This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1986, Volume 3, Number 1, pages 56-68. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.
The Spiritual Crucible: A Critical Guide to America's Religious/Cultic Renaissance
David Christopher Lane
Spiritual seekers are becoming critical of guru movements because many are being exposed for unethical and illegal practices. Seekers are not satisfied with the dogmatic perspectives which gurus frequently offer; critical intelligence is not, in fact, an obstacle to the soul's progress toward God and self-realization, but a beneficial and necessary step. A template of questions based on criteria suggested by both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions can help seekers judge contemporary gurus and movements. If the guru charges money, has an unethical lifestyle, proclaims his own mastership, encourages proselytizing, alleges that he is God incarnate, emphasizes pre-rational practices, and demands total obedience, assume that the path is wrong and that the guru is a charlatan. In the likely case that the guru/movement is neither all good nor all bad, a seeker should weigh the pros and cons in each case: if he stays, he should discard that which is not in his best interest; if he leaves, he should retain that which is beneficial.
The 1980's may be known in the future by spiritual aspirants as the decade of the fallen guru. Already a number of prominent religious masters in India and elsewhere' have had their secret, private lives exposed: hidden Swiss bank accounts; extensive cases of plagiarism; sexual misconduct; violent retaliations against detractors; egotistical powerplays; drug trafficking, and more.
It is no longer "in" or respectable to follow a guru. The New Age is growing old. The Aquarian Conspiracy is backfiring. The Golden Age of Enlightenment is rusting. What happened to the Consciousness Revolution?
Instead of a quantum leap into transformed dimensions of awareness, spiritual seekers have begun to develop a keen sense of discrimination. Since the Jonestown tragedy, it is no longer sensible, according to the general public, to forego one's rational mind in the hope of a transcendental paradise. Crucial questions arise: If the teachings don't make logical sense on this plane, what is the assurance that they will come together in the higher astral worlds? Why does my teacher have the privilege to rationalize away his worldly expressions of anger and lust, as part of his awakening method, when my same actions are always called vices to be conquered? Is the thinking mind really the enemy that should be suppressed and fought?
More and more questions such as these are being posed by serious religious practitioners who are no longer satisfied with purely dogmatic and fundamentalist perspectives on spiritual liberation. Indeed, they argue, if man is truly striving for an enlightened state, then all parts of his being should reflect that truth: the soul, the mind, and the body. To castrate the one versus the other (as Descartes did with the mind and the body) is to allow for only a schizophrenic view of the universe. That is, the body is always evil; and the soul always good. God, in the meantime, ceases to be the Lord of all and becomes the Chosen God of the few. The end result? Politics replaces spirituality.
To overcome this tenacious dualism, certain sincere seekers are discovering ways in which reason helps and promotes spiritual practice. Ken Wilber, perhaps the most articulate spokesman of this emerging group, points out in his ground- breaking overview of human evolution, Up From Eden, that critical intelligence is not an obstacle in the soul's progression back to God, but a beneficial and necessary step. To disavow reasoning and its strengths, Wilber emphasizes, is not a progressive way towards Self-Realization, but a regression into mental infanc.
True saints and gurus, though their number may be few, do not ask for blind obedience. Quite the contrary; they demand individuality and maturation in the face of one's real and eternal condition. Unlike their charlatan counterparts, genuine masters invite critical thinking. As one teacher put it, "question everything (even your guru's actions and teachings) until you satisfy your intellect. Even if you spend your whole lifetime in such an endeavor, it is not time lost, but time gained. You will be building a foundation on rock, not sand.”
But how does one know if his spiritual master is authentic or misguided? How can one distinguish between a legitimate and beneficial path and a self-serving and corrupt organization. No doubt these are difficult questions, but they can be answered. This article is an attempt to help clarify many of the muddled issues now facing the spiritual community. It does so by offering a unique "crucible" wherein a series of key questions are asked and examined. Each of these questions is designed to reveal the relative degree of legitimacy and authenticity of one's chosen master and path. For some it will be an awakening experience, while for others it will be an outward confirmation of what they already intuited. In either case, the crucible will, it is hoped, spark deeper investigations of all aspects of one's spiritual development.
