The Guru Myth, Its Destructive Power and A Cure. {Now w/Videos!}

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The Word and The Myth.

The word “guru” has taken on a life of its own in Western pop culture. The media and advertising talk about “stock gurus,” “marketing gurus,” sports gurus” and on and on – the characterization being someone who has a particular insight into their chosen field and is trusted by others as being able to solve certain problems or provide a highly effective strategy on how to be successful.

We know of course that the word originates in India and simply means “teacher.” In India one’s schoolteacher, dance instructor, parent – really anyone in an authoritative or instructive role might be considered your guru in their particular domain.

But when the word is used in a spiritual context it has a very specific meaning and is located within a very particular Hindu belief system. A guru in this sense is a cut above ordinary human beings. What distinguishes the guru from us mere mortals is that they are “enlightened” or “self-realized.”

Basically the claim is that there are certain very special people who have crossed a very specific threshold in their spiritual awareness – and they know the ultimate truth about the nature of reality.

Gurus of this kind generally have a legend associated with them – either they amazed their family at a young age with spontaneous and lengthy meditative absorption, or they are believed to have exhibited magical powers of some kind.

Perhaps a sick relative or friend was healed by their touch, or perhaps they exhibited extraordinary knowledge of or insight into the meaning of certain sacred texts.

Whatever the legend – and whether their “awakening” was always present or is associated with some pivotal moment in their life, the guru is seen as a holy person, someone who knows God.

As such they are revered as being in touch with something beyond what the rest of us are aware of – they can see right through you, and can help you to dissolve your ego so as to be more in touch with the ultimate enlightened perspective on reality that you seek.

For the Western seeker steeped in (even if having moved beyond) Christian ideas of a savior – the guru psychologically may represent getting to meet a “living Jesus.”


Along these lines, some gurus claim to be “avatars” or manifestations of deities come down to earth from the celestial realms. The idea of an avatar has also been popularized as meaning a “world teacher” sent to enlighten us or as “god on earth” as in the case of someone like Sai Baba.

This is a very specific metaphysical belief system:

a) There is a supernatural reality beyond the material world.

b) Certain very special human beings (enlightened gurus) have knowledge of this divine reality.

c) Other even more special human beings (avatars) are actually manifestations of celestial beings and are properly described as gods on earth.

d) The true spiritual seeker should submit themselves to such beings (gurus or avatars) so as to be given their own awakening to the “ultimate truth.”

The Seeker

Intrinsic to this whole domain of gurus and seekers is another key belief: we are all experiencing in this incarnation the results of our karma from previous incarnations. This past life karma throws a veil of illusion or “maya” over our ability to know ultimate truth.

The guru is not only free of this veil and so able to see reality and the seeker clearly, but is able to “eat” or dissolve your karma for you so as to enable enlightened self-realization in this incarnation – so that you don’t have to come back next time but can go directly to godhead when you die.

In order for this to happen it is crucial that the seeker submit their ego 100% to the guru.

Traditionally one worships the guru, meditates on his form, imagines him taking over your body and mind. One lines up with other seekers to receive “darshan” which may mean to kiss his feet, take the dust from his feet and touch it to one’s forehead, or (as with Gurumayi) receive a swat from a peacock feather wand, or (as with Ammachi) receive a hug and a Hershey’s chocolate kiss.

The crucial thing about this conception of “enlightenment,”  is that it is supposedly beyond the ordinary mind’s ability to comprehend.

Enlightenment is beyond concepts, beyond reason, it is something that can only be experienced through deep and dedicated spiritual practice OR through the grace of a powerful guru choosing to give you a glimpse though “shaktipat” – a powerful transmission of divine energy.

Most often the questioning mind is seen as an obstacle to becoming self-realized or enlightened. Questioning the guru, his or her teaching, actions, beliefs or instructions is usually cast as being a manifestation of ego.

Ego of course is what you are there to kill. The rational, critical thinking mind is in this system an enemy of enlightenment. It is still in thrall to the veil of illusion and the ego’s supposedly arrogant belief that the senses and reasoning powers of the mere mortal human body can understand the ultimate truth that exists above and beyond the material plane.

