Why Can't Hinduism Rid Itself of Fake Gurus?

This "flaw" may be the price of avoiding dogmatism

GuruGurumustuk SinghToday is Diwali, the biggest Hindu holiday, when believers celebrate the victory of good over evil. Usually, nothing dampens the Diwali spirit among observant Hindus, but this year there is a cloud hanging over some 30 million followers of Asaram Bapu, one of India’s most popular Hindu gurus. This self-styled godman, a septuagenarian who has amassed a $1 billion empire by preaching the evils of sexual desire, is accused of raping the minor daughter of an ardent devotee.

Asaram is under arrest and, regardless of the final verdict, is finished. But he’s not the first Hindu guru to go rogue, and he won’t be the last. That’s because to the extent that the loose and amorphous Hindu faith has avoided the tendency to militancy, internecine conflict and intolerance experienced by the more organized monotheistic faiths, it is at the price of opening itself to charlatans and cults.

A thousand gurus have always bloomed among Hindus.  In the 1980s, there was Osho Rajneesh, whose fleet of Rolls Royces’ and message of free love got him ejected from Oregon after a four-year stay. Among the new generation is the Hugging Amma, who has accumulated a net worth of about $250 million by jet setting around and giving 33 million hugs . Then there is Nirmal Baba, the TV phenom, who advises women to eat green—not red—chutney with samosas to get pregnant.

Bigger than all was Asaram. He combined a message that appealed to Hindus’ puritanical sensibilities—renunciation of sensual pleasures and material comforts—with impressive oratory to generate a worldwide following. His devotees include a former prime minister, leading politicos, rich businessmen and professionals. The donations he raked in allowed him to erect 1,700 religious schools and 435 ashrams the world over.

The antics of gurus provide steady fodder for comedy in India. But Asaram’s behavior was raising eyebrows even before the rape accusations. His anti-sex crusade had morphed from nuttiness (advising couples to avoid having sex on religious holidays) to extremism (demanding that Valentine’s Day be replaced with Parent Worship Day).

Some details of Asaram’s rise-and-fall are unique, but the basic plotline of a guru corrupted by power is as familiar as a B-grade Bollywood movie. The puzzle is why can't Hinduism, the world's oldest religion, rid itself of fake gurus?

Hinduism, unlike Christianity, is not an organized faith with settled dogmas, an established church and a priestly hierarchy handing down truths worked out top-down as in Catholicism. Nor does it prescribe a strict and elaborate code of law as Judaism’s torah and Islam’s sharia.

Rather, it is an open-ended faith that has a core goal—experiencing the God within and releasing oneself from the cycle of birth and rebirth — but no set prescription for achieving it. It simply calls upon believers to overcome their inner demons and find their own unique path to enlightenment. But a good guru, who has overcome the vices of ordinary mortals and reached a higher state of consciousness, can greatly accelerate the journey.

The effect of such radical openness, on the one had, is that Hinduism has produced an “absolutely staggering” body of “scientific, faith-based and experience-based knowledge,” notes Josh Schrei, a religion writer. Diametrically opposed paths for achieving inner bliss have been explored: asceticism and materialism; intoxication and sobriety; sensuality and celibacy; solitude and communion.

On the other hand, Hinduism’s spiritual laissez faire means that it lacks the inner resources of other religions for quality control. Unlike monotheistic faiths, Hinduism is not preoccupied with policing superstition, idolatry, and heresy.  Literally anyone with a formula for enlightenment—and the charisma to sell it—can hang a shingle saying “guru inside” and wait for the flock to arrive. (This was perfectly captured by the recent documentary Kumare in which an Indian American born and raised in New York, moves to Arizona feigns a guru accent, invents some mumbo jumbo, and quickly acquires a devoted following.)

While there is no external hierarchy minding the gurus, there is an extreme internal hierarchy between the guru and the disciple. The guru’s superior consciousness is neither visible nor describable. The only way for the faithful to reach it is by surrendering completely. Questioning the guru is not a sin, but it is counterproductive. “Faith is to believe what you do not see,” explained Swami Chinmayananda, one of Hinduism’s greatest theologians. “The reward of faith is to see what you believed.”

Observers of Hinduism sometimes regard this total lack of oversight of gurus who can “simply make things up” to wield enormous powers over disciples as a defect. But that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the mind of its adherents: They are not gullible fools. They take a calculated risk that they intuitively feel is worth the spiritual payoff. Going down the wrong mystical path is an unavoidable hazard of their religion that they knowingly accept. They are no more blind or blinkered than lovers willing to repeatedly risk heartbreak to find a soul mate.

