Questioning Authorities

One of the last times that I sat in K. Pattabhi Jois’ afternoon student meeting (called “conference”) I looked at a photo of Ramana Maharishi that was hanging on the wall. I asked Jois, “how come Ramana is considered spiritually liberated but he hasn’t done any asanas in his whole life”? I didn’t mean any harm with that question. I was just curious. There are several potential avenues an answer could take and I was simply curious which one Jois would take. But he never got to answering the question. A storm of protest started and I was screamed down by about 20 other Western students. It was considered “questioning the guru”. The screaming subsided after about 2 minutes. KP Jois’ looked around somewhat baffled and then went back to discussing his previous topic, rasam recipes.

The interesting thing here is that it was not KP Jois who rebuked me but it was actually the cult followers who formed a protective wall around the guru and prevented that he was questioned. I realized that the initially motley community of practitioners had by then morphed enough into a cult that it did not warrant returning to the Jois shala. To this day close adherents to the Ashtanga cult tell me that they feel they must have faith and that questioning was “coming from the ego”. Here I am trying to make a case that questioning is a good thing, for you and for authority.

How did we get to a point that questioning is a bad thing and that it shows disrespect for the teacher? The attitude is not new. In his “The Last Days of Socrates”, Plato shows how Socrates constant questioning of established Athenian authorities invoked their ire until eventually they have him sentenced to death. But Socrates main interest is to get people to question themselves, to question how they know what they know. In other words, he asks them to question the means by which they arrive at a certain knowledge. He wants to lure them away from statements such as, “I simply know” or we could say he wants to disperse blind faith in our pet beliefs. Via Plato and Aristotle ultimately Socrates’ way of questioning lead to the formation of what today is Western Science. Whoever is going through some form of scientific training learns to not accept statements of existing authorities at face value. You are trained to perceive holes in their argumentation and to collect evidence to falsify their assumptions.

But this attitude is not exclusive to the West. Here a passage from Gautama Buddha from the Kalama Sutta: “Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by thinking, ‘This sage is our guru.’ [and therefore, what he says is right]. When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skilful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.” The Buddha here says that we shouldn’t simply defend a position because it is held by an authority that we value, not just because we have faith in it. We must research and prove it for ourselves or reject it. Critical thinking and questioning is not an invention of the West. It was always engaged in by the greatest minds of both East and West. Let’s continue this great tradition.

Personage versus position

A big part of what is modern Ashtanga Yoga boils down to personality cult. A position is deemed right and duly defended not because of its intrinsic value but merely because of who holds the position. So-and-so says its right and therefore it must be right. I think it would be a great step forward if we could start looking at the beliefs and assumptions that define Ashtanga Yoga independent of who holds them.

I was asked repeatedly who I am critiquing with certain statements. As if it wasn’t interesting to inquire into a particular position without knowing who holds it. If we know who holds the position the refutation of the position can be declared invalid because the person that holds the position can’t be wrong.

I purposely try to avoid attacking people or a particular person. In our culture there is strange way of avoiding change. Whenever there is a problem, people are always looking for the person or persons that is responsible. Once the person is found they are condemned, shamed and/or “held accountable”. The person is then sacrificed as a scapegoat but the underlying problem is not addressed. In other words, instead of looking at what the problem is we avoid it by looking for the person who causes it. Once the person is found and punished a new person steps into their shoes and the problem continues without change being brought about.

The other problem with this approach is that we tend to have so much investment in personages (such as our teachers) that the slightest criticism of a person usually leads to trenches being dug and front lines being drawn. What I think needs to happen are systemic changes, not just changes of leadership. I am hoping for a time in which an argument is judged simply by its inherent merit and not by who holds it. If a particular way of doing things is found to be faulty it should be critiqued based on its demerit and not defended because the position held by a person that is inherently great or powerful.Should we consider that a valid approach or should we think that a position should be deemed right just because a particular person holds it? If it is the latter at what point would we start to hold that person accountable if, for example, they commit a crime such as sexual assault? I think the past has shown us that this is not a viable approach.

