The Guru-Disciple System in the West

Dharmanidhi, USA

Guru means 'one who dispels darkness'. Darkness in this context refers to our ignorance, our inability to perceive the light of our own true nature, which in yoga is known as the 'inner guru'. Therefore, the job of the external guru is to help us awaken our own inner guru, not to replace our own divinity with theirs, as is the common misconception.

Unfortunately, charlatan gurus maintain their existence by fostering among their students a sense of dependence on their proclaimed divinity. They usually pay lip service to the idea of the students developing their own inner guru, all the while actually creating more dependence on themselves for the 'hit' of divinity or the secret teachings. This dependency is very unhealthy. Paramahamsa Satyananda has labelled this attachment 'stickiness'. He has said, “What is all this stickiness? Disciple sticks to guru, guru sticks to disciple. It's like superglue. What happens when you glue two pieces of wood together and then try and pull them apart? It destroys both pieces of wood. This business of disciple sticking to guru and guru sticking to disciple is no good.”

Western misconceptions about gurus

The guru-disciple system has its roots in the idea of selfless service by the guru, towards awakening the disciple's own inner guru. Most of the gurus who came to the West to teach were from eastern monastic traditions. While easterners were used to contact with the monks and nuns of Buddhist and yogic traditions, and knew the protocol and proper relationship dynamics that helped to create an environment conducive to harmonious teacher-student relationships, we in the West had no history of interaction with gurus to draw on.

Westerners were, and basically still are, green when it comes to the 'how to' of interacting with teachers from other cultures and traditions so alien to our own. It is not that we should all be sheep, mindlessly following the examples of the older students. An orderly environment is consciously created so that the highest function of the teacher, to transmit the teachings, can be concentrated upon without undue distraction, and without possibly stimulating latent uncooked karmas that could also interfere with the transmission of the teachings.

Many gurus of yoga and Buddhism, who were very effective teachers in their homelands, experienced a great shock after arriving to teach in the West. Latent desires, held in a perpetual state of conscious suppression by living in the controlled environment of an ashram or monastery, often surfaced with great power, and ugly results. Some gave in to those desires at the expense of the teachings and the students involved. For some gurus it was uncooked seeds of karma around money and greed that led to their demise, for others it was sexual lust, and still others found their shadow lurking in the desire for power and fame.

Another area of misunderstanding was our immature view of India as a place where 'perfected' saints were to be found on every street corner. This is hardly the case, as Indians themselves are the first to tell you that in the last 200 years there has been a steady decline in masters of a high calibre. Most westerners, desperate for an enlightenment fix, were gazing upon teachers from India through the rose-coloured lenses of the perfected human. This concept of saintly perfection is both a myth and a misunderstanding.

However, probably the most important contributing factor in the recent guru phase is the average disciple's lack of emotional and mental maturity. It seems that the vast majority of students who seek a guru are not actually ready for one and don't really understand how to make the best use of the guru for their own growth. Many students project all sorts of trips onto their teachers, which stunts their own development. They don't have the awareness that they are just projecting their own stuff, their own neediness, fears, insecurities, anger, abandonment and so on. When their guru does not respond to their needs in the way they expect, the students react like children, becoming angry, pouting or withdrawing their love and devotion for the guru.

Without a strong foundation of emotional and mental maturity, all the progress one makes spiritually under the guidance of a guru can be lost in a flash the first time that teacher fails to meet our ideal of perfection, in other words the first time we actually realise that they are human. However, if we know that gurus are human and will make mistakes from time to time, if we are mature within ourselves mentally and emotionally, and if we understand that the guru may have a hard time adjusting to a culture that has had little or no experience with guru-disciple relationships, then we are playing the game from the proper place, and can only benefit from our interactions with the guru.

