Selections on “How to Relate to a Spiritual Teacher”, from Perspectives on Yoga: Living the Yoga Life, now available at Amazon.com.
No one is to perpetually grovel at the feet of a supposed guru–something a true guru would never allow. But if we find a real master teacher we should happily sit at his feet and learn–not adoring vacuously.
Here is an example from the life of Jesus that applies exactly to the situation:
“Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).
Think of all the busybodying “discples” you know, who are running here and there “serving the guru,” or at least the guru’s organization–which in time will be identified with the guru so that whoever questions or leaves it will be declared guilty of doubting or rejecting the guru. They are selling books and magazines they have never “had time” to read, arranging seminars and world tours, setting up interviews with the rich, the powerful, and the media, immersed in busywork (oops! karma yoga) to avoid facing this utter emptiness–and often with the intention to become a big cog in the guru’s machine and maybe in time be the guru’s successor. Whether the guru is a fake or not is irrelevant. They are so frantically cramming activity into their lives they could not benefit from the greatest of teachers.
On the other hand there are those that sit their bodies and minds down and listen and learn and apply. Wherever their body may be, by always following what they have learned, they never leave the feet of the guru.
We must be the same in relation to both living and departed teachers whose wisdom we have studied, and in relation to our own soul-intuition, for the ultimate guru is our Self.
Our mind must not waver like agitated water, but must be steady and calm. Only then can we truly hear and apply the teachings of the wise, and thereby ourselves become wise. “Therefore be a yogi” (Bhagavad Gita 6:46).
Excusing a false spiritual teacher
Excusing a guru’s materialism on the ground that “for him these are just toys” or “he is showing us an example in how to deal with them/it” is nonsense. Get straight and get honest. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck, it is a duck–not a guru or an avatar whose advent has ushered in the Satya Yuga.
Only those who are consciously one with Satchidananda Itself should be sought out by us. If we know no embodied ones that are in that state, then we should read the lives and teachings of those that lived in that state in the past. They are eternal, and our attunement with them can bring their blessings to us. For example, Sri Brahma Chaitanya of Gondawali in Maharashtra left his body in 1913, yet on occasion he has emerged from his samadhi shrine and spoke with sincere seekers. Time and space do not exist for such embodiments of the Eternal Joy. I can assure you that Swami Sivananda is present in his samadhi shrine at Sivanandashram in Rishikesh.
A spiritual teacher: a finger pointing to the moon
It is not the guru that matters ultimately: it is the realization made possible by the guru’s teaching. So a disciple is one who applies the teaching and attains. As Buddha said, a teacher is a finger pointing at the moon. Once the moon is seen, who looks at the finger? Obsession with personality is just another way of perpetuating the ego.
I have lived with or spent time in close association with great yogi-teachers, and my memories of them are the dearest treasures of my heart. I am endlessly grateful for their teaching, without which I might not have persevered in spiritual life. But realization is my own to gain, something to which I must ever look forward, and not waste my time looking backward and idolizing those whom “mighty world-destroying Time” (Bhagavad Gita 11:32) has swallowed up to be seen no more in those names and forms.
I have met the fabulously wealthy, powerful, and renowned, and it changed my status not a whit. Look at the lives of great masters and even avatars, and see the number of people whose association with them brought no progress whatsoever–and sometimes great spiritual destruction since they did not follow the wisdom of those great ones. Buddha’s cousin tried to kill him and Jesus’ disciple betrayed him.
Onward, Ever Onward, must be the motto of the serious sadhaka. The guru is meaningless if the student does not apply his teachings and progress. Many times the great Swami Sivananda would tell a person who had lived two or three months with him: “You now know all I have to teach you. Go and attain everything yourself.” No true teacher cultivates dependence, but rather gives independence.
False ideas about spiritual teachers
In India the guru is rated above God, for throughout the subcontinent people are assured that if God is angry and the guru is pleased, then the disciple is safe; but if the guru is displeased or angry then even God cannot save you. Of course the same people will just as easily assure you that God cares nothing for the sin or virtue of human beings and that gurus are established in a consciousness of Unity and Bliss that renders them incapable of being upset at any unpleasantness. So how could they ever be displeased? Often the publicity for these gurus speak of “unconditional love” and “love beyond description.”
What has gone wrong? All institutions hate independent and creative thinking. Most hate any kind of thinking at all. Do not be mistaken: the East is just as lockstep ignorant as anywhere else, it is just that the principles recited robotically are wiser than the stupid stuff that flows out of the mouths of Western religionists.
A glorious exception was Paramhansa Nityananda, who was no standard item, and did not fear or hesitate to speak out the truth as he saw it. For example, someone once told him: “In the Gita Krishna says…,” and he interrupted, saying: “No. In the Gita Vyasa says Krishna said.” Not the expected response.
It is not unknown for those that set themselves up as spiritual teachers to teach what they think will sell, and keep the worthwhile knowledge to themselves. This is often the case with meditation teachers. One world-renowned meditation teacher claimed the practice he peddled was the highest and best, having been given to him by his guru, a truly great master. But to me he admitted that he had invented the method and the way he initiated people into it.
I know of at least two other teachers with followings around the world who just looked through some books and then made up what they hawked as ancient tradition. The practices of all three of these charlatans actually harmed many, but it was the money that counted. They led others into the jungle of harm, themselves being the beasts of prey that lived off of them.
A worthy teacher first of all knows the royal road himself and never holds any knowledge from his students. Those who do less must be prepared for the karmic consequences.
Then there are those teachers that dribble out their teaching, especially those that have a series of “initiations” to impart an ascending series of techniques. Since nothing they teach really works, they keep their students in anticipation of the next “higher” technique that surely will begin doing what they promised at the beginning. This is sheer trickery, but what else can they do, since they really know nothing?
But those who do know something worthwhile share it freely, openly, and completely right now, for the future certainly is unsure, but karma is not.
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- Real Spiritual Teachers vs. Super-Gurus
- The False Guru Test
- Podcast: Yoga, God, and Gurus: an Important Perspective