Are we ready, as a culture, to take one more significant
step toward tolerance?
Not too many years ago, it was common in our society
to make jokes indiscriminately about Afro-Americans,
women, homosexuals, and other minorities and ethnic
groups. One by one these groups protested, and eventually
Now, although they still encounter prejudice, it is
at least no longer acceptable among educated people
or on mainstream TV to express that prejudice publicly.
For example, anchors on TV news broadcasts are not likely
to smirk when they refer to women or gays. Jokes about
these groups still abound, but individuals have to be
careful in social situations, and jokes on television
have to be made by comedians or by actors in a movie
or sitcom, not by broadcasters, reporters, or commentators.
For many religious minorities in the United States,
however, that minimal level of respect has yet to be
achieved - especially in the case of religious groups
led by spiritual teachers.
Thus it is still officially okay, and in fact quite
fashionable, to denigrate gurus and their devotees.
This happens not just on the Internet — where just about
everyone gets bashed daily - but everywhere else, including
mainstream television news. The contemptuous or dismissive
attitude is expressed with either a raised eyebrow or
chuckle or change in tone of voice by the broadcaster
when mentioning a guru or by the routine use of the
pejorative term "cult" when referring to the guru's
community of devotees.
Similarly, in social situations, most people still
feel free to make casually derogatory comments about
spiritual teachers and to automatically identify their
followers as being part of a cult.
Milleniums of Mistrust
The fact is that, in the western world, alternative
religions have always provoked uneasiness or downright
hostility. We are all familiar with the fate of the
early Christians in Rome, the Inquisition, the puritans
who helped found this nation, and the Salem witch trials.
These were not just occasional incidents.
Few of us now are even aware that an entire religious
culture was virtually annihilated in 13th century Europe.
These were the Cathars, who lived in southern France.
Although very progressive in their attitudes toward
education and the status of women, they survive today
primarily in the coded images of the Tarot cards, which
appeared after their demise.
Less than a century later, on Friday, October 13, 1307
(in the incident that gave "Friday the 13th" its bad
name) the Knights Templar, who, paradoxically, had been
protectors of the Church of Rome while at the same time
espousing their own very different form of Christianity,
were seized and imprisoned throughout Europe in a carefully
coordinated mass arrest — and later tortured and executed.
Those who escaped went underground, emerging finally,
when the times were less perilous, as the still-secretive
Freemasons (or Masons).
Part of our problem seems to be that, for reasons still
open to debate, the dominant religion in the west, Christianity,
has always been more suppressive of esoteric sects than
have Islam, Judaism, or any of the eastern religions.
With regard to individual spiritual teachers and mystics,
however, the roots of our hostility go deeper. Beginning
with the story of Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge,
our side of the planet has been uniquely distrustful
of anyone who claims an intimacy with higher powers
or a superior level of knowledge. The ancient Greek
word for "mystic" carried a threatening connotation,
and many Christian mystics who were canonized after
death were treated with great suspicion during their
lifetimes, not just by church authorities but by ordinary
folk. Teresa of Avila, a gentle but passionate soul
who went about founding convents in Spain, had to contend
with townspeople convinced that she was possessed by
More recently, our attitude toward gurus and other
living spiritual teachers has been distorted by the
Jonestown suicides and the actions of other destructive
cults who, understandably, receive the most attention
from the media.
The greater majority of spiritual communities, who
are benign, are either ignored or viewed through a colored
lens that seizes on any unconventional behavior as a
potential cause for alarm. If Catholicism were not already
an established religion, for example, we can easily
imagine how the media would view any new religious group
that included among its practices a ritual where bread
and wine were supposedly transformed into the flesh
and blood of an individual — and then consumed by all
of those present who chose to partake.
Democracy, Authority, and True Freedom
While we in the west have a very long-standing cultural
bias against mystics and esoteric religions, in the
modern era our hostility to gurus and their followers
is reinforced by mis-applied concepts of democracy,
equality, and independence.