The Spiritual Crucible
Although guidelines have been proposed by several religious groups to help would-be seekers decide which path or guru is the highest, almost all of them suffer from a clear case of what sociologists and anthropologists call ethnocentrism (the tendency to see other people, cultures, religions, solely in relation to one's own world view). Surely, no critical guide will be exempt from a certain amount of prejudice or bias, but it can be minimized if the template we employ to appraise masters and new movements is drawn from transcultural sources and is interdisciplinary in scope.
To accomplish this aim, the following test was compiled from four distinct schools: 1) Transpersonal Psychology (Ken Wilber, John Welwood, et al.); 2) Advaita Vedanta (Ramana Maharishi, Nisargadatta Maharaj, et al.); 3) Sant Mat (Sawan Singh, Julian P. Johnson, et al.); and 4) Christianity (Mother Teresa, Nicholas of Cusa, et al.). Naturally, not all of these schools are in exact agreement with each other, but taken together they do provide a substantial framework with which interested practitioners can measure the claims of their respective guru and path. Each of the headings will contain examples of individuals or groups who have either embodied the ideal principle or who have gone far astray from it. All of the examples cited are based upon documented research.
1. Does Your Guru/Path Charge Money For Membership?
"Real masters never charge for their services, nor do they accept payment in any form or any sort of material benefits for their instructions. This is a universal law among Masters, and yet it is an amazing fact that thousands of eager seekers in America and elsewhere, go on paying large sums of money for "spiritual instruction." Masters are always self-sustaining. They are never supported by their students or by public charity.
-Julian P. Johnson
The Path of the Masters
Perhaps the easiest question to ask and have answered by a spiritual guru/path is whether or not the organization charges money for membership. If the answer is yes, it is a clear sign for the "buyer to beware," as almost all groups which assign a fee for their teachings are suspect. Although Self-Realization may entail many requirements, such as giving up ego, greed, lust, and so forth, offering up your wallet or life-savings is not one of them.
In America there is a tendency to make a commodity out of anything, even spirituality. Not only is making salvation a marketable item absurd ("Sorry, you don't qualify for the highest, blissful heaven." "Why not?" "You forgot to pay last month's subscription dues for soul discourses."), but it allows for a number of unscrupulous individuals to make huge sums of money off naive seekers. Bhagwan Rajneesh, more than any other current Indian guru in America, illustrates this fact with his excessive wealth and predilection for Rolls Royces (latest count has it at ninety and still rising). [Rajneesh's cars have been sold off in the wake of the disintegration of his Oregon commune and his court-ordered departure from the United States. Editor.]
Although money is necessary to keep movements functioning, (the publishing of books, ete.), -- there is a distinct line between obligatory payments -- even if they are disguised as "love offerings" -- and unsolicited donations; the latter have justifiable reasons behind them, whereas the former makes religion a business enterprise, with a very lucrative tax shelter.
Interestingly, there are comparatively few spiritual groups which do not charge money for membership. Thus, this first criterion is a rather simple way to ferret out the possibly genuine guru/path from the less valid ones. Check out the movement's financial situation closely, keeping a close eye on where and to whom most of the money collected is going. If the particular organization is resistant to giving out such monetary information, then it can be safely assumed that the guru/path in question is more concerned with fiscal matters than with upliftment of the mind and Spirit.
