“Joy and sorrow in this world are only the fruits of past choices and acts (prarabda)” is the now universally accepted tenet enshrined in our Sanatana Dharma. This implies that a present comfortable life is only the result of past punya (merits).
Who or what decides if a particular act is a punya (merit) or a papa (sin)?
The shastras! Only the shastras (scriptures) should be taken as the basis to determine what a merit is and what a sin is.
A question arises now. Why can’t I decide this for myself independently? Can I not tell what is right and what is wrong.
Well, the truth is that we cannot be totally free and unbiased in our judgments because our mind is influenced by our own likes and dislikes (raga-dwesha). Our mind cannot, therefore, be held as the basis for judging what is punya and what is paapa. Moreover, dharma (righteousness and ethical values), being very subtle and not always obvious, can be known only through shastras.
Don’t we say that one is blessed with good parents due to his punya? Likewise, it is only as a result of one’s punya that a person is blessed with good education, job, spouse and children. In the same breath, it is only due to one’s paapa that a person is placed in unfavorable situations with regard to his parents, spouse, children or education.
If punya is the basis for a person to attain even worldly comforts, what then to speak of attainment of a Sadguru who is the atma bandhu (soul mate)? How many meritorious deeds must one have done to attain a Sadguru? One must have, therefore, performed meritorious deeds over crores of births to attain a genuine Mahatma as his Guru.
Today, there are many who call themselves a ‘Guru’. These self proclaimed ‘Gurus’, some of who even label themselves as Avatars (incarnations of God), spread false faiths that have no support in the shastras. They exhibit no discipline, astound the public with occult powers or tricky illusions, wax eloquent on incomprehensible philosophies to create awe in the minds of people and thus take their poor followers for a ride. This is probably the dosha (defect) of Kali Yuga.
One finds that even such imitators having a large following. What is the reason for this? The world consists of more number of sinners than the virtuous. It is only due to the effect of their sins do people go behind such imitators. Just as merit is the cause for attaining a Sadguru, it is verily past sin that is the cause for one to get caught in the nets of such deceitful gurus.
So then who are Mahatmas? How can we identify them? Mahatmas always perform Nama Sankirtan (a sign of true devotion), follow the Sanatana Maarga (path), are very humble, are friendly with all and most important of all, their lives are an open book for everyone to see. They have nothing to hide from people. They are full of compassion, ever pouring forth their Grace. They are verily prema swaroopa (complete form of Divine Love). All this is possible for them only because they are jivan muktas (those who have attained Self Realization even while living in this world).
Hence we attain a Sadguru only due to the effect of punyas earned over crores of births, indeed!

(Based on Sri Swamiji’s article in Tamil, Madhuramurali magazine, November 1995)