The following can be found on several websites, with differing authors being cited. It may not be perfect, but it is wise in the main. Although “he” is used in it, “she” should be understood as being meant as well.
If seven or more of the following describes your guru or spiritual teacher, then unfortunately he may not be be as enlightened or good for your soul as you would like to believe:
1. States his own enlightenment: The wisest masters tend not to state their own enlightenment or perfection for they know that it is both unhelpful to themselves and to their students. The false teachers often make this claim because they have little else on offer to attract followers.
2. Is unable to take criticism: False teachers strongly dislike either personal criticism or criticism of their teaching; they do not take kindly to ordinary unenlightened individuals questioning them. They or their organizations will even undertake multi-million dollar law suits to stop ex-members from spilling the beans.
3. Acts omnipotently with no accountability: Some spiritual communities are run like concentration camps, with guru and his chosen ones acting like Gestapo officers. Unjust or outrageous behavior by the guru is passed off as what is needed to help the followers grow (how kind). These are the dangerous gurus who have often severely damaged their students. A real master respects your will even if he understands that your particular decisions may not be in your interest, and he will act accountably to an ethical code of conduct.
4. Focuses on enlightenment itself rather than teaching the path leading to it: It is amazing how much false gurus have to say about enlightenment. They argue their points in the same way that the scholars in the middle ages argued how many angels could sit on the head of a pin. Any fool can talk about the end goal because what is said is irrefutable to most of your listeners. What is skillful is guiding those listeners to having awakening within themselves. The real teacher focuses on the path and strictly avoids only talk on enlightenment.
5. Does not practice what is preached: Contrary to spiritual myth, you don’t reach a point of realization whereby you can then start acting mindlessly. If a teacher preaches love and forgiveness, then he should act that way, at least most of the time, showing suitable regret for any lapses. If he teaches meditation, he should meditate. If he insists that his followers live in austere conditions, so should he.
6. Takes the credit for a particular meditative or healing technique: The fact is that meditation and guided visualization work. Anyone doing them will experience major changes, benefits and realizations. The false guru will try to own or trademark particular methods and techniques so that he has something unique to attract followers. And he will hijack the effects of meditation as the guru’s blessing rather than each individual’s natural potential. Often the students or followers are forbidden from divulging the techniques to maintain a sort of intellectual property right, usually under the guise of needing the technique to be taught correctly.
7. Specifically gives satsang or darshan when it is not part of his culture: Darshan is when the disciples or students of a master line up and to pass their master, who is usually seated, with either a bow or traditionally touching their feet with hands or head (yes it does happen). In the East, this is part of their culture and a normal thing to do to show respect and reverence (even children will touch the feet of their fathers). However, here in the West, such copycat behavior is a strong indication that the guru is acting a role. Satsang, on the other hand, means literally “the company of the Truth.” In a deeper sense it is an affirmation of the Guru-Disciple relationship in Eastern traditions. But some Western gurus will use this terminology because they are playing a role.
8. Lives in total opulence: There is nothing wrong with living in luxury or being wealthy. But when that luxury turns to unnecessary opulence using funds that were not explicitly donated for that purpose then you are probably dealing with a false guru. Money is collected from followers usually in the form of donations, and those donations are given as an act of love, appreciation and to help spread the influence of the master. However, a genuine master is more likely to use such wealth to lessen the suffering in this world, not to buy another yacht, private jet or Rolls Royce.
9. Encourages or permits adoration from his followers: Avoid any group that focuses on the “master” rather than the teachings or spiritual practices. This will be a hindrance to your self-realization for your focus will be drawn outside of yourself, and usually indicates that there is not a lot more on offer than guru worship.
10. Presents himself or herself overly fashionably and glamorously: Beware of masters who present glamour photographs of themselves and dress overly fashionably (whilst proclaiming that they have no ego and leading ego-death retreats). Yes, it does happen!
11. Demands love and devotion from their students: Keep clear of any master who demands love and devotion. One very well known Western guru stated, “Anyone who loves me is guaranteed enlightenment!” Real love and devotion is earned over time when we begin to really know the whole person and not their public image.
12. Speaks with an Indian accent or vernacular when he is in fact a Westerner: Not sure how much this happens now but there are some high profile Western gurus who have (or had) Indian accents, mannerisms and vernacular. Unless they have genuinely spent considerable time in other cultures, they are probably playing out a role.
13. Runs expensive miracle workshops and courses: You are unlikely to reach enlightenment after a few weekend workshops with cheesy titles. In our society of “must have now,” we want to be able to purchase spiritual development with minimal fuss. Also, avoid meaningless accreditation–it is often used merely to encourage followers to do more courses.
