The Authentic Guru

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati MB, BS (Syd.)

The guru has always been held in the very highest esteem by the wise and is the essential ingredient in all teachings. His blessings and guidance are the most important key to the success of any venture whether material or spiritual.

When the great guru Milarepa lifted his cloth to reveal his most precious teachings, his scarred and battered body, he was telling his disciples that in order to succeed on the spiritual path one must struggle and endure and have faith in and obey the guru's teachings, even if they appear to be illogical or wrong. Success on the spiritual path requires both the firm faith and unwavering aspiration of a disciple such as Milarepa and an authentic guru, such as Marpa, Milarepa's guru. Marpa embodied the teachings, having himself done the work, and was firmly rooted in spiritual realisation.

It has always been a problem for the spiritual aspirant to know where to find his guru and even Milarepa doubted Marpa's motives, actions and authenticity during times of severe trial. Though many wonderful texts, such as those by Sir John Woodroffe, for example, The Principles of Tantra and the Kulanarva Tantra expound the topic of guru and his qualifications, these are usually of little help to the seeker trying to find his own guru. It seems that some destiny or inner power and preparedness brings guru and disciple together, some spiritual motivating force behind the scenes, a power which comes from a transcendental dimension and which affects the world but is not affected by it.

Lama Anagarika Govinda's description of Mount Kailas is also a beautiful description of the authentic guru and the force working between guru and disciple:

"The power of such a mountain is so great and yet so subtle that without compulsion, people are drawn to it from near and far, as if by the force of some invisible magnet; and they will undergo untold hardships and privations in the inexplicable urge to approach and to worship the centre of this sacred power."*1

The guru today

The guru/disciple relationship is no longer a novelty in the west. Acclimatisation to the influx of eastern teachers and teachings has gradually taken place over the last twenty years or so and much spiritual jargon has filtered into everyday common usage. Despite this the purpose of the teachings and the role of the guru remain clouded in ignorance in the minds of most people.

Today scientists and researchers have begun to explore the yogic and tantric teachings. Many of these people, however, have missed the whole point of these teachings, viewing them as something independent of the teacher rather than as an offshoot of his experience and understanding. Though the techniques are powerful in themselves, they must be applied correctly and for this, of course, as in any study, a master of the science must be approached, one who embodies the teachings and can direct our energies appropriately and effectively. It is important, in our ignorance, not to make the mistake of usurping the role of the guru, thereby making hasty judgements and pontificating on a subject which we, ourselves, have very little experience with.

Many people have failed to find what they were looking for because they:

  1. Selected one practice out of a huge range of practices, examining and dissecting it as though it were a separate entity, rather than seeing it as just one step within a process of speeding up evolution and self-realization.
  2. Did not take the time to examine the context in which such practices lie, their purpose and intended usage.
  3. Did not experience the effects of such practices for themselves, relying on machines and experiments.
  4. Have not approached a qualified spiritual master who can direct them in the correct usage of these techniques.

It is no wonder then that techniques, such as mantra, whose original purpose was enlightenment, have now been relegated to the status of medicines for high blood pressure by western scientists and doctors. The point is that even though mantra and relaxation techniques can be used in disease situations they should also be seen in their broader perspective and scientists must realise their own limitations in these fields if they are to become true healers. To approach the yogic sciences effectively requires a truly scientific manner of enquiry, a degree of humility in the face of the unknown, and an authentic guru.

The outer master as the inner guide

In his article The Outer Master as the Inner Guide: Autonomy and Authority in the Process of Transformation, Dick Anthony aims to define the nature and limits of legitimate spiritual authority.*2 His article is one of the first covering this aspect of eastern teachings to appear in a scientific journal. It is an important sign, indicating recognition of the fact that this factor has been missing from our attempts to inculcate yoga and meditation into western society. Anthony states that the spiritual master embodies truth and acts truly, while an ordinary person's consciousness is clouded by selfishness, ego and incompletely worked through karma so that he cannot see things as they are. The enlightened master has not only purified his consciousness but has transcended into a state of existence that cannot be explained rationally or intellectually. It is likened to a comprehensive knowing, an expansive state which includes the old state of being and much, much more.

