The Certainty of the Lonesome Guru

Posted on May 22, 2019
Vikram Gandhi in the Film Kumaré

Vikram Gandhi in the Film Kumaré

In the film Kumaré, actor and director Vikram Gandhi explores the phenomenon of the Indian guru teaching in the West. Gandhi poses as a real-life guru himself and he starts to spread a spiritual message. The result is delightful and very revealing. The fake guru has no trouble at all to find real followers, and the effect he has on them is real and profound and often deeply moving. I encourage you to watch the movie and read this article by Vikram Gandhi about what he called the Spiritual Placebo Effect.

The most remarkable thing about the film is that Vikram - who moves in the spiritual community and who mentions that he has corrected people countless times that it is Vikram, not Bikram - takes both himself and the spiritual seekers he attracts seriously. This is not a prank. Gandhi really seems to care about his followers.

At Q&A’s, people ask me if I’m still as critical of spiritual leaders as I was when I started. I can say now that I understand why we have spiritual leaders, and how slippery the slope is from hero to villain, when one takes on that role. I may be more sympathetic now, but I still always think back to something Kumaré once said: “It is you real gurus that make us fake gurus so necessary.”

What gurus provide is certainty and authority. Many people confuse certainty with truth, but there is a crucial difference. Certainty is subjective, it is an attribute of how we feel about statements. Truth is objective, it is an attribute of the statements themselves. “New York was once New Amsterdam.” True or false? True. If you don’t believe me, please consult this Wikipedia page. If you believe it is futile to consult this page because you are already certain that the statement is false, then your case can serve as an illustration of the distinction between certainty and truth. You will have shown us, by example, that it is possible to be absolutely certain of something that is absolutely false.

There are many cases where people are certain of things that later on turn out to be false. Conversely, it is possible to have a true belief about something and at the same time to have doubts about your belief, like in “I am inclined to believe in your innocence, but I am not completely certain.” A good measure for certainty is willingness to bet on something: “I am not certain of this. I won’t take bets on it.”

Belief in falsehoods is not a successful strategy for dealing with the challenges of life. Truth matters. Being right about things is crucial for our survival. Is that gun loaded or not? Is he lying to me or not? Is this car safe to drive in or not? For sure, there are areas where finding out whether one is right or not can be quite involved. You have to master a bit of science in order to be able to read the scientific literature on climate change with profit. You need to have developed a taste for trustworthy information in order to appreciate David MacKay masterful Renewable Energy Without the Hot Air.

And one area where separating truth from falsity is particularly hard, or virtually impossible, is the area of reflection on our own inner world. Our awareness is directly given to us. Our awareness is an undeniable fact. And the remarkable thing is that we cannot prove that we are aware to someone else. Our awareness is our essence, but listing attributes of our awareness is next to impossible. What we find when we turn our attention to our awareness is not in need of proof, but also not capable of being proved to others. Others can invite us to turn our attention within and encourage us to start noticing things. Others can sometimes help us validate what we find when we start noticing things about our inner world, through resonance.

And here a true miracle can happen. We can open up to another human being and decide to recognize and validate each other’s inner world. This is the wonder of intimacy. The key to this is mutual trust, mutual understanding, a courageous decision to open our hearts to each other. And the results of this can be mind blowing and deeply moving and transformative. Those who have experienced and cultivated this kind of connection with others know what I am talking about. This is also the area where the guru operates. This is the area where some people give away their own authority to another person.

Authority is the socially approved power to command, or the right to exercise power over others. The right to exercise power over another human being can have different sources. Broadly speaking, authority can be based on legislation (e.g., the authority that police officers on duty can have over us), on tradition (e.g., the power that patriarchs or priests can have over a group), or on charisma (the power of the charismatic politician, the power of the guru). Max Weber, one of the founders of sociology, defines charisma as a “quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.” As is clear from Weber’s definition, the power of a guru is given to him - or, less frequently, her - by the disciples.

Guru followers give power to their leader. In return, the guru gives their followers a sense of security, a sense of belonging, a feeling of serenity, an absolute conviction that what the group is doing is right. Gurus are dispensers of certainty. The guru disciple relation is a form of authoritarian control. Mind you, power and control play a role in any interaction between people. In healthy interaction, the balance of power is shifting continuously, as in a kind of dance. When I interact with you, we change roles all the time. The attention is on you for a while, and next we turn it to what I have to say. The guru is a person who wants the attention on him (or her) all the time. This property makes them easy to recognize.

