Sounds disrespectful doesn’t it, testing a guru? But we have a duty to ourselves to do exactly that. We didn’t develop the faculty for critical thought over millions of years of evolution, just to switch it off and blindly follow anyone. And this is not just me saying so – I have it on excellent authority. Sant Kabir is just one of many great sages who have explicitly asked us to exercise judgement before accepting anyone as Guru.
So, without further ado, here is my checklist for the seeker. These points are intended as warning signs that something is not quite right. They do not necessarily prove that the guru is a fraud.
#1. Does the Guru (or Leader, Perfect Master, Father/Mother, Chairman of the Board, or whatever title is adopted by the chief man or woman) live a luxurious lifestyle?
Ok, so being spiritually advanced doesn’t have to mean living in poverty. But remember that these leaders are essentially funded by their followers. So if they are living a vastly more luxurious lifestyle than their average follower can afford, something is not quite right. It at least opens up the possibility that they are hooked to material comforts and luxury, and are quite willing to live it up at their followers’ expense.
Here are some common justifications people give for this.
- “He needs the luxury car, air-conditioned life, and first class travel (or private jet) because he works so much harder than everyone else”, or “he can do so much more to help mankind if he doesn’t have to spend time on menial tasks”.
- “She is preaching austerity while living in luxury herself, only because she is completely ‘above it all’, while you are still in the grip of attachment”.
Perhaps. Stranger things have happened. But how can you be sure he or she is not just hooked to material comforts? It should at the very least, trigger a little bit of doubt in the mind.
#2. Does the guru sit at the head of a vast commercial empire? Are there religious institutions, schools, hospitals, yoga, health, self-help institutions?
“So what’s wrong with that?”, you may ask. “The guru is doing all this to benefit humanity”. Of course there is nothing wrong. It is possible that the guru is a one-in-a-million, a rishi like king Janaka. But more often than not, the running of all these institutions requires a degree of compromise with the ways of the world that does not sit well with someone with the highest ethical standards.
#3. Do his followers become more emotionally dependent on the guru over the course of time? Do they spend more and more of their free time with this organisation?
Creating perpetual dependence is typical behaviour of all exploitative organisations from payday loan companies to drug-peddlers to peddlers of spiritual solace.
#4. Do the followers think that they are somehow privileged, and everyone else is losing out on life? And it is hence their duty to pass on the message and “save” them?
It is typical cult behaviour, to create an “in” group mentality and position themselves as superior to everyone else.
#5. Do their relationships with their family and friends (outside of the organisation) become richer and deeper, or are they becoming increasingly monochrome and limited by their organisation?
This too is classic cult behaviour, isolating people from all outside influence that may stop the follower from being gradually sucked into the organisation completely.
This is just a small list of common-sense questions from my personal experience. It is not intended to be exhaustive or authoritative.
For the guru-less, the universe as guru
So then, what if there is no suitable guru around, what happens to our spiritual journey? Nothing too bad, actually. It just means it is not the correct moment for a guru in human form. Life is still offering up opportunities every instant for spiritual growth. With respect in our hearts for all gurus, we can just carry on with life itself, the universe, as our guru. Dakshinaamurti as the universal guru will guide us.
गुरवे सर्वलोकानां भिषजे भवरोगिनां
निधये सर्वविद्यानां दक्षिणामूर्तये नमः
I bow to Dakshinaamurti, guru to all,
The cure for the ills of creation, the treasure-trove of knowledge.