This is not the best set-up for a seeker with a weak sense of self, poor personal boundaries and underdeveloped critical thinking – as it will perpetuate these imbalances in the name of spirituality! One also has to wonder, genuinely –  what is going on with the human being in the role of guru here?


The Cult

These details all set up the conditions for several common aspects of guru communities:

1) There is an assumed and unquestionable belief system along the lines of the list of points above – even if one is questioning these, it is a priori (meaning before the fact) assumed that coming to a place of believing is indicative of progress and salvation.

2) The guru is by definition beyond reproach.

Often the bad behavior of guru’s is couched in various ways as either his or her “crazy wisdom” or something they are doing to hold up the mirror to your ego’s issues. It is for your own good and is done with utmost compassion even if it seems mean or abusive. The guru is beyond our judgment because they know something in their enlightened state that we cannot hope to grasp – and it is precisely our limited judging mind that is preventing us from grasping it!

3) If the guru either knows god or claims to be god  and the only way to know what they know is to also become enlightened, and if working out your karma with the “help” of the guru is what will provide you with a better future in this life and beyond – then the pressure to stay within the guru/seeker/community dynamic is by definition rather intense.

The potent supernatural underpinnings of the situation of traditional guru devotion should not be played down – nor should the psychological power that becoming convinced of these beliefs has over one’s life be underestimated. Shyam Dodge has written this excellent piece on his first-hand experience of this from both sides of the throne.

Now, of course in our eclectic New Age marketplace, most of us are not seeking out traditional guru communities to join – but many are seeking charismatic teachers who claim supernatural knowledge or ability. James Arthur Ray from “The Secret” is perhaps the most recent and tragic tale, but there have been and continue to be other cults and questionable business models based in metaphysics that owe a lot to these Hindu metaphysics.



The Cure

The central problem of course is that this is all a myth. The emperor is wearing no clothes. It’s a scam.

As hard as it is to accept – no-one has special secret knowledge of the supernatural metaphysics of the universe, because as far as we have been able to tell – there are none.

No-one has the ability to “eat your karma” or give a you a glimpse of reality beyond the material plane. These beliefs are based in a series of untestable ideas about how the universe works that should give anyone pause.

No-one is a holy representative of an invisible divine realm, nor is anyone literally a superhuman being come down to walk amongst us mortals. I mean, seriously.

That is all mythology – and mythology should always be interpreted as poetic, not as literal.

Simple as that – literalize the poetry of myth and you have the guru cult, with all of its attendant tragicomic drama.

Just Google any of the following names: Maharaji, Adi Da, Gurumayi, Muktananda, Sai Baba, Osho, Hare Krishna, Heaven’s Gate, Temple du Soleil (as a short list) along with the words: controversy, cult, abuses, or court case  – and my hope is that you will weep for the death of an unsustainable fantasy and at the irony of how dark this stuff gets.

Joseph Campbell got it right. 

Literalize the poetry of myth and you have Jim Jones, Charles Manson, jihad, crusades, inquisition, Kim Jong Il, and Iran about to be sitting at the button of nuclear holy war.

But – you may protest, those folks were crazy! Well yes – I reply, it is one hallmark of insanity not to able to tell metaphor from reality, beliefs from facts, illusions from truth.

The guru myth requires that we buy into a set of unreasonable beliefs about the nature of the universe, about certain individuals and about the meaning of our own lives.

Because of its dualist religious context it usually requires that we strive to overcome our fleshy desires, our critical thinking, our enjoyment of life outside of the confines of the cult and that we give large sums of money to the organization and the fat cat figurehead at the top.

The blessed one of course has usually transcended attachment to sense-pleasure so much that live in complete luxury, amass great wealth and are treated like royalty…

Now many will argue that this is the guru tradition gone awry, corrupted by a few bad apples – that in fact the true guru would never claim such things or enact such an obvious travesty.

My response: there may well be gifted spiritual teachers, inspiring guides, talented facilitators, trusted healers, but the moment we cross over into relating to them in the way one by definition relates to a guru there is a line we have crossed into very dangerous ill-advised territory.

Many will say: But I know of (or am closely associated with) gurus who are not doing the dance you describe and are in fact deconstructing it.

My reply: Great! Let’s not then call  them gurus.