As most people see it, the guru claims superior wisdom
and offers a master-devotee relationship that rings
of authoritarianism. And this attracts primarily those
who are dependent or gullible — or emotionally desperate
for answers — who can be easily brainwashed and taken
I would concede that devotees, like any lover, put
themselves in a vulnerable position. In all but a few
cases, however, involvement with gurus is benign, especially
in the case of spiritual teachers who come from a lineage
of gurus and were themselves, originally, devotees.
We should no more judge these teachers and their communities
by the actions of extremist groups than we should presume
that IRA and Muslim terrorists are the measure of their
So when we universally brand gurus as manipulators
and their devotees as deluded, we are simply stereotyping.
The supreme irony here is that, far from looking for
some form of dependency or servitude, devotees are,
more often than not, looking for enlightenment, or real
freedom. Unsatisfied with conventional freedom, and
having reached the point where they suspect their own
search efforts, they have decided that the authority
figure they really need to escape from is not some controlling
"other" but their own ego, or the conventional "self."
And, almost by definition, the conventional self is
not something they can easily get out from under on
In my case, I was a skeptic and agnostic who, in my
mid-thirties, began to discover hidden scripts that
were guiding my supposedly rational actions. This led
to a profound (and I think very healthy) distrust of
"me." When, after years of searching, I finally learned
about Adi Da Samraj, I was deeply moved and impressed
by the teaching I discovered and by Adi Da as Guru.
But I still approached with characteristic skepticism
and spent a year and a half studying the teaching, meeting
devotees, and, most of all, testing out the impact of
this new teaching on my life before I was ready to become
a formal devotee.
My fellow Adidam devotees, as well the few I've come
to know who follow other spiritual teachers, are very
ordinary people, most of whom work full time as secretaries,
doctors, nurses, computer experts, taxi drivers, school
teachers, artists, entrepreneurs, etc. They seem no
more gullible or emotionally dependent than the average
person — and are certainly less willing to accept conventional
answers. Driven by a dissatisfaction with life (particularly
the life of self-fulfillment and materialism eulogized
in the media) and an intuition of something greater,
they want to realize real Happiness and Freedom, with
a capital "H" and a capital "F."
Freedom Based on Self-Understanding
It is true that much of the distrust shown gurus springs
from an anti-authoritarianism that has its usefulness
in the political sphere. But the other side of that
generally healthy distrust is an unexamined idolatry
of the egoic individual, who is presumed to be doing
something wonderful and right by merely doing what he
or she pleases.
True freedom, from Adi Da Samraj's point of view, is
something very different. He writes in the essay entitled
Freedom Is The Only Law, Happiness Is The
Only Reality, "If you want to be truly free,
you must first understand that you are bound, and you
must understand how you are bound, and then you must
do something about that. If, on the other hand,
you are merely reactively inclined to fulfill desires,
and you want to be (so-called) "free" to do so, then
you are not examining your bondage — what its roots
are, what its signs are, what its characteristics are
— and, if you are not examining your bondage with real
discriminative intelligence, you are also not doing
what you must do in order to be truly free."
According to Adi Da Samraj, our uncritical worship
of egoity has become a much more urgent problem as western
views have spread across the globe. He says, "When the
entire human world founds itself on the adolescent motive
to aggrandize the individual ego-"I", then everyone
is collectively working toward the destruction not only
of human culture and mankind itself, but even the Earth
itself, the very vehicle that supports life."
And it is this unexamined egoity, more than any other
single factor, that drives our distrust of esoteric
religion and of individuals who propose to offer us
a higher level of wisdom.
Many may not agree with Adi Da Samraj's assessment
of the ego and its potential for destruction. Or value
the guru-devotee relationship. Those involved in new
age spirituality, for example, are sometimes opposed
to gurus because they feel that the true self, even
enlightenment, can be realized without becoming anyone's
devotee. And they have a right to their point of view.
But they can still be — and for the most part are —
tolerant. Tolerance, after all, would be a meaningless
word if it only meant respecting people who hold similar
Isn't it time, then, that all religious minorities
stood together and insisted on a certain level of respect?
And isn't it time, really, that all of us, regardless
of our religion or philosophy, broadened our sphere
of tolerance to include alternative religions and their
© 2000 David Almquist