In the documentary Kumare, Vikram Gandhi dresses himself as a guru, speaks in a fake Indian accent, and builds a following of devotees. His teaching: he is an illusion and that the student has to make changes for themselves. The devotion to “Kumare” remains high until he reveals that he really grew up in America, and is not a guru (he’s a reporter for Vice). Then, half of his devotees walk out in disgust. Those that don’t, however, are the ones that see major changes in their lives — changes that they had apparently been unable to make before.
In the West, the guru is a controversial figure. Although many Americans reference their university professors and first bosses whenever possible, most utterly reject the notion of a guru. Conversely, some — especially in the fields of Yoga, Tantra, Sufism, and Eastern religion — actively search for a guru to almost blindly follow.
For many, what is of ultimate importance is not reaching enlightenment, self-development, or even facing personal shortcomings, but being close to an authority. The guru can be quoted. No matter what the situation, the student always has recourse to an ultimate, unquestionable authority. He or she can always spout some “wisdom” while avoiding personal responsibility for what is said.
Although often wrapped in a far softer, passive, more spiritual, and far more appealing atmosphere, this is the urge of the fundamentalist, who gets his authority from his holy book, quoting it selectively and feeling he cannot be questioned because he has quoted from it.
Gurus don’t always appear in the form of the Yoga teacher with a twinkle in his eye — and, perhaps, with the intention of sleeping with his younger and prettier disciples — or, in a certain sense, in the shape of the Holy book. Occult groups that — rather than passing on any real understanding of their tradition (if they have one) — merely give students permission to do what they wanted to do anyway, serve the same function. Superficially radical, beyond the insistence on using group-speak and making in-jokes, such Orders usually pressure members to conform in other areas of life, well outside its purview: dress, politics, relationships, etc.
Few spiritual or occult groups can retain members over a long period. And individuals who advocate the guru as a necessity often have a string of past gurus with which they have fallen out. Yet, it is true that we will not get very far if we do not have a mentor or mentors.
What to do?
Perhaps especially in our own time — where there is a separation between the esoteric and exoteric, between religion and society, and even a strained relationship between men and women on a societal level — initiation has to be largely a matter of self-initiation and taking the initiative. We, each of us, have to do the work. But, at the same time, we have to learn from others. A basic analogy is martial arts. If you want to learn a martial art, you have to practice with an instructor or a school, but you need to practice by yourself, outside of class, and, probably, you might have to do some basic exercise (push-ups, running, etc.) as well.
The difference between learning, say, a specific “style” art and being initiated into martial arts as a “Way” is that, in the latter case, we want to develop all aspects of ourselves, some of which may have remained dormant in us. As such, we have to acknowledge that we cannot get this from a single source. Though some schools teach all of them, in some cases, we may have to study martial arts with one instructor or group and meditation and Chi Gong with another. If we want to learn ritual, art, poetry, writing, and so on, then we may need other teachers.
In this process there is an obvious danger: As with college students who can cherry pick their own studies (because their college has no core curriculum), there is a massive temptation to pick what is easy, makes the individual feel good, or whatever reinforces his or her biases. This is a kind of counter-initiation, and it shrivels the person up rather than helping them to grow.
If we do decide to develop different mentally, physically, and spiritually (which I recommend), then some of the things we are studying will seem easy and others will be difficult.
There is a saying, often described as “Buddhist”: When two paths open up before you, choose the most difficult one. This sentiment is not entirely correct. We don’t want to choose what is more difficult per se. A winding, rocky road is more difficult than a straight, smooth path, but, unless you’re a masochist, it’s probably not the best choice.
To put it more accurately, we want to choose the path that is the more challenging but promises to be the more rewarding; one that offers opportunities for us to wrestle with difficulties that, once conquered, will have improved and elevated some aspect of ourselves. If we want to be an artist, for example, we can delude ourselves that our limited, “natural talent” means that our art is really a reflection of our genius. Or we can admit our limitation (which is a limitation of seeing as much as doing) and learn the techniques of the art, and expand the possibilities of how we express ourselves. This, of course, applies to all disciplines.
As the Hagakure says. “he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own.” This, I think, is the essence of the initiatic journey, and the basis of creativity — which is not mere self-expression, but that which enables us to overcome all new challenges. Not for fools, the lazy, or spoiled, such a journey means that we may have to develop our skills of communication (writings, speaking, perhaps also painting or another art), our physical body (through diet and physical training), our mind (through learning dispassionately, and reacting with proportion to what we encounter, rather than with personal or political bias) and spirit (developing a practice of meditation, breathing exercise, ritual, and so on).
We talk of the guru, and want to reject the notion or elevate this or that guru to an absurd level. However, our problem, in the Kali Yuga, may be that we do not have enough gurus or enough instructors. Westerners want one guru, and they want that guru to be a replacement for Jesus, to fill the hole left by the collapse of religion in most of the West. Consequently, they place too much faith in the individual, who may claim a special connection to the divine, but has ordinary and predictable connections to normal desires and fears.
In some circumstances, Alpha males are Beta males. The expert in combat may have no idea about how to give a public talk or cook a meal, and those expert in food or self-presentation may have no idea about self-defense. An enlightened guru may be obese, have limited knowledge in many areas of learning, and completely unprepared to defend himself physically. The enlightenment that often attracts and mesmerizes disciples is often dependent on material comforts, daily flattery, and a small army of servants. Put to the test, such enlightenment will likely disappear in an instance.
In the pre-modern world, there were always several teachers in a person’s life. The father initiated the boy into manhood, and the mother initiated the girl into womanhood, instructing them in their duties, in morals, in the spirituality and myths appropriate to them, in working with others to support the tribe, and how to excel. Then there was instruction in the arts and learning, whether that was in philosophy, fighting, or farming, etc. If someone sought instruction in the Mysteries, they had already had several teachers, and had already an understanding of the spiritual, mental, and physical.
Today, much of this work — even moral education — has to be done by the individual himself. An occult or esoteric Order, for example, probably won’t teach you about ethics or morals (beyond what they’ve absorbed from the media, and what’s currently en vogue); it probably won’t be able to teach you about art (though such groups often attract artists and artistic types), and it won’t teach you about physical training or self-defense. But, members of the Order may well believe it has everything anyone could possibly need in life. If so, then the group and its leadership will become an object of veneration, and self-development and self-expression outside of its ever-narrowing confines will be impossible, except for the dullest or most fanatical of its members. This is a problem.
A teacher should be happy for your successes and growth both inside of his or her school and outside of it. If a group or teacher, etc., doesn’t approve of you learning other, different arts or disciplines, if there is pressure to conform in other areas of life — especially to speak and think the same as others in the group — or if financial pressure, pressure to view the teacher or group as semi-divine, or if there are sexual pressures (as happens, especially with male gurus and female disciples), it’s time to move on.
If many gurus and teachers want obedient disciples (especially if they’re pretty and twenty-something) and friends that never contradict them, in contrast, the authentic teacher is one who sees himself as making comrades by helping others to help themselves to reach a higher level of mental, physical, or spiritual excellence.