11 Reasons Why we (Still) Need Gurus, Teachers, and Yoga Communities

1. Douglas Brooks Seems to Think So!

From the insightful writings of Douglas Brooks, we have been reminded in recent weeks that the community of yogic peers has an important role to play in the teaching and assimilation of spiritual knowledge. The community, we learn again and again, must not give its power away to rogue teachers, or put leaders on a pedestal.

With its “horizontal values” of equality and freedom and thus its ability to democratize, the community is a vital ingredient in maintaining integrity, balance and transparency between teachers and students in the yoga community.

From Douglas Brooks, we have learned not just the problem with failed teachers but also about the importance of great teachers, even great gurus, as in the example of his own role as popular teacher, and in his relationship with his South Indian Tantric guru. In that latter role, in the vital relationship between guru and student, there is another kind of communion, one based on “vertical values,” the values of tradition, carefully acquired knowledge, and sometimes even initiatory wisdom only taught to the qualified few.

In the fervor to kick the failed teachers and so-called gurus off the pedestal, many, perhaps most, in the yoga community now want to have nothing more to do with gurus at all. They want community, not corrupted leaders and gurus. This hellbent, one-eyed search for community and more democracy is, of course, as failed an enterprise as using denial and corruption to put disgraced teachers back up on the pedestal.

In sum, I think Douglas Brooks’ message was this: neither the community nor the teacher can restore balance. We need both. And sometimes we need Gurus for perennial inspiration, for deep wisdom, and an occasional blow to the ego.

Indeed, we need both horizontal and democratizing values as well as vertical and traditional values. Gurus, teachers, as well as a dynamic community of peers, they all have their rightful place. Neither one holds in itself the entire solution to personal and community transformation. We do best when we live in dynamic balance. That is, after all, what Tantra is about.

2. Real Gurus Are for Real!

Witnessing the trail of failed gurus over the years, many have concluded that that’s not true. A true guru is only a fake guru, they say. But the logic of that argument is quite misplaced. You don’t go searching for a real guru among the fakes and the charlatans anymore than you look for a new car in a wrecking yard.

So, to all those who hate gurus, to all those who even drag the great ones down in the mud of gossip and prejudice: your jaundiced vision comes from looking too long at all the failed and fake ones!

Indeed. True Gurus do exist, but they are exceedingly rare. If I were to guess, I’d say every century features maybe a dozen or so truly enlightened humans.  Throughout human history, there has perhaps lived but a few hundred such illuminated beings, such God-like humans in flesh and blood, whose teachings resonate with the perennial wisdom of all sages of the past. That’s how rare these spiritual heavyweights are. So, I don’t throw the word guru around lightly.

3. Guru’s are an Integral Part of Yoga.

Throughout the history of yoga, the authentic guru has often been regarded as an essential spiritual guide. In yoga, the genuine spiritual master is one whose mind is the embodiment of spiritual philosophy; one who walks his or her talk; one who lives according to what he or she preaches; one who takes on students to teach them what he has learned in life.

The idea is really simple and can best be described with an analogy. Great painters of the Renaissance had apprentices who were able to live and work with them. The idea was that we learn so much more through osmosis, by rubbing shoulders with the master, by seeing the world through his eyes, than by lectures and advises from a book or a lecture hall. But most importantly, in the inexplicable relationship with a master, a distinct and sublime chemistry is created, which, over time, rubs off in the life and work of the student.

Likewise, to live in the proximity of a great guru, or a great teacher, is a priceless gift that is hard to understand and appreciate unless you have had the experience.

Having been in the close proximity of such a classical guru figure for nearly two decades, I am still puzzled at the ineffable and enigmatic quality of that relationship. While at times seemingly normal, most of the time, a true guru—as much as my own guru tried to deflect the futility of guru-worship—remains mysterious and beyond reach. As does the remarkable light and depth in a Rembrandt painting.

So, how does one begin to reveal the inner mystery of great yogi masters like Ramana Maharshi or Aurobindu or Ananda Moi Ma. One cannot. And unless you are willing to accept that, you will always try to rationalize the guru and in that rationalization, much of the experience falls flat on itself.

Yet, we can and must rationalize; yet, we can make both teachings and guru understandable. And we do that sometimes by simple deconstruction, by observing isolated events and traits. But also through a “whole-vision” observation, just like we enjoy a great painting; we enjoy technique, color, form, and mystery, all in the same gaze.

