How can we trust someone and accept him as Guru? Can we know or assess the spiritual level of a person? Are there any references for choosing one?
What should we do if we realize that the guru we chose wasn't the right one in terms of knowledge?
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As per the scriptures, a right guru must be fulfilling two important qualities:
So the scriptures say as below:
tad vijñānārthaṃ sa gurum evābhigacchet samit-pāṇiḥ śrotriyam brahma-niṣṭham [Mund. Up. - 1.2.12]
-To know That (God) he (the seeker) goes to a guru who is well versed in scriptures and situated in Brahman (God realized) .
tasmād guruṃ prapadyeta jijñāsuḥ śreya uttamam
śābde pare ca niṣṇātaṃ brahmaṇyupaśamāśrayam [SB - 11.3.21]
Therefore, the seeker approaches a good and noble guru who is skillful in the knowledge of the scriptures and the supreme and who having taken the shelter of Brahma stays satisfied in Him.
After following a guru for few years if you find you are not improving or he is not the right person, then the only thing you should do is to stop following him and without any ill feelings towards him, just try to find someone else.
Technically one can do a lot of things after he finds himself cheated or a prey to the media hype, but he should focus upon continuing his development rather than getting revenge minded and focusing on someone else's ruin. Those negative feelings will only degrade him further instead of helping him move up.
Finding guru is actually a subjective thing. Even while one guru may work for a seeker, he may not be good for another one. And again, how would you know if he is God realized? Any one may show some cheap miracle or some spiritual power and can act as a guru. So it is generally said that it is not the student who finds the guru, it is the guru who finds the student. For example, Vivekananda first didn't accept Ramakrishna as his guru, even he mocked him. But later upon more interaction he felt his divinity and accepted as guru. So without properly analyzing it is very hard to find out who is a true guru and who is not. It is because true saints even act opposite to their nature sometimes. So from my experience I would say if one has faith in God and genuine interest, then eventually he will find the right guru even if he falls prey to others many times.
Adding more info regarding changing guru upon pbvamsi's suggestion. The thing about changing guru is that, it should be done only when its necessary and required. So I said one can change guru when he is not finding any improvement after following him.
Because not all gurus are perfect or of the same caliber and qualification, one may not find perfection by following only one guru. So the scripture says knowledge cannot be stable through one guru alone:
na hyekasmādgurorjñānaṃ susthiraṃ syātsupuṣkalam [SB -11.9.31]
- Not through one guru knowledge becomes steady and complete.
There are also real life examples when a guru sends his disciple to someone else for further improvements. Also the other thing is that, one guru may be perfect in yoga but doesn't know about devotion. So a student have to change his guru if he wants to learn devotion, knowledge or something else like it. So there is provision for changing guru. But only when it is necessary and required. If one finds a guru who is perfect and satisfies the above mentioned two conditions, there is no reason for someone to change guru. Moreover, in that case changing guru will break ananyata (complete surrender to only one) and the student cannot proceed further.
So your saying that a guru cannot be changed is right and true, but only when one has accepted the guru as one's true master and the guru also has accepted him as his dear disciple. In those cases, the guru and disciple become one soul in two bodies. Guru and shisya relationship is the most noble, divine and pure of all. It is one bond that never breaks. So before one has found his true guru, he can change many others. But once he has found him, there is no change.
Adding few points to jabahar's answer:
There is no privilege to change Guru in the disciple's lifetime. One has to take enough time in choosing a right Guru. Infact it is not the student who finds the guru, it is the guru who finds the student. Based on one's strong determination, he may get the right Guru.
Few references to add are:
(1) Once a disciple came to Narasimha Saraswathi and begged Him to accept him as disciple showing the anger of his current Guru as the reason, but Narasimha Sarawathi explained what kind of Guru one will get and sent him back to his Guru.
(2) Once Indra left Bruhaspathi and approached Viswarupa to be as his Guru. Later Indra approached Dattatreya and pleased Him to be his Guru! Dattatreya explained the Guru principle and denied to accept Indra as His disciple. He said there is no chance to change Guru and taught him to approach Bruhaspathi again.
So before choosing a person as Guru one can test Him multiple times but after choosing Him as Guru there is no chance to change! Even if disciple stops following, He will uplift disciple's life, He will follow disciple in all the lifes to come(reference is Bhadrasheela's story in Datta Purana). But if one denies his own Guru then no one can save him.
After one makes stong determination, he will be privileged to meet many sadhus. With whom one's heart becomes peaceful and experiences sat-chit-ananda (true bliss eternal), in whose presence one gets courage and will power to solve all problems(a feeling that they will get solved by themselves), in whose presence all the worries & sorrows are forgotten, above all in whose presence one feels
he is my savior, my relative, such a person can be approached as Guru.
I am only adding to Be Happy's answer. I am in agreement with most of his answer. My points are in addition to his. First, the third qualification of the guru is sinlessness. The guru should be above any moral approach. This includes brahmachari.
