Chakra Discussions

"Realist guru" or "superguru"?

by Dhyana-kunda dasi

Posted January 12, 2004

Gordon MacDonald, a writer from within the Christian tradition, has created a model for analyzing the various stages of the relation between spiritual teacher and disciple. His model includes obligations the teacher and the disciple have toward each other at every stage. MacDonald discusses also the dangers associated with each stage.

I think this is a useful perspective on the ISKCON tradition. I presented this model and discussed its relevance to ISKCON in a paper on spiritual abuse I wrote in 1999. Below, an excerpt from that paper.

Spiritual Abuse in the Context of the Guru-Disciple Relationship

An interesting framework in which to examine longitudinally the quality of the teacher-disciple relationship is provided by Gordon MacDonald in his article entitled "Disciple Abuse." (MacDonald, G. (1986) Disciple Abuse. Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, 288-295.) The writer addresses dangers brought about by the system practiced in certain small Evangelical churches -- so-called 'shepherding' churches -- which demand from the members full submission to a personal mentor.

His main thesis is that a healthy relationship between the disciple and the mentor (called by him "discipler" or "disciple-grower") goes through certain stages, and that skipping over any of those or arresting the development of the relationship at one of them is abusive. He points out, too, that just as disciples, so also disciplers can be exploited if they have taken on disciples who are interested not in spiritual growth but in unwholesome emotional gratification. At least some of the ISKCON gurus would probably agree that "guru abuse" is a needed term.

The stages of discipling listed by MacDonald are:

  1. The calling/commitment encounter, in which the discipling relationship begins
  2. The mentoring process, in which a transference of learning takes place
  3. The broadening effort, in which the disciple-grower opens the eyes of the disciple to possibilities and opportunities by exposing him to responsibility
  4. The releasing, in which the discipler terminates the formal discipling relationship by sending the disciple out to his own tasks
  5. The affirming/appreciating element, which ought to happen continually, long after the formal discipling relationship has been transformed into friendship. (MacDonald, 1986)

The author states that, at the calling/commitment stage, abuse occurs when someone seeks disciples with a conscious or unconscious aim of controlling them -- often because he himself is insecure, uneasy in normal peer relationships, or has personal gains to accomplish through manipulating others. On the other side of the equation,

. . . There are many potential 'disciples' who are not that at all. Their motive for accepting a mentoring relationship is not a genuine quest for maturity but an emotional need for a surrogate father or mother. . . . For the abusive discipler who wants control, these are ripe for the picking. For the genuine disciple-grower, they are a drain on his energies, and it is important to discern such inadequate motives before it is too late. Certainly these people need help, but what they need is not discipling but counseling." (MacDonald, 1986)

At the mentoring stage, abuse can take the form of the discipler's pressuring the disciple to become a copy of himself (or what he wishes he himself could be). The disciple may go along with it, seeking to transcend his limitations by "fusing" with the powerful guru. At the "broadening" stage, abuse manifests in attempts to exclusively control the world of the disciple. Again, there may be a fit between unhealthy emotional needs of the discipler and those of the disciple:

Sadly, there are many people who are only too glad to submit to such an arrangement. They are afraid to think, to make decisions, to take the risks involved in healthy Christian living. They thus open themselves to those who in the name of disciple-making would handle these matters for them by imposing rules, arbitrary expectations, and demands for consultation on all personal matters. (MacDonald, 1986)

In a similar vein, other writers remark: "Looking carefully at a guru's inner circle is extremely revealing. Those closest to him, his most dedicated students, display better than anything else where his teaching leads after years of exposure. What is also displayed is who he prefers to have around him: Are they strong and interesting in their own right, or are they boring sycophants who continually feed his ego? Do disciples ever 'graduate' and become self-defining adults, or do they remain obedient and tied to the guru? It is also very enlightening to observe how gurus treat and refer to those who leave their fold." (Kramer, J. & Alstad, D. (1993) The guru papers. Masks of authoritarian power. Berkeley, California: Frog, Ltd.) Since discipling implies preparing the disciple to reach a certain level of personal maturity, healthy discipling relationships should end or be transformed into friendships once the goal has been reached.

Disciples are abused when disciple-growers . . . either permit the discipling relationship to become solely a friendship, without goals of change and development, before the discipling is completed, or -- worse yet -- choose never to release and send the disciple to the goal of the original call and commitment. The evidence that this is happening will be seen where a strong leader keeps a never-changing group of people around him, each discharging the tasks assigned to him but never released to pursue God's call for himself. (MacDonald, 1986)

Relating the above to the ISKCON reality, my general impression is that our greatest problems are with the first two stages as defined by MacDonald (and if the first stages have gone wrong, how can the further ones go right?). These problems seem to be caused not only by personal lacks but by the institutional requirements and constraints as well. The calling-commitment stage is often formal and sometimes shallow, with guru and disciple hardly knowing each other; expectations are rarely negotiated openly and in detail. Few gurus can provide personal mentoring, due to having a large number of disciples as well as due to distance; most maintain contact mainly through correspondence and often refer disciples to the local managers.

