Perhaps one of the most contrasting and difficult concepts for the Western mind to grasp in relation to Vaishnavism is the question of spiritual authority. In Vaishnavism as with all theology, spiritual authority lies with God. For Vaishnavas this authority is manifest in the world through guru (the spiritual master), sadhu (the saintly teachers), and Shastra (the holy scriptures – or the Word of God). This authority is never found in an institution, so there is never a central institution or hierarchy from whom all authority emanates. Ultimately there is only one guru, the Supreme Lord Himself.

A person may be empowered to act as guru according to his degree of surrender to the Supreme Lord’s will. There is no question of the material conception of “my guru, your guru” or seeing guru as the head of a sectarian organization. Rather, the Vaishnava accepts the principle that the Supreme Lord may mercifully choose to make Himself available to the suffering living entities through the agency of a completely surrendered soul. Guru therefore is not a matter of position; rather, one becomes qualified to be guru by dint of consciousness, that of being a fully surrendered servant and perfect lover of God. How one finds guru is a very significant point to be understood. The Vedas tell us that “it is God who gives us guru and it is guru who gives us God.”

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What is your essence? Is it matter—a mere collection of material atoms and molecules? Or is it something else?

Science of Identity Foundation - Siddhaswarupananda

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When a sincere soul even once prays or desires to actually know God then God will arrange for such a person to meet guru. Although the qualities and qualifications of guru are mentioned in the scriptures, it is the Lord within the heart of the sincere soul who will reveal to that person, “Yes you can accept this surrendered soul as My representative (guru).”

Mercifully wanting to reach out to, and relieve the suffering of humanity, a particular guru may start a preaching organization or mission to enhance his attempts and to engage his disciples. During his time on this earth or even after his disappearance, this institution will never replace or assume the authority of guru. Because of this a large number and variety of Vaishnava missions throughout the world can exist harmoniously, engaging in their individual work while maintaining the utmost respect for one another. Each carrying out their mission as inspired by God and gurudeva, and still being able to work harmoniously and cooperatively when needed and appreciating the efforts of one another.