Guru. It might be the most loaded word in the realm of our contemporary spirituality.
Even more loaded than God.
I’m pretty aware that the concept and reality of the guru-disciple dynamic is something that’s a big non-starter for a lot of seekers today. Still, I was taken aback by the general reaction after I recently posted a piece titled “Guides, Gurus, and Grounding in Our Spiritual Journey” at the religion section of The Huffington Post.
I would say 80-90 percent of the reactions and comments I got were against my reasoning that one needs to settle into a path and find a teacher in order to dive to the deepest realms of spiritual reality. I could see that people are very convinced that there is little to no need for a formal relationship with a guru in their spiritual journey.
There is no dearth of this kind of sentiment and evidence to support it here recently on Elephant. Julian Walker’s very incisive article titled “The Dark Side of Spirituality: The Guru Papers Unmasks Sacred Cows” spares no quarter in showing the horrors of those who have used the title of guru to a means and ends that represent the darkest side of humanity. We have the contemporary examples of what is going on in the camps of John Friend and Michael Roach as further proof that the whole guru business seems to be as bankrupt ethically and morally as the worst of Wall Street.
The recent award-winning documentary “Kumare” also throws a deft and subtle light on profound questions of integrity and honesty behind the guru-disciple dynamic as many people choose to experience it in our contemporary spiritual scenes.
There’s little I can say to convince people otherwise. It is very much like convincing an atheist of God’s reality.
This is more of an experiential debate than intellectual. If your only experience, either personally or through second-hand accounts, is of the evil perpetuated by those masking as the sacred teacher, then of course your conclusion is that the whole thing is a sham.
The evidence is convincing. There is something in our post-modern character which makes the guru-disciple dynamic very, very difficult. We are drawn very deeply to strains within our being which encourage our individuality, but the structure of our society tends to harp upon those strains in ways which cultivate pride, greed, envy, and all the classic elements which are anathema to our spirit. The result of this negative character development is the desire to cheat, and the tendency to be cheated by others.
The natural reaction for so many seekers is to join the “cult of relativity,” in which one’s spirituality remains entirely personal and based solely on one’s intuition, reasoning and imagination.
Fidelity to a particular teacher or path is very much optional and usually discouraged all together. The old gifts of wisdom from traditions long established on this planet are taken bit-by-bit, each to his/her need, or refused altogether. The seeker is left free to his/her own whims and desires to shape their spirituality in whichever way they see fit.
There is much to admire from this model. I myself am a very individualistic person, and in my own spiritual life I am deeply suspicious of traditional structures and attitudes, and of teachers who represent them, which have little to do with the reality that many people face in their spirituality, and which cause pain and damage to their spirituality.
Our spirituality is the deepest and most intimate part of the integrity of our being. No one can force us to believe anything.
Our values and our beliefs, the substance of our path, is something that must resonate very deeply in agreement with our body, mind, heart and soul. It is a discovery we must make of our own volition and be convinced of from our own end very deeply.
From my experience, however, this doesn’t preclude having a guru or teacher.
I think it is an intellectually weak argument to write off the whole guru-disciple dynamic without acknowledging the many instances where it does work. Believe it or not, despite our fallen age (according to Hindu cosmology, we live in the Kali-Yuga, the age where every atom is saturated with quarrel and hypocrisy), there are individuals who honor and uphold and properly serve through the medium and responsibility of being a spiritual teacher for their students. The dynamic then works in the most positive, compelling, and enlightening way for both guru and disciple.
When this dynamic is connected to a time-tested tradition, whose spiritual values are truly timeless and connected to the eternal reality of God, then the seeker can rise above the relativistic mindset which surrounds them only with the limited power of their own mind.
Through the guru, the disciple is connected to the essence, to the love of God, which is transcendent to all of our weaknesses and which reveals the actual reality of ourselves that we seek.
As I said, this is a largely an experiential debate, so I can try to speak from my own experience. As I mentioned in my HuffPost piece, recently I was initiated into the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition by my teacher Radhanath Swami. I formally joined a family of remarkable and diverse devotees of Krishna from around the world.
My decision to take initiation, and my particular decision to take shelter of Radhanath Swami, was many years in the making. I was keenly observing and soaking in the teachings of my guru, to see if this was truly someone who had the tremendous integrity demanded of being a guru in our line. I was also being keenly observed and guided by my teacher and by people in my community representing him to see if I was also fit for the responsibility of being a proper disciple.
As I sat in front of my guru, offering the vows and promises of character and devotion that would link me to him and to all the previous teachers in the Vaishnava line, I felt a tremendous gratitude and a tremendous clarity. I felt gratitude that I now was in the formal shelter of a teacher and tradition which gives me the framework from which to realize my spiritual self and my relationship to God.
The clarity I felt was knowing that I had made this decision in a very mature way, having carefully considered the evidence of the community of Swami’s disciples that I had gotten to know over the past few years. I was firmly convinced through experience of their integrity and fidelity and their dedication to the ideal of loving service which is at the heart of the Vaishnava tradition
As a committed individualist, I had also come to appreciate, through my own experience and through the example of my fellow students, that my relationship with my guru was not going to be based on blind following and blind faith. I was going to be encouraged to use the very best of my unique and personal talents, nature and character to develop spiritually.
There was not going to be the robotic and monstrous theft of my integrity that seems to mark so many distorted relationships between those claiming to be a guru and those claiming to be a disciple.
The Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition takes the guru-disciple dynamic very, very seriously. It is considered essential in our tradition, something that can’t be skipped over or ignored at one’s whim. It is based on thousands and thousands of years of relationships that have born some of the deepest fruit of spiritual revelation.
Forgive me if I now going to get a bit cynical, but despite whatever I have explained here, I imagine there are many of you who will read this and disagree quite strongly.
You may even pity me, and you may become more convinced than ever of your own commitment to the relativistic approach to spirituality. All that I can offer in repose is that I understand and respect your sincerity and your own search.
I must also challenge those of you on the fence or on the other side of the fence to do your own research about those teachers in this world who are actually honoring the sacred responsibility of being a guru. They do exist, and I make a call to your own intellectual integrity, and to your own spiritual journey, to take the time to see this.
Otherwise, to write off the whole meaning of guru based on the bad apples of the tree, leaves you with the risk of a incomplete spiritual understanding.
The tree of the sacred nature of the guru-disciple dynamic stands and can’t be taken down by those who abuse it. It is much more than that and based in something real, tangible and eternal.
Editor: Brianna Bemel