Q&A with Swami Swaroopananda
Swami Swaroopananda is the Acharya (spiritual director) of Sivananda Yoga Centers and Ashrams on the West Coast of the United States, in the Middle East, and in the Bahamas, and is one of the foremost disciples of Swami Vishnudevananda. He is renowned for his spontaneous yet clear, concise, and complete answers to every question. This Q&A is from a May 2010 Satsang in the Bahamas.
QUESTION: How do aspirants know that they are following a true guru and not just someone who wants disciples, especially since the aspirant is supposed to do what the guru says without questioning the guru?
Answer: First of all, if you are searching for a teacher, you have to take a risk. Most people don't want to take any risk but it is very rare for the guru to actually appear at the front door, knock, and say, "I am your guru. Come." It can happen, there are some stories of it happening this way, but only to a very few blessed ones. Usually it's not like this. Usually you have to search for your teacher; you have to find the teacher, and along the way you may encounter some disappointments. Those disappointments, however, should not become an obstacle for us on the journey to finding our teacher. We have to take risks.
We need to understand that the guru is a teacher, and that there are two types of teachers. There is a teacher who is teaching us mundane things, worldly things. This is one type of guru. We call this type of guru an upa guru. Then there is the teacher who is teaching us how to attain Self-realization, or how to attain God-realization. We call such a teacher a sat guru. Now upa gurus are many, but the sat guru is one for us. When a teacher who has the capacity to show us how to attain Self-realization or God-realization comes to us and we recognize that that teacher is our guru, and we surrender to that guru, this is because our prayers at the level of the soul were heard. The guru is not a human being. The guru is not the physical form that we see. This is not the guru. The Supreme Being Himself or Herself comes to us in the form of the guru.
Swami Vishnudevananda was my guru. I recognized him as my guru. The guru came to me in the form of Swami Vishnudevananda. However, to the person next to me he was not the guru. To the person next to me he was a great man. To another person he was just a nice man. I remember one time when Swami Vishnudevananda came and I asked for the help of someone to drive him from the airport where we picked him up. Now, for me, he was my guru; he was the one who had the capacity to show me the path to Self-realization. However, the person who was driving told me afterwards, "What's the big deal? He's a nice person, no doubt, but you know . . . he's nice but what is the big deal?" And I told him, "I can't explain this to you. There's no way for me to explain this to you. I'm very happy at least that you see him as a nice person," because someone could also see him as a horrible person. He could have told me, "This person is horrible. Why do you accept him as your guru?" It can happen. God came to me in the form of my guru but that doesn't mean that he came to the person next to me in the same form. In other words, God takes different forms, different shapes. He will come to you in a specific way. He will come to you in the form of your guru.
The guru is not there to enslave you. That's not the purpose of the guru. The purpose of the guru is the very opposite. The purpose is to show you the path to spiritual liberation, to show you how to liberate yourself from Samsara, from that state of existence that consists of ignorance and misery. And we are in that state. The only purpose of the guru, who comes to us out of compassion, is to show us how to become truly free. This is what the guru is teaching us.
A real guru is not looking for disciples. Swami Sivananda writes, in the wonderful book Bliss Divine, under the chapter entitled Guru, "To be a guru, you must have a command from God." Does that mean that a person heard a voice in the middle of the night telling him, "You are the savior of this planet; you are a great guru"? No, that is not the meaning. Many of the great gurus were reluctant to become gurus. Swami Sivananda, in his own autobiography, tells how he prayed to be one of those yogis who is hidden and helping humanity. He was against what we might call a "guru-dom" culture, a culture of people who try to be gurus, who try to develop a "guru career."
The great, real gurus know the path that leads to liberation from beginning to end because they have walked it themselves. They know every stone on that path. Swami Sivananda was a fully realized being, a great saint. If he were here all of us would be blessed, but that doesn't mean he is the guru of every person in this room. He may be the guru of some people, and for other people there may be other gurus.
Again, we may have disappointments in our search for a guru. There may be some pain, there may be disillusionment, but then at some point you may meet your own guru. And you may be disappointed because he does not fit your preconceived notions of how a guru should be, and you may leave your own guru searching for other things, and then in the end you may come back to your own guru. These are all possibilities. Along the way, through trial and error, maybe you're going to find out who is not your guru. This is also a possibility. We may spend half of our life finding out who is not our guru.
I myself was busy finding out who was not my guru. I didn't believe Swami Vishnudevananda was my guru. I didn't even have such a desire. I came to him. He was such a great teacher and I wanted to study with him, but I didn't know he was my guru. However, when I knew, even if all the population of planet Earth had come to tell me, "He's not your guru," it would have meant absolutely nothing to me once I realized it. And I knew it even though I did not desire it. In fact, Swami Vishnudevananda's nature, externally, was the very opposite of my inherent nature. I always had the desire to be a hermit and yet Swami Vishnudevananda, from the first moment that I recognized him as my guru, did everything necessary to push me out of that hermit-like tendency. I assure you that if there had been matchmakers present they would have said, "Swami Swaroopananda is incompatible with Swami Vishnudevananda." Yet in spite of this incompatibility, I realized he was my guru and even if the whole universe had come telling me the opposite, it wouldn't have mattered to me.
This doesn't mean that afterwards it was just a honeymoon. In fact, the first thing that Swamiji did after I realized that he was my guru, maybe after a week, was to send me away, far away from him for a long period. While I would have liked to have been next to him, he sent me away. It didn't matter to me though, because he was my guru. Throughout my history with him, he did many things which are 100 percent contrary to my nature but he is my guru which means his duty is to teach me. What would be the point in me continuing to do the same old things that I already do? You see? I come with certain tendencies, with certain knowledge. I already know certain things, so why do I need a guru? Definitely to learn something new.
I give this to you as an example. It was not easy to be with a real guru. It was difficult. He never tried to make my life only pleasant. He never tried to please me, never. On the other hand, he was full of love, and when I look back, more or less everything that he told me step-by-step came true. When he said it, sometimes it was terrible but he was full of love, no doubt. Again, I am giving you an example. Is he the guru of everyone? No. But he is my guru. Now, he had many students, so of course he is their guru as well but is he the only guru on this planet? No. There are others and yet all these many gurus are only one. You see, there is one ultimate guru we call Ishwara, who is the guru of all the gurus, and that one ultimate guru appears as all the different gurus, and this is the truth. And the only purpose of the guru is to show us who we truly are. That's the purpose of the guru, to help us to realize God, to help us to realize the Self, not to enslave us.
If you think that a guru is there to enslave you, run away. You may make a mistake. You may run away too early but if you want to run away, please run away. If you can run away, run. You see? It is like this. There is not an easy way to find your guru. Some of us will have to burn our fingers on the way but never get disappointed. No, don't get too disappointed. You may say, "OK, I don't want a guru anymore." This is a mistake. OK? So that's the answer to this question.
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