Rely on the teachings to evaluate a guru: Do not have blind faith, but also no blind criticism. ~ His Holiness the Dalai Lama
The power of faith is amazing.
Some years ago we were teaching a workshop in Plymouth, England, when a student eagerly told us that Deepak Chopra had ‘renounced the world’ and was teaching at the local Heart and Soul Healing Center. He was holding gatherings each night and participants were experiencing profound healings and personal transformations. When we went to meet the so-called ‘Deepak’ we discovered him to be an artful imposter. With his exposure, his followers lost faith and the healings and transformations stopped. This was a classic example of when belief in a guru / healer supersedes our own intelligence, due to the faith and longing to be ‘saved’. The real Deepak Chopra later thanked us!
In yogic terms the word guru means ‘remover of darkness or ignorance’. One of India’s greatest holy men, Ramana Maharshi, often said that the role of the guru was to push the student inside in order to see the guru within– as the true guru is within each and every one of us.
Yet invariably the opposite is true, as seen when a guru encourages adoration, dependence and obedience to them and them only. This is known in India as gurudom (as in kingdom) where the guru amasses a big following and sees him/herself as the ultimate authority but does not empower their students. The guru may even call their followers babies or treat them like children, thereby the student feels inferior and the teacher appears all-knowing and superior.
This can lead to an ‘enlightened ego,’ where one experiences all the wonders of enlightenment but the ego snatches the reward: “I am Enlightened!” Yet who or what is enlightened? This is not unusual, as the ego is subtle and seductive, and it is a trap when we believe we are enlightened. Those that say don’t know and those who know don’t say!
Similarly, many people go to every healer that comes to town in their longing to be fixed or healed. They believe every healer will be the one to solve the mystery of whatever is causing their ill health. We also get addicted to movie stars and their seemingly wonderful lives as a way of filling the void in our own lives.
Hence the scenario where we see followers becoming guru junkies, not just dependent but actually addicted to their guru, as if he or she were a therapist or movie star with their followers doing anything to meet them, wearing necklaces with the guru’s photo, and hanging the guru’s picture on their wall, but often only seeing them from a distance and knowing nothing about them. As with therapy where a patient may ‘fall in love’ with their therapist, so the spiritual student can ‘fall in love’ with the guru, although this is more of a strong infatuation. Many times female followers will fall so in love with the guru that they even submit to sexual abuse, and we know of gurus mistreating students in the name of obedience: if you are truly devoted then you will do this or that for me. The innocent student obeys, only to regret it afterwards and in need of therapy to make sense of it.
We have both had personal time experiencing the guru student relationship. In the late 1960’s Ed went through a classic traditional yogic training where obedience was paramount and his devotion was unswerving. “I trusted that whatever I was told without question and that if I surrendered my point of view or whatever I believed to be true then I would be a candidate for self realization. My guru once said: ‘True surrender is when you are right and the guru is wrong and you can surrender being right. At the same time I believed my guru was the incarnation of god. My blind devotion caused me to be too dependent on my guru and left me unable to function as an ordinary person. I even felt I was more special than others who didn’t have this experience, that as I had a yoga name and title I was so superior!”
We worship the guru as god and see them as divine while mistreating or denigrating others. When we were last in India we were visiting the ashram of a guru who hugs each of her thousands of devoted followers. When we arrived the guru was in the middle of a devotional goddess worship, where both she and her many disciples enter into ecstatic states. We noticed a man standing with his young child directly in front of the guru, expressing deep devotion. Soon afterwards we were all in line to catch an elevator to the residential floors. As there was only one elevator there was a long line. Suddenly this man and his child came right to the front. Ed pointed out there was a line of waiting people, at which the man retorted “F…k you!” Aha! The guru is divine; everyone else is not.
This is ironic because in India the most wonderful greeting is Namaste, which means ‘the god in me honors the god in you.’ Unless we see the god or truth in all people we are like a misguided missile. We limit our own growth and chance to be free. As the Dalai Lama said to us when we were with him at his residence in India: “We are all equal here!”
Many people surrender to a guru with a kind of blind faith, or without checking the teacher out first. Yet, would you marry a person as soon as you met them, without knowing them? Wouldn’t you spend as much time as possible so you know they are right for you? The crazy wisdom Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, said we should always be sceptical. Swami Satchidananda said that we should check out a guru just as we would check out a chicken before buying one.
Perhaps we worship a guru so blindly and surrender so willingly due to our own self-doubt, the reluctance to acknowledge our own innate understanding, insights and wisdom. We make the guru greater than we are, demeaning ourselves in the process. And yet the same truth that is within the guru is within us all. What we learn from the external guru is that just as one person can awaken, so we all can. Perhaps we need help, yes, but only until we stop searching outside ourselves. Then the seeker becomes the seer.