Why do we need certainty? What we actually need is a sense of security. This can be based on certainty, but a much better foundation would be an anchoring in truth. The Ideal of the Enlightenment is to trust in our own powers for distinguishing what is true from what is false. Sapere aude (have the courage to know) is Immanuel Kant’s famous adage for the Enlightenment.

We need security. But we also need adventure. And there is a dark side to our need for security. As the nostalgia for communism in the former German Democratic Republic (DDR) and in other Eastern European countries illustrates, it is pleasant not to have to think for ourselves. The appeal of the populist leaders is precisely that they give their followers absolution for leaving the thinking to others. This may be tempting, but it is also very dangerous. Democracy can only function in a setting where citizens have learned to think for themselves.

The wisest men follow their own direction
And listen to no prophet guiding them.
None but the fools believe in oracles,
Forsaking their own judgement. Those who know,
Know that such men can only come to grief.

Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris

This is the epigraph of Anthony Storr’s psychological study about gurus, Feet of Clay (Harper Collins, 1997). Storr is a psychologist and psychotherapist; his book is an attempt to analyze what makes gurus tick. Storr mentions that almost all gurus started out as rather isolated children: Bhagwan Rajneesh, Rudoph Steiner, Carl Gustav Jung, … Here, in bullets, is my summary of what Storr has to say about gurus.

Storr believes that the distinguishing psychological characteristic of gurus is their narcissism. But he immediately adds that narcissism is not necessarily in all circumstances a bad thing. Winston Churchill was intensely narcissistic, but he was precisely what Great Britain needed in 1940. He was able to convey his inner certainty to the British people in a seemingly desperate situation. He was a prophet and a guru and a master orator, and a prophet and a guru and a master orator were what was needed to convince the British nation that their fight against Hitler was not hopeless.

Storr compares gurus to two other categories: scientists and artists. Scientists have to be willing to be corrected. They have to state their theories in such a way that they can be proved wrong. Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicted a deviation of the course of Mercurius as computed by Newtonian celestial mechanics. This was predicted by Einstein in 1915 and actually found in 1919. Artists have to be appreciated by at least a few people other than the artist him- or herself, otherwise what they produce is not art. Both scientists and artists have to be connected. Gurus create their own crowd of connection. And that can be a problem. Gurus generalize from their own subjective experience. And that can be a problem too. Some gurus remain honest, sincere, and little affected by the adoration of their disciples (Steiner, St Francis, Ignatius), while many others become corrupt (Rajneesh, and further examples not mentioned by Storr below).

Discussing flaws of gurus with their disciples is a hopeless undertaking. Disciples treat their gurus as infatuated lovers treat their idols. And as most of us know from experience, criticizing the sweetheart of someone who is deeply love is a very bad idea.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his famous essay on Self-Reliance, gave the following characterisation of genius:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, – that is genius.

Oops, no need for a check? This connects immediately to a revealing interview with disgraced guru Andrew Cohen. Cohen is exceptional, as he is willing to answer questions about the cult he had been leading. Here is what he says (at 11:00 in the video):

“For a long term I was convinced that if I felt something strongly at the level of my intuition, I would tend to think that what I was feeling was an objective truth. And often it was, especially in the early years. But later on, some of my own feelings were just personal feelings and might have just come from my ego, and might have not had anything to do with any kind of objective reality, and might have had to do with personal preferences, or fears or desires, or other things like that.”

What I find revealing here is the confusion between strong feeling and objective truth. Where have I seen that before? Could it be that there are many people who operate like this, who see their preferences and values as objective, who do not understand the difference between subjective values and objective facts? The video ends with a memorable word of one of the ex-members:

Sometimes I think, why didn’t we question things. We are intelligent you know. And that will always haunt me.

An extreme phenomenon in the category of disgraced gurus is spiritual leader Marc Gafni. He is a former rabbi, and there is a long list of rabbis who denounced him. He is a spiritual teacher, and several spiritual teachers warned the public against him. And he keeps coming back. A former associate and girlfriend called him an abuser on youtube, and he responded with a video where he admonishes her to be more loving, and assures her that he has forgiven her. The audacity of this is mind-blowing. Marc Gafni about himself is quite a contrast with Paul Levi about Marc Gafni or Marc Gafni’s third wife about Marc Gafni. A particularly revealing video is Donna Zerner, “The Shadow Behind the Light” about Zerner’s experiences with “Mike Rockme”, where Mike/Marc is described as “a dark and dangerous con artist”. First watch this, next watch the reply by Marc Gafni, Marc Gafni’s invitation to Donna Zerner. Comments are disabled for the reply video. You may guess why.

