The Potential for Abuse in the Guru-Disciple Relationship

ICSA e-Newsletter, Vol. 4, No. 3, 2005

The Potential for Abuse in the Guru-Disciple Relationship

Mary Garden

No amount of evidence, nor the quality of it, will serve to un-convince the true believer. Their belief is something they not only want, they need it. —James Randi


In the 1970s, hundreds of thousands of Westerners flocked to India (in the footsteps of the Beatles) in search of “enlightenment.” Mary Garden was one of them. She traipsed the ashram circuit, visiting most of the popular gurus of the time and also doing some of the popular Buddhist Vipassana meditation retreats—from all of which she emerged relatively unscathed. However the years she spent as a devotee of Swami Balyogi Premvarni (whose small ashram was nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas) were a different story. This paper tells a little of her journey and includes comments and insights into how a guru-disciple relationship can become harmful and destructive and why it is sometimes so difficult for disciples to extricate themselves when it does. She examines the concept of guru itself and the rationalizations used to excuse a guru’s abusive behavior.

My conversion to Eastern mysticism was sudden and unexpected. One morning I was a nonbeliever; that night I was a believer. And it took me years to wake up.

This dramatic turnabout in my life happened during a ceremony of worship conducted at a yoga ashram thirty-two years ago. This ashram, in the outskirts of Auckland, was a branch of the Sivananda organization, the headquarters of which are in Rishikesh in India. A Hindu swami (evidently the first to visit New Zealand) presided over the ceremony.

I still can’t understand fully what happened to me that night. It was as if I was transported into another world. I remember incense was burning, candles were lighting up the darkened room, some very strange pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses were on the altar at the front of the room. The swami was chanting prayers to the gods, and these prayers seemed strangely familiar. Within minutes, my mind seemed to “explode” into ecstasy and bliss. I felt the region of my heart grow warmer and warmer, and then it was as if it was opening and all these feelings of love were pouring outward. My forehead felt ablaze with white light. I had dropped acid once before, and in many ways this experience was similar, except here I felt in complete control, and this enormous sense of peace came over me.

As I drove home, I decided to quit my postgraduate studies at Auckland University and go to India as soon as possible. Maybe for the rest of my life! I was convinced I had found God and my life now would be in a spiritual direction.

I was not alone. The hippy movement—its pot and flower power—had left some of us jaded and more lost than ever. In the 1970s, tens of thousands of us went to India. Eastern mysticism was new and exotic to Westerners, and we were in the vanguard as we traipsed from guru to guru, unable to see that we would have been better to give up on them altogether—at least until we had sorted ourselves out psychologically. But there had been no exposés or warnings of the damage that could be done to our minds and our bodies when we surrendered our critical thinking (and our hearts) to gurus. We were young and gullible, susceptible.

While I made preparations to leave, I stayed at the yoga ashram and became part of an “instant” community. It was like a large happy family—something I had never experienced before. (My father had hated socializing; we seldom had visitors and never had relatives or guests staying overnight.) I also became a vegetarian, began to meditate and worship various Hindu god and goddesses, and did daily yoga sessions. I also picked up “instant” answers to the meaning of life that included concepts such as reincarnation and karma. I learnt about chakras and the kundalini fire that was meant to move slowly up the spinal cord, purifying “blocks” in its wake. I read Paul Brunton’s A Search in Secret India (1991) and Autobiography of a Yogi (Yogananda, 1969) and was blown away; it never occurred to me to question or doubt their stories.

It was as if I had entered an enchanted kingdom, so different from the dreary Christianity of my childhood. I was on what seemed to be a permanent high: The depression and loneliness that had hovered over my life for the previous few years had vanished.  And I didn’t have to think about sex again: I was going to be celibate, like a true Hindu sadhak or renunciate. What a relief to no longer need romantic relationships with men.