Do we ultimately serve a person by not questioning their views and actions?

Surprisingly I am still getting responses that I should stop questioning the “guru” or the “lineage” and that only by totally “submitting to the guru can I attain Jnana” (yes, I kid you not). I am asking myself if it is healthy for a person in a position of power if the people around them are not challenging them upon displaying destructive behaviour?

Today I do think that KP Jois had a personality disorder (for all the greatness that he displayed in other areas) and ironically, I feel now that I let him down for not challenging him on it. Okay, I can weasel my way out of it by saying that I was in a cult and any form of questioning was censored and dis-encouraged by other cult members. But on the other hand, I do know now that Jois reacted to criticism and adjusted his behaviour temporally. In other words, he received too little criticism too late, at a time when his behaviour was already entrenched. Had we all been vigilant back them and as a community told him that his behaviour was wrong he would probably have snapped out of it. The whole episode would have then remained a minor embarrassment in the history of the movement. Now, after decades have passed without us adequately addressing these issues it has grown into a much bigger sore and KP Jois legacy has been besmirched. I think a lot of this could have been avoided had we been insistent with our challenges and questioning early on.

Another issue that we need to look into is whether we are not infantilizing authorities when protecting them from questioning. In the episode quoted at the outset of this articles the followers or KP Jois clearly thought him incapable of an appropriate response to my answer. How they arrived at this conviction in less than a second before they started screaming my down baffles me. Are we not being disrespectful when assuming that we know the answer given by an authority or when assuming that a satisfactory answer can’t be given? What does their authority status then consist of if we deny them the possibility to respond?

The “Guru”-concept as part of an outdated modernistic view of the self.

I placed “guru” here in inverted commas to denote beliefs such as, “the guru is the path”, “the guru must always be right and can never be questioned” and “if you see the guru doing strange things he does so to adjust your personality”, or “the guru is embodying the students mental disorder to heal the student”. In all of these statements the “guru’s” destructive behaviour is rationalized. I could imagine a guru or teacher operating outside of that paradigm and in that case the inverted commas would not be necessary. A guru would then have to be open to be questioned.

The problem with terms like “guru” or “lineage” is that they are still operating from a modernistic concept of self. Prior the 1960’s we believed that a person has certain inherent qualities that they exhibit all the time and that do not change. For example, one person is “good” while another person may be called “evil”. This model in the 1960’s gave way to the post-modernistic view of the self which says that we are fluid at all times and incorporate an almost infinite number of different mini-selves which may be predominant at one time or another. Parallel to that in psychology the school of situationism developed, which holds that who a person is and how they act is entirely dependent on situation and in reality, constantly changes with the drop of a hat. There is currently no scientific evidence that refutes situationism. And respectively there is no scientific evidence that a single person can be constantly right or having a trademark on truth.

Especially for people who are members of spiritual movements it is very important and healing to look into these concepts. We understand then that no person can be right all the time. A person may display great understanding and insight a lot of the time. But they can never be right all the time. To believe that anybody can is simply a myth that ultimately will leave us disenfranchised. Whatever anybody says at any given time in any circumstance we still have to check for ourselves whether the statement is right or helpful. Of course, it would be great if we would find that one person that will sort us out in return for total devotion. The reality of life however presents us with a much more complex scenario. The one that we need to constantly question what we believe to be right and how we arrived at that belief. And that no person can lay claim to permanent rightness. This is what J. Krishnamurti meant when he said “Truth is a pathless land”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Gregor Maehle

Gregor Maehle started his yogic practices in 1978. For almost two decades he yearly travelled to India where he studied with various yogic and tantric masters. 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.

