The Guru Syndrome

April 17, 2019

Many years ago, I attended some meetings of a spiritual group whose ideas interested me. I liked the teacher and author who had started the group. I thought his theories were very clear and intelligent, encompassing a vast range of topics into an integrated whole. But what I found strange was the attitude of other members of the group.

Although the teacher had died many years ago, they worshipped him as an omnipotent god-like being. They believed that he had performed miracles and that he still controlled their lives. I was also disturbed by their attitude to me. They disapproved that I was interested in other approaches.

When I mentioned to one member of the group that I also attended a local Buddhist group, he looked at me sternly and said, “Why do you need to go there? This group should be enough for you.” After a while, the group’s unconditional worship of their leader and their exclusivist attitude made me feel so uneasy that I stopped attending their meetings.

This was my first encounter with the “guru syndrome.” The guru tradition has been a part of Indian culture since time immemorial. In that context, it is seen as an important way of transmitting spiritual teachings, and a way of supporting aspirants along the spiritual path. Spiritual development can be a tricky process, with all kinds of pitfalls and dangers, so the guidance of a guru is helpful. According to Indian tradition, the guru can also ‘transmit’ his spiritual radiance to his followers, providing them with spiritual sustenance. In addition, the devotion of the disciple to the guru has an important role. Indian spirituality places a high value on bhakti (devotion), as a way of transcending self-centredness.

Gurus in Western Culture

However, when the guru tradition is transplanted into western culture, it often becomes problematic. (I’m sure it is sometimes problematic in Indian culture too, but probably not to the same extent.) There are countless reports of American or European-based spiritual leaders who have exploited and abused their followers, had promiscuous sex with their female followers, become addicted to alcohol or drugs, and so on. In fact, there are so many cases of ‘gurus gone wrong’ that it is not easy (at least outside traditional Indian culture) to find examples of ‘good gurus’ who have avoided excess and immorality.

I don’t think this is wholly the fault of gurus themselves. There’s no doubt that some gurus have bad intentions from the beginning. As I explain in my book The Leap, some gurus may be narcissists who are attracted to the power and privilege (and perhaps the money and sex) that guru status brings.

Others may be self-deluded individuals who believe that they are spiritually awakened, when in fact they are psychologically damaged – and who leave a trail of further psychological damage behind them. But some gurus do seem to start off with good intentions. Perhaps they don’t even intend to become gurus. However. followers gradually gather around them, and eventually they become the center of a ‘spiritual community.’

And this – the formation of a spiritual community – is usually the stage when things really go awry. Even if they weren’t corrupt to begin with, the gurus becomes corrupted by the power of their position and the unconditional devotion of their disciples.

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Related: Dreier – You Are Suffering – Well, It’s Meant to Be?

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