2. Does Your Spiritual Teacher Have A High Standard Of Ethical Conduct?
Once I was coming from India to Bagdad on my annual leave. At Makina Camp, I was waiting for the ship for my homeward journey. As there was yet some time for the arrival of the ship I thought I would have some puffs of "huqqa" (tobacco). So I went to the kitchen of some laborers to collect fire from their place. The workmen had left for their earnings after finishing their meals. A four anna coin was lying near the fire place. I looked around (to confirm that nobody was seeing me) and picked up the four anna coin, collected the necessary fire for my 'huqqa', and returned to my bed. When I reached my place, I thought, "you receive 50ORs, per month. Why have you picked up this coin so stealthly [sic]?" I repented upon my foolish act and gave away the coin to some one [sic3. It is very easy to preach and sermonize others, but most difficult to be practical in one's life,
-- Baba Faqir Chan
A truly enlightened master is by virtue of his attainment a moral human being. For, unlike most of struggling humanity, the realized sage has transcended the ego and its limitations and become consciously aware of his real relationship as an indivisible part of God’s Being. As such, an enlightened master would exhibit ethical qualities far beyond those manifested by even noble worldly souls. In light of this, it is particularly distressing to note that a large number of of so- called gurus are quite unethical in their behavior. This ranges from improper business deals, sexual misconduct personal violence, and even criminal activity. As Julian P. Johnson correctly observes:
If I were looking for a Master, I would first of all make the most critical inspection of the man's life to determine if he had any of the ordinary imperfections of character usually manifested by the average man. If I found him to be a perfect man, when studied as a man, I would then begin my study of him as a Guru. But if he failed to pass inspection as a man, I would at once give up the search in him as Guru, or Master.
However, though some teachers have been known to engage in immoral actions, naive followers try to find ways to justify such behavior. The problem with attempting to give metaphysical explanations for what would otherwise be considered "ordinary" events is that it enables ambitious masters to bypass standard morality in the name of a "higher" authority. What is needed in assessing spiritual claims is a religious version of "Occam's razor" (the scientific/philosophic rule which requires that the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex, or that explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of known quantities), wherein seekers have a predisposition for the more logical, commonsense interpretation of allegedly transcendent actions. Is it really necessary to "explain away" a guru's lust or misdirected practices as being motivated by the Holy Spirit, God, or Mother Shakti? Gurus don't hesitate to point out their devotees' weaknesses, nor should disciples be hesitant in criticizing their teacher’s faults when they appear. Critical exchange is crucial and healthy for any type of relationship-including teacher/student ones.
3. Does Your Master Make Claims About His Spiritual Development, Powers, Or Attainment?
If any man claims to have attained the highest in spiritual development, that claim of itself may be taken as conclusive proof that he has not attained so much.
-- Julian P. Johnson
The Path of the Masters
Good masters might indeed be divine, but they are also human. Even Christ was said to be one person (Jesus) with two natures (human and divine). Further, the fact that a guru has been thoroughly educated in soul and spirit does not mean he or she has been thoroughly educated in body and mind. I have yet to see a guru run a four-minute mile with his "perfect body" or explain Einstein's special theory of relativity with his "perfect mind."
-- Ken Wilber
Eye to Eye
Almost all of the world's great religious scriptures universally acclaim that humility is one of the chief virtues of an enlightened human being. Yet, many of the most popular gurus today speak out quite stridently about their spiritual attainments. Some, like Sathya Sai Baba of South India, even claim to be God incarnated. Others, perhaps less absolutist but nevertheless confident, allege that they have access to the Supreme Being on a day-to-day basis. It is roughly estimated that there are over a million gurus in India, most of whom claim to have direct contact with the highest Reality and Truth. What is the seeker to do? Whose statements should he/she believe?
None of them. Spirituality, according to true mystics of all ages, is an experiential science, one which demands not blind faith and belief, but rigorous practice and application. Indeed, as Ken Wilber points out, authentic mysticism is a provable discipline since it enables a practitioner to see directly higher, transpersonal regions of consciousness. Therefore, the necessity for "belief” in a teacher's claims is uncalled for. Rather, what is needed is experimental verification of the path he/she advocates. All too often, religious seekers become armchair speculators versus actual practitioners, thereby basing their judgments on a mere intellectual appraisement of the master and not on direct interaction with his/her teachings.
