Dealing With the Loss of One’s Spiritual Master

by Stephen Knapp (Sri Nandanandana dasa)

            When the spiritual master leaves the body and moves on, it is naturally the worst day of the disciple’s life. Many times we have become accustomed to thinking of our guru in a particular way, serving him in certain ways, listening to his classes, waiting and longing for him to visit our town or local temple, engaging in special exchanges with him or her, and then suddenly all such prospects are gone. The depth of our despair can be unfathomable. So what do we do then?

            [I originally wrote this shortly after the disappearance of Bhakti Tirtha Swami years ago to help his disciples. But as we are all growing older, such situations will not only continue, but will increase. Therefore, I thought this may be more pertinent than before.]

            There are so many ways in which a disciple deals with this situation. Some become so numb that they simply can not dwell on it. Some can hardly accept it. Or they naturally cry and cannot face the idea of continuing life without their gurudeva. Others may absorb themselves in service or in remembering him. Some may never have thought of the fact that one day their guru would be gone. So it can be shocking as well as extremely upsetting. The way that each disciple deals with the situation is as varied as there are disciples.

            The next step is how to continue getting the spiritual master’s association. Naturally there are his books, tapes, CDs, video recordings, or other methods by which one can still remember his teachings, his mannerisms, or his own ways of spiritual practice. And, of course, the disciples can also share with each other their own stories and memories of various events that took place with their guru. Through these methods, one can fill the time and mind with the association of one’s guru. However, now you may have to work a little harder to invoke the presence of your guru.


            In spite of so many ways we may deal with the situation, the bottom line is, what are you going to do now? The loss of your spiritual master may mean that it is time for you to grow up... to a new level of understanding your own purpose, your own potential, responsibility and even leadership ability. Maybe it is time for you to move forward to help fill the gap that has been left by the physical absence of the spiritual master. Your guru may have been called to serve someplace else by the Lord’s desire, which means you and your Godbrothers and Godsisters are here to carry on with the mission of your guru and some of you will need to step forward to take up more of that responsibility. It may also be time to depend more on your Godfamily as well as be better association for them. I personally remember this quite clearly from the time when Srila Prabhupada departed.

            It may also be time to meditate more on what your guru would want you to do, or what your guru would expect from you in the situations you encounter. It may be time to allow more of your own potential to manifest. You may feel that you will never be what your guru was, or that you will never do anything equal to what he did, and that is all right. A disciple will never feel that he or she will be as great as their own guru and do all that he could do. However, that does not mean that you allow your humility to create a feeling of uselessness or stifle your own potential to carry on your guru’s legacy and mission. His determination and preaching is a sign of his dedication to his own guru, which is the example you must follow to your spiritual master.

             We have to remember that the more spiritual we become, the more we can perceive that which is spiritual. And the more you will understand that everything is going according to plan, according to the schedule. It may not be your plan. It may not be what you want. And it may even be months or years before you begin to understand why things happened the way they did. But when you do, you will understand that things happened to bring about a certain event or situation to move things forward. Everything that is happening is a preparation for something else to manifest. Furthermore, a key element of what is meant to take place is the next step in the process of your own development.

            In this line of thinking, Jiva Goswami uses some quotes from the Srimad-Bhagavatam in his Sri Krishna Sandarbha (Anuccheda 123, texts 2-3, Anuccheda 124, text 1, taken from Bhagavatam 11.30.49) to clarify how everything that happens in connection with Krishna is part of a bigger plan. In these verses, Lord Krishna explains to His chariot driver, Daruka, that all catastrophes related to His pastimes, such as the disappearance of His associates, are like illusory displays of His potencies. Therefore, even when the Lord’s associates, such as our present-day pure devotees and great sages disappear, we should consider it a part of the Lord’s pastimes, as He explains as follows:

            “My dear Daruka, do not be unhappy because of the destruction of the Yadu dynasty, or the disappearance of Lord Balarama. Become patient and fixed in actual knowledge. These calamities are simply an illusory show, fabricated by My internal potency. There is no need to become agitated because of these so-called catastrophes.”

            Jiva Goswami explains further, “In this verse, the words tvam tu refer to Daruka, jnana-nisthah means “understanding the truth about My transcendental pastimes,” mad-dharmam means “My natural inclination to protect My devotees, such as yourself,” and asthaya means “having faith.” Krishna tells Daruka that the present calamities, such as the destruction of the Yadu dynasty, are like magical tricks performed by Him. Daruka should understand all this (vijnaya) and become free (upashamam vraja) from grief and agitation of the mind, which is produced by superficial understanding. By the word tu (but), Sri Krishna tells Daruka: Others may become bewildered by these pastimes of Mine, but you should not.

            “Daruka, a perfectly liberated devotee, who had descended with the Lord from Vaikuntha, understood this statement of the Lord. This is the proper explanation of the Lord’s final pastimes and the destruction of the Yadu dynasty.”

            “The transcendental nature of the appearance and disappearance of Lord Sri Krishna and His confidential associates is described in three verses from Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.31.11-13). In the first of these verses (11), Sukadeva Gosvami says to Maharaja Pariksit: O King, please try to understand that the appearance of Sri Krishna and His confidential associates (who have spiritual forms just like that of the Lord), their pastimes, and their disappearance from this earth, are like a dramatic play enacted by Lord Krishna’s internal potency. Sri Krishna is not an ordinary living entity, but in truth is the Supreme Person who has created this entire material world, who entered into every atom of that creation as the all-pervading Supersoul, and who will destroy the entire universe at the time of annihilation. He is the Supreme Lord, who sometimes comes to this material world to display His pastimes here, although He always remains free from the influence of the material energy, and situated in His own transcendental glory.”