I heard of Sathya Sai Baba a few weeks before I was due to leave. I met some of his Western devotees (one was a medical practitioner) and was astonished by what they told me—tales of Baba healing the sick, curing the lame, resurrecting the dead, transporting himself great distances, manifesting in many places and bodies simultaneously; also, of his drawing necklaces, bracelets, and rings from thin air, and a sacred ash called vibhuti from the palm of his hand. Evidently he had millions of devotees in India, and Westerners from all over the world were flocking to him. They considered him to be the Avatar of the age: a direct incarnation of God. Even India’s prime minister was a devotee.

Perhaps Sai Baba was behind all the strange and remarkable changes in my life? I was not going to miss out. I’d go to Bangalore, surrender my life to Him. I changed my travel destination to South India instead of the Himalayas as I had planned.

My first impression of India was that at last I had come home. Within days, I began to wear a sari as well as a red spot (kumkum) on my forehead, and I began learning Hindi. With my black hair and olive skin, I was often mistaken for an Indian woman. I found a place to stay in a small village about ten minutes’ walk from the ashram. Soon my small room was adorned with large glossy posters of Baba and an altar set up with candles, incense burners, small statues of Indian gods, and the like. There were no toilets (we used the nearby fields); we drew water from the village well and cooked simple vegetarian food on kerosene stoves. It was a simple yet exotic life, and we felt so special—the few Westerners who had the privilege of actually being in the presence of “God.”

But the honeymoon did not last long. In the beginning, I was able to push down any doubts, but they grew stronger. I became more and more disturbed by the groupthink as even the most trivial and petty things were attributed to Sai Baba, as if He was omniscient and omnipresent. Our health, relationships, the weather, even finances—it was all in Baba’s hands. Devotees typically peppered conversations with phrases such as “He’s cleansing me”; “It’s all His Grace”; “It’s just karma.” It didn’t help that we didn’t have much to do except wait for darshans—to be in the presence of God or a holy person (and hence blessed and purified). This meant sitting for hours on the dusty ground in the compound of Sai Baba’s palatial residence, waiting for him to appear each morning and afternoon. He would walk around, accept letters, “manifest” vibhuti, and select a few people to go inside for an interview.

I desperately wanted to believe I was in the presence of God incarnate, but my faith was not strong enough to survive the rumors I heard one day in the nearby city of Bangalore. I became “freaked out” (to put it mildly) to hear that Sai Baba was a “sex maniac,” preying on male disciples during private interviews. I had dreamt of this a few nights before but had attributed it to my lower mind. But now it made sense. I panicked. I caught a rickshaw back to my room, bundled up some of my belongings, and fled. Thankfully, no one came to track me down to change my mind, as had happened with members of other groups such as the Moonies or the Hare Krishnas. But it was some time before I could shake the spell that had been cast over me. Images of the orange-robed god-man darted across my mind from time to time, as did the odd phrase and melody of some of the hypnotic bhajans (devotional songs) that had been sung at the ashram. Because I had not met any ex-devotee, there was the odd moment on the long, dusty train ride to Delhi when I wondered, “What if I am wrong and have blown it, thrown away the chance to be with God himself?”

In spite of this initial disillusionment, I did not give up on my search, and I spent six more years in India. Most of these were with an enigmatic yogi, Swami Balyogi Premvarni, whose isolated ashram was in the jungle near Rishikesh, in the Himalayas. Only a small number of Westerners were living there at this time; there were no resident Indian devotees, although they were allowed to visit during the hours set aside most afternoons for visitors. At this ashram, I felt I could now do some serious yoga and meditation, live a disciplined life, and become more spiritual, even enlightened.

Even though Premvarni (we used to call him Swamiji) claimed to be celibate, within weeks I had become a consort and, shortly after, his chief consort. He insisted it wasn’t sex; it was just raising my kundalini and getting rid of all those lowly vibrations from years of sleeping with worldly men. I learned a rare tradition within Hinduism of tantra, in which there is a place for sex as a kind of mystical union. So I felt special, even flattered. But the sexual side of the relationship bothered me the least. The mind games were more troubling.