At bottom this all turns on theism – on our need to believe in something beyond our embodied experience, and in this case that there are special individuals who have direct knowledge of this great beyond.

But what about this as a possibility – what about turning around to be more intimate with ourselves, with our bodies, our minds, our hearts, with one another, with the natural world, what about waking up to the already deeply spiritual nature of our actual human existence?

What is it about being human that we feel so lacks what we think we are seeking?

What if the ideas of equality, critical thinking, evidence, education, psychological awareness that negate this kind of literalized mythology are in fact signposts to the next stage of spiritual development beyond these old world beliefs?

(I mean, maybe there is something else out there – I don’t think so, but if you need a “maybe,” here you go – in any event why not work with what we do know for sure? We are here, we have these lives and these feelings, these relationships, this planet…)

What if spiritual practice – if effective, eventually brings us to a place if clarity in which we see through these false panaceas and step to do the real work?

What if we are all just people – certainly some smarter than others, some more talented in certain ways than others, but all limited by the same mortal constraints. No super powers, no paranormal abilities, no access to the other side.

I know, I know you may find this horrible – but would you be open to just contemplating this in meditation and seeing if being a limited mortal embodied human being is not only enough, but actually ignites in you a passionate and compassionate desire to embrace life and live it to the full, to share an authentic, honest and engaged inquiry into what is really true with everyone you meet?

It is perhaps out fear of death, our inability to accept the mortal limitations of our biological organisms that makes us so vulnerable to supernatural metaphysics and charlatanical power structures. How about meditating on death, touching it gently, coming to terms with its inevitability, knowing it as a constant reality, a background truth against which life itself shines as magnificently beautiful and rare?

My suggestion is that this is some of the deepest spiritual work we can do if we want to be truly liberated, integrated, honest and alive human beings.

My only hope is that this piece may be useful and beneficial to some who may read it, though I know it will be blood in the water to those who find my ideas (and by extension, my person) offensive, arrogant, closed-minded and perhaps deeply threatening.

 In Closing

There are many really good teachers out there who are not relying on or based in  the guru trip. Interestingly there appears to be a high correlation between NOT declaring oneself enlightened and NOT having any scandals involving money, drugs, sex or power abuses…. Funny thing, that!

Here are some that I find first class:

Jack Kornfield. Masterful integrator of Eastern and Western approaches to spiritual work, his classic is called A Path with Heart and his 10 day silent vipassana retreats through Spirit Rock are deep, powerful and substantive.

Pema Chodron. American born Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist teacher. I call her the “no-bullshit Buddhist grandmother!” Really grounded, compassionate guide to the inner work we from which all humans benefit.

Stephen Batchelor. Former Buddhist monk and author of best-seller Buddhism Without Beliefs. A teacher after my own heart who suggests that one can have all the benefits of spiritual practice without any of the superstition.

Brian Swimme. Mathematical cosmologist and inspiring speaker extraordinaire, Swimme encourages us to develop a modern-day spirituality that includes everything we have learned about the universe in the last few hundred years.

Joseph Campbell. Pioneer in the field of comparative mythology. Not a spiritual teacher per se – but the man from whom I have gotten the most awe-inspiring insight and  information on the human condition.


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About Julian Walker

Julian Walker is the founder of where he supports new and established yoga teachers in living their dreams through business development. He is a writer who has been teaching yoga since 1994, and co-teaches the Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind Yoga Teacher Training in LA with Hala Khouri.Julian's writing is featured in the book 21st Century Yoga available on


44 Responses to “The Guru Myth, Its Destructive Power and A Cure. {Now w/Videos!}”

  1. Suri says:

    Beautiful! And you are so right , only when you trully realize that death is the end – no heaven , no reincarnation , etc- you really start savouring every second of the day , everyday. (and the presence of your loved ones too)

    The oldest "sacred" texts are about , 4000 years old That seems like a lot but if you take into account the fact that our species- homo sapiens- has been around for about 150-200 000 years then you can clearly see that it took a while for the "gods" to get a phone and give us a call … Why is that?

    Although oral religious traditions have been with us since the beginning their origin has more to do with the nature of the human brain than with supernatural beings or intentional imaginary agents … (see S.Pinker)

  2. mattalign says:

    Hello Julian,

    My article was just posted. See "A Sixth Universal Principle of Alignment for the Post-Anusara Paradigm". Have a great day!


