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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


The Magic of
an Elevated Podium

On the Illusion of a Flawless guru lineage

David Lane

The guru is nothing but the idealized version of our own quest for transcendence.

Thesis: It is a conceit, even if a well grounded one, to believe that one's spiritual lineage is "flawless." Indeed, the history of successorship (from Kings to CEO's to Gurus) has been replete with broken (or brokered?) nexus points. What lineage does for us, albeit naively, is give us the illusion of something permanent, something traditional, something legitimate. And, no doubt, lineage can work as an important confidence booster for the would-be neophyte to trust his or her guru more. Yet, the real problem in all of this is that guru-recognition based on lineage is only a temporary confidence booster.


Because in order to know that one's guru lineage is flawless one would have to be able to have access to a "flawless" historical record. For instance, it may be true that the Jaimal Singh to Sawan Singh succession is well-documented and has lots of supporting evidence [Of course, the Bagga Singh contingency from Tarn Taran at the time may have had a different spin on the whole affair], but it is also equally true that the Shiv Dayal Singh to Jaimal Singh succession is much less historically verifiable [even though it may have just as strong a link as Jaimal to Sawan].

Some succession episodes are extraordinarily clear. Darshan Singh's appointment of his eldest son, Rajinder, is by any measure one of the clearest and smoothest chapters in modern shabd yoga history. Yet, the same cannot be said of Darshan Singh's succession of his father, Kirpal Singh, which was by any measure one of the ugliest chapters in modern shabd yoga history. You know you have a bad succession episode when guns start to replace diplomacy as the negotiating tool at the ashram. [See the Emergence of a New Master Darshan Singh edited by Malcolm Tillis for more.]. What becomes obvious by even the tiniest bit of historical reflection is precisely how little we really do know of the politics behind guru succession. As the cliche' rightly states, history is written by the victors (and so too goes the booty), not the losers (even though it may be those very "losers" who were genuinely appointed).

One may believe, for instance, that the Soami Bagh or Peepal Mandi or Dayal Bagh lineages are flawless (even if one stomachs the odd fact that Dayal Bagh and Soami Bagh sued each other for some 50 years) and that Shiv Dayal Singh was the axis mundi for such perfection. Yet, when we inspect how Shiv Dayal Singh eventually emerged as a guru we find that we are on much less certain grounds. Why? Who appointed him? Tulsi Sahib? Well, if that is the case, then why do we not have any verifiable records? Moreover, why do the Agra lineages themselves deny any such guru link?

Well, we don't really know the answer, but we can speculate:

  1. Shiv Dayal Singh didn't succeed anybody. He started his ministry on his own. This is, by the way, essentially the Agra position (Dayal Bagh, Soami Bagh, and Peepal Mandi).
  2. Shiv Dayal Singh didn't succeed Tulsi Sahib, but rather a disciple of his named Girdhari Das (support for this interesting contention comes from a most unlikely source: Madhav Prasad Sinha, the last well recognized guru at Soami Bagh and Shiv Dayal's nephew, who admitted that his uncle treated Girdhari more or less as a guru).
  3. Shiv Dayal Singh did succeed Tulsi Sahib, but for whatever reasons chose to keep relatively quiet about it.
  4. Shiv Dayal Singh disputed the succession at Hathras when he was overlooked by the major faction of Tulsi's disciples who apparently sided with Surswami.

[Sidebar: When I went to Hathras with Professor Juergensmeyer back in 1978, the then living Mahant told us that Shiv Dayal Singh took initiation from Tulsi Sahib but broke off later and started his own new panth (or way)].

Okay, so what's the upshot? No matter how "flawless" one may think their present lineage is, a closer inspection via history will (apparently without exception) reveal an odd chapter, an odd nuance, an odd contradiction. So even though we may have relatively high confidence in three or four modern-day succession transferences, we do not (perhaps cannot) have the same confidence in earlier mastership transmissions.

To be sure, we can have a "belief" or a "faith" that earlier episodes were not marked by animosity, deceit, or outright fraud, but we can (apparently) never fully know this. Hence, we have at the very best temporary confidence in our respective lineages. And, I would suggest, such confidence can too easily be undermined by a close attention to detail, even with present-day guru transmission.

