Ramakrishna told him, “Narendra, this is my answer to the question you asked me when we first met. Today, you have the medium (the boat), you have the resource (the sailor), you have the way (the sea), you know what to do (deliver the parcel), you also know where to go but you don't know the way. Similarly, you’ve read all the scriptures, and you conduct discourses on them. However, to realise the wisdom of scriptures one needs a guru, someone who has already traversed that path so that he can guide you through the journey and encourage you to not give up.”
We have the texts but without practical guidance, we are rudderless. Without the right guide, we may not learn the right thing. On the spiritual path more than any other, the guru holds the key to our liberation for the following reasons:
1. The guru has that rare experience of the self that we so covet. He is one of the very few to have been so enriched. His knowledge stems from personal experience. And in the world of spirituality about which we know nothing, his expert navigation takes us from ignorance to knowledge.
2. The guru is the embodiment of spiritual essence. To the disciple, the guru is the exemplar, a role model. The guru not only correctly interprets the scriptures for us, he lives those teachings. He is proof of the possibility of self-realisation. Observing him makes it easy not only to understand the path but also to implement it.
3. The guru protects. As with any other path, there are pitfalls in the spiritual path too. Without the guru, we might slip, falter or get distracted. Staying connected with the guru and his teachings keeps us anchored steadfastly to our goal and sheltered from our own mental frailty.
4. The guru is our channel to God or salvation. It is through him that we can reach God. It is through him that we can be released from the life-sucking mire of unhappiness. As Kabir sang, if God and guru were to present themselves before us, our first salutations would be to the guru. For it is he who takes us to God. Without him, we would stay where we are.
Dharma alone relieves our pain accumulated over lifetimes, and it is best obtained from a gnani (knowledgeable seer). In all his writings and letters, Param Krupaludev Shrimad Rajchandra has relentlessly stressed upon the compelling need for a Satguru in a seeker’s life. He says that if the guru is ideal, he will seat you in the boat of true religion and steer you across the tumultuous ocean of lives. Only with a true guru can we acquire the philosophical understanding of the nature of reality.
"ગુરુ જો ઉત્તમ હોય તો તે ભવસમુદ્રમાં નાવિકરૂપ થઇ સદ્ધર્મનાવમાં બેસાડી પાર પમાડે. તત્ત્વજ્ઞાનના ભેદ, સ્વસ્વરૂપભેદ, લોકાલોકવિચાર, સંસારસ્વરૂપ એ સઘળું ઉત્તમ ગુરુ વિના મળી શકે નહીં." (વચનામૃત, પૃ. 65)
A similar saying, “क्षणमपि सज्जनसंगतिरेका भवति भवार्णवतरणे नौका” tells us that even a momentary meeting with a self-realised soul could become the boat to help us cross the ocean of worldly existence (into bliss).
Hinduism propagates three paths to salvation: gnana, karma and bhakti. The first is through scholastic knowledge, such as Vedanta . The second is through impeccable conduct, such as Yoga. The third is through pure devotion. In bhakti, the other two paths blend seamlessly as devotion to a Guru naturally leads to the manifestation of right knowledge and right conduct.
Param Pujya Bhaishree explains that only a guru can evaluate our spiritual progress. Only he can confirm that we have achieved self-realisation if and when we do. Our intellect is incapable of making this judgment call.
A spiritual master uplifts many. Four of Shrimadji’s highly evolved disciples who were personally guided to their goal were Shri Sobhagbhai from Sayla, who told Shrimadji 11 days before he left his body about his exhilarating experience of the body and soul as separate entities, Shri Laghuraj Swami, a Jain monk who achieved self-realisation at the age of 44 under Shrimadji, Shri Ambalalbhai from Khambhat who served and cooked for Shrimadji, and Shri Joothabhai from Ahmedabad.