Second, one cannot change gurus. As Ramakrishna Paramahamsa says in the The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (Appendix A: Keshab at Dakshineswar, available here http://www.belurmath.org/gospel/index.htm) -
[Sri Ramakrishna] "One must not look on one's guru as a mere human being: it is Satchidananda Himself who appears as the guru. When the disciple has the vision of the Ishta, through the guru's grace, he finds the guru merging in Him.
"What can one not achieve through simple faith! Once there was an annaprasana ceremony in a guru's house. His disciples volunteered, according to their powers, to supply the different articles of food. He had one disciple, a very poor widow, who owned a cow. She milked it and brought the guru a jar of milk. He had thought she would take charge of all the milk and curd for the festival. Angry at her poor offering, he threw the milk away and said to her, 'Go and drown yourself.' The widow accepted this as his command and went to the river to drown herself. But God was pleased with her guileless faith and, appearing before her, said: 'Take this pot of curd. You will never be able to empty it. The more curd you pour out, the more will come from the pot. This will satisfy your teacher.' The guru was speechless with amazement when the pot was given to him. After hearing from the widow the story of the pot, he went to the river, saying to her, 'I shall drown myself if you cannot show God to me.' God appeared then and there, but the guru could not see Him. Addressing God, the widow said, 'If my teacher gives up his body because Thou dost not reveal Thyself to him, then I too shall die.' So God appeared to the guru-but only once.
"Now you see, because of faith in her guru the disciple herself had the vision of God and also showed Him to her teacher. Therefore I say, 'Even though my guru frequents a grog-shop, still to me he is the embodiment of Eternal Bliss.'
"All want to be the guru, but very few indeed want to be the disciple. But you know that rain-water doesn't collect on a high mound; it collects in low land, in a hollow.
So the question becomes what if one has determined he has taken a guru with a low character? One should then worship the guru from a distance. To do worship does not require interaction or to be in the presence of the person. One can go and mingle with others who one may determine are on a more sattwic path. If, after doing such for a while, one still wants to take another guru, then the test of the guru should be done rigorously and the fact of having already take another as a guru should be explained to the new guru upfront for his advice.
This is from Kularnav Tantra about characteristics of Kaula guru, but it can still help in identifying real Guru. The characteristics of a true Guru is told by Lord Shiva. It is as follow:
"O Paramesani! And the Guru himself, is one who is clean of apparel;
charming; endowed with all features;
knowing the truth of all Agamas, the application of all Mantras;
bewitching the world;
sweet looking like a god; happy countenance, easy of access;
He is the one who dissipates delusion and doubt;
Knows the meaning of gestures;
Who is wise and knows the pros and cons;
Whose attention is directed within though the look is outward;
Who knows all;
Knows place and time;
In whose command lies Siddhi(fulfilment);
Knows the past, present and future;
Capable of check and sanction;
Capable of piercing inwardly;
Instructing quiet, compassionate to all creatures;
To whose control are the movement of his senses;
Conqueror of six enemies of desire, anger, greed, delusion, jealousy, pride;
Foremost highly solemn, knows the distinction between the fit receptable and unfit;
Is equal minded to Siva and Vishnu;
Condemns the doctrines of the unawakened;
Endowed with the powers of Mantra;
Lover of good devotees;
Speaks with prior smile;
Dear to devotees;
Deep, superb practicant;
Enthusiastic in the worship of his chosen deity, the Guru, the eldest, the Sakti;
Given to blameless ritual of three types;
Regular, specifically occassional and voluntary;
Devoid of anger, hate, fear, pain, ostentation, egoism;
Engaged in the practice of this science(vidya);
Acquiring dharma and the like;
Content with what comes by itself;
Distinguishing between good and bad;
Unattached to women, wealth, bad company, vice etc.;
With a feeling of oneness with all;
Free from dualities;
Constant in observance;
Without self desire and partiality;
Not selling mantra, yantra and tantra for the sake of money or learning;
Un-attached, without doubts, with decided views supremely confirming to Dharma, equal in praise and criticism, silent, without preference, free from disease.
O My Beloved! These are the characteristics of a Guru."
-From Kularnav tantra, chapter 13, verse 50.
As i said earlier, this was about guru of Kaula sampraday, but you can relate. If you find one with these qualities them they are fit to be your guru. As it says, when the disciple is ready, Guru comes himself.
First, understand the meaning of the word Guru in Sanskrit tradition, Guru has to be a realized being. It's not possible for ordinary beings to know if a person is realized or not.
So the safest bet is to know how integrated the person is to Shastras and their Guru parampara. Although, there are many great exceptions like Sri Ramana Maharshi who don't have a Guru parampara and don't have a successor.
A Guru has to be evaluated on the 4 parameters:
ShastraPramana: The original scriptures of the tradition of the Guru parampara. Are the teachings and claims made by Guru backed by Shastras ? How integrated the Guru is to those Shastras? Are the disciples encourages to read and follow those original scriptures?