The above will be illustrated by the story of a young devotee who was for some time under my care. Let's call her Anna. If I were to identify a single event that started me thinking about spiritual abuse issues in our Society, this was the one.

Anna was a serious, responsible person. From the first day she joined, she followed the full standard of sadhana required of a devotee and was fully, enthusiastically engaged in devotional service. She also immediately enrolled in the introductory course and worked hard to get the best out of her learning. After four months of chanting 16 rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra, she met the man she chose as her guru. She made her choice on the basis of short association that she found inspiring -- public lecture and kirtan -- and because, as she said, her best friend was aspiring for initiation from him.

In her first letter, after asking for his pranama-mantra, she asked a practical question. The guru gave his pranama without asking the local managers any questions about her, despite knowing that she was too new (GBC guidelines specify six months as a minimum waiting period). But her question he dismissed as something that should be directed to her local managers. This particular guru used to authorize managers in ISKCON temples to give his pranama to whomever they saw fit.

Next month, Anna sent another letter: "What is happiness in Krishna consciousness? I enjoy my daily sadhana, arati, studying, but is this all? Shouldn't there be some goal to strive for? Krishna seems so theoretical and distant. I met a senior devotee who told me that all she expected from herself in this life was to follow the four regulative principles and chant sixteen rounds, that she could not aspire for real love of God. Why should devotees limit themselves like this?"

He wrote "Blessings," that everything would be OK (as if her question was a symptom of a problem) and that he was pleased with her. That was all. He signed off, "Your ever well-wisher. . . ."

Two months later, Anna wanted to ask her guru's opinion about a job offer she had got. She began her letter: "From your silence about my previous question I have understood that it was a useless question. I can understand now that what you wanted to teach me is that all our little daily activities are our happiness in Krishna consciousness, and we should not look for anything more."

Even if her spiritual master remembered the original question, he did not comment on this. He wrote instead that the service question could be solved in consultation with the local management, that he is very busy, having many disciples, and so he requests her to write him not more than twice a year.

Anna never came to speak with me again. The last I remember of seeing her was that she did not seem so happy anymore and started gaining weight.

If we try to relate the dynamics of this guru-disciple relationship to MacDonald's model, the first striking thing is that the calling/commitment encounter never happens. Anna, one out of hundreds in a crowd, sees the visiting sannyasi and likes him and his preaching. He gets a letter from a girl with no face. She has her ideas about becoming his disciple, he has his about becoming her guru, but do these ideas meet?

Anna then expects the relationship to move on to the mentoring phase. She writes three letters, each with a question, and is stonewalled three times. Beyond words, her guru teaches her the rules for the relationship: Don't involve me with your life. Just play the role of a disciple and I will play my guru role by sending you letters with "Blessings" as "Your ever well-wisher" twice a year.

Two of Anna's questions are dismissed on the grounds of belonging to the local management's sphere of competence. Technically they do, even though the guru could still use them to teach Anna how to make decisions, or even just to build a basis for the relationship. His ignoring the third question is especially telling, since Anna is asking about spiritual depersonalization -- the process that has already begun in her own life. Compelled to save her belief in the well-wishing and all-knowing guru, she seeks to interpret his silence as an answer. The answer seems to be: "Embrace depersonalization. Trash your thoughtfulness and your heart. Just go through the motions." Again, through his silence, he confirms she has guessed right.

My attempts to open up communication with Anna's spiritual master failed, and so my interpretation of what things may have looked like from his perspective is just guesswork. I don't believe he meant to abuse Anna. He was working tirelessly to keep up with his tight schedule of traveling and preaching, visiting several places each week. Probably he had resigned himself to having hundreds of faceless disciples as part of his sacrifice to "push on the mission," as was Srila Prabhupada's desire. He may have felt that since all those new devotees needed a guru -- doesn't it say so in the scriptures? -- someone had to accept them. Someone from ISKCON, obviously. There were only a few authorized ISKCON gurus visiting the area, so Anna wouldn't have much more chance for a personal relationship with anyone else either. And Krishna would mercifully "carry what they lack," as He promises in the Bhagavad-gita.

Still, one wonders what caused Anna's guru to be apparently so convinced that their relationship, even though reduced to a mere formality, would fulfill its purpose. His attitude toward Anna's spiritual needs almost looks like magical thinking, where a name of a thing is believed to stand for the thing itself. Was he giving Anna the same treatment he himself had gotten as a new devotee? Was he merely an abuser or a victim as well?

One may also wonder whether Anna possibly set herself up for a disappointment. Thoughtful person that she was, why did she choose a guru on such flimsy grounds? Why was she ready to trust him with her mind and heart without testing? No doubt, partly because he had an ISKCON rubberstamp. ISKCON asssured Anna that this person was safe and competent. Thus whether what he said made sense or not did not count; Anna consistently acted on the premise that if anyone was wrong it could only be her.

Anna happened to be an orphan. Apart from spiritual guidance, what she needed may have been a parent figure, and this unavailable sannyasi guru was, sadly, the closest approximation. One wonders how many hundreds of such physically or emotionally orphaned individuals ISKCON gurus have to reparent, and what are the repercussions of this for their own spiritual wellbeing. It seems to be a widespread and very frustrating problem.