Personality Cults and Charlatans in Yoga

In the wake of Australia’s own Satyananda-lineage scandal (and many other scandals that went before it) I was asked to air my “thoughts on the problems associated with personality cults and yoga and how people affected can return to an authentic practice which inspired them at the beginning but got waylaid by charlatans who have subsequently traumatized them at worst disillusioned them at best.”

I feel to a certain extend equipped to answer these questions as my own path led me into the fangs of quite a few cults. I arrived in India in 1984, being 21 years of age and pretty naïve. My state reminded me of an interview that Rolling Stone Keith Richards gave a few years ago. When asked by the interviewer to say something about the early 70’s when the Stones were marred by multiple drug arrests and lawsuits he said, ‘In those years we just learned how to get busted’. Well, during my early years on the guru trail I just learned how to get taken for a ride by cults and charlatans (rather than learned how to avoid them and pick out the pearls). I’m saying this upfront to avoid later on to be labeled idealistic or airy-fairy as my views on this issue have certainly been forged in real life and are not theoretical.

It is My Responsibility to Whom I Let Myself be Attracted

During my early years in India I sampled and collected gurus like other people collect relationships. Once a few relationships fail and break up one must ask oneself whether there is a common pattern emerging. You must ask yourself questions like, “Am I always attracting the same type of person? Do I leave the relationship because it is getting too intimate or even too boring or because I cannot commit? Are the conflicts emerging of a similar nature?”

In my case I noted that the gurus and charlatans that I ended up with, I was attracted to because of a pre-existing emotional hurt. In other words, I appointed them to that role so that I could work on and fix a particular issue that I had. If I would meet the same people today I would never put them on a pedestal. It was actually me that put them there and not they themselves. It always takes two to tango. In other words if we get dis-enchanted with a particular guru/teacher, the main problem is or was actually with ourselves. Why did we get enchanted with them in the first place?

Is There Somebody Who Can Fix All My Problems in Return for Devotion?

The Armenian mystic Georg Gurdjieff once wrote, “There is no initiation but self-initiation!” Yet we (or at least I did) run across the globe in need of somebody to initiate and to enchant us in the process. Part of that is because we are reluctant to take responsibility ourselves. To illustrate that, decades ago I talked to a friend of mine (we happened to share the same guru) about my doubts concerning the guru’s teachings. The deeper I immersed myself into the scriptural quotations the guru gave, the more I found that he had misquoted and/or misrepresented the meaning of the scriptures. I shared with my friend that I had decided to study Sanskrit myself because I thought it would be a most important tool to be able to discern when a quotation or teaching was authentic and when not. At this point my friend said, “You know that sounds all too complicated and strenuous to me. I just want to find somebody that I can totally devote myself to and have them fix all of my problems in return”. Dead serious and no kidding!

There is a multi-billion dollar guru trade out there (to my knowledge the biggest trade on earth after weapons, oil and drugs) that feeds exactly on that attitude. From my experience of life (and I could be wrong) if you enter any relationship, whether with a guru or a lover, with such an attitude you are bound to get shipwrecked. The attitude here is, I give you all my responsibility and you fix all my problems. Will such a lop-sided relationship ever work or are you bound to become disenchanted and disillusioned? Is it not that you are setting up such a relationship because deep down you want to become disillusioned and disenchanted? I certainly did and eventually through painful experiences found that I myself needed to take responsibility for my own enchantment.

The Difference Between a Guru and a Teacher and How to Test a Teacher?

This leads me then to a statement made by Ram Dass in an early 70’s lecture. Don’t get me wrong, I really respect Ram Dass and truly love his ‘Miracle of Love’ where he describes his experiences with his own guru Neem Karoli Baba. On one of these old recordings Ram Dass describes the difference between a teacher and a guru in the following way: “The teacher shows the way, the guru is the way.” This is of course a very dangerous teaching and I’m not sure whether he would still say that today after 40 years of one guru scandal after the other. It is also often on this “I am the solution”-platform that nationalistic politicians are riding to power. And if you criticize them they say, “Do you want to be part of the solution or part of the problem?” This leads me back to the “personality cults and yoga” part of the above question. If students ask me how they can recognize an authentic teacher I suggest two things (and of course my system is not bullet proof):

  1. In the center should be the teaching and not the personage of the teacher. The teacher should put no importance whatsoever towards their own personage. The teacher teaches techniques that can be practiced away from the teacher and make the student independent from the teacher so that the student does not have to undergo lifelong return trips to the teacher.
  2. The teacher invites critique and doubt rather than discouraging them. When the student questions the teacher tries to answer through personal experience and scriptural teaching (i.e. internal and external validation of the teaching) rather than implying that the guru is not to be questioned.

Of course I will be inundated with complaints like, “but my guru is the path and is raising my Kundalini, etc., etc.”. Great. If it works for you, fine. And good luck! From my understanding in our present Kali Yuga (age of darkness and corruption) no individual should deem themselves beyond corruption and that’s why its better not to put yourself into a position of power over others.

If you see somebody mesmerizing large crowds of devotees then question them for that very purpose. My greatest teachers were lone sadhus (Hindu ascetics) who per definition did not even accept devotees. When I told them that I was on the way to Swami xyz who had an ashram visited by millions, they just laughed and said “Hollywood Yoga”.

