Saints, Teachers, and Seekers in the Indian Tradition
The Problems of Western Disciples

Choosing a Guru

This is a brief essay on the pitfalls of choosing a guru for a Westerner with little experience of India. There are a number of problems with gurus who come to the West but the primary problem is with the expectations of Western disciples. They do not usually understand much about pan-Indian values and culture, and therefore have a difficult time making informed judgments about gurus and their behavior in the West. One of the functions of the biographies at this site is to help disciples make such informed choices.

In order to understand how best to choose a guru in the Indian tradition, it is best to look at how it is done in India where people have been doing it for a long time. Let us discuss the expectations of Indian disciples.

From my experience in West Bengal (and to a lesser extent Kerala, Delhi, and Sikkim) I will generalize a bit about the rest of India. First a distinction must be drawn between village and urban India. India is mostly village but I will attempt to speak mostly from an educated and somewhat westernized urban Indian's perspective about gurus.

In Bengal, the first thing to be aware of is that it is assumed that the majority of gurus are false, and are trying to support themselves and gain social status by pretending to have knowledge they do not possess. This is in part because Indians expect the guru to be very far along the spiritual path, and it is assumed that only a very few unique souls can be true gurus.

Most urban Bengalis who are interested in finding a guru have seen so many false or questionable ones that they are very skeptical about gurus. They therefore examine any prospective guru very carefully before they even consider becoming a disciple. Such an example was Vivekananda, who went to see Ramakrishna a number of times and only after vigorous internal debate finally decided to accept him as his guru.

The criteria for choosing a guru are complex but a few qualities that are respected are celibacy (seven of the ten Indians mentioned at this site were celibate), lack of interest in money (some gurus like Prahlad Chandra even take a vow to refuse to ever touch money), ability to sit in meditation for hours (and even days) without any movement or disturbance. This criterion is especially important for yogic gurus such as those who are in a Shankaracharya lineage such as Paramahamsa Yogananda.

Other important elements are how the guru spends his or her time. Some bhakti or devotional gurus will spend long periods of time in puja or ritual worship of a deity (an empowered statue on an altar). Others will do homa (or fire) sacrifices in the typical Vedic fashion which last for hours. Still others will sit for long periods and tell religious stories from Indian classical literature (or local village myths) describing the adventures of the gods Krishna and Radha, or Ram and Sita. A classic example of devotional guru was Prabhupad who started the Hare Krishna movement in the West. He would sing Krishna's name (do kirtan) for hours on end and expected disciples to do the same.

Gurus can show they are serious about enlightenment or devotion if they seem to have no other interests but to perform religious ritual, and talk and sing about deities or religious ideas and stories. Such commitment is impressive to many Indian disciples. However since most Westerners are not that familiar with Indian religious ritual, the gurus in the West do not practice them that often and focus more on meditation . It is therefore more difficult to judge a guru's religious commitment based on the amount of external religious ritual he or she performs. Here the Western disciple is at a disadvantage since he or she cannot use this ritual behavior as an indicator of the commitment of the prospective guru.

The lineage of the guru is also sometimes given great importance. Is he or she initiated and by whom? Is the guru's guru known and respected? Is there evidence that the guru was actually given initiation by the person he claims to have initiated him? Many Indians are very suspicious of gurus who claim to "be the path" and are therefore not dependent on a tradition or in a lineage themselves. Westerners should ask questions about lineage and understand the guru's background before accepting any guru as do most Indians.

Eros Versus Nomos - Two Types of Love for the Guru

Two types of love in the Greek tradition can help in understanding different attitudes towards the guru.

Eros is romantic passionate love involving desire and idealization of the beloved. Nomos is love that manifests in duty and responsibility towards the beloved, as in the case of parents who do the best they can in raising a child.

When it comes to expectations about gurus, perhaps the most difficult thing to overcome for a Westerner is the tendency to model the guru-disciple relationship on erotic love, or the relationship of love and marriage as it exists in the Western world. For Westerners, the marriage relationship is usually about romance. Westerners seem to unconsciously treat the guru and their devotion towards him or her the way they treat a romantic partner of the opposite sex.