In examining the problem of how to know a true spiritual master from the false, Anthony states that we can know the master by the impact of his being on our consciousness and this is probably the most important criterion. The master does not seek to impress the individual with vain and showy displays nor suppress his autonomy by autocratic rules, regulations and dogma. Rather he guides internally and this is felt as a kind of internal dialogue or communion.

Yogis state that such interaction between guru and disciple occurs in agya chakra, the guru or command centre, and the feeling is akin to the guru breathing into the disciple, inspiring him, and vice versa. As the ego barriers drop, oneness is realised, and the whole of the spiritual path aims at enhancing this inner relationship.

The transcendental therapist

It is important to distinguish between a transcendent master and someone who is merely posing as such. Sometimes people have experiences which they and we may interpret as giving spiritual authority, however, this is often false and delusional. Few people master the yogic sciences in one lifetime.

It is also important to distinguish between the master and the therapist. The transcendent master is the inner guide who has taken on a body as an anchor and doorway for energies to pour into this world. Some very highly evolved individuals act in the world as therapists and aim to prepare us for transcendental experience. They help us to balance body and mind so that we can live full and harmonious lives in the world, and so that we begin to develop a stable base for higher experience when it comes. They have developed the intuition and psychic perception to do this, but they have not the spiritual experience, capacity or authority to impart a glimpse of the transcendental reality nor can they guide us towards this.

Elmer and Alyce Green, in their paper entitled Mind Training, ESP, Hypnosis, and Voluntary Control of Internal States, tell of people and groups today who teach methods of developing the mind without the requisite training, and thereby do more damage than good. They state that "Commercial mind training courses often promise ESP powers and in the process use hypnotic programming which can induce in some persons a form of paranoid neurosis or psychosis often related to obsession or 'possession'."*3 This programming for ESP is similar to that used for development of trance mediumship, especially the 'possession by spirits' of low grade mediumship.

There are also several groups in America dedicated to 'saving' people who have been brainwashed by supposed spiritual masters, however, they have no criteria by which to judge brainwashing from true spiritual experience. The Greens suggest that at this time the following would be helpful:

  1. A method in which individuals can discover 'themselves' at a proper rate consistent with their ability to keep their feet firmly on the ground.
  2. The student should be shielded from the imperfections of the teacher.
  3. Ranking of teachers according to their level of insight and awareness.
  4. Non-profit training centres for self-awareness.

These suggestions, though very difficult to fulfil, are important especially in western society where the spiritual guru/disciple tradition has been absent for centuries due to religious and political suppression and the ravages of time. As more study is made of the teachings and as we receive more exposure to different traditions, things should automatically sort themselves out, though machines, research and science will not provide the answers. For this, we will have to look into our own hearts and start on the spiritual path ourselves, for only by experience can we know the truth of the matter.

Once we start on the spiritual path, with both its bliss and its dangers and pitfalls, we will discern the need to go slowly, carefully and with awareness. We will sink less into the morass of external entanglements and attachments, and begin to look within for our answers, happiness and guidance. When this happens we automatically step into the spiritual path. Then it becomes easy to know when we find our outer guru because we recognise the link, the effect of his being on our inner consciousness. When the disciple is ready the guru appears.


*1. Govinda, Lama Anagarika, The Way of the White Clouds, Boulder: Shambala, 1971.

*2. Anthony, D., "The Outer Master as the Inner Guide: Autonomy and Authority in Process of Transformation", J. Transpersonal Psychology, 1982, 14(1).

*3. Green, E. and A., "Mind Training, ESP, Hypnosis and Voluntary Control of Inner States." Special APM Report, Academy of Parapsychology and Medicine, Cal., USA.