So, when people call yoga teachers like John Friend a guru, it makes me laugh. It’s like calling someone who has written a bunch of catchy songs and can sing them on his guitar the next Bob Dylan. It’s like calling someone who can make great drawings the next Rembrandt. There is simply no comparison.

Like it or not, there are people who stand out in this world. Not every artist or scientist deserves the title genius and not every teacher deserves the title guru. Simply put, you cannot democratize everything, not great art, not great science, and certainly not great gurus. That would be a disservice to humanity and to yoga.

4. Gurus are Way Above Average!

These remarkable human beings hold the initiatory secrets to reveal Spirit, bring down Spirit on earth, and unravel the serenity of enlightenment. They are the living testament of a spiritual lineage as old as civilization itself.

As the word connotes in Sanskrit, a Guru is that person who, by dint of his or her enchanted spiritual genius, is able to help us “dispel darkness,” to “remove ignorance” from our hearts and minds.

In other words, a guru (gu+ru= dispeller of darkness) is the one who removes the veil of existence and lets us see the true face of reality. The guru is the one who helps us move from the path of Avidya to the path of Vidya, from the path of ignorance to the path of knowledge.

Since there is much skepticism, controversy and misunderstanding about gurus in the West today, it is important to understand in essence who the guru actually is.

In Tantra it is said that the quintessential guru is beyond physical form: Brahmaeva Gururekah Naparah—the Guru is Brahma only, no one else.

All great masters have clearly understood this. Jesus Christ explained this in his saying, “I and my Father are One.”

Lord Buddha explained this with the utterance, “My thoughts are always in the Truth. For lo! My Self has become the Truth.”

And Lord Krishna when he said, “I am the goal of the wise man, and I am the way.”

Although great world teachers, such as Shiva, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, and others, have been distinct historical personalities with a distinct physical body and an explicit set of esoteric teachings, their spiritual Consciousness has been attuned to the One God of all, the One Formless guru of us all.

Thus, the manifestation of the physical, historical guru, no matter who it is, is an indispensable gateway to the Divine. And they remain so, even after they are physically no longer with us, for it is their timeless Being and their Divine Presence that we venerate and love. Not just their spiritual smarts and their good looks.

(And, finally, if you don’t like ranking, and you tell me I can’t do that, you’re setting yourself up as judge! So, just take a deep breath and relax and enjoy life’s juxtapositions. Yoga is to embrace and rise above them!)

5. Some People Do Find Their Guru (Within).

There is, of course, no absolute need to have a physical guru in your life. You may, for example, feel devotion for a great spiritual master who has already left his or her body. What matters is your love for that Master and your ability to internalize the Master’s teachings and extraordinary state of consciousness.

Or, you may rightly feel that the guru dwells in all. Or, that the guru dwells inside. When Rumi’s guru, Shams, suddenly disappeared one day, Rumi went looking for him. After years of searching all over, one day in Damascus, Rumi realized Shams was within him. There was no longer any need to search in the world for his guru. Rumi had himself become the embodiment of the guru and his teachings.

6. Beware! There are Different Kinds of Gurus.

Still, if your goal is to find a living, realized guru, here are four insights to keep in mind:

a. There are various kinds of gurus. Many so-called gurus who have arrived in the West are teachers and not authentic, self-realized gurus. And, unfortunately, most of these teachers do not deserve the unconditional veneration bestowed upon them.

b. If the teachings of a not-so-enlightened teacher belong to a genuine spiritual lineage, his or her teachings will still benefit you. Hence, it is important to be devoted to the practice and the teachings while also being a discerning disciple.

c. While there have been many great sages and gurus throughout history, there has only been a few Mahagurus. A so-called Great guru, a Mahaguru is a human being whose Consciousness remains a bridge between this world and the spiritual world. Forever awake, the Mahagurus are walking Gods and Goddesses whose consciousness is a door always flung open into infinite awareness.

d. In Tantra, there is the concept of Taraka Brahma—which literally means the bridge between the unmanifest and the manifest worlds. Taraka Brahma exists at the tangential point between these two worlds. In Tantra, the Mahaguru and Taraka Brahma are synonymous; they are the historical gateways to the Divine. That gateway is what we simply call Grace, and grace can come from anywhere, at anytime. That is, even if you have a living or dead guru, the true Guru is both right here and everywhere.

7. Gurus and Ethics Must Mix!

Great gurus lead lives imbued with an impeccable spiritual ethics.

While the Romans and the priests of ancient Palestine felt justified to attack Jesus and his inspired followers for political reasons, they were unable to find any flaws in his personal morality.