Necessity of guru

Despite the difficulties we are now experiencing, the guru-disciple system will be here for as long as spiritual seekers exist. I do not believe that the majority of people will ever be able to directly perceive their own divinity, thereby bringing about full self-realisation, without the help of a guru. The idea that we do not need a teacher or guru is both true and false at the same time. On the one hand, we have a sense that we are divine and that it is only a matter of time until we discover that for ourselves. In the absolute reality, this is true; we are all a part of God-consciousness. However, in day to day reality it is a bit like losing your car keys in your own home. You know that they are in the house, but you would love to have someone help you find them, so you can get on your way. That is why the guru is necessary.

Intellectual knowledge of our divinity is not enough. It can never give us the internal experience of God-consciousness that we all desire. The guru gives inspiration by his very existence. Psychologically, it is a very powerful experience to see another human being living life with the fullness that we also aspire to. We often need to reconfirm that this way of living is possible over and over again through repeated contact with the guru.

This opening in our psyche can suspend our self-doubt or confusion long enough to allow our spirit to unfold or manifest. The energy radiated by the guru can be experienced by the disciple whose internal system is prepared to receive, and this may be the most important reason that the guru-disciple system will never be done away with. We need to feel, to experience that enlightened space that our guru holds, so that we can more easily find it in ourselves.

Some great teachers have attained self-realisation without any obvious external assistance. Such people as Ramana Maharshi and Baba Nityananda, for example, no doubt drew upon the sadhana of their previous incarnations and were often inspired themselves, if only for a moment, by someone else, and this then catalysed the full flowering of their divinity. Direct experience of the divine is a great idea, possibly achievable in the golden ages of humanity, but it is rather premature for our age – the Kaliyuga or dark time.

It is my opinion, and that of many teachers and disciples whom I have queried on the topic, that the trend against teachersin the West is one of the main symptoms of the disease called the 'New Age'. The New Age is a very ego-centred and childish movement, where intellectual understanding masquerades as enlightenment and mysticism, and where fulfilling childhood needs and acting out childhood behaviour patterns of neediness and ego play without sensitivity for others, is felt to be a healthy sign of self-empowerment.

Take the case of the student who comes to the teacher to establish a guru-disciple relationship, in order to deepen their awareness through the process of mirror reflection. In the beginning of the relationship, the student is happy to be shown places where their ego is holding them. But all too often, as the student goes deeper and begins to deal with core issues of sexuality, pride, attachment, neediness, etc., what they see in the mirror reflection of their guru is either too horrible to face or too dear for them to let go of. This is where many students opt out of the program, which is unfortunate because it is precisely the point where the real work begins!


The guru-disciple system is as necessary today as it was in the past, if not more so. We can manipulate it, tamper with it, mutilate it, distort it, but we will never do away with it for one very good reason. The guru-disciple relationship is a microcosmic model of the interplay of energy that occurs in every strata of our universe, both seen and unseen. It is energy transmission in its finest form. Through transmission all consciousness continually evolves or unfolds. All of life is transmission of energy from a source to a receiver. Whether it is in the form of nourishing our physical systems through eating food, or nourishing our emotional and psychic energies through sexual intimacy or affection, or feeding our spiritual energy system through direct transmission from our teacher, it is all the same energy dynamic, acting out at different levels of density. It is a mechanical process at its essence, and that is just the way it is. We can choose to not partake in it consciously, but we cannot do away with it.

Therefore, the guru-disciple system is here to stay. It does not matter if you practise bhakti yoga, jnana yoga, tantric yoga or any other yoga, the transmission of energy or shakti occurs in all teacher-student relationships. Whether the student or teacher is conscious of the mechanism of transmission is another matter. Shakti is the energy of consciousness that is the substance of our universe. This shakti, which is transmitted by the guru via gaze, speech or touch and received by the disciple, is responsible for catalysing our deeper unfoldment. To receive this energy, only a deep, sincere desire to open and grow is required.

Shaktipat transmission is threatening to spiritual aspirants identified with their intellect because this energy cannot be known by the mind. To surrender to it and allow it to 'process' you at a very deep level is to put the ego (and one's faith in the intellect) at great risk, and to enter into the emptiness that underlies all existence. Because shakti is indestructible, the primary vehicle for shakti transmission, the guru-disciple system, is not in any danger of extinction.

