Feet of Clay - A Study of Gurus

by Anthony Storr



THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT GURUS. The Sanskrit word guru means 'one who brings light out of darkness.' If this definition were to be adopted without modification, it could be argued that scientists, artists and writers should be included. "Nature, and Nature's laws lay hid in night: God said, let Newton be! and all was light." Although Newton certainly did bring light out of darkness, and was a deeply religious man who wrote more about religion and history than he did about mathematics and physics, he does not qualify as a guru in the sense in which the word is used in this book because he did not found a sect or preach a new religious message. Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary defines guru as 'a spiritual teacher: a venerable person'. Not all gurus are venerable; but the definition 'spiritual teacher' is sufficiently accurate to indicate what is popularly meant by the term today.

Gurus differ widely from each other in a variety of ways, but most claim the possession of special spiritual insight based on personal revelation. Gurus promise their followers new ways of self-development, new paths to salvation. Since there are no schools for gurus, and no recognized qualifications for becoming one, they are, like politicians, originally self-selected. Anyone can become a guru if he or she has the hubris to claim special spiritual gifts. Both recent and earlier history demonstrate that many gurus are, or become, unscrupulous wielders of power who exploit their followers in a variety of ways. Yet there have also been gurus whose holiness, lack of personal ambition, and integrity are beyond question. Jesus, Muhammad, and the Buddha were gurus who are still venerated and whose teachings have changed the lives of millions of people. Some of Muhammad's injunctions concerning legal punishment and the treatment of women, as recorded in the Koran, are repugnant to modern Western ideas, but both Jesus and the Buddha compel our admiration, even if we are neither Christians nor Buddhists.

Since this book is concerned with some gurus who were less than admirable, I want to affirm at the outset that I recognize that morally superior individuals exist whose integrity, virtue, and goodness are far beyond the reach of most of us. Such people, unlike gurus, usually influence others by their examples in daily life rather than by swaying crowds with rhetoric, surrounding themselves with adoring disciples, or claiming access to esoteric wisdom which the ordinary person cannot reach unaided. Most of us have encountered people who can be described as 'good' without being priggish. Perhaps they visit the sick, or adopt deprived children, or devote themselves to charitable enterprises without hope of reward or public recognition. They do not preach; they do. Genuine virtue is usually unobtrusive, although it may be perceived as something less admirable when exposed to the glare of publicity, as happened with Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa.

Gurus are in a different category. I do not mean to suggest that all gurus have feet of clay. Yet many gurus have been entirely unworthy of veneration: false prophets, madmen, confidence tricksters, or unscrupulous psychopaths who exploit their disciples emotionally, financially, and sexually. In the light of history, we may think it easy to distinguish the saints from the madmen and the crooks; but it is clear that those who seek a guru to give their live"s meaning find it difficult to make this distinction. This is partly because their urgent need blinds them to the true characteristics of the guru; a distortion familiar to psychoanalysts who are accustomed to the phenomena accompanying transference. It is also because the best and worst prophets, though varying greatly in intelligence and personality, have a number of characteristics in common.

A person becoming a guru usually claims to have been granted a special, spiritual insight which has transformed his own life. This revelation is sometimes believed to come direct from God or from his angels; but may also be attributed to mysterious beings residing in the Himalayas or even to the inhabitants of other planets. Often, this purely personal revelation is claimed to be universally, or at least widely, applicable. In other words, gurus generalize from their own experience. Some gurus are inclined to believe that all humanity should accept their vision: others allege that, when the last trump sounds, their own followers will be saved, whilst the majority of mankind will remain unredeemed. This apparently arrogant assumption is closely connected with certain features of personality displayed by a variety of gurus.

Many gurus appear to have been rather isolated as children, and to have remained so. They seldom have close friends. They are more interested in what goes on in their own minds than in personal relationships, perhaps because they do not believe that anyone else really cares for them. In other words, they tend to be introverted and narcissistic. As Freud wrote:

The man who is predominantly erotic will give first preference to his emotional relationships to other people; the narcissistic man, who inclines to be self-sufficient, will seek his main satisfactions in his internal mental processes.

