In the Padma Purāṇa, the characteristics of the guru, the bona fide spiritual master, have been described:
- mahā-bhāgavata-śreṣṭho brāhmaṇo vai gurur nṛṇām
- sarveṣām eva lokānām asau pūjyo yathā hariḥ
- mahā-kula-prasūto ‘pi sarva-yajñeṣu dīkṣitaḥ
- sahasra-śākhādhyāyī ca na guruḥ syād avaiṣṇavaḥ
The guru must be situated on the topmost platform of devotional service. There are three classes of devotees, and the guru must be accepted from the topmost class. The first-class devotee is the spiritual master for all kinds of people. It is said, gurur nṛṇām. The word nṛṇām means “of all human beings.” The guru is not limited to a particular group. It is stated in the Upadeśāmṛta of Rūpa Gosvāmī that a guru is a gosvāmī, a controller of the senses and the mind. Such a guru can accept disciples from all over the world. Pṛthivīṁ sa śiṣyāt. This is the test of the guru.
In India there are many so-called gurus, and they are limited to a certain district or a province. They do not even travel about India, yet they declare themselves to be jagad-guru, the guru of the whole world. Such cheating gurus should not be accepted. Anyone can see how the bona fide spiritual master accepts disciples from all over the world. The guru is a qualified brāhmaṇa; therefore he knows Brahman and Parabrahman. He thus devotes his life for the service of Parabrahman. The bona fide spiritual master who accepts disciples from all over the world is also worshiped all over the world because of his qualities. Lokānām asau pūjyo yathā hariḥ: the people of the world worship him just as they worship the Supreme Personality of Godhead. All these honors are offered to him because he strictly follows the brahminical principles and teaches these principles to his disciples. Such a person is called an ācārya because he knows the principles of devotional service, he behaves in that way himself, and he teaches his disciples to follow in his footsteps. Thus he is an ācārya or jagad-guru. Even though a person is born in a brahminical family and is very expert in performing sacrifices, he cannot be accepted as a guru if he is not a strict Vaiṣṇava. A guru is a brāhmaṇa by qualification, and he can turn others into brāhmaṇas according to the śāstric principles and brahminical qualifications. Brahmanism is not a question of heredity. In Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (SB 7.11.35) Śrī Nārada Muni tells Mahārāja Yudhiṣṭhira what a brāhmaṇa is. He states that if brahminical qualifications are observed in kṣatriyas, vaiśyas or even śūdras, one should accept them as brāhmaṇas. In this regard, Śrīla Śrīdhara Svāmī has commented: śamādibhir eva brāhmaṇādi-vyavahāro mukhyaḥ, na jāti-mātrādīty āha—yasyeti. yad yadi anyatra varṇāntare ‘pi dṛśyeta, tad-varṇāntaraṁ tenaiva lakṣaṇa-nimittenaiva varṇena vinirdiśet, na tu jāti-nimittenety arthaḥ: “The most important criterion for deciding whether to deal with someone as a brāhmaṇa or as a member of another varṇa is the presence or absence of self-control and similar brahminical qualities. We should not judge primarily according to superficial characteristics like birth. This is stated in the verse beginning yasya (SB 7.11.35). If the qualities of one varṇa are seen in someone born in another, he should be designated according to the varṇa of his qualities, not that of his birth.”There is a similar statement made by Nīlakaṇṭha, a commentator on the Mahābhārata: śūdro ‘pi śamādy-upeto brāhmaṇa eva brāhmaṇo ‘pi kāmādy-upetaḥ śūdra eva. “Although one may be born in a śūdra family, if he is endowed with the brahminical qualities, beginning with śama [control of the mind], he is to be accepted as a brāhmaṇa. Although one may be born in a brāhmaṇa family, if he is endowed with the qualities beginning with kāma [lust], he is to be considered a śūdra.” No one should present himself as a brāhmaṇa simply on the basis of being born in a brahminical family.