For as well as being the “divine lover,” Swamiji was also the teacher. This was an aspect of his personality that he seemed to be able to turn on and off. He would be seductive and charming one minute, vile the next—and for no apparent reason. He would scream, yell profanities, and even beat one of the Indian servants. Sometimes he would attack a disciple (usually male), who regarded this as part of his spiritual discipline and welcomed it. In the beginning, I found Swamiji’s dramatic mood swings unnerving and would be shocked at his outbursts. I would chuck my things in my backpack and get ready to leave. By the time I would front up to him to get my money and passport out of his safe, he would have turned on his charming self, and I’d be sucked back in, even blaming myself for doubting him.

There were times that I did run away, and I visited other yogis and swamis. (Note that there is the notion in Eastern mysticism that there is only one true guru for a seeker. Thus, seekers who become disillusioned with one guru often think they have been mistaken and so become a devotee of another.) I spent time with the Hare Krishnas in Vrindaban and did a number of Vipassana meditation retreats, which involved sitting for hours on end watching one’s breath. Leading these retreats was a respected teacher called Goenka; he made no claims of being a god-man or enlightened. But I was always drawn back to Swamiji, reminded that my path was one of the “heart,” not the “head.” After all, Swamiji used to tell me I was his heart chakra! He had also given me a new name (to help me cut off from my past, erase my former personality), a Sanskrit name Archana, meaning “adoration or worship of the divine.”

Many readers might find it difficult to understand why these gurus are so powerful and why it is so hard to leave them. The word guru is used these days to mean an expert in anything ranging from gardening, or cooking, to sport, but its original meaning is very specific. Guru is a Sanskrit word; “gu” means darkness, and “ru” means remover. Thus, a guru is a spiritual guide who dispels the darkness of ignorance. Hindus consider that if one chooses a spiritual path in life (note that this is traditionally the path recommended when one’s duties as a parent or a householder and so on have been fulfilled, in the latter part of one’s life), then finding a guru is essential, for to seek God or enlightenment without a guru is seen as too dangerous.

Some gurus are considered the living manifestation of God. Because God is too powerful to make contact directly, these gurus are conduits to channel his energy. Swamiji used to say, “God will blow your fuse; you need me as a transformer.” Hence, these gurus become the absolute authority who cannot be questioned or challenged by disciples. Even doubting them is seen as “resistance,” a lack of faith, and too much reliance on the intellect. The measure of our spiritual growth was our complete acceptance not only of our guru’s teachings but also of his behavior, no matter how bizarre, cruel, or even unethical. Most of the gurus I met taught the need to give up all thinking and to surrender totally. At the entrance to Rajneesh’s ashram in Poona was a sign: “Leave your minds and your shoes outside the gate.”

And so, instead of the promise of increased spiritual awareness and humility, what can often take place is increased robotism. In my own case, over the years I became more and more indecisive because most major decisions were made for me. Eckart Flother, a German journalist, spent some months as a sannyasin in Poona in the late 1970s and spoke of the dehumanizing effects of life with Rajneesh: how a person can become like a puppet, almost an apathetic creature trying to satisfy his basic needs while the rest of his energy is being used to glorify the master (Miller, 1981, p. 11).

As part of his god-status, the guru is seen as infallible, incapable of making a mistake or doing wrong. Ordinary human notions of good or bad, right or wrong, don’t apply because gurus operate in a spiritual realm we can’t understand. This means disciples have to continually rationalize or excuse the guru’s behavior, and the easiest way to do this is to regard it as a divine lila (game) or a test. There were times we would call Swamiji Rudra, the god of destruction in the Hindu pantheon. In this way, we could rationalize his acts of cruelty. He used to call this behavior his “teaching nature” and claimed he used it intentionally to wake us up. One seeker who stayed there a few years ago recently wrote to me, “I was in constant internal agitation about whether his behaviors were tests or mere emotional abuse.” Joshua Baran, a former Zen Buddhist monk, says, “Devotees lose their natural alarm systems, which tell them when things aren’t right. This is usually a gradual process” (Chandler & Marshall, 1981, p. 14).

