Back in the 1990s, my then therapist pointed out that I had a tendency to ‘gurify’ certain people, i.e. to see them as far wiser, more spiritually aware and generally better human beings than I was, even when this turned out not to be the case. At that time I’d just started my psychotherapy training and had been to see Mother Meera, an Indian guru or, if you believe it, a divine avatar or incarnation – there are quite a lot of those in India. I paid several visits to Mother Meera in Germany, where she still lives, and not long after that I made a life-changing trip to India. There I visited the ashrams of two living gurus/divine avatars, Ammachi (Mata Amritananda Mayi), who is known for hugging people, and Satya Sai Baba, instantly recognisable by his Afro hair and orange gown, which on Christmas Day he exchanged for a white one – make of that what you will. Sai Baba has since died but Ammachi is still hugging people. I also spent time in two ashrams dedicated to teachers who are no longer alive, Sri Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo, whose ashram is a shrine to him and his consort, known as The Mother.
These weren’t the first beings described as gurus that I’d come across. Back in the seventies I knew people who were involved in the Divine Light Mission led by Guru Maharaj Ji and later I learnt Transcendental Meditation as taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. (This is really very little different from any other mantra meditation except that you have to pay a lot to learn it and some practitioners go in for ‘yogic flying’: bouncing about the room in a cross-legged position. The flying is said to have huge benefits for the practitioner and the world, but I have to take their word for that. I was never advanced enough to try it.) In the late seventies and throughout the eighties I was involved in what was then called the ‘growth movement’ and took part in different therapy groups where many of the participants were followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later Osho). For those who remember, they were the ones who called themselves sannyasins and wore orange or dark red. A few still do and many have kept the Sanskrit names they were given, but many have also become disenchanted or drifted away. The leaders of a series of groups I attended were at that time devotees of Baba Muktananda. I once went to their flat in Amsterdam for a course that consisted of chanting, meditation and video presentations by Muktananda himself. People spoke about his extraordinary power to call forth deep devotion and awaken spiritual energies. At that time I didn’t experience much of it, but I could see from his photograph that he was an enormously charismatic and attractive man.
Despite becoming involved with Theravada Buddhism, which unlike Tibetan Buddhism doesn’t see the power of the teacher as central, I still longed to find someone whose presence would enable me to enter new realms of experience. Like many people, I was led to Mother Meera by Andrew Harvey’s book Hidden Journey. I longed to be turned upside-down and inside-out the way he was. Or part of me longed for it. Another part would have been shit-scared if anything so dramatic had happened. It didn’t, but at a time of upset and upheaval in my life I was more than usually open to the atmosphere that surrounded her, and a sense of its peace and beauty definitely reach me. If Harvey and her other devotees were to be believed (he is no longer a devotee), she too seemed to be a divine incarnation and she apparently speaks about herself as such, referring to the rest of us as ‘human beings’. At the time I was prepared to entertain the possibility. I’m less so now; I believe we all have the divine within us and are all ordinary human beings, even though it’s clear that in some people certain energies that I would call spiritual have been awakened to an extraordinary degree.
I certainly felt it in the presence of the teachers/gurus I encountered in India, both the living and those no longer alive, but even at the time I was aware that these energies were not necessarily an indication of goodness or selflessness. At Sai Baba’s ashram, for instance, I was deeply uneasy about the deification he seemed to welcome and the cult that surrounded him – but I can’t say I didn’t experience that extraordinary energy. His ability to ‘manifest’ vibuthi (sacred ash) has been debunked, but I do remember that when he threw a handful of sweets into the crowd, the sweets seemed to hang in the air for a moment in a pattern before they fell to the ground, to be picked up eagerly by anyone they landed near. What that meant I didn’t know, though it too was extraordinary. Ammachi seemed then much more like the genuine article. Her ashram was smaller and more modest (it isn’t now) and she herself exuded benevolence. I felt blessed and uplifted the first time I saw her and received my hug, and continued to do so, though gradually less, on the number of occasions when I saw her in London. She too believed herself to be a divine incarnation and in a particular ceremony would put on the kind of crown worn by Indian gods in statues and paintings. Again I was half-ready to believe it. I certainly experienced the beautiful quality of the energy that surrounded her, and I responded to it deeply.
And yet… A couple of years ago it came to light that a well-known and widely respected Tibetan Buddhist teacher had behaved abusively, which led to his resigning from the organisation he had founded. The abuses concerned power, sexuality and money and seemed to stem from his position as a teacher within the Tibetan tradition, where a student is expected to give her/himself completely to the teacher and accept whatever comes from him as a teaching. He had bullied those close to him when they didn’t meet his demands, had affairs with female students and used funds from the organisation to enrich himself, while continuing to offer teachings on relinquishing greed and attachment. He may or may not have had the same kind of energetic power as the gurus I’ve described – I only saw him once and didn’t sense it – but he was certainly in a position of power. My shock at hearing about this prompted me to find out whether similar abuses by any of the gurus I had seen or heard about had come to light. In a depressing number of cases the answer was yes. Osho had already been discredited, but what I found in relation to so many of these other gurus were accounts of abuses in those same three areas: power, sex and money. Few were exempt, though some came out much less badly than others. Most of the accounts seemed to me genuine: many were from people who had tried hard to reconcile the treatment they had z`received with their devotion to the guru, and had been vilified and ostracised – and worse – when they finally spoke out. By placing him/herself in a different category from the rest of us – and of course being placed there by students and devotees – the guru or teacher is given licence to act out in ways that are sadistic, exploitative and self-aggrandising, while claiming that it’s all for the good of the student. As we know in other contexts, it’s all too easy to blame the victim and discredit what they say. The guru knows best, so this person must be malicious, disturbed or spiritually unawakened and their perceptions are not to be trusted. And undoubtedly there is transference: a guru is such a powerful figure that s/he is bound to call forth emotional projections of all kinds which may skew someone’s experience. But that’s not an excuse for denying the reality of what has been done.
A common defence, by the guru and her/his acolytes, is that because s/he is an enlightened being, normal standards of behaviour don’t apply. In certain ‘crazy wisdom’ traditions the teacher’s freedom from conventional restraints is believed to be what brings about the student’s awakening. It’s also true that by giving away so much of their power to the guru, people make themselves more open to exploitation – but that’s not an excuse for the exploitative behaviour. What all of this shows is that there aren’t two categories of people, the gurus and the ordinary mortals, and it’s dangerous when we believe there are. In my experience it also shows that, however flawed the guru may be, somehow the spiritual energy can still shine through and enable students to access it for themselves. Or it may not, if the student becomes caught up in the abuse. What’s important is to see the guru as a human being, and to recognise that the spiritual energy resides in all of us. Gurus may have the ability to awaken it in us, and may use that ability skilfully or less so, but it doesn’t belong to them. We can only become enlightened or free or happy for ourselves.