Likewise, after years of opposition against Shiva and his Dravidian followers, the invading Vedic Aryans in India had to conclude that Shiva’s spiritual personality and leadership qualities were beyond reproach.

8. When You Sift the Barley, the True Guru Appears!

The vast majority of the so-called gurus who have visited the West since the 1960s, do not qualify as Mahagurus. Most of them are not even qualified to earn the title guru, because they are mostly teachers and seekers struggling with many of the same (or worse) human faults as their students.

Hence the many reports of unenlightened behavior by so-called gurus who have misled their students through abuses of power, corruption or sex; hence the many excuses and cover-ups to deny such immoral behavior.

Sometimes abusive, destructive and immoral behavior has been written off as Crazy Wisdom. That is, one is told the teacher is enlightened and just displaying strange behavior to teach the student some important lesson in surrender or devotion.

Or one is told the student lacks spiritual understanding, or is simply unable to see that the teacher is a mirror of the student’s own limitation.

So, we must make up our own hearts and minds. Are we presented with the classic denial tactics used by cults where the victim is blamed for the group’s or the teacher’s transgressions? Or are we truly in the company of an unconventional, enlightened being?

Because so many students of Eastern spirituality have been faced with these complex questions, it is natural that many spiritual seekers today are skeptical of the guru-disciple relationship.

This dilemma can be resolved by, first of all, recognizing that, irrespective of the teacher’s qualities, the true guru is none other than the formless Brahma, the omnipresent God within and beyond us, the one and only true Teacher of all.

Second, it is best to connect with a trusted guru or lineage with a known history of one or a few recognized enlightened preceptors.

And third, treat all teachers in the lineage, except your carefully chosen guru, as guides, not gurus. These teachers will often share many of the same personality flaws an average seeker on the same spiritual path is faced with.

What is most important, after all, are the invaluable lessons you learn from practicing the authentic teachings of an authentic lineage. So, even if you have been misled by a less-than-perfect teacher, you need not leave the path.

The ideal spiritual teacher is a living example of the teachings he or she espouses. Some teachers, however, have great intellectual knowledge of spiritual philosophy and practice, yet their personal conduct is less than exemplary.

One such teacher’s controversial lifestyle was brought to the attention of the Dalai Lama by a group of Western Buddhist monks. What would be his advice, they wondered. The Dalai Lama’s reply was profound and unmistakable: “One’s view may be as vast as the sky,” he said, “but one’s regard for cause and effect should be as finely sifted as barley flour.”

9. The Guru is Ultimately an Archetype of Your Own Being!

Each spiritual path approaches the guru as archetype in different ways, but, in essence, the spiritual goal of each path is the same: to reach the state of nondual awareness. While the Zen Buddhist tradition sternly instructs us to kill the Buddha in order not to search for help from a superior being, the Tantric tradition instructs us instead to embrace lovingly the Buddha figure as guru, as manifestation of our Divine Self.

Through devotional visualization, the guru’s form is embraced in the devotee’s heart and mind. Thus visualized, the guru’s mythic appearance will focus the mind to go beyond the mind and thus evoke the formless panorama of nondual divinity.

In Tantric yoga, all forms are considered sacred, especially the form of the enlightened guru, who becomes a powerful gateway to Spirit.

In Andrew Harvey’s book, Journey to Ladakh, such a meditation practice is beautifully described by a Tibetan Tantric Buddhist master, thereby illustrating the similarities among the various Tantric schools.

Likewise, the image of Jesus has been invoked for centuries by Christian mystics who desire to drink from the deep well of the Cosmic Christ.

Devotion to an authentic guru and lineage is an invaluable tool on the path of spirituality. But this devotion must be carefully evaluated by our own rational discernment and ethical standards.

11. There Need Be No Inherent Conflict Between Great Gurus, Great Teachers and Great Yoga Communities.

In other words, if you choose the guru-path, if you do not hate the idea of having a guru, it is as important to be a qualified student as it is to have a qualified guru. And, finally, a transparent community of peers is infinitely invaluable, too.

About the Author

Ramesh BjonnesRamesh Bjonnes was born in Norway and lived for nearly three years in India and Nepal learning directly from the masters of Tantric yoga. Before he became a yogi, he studied agronomy and co-founded an organic farm with other yogis in Finland. Ramesh is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center outside Asheville, NC. He has written extensively on Tantra, yoga, culture and sustainability, and his articles have appeared in books and numerous magazines and newspapers in Europe and the US.View all posts by Ramesh Bjonnes →

  1. Nath YogiNath Yogi08-28-2012

    The points are very well explained. I liked it.

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