The disciple "falls in love" with the guru. He or she is swept away by the power and grandeur of the guru and will do anything to be near him or her. The disciple craves recognition and love from the guru, and goes to great lengths to show his or her love and devotion for the guru.

Many assume that eros must involve sexuality or at least sensuality. However the classic model of erotic love was the courtly love tradition of the Middle Ages. Here the knight idealized the beloved lady from afar, and was never supposed to consummate the relationship. The love was considered more powerful since it would never be fully expressed physically (usually because of differences in social status and role in society between the lovers). This kind of non-sensual erotic love tends to becomes the model of the guru-disciple relationship for the Western disciple.

However in West Bengal, the relationship is more similar to an Indian marriage. The bonds between a disciple and guru are more about nomos, or duty and responsibility than romantic love. The relationship seems to be one of growing compatibility and mutual support rather than a love drama. The guru has recognized something extraordinary about the nature of reality and feels compelled and obliged to share this knowledge with others. The disciple is immersed in ignorance and is willing to accept initiation from the guru, and follow his or her precepts to free himself from the web of maya. Both have obligations towards each other, and as they each fulfill these obligations, their love bond grows stronger. It is at this point that devotion and sometimes surrender to the guru becomes appropriate and important.

This difference in expectation about love and marriage is probably the greatest obstacle to Westerners choosing a guru wisely. This is because romantic love is blind and a person must be extremely discriminating when choosing a guru, as are most somewhat Westernized Indian disciples I have met.

Ecstatic Gurus, Mad Saints, Tantric Teachers and Divine Madness

Westerners are attracted to Tantrics and mad gurus or "the crazy wisdom" because of the passionate nature of these teachers and the hope of following the "fast path" to enlightenment. Their ecstasy demonstrates their passion for God and sometimes their realization of the Truth. But there are a number of problems with such gurus and the disciple should realize the drawbacks and understand how these gurus are looked at by Bengalis.

For ecstatic gurus, the Indian disciple will examine the bhava or religious emotion expressed by the guru. Does it seem sincere and powerful? Is it possible the guru is acting or faking? In Bengal, it is common for ecstatic gurus to be tested sometimes in violent ways to see if they are faking. This is especially true in the rural areas where a whole village may decide that a guru or healer must be tested. However, many times, a family will hire someone to test a family member who manifests ecstatic symptoms. This is sometimes done with exorcism where the exorcist tries to determine if the ecstatic symptoms are caused by a ghost or ancestor, or are the result of spiritual influences such as a deity.

One village woman was tied down spread eagle and a fire was lit between her legs by the exorcist to test her bhava. She had the thick scar tissue on her thighs as evidence of the test. Prahlad Brahmachari was locked in a room for seven days by the villagers without food or water as a test of his spiritual character. Many prospective ecstatic gurus are subject to these intense and sometimes violent tests in their early life as gurus in India. Here the Western disciples are again at a disadvantage since they are not always informed of what has happened to the guru in India.

It is important to remember that all the guru has to do in some cases is to convince a few middle class people that he is a holy person to become supported by them, and not have to work. The motivation to do this can be very strong, and a prospective guru would be willing to do a lot of work (acting) in order to find that means of support. Jobs are not that easy to find in India. Add to this the fact that a guru is in a position of great power and authority in relation to a disciple, and the motivation is even stronger for a false guru to succeed at convincing someone of his or her great power and wisdom. This sometimes involves faking ecstatic symptoms and altered states of consciousness.

While ecstatic symptoms may indicate that a guru is genuine, they may also be an indication that a guru is not appropriate as a day-to-day guru for some disciples. Such ecstatics can be unpredictable and difficult to deal with for disciples that prefer an ordered existence. Anandamayi's disciples would follow her trying to provide protection and a place to stay during her wanderings. However she would simply disappear and wander the roads and meadows of India to turn up a few days or weeks later in a distant town. Vamaksepa would sometimes curse those around him and drive them away. Many disciples would have difficulty living around and following gurus with such unpredictable behavior.

Other ecstatic gurus can go through periods of madness where they chase people and throw rocks at those who approach them. When they return to a more normal state, they may be much loved and respected by the local people for their devotion or spiritual power. These are the kinds of teachers that may provide powerful initiation for disciples but they would not be role-models in the sense that no one could really follow their idiosyncratic ways. They are unique and may be available and helpful only for short periods of time. However these types of gurus are likely never to leave India. Most Western disciples will never meet them. This information is therefore mostly relevant to those who travel to India in search of a guru.

