The Guru Papers

"By holding gurus as perfect and thus beyond ordinary explanations, their presumed specialness can be used to justify anything. Some deeper, occult reason can always be ascribed to anything a guru does: The guru is said to take on the karma of others, and that is why his body has whatever problems it has. The guru is obese or unhealthy because he is too kind to turn down offerings; besides, he gives so much that a little excess is understandable. He punishes those who disobey him not out of anger but out of necessity, as a good father would. He uses sex to teach about energy and detachment. He lives an opulent life to break people's simplistic preconceptions of what ego-loss should look like; it also shows how detached and unconcerned he is about what others think. For after all, "Once enlightened, one can do anything." Believing this dictum makes any action justifiable.

People justify and rationalize in gurus what in others would be considered unacceptable because they have a huge emotional investment in believing their guru is both pure and right. Why? Why do people need images of perfection and omniscience? This goes back to the whole guru/disciple relationship being predicated on surrender. Surrender of great magnitude requires correspondingly great images of perfection. It would be difficult to surrender to one whose motives were not thought to be pure, which has come to mean untainted by self-centeredness. How can one surrender to a person who might put his self-interest first? Also it is difficult to surrender to someone who can make mistakes, especially mistakes that could have significant impact on one's life. Consequently, the guru can never be wrong, make mistakes, be self-centered, or lose emotional control. He doesn't get angry, he "uses" anger to teach.

There is another equally important, crucial to understand reason why people want so much to believe that someone, somewhere, does not have the common foibles of humanity – that it is possible for a few special people to be above it all. Instead of enumerating the many ways human beings heap uncaringness on each other, let's categorize them as all containing aspects of self-centeredness. Most moral judgments pertain to the wrongness of particular expressions of self-centeredness. Furthermore, since unmitigated self-centeredness lies underneath acts of callous violence, it itself is often simplistically made the culprit. In this line of thinking, to be a better human being is to be less self-centered; and to be the best possible person is not to be self-centered at all.

The way spiritual growth is traditionally presented involves getting rid of the aspects of oneself that are disliked or disapproved of. Here becoming a better person means tempering such self-centered expressions as jealousy, competitiveness, pettiness, etc. So for there to be someone who is free of such things acts as a motivator for bettering and controlling oneself. That's why many people need to believe in saints. (The traditional meaning of saint is someone who has transcended the ordinary manifestations of self-centeredness.) Saints serve as ideal examples, giving hope that others, too, can at least become better, if not perfect.

It is difficult for an intelligent, caring person to look clearly at self-centeredness without experiencing some discomfort. Obviously all the judged inequities in the world are a product of it, and the ways we hurt each other contain it. All the major problems on the planet (ecology, politics, starvation, violence, racism, chauvinism, and crime) likewise display it. Renunciate religions control people through the guilt they instill around self-centeredness; and communist regimes, at least theoretically, tried to legislate and coerce it away, believing it to be a product of wrong social conditioning. No wonder then that many on spiritual paths are searching for a way out of the problems and discomfort that self-centeredness brings. In the East, ego-loss is looked upon as the necessary doorway to a different and sublime relationship with the spiritual. This involves the goal of eliminating self-centeredness through eliminating the self. Detaching from the cravings of ego is the origin of the spiritual ideal of detachment.

Christianity demands the acknowledgment that humans are sinners (read self-centered), and that salvation comes through accepting Christ and the morality he is purported to have put forth. Christ is viewed as the ultimate in selflessness, for he sacrificed himself to save humanity and pay for its sins. A core message of the New Testament is that by surrendering to Christ and his dictates, one can curb self-centeredness enough to save one's soul. That interest in one's own salvation is totally self-centered is a conundrum rarely explored. Surrender to Christ and to a guru have similar dynamics, as they both bring about feelings of passion, a sense of purpose, and the immediate reduction of conflict and tension. It is difficult for disciples to avoid the trap of using their new-found good feelings and relatively peaceful emotional state as verification that the guru and his worldview are essentially correct. As many do, they use "feeling better" as their litmus test for truth.

The power of Eastern religions and the gurus that represent them is that they offer a living Christ-like figure to worship, and also hold out the promise that anyone who does the proper practices could conceivably reach that high state, too. The path most often recommended and presented as the easiest, most direct route is called bhakti or devotion, which involves worshipping and surrendering to the guru as a manifestation of God. Interestingly, the more one surrenders to another, the less self-centered one actually feels, because one appears to be making that someone or something more important than oneself. This is why surrendering to a guru is often presented as the easiest way of becoming more selfless. Along with devotion, working hard for the guru and his cause (sometimes referred to as "karma yoga") also makes one feel less self-centered.

Recognizing Authoritarian Control

Surrendering to a guru brings instant intimacy with all who share the same values. In a world where traditional values are crumbling, bringing brittle, hedonistic ways of relating, many feel alone and disconnected. Acceptance by and identification with the group induce a loosening of personal boundaries. This opening consequently increases the emotional content of one's life, bringing purpose, meaning, and hope. It is no wonder that those who join such groups rave about how much better they feel than previously. But this quick, one-dimensional bonding is based solely upon a shared ideology. No matter how intense and secure it feels, should one leave the fold, it evaporates as quickly as it formed.

Surrender is the glue that binds guru and disciple. Being a disciple offers the closest approximation (outside of mental institutions) to the special configuration of infancy. Surrender is a route that enables disciples to experience again, at least partially, the conflict-free innocence that is the source of their atavistic longings. Among these, perhaps most important is the feeling of once again being totally cared for. Surrendering to any authority brings this about to some extent, but with a guru it reaches vast dimensions. The guru reinforces this by letting it be known that all who follow him are and will be especially protected. For the follower, this feels like being protected by God.