            There are many insights we can get from this, but one thing we can take is that when our great devotees, sages and gurus leave this world, it is under the arrangement of the Supreme Lord, and that their service to Lord Krishna continues on another level, a level that we may or may not be able to see, but which goes on in some other way nonetheless. That means our service to our guru and such devotees can also continue, but in what appears to be in their absence. In that regard, there is little that changes. We continue to serve our spiritual master or the great devotees, and in this way our connection with them remains or even becomes stronger. If we continue like this, then in time, when we also give up these bodies, we will follow them towards a higher destination.  

            In the meantime, you cannot think about fading away from your guru’s mission, in which he undertook so much austerity, sacrifice and determination to establish. This is also a continuation of his own spiritual master’s mission. You cannot legitimately feel that because your spiritual master is no longer physically present you are not so inspired to continue, or that you’ll fade away. If you feel you cannot go on because your guru is no longer present, then how would that please your guru? So that is not an option. Otherwise, the love you have shown for your guru is only conditional love, love as long as things are as you want them to be, or as long as your own spiritual master is in the form with which you are most familiar.

            If you are attached to only one form of the guru, that is conditional love. If we are attached to his form such as being a young man who can dance wondrously while leading great kirtans, or as a great scholar with a photographic memory, etc., but can not imagine him as someone who could get old and sick, or even lose a limb from disease, or not being able to be his usual, dynamic personality, then that is conditional love. The spiritual master can manifest in so many ways for the mercy of the disciple if the disciple is open to it. The changing situation may even be a test for the disciple. Even appearing to be physically sick and dependent on the disciple is a way the guru provides extra mercy and a chance to advance for the disciple. So we must raise our love to the unconditional level and not have it based merely on particular forms. These bodies that we are in are bound to change. But our love must be unconditional.

            Some disciples may say that they cannot imagine their guru being sick, or never being able to dance up a storm during kirtan, or not being able to preach in a robust manner. But in this ever-changing material world, we cannot be attached to temporary appearances. The guru will utilize whatever is necessary to inspire the disciples to take up the chanting of the holy names, even through dancing and ecstatic kirtans, or inspiring lectures, etc. We have to raise our love to an unconditional state and see that the essence of the spiritual master is his preaching, teaching, his writings, and the inspiration he provides that brings us to want to follow the process of hearing and chanting the glories of the Lord. This is what is permanent in the service of Lord Krishna. This is the legacy of the guru which is what we should be most attached and dedicated to preserving, continuing and expanding. My own spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, did not do a lot of dancing. He mostly gave class, wrote letters, translated Sanskrit texts, and lead kirtans while sitting on the Vyasasanna, and engaged in exchanges with his disciples. But he inspired everyone to chant the holy names.

            We also must remember that it is through our attachment and dedication to our guru and his mission that we stay connected to him as well as to the whole parampara that appeared before him. The parampara is like the long arm of Krishna descending down through generations. When you are still connected with your guru, you are then connected to the whole parampara, or sampradaya. In our Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya sampradaya, this goes up through Srila Prabhupada, Bhaktisiddhanta, Gaura Kishora dasa Babaji, Bhaktivinoda Thakur, on up to Lord Chaitanya, Srila Vyasadeva and Brahma, and to Lord Krishna Himself. So it is like grabbing an electric line that is powered by the original power house. By grabbing onto your own guru through faith and service, who is connected with the parampara, you have the backing of all these great and powerful spiritual authorities. So think of how much potency is there to help you and which can come through you to help others. The disciple never need feel that he or she is alone, without the physical presence of the spiritual master. The guru is always there, depending on the faith and sincerity of the disciple. The spiritual platform is all around us, and the more focused we become to the spiritual dimension, the more we are in tune with all those spiritual authorities who also exist on that strata.

            Furthermore, you should expect miracles on the spiritual path and in Krishna consciousness. So many miracles have already happened. But this does not mean that you act merely as a witness to the miracles around you. But you should also be ready to see and allow miracles to happen within you, or through you. This is the affect of the potency in your connection to the parampara through your spiritual master. Even if our actions are full of faults, if our intention is sincere, then the potency of the parampara can still come through and empower us with unexpected results, even miracles. In this way, miracles can manifest through us or in the projects we sincerely try to do. And we never know exactly how these will manifest. They may develop in quite unexpected ways, or doors of opportunity will open when we did not even know they were there. So we must be determined to continue our service and preaching work and never give up. This is how we will continue to get the blessings of our spiritual master, even if it appears that he is no longer physically present.

            Thus, the guru can still make himself known to the sincere disciple in many ways. We simply have to keep dedicating ourselves to his teaching and instructions. We have to honor the spiritual master and his guidance, his books, and accept them as they are. We must not think that we know better, or that we accept certain things but not others. Such an offensive view will surely create a slow or even immediate disconnection between us and our guru and, thus, the whole parampara. So, we must make sure that does not happen.

            Personally I never saw my own spiritual master Srila Prabhupada much. I never thought I needed to since he gave me everything I needed through his books and tapes. Thus, when he did leave, I was still attached to the way I always associated with him, through his books and tapes. But now I get encouragement from Prabhupada through the compliments and encouragement from my Godbrothers and other devotees and people who express appreciation of my work. I feel it is Srila Prabhupada giving his approval and speaking through them.

            In these ways, a disciple can continue to honor and respect the guru and his teachings, as well as remain connected and inspired to preserve and expand his mission. Then we also uphold all that the spiritual master worked for and the purpose of the whole parampara, the line of spiritual masters before him. In this way, our own lives become spiritually successful, and we go on to give the blessings and potency of our guru to others. 

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