  3. Padma Kadag says:

    I do not have a particularly strong motivation to argue against your thesis or the thesis of Shyam other than in your case you use as examples of Gurus rather comic book like charlatan behaviors associated with western experience with gurus. I am not sure why you even are writing this view point? What problem do you have with Gurus whether authentic or fake? Are you making an argument to justify your own livelihood? In the case of Shyam…he makes arguments against Gurus yet he was never an authentic Guru himself nor was his teacher. For this you would have us all not use the name Guru any longer? In regard to your idea, which is not your idea at all but prevalent in Buddhism 101, to be intimate with yourself and body and to undersatnd the same in other's as a starting point…this is good. But then what? You or Shyam will then let us know what to do?

    • __MikeG__ says:

      My guess is that Julian is writing this viewpoint for the same reason you are writing your viewpoint. Because EJ is a forum for expressing viewpoints. Kind of self explanatory, really, when one thinks about it.

      Too bad you couldn't express your viewpoint without the personal attack on Julian and his livelihood.

      Also, if you read closely Julian is making the argument that gurus are unnecessary and that people should rely on themselves instead of the guru. So by extension, Julian would have no interest in letting "us know what to do" as posed by the last question of your post.

      I've got to thank you because I was having a stressful day at work and I literally laughed out loud reading your post. I needed that.

      • yogijulian says:

        hahahaha i am assuming you are being humorous padma! 🙂

        ummm the problem i have with the guru system in general is that it is based in a lie and in particular is that it creates great suffering and confusion.

        my sense is that spirituality can and should provide healing, growth, integration and honesty…

        so apart from those little problems, not much.

        • WhosOnFirst says:

          Man, that is so condescending to answer someone in that tone, but it's your favorite I notice.

          I'd love to say "I want to hear your theory on why the guru system is a lie," but that would be a lie. I couldn't imagine anything more time wasting than to hear someone like you spout on about something they know nothing about. You really should find a hobby.

        • Padma Kadag says:

          Rather than do away with the term "Guru" why don't we all agree to do away with the term "Yogi". Doesn't that make more sense? Seeing that the Yogis here on EJ are not really Yogis in the Tantric sense? Those who go within under the guidance of a Guru? I now understand your sarcasm in calling yourself "yogijulian" along the same lines as Father Guido Sarducci. Good one.

      • Padma Kadag says:

        Mike G…My impression about Elephant Journal is that the majority of contributors are here to sell something. Infomercials. "yogiofnihilismjulian" is no different, as is Shyam, and a cast of others. Whether or not this is a good or bad thing I dont know…cant condemn someone for making a buck these days. The wealth of information from which Mr. Walker draws all of his theories and opinions originated from the "Guru System". He is very western in that he reads something here and there then espouses as if it is his original idea. In many ways what his core argument about how one should practice is Buddhist. Practice with honesty from where you are right this moment. Beginning with your body and on through your mind. It is the Guru System which keeps the traditions alive…provided your Lama is an authentic lineage holder and has kept pure samaya. The problem Gurus have always been an issue even in ancient times.

  4. __MikeG__ says:

    Hold on Julian, it's gonna be a bumpy ride. Most people don't like having their beliefs challenged.

  5. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  6. yogijulian says:

    WOW. i guess i was wrong, no blood in the water, no ad hominem attacks. everyone on here is thoughtfully insightfully addressing the ideas in the article, not being triggered into flinging insults.

    oh well, back to the drawing board – i guess the true believers are reasonable after all!

  7. Suri says:

    Seems like you are not the only one with crazy ideas , this is from Pema Chodron's When Things Fall Apart …chapter seven , Hoplessness and Death …page 39-40

    "Theism is a deep seated conviction that there is some hand to hold: if we just do the right things , someone will appreciate us and take care of us ….Non-theism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves ….The message is fearless; dharma was never meant to be a belief that we blindly follow. … Nontheism is finally realizing there is no babysitter you can count on . ….nontheism is realizing that it's not just babysitters that come and go. The whole of life is like that. This is the truth and the truth is inconvenient. ….. This addiction [theism] has a painful effect on society: a society based on lots of people addicted to getting ground under their feet is not a very compassionate place."

