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Gurus, Seekers, and Being Accountable

By Philip Goldberg 


Of all the elements of Eastern religions that have taken root in the West, perhaps the most enigmatic has been the role of gurus. In the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, gurus are not quite the equivalent of priests, ministers, rabbis, or imams. And the norms of the guru-disciple relationship are different from what we in the West typically see among clerics and congregants or teachers and students. Negotiating the guru terrain has proved to be tricky for devotees on this side of the globe.

Benefits and Risks of Guru Yoga

Traditionally, in what has been called Guru Yoga, a higher level of surrender, obedience, and unconditional trust is expected of devotees than in most Western religions (monastic orders excepted). This is in keeping with ages-old respect for authority in India and other parts of Asia, which extends to parents and other elders as well as to teachers of all kinds. Where the spiritual guru is concerned, respect rises to another level because the guru is seen as an embodiment of the Divine. He (rarely she, with notable exceptions) is often assumed to be a realized, or enlightened, soul, and with that status comes another assumption: that the guru has such perfect attunement with cosmic intelligence — what we in the West might call “God’s will” — that his judgment is virtually infallible and his actions are — on the cosmic level if not by earthly standards — flawless and mistake-free. High standards indeed for human beings, and therein lies the rub.

The presumed advantages of guru devotion are that it makes the devotee more receptive to the wisdom conveyed by the teacher, to the direct guidance offered by the guru if there is a one-to-one relationship, and to the powerful transmission of divine energy and love that is said to emanate from the guru’s being (a phenomenon known as darshan). There is plenty of evidence that all such benefits are real.

Mata Amritanandamayi is known throughout the world as Amma, or Mother, or the “hugging saint,” and is one of the rare ‘gurus’ with an active global presence today, engaged in massive social service work as well as hugging millions of followers. – Photo: Huffington Post

Mata Amritanandamayi is known throughout the world as Amma, or Mother, or the “hugging saint,” and is one of the rare ‘gurus’ with an active global presence today, engaged in massive social service work as well as hugging millions of followers. – Photo: Huffington Post

But there are risks as well. For one thing, what if the guru does not measure up? What if he is wrong about some things? What if he falls short ethically or morally? What if the cultural baggage the guru carries is incompatible with the devotee’s upbringing? What if the guru is worthy, but the devotee goes too far in adopting an attitude of surrender and, as a consequence, becomes overly dependent and vulnerable to letdown and disillusionment?

Which is why the Tibetans compare gurus to fire: stay too far away, and you don’t get warm; venture too close, and you can be burned. Ever since seekers first encountered sages on mountaintops and riverbanks, they have tried to locate themselves, psychologically, where they can be both warm and safe.

We learned a lot about this model of spiritual development in the 1970s, when baby boomers flocked to the gurus who suddenly became prominent on the heels of the Beatles’ sojourn in India. Those teachers changed countless lives for the better. But many followers got too close to the fire, and were burned when their gurus exhibited human flaws. The sex scandals that rocked the guru world in the seventies were especially disturbing.

Of course, liaisons between clerics and members of their flocks are always wrenching, but it’s more upsetting when the affair involves a guru and a close disciple, especially when the guru has taken monastic vows and is assumed to be celibate. An even higher level of deceit and hypocrisy is reached when the presumably celibate master recommends, or insists upon, celibacy for his followers.

All in all, it was ironic that many members of the most antiauthoritarian generation in the history of the most antiauthoritarian nation in the world relinquished their spiritual autonomy to authorities. People who had stood up to the masters of war obeyed their spiritual masters like puppies. To them, surrendering to the guru was not a sacrifice of freedom and independence, but rather an act of supreme self-interest that would, it was assumed, lead to the highest freedom of all: the liberation of Self-realization. For many, that leap of faith yielded rich rewards; for others, it led to pain and disillusionment, some of which still lingers decades later. Many became spiritual cynics when their gurus fell from pedestals that the followers themselves had erected.

A New Day between Gurus and Seekers

Things are considerably different now, largely because of the wrenching lessons learned when the boomers were young and naïve. There is still plenty of dewy-eyed zeal around gurus, and there always will be, but today’s spiritual aspirants seem less vulnerable to all-too-human gurus and oppressive spiritual institutions. Sobering lessons were learned about the danger of spiritual dependency and of elevating gurus to godlike status and exempting them from the normal standards of human engagement.

We also learned that the relationship between higher consciousness and real-world behavior is not as clear cut as had been assumed: spiritual advancement, command of sacred texts, and pedagogical brilliance do not, by themselves, confer saintliness or real-world know-how.

As a group, today’s seekers are more aware of the need to make their own choices and retain their autonomy, while at the same time finding ways to benefit from the guru’s wisdom — and, perhaps, their personal guidance and love. This can be a balancing act: you have to be open, trusting and eager to learn without becoming gullible; and you have to be discerning without becoming so skeptical that you close yourself off to potentially valuable teachings. We are probably witnessing a healthy shift away from the guru-disciple surrender model to something more in line with modern teacher-student standards. For all but the most genuinely devoted follower — emphasis on “genuinely” — it is perhaps best to relate to gurus as respected mentors, savvy guides, caring friends, expert advisers, revered exemplars, or admired role models, rather than flawless incarnations of God.

Interestingly, the traditions that venerate gurus also advise aspirants to use discernment in choosing one. They recognize that not all gurus are equal, and that some, inevitably, will not measure up to the standards of their own tradition. They also make it abundantly clear that the ideal guru is one who guides students to the point where they no longer need the guru’s guidance.

To make too much of the personal flaws that were exposed by past guru scandals would be like disparaging Picasso’s art because he was a boorish womanizer, or belittling the Declaration of Independence because Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and secretly fathered a child with one. As a disciple of one disgraced guru told me, “If Einstein turned out to be a thief, it would not make the theory of relativity wrong.” What he meant was, it is the efficacy of the teachings that counts, not the strengths and weaknesses of their exponents. In the long run, Dharmic teachings will take root in the West to the degree that their theories hold up to investigation and their methods are supported by evidence that they improve the lives of practitioners. The virtues and vices of the gurus who represent them is a secondary issue.