By Maria Wirth
Gurus hold a very high place in the Indian tradition. Maybe too high a place. Do gurus live up to their noble calling of ‘dispelling darkness’ and setting their disciples free? There are many fake gurus among the genuine ones. Maybe it is time for spiritual teachers to take over from personal gurus-teachers who give knowledge for a fee, but who don’t bind those who seek knowledge and who long to be truly free
Tell me, what did you find in your 20 years of spiritual search in India?’ An Indian friend whom I recently met after many years asked this question. But he asked me that at a wrong time, because I was not sure anymore whether I had found anything during all those years in India and whether, actually, there is anything to be found.
I had become disillusioned with ‘searching’ and with gurus, who claim they would help me find something. I had come to the conclusion that life is for living, moment for moment, and running after a goal prevents me from doing that. I mentioned this to my friend and told him also that I had just left a guru again-for the second time in my life-and hope I was cured of gurus now.
One is not supposed to leave a guru. If one has accepted a guru, one has to stick to him-that is an accepted view in India. I don’t know who made this rule and spread it. Maybe a kind of guru-lobby?
The adoration a guru receives from his devotees is quite amazing and even more amazing is how many gurus consider this adoration their rightful due. Maybe the gurus take their cue from Kabir, who wrote in a poem that all the forests of the earth don’t provide him enough material for describing the glory of the guru sufficiently. But whom did Kabir venerate so fervently as the guru? The inner master or an outer one?
They are one, it is said. The inner guru manifests in the outer guru. And what happens if the outer guru is not enlightened and obviously doesn’t have the integrity and competence to guide a disciple? ‘Even if the guru is fake, the disciple has to stick to him, because the sincerity and integrity of the disciple are decisive of his progress.’
I have heard and read this view several times. The interests of the gurus are no doubt well taken care of. My friend gave me one more reason why Indians rarely leave their gurus: they are afraid that he might have occult powers and would take revenge and harm them. I wouldn’t have thought of that.
Many of my friends, who are followers of different gurus, tried to make me see that I would commit an inexcusable mistake by leaving my guru and pity me that I am so stubborn. They earnestly believe that maybe only after a hundred lives would I get such a precious chance to realise the truth again.
|Photograph: Martin Louis|
Some other friends (foremost my sister), who are not followers of gurus, congratulate me that finally at the age of 50 I now take responsibility for myself and don’t run after someone else. And they hope that I won’t make such a mistake again. There is a third group, people who in the course of the years acquired some gurus or still have one-but they keep a certain distance.
They don’t expect too much of a guru anymore, but appreciate the atmosphere around gurus, as one appreciates listening to a concert from time to time. For them the news that I left my guru is nothing special. They know that this becomes necessary when the feeling that one has made the wrong choice gets stronger.
The subject ‘guru’ is no doubt a vast subject and rather mysterious. A guru by definition is someone who can dispel the darkness and thereby enlighten. He is a teacher who himself is enlightened. This gives rise to the first basic question: what is enlightenment?
There is no answer to this question in the usual sense. Enlightenment cannot be described or observed, in the same way as the taste of a mango cannot be described or observed. ‘Enlightenment is indescribable’.
This sentence, often repeated, raises high expectations-possibly too high an expectation regarding the guru, as well as the state of being, which is sought after. ‘Indescribable’ in this context means at least ‘superb’ and not simply a mere fact.
The disciple concludes that enlightenment must be better than everything else he knows-probably an eternally lasting ecstasy-and is surprised that the guru looks quite normal and is not rocking with bliss. For sure, enlightenment is different from all so far known experiences. But maybe, that state is just the most natural one of all? The point is that one cannot know for sure whether a guru is enlightened or only playing the role of a guru.
A friend, a captain in the merchant navy, once told me that he wants to become a guru after his retirement, because then he would be well looked after for the rest of his life. He said it in jest, but it shows, nevertheless, how sceptical people have become in regard to gurus and that ‘guru’ has become a kind of job-for which one needs very little qualification.