Gurus Who Forget the Goal of Renunciation in the West

One of the most fundamental elements of the Hindu tradition is renunciation. And this is one of the elements that falls away most quickly as gurus become corrupt in the West.

In India, there are a wide variety of behaviors that are unacceptable, and any guru who exhibited such behavior would be rejected and maybe run out of town. However the social constraints that exist in India are many times lacking in America and Europe. The guru may make the claim that his tradition is part of the "crazy wisdom" and disciples will be expected to accept and participate in strange or confusing, and even immoral or illegal behavior, under orders from him.

One guru who shall go unnamed claimed to have "king" and "warrior" karma to live out in this life. He was able to live like a sultan controlling the lives of hundreds of individuals. He would give erratic and confusing directions, showering love and attention at one moment and act cold and rejecting the next. He claimed to be like Shiva (or one with him - the god Shiva is not usually known for his compassionate style).

The notion that a guru has to live out karma instead of transcend it through purification and renunciation would be strongly questioned in India but Western disciples do not seem to have a problem with it because they do not see it against the cultural backdrop of India.

Many of this guru's former disciples are still trying to put their broken lives back together after being abused by him for months and years. It is especially difficult to deal with past experience of this type because such a guru usually does much that is good and positive, but mixes it with abusive behavior. In retrospect, the mixed emotions such a guru evokes leave the abused disciple with a confused and ethically ambiguous attitude towards the guru.

On rare occasions, a Westerner may attempt to draw on elements in the Indian tradition and act as a Tantric guru. This happened with Ram Das who studied with a Western women who claimed to take the place of his Indian guru who died. She claimed to be in contact with his dead guru and convinced him to become a disciple. His unusual and mostly destructive relationship with this female guru is documented in the 1976 Yoga Journal article titled Egg on My Beard (PDF reader required). In this case, he clearly rejected her and came to see the dishonesty and manipulation. However, in many other situations, the resulting relationship is far more ambiguous. In such cases, the disciple is left asking, "Was the guru God on earth being served by an imperfect disciple, or was he or she a madman sent by evil forces or negative karma to drive his disciples towards the same state of madness?" Such questions are asked over and over, but not easily answered.

In the end, such a guru may give a valuable and powerful initiation but is not appropriate as a "role-model" for a sattvic or pure life. The seeker who encounters such an unpredictable guru, reads his books, accepts informal initiation (a non-binding one where the disciple is not dedicated to the guru), learns quickly from him in a few encounters, and moves on is probably fortunate. Those who stay will likely be wounded and broken by him or her over a period of time.

Another guru who was known for his fleet of expensive cars asked his disciples to avoid attachment by having them sleep randomly with each other as a kind of spiritual therapy. Again, this kind of thing is unacceptable in India and would be rejected immediately. It is clearly against the principle of renunciation which is fundamental to the tradition. There are small numbers of "tantric chakras" in certain areas of India where highly ritualized sex is done for spiritual purposes (and sometimes for providing an excuse to sleep with those that are not one's spouse) but they are kept very secret and would not be accepted by the larger population.

Yet another guru who was Tibetan rather than Hindu was drunk a great deal of the time and was involved in heterosexual orgies and appointed an assistant who was known for leading homosexual orgies.

It should be noted that many gurus start out as dedicated individuals, and the disciples who accept them are faced with a dilemma should these gurus later lose their dedication or become corrupt. Some disciples view initiation like a marriage and accept the guru "for better or worse". Others see the guru as violating the contract and slowly pull away and search for another path. Again, such decisions are often difficult and a subject of much conflict.

The point of this discussion is not to dredge up dirt on past gurus but to show how important it is to understand something about the Indian tradition and culture before choosing an Indian guru. If a guru would not be accepted in his own culture, the disciple would be wise to avoid following him when he or she comes to the West.

But if there is no understanding of the Indian tradition, the disciple cannot make such a judgment. Hopefully, the biographies presented at this web site will help those seeking a guru make an informed judgment concerning this crucial decision.


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