If any guru demands belief in his/her status it is obvious that what they are teaching is not spirituality/mysticism but dogma and conversion. Truly, unless the would-be disciple is already God-Realized, how is she/he to know the spiritual capabilities of his master? Mere allegiance will not suffice, nor will any amount of propaganda about the guru's greatness, only daily spiritual practice will do.
Transculturally and throughout the ages, there have been a select number of saints who have embodied the very highest qualities of enlightenment which, contrary to our notions of "other worldliness," can be manifested in their everyday lives. "By their fruits you will know them." Some beautiful examples in the 20th century are: Ramana Maharshi, Sawan Singh, and Mother Teresa, each of whom in his or her own way has expressed an aspect of the Divine (Knowledge, Awareness, and Love). Such rare individuals serve reference points with which to measure the claims of emerging gurus in North America.
4. Does Your Guru/Group Proselytize Vigorously For New Converts?
Any group “out to save the world” is problematic because it rests on an archaically narcissistic base that looks “altruistic” or “idealistic” but in fact is very egocentric, very primitive, and very capable of coming to primitive ends by primitive means.
-- Ken Wilber
Eye to Eye
Regardless of how the proselytization is disguised, any guru/group which advocates a vigorous program of recruiting new converts acts as a dividing force in the society, cutting directly into family and relationships. Such a conversionary emphasis tends to create factions where none had existed before: “I am saved; you are still lost.” “I found it; you haven’t.” And so on. This kind of dualism has many forms, ranging from the blatantly obvious (as we find in fundamentalist Christian and Islamic sects) to the subtly hidden (Est: “Did you get it?”; Scientology: “Are you clear?”; and certain esoteric groups which play on such notions as “initiated” versus “non-initiated” as determining factors of Self-worth and social stratification).
Undoubtedly a certain amount of advertisement goes on in every religious movement, even the ones which are adamantly opposed to spreading their teachings publicly (e.g., Soami Bagh and Dayal Bagh in Agra, India). Just the publication of books, texts, and articles is itself a form of advertisement, albeit a limited avenue. The fine line, however, is where giving out the message becomes consciously pushing the truth, as not only an alternative but as a required necessity. Wilber points out the danger of such a development.
Such obsessive driveness [sic] is always open to problematic occasions, not the least of which is the fact that if you can have the way, then that end will justify virtually any means, up to and including holy war. And holy war, of course, isn't a sin, it isn't murder, because the people you are killing in order to save aren't really people -- they're infidels.
If the guru/path really does have a glimpse into the transcendental truth of the universe, then the concern will not be with “preaching” that insight but actually exemplifying it. As is well known in parental and teaching circles, the most accomplished parent/teacher is the one who says the most not with words but with actions. This simple truth, thought used as a cliché, should be kept in mind whenever encountering a “new” revelation.
5. Who Appointed Your Teacher To Be A Master? What Is The Historical Tradition Behind Your Movement?
Cult leaders are often self-styled prophets who have not studied with great teachers or undergone lengthy training or discipline themselves ...
Many of the most dangerous cultic figures of our times have no such stabilizing context of tradition, lineage, or transmission, but are self-proclaimed gurus who sway their followers through their charismatic talents ...
-- John Welwood
On Spiritual Authority: Genuine and Counterfeit
(Journal of Humanistic Psychology)
Successorship controversies are some of the most intricate and confusing issues that a spiritual seeker can face. A number of perplexing questions may arise: "Is my guru really enlightened?" "Did my teacher truly receive the mantleship from his master?" "Why is my movement's history disputed by outside scholars?", etc. The forthcoming answers are rarely simple and air-tight. There is always a strange twist, an odd fact, a peculiar story which upturns even the most stalwart of followers.