There were several reasons why it was so hard for many of us to leave or to give up our search altogether. One reason was the trance states we experienced. Many of us had extraordinary experiences for which I have no explanations to this day. What we didn’t realize is that, just because we experienced peace and ecstasy, and maybe had various visions, this did not mean that emotional difficulties or psychological problems had been cured or transcended. Another reason is that we became too frightened or paranoid to leave; if we lost faith, we would miss out on this rare opportunity to be with an enlightened master. In the Himalayas, we were encouraged to develop a phobia of the outside world: that world out there, outside the ashram, was in some way evil, samsara, nonspiritual. If we left, it would mean that we had not only failed but had also been in error. And we would have to return to the West, now a foreign place. Many of us had no jobs to go back to and had broken ties with old friends and past social networks. Most of all, we lacked the insight to leave!

My faith, however, had disastrous consequences. My fantasy of being the consort of a god-man in some magical kingdom came to an end when I became pregnant. That condition was not meant to be part of the divine drama! Swamiji insisted that my sickness was just my body “cleansing itself,” and at first he would not let me see a doctor. Upon hearing the doctor’s verdict, at first I thought, “What a miracle, a holy child!” It never occurred to me to have an abortion, but that’s exactly what Swamiji ordered. It was my fault and my “bad karma.” I almost changed my mind, alone in a noisy Delhi hospital, but when my passport and all my money were stolen, I fell into a state of utter confusion and distress. I also feared being rejected by Swamiji and cast out of his holy abode. When I returned to the ashram, things were never the same. I was no longer subservient and became defiant and enraged at times. Swamiji gave me a new name Ardhana (demonic apsura) and said I was possessed by an evil spirit.

On several occasions I went over and visited Swami Chidananda (the respected world leader and head of the Sivananda Yoga Foundation) on the other side of the Ganges. I told him of my problems with Swamiji, but he reassured me by saying there is a long Indian tradition of surrender to one’s spiritual guru, even when serious flaws are discovered. He explained that all that matters is the strength of devotion, and this will transform the aspirant. That explanation lifted my spirits for a while, but it didn’t last. My physical and mental health began to deteriorate, and there came a time for me to leave, for good.

Initially I was helped, believe it or not, by going to another guru, Rajneesh, who at that time was in Poona. I was given another name, Ma Prem Sagara, meaning “ocean of love.” I spent a year at Poona and had my first experience of Western psychotherapies. These helped me in a way that meditation and yoga never had; for the first time in my life I was allowed to be angry, to let out some of my fear, and grief. Some of this therapy was “extreme,” and abuses of power certainly occurred; but I never was part of any sex orgy nor witnessed any violence in workshops as was widely reported in the press.

Jack Kornfield, a well-known American teacher of Vipassana meditation, is a strong advocate for psychotherapy as part of spiritual life:

Because the issues of personal life are often the source of our greatest suffering and neurosis, of our deepest attachments and greatest delusion, we fear them and may unconsciously use spiritual practice to avoid dealing with them. How disappointed certain students become when they leave their ashrams and monasteries (Buddhist or Christian) and find that after ten or fifteen years they still have not really faced their life, not faced the root fears and the areas of suffering that limit and entangle them (1993, p. 253). 

Life at Poona was in many ways refreshing and in strong contrast to the rigidity and repression I found in many of the traditional Hindu ashrams I had visited. Unless one was part of the “inner circle” and lived within the confines of the ashram itself, one was free to do as one pleased. I lived outside the ashram in a comfortable apartment and even began earning an income from various projects, including the compilation of a book called Bhagwan’s Neo-Tantra (Gunther, 1980).  Now, looking back, my time in Poona was like a “halfway house,” helping me to make the transition back into the real world. I experienced an honesty and authenticity amongst the Rajneeshees (at least amongst the ones I associated with) that was rare compared with other groups.

But toward the end of the year, things began to change. There were a few suicides and rapes, a number of sannyasins had mental breakdowns and were shunted off to local psychiatric hospitals (and abandoned), and the guards at the gate became armed. Increasingly, I found myself in a questioning or doubting state of mind—that “monkey” mind of mine, which had hounded me throughout my odyssey. At the end of the year, I received a note, ostensibly from Rajneesh but presumably from one of his secretaries. The note said I was resisting him, and it was time to go back to the West (many other sannyasins received similar notes at this time). I took that as my cue. My mother also sent me a newspaper cutting of the Jim Jones mass suicide. I remember thinking, “Could this happen here?”