A colonel in the army recently explained to me what one needs. We were going from Bangalore to Delhi by train. The journey takes 41 hours, but it seemed very short, as it was so entertaining. The colonel had a strong, penetrating voice and probably the whole compartment listened to what he said: In the beginning, you need two or three people, preferably women (they can be relatives), who listen while you talk about spirituality, make the right gestures and look around with knowing eyes.
When these people tell others that they felt so much peace in the presence of Mr X (in most cases the guru is a man) when he talked about spirituality, his rise as a guru is unstoppable. More and more people will come to him. He doesn’t need to put himself on a pedestal because his admirers will place him there-convinced that, no doubt, he must be enlightened.
Now he can do whatever he wants, because whatever a guru does ‘is right and must have a reason’, his followers generously explain to any newcomer, in case he doesn’t know it already.
‘Even if you see your guru coming out from a place of disrepute, you must hold on to him,’ a guru told me once. ‘Or if he tells you to do something which you feel is not right or if he treats you unjustly. Because whatever a guru does is for your best. He doesn’t make a mistake,’ he stated categorically and referred to himself.
‘I had enough of one ‘infallible’ Pope. I don’t want another Pope,’ was the reaction of a Swiss woman. And the reaction from the guru: ‘Westerners have a strong individuality because it is systematically cultivated there. And this individuality has to be broken.’
He may be right. I don’t know. The Tibetan tradition has an example of the incomprehensible, harsh behaviour of the guru which finally proves to be a blessing for the disciple: Milarepa had lost his father early and the uncle who was supposed to look after him and his mother according to the last will of his father, cheated his mother out of her property and drove them away.
Milarepa vowed revenge and learnt black magic. One day, he created a hailstorm which devastated the fields of his uncle. The whole crop was destroyed and the uncle suffered greatly. But Milarepa repents and looks for a guru who can show him the truth. He approaches Marpa, a great guru.
Milarepa asks Marpa to initiate him into the highest truth, but Marpa keeps him waiting and tells him instead to build him a house on a nearby hill. Milarepa carries loads of stones on his back till it bleeds and he slogs from dawn to dusk. Marpa’s wife feels pity for the young man and sometimes gives him some extra food.
But when Marpa comes to know of this, he is furious. Finally, the house is ready. But Marpa is not happy. He would rather have it on that other hill, over there… Milarepa again carries stones, without complaint. In the evenings, when he sits with the servants in Marpa’s house, he observes Marpa welcoming well-to-do people into his living room and teaching them the highest wisdom. Milarepa swallows all this and slogs on.
Finally, after many years, Marpa calls him and initiates him-and Milarepa is instantly enlightened. Marpa’s behaviour is explained like this: Milarepa had acquired very bad karma by doing black magic. The guru, through his harsh treatment, gave him a chance to get rid of this load of karma. This story is often quoted when a guru treats a disciple in an incomprehensible and unjust manner.
‘It is his karma,’ is the easy and incontestable explanation. I once told a guru that I don’t want a guru because he can do whatever he wants and I have to swallow it. The guru laughed and said that the guru is a friend.
But some years later, when more people, including many wealthy ones, accepted him as a guru, he obviously enjoyed his power over his disciples. The friendship aspect vanished. Instead, he stressed that the disciple has to ‘crawl like a worm in the dust before the guru’. This view is quite in line with the traditional Indian attitude. J. Krishnamurti considered this as a ‘recipe for abuse’.
The point here is that all depends on the integrity and competence of the guru, or rather on whether he is truly enlightened. To judge his integrity and competence is difficult, for an outsider rather impossible. Test a guru thoroughly before you accept him, is another common advice. Now, how is one to test the integrity and competence of a guru?
It is said that the guru is genuine if one feels peace in his presence. Ramana Maharshi also endorsed this criterion. I have met many gurus in India. When I counted them in 1986, after I had travelled through the country for seven years, 36 prominent names were on my list. Since then many more have been added.
However, I can’t say that I felt perceptively more at peace in the presence of a guru than when I was alone with nature or alone in my room. The reason for this is in me: when I worry about how to give the flowers or fruits which I brought for the guru or whether I should bow down before him, then peace won’t reach me even if the guru radiates a lot of it.