5 Comments

  1. Same experience here, 2 years ago. Simple question about practicing all vinyasas as per the count and the possible connection with Brahmacharya. It was following a month intensive I had with John Scott… He was so pissed off after me then he even said “this shala is a pure place. Why are you polluting the atmosphere with this kind of question? Just ask “your” teacher”…. I was first surprise by his anger, but further more I was fully astonished by the reaction of the “fellow” westerners who were telling me, “you don’t ask this kind of question, everyone knows that….”…..
    After this experience I never ever attended any conference with him. Just practice, namaste and goodbye. No more expectations than enjoying my practice 😉

    • Hello Stefanie, Thanks for your report. I can’t see how your question could have been “polluting the atmosphere”. The more insecure cult-like groups become the more aggressively they defend their believes. My wife told me that when she was around 8 years old she asked the village priest how Adam and Eve were fitting in with the cavemen. He told her the same thing that you were told, “You don’t ask those sort of questions.” She walked out on the church then and every thinking person should leave their group if questions are fobbed off that way. All the best. Gregor

  2. This happened to me in an online Ashtanga group. I had a question about how a specific teacher is teaching something vers other teachers I know. I had to leave the group after a while , from teacher shaming to , how dare you questioning, to you have no idea and everything in between started pouring into the feed. It was so bad that I actually asked a Teacher I sometimes visit if I m still welcome in her shala as she considers the teacher as “her” teacher ( she told me yes). It’s crazy to me that this exists all in the name of Yoga? For me it is already odd that you have to decide on “ your” teacher, people ask you who your teacher is, and it’s better somebody with a name! How weird? Can’t I learn with many people? Don’t I take something away from every yoga class? I do think that it is worse now with all the social network groups out there , the unknown masses that are participating are so save in front of their little computers, they don’t have to look in your eyes. Almost the same as your situation, a bunch of people shouting you down . I wonder how it would have been with way less people? What his answer would have been? Shouldn’t teachers be honored to be asked questions, shouldn’t they be a little proud that their students are believers of their knowledge so they are the ones getting asked? What a world we live in where you can’t ask or comment, share your opinion. Be loud, be curious but kind!
    Thanks for this Gregor, I love your posts!
    Susanne
    PS: i m German , English is not my first language

    • Hello Susanne,
      Your English is excellent, don’t worry. Thanks for your report. Yes, I am surprised too about the venom in those groups (I am regularly forwarded snippets). You can choose as many teachers as you like. You are living in a free country and have the freedom of choice. Don’t let anybody take your rights away from you. There are advantages to having few or even only one teacher as mixing too many teachings can be very confusing, an effect that we clearly see in modern yoga. But all of this should be communicated in a clear rational and emotion-free way. If you are being shamed and if your questioning is seen as daring the best thing is to walk away and go somewhere else. There are groups of yogis who do not feel threatened when their beliefs are questioned. When somebody questions my beliefs I’m always very interested to see the approach they are taking because, hell, I could have missed something. If I then cannot summarize my beliefs appropriately I look then into whether it would be advantageous to change them. The economist John Maynard Keynes when speaking on a conference was once challenged, “You just said exactly the opposite of what you said last year. You contradicted yourself!” Keynes answered, “When the information on the ground changes, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Today a lot of people in extremist groups are completely married to their opinions and will never change them, even if the information on the ground changes.
      You are right when you say that teachers should honor questions and questioning. In the old days of the Upanishads teachers only spoke when a question was posted. Outside of that they remained silent. That’s how important questioning was seen. Today this attitude of inquiry has given way to dogmatism.
      Thanks again for your contribution and all the best for your yoga.
      Gregor

  3. Guru. Gu – darkness, ru – light. From darkness to light.

    Guru is not a physical being. Those who think of the guru as a body or as a man do not understand this pious word. If a guru comes to think that his power is his own, then he is a guide no more. The guru is tradition, he is a stream of knowledge. That stream of knowledge goes through many channels.

    Gurudeva is a Stream of Knowledge
    by Swami Rama
    From: The Essence of Spiritual Life

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