The only remedy to doubt is not blind belief or dogma, but the ability to allow the mind to question and to embrace the paradoxical nature of the world. This kind of recourse enables the discriminating mind to exist alongside the devotion laden heart. However, certain requirements of historical legitimacy must be met before the seeker can relax into his/her practice with relative confidence. Most importantly, the guru must have confirmation for his claim to mastership by outside sources. If this requirement is bypassed, then the neophyte runs the risk of having only his teacher be able to validate his realizations. Such single-source legitimacy, as Wilber terms it, is open to a series of problems, not the least of which is excessive narcissism on behalf of the guru, who becomes by virtue of his self-appointment, the final and only authority for spiritual matters. Verification, therefore, is not only helpful in determining the master's real status, but is necessary in moving religious endeavors out of isolation, where excesses and unethical transactions are more Likely to occur. As John Welwood argues:
Many of the world's great religious traditions have lines of spiritual transmission, i.e., a person's realization is tested by his teachers before he is allowed to represent himself as a master. This is especially true in all the (major) lineages of Buddhism as well as in other Asian traditions. The process of testing and transmission serves as a kind of "quality control" to ensure that a given teacher does not distort the teachings for his own personal gain.
Paul Twitchell and Eckankar are a classic example of a spiritual teacher and movement without any historical validation. In fact, Twitchell made up almost all of the claims about his mastership and the traditions preceding the advent of his group, Eckankar. Not only isn't Eckankar the oldest religious teachings known to man (it allegedly dates back some six million years to the "Eck" Master, Gakko, who brought the teachings from Venus), but even the two predecessors to Twitchell (the founder of the group), Rebazar Tarzs and Sudar Singh, are fictional characters. Furthermore, Twitchell plagiarized most of his writings from other authors, especially Julian P. Johnson's books of the 1930's.
Yet, in the midst of this convoluted myth making, how is the unsuspecting seeker to know? Therefore, it is of particular importance that the historical antecedents of any guru/group be thoroughly investigated. Though the search may not be easy, it is a must if there is to be any intellectual integrity on the part of the disciple.
6. Are the Central Teachings of the Guru/Movement Trans- rational or Pre-rational?
Contrary to what most secular humanists, like Paul Kurtz and Isaac Asimov, believe, true religion is a trans-rational endeavor to achieve higher states of consciousness beyond the verbal mind. Genuine mystics are not concerned with pre-rational forms of behavior, such as mythic logic, group think, dogma, obedience without insight, and so forth. These types of thinking work against rather than promote spiritual enlightenment. An authentic tradition centers its teachings on direct, personal contact with the Supreme Reality by engaging in day-to-day meditation, prayer, or zazen.
Nothing can substitute for the disciple's own effort and inward progress-not vicarious atonement, not the burning of karmas by the guru, not God's grace, though all of these elements have their part. Individual action, though understood in relationship to the Lord's Mercy and Grace, is stressed above all else by genuine gurus/movements. No true mystic will ever ask a student to believe in him blindly or follow the teachings uncritically. Comments Tuisi Sahib, a renowned saint in the Sant Mat tradition who lived in the nineteenth century: "When with my own eyes do I behold, then shall I accept what the Sat-Guru saith." Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, says: "Until with my own eyes do I see, the word of the guru satisfieth me not... "And finally, Shiv Dayal Singh writes: "Know thou thyself by thyself; believe not at all what others say."
What are trans-rational practices? Disciplines which concentrate on higher, not lower, states of consciousness and which enable the student to master the lower tendencies of the mind. Hence, trans-rational engagements do not squelch thinking but actually help the reasoning process by allowing it to see more fully the vast potential of human life. As Wilber so clearly indicated, there is a fundamental difference between a sangat of meditating Zen monks and a clan of deluded Jim Jones devotees. The former is trans-rational because the monks take their intelligence with them into satori; whereas the latter is pre-rational because the Jonestown members forsook their individuality for regressive magical-mythic belonging.
7. What Are The Day To Day Results Of Your Interaction With The Guru/Path?
Devotee: "How can one know whether a particular individual is competent to be a guru?"
Ramana Maharishi: By the peace of mind found in his presence and by the sense of respect you feel for him."
Questioner: "How can I make out whom to follow and whom to mistrust?"
