Today is Guru Purnima, and this spiritual festival takes on a very special resonance for me this year. Just a few weeks ago, I was formally initiated into the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition at a ceremony at our Radha-Krishna temple in Towaco, New Jersey. To be initiated in this way means to formally accept a teacher (in my case the wonderful Radhanath Swami) by offering vows of sobriety, chastity and commitment (which you can read more about here), as well as accepting a new spiritual name. (I am now Krishna Kishore Dasa, which means the servant of Krishna in his kishore or youthful age.)
During the whole ceremony, I was thinking how incredibly fortunate I am to be formally linked to such an ancient, timeless tradition. My guru or teacher is himself a representative of all of the tremendous and transcendental teachers in our line, which goes all the way back to the original teachings of Krishna Himself.
Each teacher in this line (parampara) earns his stripes, so to speak, by honestly sharing what he has been given by his/her teacher without altering or changing the essence of Krishna's original teachings. Therefore I knew my formal commitment was to a fountainhead of knowledge that was absolutely time-tested and sturdy, and beyond the vagaries of over-imagined speculations, self-serving interests or political games.
Of course, this is not to say that my tradition doesn't value the intellect or the individual expression of the practitioner. We are encouraged to understand the essence of our tradition yet apply it appropriately to the time, place and circumstances which surround us. The example of my guru's guru, A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and his historic transplanting of the Vaisnava tradition to the West in the 1960s, is an incredible example of a teacher in our line who shared the essence without corruption yet with a deft adaptation to the needs of the seekers around him.
These souls who are genuinely seeking spiritual truth and meaning are some of the most sincere, open-hearted, and open-minded individuals you can find on this lonely planet. In my experiences sharing my tradition with many of these seekers, I have had many exchanges of mutual enlightenment and enlivenment, but I have also found a certain frustration.
Many people seeking the realm of the spirit come at their quest with a sense of not being beholden to any tradition, teacher, or even a sense of the Absolute. Their journey is intensely their own, yet very much relativistic. For some this comes from innocence, and for others this is ironically a construct of reality they are firmly adhered to. In the course of our conversations they may appreciate my fidelity to my tradition, yet they remain convinced that their own spirituality can remain untethered, or at best lightly connected, to any one path, and that their imagination and intuition will be enough.
This leaves me deeply conflicted, for while indeed our spirituality is the most intimate thing we have and hold, and no one can force us to choose our proper path, I remain convinced that without accepting a distinct path and teacher who resonates with our body, mind, heart, and soul, we won't actually find the truth we are seeking.
In terms of this relativistic approach to spirituality, I am left with a number of questions. I wonder why some of us must deny the examples of great souls that have come before us? Why must some of us deny the wisdom that is there for us already, from traditions that have been part of our humanity for thousands and thousands of years? We can't really say this wisdom is not true or relevant for us and our times now, and saying so without having researched or experienced this wisdom is intellectually quite weak. You also can't deny these wisdom traditions simply because some of those who have tried to follow them have failed and often exploited others in the process. Bad seeds don't define or deny the essence of the wisdom that is there.
I should make clear that not every person who falls into this relativistic paradigm simply does their damnedest to deny all the wisdom that has come before us, but too often the tendency is to skip around this wisdom without a sense of commitment or discipline. By taking vows and being formally accepted into my own tradition, I can approach the deepest freedom of love of God by working within the structure of my tradition. I have been given shape, sense, and seriousness to my spiritual life that I wouldn't otherwise find from my own imagination or intellect.
I try to make this call as humbly as I can, and if I come across as being above your own journey, please forgive me. Generally I am quite liberal-minded when it comes to spirituality, but in this case some of my conservative colors shine. In any case, I really can't feel strongly enough that we need structure in our spiritual life, and we need a path and teachers who can guide us on our walk across the desert of our heart to our spiritual destiny with God. They have walked this path before us and they can help us to make our walk by avoiding the scorpions and snakes of our own lower nature. Without the merciful guidance of this structure, we will be inevitably lost.
The last vow I took at my initiation was to always strive to be the servant of the servants of the Vaisnavas, which means to always honor and serve all the teachers and great souls who are here before me now, and who have come before us to pass down the essence that has been given to them. To be under the shelter of all of these great souls is the solace of my spirit, for I know that the path that I walk on will take me to the goal.