Gurus - Part 1 - Between Power & Devotion
Updated: Apr 26
After listening to some interviews on J. Browns Yoga Podcast with various long-time yoga teachers, I find myself once again questioning the whole “guru-thing”.
J. has talked to various people from (and about) the Ashtanga scene – where, in recent years, more and more former students of the founder Pattabhi Jois are speaking up about physical abuse and sexual assault. Other Podcast episodes also talk about rough physical adjustments done by other Indian gurus (e.g. Iyengar) as well as guru-worship in general.
Many questions appeared for me…
What is a guru exactly?
Where does the word come from?
What does it entail?
How has the guru tradition changed?
Why do we have these ‘issues’ with the gurus that we have these days?
Do we still need gurus today?
Do I need a guru to ‘advance’ in yoga (whatever that might mean)?
In this part I will be answering the first five questions. My answers to the last two questions and a more personal view on the whole topic can be found in Part 2.
Guru is a title for a spiritual teacher in Hinduism, Sikhism and tantric Buddhism. The word is comprised of the Sanskrit syllables “gu” (= darkness) and “ru” (= light). Which loosely translates to “one who banishes darkness from the mind” or “one who brings light into the dark”. “guru” as an adjective translates to “heavy”; “one who is ‘heavy’ in knowledge”.
Traditionally, in the Indian household, the father was the guru and sought to share his wisdom and pass on his knowledge to his son.
In the culture of yoga, a guru is regarded as an enlightened mentor or a trusted spiritual master. The one-on-one relationship between the yoga disciple and the guru is considered paramount to the practice and to the achievement of enlightenment.
When a student embarks on the spiritual journey the path is not straight forward and easy to follow. So, having the guidance of a guru can be helpful. A guru can assist in navigating past pitfalls and dangers and/or potentially ‘transmit’ his spiritual radiance to his followers.
So, where does it all go wrong?
I feel that there are two ways… (or a combination of both):
A: The guru becomes corrupted by power.
B: The student blindly follows the guru.
Let me explain a bit further:
A: Some gurus might have bad intentions from the beginning, but let´s assume the majority starts off with the best intentions (that being: sharing their wisdom to guide students on their spiritual journey towards enlightenment for the greater good of all). A guru might not have even intended to be given that title, that position. Followers gradually gather around him and he eventually becomes the centre of a spiritual community. Having power and unconditional devotees can corrupt pretty much anyone. The guru status can bring privilege, power, money, even sex. Some get corrupted by these perks, others seek to become gurus because of them (out of narcissistic intentions and a self-centred mind).
I am not saying that there is no other way, that all gurus are bad. I am just saying that –
considering the recent developments and stories coming to light (Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar being the most prominent examples) – being cautious if/when following a guru is advisable.
B: Following a guru requires devotion from the student. One seeks and finds a guru (or is found
by the guru) to progress on the spiritual path. Assuming that the guru is the one who has the ability to guide you from the dark into the light, the student is wise to follow what the guru has to offer.
The relationship gets unhealthy, when the student loses his/her power to question what the guru is proposing, leading the student to blindly following anything he is saying. This might be because the guru demands for blind obeyance or because the student out of whatever reasons has retreated to a child-like state of irresponsibility for oneself (often this is not a rational process, on the contrary it happens unconsciously). This child-like state of unconditional devotion and irresponsibility can be quite appealing – the guru is in complete control of the world, therefore, can protect you from anything and you have nothing to worry about.
Again, this is not always the case, but has happened (I recommend you watch the Osho documentary – Wild Wild Country).