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Paper: Newsday (Melville, NY)

CULTURE WATCH / One Man's Guru Is Another Man's Fraud, or Worse

Date: October 21, 2001

MANY OF US, myself included, lived through the 1960s and 1970s believing in the writings of Carlos Castaneda. Once called the grandfather of the New Age, he told in numerous best-selling books of meeting a Yaqui Indian sorcerer named Don Juan, who took him on as an apprentice, leading him on hair-raising forays into a "separate reality."He described Don Juan and himself as "solitary birds" who stored the energy they needed for sorcoric tasks by being celibate and unavailable. "I'm nothing," he responded to expressions of awe at the miracles recorded in his books - flying, growing a beak and turning into a crow.

One of Castaneda's teachings was that instead of dying like an ordinary human, a sorcerer could choose to burn "with the fire from within," thus prolonging his life indefinitely in another dimension. He himself, he emphasized, would leave the world this way.

But when Castaneda actually departed in 1998, it was not as he had predicted. His physician, Angelica Duenas, whom I had befriended at one of his seminars and who signed the death certificate, told me what happened. "I have many patients," she said. "They die. He died like everyone else."

This was the beginning of my disenchantment with Castaneda. In the years since, Richard Jennings, a Los Angeles attorney and onetime devotee, has documented extensive evidence to show that Don Juan was pure fiction; that far from being celibate, Castaneda was a polygamist with an active harem of female initiates; that his philosophy was based, conveniently, on his personal quirks, abundant imagination and other writers' insights; and that he died miserably of liver cancer.

This is a pattern we see repeated over and over with too many figures like Castaneda, who become revered as gurus, supposedly leading us to spiritual enlightenment, only to be revealed later as frauds.

To outsiders, Castaneda's fictions might seem obvious. But many intelligent people were caught up in them, as others were in the criminal misdeeds of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in Oregon in the 1980s, or the murderous and suicidal activities of Jim Jones, who died along with more than 900 followers in the jungles of Guyana in 1978. Even such seemingly transparent religious teachers as Maharaj-Ji, the boy guru who claimed to have filled a mostly empty Astrodome with thousands of "invisible" disciples in the early 1970s, continue to have their true believers. Although his misdeeds are far worse, we might even think of Osama bin Laden in this category: a man who is able to inspire his educated young followers to become suicide bombers - in the name of Islam.

Some gurus, of course, are perfectly admirable. The best known is the Dalai Lama, the spiritual-leader-in-exile of the Tibetan people and winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. Another is Swami Vivekananda, the founder of the Vedanta Society. But why do so many use their followers for conquest and personal aggrandizement?

Len Oakes, an Australian psychologist who has studied gurus, says the answer has to do with their upbringing. According to Oakes, those who become gurus - or prominent leaders in any part of society - experience "baby worship" in childhood and develop a heightened sense of self-esteem and security.

If that support continues throughout their formative years, such children will grow into secure adults who can make positive contributions to the world. But if abandoned emotionally, they may retreat into a narcissistic fantasy world. Having believed since childhood that they are unique and superior, they become dedicated to establishing themselves as uncontested prophets.

We don't know how closely bin Laden's story fits this pattern, but according to a recent PBS documentary, bin Laden lost his father at age 13 and turned to the radical isolationist teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood, and later of Abdullah Azzam. An early marriage at 17 helped ensure his remoteness from the outside world, leaving him free to spin his own reality.

The Dalai Lama is one whose "specialness" was celebrated early on. He then was taken in hand by his Tibeten teachers, who gave him a rigorous Buddhist education that was not completed until he was 25. Rajneesh, by contrast, was recognized as "special" and raised by his grandfather, but later was abandoned. As a guru, he encouraged disciples to create their own municipality in Oregon (which he named Rajneesh), and engage in criminal activities, for which the U.S. government eventually deported him.

All of which leads to the question: How can spiritual seekers avoid becoming entangled in the snares of narcissistic gurus who ultimately defraud them or, in the worst cases, lead them to their deaths?

The answer, according to Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, authors of the "The Guru Papers," lies in one's approach: "The age-old inquiry that asks 'Who am I?' looks inside for self-discovery … Spiritual surrender involves letting go of self-defining images that limit who one is and can be," instead of allowing oneself to fall into a state of perpetual childish dependence.

In my experience with Castaneda, I continued to defend him, even after reading the critical articles, which I collected only to refute them. But after his death, I re-read the material and concluded that the damning evidence was overwhelming.

Not all supposed gurus leave a paper trail that would unmask them. How then to avoid the trap of the charismatic, narcissistic guru? As Kramer and Alstad suggest, the first step is to answer the question "Who am I?" A positive second step might be to keep in mind that other ancient injunction: "Know thyself."