I have spoken to many followers of various religious/spiritual organisations and leaders (both Hindu and others), and these are the most common reasons why people were drawn to the organisation.
“The guru has deep understanding of all the world religions and their underlying oneness.”
That is excellent. There are many very knowledgeable and erudite people, and we should learn what they have to teach.
This is no different than learning from our school teachers, or learning music or dance. All these teachers play the role of guru in specific fields, and we should give them the respect due to a guru. But we don’t make the mistake of assuming that our school teacher is a superior human being, someone who can guide us in all aspects of life. We respect their expertise in specific fields, but accept that they have the same human nature with its flaws as anyone else. It is the same with experts in theology, scripture etc.
“The guru has a way of explaining things, explaining life, that struck a chord with me.”
There are many who reach a realisation of the inter-connectedness of all existence, and are able to communicate this either verbally, or through mystic experiences. They may even think that they are fully realised beings, and set themselves up as gurus. But they are still subject to desire and fear like anyone else. In fact, it is often the ego-boost of being a teacher that drives them to this. They are deluded rather than outright frauds, at least when they start out in their career as gurus.
“The quality of my life improved: problems got solved / I am calmer, less anxious and stressed.”
Faith works wonders. But the interesting thing is, faith works its wonders irrespective of the object of faith, to an extent. Because, with faith come a host of other good qualities: calm perseverance, letting go of obsession with how things will turn out, working with the grain of life rather than against, tuning in to the field of opportunities. It is these qualities that are at work; and this is not dependent on who it is you have faith in.
Does that mean it doesn’t matter who we follow, who we choose as our guide? Not at all – it matters enormously! All of this is just step zero in the journey: packing the bags, as it were. When we actually set out on the journey, all of this equipment – the perseverance, the relaxed intensity and all – will be tested and developed to their fullest. Having the right guide is crucial. It is better to not have a guru and make only cautious, slow steps, rather than make haste following the wrong guru.
You may know or have read of people who get sucked into exploitative cults, and will not leave even though it is obvious to everyone around them: because they think it is their leader who is creating all these changes in their lives. Which brings us to the next point.
“I feel there is someone to take care of my life.”
Many go to a guru as a means of offloading their personal responsibility for their lives. Many gurus encourage this dependence. They are dangerous and should be steered well clear of.
For someone beaten down by the troubles of life, it is natural to want a refuge. And it is fine as a temporary respite. But for people offering such pastoral – whether that is a religious organisation, psychotherapy or whatever – the aim should be to get the person back on their feet and able to take responsibility for their life. After all, the word pastor means ‘shepherd’ in Latin. And it is not a worthy goal for anyone to become sheep in the hands of a shepherd.
But far too many organisations actually encourage and cultivate lifelong dependence: everything good in your life is because of the blessings of the guru, anything bad in your life can be overcome through more faith and ‘investment’ in the guru. Anyone who panders to this attitude and encourages this dependence, is not worthy of being a guru. They are either exploitative frauds or narcissists (or both). Either way, stay well clear.
So, how can we determine if a religious/spiritual organisation or leader is worth following? Through some common-sense questions.