The Downfall of Gurus and How We Can Heal

Let’s go now to the next part of the question, which is “how people affected [by abuse through charlatans] can return to an authentic practice”? First we need to understand Lord Acton’s quote: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Again, what this means is that the greater the congregation of a particular teacher, the greater they are at risk to be corrupted. Unfortunately, followers believe right the opposite. The stronger in numbers a particular cult grows, the safer they feel. I have witnessed on several occasions how traditional Indian teachers (increasingly this is replicated now by Westerners), who started off with the best intentions became overwhelmed by the beliefs and hopes that students projected onto them. Not everybody can be like T. Krishnamacharya who said to those who tried to dub him guru, ‘Don’t call me guru. Like you I’m just a student of yoga. Maybe I have studied a bit longer but that’s all’.

The first step to healing then is that we withdraw our projection that we will find that one person who in a god-like fashion will lead us through the pearly gates. This is similar to taking back the projection that you will meet that one soul mate that will make you whole. This myth is one of the causes why so many of our relationships fail. Nobody signed up to make you whole, not a lover and not a guru. It is something that you must find in yourself. By finding wholeness within yourself you can then share that love with another person. Similarly, the spiritual teacher can (hopefully) show you the way to freedom within. But it is you who has to walk it and you (using the techniques taught by the teacher) will have to initiate yourself.

The Power of Forgiveness

But what of those who “got waylaid by charlatans who have subsequently traumatized them at worst, disillusioned them at best?” First we need to accept our own responsibility in the game. We need to accept the fact that it was we who put on the blinkers and put a person, frail like ourselves, on a pedestal and made them god-like. If we accept this responsibility for past error we automatically give ourselves permission to make better choices in the future.

What needs to happen next is to forgive the perpetrator. When I’m saying forgive I do not mean that you cannot anymore pursue any legal avenues. In fact pursuing legal avenues may do society (and yoga) a big favor by protecting future victims. When I am talking about forgiveness I mean letting go of the emotional charge attached to what happened. It means that you empower yourself to decide how something makes you feel. Nelson Mandela for example, when he walked free after 28 years of imprisonment, realized that he needed to forgive his perpetrators otherwise he would carry that prison with him for the remainder of his life.

Another example is Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl who, writing about his experiences at Auschwitz, found that many occurrences in our lives are completely outside of our control. What is within our control is how we interpret them; how we frame them and the meaning we give to them.

In case of abuse at the hand of a spiritual authority it is paramount that you do not frame the experience in a way that disempowers you. Being able to forgive can create healing for both yourself and the perpetrator (a jail sentence might indeed provide further help). In the end we need to realize that any abuse, torture or humiliation cannot reach our innermost, the true self, and it is this that our cultural heroes like Frankl, Mandela or Gandhi have confirmed.

How to Forgive

Forgiveness comes simply under Patanjali’s first Niyama (Yoga Sutra 2.32). Shaucha (cleanliness) does not just mean to have a wash, it more importantly means to refrain from any toxic thoughts or emotions. To hold on to grudges is a toxic thought. If you keep running around thinking you have been abused and sullied it is exactly that, that you will manifest in your life. As the Gita says, “what a person thinks with great intent, that verily he will become” (Bhagavad Gita 17:3). Similarly, it is said in Luke 6:37, “Judge not and you will not be judged. Forgive and you will be forgiven.” What’s talked about here is that there is no spiritual attainment without forgiving oneself. And forgiving oneself is not possible without forgiving others. This means that we need to let go of the attachment to what has been done to us. We need to make the decision to let go of it to be free. We need to reframe it, as Frankl would call it, and reinterpret it for our empowerment.

For this reason we need to reclaim our power, let go of our grudges against others and recognize ourselves as that what cannot be sullied, “cut by blades, drowned by water or burned by fire” (Gita 2.23), the True Self. In this way we can even utilize a painful experience for our spiritual awakening. After all, as Shyam Gosh said in ‘The Original Yoga’, “The situation driving [] embodiments provides [] opportunity to consume one’s karma through suitable experiences of pleasure and pain.’ Implied here is that any experience that we have, whether pleasurable or painful, calls us to awaken. Then no more karma is necessary.

 

About Gregor Maehle

Gregor Maehle started his yogic practices over 38 years ago. For almost two decades he yearly travelled to India where he studied with various yogic and tantric masters. Gregor spent 14 months in Mysore, India, and in 1997 was authorized to teach Ashtanga Yoga by K. Pattabhi Jois. Since then he has branched out into research of the anatomical alignment of postures and the higher limbs of Yoga. He obtained his anatomical knowledge through a Health Practitioner degree and has also studied History, Philosophy and Comparative Religion. Gregor lived many years as a recluse, studying Sanskrit, yogic scripture and practising yogic techniques. He has published a series of textbooks on all major aspects of yoga. His mission is to re-integrate ashtanga vinyasa practice into the larger framework of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga in the spirit of T. Krishnamacharya. He offers trainings, retreats and workshops worldwide.
Posted in Ashtanga Yoga, Teaching.

One Comment

  1. Dear Gregor!
    Another wonderful and important article, thank you very much for creating it; lots of passion and compassion spiced with wittiness. Especially the part about each and everyone’s responsibility cannot be emphasized enough. Admittedly, I have trouble understanding why so many modern day Yoga practitioners refuse to take this responsibility and instead choose to blindly follow a person even though this person has shown harmful behaviour towards student/s in different gradations.
    I believe a really important part of Yoga practice has always been viveka, critical discernment versus mass conformity.

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