Thus, even as Asaram fades from the scene, others will emerge as surely as the holy Ganges will continue to flow downhill. All one can do, in keeping with the Hindu spirit, is to understand—and accept—that the good and the bad are often inextricably entwined.

Happy Diwali.

A version of this column originally appeared in The Times of London

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  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Gosh, I wonder in what direction the comments will go?

  • Mike M.||

    Have you ever noticed how Dalmia has no problem skewering the major religions, except for this one particular major world religion, for which she is an endless rationalizer and apologist?

    I'm guessing that Reason regulars probably don't have to strain their brains too hard to figure out which religion it is that I'm referring to.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    right on schedule!

  • Brian||

    The big problem is, as soon as you start filtering out fake gurus and gurus who make up stuff, you aren't left with any gurus.

  • GILMORE||

    There's no Gurus like Gary Gurus.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAwVIZDAUF0

  • Irish||

    Isn't any poor, low-education country going to be easy prey for charlatans? You try to make this about Hinduism, but it isn't like Christianity hasn't had some weird cults pop up, particularly in poor parts of the world.

  • ||

    Look where Mormon missionaries tend to focus.

  • ||

    I don't think people need to be poor or religious. People are prone to believe things they're told. When I worked in a sandwich shop telling indecisive customers that "you look like you could use a chicken salad on croissant with swiss" got them to order exactly that most of the time. A friend of mine hates wine tasting with me because I'll derail the sommelier's description by suggesting that it tastes like plum, describing eating a perfect plum, and having them take another sip.

    Also: scientific consensus, Y2k, Mayan calendar

  • Sevo||

    Buyer: "Is it a 6 or a V8?"
    Obama: "Yes."

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    Isn't any poor, low-education country going to be easy prey for charlatans?

    Charlatanry makes no distinction between the poor and poorly-educated, and the wealthy. In Japan, the Shinshūkyō's ranks are largely populated with college-educated high-income individuals, and in the US Mormons and Scientologists are generally both better educated and wealthier than their fellow citizens.

    Hell, some of the most bizarre ideas I've seen about how to organize humans seem to require the insulation and group-think provided by a long stint in academia. Better the occasional Hindu quack than a Communist one!

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    NPR has a teacher on who did double-bind tests showing that grit is the most important thing for kids' academic success.

  • GILMORE||

    Double bind? Bondage education?

    Grit? TRUE GRIT?

    Or Grits? Preferably with syrup.

  • Acosmist||

    So THAT'S what "g-factor" stands for. Didn't know grit correlated with IQ!

  • Fluffy||

    Well, that depends on what you mean by "academic success".

    If you mean "learn and understand the material" than I sincerely doubt it.

    If you mean "get A's" than I would have to point out that since many teachers and professors refuse to simply test for, and grade to, understanding the material, but insist on making a portion of every grade be based on classroom attendance and participation, homework completion, and the like. This means that it should not be surprising that the ability to endure being subjected to pointless tasks that don't impact outcomes will be a significant factor in attaining "success".

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    Much of learning has a strong iterative component, which means that you will gain insights from performing the same task constantly whether it appeals to you intellectually or not. In that sense, the "grit" required to go through those iterations is most definitely important for learning outcomes.

  • FreeToFear||

    That's true of some learners, but not necessarily all - for those who it isn't , the tired, repetitive bullshit of everyday academia takes time away from other, potentially more rewarding, pursuits. There is no reason I can fathom for forcing all students down an iterative path when for some it will be deeply wasteful. A comprehensive test of material understanding will successfully capture those who have used an iterative learning style as well as those who don't need it. After all, if they did need it to understand the material, and they didn't do it, they would perform poorly on the examination.

  • ||

    Anyone see the movie 'Kumare' ?

    American guy pretends to be an Indian guru and goes around Phoenix spreading his own little cult.

  • Kid Xenocles||

    Shikha certainly did:

    "(This was perfectly captured by the recent documentary Kumare in which an Indian American born and raised in New York, moves to Arizona feigns a guru accent, invents some mumbo jumbo, and quickly acquires a devoted following.)"

  • Alan||

    One thing still seems odd to me. What is it about the Western states that allow Hinduism to actually attract non-Indian adherents?

    In the Southeast, that quackery would get at best a polite but insincere inquiry, and almost certainly a great deal of laughter behind the scenes - but no one from here would take it seriously, except possibly as the work of the devil.

  • AlmightyJB||

    How can you be a puritan in India with chicks like this or this running around.