    You could easily think an atheist wrote this but no , its all Pema….of course the word dharma is interchangeable just as guru is with priest , priestess ,nun , etc

    I was also analizing how the word 'energy' is being misused in spiritual parlance and also how the concept of reincarnation violates the laws of nature… Anyway there s a lot of material for =friendly= discussion here Julian thanks again for a great post.

  8. Keren says:

    Great article Julian! Thank you.

  9. booyoga says:

    as an indian who has been reading this journal for the last few weeks – i am amused at most of the discussions here.

    the veil seems thicker now than ever – in a way it is good.

    this knowledge was never meant to be out there the way it is – the ridicule is necessary.

    yoga seems to be turning inwards – like tantra. the bad name is part of the scheme of things.

    the funny godmen are necessary to make yoga look like a joke so that the serious practice can go without the spotlight and spandex.

    and whoever said that funny godmen or self styled yogi godmen were the real thang – come to india and see how many we have, and who takes them seriously.

    and by the way, no one took Osho seriously in India except for the Western hippies – so there you go.

    as it was meant to be and should be.

  10. […] of any spiritual teachers is also available through Decisions Decisions.      An effective spiritual teacher for you is one who strengthens your heart chakra and your crown – you…viously, different people can respond in different ways to the same energenic influence, but that […]

  11. Ramesh says:

    Booyoga: well said!
    I agree with a lot here…Jack Kornfield is indeed great, but when I compare him to someone I know; he's a little kid in the spiritual kindergarten of life… the essential problem with Julian's thesis is that he thinks he knows what is right for everyone; thus he is the truly enlightened among us all; that rationality trumps everything; that science explains everything. Thus he reflects beautifully those he want to tear down from the pedestal; he changes one absolute with another absolute. This cannot be; therefore it is only this.
    But reality is much more complex… much more uncertain, and the deepest part of reality is obscured; hidden; like most precious things and states of mind. It is revealed for those whose internal eyes are flung wide open…indeed, there are mysterious too great to be explained away by words; not even poetry and metaphor can come close. Blessed Be!

  12. […] been a lot of blah-blah-blah these days about whether or not “we” should forsake the guru, forsake the spiritual […]

  13. Rachel says:

    Thanks Julian for this article, this subject is very timely for this age in which the cult of personality and submissión to charismatic leaders is so often in the news. I find it interesting that in one post someone makes a comparison of Jack Kornfield as a little kid in the spiritual kindergarden of life… it seems to me that a grand majority of us westerners are sorely lacking in the basics (spiritual kindergarden if you will) and in Jack Kornfield´s books (both The Path with Heart and After the Ectasy the Laundry…) he clearly lays out where many paths have gotten lost (in the sex, money and power biggies) and what the warning signs are of a path heading in that direction are. He offers basic information of what genuine spirituality entails and what the signs of it´s sparkly and glittering counterparts tend look like. Essential in my view!
    I especially like your addition of Joseph Cambell in your list of first class teachers. To this day I consider him to be the first and most profoundly groundbreaking of my spiritual teachers. After a full fledged protestant upbringing (and a lot of guilt and confusion because I just felt instinctively that the Church´s negation of all the rest of the world´s spiritual traditions had to be wrong) I began to read Joseph Cambell and felt enormous relief and clarity to discover in his work the similarity in the themes of the myths and traditions of so many of the worlds spiritual traditions. How rich and expansive to be able to appreciate in every culture, tradition and individual their own approach and expression of spirituality. His delight in discovering these connections and similarities, was and is contagious for me. Also, it was so interesting to read how his life´s work had brought him deeper into his own spiritual tradition (Catholicism) but with full knowledge of what the symbols of his faith were pointing to and not just lost in the dogma.

  14. Mike says:

    The guru is only embedded in the western form of Hinduism or the form of spirituality in eastern countries used to attract gullible westerners. My friend's mum is a proper Hindu from Nepal and she think it's all nonsense. Satsang, swamis, ashrams and yoga… she hadn't experienced these directly as part of Hinduism. Imagine if Christianity had been bastardised this much and exported to other countries as a way to get money of gullible people.

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