I got out just in time. A few months later, the group relocated to Oregon and built a community called Rajneeshpuram. Within a few years, they hit worldwide media attention. Rajneesh bought scores of Rolls Royces, and the ashram began to stockpile weapons. Then the group tried to influence local county elections. In the hope that their own people would be elected, they poisoned—with salmonella—751 people dining at restaurants in the nearby city of Dalles. (This was the first large-scale biological attack in history.) Several sannyasins were charged. Thirty-five others pleaded guilty to other charges, including conspiracy to murder public officials. (See Milne’s Bhagwan, The God That Failed). Finally, Rajneesh was deported. Returning to India, he renamed himself Osho. He became more and more dependent on drugs such as Valium and nitrous oxide and died in 1990 from heart failure. His closest disciple and companion, Vivek, had committed suicide in Bombay a few months before.

However, this was another world away from me, for in 1980 I had settled in Brisbane, Australia, my dream of finding enlightenment through Eastern gurus finally over. Within a few years, I was married with two children (they certainly helped to bring me down to earth). However, I was still haunted by my years in India and quite ambivalent about my experiences. A part of me definitely thought I hadn’t been strong enough or ready for the spiritual life, that in many ways I had failed, and that these gurus were operating on a level I couldn’t understand.

In 1981 when I was pregnant with my first child, I went to a short-story (fiction) writing course. For an assignment one week, we were asked to write a short story, so I decided to write about something that happened to me in India. This was the feedback from the tutor:

This is exceptionally well written and I believe you should write a full-length book of your experiences and your detailed reactions to India. This could be straight forwarded (sic) factual or spiced here and there with a little invention. I’m sure this would find a ready market.

Six years later, I finally found the time and courage to write a full-length book. The process was extraordinary, and writing helped resolve some of my ambivalence and confusion. I had wanted my book to be a “spiritual” or a New Age book, but it did not turn out that way. The dark side of my journey revealed itself quite unexpectedly through the process of writing. While I certainly wrote about what I once considered divine experiences, most of these are cancelled out with the hell and horror that came in their wake. As Sue Gough wrote in a review for Australia’s Courier Mail:

There is no other book that I know of which reveals the addictive nature of the search for spiritual enlightenment than this one. There are several which explore the dangers and hypocrisies of individual cults, but they do not describe the almost demonic symbiosis that exists between gurus and their disciples quite so convincingly (1988).

This book was one of the first of its kind in Australia. Because of fear more than anything else, I presented it as a fictional account, calling the main character Helena Pearson. Needless to say, few believed Helena was anyone other than myself. I did not name the yogi at the center of my story, referring to him as “Swamiji,” a title commonly used in India for “holy men.”

What makes my book a challenge to “cult apologists” is that it was written when I was ambivalent about my experiences. I had not been exposed to (or contaminated by) the so-called anticult movement! I had not met up with an ex-devotee of any guru. Nor had I read any book written by a former devotee of any guru. For it was only in the late 1980s that sensational stories began to appear in print: articles and books by ex-devotees of Sai Baba, Ron Hubbard, the Hare Krishnas, Muktananda, Rajneesh, Guru Maharaji, and Zen masters and Buddhist lamas.

In 2003, I decided to revise my book and present it as the memoir it is, and I named Balyogi Premvarni. In the second edition, all I’ve done is rewrite the epilogue and make some editorial changes. Essentially, my story has remained the same for thirty years. (However, my biggest challenge during these years has been self-doubt. Especially after the first edition of my book was published, a part of me felt ashamed and guilty for speaking out, for being so “negative.”)