  • CatoTheElder||

    Indian women plus the fact that Kamasutra is Indian would seem to argue again Indian puritanism.

    Still, mainstream Indian culture is paradoxically quite puritanical.

  • CatoTheElder||

    again - against

    Shiva got between my fingers and my keyboard.

  • ||

    I blame the Brits, but then, that's usually a safe bet.

  • Aloysious||

    I'll be in my bunk.

  • Redmanfms||

    How can you be a puritan in India with chicks like this or this running around.

    Because the overwhelming majority of Indian women look like this and this.

    Haha.

  • MSimon||

    http://brosome.com/the-10-hottest-indian-women/

    #10 is a 10 IMO. The res are 9.5s

  • SQRLSY One||

    One God, many gods, or one Government Almighty? Or many Governments Almighty, all fighting each other? Gurus or gorillas, guerrillas, revolutionaries, revolutions, evolution, creationism? SOOOO many choices! What are we to believe in, anyway? Some people have become atheists; I posted about that the other day, as you may recall… People who think that God doesn’t believe in himself (that He needs self-esteem therapy), and since God doesn’t believe in Himself, we shouldn’t, either… You have doubtless read of my Deep Theories here before, so not to belabor that part of it… My NEW material to post about, today, delves more deeply into examining un-belief, but since Reason has a word limit here, here is part I, parts 2 through 99 coming shortly…

  • SQRLSY One||

    So anyway, I’ve been having these on-going arguments with my atheist friends, and they told me, “See, Madeline Murray O’Hair, SHE is the ONLY one who REALLY quite properly, understood EXACTLY how God does NOT believe in Himself, and only SHE in Her Devine (Anti-Devine?) Perfect Understanding, was fit to be “Ruptured” through the space-time vortex portal, straight to the Athiest Heaven that She deserved, and all the rest of us… Even the less-than-perfect athiests… Are “Left Behind” after the “Great Rupture”. And since Madeline Murray’s body was never found, I had to accept their argument, She was the PERFECT atheist, and only SHE, in Her Perfect Disbelief, had been Ruptured… Her and Her alone… to be continued…

  • ||

    Are devine and ruptured spelling mistakes or word jokes on divine and raptured?

    Why is she taking the vines away? Who punctured her from the inside?

  • General Butt Naked||

    Repaint! Repaint!

  • SQRLSY One||

    …BUT THEN THEY FOUND HER DEAD BODY!!! The arguments of my atheist friends were utterly crushed! I had just BARELY started to think that maybe they were correct! Now, I just dunno WHAT in blazes to think any more!!! What do y’all say, especially you athiests?

  • Sevo||

    ^?

  • Metazoan||

    I ask if you forgot to take your meds? What are you talking about?

  • AlmightyJB||

    Needs more CAPS and [BRACKETS]!

  • Irish||

    I don't know what is going on, but I am entranced.

  • ||

    Don't stare directly into it!

  • Metazoan||

    On the other hand, Hinduism’s spiritual laissez faire means that it lacks the inner resources of other religions for quality control

    This sounds more like a feature than a bug.

  • Sevo||

    And what constitutes a "fake" guru?

  • Live Free or Diet||

    Cha-CHING!

    I like Ayn Rand's take on this. Once you decide to reject reality in one area, how do you decide where to stop?

  • Metazoan||

    I am not a reality-rejecter, but presumably one could try to draw the line at things that are testable.

  • Live Free or Diet||

    When someone tells me "spiritual" things, I find lots of testable assertions, so I test them. I generally find they conflict with experiment (false). Others have no effect on this universe (non-existent). Some simply push a problem back another unsupported step (lex parsimoniae).

  • Metazoan||

    ugh, fucking New York City marathon, I want to cross 1st ave damnit...

  • ||

    "That’s because to the extent that the loose and amorphous Hindu faith has avoided the tendency to militancy, internecine conflict and intolerance experienced by the more organized monotheistic faiths, it is at the price of opening itself to charlatans and cults."

    Is this really true? My understanding is that there are many deadly attacks by the Hindu majority against the Muslim minority in India, sometimes leading to thousands of deaths. I thought that Gandhi was killed by a Hindu nationalist. I'm certainly not saying that Hinduism is more prone to militancy, internecine conflict and intolerance than other faiths, but has it really avoided these problems?

  • JeremyR||

    Not to mention, Hinduism is used to justify the caste system.

    People in lower castes deserve to be treated terribly because they were bad people in their past life.

  • johnl||

    I'm happy that Dalmia chose the occasion of this topic to channel her inner Cathy Young.

