One of the remarkable civilisational characteristics of India is that it has never restricted the divine to a single book or a single attribute. Nor has it restricted the approaches to the divine. At any particular time, India teems with a multitude of spiritual gurus. The country has also evolved and continues to evolve spiritual traditions.
India is thus a spiritual democracy.
That India is a spiritual democracy is its great strength but it also comes with its dangers. This also makes India a playing field for charlatans.
While most gurus in various Hindu traditions have not only helped individual spiritual seekers but also have contributed to the nation-building process, there have also been charlatans, who have abused their positions.
Both the types of gurus continue to this day.
However, today in a globalised scenario, these gurus have become jet set. They travel across continents and make Hindu spiritual traditions international, mostly to the affluent West.
While the proselytising missionaries are the flag-bearers of the deep colonialism of the West, these gurus are the flag-bearers of Hindu spirituality.
But, while the Christian missionaries in India are supported by the Western surplus, which in turn is derived from three centuries of intense colonial impoverishment of India and other colonies, the Hindu gurus have to depend mostly on their own skills to generate wealth — which is mostly from their Western followers and the diaspora.
While the West-funded evangelicals operating in India harvest the souls for a version of Christianity that is fiercely medieval, the Hindu gurus take to the West the best of Hindu spirituality well-adapted and flexible for modern living.
While the effects of Christian missionaries supported by the Western structures operating anywhere in India have been mostly in violent conflict either with the state or with other communities, the gurus have helped the West in improving the mental well-being of the practitioners of yogic disciplines.
From Swami Vivekananda to Swami Dayananda, we have an impressive list of great savants, who have taken Hindu wisdom to the West and have enriched their culture.
So, the gurus operating in the West represent an important aspect of soft power. As the ‘Spiderman cliche’ goes, with great power comes great responsibility. More importantly, what also comes is the possibility of a downfall.
The guru is a person who wields great psychological power over his or her followers. This creates possibilities where the guru can abuse and exploit the disciples. When that happens, the guru reduces himself to a cultist. Often the difference between a genuine guru and an abusive cultist is tenuous.
The problem for Hindus in the modern world is that there is always a battle of perceptions going on around them. They are the last of the living, thriving, non-monotheistic religions as well as a culture with a nation of their own and a functioning democracy.
Most of the dominant Western institutions, like academia, politics and media, find it difficult to accept this fact either explicitly or unconsciously. So, it is difficult for them not to tarnish India and essentialise the Hindu dharma for whatever negative phenomenon that happens in the society.
Gurus are naturally very prominent targets. Gurus must be extremely careful not to become victims of their own power and downfall. Further, it should be noted that the potential and possibilities of a ‘guru’ abusing the seekers is a very possible scenario.
When credible evidence surfaces then one needs to investigate the allegations without bias and prejudice.
Not every allegation needs to be an attack against Hinduism though every guru attacked and every guru caught in a scandal ultimately brings a bad name to Hinduism and India.
An abusive guru or rather a pseudo-guru is essentially a narcissist sociopath, and he can destroy lives.
So how can one identify whether the guru one follows is a genuine one? Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules.
One instance from the life of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa perhaps gives us a hint. A disciple of Ramakrishna doubted his abstinence and kept a watch on him during the night to see if Ramakrishna would go to Sharada Devi, only to discover that Ramakrishna was genuine and truthful to his teaching.
When Ramakrishna found his disciple watching his movements in the night, he was delighted and asked him to adhere to that critical mindset. A person should always test the guru by the night and by the day and always keep vigil for duplicity on the part of guru, Ramakrishna advocated.
Transparency and simplicity as practised by Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi of Kanchi set a benchmark for all modern-day gurus who do not want to get into scandalous allegations.
Author Philip Goldberg (American Veda 2010) in the chapter ‘Sex, Lies and Idiosyncrasies’, which deals with the various sex scandals the guru phenomenon underwent during its heydays in the United States, points out that though “most of these cases” could be proved or disproved, there are indeed many “widely assumed to be grounded in fact, since witnesses and participants have come forward with consistent stories”.
And the reactions had ranged from “outright denial” to “spiritual rationalization” to adaptation of “a nonjudgmental but loyal position”. But there is also devastation.
Then, Goldberg highlights the example of how the Kripalu Institution responded to the trauma of its founder Amrit Desai’s “dalliances”. Comparing such predatory behaviour of the guru “to a cancer that had been diagnosed but left untreated”, “the visiting experts who taught at the centre … encouraged the residents to examine their communal dynamics”.
When the truth came out, friends such as Jungian scholar Marian Woodman helped them to face it head-on. The stunned followers confronted their guru, demanded his resignation, and forced him to publicly confess and make amends.
Kripalu’s subsequent success would likely have been inconceivable had they responded with denial or circled the wagons defensively, as other institutions did in similar circumstances.
So denial or crying ‘Christian conspiracy’ at every allegation is not a healthy solution. It is always good to constitute an impartial inquiry into the allegations.
Of late, another interesting parameter has started entering the guru phenomenon. Though at least for now limited to one so-called guru, this disease has the propensity to spread.
Usually, the number of anti-science or pseudo-science stands taken by a ‘guru’ can be considered as being directly proportional to the cult element in the movement of that ‘guru’.
The so-called third-eye awakening, materialisation (of always objects smaller than the palm size, of course), denial of moon landing, hollow earth, etc., feature today in at least one prominent cult that calls itself Hindu. Interestingly, most of these claims come from the ‘new age crack pottery’ than genuine Hinduism.
For example, the guru concerned speaks about ‘engrams’, which are concepts of the abusive cult leader Ron Hubbard. The popularisation of ‘Akashic records’ can be traced to Edgar Cayce.
‘Hollow earth’ though associated with some of the brilliant early modern scientists had been proved faulty and now there are cults all over the West clinging on to it. Then of course even Albert Einstein was wrong with his famous mass-energy equivalence.
What is disturbing with this particular cult is that not only it uses the name of Hinduism as a shield but also that it uses an alarming number of children to ‘demonstrate’ the alleged supernatural powers.
This ‘third eye’ reading has more similarity to non-Indian claims and demonstrations of blind-folded reading. One such is the ‘Bronnikov method’, which was created by Vyacheslav Bronnikov, which in turn is claimed to be based on ‘ancient Tibetan yoga’.
The Bronnikov method claims were explored by Derren Brown, a popular illusionist. Brown could debunk Bronnikov’s claims. In the case of the Indian ‘guru’, allegations of child abuse have come up.
One does not desire any ‘guru’ to be discredited. At the same time we, as an ancient civilisation and modern society, are duty bound to bring out the truth. Fortunately, the claim has opened up a good possibility for us to prove our allegiance to truth.
Let us get the children who are supposed to have developed superpowers to be brought on to a neutral platform by the present government and the science adviser to the Prime Minister.
None can charge the present government as being against Hinduism. Let a committee of trained magicians like P C Sorcar (Jr), Darren Brown or James Randy set an environment of controls and observe the kids perform. Let them certify the genuineness of the phenomenon.
A failure in a controlled environment would be considered an abuse of the mental health of the children. A success would definitely make India and Hinduism proud. Thus science can be used as an effective means to check abuse and prove the genuineness of the guru, at least in this case.
The quicker this is done by the coming together of Hindu leaders, who are spiritual, traditional and scientific-minded, the healthier and better it is for Hindu society and Hindu dharma. Let us not yield this crucial ground to anti-Hindu forces.
Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.
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