Can’t take credit for what follows. It comes from a friend:
There is no one primary source that collects and analyzes the importance of the guru in bhakti yoga. However, in what follows, an effort has been made to quantify and explain the roles the guru plays in an aspirants bhakti based on the words of Bhagwan Swaminarayan in the Vachnamrut. In the end, one will discover that the guru is related to the bhakti of spiritual aspirants in six ways:
He introduces the soul to the path of bhakti
He helps one identify, understand, and have faith in God.
He serves as the ideal or epitome of bhakti.
Earning his grace allows the aspirant to master ekantik bhakti.
Gaining a sense of oneness with him makes the aspirant brahmrup
He himself becomes an object of bhakti because God is present on Earth through him.
To better understand these six roles of the Satpurush and fully appreciate the relationship between the bhakta and the guru, it is important to begin by reviewing what devotees believe the guru to be.
The Guru is Aksharbrahma
The term guru most basically signifies a teacher – a person that leads one from ignorance to knowledge. The same word in the context of spirituality and Swaminarayan bhakti has a much greater meaning. For BAPS Swaminarayan followers, the term guru, when used for one’s spiritual teacher, refers to one being – the person who God calls the “Param-Ekantik Sant” in Vartal 3 and the one He says He resides in eternally in Gadh. I – 27. In that same Vachanamrut, he calls that sant “the sustainer of the world.” It is noteworthy that in the entire Vachanamrut there are only two entities considered the sustainers of everything – Aksharbrahma and Parabrahma. Since the sant that is the sustainer in Gadh. I – 27 must be separate from the God that is ‘residing’ in him, for BAPS followers, the sant or satpurush, their guru, is the human manifestation of Aksharbrahma an eternal entity second in greatness only to God – Parabrahma Bhagwan Swaminarayan.
Therefore, to understand who the guru is, one must understand who Aksharbrahma is. In the Vachanamrut, Bhagwan Swaminarayan has spoken extensively on the form, characteristics, duties, and powers of Aksharbrahma. However, as currently the goal is to understand the role of the guru in the context of bhakti, it is prudent and pragmatic to sift through those explanations and, at the expense of philosophical nuance, essentialize those descriptions into a few basic facts about Aksharbrahma.
The Swaminarayan ontological paradigm believes in the existence of five eternal entities: jiva, ishwar, Maya, Brahma, and Parabrahma. In the context of this conversation, the bhaktas or aspirants which are mentioned are all jivas and ishwars who are trying to overcome the barrier of ignorance (Maya) to become liberated and enlightened souls (also referred to as muktas). The only entities eternally aloof from Maya are Brahma and Parabrahma. This is the first characteristic of Brahma that should be noted – it is eternally above Maya.
The second thing to note about Aksharbrahma is that it has four forms:
As chidakash, Aksharbrahma pervades within and outside the infinite brahmands and supports them.
Aksharbrahma is always present inside the abode in divine human-like form as the personal attendant of Parabrahma.
As Akshardham, Aksharbrahma is the abode of Parabrahma and home to Parabrahma, Aksharbrahma’s own form mentioned previously, and the countless muktas (liberated souls).
In human form on earth, serving as the guru.
Thirdly, when one considers the first three forms of Aksharbrahma, he is essentially serving in two ways: firstly being the dwelling place or vessel of God and secondly, being the devout servant of God (even as chidakash and the abode, Akshar still serving God’s will).
Similarly, the fourth form of Aksharbrahma, as the guru, also fulfills both of these services. He is the dwelling place of God, meaning God resides within him completely, in his every part and pore. Bhagwan Swaminarayan makes this clear in Gadh. I – 27 when He states that “it is God who resides in all of the indriyas of such a Sant”. The Sant or Satpurush is also the devout servant or bhakta of Parabrahma and since he has always been free from the impurities of mayic existence, he is the ideal devotee, the ideal bhakta. Indeed, it is because he is the ideal that Bhagwan Swaminarayan, in Vachanamruts like Loya – 12, insists that one must first become like him, Brahmarup, before being worthy of offering true devotion to God. It is also because he is eternally aloof from Maya and its three gunas (sattva, raja, and tam) that the true guru is also called the gunatit guru.
The Six Ways the Guru relates to a Bhakta’s Bhakti
Applying to the path of bhakti, this understanding of what the guru is, and considering Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s teachings in the Vachanamruts crystallizes at least six ways in which the guru relates to a bhakta’s sadhan bhakti, or in other words, a devotee’s efforts to attain sadhya bhakti, i.e. become brahmrup and offer pure devotion to God.
