is unwilling to submit to a human teacher.
Ego and a sense of superiority play havoc in the individual. Keep yourself ever humble and try to learn from all sources. Ultimately it is the ego that is the barrier. One claims to want liberation, but who is it exactly that thinks they want liberation? It is this little ego. The elimination of ego is the whole of spirituality. The most effective method ever formulated is this tradition of the guru, who can help eliminate this ego in a concrete way. In so many ways you can practise the process of eliminating the ego, but it is only in relation to the guru that you can actually practise this process of eliminating the ego day by day.
This ego is truly very subtle. A person under the sway of this sort of ego might contend, “Oh, formerly there were Self-realised gurus to whom you could submit yourselves, but now there are no Self-realised gurus. How can you submit yourself to some Tom, Dick or Harry?” Who asks you to submit yourself to some Tom, Dick or Harry? Saying that there is no proper guru is itself an assumption on your part due to a subtle superiority complex. This type of person might say, “There may be gurus for those who have not yet come up to my state of spiritual awakening, but for me there is no adequate guru, because I have already attained to an advanced state of awareness.” What spiritual knowledge are they talking about? They have stuffed their minds with some book knowledge, and then they are giving themselves airs. One should always guard against this subtle feeling of superiority. “I have already gone a long way; I am not like the rest; I am exceptional.” You see, this is the subtle working of maya in the mind; hence, there must be great humility.
Some people feel very comfortable in taking a bygone, dead saint for a guru. They will say that they have made Ramakrishna or some other man their guru who is no longer alive. It is very comfortable, because these “disciples” will never be contradicted by anyone, and no one will ever come down on them if they have made a mistake. The ego gets to stay put even though the person may go on saying morning and night, “I surrender to you, I surrender to you.” But how is he to know the quality of his surrender, and how can he test himself? It is only when a true disciple comes into clash with a concrete guru’s will or instruction that he begins to know how deep his submission, surrender and obedience are.
Taking a past saint as a guru is the same as taking God as your guru. God is a poor uncomplaining person, and even if He complains, you don’t recognise His complaint! Many times He complains against your disobedience and sends you complaint letters in His own way, but you attribute it to some other person. “That man was nasty to me and brought about this trouble for me.” We never think, “Perhaps He sent this to me in His own way because of my transgression.” You should not assume the comfortable position that you have a silent, invisible guru. That guru cannot in any way effectively test your ego. Let us therefore have our eyes open and be aware of what we are doing.
Gurus are available, and they will come and guide you when you are sufficiently purified and you have humbled yourself. Your book learning does not make a difference to the guru. A man may be a Ph.D., but if he gets lost while driving in the countryside, he may have to ask an unlettered local person for directions. There are areas in which we do not yet have a map, and he who has travelled before us is the man to show us the way. You may say, “I can read all the signs and find out my own way,” but if you go to a country whose alphabet you do not know, what good does your previous knowledge do you? You won’t be able to read a menu, you won’t be able to know whether the door says “push” or “pull,” and you won’t know which is the hot water tap and which is the cold water tap.
Believe me, the spiritual path is an area where you neither have a map nor do you know the alphabet. With all our information from books and all our sophisticated knowledge, we do not yet have the equipment of self-control, philosophical enquiry, discrimination or humility. We do not know what is meant for us at a particular given time or situation.
Fortitude and the power of endurance are equipment that book knowledge does not normally put at our disposal. Many qualities have to be cultivated in discipleship, and in discipleship alone will these qualities really grow. There is a deep science behind this discipleship. There is a definite reason why the guru insists on a state of discipleship, for only through it can you then move into a state of proficiency. One should not assume that one is an adept before one has started even becoming a disciple. One should pass through all the stages of spiritual evolution.
God is ever by your side to help, and teachers are not lacking. Teachers are there even if they may not be as plentiful as they were once upon a time, but true discipleship is something that is very rare. Let us always look to the divine and pray for light and guidance. If we seek to mould ourselves into ideal discipleship, the guru will provide it. Where there is the readiness and real demand for the spiritual life, the guru will provide it. That is the law of God, a law of spiritual life. May you all find a true guru in your life and thereby help you to progress steadily on the spiritual path.