  • Agammamon||

    "Rather, it is an open-ended faith that has a core goal—experiencing the God within and releasing oneself from the cycle of birth and rebirth — but no set prescription for achieving it."

    Sounds to me like market failure. I think what you guys need is a crack team of experts to set up a government agency to filter out the quacks. Sorta like an FDA for religion. I'm sure that with the experience India has had with government intervention that they'll sort this right out.

    OR, maybe its because this spiritual stuff is basically *bullshit* and the idea that there is some 'real' guru (and I extend this to *all religions, not just Hinduism) possible out there somewhere is what allows these people to be deluded en-masse.

    Simply put, the problem here *isn't* that people are following false gurus - its the idea of the guru in the first place.

  • Sevo||

    "Simply put, the problem here *isn't* that people are following false gurus - its the idea of the guru in the first place."

    I missed Brian: (Brian|11.3.13 @ 10:21AM|#
    The big problem is, as soon as you start filtering out fake gurus and gurus who make up stuff, you aren't left with any gurus.) when I posted:

  • Sevo||

    (shit) when I posted:
    Sevo|11.3.13 @ 11:37AM|#
    And what constitutes a "fake" guru?

  • SQRLSY One||

    Hi Agammamon, I see that you propose a Government Almighty division, “Sorta like an FDA for religion.” I hear ya, Bro, that’s what the Church of Scienfoology has been advocating for YEARS. It should be called SMARM; “The SMARM agency will be the Soul Mates And Religions Ministry.” If you will hit the www.churchofsqrls.com site and put in for a search-string, that last little thing I put in quotes, you can find the BRILLIANT ideas of the Church of Scienfoology spelled out in detail… You’re welcome!

  • SQRLSY One||

    An out-take from the web site about SMARM for those to "scurred" to hit the site: We all have many-many decisions to be made, individually or collectively. What to eat for breakfast, what kind of military defenses to erect against foreign would-be despots, what kind of church to attend, if any, what kind of domestic courts and laws to erect against domestic criminals, what kind of person we want to marry, what kind of roads should be built (and shall we all drive on the left, or all on the right), and, what kinds of medicines work for us. Even to the non-Earthling, it is obvious that SOME of these must fall into the public domain. Others, we as Earthlings have traditionally put into the individual-freedom bucket. We don’t say, “What kind of breakfast works for me? Hmmm… I don’t know. Let’s go ask democracy”. And we don’t say, “What kind of husband (or wife, or Church, etc.) works for me? Hmm… Let’s go ask democracy. Let’s put it to a vote.” But then there’s ONE place where we have (thank GAWD!) been WAY progressive, and that is, in the matter of medicine. We COULD have said, as barbarians did in the old days… And in light of modern science, which points to WAY strong powers of placebos… “Well, if this medicine works for you, it works for you”. And not put it up for a vote.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Instead, we have wisely chosen to be more progressive and hippagroovalistic these days. “Does this medicine work for YOU? We don’t care WHAT you think, and we don’t even care what your doctor thinks, either. We only care about what GAWD / Democracy / the FDA / etc. think about this.” You may access ONLY the GAWD-approved medicines. And so now, Thank You GAWD, we ARE protected from un-prescribed earpoppers and lung flutes, oh my!

    Well, we need to get even MORE progressive, then, and go ahead and ask Democracy, “Does this wife work for me?” …and… “Does this Religion work for me?” (The breakfast thing, we can put off till later). That’s where SMARM comes in, then (the Soul Mates And Religions Ministry). They, through the Grace of GAWD, will be empowered to pick our mates and religions for us, optimally. I am QUITE sure that we can solve ALL the problems of high divorce rates, and un-wed parenting, and low Church (Mosque, Devout Atheists Congregations, etc.) attendance, if only we’d put GAWD in charge here! And of course, the un-employed-ex-FDA-employee, problem, too, would be solved as well, which is where we started out from. Through opening up new jobs for all of our quite-deserving public servants, of course. Praises Be to GAWD in SHAMM On High!!!

  • Sevo||

    WIH are you shooting?

  • John Galt||

    :)

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  • Sevo||

    "except I am new one,"

    Prolly, you're stupid one.

  • John Galt||

    You forgot to supply the most important bit of information.

    Are, or are not you, a horney female?

  • buybuydandavis||

    ha ha ha

    "Religious quality control."

    Jimmy Swaggart. Jim and Tammy Baker. Ernest Angley.

    How about a worldwide conspiracy of accessories after the fact of the rape and torture of tens of thousands of children, and aid and abetting the same?

