30 years ago I walked across Ashok Road in Mysore, India. My glance caught the gaze of a magnificent, oriental gentleman with a huge turban, long white beard and long white hair. He wore a beautiful brocade silk robe and had one of the most graceful demeanors that I have ever seen in a human. He looked me straight into the eyes with a piercing glance and gestured me slowly to come over to him. I was completely spellbound and, as if drawn into his tractor beam, I slowly stumbled towards him having lost all free will. Summoned into his presence he spoke with a gentle, sonorous voice that seemed to bathe me in love and heal me from all hurt and ridicule that I’d ever experienced. “My child, I have been calling you for such a long time and now finally you have heeded my call. Even when you were in your country I spoke to you so often but you could not yet hear me. But now the time has come, you have finally become ready to find your guru and be initiated into the great mysteries of life”. There was a brief moment when a group of pedestrians awkwardly maneuvered around the two of us that his hypnotic power became dispersed. I managed to break away from his gaze and ran back across Ashok Road and onwards as fast as I could.
I’ve never looked back. But I heard afterwards that this gentleman used to hang out in that location every night for many years to recruit new followers. In hindsight I have to commend him for his great act. The way he dressed, spoke and carried himself was perfect to the point. I have to admit that the reason that I managed to escape him was not because I was smart. I wasn’t. It was simply that somebody else had warned me of that guy and said, “Watch out when you walk down Ashok Road because you could run into so-and-so. He’s just a charlatan recruiting followers for his satanic cult”.
The reason why mountebanks such as this fellow are so successful is because we the followers make them successful. Every cult that has existed down the ages was created not by the leaders but by the followers. It is us who are looking for somebody to make us whole, to induce us into the mysteries, into the secret chamber of the most high, into the tabernacle to the temple. It is us who are looking for somebody to raise our Kundalini, somebody to bestow grace upon us and to annihilate our karma. No wonder then that who we are getting is somebody who says, “No problem, baby, just bend over and I’ll raise your kundalini.”
The reason why these things happen is because we don’t take responsibility for our spirituality. Similarly as in a romantic relationship, where we are hoping to meet the one person to make us whole, also in the spiritual arena we fail to take responsibility for ourselves and project it onto a guru. Projecting then onto a guru-student relationship something that it cannot deliver, we become disappointed.
I think the whole problem is very beautifully expressed in Ram Dass 1973 saying “the teacher shows the path, the guru is the path.” While the definition of the teacher as the one who shows the path doesn’t seem to contain any traps the hope that you will meet somebody who ‘is’ the path seems to invite projection. It invokes the belief that just by surrendering to them they will sort you out. And this belief is not limited to the student. In the guru too, the attitude of the student that the guru is omnipotent and can ‘bestow’ spiritual freedom makes gurus start to believe in their own divine position. For example just recently I read that a current female star of guru heaven said, “The slightest hint from the guru must be taken by the disciple as the word of God”. Oh really? How convenient!
On several occasions during my younger years I myself have witnessed unassuming elderly Hindu gentlemen who were initially beautiful spiritual teachers. However after they were for many years treated by young Westerners as if they were indeed the only personal avatar of God, they eventually started to believe it themselves and went along for the ride. They started to act as if they were indeed god-like, their egos grew to gargantuan proportions and the beauty went out the window. It seems as if the morale here is that if you do give somebody that much power it will corrupt them. We have learned that to some extent in the political arena and have formed our states and governments according to the ideas of Voltaire and Montesquieu (i.e. separation of church and state and separation of legislative, executive and judicative powers) but we have failed to translate that into the spiritual arena, hence it is rife with corruption.
This is not to mean at all that we do not need spiritual teachers. I believe we need them more than ever before. To learn yoga or any traditional spiritual path without a teacher would be as difficult as learning music or medicine. For a few great autodidacts that may be possible but that’s not how most people work. I received my own spiritual rebirth at the hands of Ramakrishna, Aurobindo, Ramana and to a lesser degree Krishnamurti. Looking at those four names in the context of our current guru inquiry it dawns upon me that none of them had a guru (although they had teachers). Could it be that in order to develop your highest potential you have to blaze your own trail?
Whether we find that to be true or not I believe that this world is in a deep spiritual crisis and spiritual teachers are in demand as never before. On the other hand the current trajectory of gurus being debunked one after the other for sexual abuse, manipulation, psycho-terror, accumulation of massive wealth, etc. deeply mars the prospects of spirituality to revolutionize our society and propel our evolution. And this despite the fact that this evolution and revolution is absolutely urgent and imperative as it can turn us away from the chasm of ecocide (destruction of our biosphere).
So let me propose a few ideas, which may enable spiritual development such as yoga to take on this role. These ideas are intended to create an ecology (relationship of organisms towards each other) and hygiene of the student/ teacher relationship. I propose that what we need are teachers that know, in Ram Dass’ words, that they are just ‘showing’ the path but that they ‘are’ not the path. The best safety precaution that I can offer followers of a teacher/guru is whether that distinction has been made or whether the teacher claims to be the path and therefore places surrender and service to themselves into the foreground. A good teacher on the other hand will destroy such beliefs and will put the work, effort and practice of the student into the centerpiece. Doing that the teacher makes themselves superfluous. They will teach techniques that will replace dependence on the teacher and thus themselves.
Following this difference of guru and teacher, while the guru places their own personage into the foreground, the teacher should place no value on their personage but the teaching, method and technique is in the foreground. The teacher makes no false pre-tense to the students that there is any sort of mystical hokus pokus transmission. In this way the teacher does not elevate themselves but places the ball back into the court of the students and empowers them. The teacher is somebody who has the humility to admit that the work is done by the student and the teacher is only the catalyst in the reaction, not more. The teacher may show the path, but the student has to walk it themself. The teacher is also somebody who readily admits that they can learn a lot from their students in other areas. So there is no linear one-way relationship as we had in this old world relationship with the all-knowing guru towering above the disciples. In the system that I studied and continue to study, the teacher T. Krishnamacharya, refused to be addressed as guru. He used to say ‘Don’t call me guru. I’m just a student of yoga. Maybe I have studied a bit longer than you. That’s all.’ This is not to say that T. Krishnamacharya had no personal issues (as we all have). But he certainly did not allow the projection that a guru can ‘bestow’ awakening, override karma or perform similar miracles.
In part 3 of this series I will look into why most gurus in the last 40 years have been deconstructed. Does this mean that gurus have always behaved like this or has something fundamentally changed? And why are spiritual teachers now possibly needed more than ever before? And what could spiritual evolution have to do with turning away from impending ecocide?