The transmission of shakti creates a very deep connection between guru and disciple. This can often be a source of great fear and insecurity for a disciple's partner who can sense that the energy moving between the guru and disciple is very deep and powerful, and feels threatened by that connection. The fear of shakti and the surrender of the ego that is necessary to experience this causes many 'new age' yogis to shift back to the security of the ego-self and away from the guru.

Religion of the guru-disciple system

All modern yogis should look for the essence of the guru-disciple system, the process of shakti transmission in their relationship with the guru. We need to strip away the religious structure associated with this pure energy process. The excess baggage of patriarchy, dogma and control that has been built up around the guru-disciple system should be jettisoned now! Many once great shakti transmission lineages are now stale and lifeless due to the guru's successor getting caught up in the power of the guru position. It is the usual story of power corruption.

A focus on the feminine energy of shakti and the goddess as our Mother will peel away the religious patriarchy and control that has been established in many yoga organisations. Tantra is devoted to the sacred feminine. In tantra, the highest form of initiation one can receive still comes from a tantric yogini – a female.

Adopting a more tantric attitude will help loosen the rigidity that has settled into much of yoga, allowing for more free flow of shakti as the tensions of control and patriarchy are released. More shakti is definitely what is needed today, because it is the darkness dispeller that flows from the true guru to disciple. There are many fine examples of shakti-oriented gurus teaching in North America and Europe today, such as Paramahamsa Niranjanananda, Lar Short, Swami Chetanananda, Ammachi, Mother Meera and many Tibetan masters.

Those guru-disciple lineages that are thriving today do so because their success is based on the guru giving selflessly to the disciples. It is not possible to really work the principle of transmission while being deeply entrenched in the ego/personality. The true guru and disciple stand naked before the Divine Mother and they both know it. This is one of the safety mechanisms in the real guru-disciple system, and why that system continually produces very evolved human beings. Each guru knows that they are afloat in a larger river of consciousness extending back through time, and they are forever grateful to their own guru with a depth of gratitude and love that words cannot convey.

The true guru is never tempted to move into what Chogyam Trungpa termed 'divine egohood', because he or she is always in contact with their guru, whether they are alive or have left the body. Without this reverence for our respective lineages, we will end up as a watered down, selfish, 'new age yoga' chanting the mantra of 'me, me, me'.

Many of those teachers today who bash the guru-disciple system have spent prolonged periods of time actually studying with and receiving the transmission of a guru. It is basically untruthful and hypocritical of these teachers to turn around and teach their students that they do not need the guru and that transmission, especially when you understand the natural law through which shakti transmission works. These teachers were inspired by a guru and the shakti catalysed deep growth within them. Now, when they teach in workshops, lectures or one-to-one is there not a certain level of shakti exchange?

Satguru phenomenon

We can each have one very special teacher in this lifetime who will act as a type of energy doorway through which we can journey to reclaim our spirit nature. The Sanskrit term for this person is satguru, from sat – truth or true, and guru – dispeller of darkness. We may learn methods of practice and teachings from other teachers, but the satguru, in combination with our effort, forms the central key to unlocking our liberation.

We are talking about an energy phenomenon. Some disciples do not even like their teachers or how they live, but they cannot deny that that being is their satguru, and they benefit tremendously from their time spent with him. It is nice, at least to our psychology, when we actually like and admire our satguru, but this is not an essential requirement for that relationship to be effective.

The uncanny ways in which many disciples come to meet their gurus points to a connection between the two that is pre-established, not in the realm of conscious creation or choice. I know of one major teacher today who met his teacher and received training from him in his dream state long before he ever met him in the physical plane, or even knew that this teacher was indeed a real flesh and blood person. When he actually met him face-to-face for the first time at a spiritual gathering, he nearly passed out from the shock.

