Calcutta, India — Friday, January 21st

Guru: persona vs. person

A couple of years after I published the Who is guru? blog, in response to a reader's email about how we should view the guru, I used the analogy of this world being like a fictional world — a novel written by the Supreme Author, a mental world that the soul has entered into — an artificial world, but a world seemingly so real, and so fascinating, that the soul cannot put the book down. The soul's mind is now so captivated, so completely absorbed in the drama unfolding on every page, that she has temporarily forgotten her family and friends and her duties and obligations in the real world.

This novel analogy, naturally, generated even more questions. With the reader's permission, I am publishing some of the subsequent correspondence (slightly edited and augmented), in which I expanded and elaborated on this concept:

You said that "maya is a fiction... a mental world so captivating that our minds can't break free of its thrall," but as the Supreme Author, Krishna can insert Himself into this world of make-believe, to draw our consciousness out...

Yes. Maya means "not (ma) this (ya)," not real, fictional: having the appearance of reality, but not really real. Krishna created this fictional world for those of us who, whether out of laziness or envy, were not yet ready to serve, who wanted to "escape" to a fantasy world where we could be lord, where we would receive the tribute and adulation of our adoring subjects...

Eagerly our minds swarmed into the kingdoms of Brahma, Indra, and other powerful demigods, poring over the minutiae of their lives, living vicariously through these beautiful, god-like beings, but having devoured these great works of literature and consumed all the classics, we have become jaded and blasé working our way through the trashier novels, the pulp fiction, and we now long to return to reality, to a life of service...

But our small minds have become so entangled and ensnared by the billions of books in this labyrinth of a library that we cannot find our way out... so the Supreme Author inserts Himself directly into the library of this world (in the histories and biographies known as scriptures) to rescue us, to draw us out of the captivity of this illusion, to charm us into Reality with His Beauty...

In the second chapter of Bhagavad Gita (2:11-30), for example, Krishna reminds us that this material world is a fictional world, a world that we have temporarily entered into, in our minds, and that although we are suffering so much mental anguish because we are so deeply absorbed in the trials and tribulations of the characters that we identify with, our real selves (reading by the light of the brahmajyoti, on the bank of the Viraja River) are physically unaffected by the environment and events (the three modes of material nature) depicted in the book we are reading...

Twice — in the middle (9:34) and at the end (18:65) of this book — Krishna reveals the escape route to us: if we simply remember our relationship (man-mana bhava mad-bhakto) and our real duties and obligations to Him (mad-yaji mam namaskuru), we can break this spell whenever we want to (yuktvaivam atmanam mat-parayanah), step out of the book, and return to reality (mam evaisyasi)...

And you said that the guru also "inserts his 'character' into our fictional world," but his real self, or who Srila Gurudeva really is, is unknown and unknowable to us. Just as Shakespeare was quite different from the characters he created: Hamlet, Othello, Romeo... Just as Ian Fleming was not James Bond...

Right. More often than not, Krishna assigns this job of rescuing us, this task of leading the trapped souls out of the fictional wasteland and into reality, to His agent, the guru. Adopting a persona, the guru may "write himself into" some of the more literary books we read when we are trying to improve ourselves or elevate our consciousness, to show us the way to reality through the medium of fiction.

Although an author (writing in the first person) may portray himself as a particular character in a book, and use that character to change our consciousness (to make us think about something in a new way), that character is not who the author really is in real life — it is a persona (a character or role adopted by an author or an actor).

The author is a real-life individual, but he may adopt many different personas in his books, to lead us to the truth through fiction: he may use a parable (a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson), an allegory (a story that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral one), or a fable (a more fanciful story that conveys a lesson of practical wisdom or enforces a useful truth), for example, to impart a moral (a lesson, especially one concerning what is right or prudent, that can be derived from a story).

He may even use that persona in a tragedy (a drama in which the main character is brought to ruin or suffers extreme sorrow, especially as a consequence of moral weakness or the inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances) to warn us to change our lives so that we don't end up like the tragic hero... so we cannot understand who the author really is (his real personality, his likes and dislikes) from these fictional characters he creates or personas that he adopts — but we can recognize him in his writings: "Here is Mr. Ghosh!" :)

Therefore Srila Gurudeva, in reality, is not who we are externally acquainted with. He takes a particular body and personality within this world so that we can perceive him with our senses, mind, etc., but this persona is not Srila Gurudeva per se.

Yes. Just as "the Lord graciously appears in this physical plane of our perception as the deity [so that] we can touch Him, we can see Him, and we can serve Him," Srila Gurudeva adopts a persona, "writes his character" into our novel, so that he can instruct us and show us the truth through fiction.

He can reveal the truth (tad viddhi), within the pages of our book, and if we have faith (pranipatena), listen to the advice (pariprasnena), and follow the instructions (sevaya) of his persona, that character will elevate our consciousness (upadeksyanti te jnanam) until we can see the omniscient author (jnaninas) in the background, and with that glimpse of reality (tattva-darsinah), the spell is broken, and the thrall of this fantasy begins to diminish and dissipate.

So, whatever we may think about Srila Gurudeva is conjecture, because everything in this material world is misconceived, right?

