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.
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.”
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?
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.