Many painters, writers, and composers are narcissistic in that they value their own creative pursuits more than human relationships, and are often predominantly solitary. I wrote about such people in my book Solitude. But, although they may spend much of their time alone, most creative artists want to communicate with others through their work and gain self-esteem from those who appreciate it. They may be very sensitive to criticism, but many are prepared to learn from it, and to exchange ideas with people who do not wholly agree with them.

Gurus tend to be intolerant of any kind of criticism, believing that anything less than total agreement is equivalent to hostility. This may be because they have been so isolated that they have never experienced the interchange of ideas and positive criticism which only friends can provide. It is also because revelations are in a different category from works of art, in that they cannot be criticized, only accepted or rejected.

Gurus tend to be elitist and anti-democratic, even if they pay lip-service to democracy. How could it be otherwise? Conviction of a special revelation must imply that the guru is a superior person who is not as other men are. Gurus attract disciples without acquiring friends. Once established, gurus must exercise authority, which again precludes making friends on equal terms. Indeed, friendship may undermine the guru's power. One of the favourite sayings of Gurdjieff's father was: 'If you want to lose your faith, make friends with the priest.' The relationship which the guru has with his followers is not one of friendship but of dominance. This again derives from a previous lack of friendships on equal terms. A guru's conviction of his own worth depends upon impressing people rather than upon being loved. Gurus seldom discuss their ideas; they only impose them.

It is frequently the case that the guru's new insight follows a period of mental distress or physical illness,'ln which the guru has been fruitlessly searching for an answer to his own emotional problems. This change is likely to take place in the subject's thirties or forties, and may warrant the diagnosis of mid-life crisis. Sometimes the revelatory answer comes gradually; at other times, a new insight strikes like a thunderbolt. As we shall see, the distress of chaos followed by the establishment of a new order is a typical course of events which takes place in all creative activity, whether in the arts or the sciences. This Eureka pattern is also characteristic of religious revelation and the delusional systems of people we label insane. Relief comes with the solution of problems; and I shall argue that both revelation and delusion are attempts at the solution of problems. Artists and scientists realize that no solution is ever final, but that each new creative step points the way to the next artistic or scientific problem. In contrast, those who embrace religious revelations and delusional systems tend to see them as unshakeable and permanent.

When the guru's 'dark night of the soul' has been ended by his new vision of reality, he usually appears to become convinced that he has discovered 'the truth'. The fervent certainty with which he proclaims this accounts to a large extent for his powerful effect upon others; his persuasiveness, his charisma. Gurus must possess charisma. The Greek word charisma originally meant the gift of grace. Max Weber introduced it into sociology to denote a special magical quality of personality by virtue of which the individual possessing it was set apart from ordinary men and women, and treated as if endowed with supernatural or superhuman powers. Such people have the capacity of immediately impressing and influencing others and of attracting devoted followers. Charisma is closely linked with intensity of conviction. The ability to speak fluently in public and good looks are helpful additional assets. Some of the gurus discussed n this book were so fluent that, without reference to notes, they could hold an audience entranced for hours at a time.

Eileen Barker, a leading expert in the sociology of religion, has written: 'Almost by definition, charismatic leaders are unpredictable, for they are bound by neither tradition nor rules. they are not answerable to other human beings.' If a leader is accepted as having charismatic authority, he is often accorded the right to direct every aspect of his followers' lives. For example, he may dictate where they live, with whom they form sexual relationships, and what should be done with their money or other possessions.

Intensity of conviction is necessary if a guru is to attract disciples. This is not to say that all gurus believe everything they preach; but an initial conviction of having special insight is probably necessary if a new sect is to be born. Many people go through conversion experiences and hold strong religious or other convictions without being impelled to preach or to convert others, but gurus require disciples just as disciples require gurus. We must consider the possibility that the conviction expressed by gurus is less absolute than it appears in that their apparent confidence needs boosting by the response of followers. As we shall see, some gurus avoid the stigma of being labelled insane or even of being confined in a mental hospital because they have acquired a group of disciples who accept them as prophets rather than perceiving them as deluded. Some historians have proposed that all messianic characters have secret doubts about their missions, and that this is why they strive to gain disciples. It is difficult to sustain a belief in the authenticity of a new revelation if no one else shares it.