Exactly. But there is something else that I want you to consider (and at this point the analogy becomes a little wobbly because it is impossible to make explicit, coherent comparisons to the spiritual world, where, unlike this fictional world, everything is conscious — the sound of Krishna's name is non-different from Krishna, stones melt in transcendental ecstasy when they experience the touch of Krishna's lotus feet)...

In my "Who is guru?" blog, when I paraphrase Srila Prabhupad,

The guru is a functioning principle of divinity: Krishna reveals Himself to us through His agent, the guru (acaryam mam vijaniyan). There is only one guru (Krishna) who appears in an infinite variety of forms (as the acharya) to eradicate our ignorance and reveal the proper conception of reality...

it is to show that it is actually Krishna Himself who adopts the persona of the guru in His loving search for His lost servant. This paragraph could be rewritten like this:

The Author speaks to us through the characters in His book: He reveals Himself through these personae (I am My character; see Me in him). There is only one writer (Krishna) who appears in an infinite variety of forms (as different characters in multiple books) to lead us to the truth by way of fiction.

A persona (in Latin, "mask") can also be an actor in a play, so Krishna can reveal Himself to us through other actors in His divine lila. When Krishna adopts the persona of one of His intimate associates, that individual does not lose his individuality or identity, or his prerogative to act independently, but becomes what is known as a saktyavesa avatar (an empowered incarnation of the Lord) — a plenipotentiary.

When Srila Guru Maharaj calls his dear friend and godbrother, Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Maharaj Prabhupad a saktyavesa avatar (empowered by Krishna), it does not dilute or nullify Srila Prabhupad's identity or personality, or diminish his position or achievements in any way ("Oh, it was Krishna all the time!"), but rather, it calls our attention to what a confidential, intimate associate of the Lord Srila Prabhupad must be for Krishna to "use" (act through) him to reveal Himself to the West.

Who is Shakespeare? Is he Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, or Romeo? The answer, of course, is none of them — and all of them!

In other words, although Guru/Hamlet is not Krishna/Shakespeare, we can see Krishna/Shakespeare in Guru/Hamlet. Therefore Krishna says, "Acaryam mam vijaniyam — What you perceive to be your guru is actually Me, in reality. (Although Srila Gurudeva is a unique individual with his own, personal existence, as My confidential servitor in the real, spiritual world), he is also the character that I use to reveal Myself to you in this fictional book/world, so try to see the Author in the persona."

And the way to recognize Srila Gurudeva is not so much by his form or personality, but by the substance, the current of divinity that flows through him, or his conception, correct?

Yes. It is easy to recognize Srila Gurudeva in his current form, but he can appear to us in any number of different forms in our (past and future) lives, so the particular conception of Krishna consciousness that we receive from him is the only way, really, to reliably identify His Divine Grace under any and all circumstances, no matter which form, personality, or persona he may assume.

In my Vyasa Puja questions blog, I say,

If we put too much emphasis on [Srila Gurudeva's] persona — if we only identify him in the guise of his current external form — how will we recognize and renew our connection with His Divine Grace in future lives?

to highlight the universal role of guru,

If we put too much emphasis on the guru's body — if we only identify Srila Guru Maharaj as the guru — how will we recognize the guru when another teacher (like Srila Gurudeva) is assigned to that role?

(If we put too much emphasis on Hamlet's face — if we only identify Laurence Olivier as Hamlet — how will we recognize Hamlet when another actor [like Richard Burton] is assigned to that role?)

but more importantly, to emphasize why it is so crucial, if we ever want to have an eternal relationship with our guru, to be able to recognize him without his "mask" — to be able to recognize him by his conception:

If we put too much emphasis on Srila Gurudeva's current persona — if we can only identify him in the mask he is wearing now — how will we recognize him when he takes off that mask, backstage, or when he swaps that mask for another?

(If we put too much emphasis on Laurence Olivier's current role — if we can only identify him when he is playing the part of Hamlet — how will we recognize him when he takes off his makeup, backstage, or plays a different role, like Othello?)

No matter who plays the role of Hamlet (Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton), we recognize Hamlet by his world-famous soliloquy:

To be, or not to be? — that is the question...

No matter who plays the role of our guru (Srila Guru Maharaj or Srila Gurudeva), we recognize our guru by his world-famous conception:

gayatri muralista-kirtana-dhanam / radha-padam dhimahi

Krishna's flute exclusively sings the song of service to the lotus feet of Srimati Radharani.

If we are conscious of the difference between the persona and the person, the form and the substance, the personality and the conception, as we learn to tell them apart and to recognize one within the other, will we begin to understand who our guru really is.

And if we study the substance of our Srila Guru Maharaj's philosophy assiduously — if we dive deep into the Krishna conception of divinity that our Srila Gurudeva is revealing to us — we will have no trouble recognizing His Divine Grace, no matter how many personalities he assumes, what forms he cloaks himself in, or which personae he adopts...

Like an affectionate game of peek-a-boo between a loving father and his adoring child, we will discover (to our surprise and delight!) that we can identify our Srila Gurudeva no matter which mask he playfully hides behind.

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Layout by iMonk — January 21st, 2011.