I was shocked a few years ago to discover the academic field of new religious movements (NRMs) and the writings of people such as the late Dr. Bryan Wilson, Professor Catherine Wessinger, and others who claim that ex-devotees of gurus or ex-cult members are not to be believed, our stories dismissed because we exaggerate and fabricate! To the contrary, I’ve left things out of my book because I thought I would not be believed. Should we believe devotees? Well, I didn’t once write back to my parents and tell them the truth. I’d tell them how wonderful everything was, how I was living in a heavenly abode and working off their karma with a divine master! If a devotee believes his or her guru is God or an enlightened being, then it follows that the guru can do no wrong. And if there is clear evidence of abuse, then devotees resort to rationalizations.

Before a talk I gave at an Australian university last year, I was sent an article to read (the professor had thought it was “right down my alley”!) called “Sexuality, Gender and the Abuse of Power in the Master-Disciple Relationship: The Case of the Rajneesh Movement,” by Elizabeth Puttick (1995, Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 10[1]). Puttick writes,

Although there is some uncorroborated evidence of sexual relations between Osho and his female disciples, there is no evidence of any psychological damage caused. During the Rajneeshpuram phase some people were quite badly damaged, yet it is surprising how many even of these members assessed their experiences positively. This presents a moral dilemma which is probably insolvable: behavior that could be condemned as abusive on the part of the perpetrators and masochistic on the part of recipients can still be legitimated spiritually.

How can abuse be legitimated spiritually? Puttick also casts doubt that Rajneesh ever had sex with female disciples and was only bragging when he told news media in Oregon, “I have had sex with hundreds of women.” Former long-term sannyasin Christopher Calder wrote to me,

No hard evidence that Rajneesh had sex with his disciples?  Well there is no stack of porno movies of him having sex, but certainly enough sannyasin girls have told me about their encounters with him, including the early grabbing stage of his sex life and the requests for disciples to have sex in front of him. I get e-mails every year from a few sannyasin girls who had group sex with him during his “Tantra Group” years in Poona. What do people want for proof?

(It is interesting that though she makes no mention of it, Puttick is a former sannyasin and on friendly terms with the Rajneesh/Osho group, a group that tolerates no criticism, especially of their master.)

The term “crazy wisdom” is sometimes used to rationalize the abusive behavior of gurus. Sarah Caldwell in her article on Muktananda in Nova Religio (2001) writes that

he was an enlightened teacher and practitioner of an esoteric form of Tantric sexual yoga, and he also engaged in actions that were not ethical, legal, or liberatory with many disciples. I accept the idea of “crazy wisdom,” an enlightened state beyond ordinary mortality and convention. Within Tantra is a pearl of great truth and wisdom […] I personally have found it extremely powerful and liberating to contemplate the uncomfortable dichotomy presented by the actions of the Siddha Yoga gurus. It is precisely in that moment of cognitive dissonance and emotional discomfort that the key to greater understanding can be found. Perhaps staying in the pain of ugliness of seeing Baba as an abuser or dirty old man is similarly useful. Why can’t we maintain both this image and the liberating image simultaneously?

Why would we? How can someone be a sexual abuser and an enlightened master at the same time? I’m sure most if not all of Muktananda’s victims would agree. One wrote to me, “Sarah’s article came to me toward the end of my delusion, it only helped confuse me more. I spoke with her once. She still believes Mu was God-realized. So therefore she must make excuses for him.”

Similar excuses have been made about Sai Baba. Tal Brooke was a close devotee of Sai Baba in the late ’60s and wrote Lord of the Air (1976), which details his own and others sexual experiences with this guru. The Indian government banned the book, and Tal’s allegations were dismissed for decades. It is only in recent years with the help of the Internet that many more victims have come forward. Yet people still go on pilgrimages to Bangalore. Devotees, because of their unconditional belief in Sai Baba as God, find it easy to dismiss any accusations as false, without even reading them.

Some vocal devotees simply rationalize the widespread allegations of sexual abuse. An American devotee Ram Das Awle says on his Website (2001), “I’m inclined to think some of the allegations about Baba are probably true. It appears likely to me that He has occasionally had sexually intimate interactions with devotees.” He says that Sai Baba touches men to awaken their kundalini energy or to remove previous bad sexual karma, and that

any sexual contact Baba has had with devotees—of whatever kind—has actually been only a potent blessing, given to awaken the spiritual power within those souls. Who can call that “wrong”? Surely to call such contact “molestation” is perversity itself?