Paul Brunton describes how he felt deep peace during his first meeting with Ramana Maharshi. But probably not everyone who came to Ramana felt this peace, even though he radiated it. The psychological state of the visitor and his expectations certainly affect what he sees and feels as much as does the actual presence of the guru.
The expectations towards a guru are often too high and the notion of what all he is capable of is exaggerated. No doubt, his disciples, who praise him to the skies and credit him with miracles, are also responsible for this. So one had better not rely on the disciples’ judgement.
Once I was sitting with several thousand people in front of the temple in Prashanti Nilayam in Puttaparthi, where Sathya Sai Baba was doing his round. A German woman and her 10-year-old son had just arrived from the airport. It was their first visit and they sat next to me.
As usual, people who celebrated their birthday or some other joyous event on that day held out plates with sweets to Sai Baba. He took a handful from one plate and threw it into the crowd. ‘Look,’ the German excitedly said to her son. ‘Sai Baba has materialised so many sweets!’
I request not to be misunderstood. There are certainly genuine, enlightened gurus who are competent and have integrity and are a real blessing to their disciples. They are there even now. But there are also gurus who merely play the role of a guru because it is tempting and rather easy. It is rather easy because the truth is simple and it needs little training to talk convincingly about it.
Most people know that what a guru says does not prove his genuineness and competence. But in practice, his talk is usually considered as the main criteria. Every guru also says the right things. ‘Even the devil can quote the scriptures’, it is said.
However, it is worthwhile to note what else the guru says, whether, for example, he talks a lot about the future or whether he keeps stressing that it is the fault of the disciple that he doesn’t make progress or whether he even flatters. Then one certainly should be cautious.
During the Kumbh Mela in Hardwar, I once visited, along with an American couple, the camps of different gurus. We landed at the camp of a rather young guru from Allahabad. Two professors of IIT in Delhi were sitting with him already. We all talked and the guru concentrated fully on the American, who was wealthy.
The guru flattered him, said for example that he (the American) has already reached a high spiritual state. In the end, none of us was impressed by the guru except my American friend, who was ready to certify enlightenment for him. And this friend was not a newcomer in India. Compliments, in most cases, make an impact, even if made by followers of the guru.
‘Since you are here, you look so much better, much more relaxed. In fact, you look radiant,’ this is a compliment which is generously made in ashrams everywhere. Indeed, one of the best criteria for testing a guru is whether one feels better and changes for the better.
But this criterion can be used only after one has already accepted a guru. Yet, there is a catch even here. For years, one may have the impression that one progresses, one may have wonderful spiritual experiences, feel bliss and get out-of-body experiences-and then, also for years, one may stagnate.
The guru may explain it away as a dry stretch or he may say that one doesn’t put in enough effort. But maybe, he just cannot guide one further. If a guru asks one to pursue a goal in the future, his competence is questionable. It is also possible that a guru changes for the worse in the course of years.
‘Power corrupts’, is a saying. The power which a guru wields over his disciples is enormous and can be misused-which would only show that the guru was not genuine in the first place. But maybe he himself doesn’t even know that and takes himself to be genuine. There are a number of people who mistake a spiritual experience for enlightenment.
A few months ago I was once again in Tiruvannamalai, the place where Ramana Maharshi used to live. I was surprised with the number of ‘enlightened ones’ there were even among the westerners. A friend who knows the scene there, showed me a couple of them in the ‘German restaurant’.
We also went to some of the Indian gurus on the outskirts of the town. There also, I didn’t feel any more at peace in their presence than usually, even though by now I don’t worry anymore whether my behaviour is appropriate in the presence of a guru. Probably, my scepticism was to blame.
I went back to the Ramana ashram, where he had had conversations with visitors over 30 years. These talks are a precious legacy. ‘For everyone there is a guru. I admit a guru for myself, too,’ he once said. ‘Who is your guru?’ he was asked. ‘The Self,’ he answered.
Maria Wirth is a German seeker who has lived in India for over 20 years. She also writes for some German spiritual magazines.
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