  • John Galt||

    I used to know some of the Rajneesh's ladies. Each one was more mentally ill than the others. There was no limit.

  • Raghu||

    As a Hindu who knows his scripture and also happens to be a regular Reason reader and a libertarian, I would like to comment on a few points regarding this article.

    First, Shikha Dalmia's contention that Hinduism does not "prescribe a strict and elaborate code of law," that it is an "open-ended faith," and that it has "no set prescription for achieving it [God-realization]" is simply not to be believed by any intellectually honest person. The term "Hinduism" is itself a heterogenous concept, encompassing a wide variety or orthodox and syncretic religious traditions which have in common only a theoretical reverence for the authority of a common body of Sanskrit literature, namely the Vedas and their adjunctive texts like the Puranas, Mahabharata, Ramayana, and dharma-shastras. Within the literary Hindu tradition, as well as the orthodox systems that base their beliefs on those literatures, you will easily find strict and elaborate codes of law, prescriptions for duty and for worship, and condemnation of heretical points of view which contradict the orthodox position of the Veda. These things are not very "politically correct" among the young, the diaspora, and others who seems susceptible to revisionist thinking, but they do exist, and any dispassionate reading of the literature will easily reveal them.

  • Flemur||

    First, Shikha Dalmia's contention ... is simply not to be believed by any intellectually honest person.

    That's almost always correct.

  • Raghu||

    As an aside, Shikha is also incorrect in suggesting that Hinduism lacks the quality-control standards to weed out fake gurus from genuine ones. The necessity of providing evidence from scripture substantiating one's views, along with the standard of practicing what one preaches, is the quality-control standard in Hinduism. The problem in Hinduism is that many lay followers don't have the working knowledge of Hindu scripture to insist on that standard. Notably, that problem is hardly unique to Hinduism.

  • Alan||

    Sounds a lot like every other religion in that respect.

  • Raghu||

    Now, one can either accept all of this, or one can look the other way. However, Shikha is correct in pointing out that Hindu history in general (at least until recently) lacks the inquisitions, the crusades, and other manifestations of aggressive intolerance often seen in other religious traditions. In my opinion, Shikha is doing the Hindu community a disservice by claiming that this is due to supposedly amorphous or accepting world view. On the contrary, I think it speaks volumes about the Hindu orthodoxy that they could have very strict views on what constitutes right or wrong for centuries, and still tolerate each other and those outside their culture. As far as the relevance of this to libertarianism, I would say that it just goes to show that wanting to be left alone is not the same thing as having no religious values or being averse to religious disciplines. One can have deeply held views about what is right and wrong, and still respect the rights of others to conduct their lives as they see fit.

    As an aside, I agree with Shikha's contention that the charismatic Hindu leaders she mentioned in her article are all charlatans. Having said that, it appears that she is herself a follower of a charismatic Hindu leader who lacks the literary and moral purity whose absence she laments in others. As time goes by, it seems that most religious traditions suffer from this problem of being misrepresented by popular and wealthy leaders who are far-removed from the orthodoxy.

  • 4thaugust1932||

    Indians are morally corrupt by birth due to Caste system.
    Hinduism is nothing for covert mask for uncivilized Caste system.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/.....countries/

  • Raghu||

    What an enlightening point of view. So it's wrong to assign status based on birth. Since Indians do that, they are, by virtue of being Indian, morally corrupt by birth.

    You do realize that this is hypocritical, don't you?

  • Flemur||

    Asaram is under arrest and, regardless of the final verdict, is finished. But he’s not the first Hindu guru to go rogue, and he won’t be the last.

    So Shikha Dalmia believes that accusation = guilt. Check.

  • Raghu||

    I think what she's trying to say is that his reputation is tarnished by virtue of the accusation. Regardless of the final verdict, there will always be suspicion that he is guilty. That's often enough in the eyes of many followers.

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  • Gaurav Kumar||

    Here comes a view,
    So now media and so called hindus who are living in abroad will decide who is fake guru or not.

    My question to writer who is real guru then ?
    Give few names.

  • Raghu||

    Gaurav,

    The AchAryas who have written commentaries on the vedAnta, i.e. Adi shankara, rAmAnuja, madhva, are real gurus. They are real because they do not claim to be philosophers creating new systems de novo. Rather, they have each attempted to elucidate the purports of the vast swath of vedAntic literature according to what they understood to be the perspective of the primeval Rishis. Those scholars who faithfully follow AchAryas of this stature are probably genuine. On the other hand, those who profess to create "new and improved" systems, or who silently deviate from the philosophical standards of their claimed preceptors, are likely not genuine.

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