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Eastern Gurus in the West

Is this the way the true Guru behaves?

Guru Maharaji was not necessarily an abusive guru, so much as an ordinary person like you and me put in a riduculous position of being worshipped as a god. But I love his expression, it shows how bogus the whole thing is. This photo was found at external link The Orange Papers

In traditional Indian (and Tibetan) society, the Guru is an important part of that culture. And even there it is very rare to find a True Guru. But when this sociotype is transplanted to the West, things become very different.  The guru has tremendous power and wealth, and there is often emotional and financial abuse, as well as explicate sexual advantage taken of young female disciples.  This whole ugly phenomena started with the Beatles' flirtation with Mahesh Maharishi (of TM fame).  Prior to him there were only a few gurus in the West, like Vivikananda and Yogananda, and they only had only a small following.  It was more like the traditional Indian arrangement.  With the Beatles and Maharishi there began the phenomenon of the pop-guru or big-business mass-market guru, or cult guru, where an oriental teacher who may or may not be sincere (my feeling is that most of them are sincere, at least at the beginning) is put in a position of extraordinary power and adulation over a large number of disciples.

Often these gurus claim vast spiritual status.  They say they are an Avatar or a Sadguru.  Nowadays there are so many gurus, each claiming to be the avatar of our age.  This is part of the weakness of our society.  People in the West are like gullible sheep looking for someone to lead them.  My first experience in this was some twenty years ago, when I encountered Swami Krishna. This is not to deny he has power, but there is a difference between power on the subtle level and genuine spirituality, let alone Realization. His followers were (perhaps still are?) doe-eyed professional people and a few more alternative types.  He claims to be a tantric teacher.  He almost certainly took advantage of his female disciples.  He in no way was a bad person. In fact he was a very likeable rogue. But like any of us in that situation, it is so easy to be carried away by the adulation and worship of him. More recently I have come across many more cases on the internet. This is a story that is tragically all too common in the spiritual supermarket. It happens to even famous gurus like Muktananda and Rajneesh. Often one finds not just sex but violence as well, this was the case with both Muktananda, who encouraged it in several devotees, and Rajneesh, who was - like many otehrs in his ashram, the victim of it; a rare case of an abusive guru being out-abused by an even more abusive disciple. Others, it seems, like Adi Da and Andrew Cohen, were absuive even from the very start, due here (as in others) to a weakness of the adhar (outer vehicle). One prominant abusive guru is one who I naively followed in my immaturity for more than twenty years, Sathya Sai Baba. While rumours abounded even in the early days, it is only recently that the extent of his sexual abuse of young male devotees has become known. And yet, at the same time, all of these gurus possess a powerful appeal and charm for those who are drawn to them, and many even benefit spiritually. This is the paradox I refer to as "The Intermediate Zone"

Not all gurus have been found lacking.  Ramakrishna, Vivekanada, Nityananda, Rudolf Steiner (to give a European example), and the Dalai Lama are among those who stand out as genuine teachers.

Moreover, there may very well be genuine avatars.  Not all teachers who claim avatarhood are fakes.  It can be assumed that True Avatars are very rare, and some that are considered avatars may not be. Also, there may be greater and lesser avatars, as well as beings who incarnate an entity or spiritual formation that - while not of the pure Divine - is still of a plane of existence beyond the physical.

Because placing trust in a Guru is such a huge commitment, a false guru can be deadly. So many people face spiritual shipwreck because of their devotion to impure gurus who then abuse their trust. The only way you can tell if a guru is genuine is by looking at them with total sincerity, and listening to the small voice of your own inner light. Total absolute sincerity. If there is anything that makes you uneasy, anything at all, get out of there! Even so it may take several meetings before you notice the fakery. Some signs are

Gurus and God

A few comments about Gurus and God.

Gurus coming from the Eastern (Indian) traditions always talk about God (even those who do not claim to be God).  Misunderstandings can arise here though because in the word "God" is generally used by most Indian-based Guru-movements - e.g. Muktananda's Siddha Yoga, Guru Maharaji's "Divine Light Mission", Rajneesh/Osho, Sri Chimnoy, Swami Satchidananda, Sri Sri Aandamurti's "Ananda Marga", Satya Sai Baba, etc -  to designate an impersonal Absolute Reality synonymous with one's inner being (Atman), rather than a supernatural Creator in the Theistic sense.

It is important to remember however that not all "Eastern" Gurus and sects are Monistic; some are explicitely dualistic and Theistic; even fundamentalistic in nature: e.g. Prabhupada's Krishna Consciousness (or the "Hare Krishna movement"), and the  Brahma Kumaris or "Raja Yoga" are in this respect absolutely similar to the old-man-with-a-beard conventional Wesern exoteric religions.

Four phases of the guru phenomenon in the West

The following very insightful observations by external link John Heron give a good overview of the history and evolution of the guru phenomenon in the West and in popular consciousness. (hyperlinks not in the original)

There seem to be four phases in the guru phenomenon in the West.

  1. In the late decades of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century, there was just a small guru-invasion from the East with key players like Vivekananda and the spread of the Vedanta movement in the West.
  2. Then post-war from 1945 with the publication of Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy, there started a major guru-invasion from the East including the dramatic spread through the 60s and the 70s of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism in the USA and Europe.
  3. In the third phase, over the last thirty years or so, alongside the guru-invasion from the East there has been the growing phenomenon of homegrown Western gurus and spiritual teachers claiming the special status of 'enlightenment'.
  4. The fourth phase is just getting under way. It seems to be distinguished by four features.
    1. The erosion of guru status as a result of sexual and financial abuse and bullying scandals among both Eastern and homegrown Western gurus and spiritual teachers.
    2. The erosion of 'enlightenment' claims by the proliferation of the number of people, especially in the West, making the claim: the more people who make the claim, the more its narcissistic inflation stands revealed. For the 'enlightenment' claim is also an authority-claim to have followers, a recruiting drive; and the more claims that are made, the stronger the competition among claimants in the market-place for attention.
    3. A growing awareness that spiritual authority is within and that to project it outward onto teacher, tradition or text is an early, adolescent phase of spiritual development in the one projecting, and counter-spiritual manipulative abuse in any guru/teacher who seeks to elicit, to appropriate and to sustain the projection.
    4. The emergence of peer to peer spirituality, which democratizes charismatic, enlightened leadership, and realizes that it is a role which different persons assume at different times, either in the initiation of a peer group or in the continuous unfolding of its process.
"Four phases of the guru phenomenon in the West" John Heron dated April 2, 2005
reprinted in P/I: Pluralities/Integration no.65: April 20, 2005

Some books on Cultic Gurus and the Guru Phenomenon

Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities
Enlightenment Blues : My Years with an American Guru
Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities
by Len Oakes

Enlightenment Blues : My Years with an American Guru
by Andre van der Braak

Web links Links Web links

web pagelinks Psyche's Links: Miscellaneous Esoterica - Gurus and Cults - lots and lots of links

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page uploaded 28 May 1998, last modified 1 July 2006, renamed from Gurus to Gurus in the West on 17 July, last modified 28 August 2009