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj: "Mistrust all until you are convinced. The true guru will never humiliate you nor will he estrange you from yourself. He will constantly bring you back to the fact of your inherent perfection and encourage you to seek within. He knows you need nothing, not even him, and is never tired of reminding you..."
If the guru/movement is authentic, it will help you to better understand yourself, your family, your relationships, and God. Such understanding, however, does not necessarily mean that your worldly life will improve accordingly. For instance, following a spiritual path does not insure one against losing money, facing natural catastrophes, and struggling with domestic problems; it only helps one in coping better with all the various aspects of human existence.
Obviously, the results of your interaction with the guru/path should be apparent to your close associates: more openness, kindness, compassion, selflessness, honesty, and loving devotional If these qualities are not exhibited it can be due to two reasons: you are not practicing consistently what the guru/path advocates; or, you are following teachings which place more stress on selfish, pre-rational, and anti-social behavior. Interestingly, it is easier to determine a fraudulent message than it is to own up to your immaturity and lack of discipline.
The effect of the guru on your personal life should be clearly evident, especially if you feel that your teacher is God-Realized. Thus, there is as much responsibility on the shoulders of a disciple as there is on a guru. Both must be willing to surrender to a reality higher than themselves: the devotee to his master's instructions; the master to the living presence of God, to whom he has liberated his being.
Conclusion: How To Score Your Answers On The Spiritual Crucible.
If after taking the "spiritual crucible" you find that your guru charges money, for membership, lives an unethical lifestyle, self-proclaims his mastership, encourages proselytizing, alleges to be God-incarnated, emphasizes pre-rational practices, and demands total obedience, it can be assumed that you're on the wrong path and that your guru is a charlatan.
On the other hand, if your guru/path scores positively in all areas (such an accomplishment by the way, is rare), then you are very fortunate to have been led to a beneficial and legitimate spiritual movement. The responsibility now shifts to your shoulders, as it is up to you to take advantage of the situation. Enlightenment is a two way process, the outcome of two interacting forces: God's grace and the disciple's efforts.
Most of the results, however, will be a combination of positive and negative scores, with some guru/paths meeting some of the criteria in three or four sections but missing the marks in other parts. In this case, it is essential that the seeker fully weigh the pros and cons of his guru's mission. If one decides to stay in the movement, then it is necessary to discard those elements of the teachings which do not coincide with his/her best interests. However, if one leaves the group, it does not mean that everything has to be forgotten. Rather, those features which are beneficial and helpful should be taken along as guidelines for the journey. Unfortunately, following a spiritual master or path requires a tremendous amount of maturity, self-control, and discrimination. To achieve God-Realization is not an overnight affair, or the outcome of feeble effort; it is the culmination of consistent day to day application of transcendent mystical teachings. In the end, the greatest obstacle of all is not the guru or the movement it is the disciple.
For Further Information
Peter Berger. The Heretical Imperative. New York: Doubleday, 1979.
Ken Wilber. A Sociable God. Boulder, CO: Shambala, 1984. Paperback.
Ken Wilber. Eye To Eye. New York: Doubleday, 1983. Paperback.
David Christopher Lane. The Making of a Spiritual Movernent. Del Mar, CA: Del Mar Press, 1983. Paperback.
Dick Anthony, et al. (Eds.). Spiritual Choices. Forthcoming.
J. Gordon Melton (Ed.). Encyclopedia of American Religion. (Second Edition forthcoming.)
Yoga Journal ("Perils of the Path") July/August 1985. An excellent anthology of articles on how to critically appraise gurus and the new religious movements.
* This article first appeared in Volume 1, Number 3 of the research series, Understanding Cults and Spiritual Movements. It is reprinted with the permission of Del Mar Press, P.O. Box 2508, Del Mar, CA 92014.
David Christopher Lane is Editor of USCM (Understanding Cults and New Religions) and currently teaches in the Warren College Writing Program at the University of California, San Diego.