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Bashing Gurus and Alternative Religions

David Almquist

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 changes occurred.

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 the devil.

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 advantage of.

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 respective religions.

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 their own.

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 views.

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 teachers?

© 2000 David Almquist

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