Watching the reply video gave me the same feeling as watching the briefly famous female Belgian cyclist, Femke van den Driessche, on TV, after she was found out with a hidden motor in her bicycle during the world championship cross country cycling in 2016. Van den Driessche was caught red handed in the act of mechanical doping, and still she tried to deny everything on TV, seconded by her dad, making strategic use of her attractive looks and her tears. One had to remind oneself that there was simply no way she could have been innocent. She must have believed, for a moment, that an honest looking attractive young woman in tears can get away with anything.

Marc Gafni also seems to believe he can get away with anything. There is a difference, however. When the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) threatened Van den Driessche with a suspension for life, she decided to give up her cycling career straightaway. But in the case of Gafni, there is no Union de Spiritualité Internationale to suspend him. It is true that the Jewish community had already thrown him out, but he had collected a new community of followers around him that he had managed to convince of the vengefulness of the Rabbinate.

The fuzziness of Marc Gafni’s replies to accusations has to be seen to be believed. An analysis of how he goes about this can be found here. But he can reinvent himself again and again, as long as the almost infinite supply of people - particularly attractive women - who still wish to believe in him does not run dry. He must know, deep in his heart, that he is a con artist. The fool says in his heart “There is no truth”.

This same fuzziness can be observed in Kundalini yoga teacher Karta Singh Khalsa’s responses to accusations of improper sexual conduct. There was already a long history of complaints about Karta Singh, but after a change org petition in 2016 to stop the cover-up, Karta Singh lost his licence to teach advanced Kundalini yoga courses.

Rather than admitting that his behaviour was improper, he utters platitudes such as “I always honour women as the expression and manifestation of God’s Grace. I am fully aware that the man’s redemption is bestowed from and through Women’s Grace.” Is that really true, Karta Singh? Are you saying that the accusations against you were false? You seem to be dimly aware that something is amiss with your teaching style: “I have been aware that for some of you it has not been a process which could be completed by a final healing and integration.” And whose fault was that, Karta Singh? “I am fully receiving the pain of the complainants and others who have been hurt by the current situation, whether they are students or not. I have myself experienced a heavy stage of emotions - deception, a sense of betrayal and abuse.” Karta Singh makes this into a symmetric case of mutual abuse. One has to admire his chutzpah.

You can read up on this and other mayhem in the world of Kundalini yoga and Yogi Bhajan here. Looking through this material I found a reference to a lawsuit against Yogi Bhajan, by Katharine Felt (his secretary). Also, it turned out very easy to find complaints about Yogi Bhajan, by former followers, from 1985. I also practice Kundalini Yoga, but I had never bothered to research the antics of their founder.

The way in which disgraced gurus defend themselves is a spectacle to behold. The criticisms and accusations drip off them like water from a duck. For Karta Singh Khalsa it is business as usual. He has removed references to the Kundalini Research Institute (KRI) that suspended him from his website and carries on as before. Marc Gafni makes it sound like the numerous complaints about him are all part of an internet smear campaign. For him it is business as usual too. You can still sign up for his Summer Festival of Love, 29 July - 4 August 2019, in The Netherlands. And Andrew Cohen is back in business also. You can join him on his website for a retreat in France, around the same time. And yes, he explains on the website what has changed in his teaching “since returning from his sabbatical”. What the fallen gurus have in common is that they seem to have kept their certainty. And maybe that is not so strange. After all, it’s the only commodity they have, so it is understandable why this is such a very, very hard thing for them to give up.

One more thing. Starting a yoga or meditation or martial arts practice can be deeply transformative, as I know from personal experience. Yoga or meditation or martial arts teachers have been a tremendous help for me on my individual path of emotional growth. And I have been very fortunate in my encounters with wonderful teachers. And sometimes, when opening up to new experiences, it made sense for me to put my strongly developed critical faculties on hold. But only sometimes, and only temporarily. And if a teacher in the area of personal growth ever asks me to go against my own sound judgement, I vote with my feet.


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Online reading:


Books are a great source of enlightenment, often better than websites and films, especially if the authors have devoted lots of time and effort to their research, or if they are articulate advocates of practices they know well from personal experience.