14. Takes sexual advantage of his followers: This happens much more than many believe. It is not being prudish to include this one because when a follower falls under the spell of a guru he is likely to do anything for the Chosen One. It is only afterwards that it may dawn on the follower that his openness has been used and abused. This can be very psychologically scarring.
15. Flatters you and treats you as very special: Sure we are all special in some ways, but this is one of the things that a false guru may do to hook a potential follower or to get a current follower to do a particular task. Nothing can be more intoxicating to the ego than to be selected by the master or leader (or any high profile person). A real master will stand back and allow you to make your decision whether to accept his teachings without trying to influence the process.
16. Talks nonsense: It is surprising what a person will listen to when he is devoted to the speaker. It is always a good idea to get hold of a written transcript of what has been said and really read the message. Then ask an open-minded friend who is not a follower what their opinion is purely on the strength of the words. You will soon find out whether there is any real substance to the teacher’s message, or whether you are merely being drawn in by the charisma of the messenger.
17. Overly relies on slick presentation: Slick presentation can often mask poor content, and so it is important for you to look past the lovely music and video shows at the actual message. The slicker the presentation, the harder it is to see what exactly the teaching is.
18. Gives himself outrageous titles: Not satisfied by being “merely” an enlightened being, many false gurus give themselves titles (or allow their followers to do so) to indicate that they are literally God-Incarnate, the reincarnation of the Buddha or Christ, or THE chosen one. Some continually change their names, to keep pace with their burgeoning egos.
19. Runs abundance workshops: A guru or master is there to help us find an authentic life. This is nothing to do with becoming more successful at work or making more money, although this may or may not follow from being more authentic. There is nothing wrong with abundance weekends, but if we mistake spirituality for increased business success, then we are guilty of spiritual materialism and we find ourselves deeper in the illusion. (The Japanese say that the gods laugh at those who pray for money.)
20. Is not interested in you personally: If a teacher or guru does not have time to interact with you personally, then you may as well read his teaching from a book, because merely being in his presence doesn’t help you find realization inside you. You may model some of his spiritual characteristics, but that often only places you deeper in illusion.
21. Allows his followers to set up a hierarchy of access: A guru must be accessible. If he is not, or if he allows his followers to block your access, then he is playing the role of a king and not a spiritual guide. A guru is only useful to the process of awakening if you can directly interact with him.
22. Makes false claims of lineage: Many mistakenly believe that realization can only happen under the guidance of a realized master. In this belief system, gurus are only authentic when they come from a line or lineage of realized gurus. Desperate not to be left out, some gurus claim a false lineage of enlightened masters to bolster their authority to teach. Another pseudo form of “lineage” is to recount a miracle that once happened to them (maybe they cured themselves of some disease or God spoke to them personally) which infers that they are “chosen” and therefore have the authority to set themselves up as teachers and gurus.
23. Presents himself (and his organization) as non-profit whilst raking in the millions: Often, the false prophet will present his teachings for free, whilst strongly encouraging his devotees to make large donations. In this way he can appear above money considerations, whilst maintaining his greed and opulence.
24. Collects a large band of angry ex-followers: This is an indication that something is seriously wrong. If he has used kindness and love in his interactions with his students, and has discouraged them from projecting denied spiritual characteristics onto the guru (rather than encouraging their integration into the self), then it is extremely unlikely that there would be more than a few disheartened ex’s. Many might drift away and feel they have wasted their time, but they are only likely to have the great anger if they have put their teacher on a pedestal, given him their power, and later realized that he was never worthy of such adoration. Contrary to what some believe, it is actually the teacher’s responsibility to strongly discourage students from putting them on pedestals, for this is counterproductive to finding realization inside.
25. Uses pseudo-technology: Many false prophets and organizations base themselves around pseudo-technology in the effort to appear scientific–special meters, communication devices (do you really expect the aliens to use a mobile?) and energy clearing instruments and pendants that involve crystals and copper wire. Once again, this is to distract the unwary from the poor quality of the actual teaching.
26. Acts like a complete paranoid mad person: If your Precious One acts like a complete paranoid schizophrenic or psychotic then he probably is. Run! Remember that there is no such thing as “crazy wisdom”–wisdom is the art of being balanced. However charismatic they may be, and sane between moments of madness, you WILL be damaged by them.
Chapters in How to Be a Yogi
- Introduction: Climbing the Ladder of Consciousness
- The Implications of All This
- The Foundations of Yoga
- Spiritual Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet
- Living the Yoga Life
- The Gita Speaks To The Yogi
- It Is All in Your Hands
- Appendix: The False Guru Test
Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary
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