Apta Pramana: If the Shastras work then there must be other Gurus i.e. realized masters in the present and past who would have "realized" the experience mentioned in Shastras and would have written commentaries based on their self-realization. (Think of them like experiments that have been replicated by other "experts" based on the original publication (shastras))
Atma Pramana: The self-experience of the Guru itself. Are they in sync with the Apta Pramana and Shastra Pramana i.e. Is Guru able to replicate the results specified by Shastras and do they correlate the results with other publications?
Sakshi Pramana: The experience of disciple itself. Can the experience of disciple itself conform to the results recorded as the result of ShastraPramana, AptaPramana, and AtmaPramana.
This system is a very vigorous system of evaluation. It is often very very difficult to find a Guru who passes the 4 parameters listed above. But if you find one who passes on all counts immediately go to him/her.
Till one finds such a Guru it's best to follow an Acharya who is integrated to Shastras. Every Kriya suggested by the Acharya has to be backed up the "Shastra" and insist on producing the original Sanskrit verse.
For eg, if one has to bend the body in a certain way for Yoga it has to be based on the original Sanskrit verse. If one has to put certain material into Homa, it has to be specified in the Sanskrit verse.
Thankfully, there are many traditional Acharyas who follow the Shastras and more than glad to produce the original Shastras.
Even among Gurus, there are different Gurus who can "transmit" different areas of Shastras. When the Guru thinks the disciple is ready and has nothing more to add then Guru sends the disciple to the "next" Guru. This process goes on till the disciple is sent to the Sathguru. (Sathguru, as per Shastras, is a very specific Sanskrit term)
Sastra Praman, Apta Pramana, and Atma Pramana: A Dialogue between Swami Nithyananda and Rajiv Malhotra http://hinduismnow.org/blog/2017/02/26/sastra-praman-apta-pramana-atma-pramana-dialogue-swami-nithyananda-rajiv-malhotra/
"A Discussion with Nithyananda: on God vs. Sadashiva, Why Wear Gold, Attacks against Hinduism & More" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SNAHZpRl3go ... original video of the transcript in 2
Where will you search and how will you know who is satguru and who is not satguru? You have no way to judge, isn't it? So, "how do I seek something?" You just seek. You simply seek, "I want to know." The more you become, "I do not know," the deeper your seeking is, isn't it? Seeking does not mean seeking something. Seeking means, seeking that which you do not know. If you have to seek, you should not make any assumptions, isn't it so? …
If a vacuum of "I do not know" happens within you, satguru will happen to you. You don't have to search, because you don't know how to search. If you search with your intellect, naturally you will search for that kind of person with whom you are most comfortable, isn't it?
See, if you seek a friend, what kind of friend do you seek? Do you seek a friend who punctures your ego every day? You seek a friend who nourishes you ego every day, isn't it? Yes or no? If somebody punctures your ego, he becomes your enemy, isn't it? So, even if you seek a guru, you will only seek with this context—and that kind of guru, who comforts you, is no use to you. …
(However,) if you are seeking a guru for liberation, then, if you sit with him, you feel threatened. You want to run away from him, but at the same time you don't want to leave him for a moment. If you constantly feel threatened by him and at the same time you want to be with him, he is a good guru for you. If you are very comfortable with him, he's not a good guru for you. You must be constantly uncomfortable with him. At the same time, you long to be with him. That is a good prescription for you.
The pre-requisites before accepting a guru involves:
Examining whether he exemplifies what he preaches.
Knowing the spiritual powers of his guru.
Scrutinising the spiritual enlightenment of his disciples.
If a guru fails to deliver his disciples from the torments of rebirth, then he cannot be called a true guru.
- Aksharbrahman Gunatitanand Swami
For your last question, consider this.
If your wife was not good at cooking or doing daily chores, but is helpful would you change her, probably not! But if she was seeing other people would you leave her? Probably yes!
Guru should not be doubted once you have put faith, although if anything is done which is prescribed against our Shastras you should gracefully let him go, you are not wedded or no vow has been taken which you have to fulfill for life! Never in the history of Hinduism has anyone ever taken a vow of never leaving Guru under wrong circumstances. Infact, there is no mention that you can't.
So, one should probably accept the bad decision of one's own self/circumstances and find the true one without losing faith.
I would Suggest HH Mahant Swami Maharaj. You can scrutinize him with any of the accepted answers above, he fulfills those all requirements and attributes!
Moreover, one would also be able to see 32 virtues of a Sadhu if one inspects carefully in Him as Described in Bhagwat.
One of his Disciple is Mahamahopadhyay Sadhu Bhadreshdas who wrote a Bhashya after 1200 years and came in the category of Acharya Shankar and Ramanujacharya. These people are living and accessible!
Youtube Video Links are mentioned here.