This dependent state satisfies other longings that stem from infancy. Once again, one experiences being at the center of the universe – if not directly (the guru occupies that space), at least closer to the center than one could have thought possible. The guru also puts out the image of the totally accepting parent – the parent one never had but always wanted. So disciples believe they are loved unconditionally, even though this love is conditional on continued surrender. Disciples in the throes of surrender feel they have given up their past, and do not, consciously at least, fear the future. In addition, they feel more powerful through believing that the guru and the group are destined to greatly influence the world. Feeling totally cared for and accepted, at the universe's center, powerful, and seemingly unafraid of the future are all achieved at the price of giving one's power to another, thus remaining essentially a child.

Surrendering to an authority who dictates what's right is a quick, mechanical route to feeling more virtuous. It is a fast track for taking on a moral system and to some extent following it. But more, that act of surrender itself can feel like giving up or at least diminishing one's ego, which is presented as a sign of spiritual progress. All renunciate moral systems have as prime virtues selflessness and obedience to some higher authority. If confused or in conflict, conforming to programming can make one feel immediately better. Obedience itself can feel selfless. The conditioning here runs deep. Children are praised for obedience, which fundamentally means doing what the parent wants instead of what they want. When disobedient, a child is often called selfish, which is never a compliment. Surrendering to an authority and then being rewarded for it is part of being a child. It may be true that there is no way out of this. Yet there is a world of difference between parenting aimed at holding on to authority, and parenting that leads children to self-trust. We are certain that children raised to trust themselves would be far less susceptible to authoritarian control. No matter how much better one initially feels, anything that undermines self-trust in the long run is detrimental to becoming an adult.

Disciples usually become more attached to the psychological state that surrender brings than to the guru, whom they never really get to know as a person. Repudiation of the guru (or even doubt or questioning) means a return to earlier conflict, confusion, and meaninglessness. The deeper the surrender, and the more energy and commitment they put into the guru, the greater their emotional investment is. Disciples will thus put up with a great deal of contradictory and aberrant behavior on the guru's part, for doubting him literally means having their world fall apart.

This is why many who are involved in authoritarian surrender adamantly deny they are. Those who see the dissembling in other gurus or leaders can find countless ways to believe that their guru is different. It is not at all unusual to be in an authoritarian relationship and not know it. In fact, knowing it can interfere with surrender. Any of the following are strong indications of belonging to an authoritarian group:

  1. No deviation from the party line is allowed. Anyone who has thoughts or feelings contrary to the accepted perspective is made to feel wrong or bad for having them.
  2. Whatever the authority does is regarded as perfect or right. Thus behaviors that would be questioned in others are made to seem different and proper.
  3. One trusts that the leader or others in the group know what's best.
  4. It is difficult to communicate with anyone not in the group.
  5. One finds oneself defending actions of the leader (or other members) without having firsthand knowledge of what occurred.
  6. At times one is confused and fearful without knowing why. This is a sign that doubts are being repressed.

The age-old inquiry that asks "Who am I?" looks inside for self-discovery. The process of digging deeper into oneself reveals there are self-images constructed out of the past that are part of one's identity. The true meaning of spiritual surrender involves letting go of self-defining images that limit who one is and can be. Within this inner inquiry one also comes to realize that one is part of a larger context. Surrendering to those who present themselves as a better or more real representative of that larger context perverts the true beauty and meaning of surrender. On the contrary, surrendering to another as the gateway to salvation keeps people dependent, childish, and living second-handedly. Surrender as an adult encompasses realizing that all of us are an interwoven part of a larger process that both creates and is created by its components. This involves being able both to control life and to surrender to what life offers. It does not involve giving up one's power or identity.

The only way any living system works well is to have information flowing freely between its parts and its environment. This is particularly essential with human beings, in order to counteract the inbuilt nature of subjectivity and the biasing filters of self-interest. The guru/disciple relationship, which is inherently authoritarian, cuts off the necesssary flow of information for both, creating a feedback-proof system. If any degree of objectivity can ever be obtained, it is only through open minds that change with changing information.

The thoughts in this book could always be written off as unspiritual, egotistical, and coming from a lower plane of understanding. Ultimately there is no way to prove whose perspective is more accurate. What can be shown, however, is whether the process involved in establishing a given worldview is authoritarian, and what the implications of this process are. The tragedy that all authoritarian structures breed, particularly so-called spiritual ones, comes from giving absolute priority to another's viewpoint. This involves mistakenly identifying as spiritual the (usually temporary) conflict-free emotions and passions that come from surrendering to an authority. The tragedy is compounded in our times because our survival as a species depends upon adults coming to the fore who can break the shackles of old authority and tradition, creating new forms of relating to each other and to the planet we live on. In order to do this, we must use all we have: our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and all types of information from the world around us. Blind surrender to authority is an emotional indulgence and illusory security the species can no longer afford."


About the authors:

Diana Alstad, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, received a doctorate from Yale University in 1971. She taught in the humanities and initiated and taught the first Women's Studies courses at Yale and Duke.

Joel Kramer did post-graduate study in philosophy and psychology and was a resident teacher at Esalen Institute 1968-70. The author or "The Passionate Mind", he is also an internationally acknowledged adept of physical and mental yoga. They have written and led seminars together since 1974.