In the BBC documentary The Secret Swami screened in June 2003, Isaac Tigrett, one of the founders of the Hard Rock Cafés, said that even if it was proven that Sai Baba was a pedophile and a serial sex abuser (and in his opinion he believed there was truth to the rumors), Sai Baba would remain his guru. He added that even if Sai Baba went out and murdered someone that would not change things!

Some might ask, “What’s wrong with groups that bring solace and a sense of belonging to so many people?” Author Wendy Kaminer replies,

That’s a bit like asking what’s wrong with a lobotomy, (or) a steady diet of happy pills. The rise of charismatic authority figures is always disconcerting, especially when they malign rationalism and exhort us to abandon critical thinking in order to realize spiritual growth. Pop gurus prey on existential anxieties and thrive when our fear of being alone and mortal in an indifferent universe is stronger than our judgment. No one who seeks worship, however covertly, deserves respect. Argue with them, please (1997).

The Dalai Lama was shocked when he heard that Tibetan lamas were liaising with Western female students and said the only remedy for such a situation was for the culprits to be “outed,” mentioned by name publicly and no longer considered as teachers (Mackenzie, 1998, p. 179). But he also pointed out that, in the final analysis, the authority of a guru was bestowed by the disciple. The guru doesn’t go looking for disciples. The Dalai Lama’s recipe is to “spy” on the guru for at least ten years. Listen, examine, watch, until you are convinced the person is sincere. In the meantime, treat him or her as an ordinary human being and receive the person’s teaching as “just information” (p. 182).

Marion Caplan’s (2002) response to the challenge of gurus is that seekers should aim for a “conscious discipleship that is fully empowered, intelligent, and discriminating.” This, she says, places “the power and responsibility back into the hands and heart of the disciple.” But engaging in guru-disciple relationships from what she calls an “empowered perspective” presupposes a level of maturity and discernment, too often lacking in beginners or new converts—the sort of person I was at the outset of my long and rocky journey.

What was thought to be a passing fad of the 1960s and 1970s has not disappeared. People still go to India and elsewhere to surrender their minds to gurus—even to those who have been exposed as frauds, charlatans, liars, and hypocrites. In addition, many self-styled false messiahs have emerged in the West. Increasing numbers of New Age teachers and leaders of groups, workshops, and seminars who claim “this is it,” “this will change your life,” “here is the way,” continue to mushroom. They are not all harmful, of course, but what seekers need to be wary of are those groups whose leaders proclaim to be God incarnate and expect to be worshipped and treated as such. Invariably, they have ended up exploiting their followers sexually, emotionally, and financially. Rather than spiritual lights, these gurus have turned out to be deluded con men; a few have been downright psychopaths.

The guru-disciple relationship is probably the most authoritarian of all in its demands for surrender and obedience. Hence it can be the most destructive. And so far from achieving the enlightenment and freedom that many of us “wannabe” spiritual pioneers of the 1970s sought (and were promised), we experienced mental imprisonment and confusion. We were seduced by yogis and swamis telling us what we wanted to hear: that we were special and that they were God incarnate. Our need was our downfall. If and when we escaped, the questions that often lingered were “What if it is just me, something wrong with me? Have I failed, given up too soon?”

Mary Garden is a writer who lives in Queensland, Australia. She is the author of The Serpent Rising: A Journey of Spiritual Seduction, 2003, Melbourne: Sid Harta Publishers, 254pp, AUS$19.95. See Her article Bad Karma, on the ISKCON child abuse case, was the cover story of the New Humanist Magazine (UK), July 1005.


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Caplan, M. 2002. “Meeting the Guru Halfway.” NAPRA Review, (Fall). Retrieved online from

Chandler, R. & Marshall, T. 1981. “Guru Brings His Ashram to Oregon.” Los Angeles Times. August 13, p. 14.

Gough, S. 1988. “Dangers and Hypocrisies Amid the Cults and Gurus.” Courier Mail (Australia). July 29.

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