Those of you who have had similar experiences know exactly what I mean. There leaves no doubt in your mind that there is a powerful, compassionate and deeply spiritual connection between you and your guru that transcends the limits of time and space, and that the same relationship may have been acted out life after life, age after age. However, the meeting with one's own satguru need not be so dramatic or psychic in nature for it to be authentic.

I had been studying yoga a few times a week at a local yoga teacher's house for a little over a year. Upon entering the house each day I would be faced with a large drawing of his guru. When I first saw this drawing I decided then and there that he could not be my guru. I don't know why, but I felt a deep revulsion. Looking back, he didn't fit the image of guru that my ego had constructed.

Then one day, after more than a year, I walked through his door to the practice room to start a class, glanced at the drawing of his guru and became gripped by a strange emotion unlike any I had known before. I had never felt this depth of love for a girlfriend or even my mother. Tears welled up. Deep inside I knew that this man was actually helping me, though I had never even met him and did not know much about him. I only knew that he and I were connected and that I would finally know myself largely due to his guidance and inspiration.

Such stories are plentiful in the healthy guru-disciple system, but by no means does that imply that we should substitute the guru for God. In November 1994, while I was having darshan of my guru, Paramahamsa Satyananda, in India, a female disciple told him that she uses him as her object of devotion, her symbol of God. Paramahamsaji quickly told her that he does not think it is a good idea to use any human as an object of God devotion, because the student always runs the risk of becoming disenchanted with the guru and losing all the progress made in sadhana the first time that the guru's actions or words do not meet with the student's picture of divinity, or perfection. This is wise counsel to those considering taking a guru.

Paramahamsa Satyananda has said that his deepest realisation was the exact nature of his relationship to God. When he found that he was a servant and God was his master, everything fell into place. With the servant attitude we are actually much freer than when we are pursuing the absolute ideal that we are God, which always leads to some disappointment once we figure out that in a very real day to day sense – we are not God.

Surrender versus giving away your power

The most confusing and contradictory issue that faces students new to spiritual pathwork is surrender. Nothing rings more warning bells and produces more fear than talk of surrender to a teacher, and with good reason, considering the recent spate of power abuse by self-serving 'teachers'. Surrender needs to be redefined in a spiritual context. Surrender has been associated with a vanquished army kneeling at the feet of the victorious opponent, or with a criminal giving up to the police. The word connotes the image of being taken over or controlled by a more powerful force, and as human animals that image triggers a healthy survival reflex. However, that image does not accurately describe what is meant in spiritual terms by surrender.

True spiritual surrender is giving up our own control but not to something external. It is a self-empowered, conscious choice, and an action in which we open ourselves from deep within. It is really a surrender of the self to the Self. When a person 'surrenders' they are essentially saying to themselves that 'this ego, this intellect, this ability to analyse has taken me this far on my spiritual path, but it cannot take me any further, and I know that inside myself'. That does not mean that you no longer function rationally. It means that you have identified your whole bag of trips, projections and wounds, and you consciously surrender them so that they no longer flavour your interactions with your guru.

It is essential that a disciple continues to cultivate discrimination, but that is not at all in opposition to dropping your ego baggage. In the guru-disciple system, surrender is used to deepen the experience of spiritual life, not to turn people into mindless, non-discriminative servants of the guru. True gurus do not want vegetable-brained servants for disciples, and will do their best to awaken the student out of that dangerous attitude of unhealthy 'surrender' as soon as they become aware of it.


The guru-disciple system in the West is undergoing a period of trial by fire brought about by the clash of eastern monastic traditions with our western culture and mind set. This is a natural and welcome process which will see the guru-disciple system emerge in a more streamlined and functional form, without losing its value as a very important method of teaching and transmitting shakti – so essential to deep spiritual awakening and fulfilment.

In my opinion this system will never be replaced by direct experience of the divine because the ignorance that accompanies our birth into the earth plane causes a perceived inaccessibility of our divine nature. The true guru, in all spiritual traditions, will always light the way for us to find in ourselves what they so clearly demonstrate through their clarity, wisdom, compassion and loving service. In this dark age we are in need of more true gurus, not less.