Because they claim superior wisdom, gurus sometimes invent a background of mystery. Travels to parts of Central Asia or Tibet inaccessible to ordinary mortals have, in the past, been promoted as prologues to the acquisition of esoteric knowledge and mystical experiences. Now that most of the world is mapped, explored, and, like Everest, cluttered with western rubbish, it is harder to find places which are sufficiently remote to be mysterious. But there are always other worlds. Perhaps other planets are inhabited by creatures of infinite wisdom who send messages to selected mortals? Some gurus appear to believe so.

Like other humans, gurus risk becoming corrupted by power. Although a guru may begin his mission in ascetic poverty, success often brings about a revision of values. It is intoxicating to be adored, and it becomes increasingly difficult for the guru not to concur with the beliefs of his disciples about him. If a man comes to believe that he has special insights, and that he has been selected by God to pass on these insights to others, he is likely to conclude that he is entitled to special privileges. For example, he may feel, along with his followers, that he cannot be expected to carry out his exhausting spiritual mission if he has to worry about money, and that he is therefore entitled to demand and make use of any money which his followers can raise. Gurus sometimes end up living in luxury.

Gurus who feel entitled to be relieved of financial responsibility also often engage in sexual behaviour which would be condemned as irresponsible in an ordinary person. If a man is surrounded by adoring and attractive women, it is difficult for him to avoid sexual involvements. But the guru who seduces disciples who look up to him as a spiritual guide may do them as much harm as the psychoanalyst who seduces his patients, or the father who sexually assaults his children.

Gurus not infrequently exploit their followers in other ways. Subservient disciples are all too willing to undertake the chores of life, so that the guru may be spared involvement with trivia. Gurus often get pleasure from this exercise of power, and some carry it to the point of making their followers perform meaningless and unnecessary tasks, ostensibly as spiritual exercises, but in fact as a proof of the guru's power over them. Some enjoy inflicting cruel punishments upon transgressors. Gurus vary greatly in personal integrity and the ability to resist the corruption which power over others usually brings with it.

Because a guru professes a bizarre cosmology or becomes corrupt it does not necessarily follow that all his insights are nonsense. I have never believed R. D. Laing's theory that psychosis is a path to higher wisdom, but the period of intense distress or mental illness which so often precedes a new revelation may open doors of perception which are closed to the ordinary person. Manic-depressives sometimes claim that their experiences of the depths of despair and the heights of elation have so intensified their lives that, if offered the choice, they would choose to have their illness rather than suffer the tedium of conventional normality. Even those who passed through an acute episode of schizophrenia and who have emerged intact are sometimes grateful for this experience. I shall often refer to Ellenberger's concept of 'creative illness' which is applicable to a number of gurus.

Some gurus pass through a period of definable mental illness from which they recover: others deteriorate to the point at which most psychiatrists would diagnose them as psychotic; that is, insane rather than neurotic or suffering from temporary emotional instability. Still others remain socially competent and reasonably well-balanced throughout their lives. Critical examination of the lives and beliefs of gurus demonstrates that our psychiatric labels and our conceptions of what is or is not mental illness are woefully inadequate. How, for example, does one distinguish an unorthodox or bizarre faith from a delusion?

In what follows, I want to examine a few gurus who differ markedly from each other, but who all display some of the features which I have just described as characteristic. No guru exhibits all these features; but even the best and worst of gurus have something in common which distinguishes them from ordinary human beings. Contemporary cults like the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology, International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), and the Children of God have been extensively studied and written about during the last twenty years because so many parents and others became anxious about the effects that membership of these new religious movements was having on their children. My particular interest is in the personalities of the gurus themselves, although some characteristics of their followers will be mentioned in passing. I have deliberately chosen to study a number of gurus who, ranging as they do from saints to crooks, appear to be quite dissimilar. I hope to show that they have more in common than meets the uncritical eye.