Introducing Souls to the Path of Bhakti
The first and most basic role the guru plays is introducing souls, whether meritorious or unmeritorious, to the path of bhakti. Having any sort of contact with the Satpurush creates samskars or impressions on the soul which turn that soul, whether in this birth or in subsequent births, to the path of bhakti. Bhagwan Swaminarayan explains this role in His own words in Gadh. III – 2: “it appears to me that all samskars one had gathered from previous lives have been attained through association with the Satpurush. Even today, those who obtain samskars do so through association with the Satpurush.” This is a simple but great benefit of the physical presence of the gunatit guru.
Identifying, understanding, and having faith in God
It is, of course, self-evident that it would be impossible to master the highest form of bhakti if one had not even recognized God, the object of that devotion. As such, an important role of the guru is to help the spiritual aspirant recognize God, understand Him, and develop firm faith and conviction in Him. Bhagwan Swaminarayan emphasizes this role in numerous locations in the Vachanamrut – starting from, Gadh. I – 1, where Bhagwan Swaminarayan states that it is “by [the Sant’s] association [that] God’s greatness is fully realized”. This theme continues throughout the Vachanamrut. Paragraph 5 of Kariyani – 12 mentions that it is through the company and words of the Sant that one realizes the form of God. In Gadh. III – 27, Bhagwan Swaminarayan states that “one should develop the conviction of God based on [the Sant’s] words.” Even if one wishes to understand the qualities and greatness of God through scriptures, Bhagwan Swaminarayan makes it clear in Gadh. I – 66 and Loya – 11 that the true meaning of the scriptures can only be understood from the mouth of the satpurush. Not only is God’s greatness realized through the association and words of the guru, but according to Vartal – 11, love for the satpurush is “also the only means to having the direct realization of God.”
Another reason the gunatit guru necessarily fills this role is that God’s greatness is limitless. In Gadh. II – 67, Bhagwan Swaminarayan says that “God Himself cannot comprehend the limits of His own greatness”. Therefore, God is often best described as simply being “aksharatit” or greater than Aksharbrahma. Bhagwan Swaminarayan himself uses this word in numerous Vachanamruts including Gadh. II – 13. Many times, as in Gadh. I – 64, 72 and 73, this concept is mentioned without using the word. Therefore, if one truly wants to form firm conviction infused with knowledge of God’s greatness, one must first recognize and understand the true greatness of Aksharbrahma. The consequences of the lack of such understanding can be seen in Gadh. II – 42, in which a devotee mistakes the qualities of Aksharbrahma as the qualities of God.
Inspiration, Motivation, Support and Guidance from the Ideal Bhakta
While “everyone wishes to worship God”, it is not as easy as one may presume. If it were, one would not have had to take the innumerable births before this one nor would so many souls become discouraged or anxious on the path of devotion. In fact, in Gadh. II – 59, Bhagwan Swaminarayan speaks of just such anxious souls. It is a great reprieve to such souls that a task performed by the gunatit guru is to remain as a physical ideal of bhakti. His natural devotion has the power to inspire many common souls to perform more perfect devotion themselves. When Pramukh Swami Maharaj is able to build a complex like Akshardham and then give all credit to God and Guru, it inspires devotees too to take their own success with humility and offer thanks to God for providing them the resources, intelligence, and strength required to achieve that success. Seeing one’s guru insist on having darshan on a daily basis even at an old age and in frail health naturally inspires devotees to revalue devotional acts that may seem simple like darshan, arti, and kirtan.
Furthermore, the satpurush as the ideal bhakta provides a devotional compass which shows where true north is in a constantly changing world. In Gadh. II – 66, Swaminarayan Bhagwan gives a practical example and states “if a person has some worldly task to perform, and he wants to accomplish that job extremely well, he should consult some experts. Similarly, such consultation is necessary here as well.” He suggests that to move forward on the spiritual path, one must study the lives of great spiritual beings. Having a present form of the ideal devotee allows for just such a consultation. In Sar. – 11, Maharaj extols the achievements one may make by one’s own endeavors but surely includes the phrase “by the words of the Sadguru” as a qualifier for how those endeavors should be done. Similarly in Gadh. II 51, God states that “only one who follows the commands of the Satpurush is behaving as the atma.” Therefore the agna, wish, and opinion of the pragat form of God, of the gunatit guru are given great emphasis in Swaminarayan bhakti. This is a great boon in a fast and ever-changing world. Years ago there were no open-heart surgeries in super-sterile operation theaters where non-sterile items like the kanthi were banned; there was no international flight that crossed multiple times zones and raised questions about the length of a fast or the performance of morning puja. One becomes confused as to how one might practice devotion in a modern setting or at time when one’s devotional values seem in conflict with a modern situation, seeing how the guru reacts in that same modern world or learning how he wishes for the devotees to act in such situations provides a fresh, relevant, and effective ideal. And, possibly more importantly, provides spiritual confidence and consolation.
