Spiritual master is “transparent via media”, as Prabhupāda used to say, a phrase that he said came from his guru, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī. I’m not sure it’s properly constructed in modern English and BBT editors never left it in the books, it’s “transparent medium” there. The meaning, however, is clear, or is it?
I’m not going to debate qualifications of a guru, it’s a thankless task that would never produce an answer acceptable to everyone in our community, I just want to reflect on the meaning of “transparency” here.
There are two parts to that phrase, “transparent” and “via media”. The second part is easy – we can’t approach or serve Kṛṣṇa directly so the spiritual master is a kind of broker between us. Śrīla Prabhupāda also used to give an example of marriage negotiations because in India you are not supposed to approach the girl directly, there needs to be an interlocutor (and it’s between families).
I’m not sure it’s a good example because I can’t imagine anyone being able to fully convey the feelings of two people supposedly falling in love. This broker might talk only about general things – status of the family, career prospects etc. What looks supremely important to the parties themselves – feelings – could be expressed simply as “interest is there”. Nor should one expect that his relationships with the guru will be anything like his relationships with marriage broker. I’m inclined to think that Prabhupāda meant it only as “one must go through broker” and nothing more than that. There needs to be “via media”. Okay, onto to “transparency” then.
For us it means invisible, or practically invisible because even if might realize the medium is there it’s not supposed to interfere with our perception. If we think about it this way, absolute transparency is impossible because then you would not even know it’s there while the guru is obviously visible. Or we could say that on the stage of absolute perfection this is exactly what happens – we experience direct relationships with Kṛṣṇa without realizing that the guru is still there. That would make sense but that is also not how Prabhupāda explained relationships with the Lord to us. They are supposed to be direct and the guru is supposed to only introduce us and guide us on initial stages. Then it would lead to speculations about life in the spiritual world, to arguments that not everyone there directly associates with the Lord at all times, especially in our tradition where we identify ourselves as a servant of a servant. Let’s get back to Earth, though.
Perhaps we should think of transparency as a complement to opacity. In photography, this is exactly what it means. Transparency is a proportion of the light that passes through and opacity is the proportion of the light that gets absorbed on the way. If we sense that there’s transparent medium between us and the object it means we simultaneously realize that the medium is also opaque, but not to a significant degree.
It means that while we should see guru as transparent it would also mean that we would see him as somewhat opaque, or we wouldn’t notice that there is a medium at all. We never talk about this opacity, however, but, perhaps, we should.
One way to deal with it is to realize that some opacity would always be there but it shouldn’t be big enough to prevent us from seeing Kṛṣṇa, whatever that means on our stage. Another way is to accept this opacity as an enhancement, that guru, while being a distinctly different soul, enriches our relationships with the Lord. Personally, I like this second approach because Kṛṣṇa is never supposed to be alone, He should always be served and worshiped together with His associates. If no one else is there we accept His flue and His peacock feather as His ever present servants.
Initially, however, we would always go for the first approach – that guru is expected to be somewhat opaque but not opaque enough to ruin our spiritual experiences, so it’s always a question of a degree. In the material world it’s understandably unavoidable because it’s called material for a reason – faults will always be here, so let’s leave “opacity as enhancement” for a moment here.
So, when we talk about degree of opacity we mean difference between our perception and our expectation. In photography the amount of available light is an objective reality, a scientific fact, and opacity can be expressed in undisputed numbers, but our spiritual experiences cannot be quantified in the same way. We approach the limitless Absolute Truth and so we cannot know how much Absolute Truth is there to determine what proportion of it couldn’t get through.
Gopīs famously complained about existence of eyelids and the need to blink which interfered with their experiences of the Lord. Eyelids are not transparent, however, they block the vision completely. That is another kind of opacity – temporary blindness, but I don’t think we should worry about that when we approach our guru because his service to us is transcendental and guru would work even when he is sleeping, or long after his departure from the material world.
Back to my point about the Absolute – there’s no limit to it and so we can’t talk about proportion that gets lost in the process, only theoretically. For us, eighty percent of infinity should feel exactly the same as ninety or even one hundred percent of it. I mean that if we see Kṛṣṇa we forget that we could be missing anything and that there’s any opacity at all, Kṛṣṇa would always exceed our expectations, there’s no “proportion that is lost” here. There could be no such proportion also because Kṛṣṇa’s “limbs” are interchangeable. The function of whatever it is that is missing from our view can be performed by whatever it is that is visible.
This is probably why we never talk about opacity, for those who experience the Lord it doesn’t exist and so only transparency remains, which leads me to the second approach I mentioned earlier – guru’s presence and his transparency would ultimately enrich our experience, not diminish it.
It’s not, however, how it feels for most of us at the moment, and it gives our critics unlimited grounds for criticizing our gurus. They are not qualified, they say in an unlimited and ever growing variety of ways.
Well, perhaps the problem is that we can’t see Kṛṣṇa yet, not with our eyes not through our ears. If we did we wouldn’t be complaining. Is it a guru’s fault, however? Or is it a result of our anarthas? We ARE holding onto them with all our beings, the guru is not supposed to pry us from our desires, it’s the decision we should make ourselves. “He should have given me more taste,” one could complain, but wouldn’t it mean that we expect a lot more than just transparency here? Guru is not God and so, just like the rest of us, he proposes and God disposes. The “missing” taste is withheld by the Lord, not by the guru.
How could a sincere, humble devotee say things like “he should have given me more” of anything? At the very least, guru gives us the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra, what more could we possibly want? Guru is not the one who infuses the Holy Name with power, it’s already there. But, more importantly, a sincere and humble devotee should never feel qualified for getting more stuff, should never feel entitled, and would certainly not complain about not being serviced enough.
This whole approach is selfish and demoniac, and it’s understandable and even expected, but we should grow out of it.