In Gadh. I – 54, the satpurush is shown as the nurturer of ekantik dharma (ekantik bhakti). The gunatit guru fosters an environment in which souls are naturally more likely to practice bhakti and separate themselves from worldly distractions and attachments. At times, when souls go astray the gunatit guru is able to intervene, give repentance, and give personalized guidance to move forward on the spiritual path; he can act as a true friend and give even harsh words of advice if need be. Many times, without any words, simply by living out his ideal devotion, he will inspire introspection and correction in a devotee’s devotion.
Earning the Guru’s Grace
A great benefit of having the gunatit guru manifest on earth is that it gives souls the opportunity to serve him and earn his grace and the grace of God – a blessing so powerful that it can take someone destined by karma to suffer the pain of Narak, destroy all of his impure karma and allow him to attain the highest state of enlightenment. Extreme service of the gunatit guru can make a spiritual pauper, a man with no vairagya, become cleansed of his base nature, ill-desires and worldly attachments – a task that may have taken countless births to complete. Furthermore, truly serving the Sant is the sure way to attain ekantik bhakti (sadhya bhakti) because he is an ekantik bhakta and one can only become ekantik through him.
Makes Souls Brahmrup
The first part of sadhya bhakti is to become brahmarup. Bhagwan Swaminarayan has explained that a soul can become brahmrup only by attaining a sense of oneness or identity (ekatmapanu) with Aksharbrahma. In Gadh. II – 31, He specifies that one becomes one with Aksharbrahma by constantly contemplating on Aksharbrahma as one’s true form and on Aksharbrahma’s divine characteristics as one’s own characteristics. The presence of the gunatit guru allows for aspirants to progress down this path by having a personable being they may focus their minds on more readily. It is important to remember that the identity trying to be created by this contemplation is not physical but is a spiritual identity of similar characteristics such as being eternal, indivisible, indestructible, compassionate, etc.
An Object of Devotion which Permits the Experience of God’s Bliss
It has already been established that the guru is Aksharbrahma and therefore is a pure vessel of God in whose hand is the hand of God, in whose feet are the feet of God, in whose eyes are the eyes of God. In short, God remains in him unlike He remains in any other being. By His wish, that Sant also receives many of God’s great powers – such as the regulation of the brahmands. The Aksharbrahma Sant’s will carries the power of God’s will. In Gadh. I – 68, God calls the Sant His ninth murti which should be served in the same one that one would serve God. This is not because the gunatit guru is God but because he is a pure vessel in which God resides. Therefore, worship of Aksharbrahma is not worship of him so much as worship of the Supreme Being that fully resides in him. Moreover, in Kar. – 6, God states that, “[He] assumes an avatar for only one reason: Having surrendered Himself to the bhakti of those devotees who have intense love for Him…He then fulfills all of the desires of his devotees.” For this purpose, he takes “whichever form the devotees wish for in order to grant them bliss.” To fulfill this promise and to leave the gateways of liberation open, God stays present in the Satpurush and accepts the love and devotion that devotees offer.
With faith in this principle given by God himself, devotees in BAPS offer devotion to their guru. This devotion includes taking care of his personal health and basic needs, offering him garlands, performing his mansi puja, remembering him throughout the day, singing his praises, and working in accordance to his wishes and commands. Performing such bhakti of the gunatit guru fulfills all four goals of life (dharma, artha, kam, and moksha) and is the equivalent of having attained in life what one wishes for after death.
To fully realize the greatness of the gunatit guru and to see God present in him is such an important principle that Bhagwan Swaminarayan makes two claims in Gadh. II – 21: 1. If a person understands this principle then nothing remains to be understood on the path of liberation and 2. Whether this principle is understood after being told once or a thousand times, whether it is understood today or thousands of years later, “there is no option but to understand it.”
These are the six ways in which the gunatit guru relates to the bhakti of a bhakta. It is important to notice that he is able to fulfill these roles only because he is the manifest form of Aksharbrahma. As such, the place of the gunatit guru in Swaminarayan bhakti is unique and absolutely necessary. One cannot master bhakti without accepting the manifest form of God, i.e. Aksharbrahma – the gunatit guru Pramukh Swami Maharaj.