Let's say, for argument's sake, that you accept the Tarn Taran lineage (obscure enough for most readers so nobody's feelings are going to get too hurt) as genuine or flawless or perfect, or, quite simply, the "right" one (whatever those adjectives may suggest). The overarching epistemological question now is this: How does one know that this is the case?

Alright, the argument goes along these lines: Baba Kehar Singh (who is now the current head) was appointed by his father Pratap Singh. Pratap Singh was appointed by Deva Singh. Deva Singh was appointed by Bagga Singh (as well as Sawan Singh who doubly confirmed the appointment). Bagga Singh was appointed by Jaimal Singh. Jaimal Singh was appointed by Shiv Dayal Singh. Shiv Dayal Singh was appointed by Tulsi Sahib. Tulsi Sahib was appointed by ? or is Kirpal's theory correct that Tulsi Sahib's lineage traces all the way back through Guru Gobind Singh to Guru Nanak? Who was the guru before Nanak? Who was his guru's guru and so on? All the way back to Lucy?

We face an intractable problem when we confront lineage, which is codified by the simple question, "Yea, but who appointed him/her?"-- a question which if followed to its logical conclusion will, invariably, take us back through time to the beginnings of the physical universe. Thus, the recognition of one's guru by lineage (I know my guru is genuine because so and so appointed him) is a false lead, since the starting point (apparently) can never be traced. And even if such a starting point could be traced, the tireless question of "yea, but who appointed him/her" still lends itself to complex issues of ontology and epistemology .

Ironically, therefore, guru recognition by lineage does not resolve the issue of whether one's guru is legitimate or genuine. That question, though perhaps temporarily postponed or historically relegated by issues of lineage, is one that each and every disciple of a guru confronts moment to moment, day to day, year to year. For in the case of the Radhasoami. lineage at Tarn Taran there are even problems in its modern-day succession history, not the least of which is that Pratap Singh was apparently appointed only after Sadhu Singh (the one Deva Singh intended to have succeed him) left Tarn Tarn after internal politics at his guru's ashram forced him to start his own ministry, eventually settling in Firozpur. Teja Singh is now the head of his branch, which claims that all gurus from Jaimal Singh onwards are meant to be unmarried. [Note: both Pratap and his son Kehar Singh were married, thus breaking the precedent of Jaimal, Bagga, and Deva Singh.] What all of this takes us back to, of course, is how we recognize a guru in the first place and by what criteria we buttress our appraisements.


Or How Love, Chance, and Residential Boundaries Circumscribe Our Choices of "God" Women and Men.

Thus, lineage cannot be used as an absolute yardstick to determine the genuineness of a present-day guru, since history conceals from us the necessary certainty to know the ins and outs of each and every succession transference. Then by what criteria can we appraise the worthiness of our chosen gurus?

Clearly we can use any number of scales that we choose, even including lineage as part of them. However, all such scales will be at best imperfect and at worst highly misleading, since they may tend to give us a sense of confidence (if not arrogance) that is not wholly justified. Now I say all of this as one who has designed and advocated high standards for gurus (see my article "The Spiritual Crucible" in Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical, 1994) and who obviously sees the merits in holding spiritual teachers accountable for their actions. However, it is also exceedingly clear to me how any and all such models are severely limited.

The inherent problem, I would argue, with my "Spiritual Crucible" model or others like them is that they infer a sense of "knowing" and a sense of "insight" which is neither accurate or true. Indeed, no matter how well a guru may pass even the severest of tests, there is always the possibility (even if scant) that he or she may be (or turn out to be) a "fuck-up" (to invoke Wilber's wonderful description of the late Adi Da, aka Franklin Jones). We know this already in our own lives and in the lives of those with whom we are deeply associated. At the very moment we think we have understood our deepest self, there arises a condition or a context in which we behave in unpredicted and unexpected ways. We find that we are less than our own self-image. It is also true, to be fair, that we may rise to the occasion and be much better than we ever thought possible. But in this two-way street of unpredictability we cross the same intersection: we don't know as much as we presume. And I would argue we know even less than that when it comes to our spiritual masters.

For example, I was quite fond of Swami Muktananda for a number of years. I enjoyed his book, The Play of Consciousness, and thought that his restaurants (like Amrit) were wonderful (the tempeh burger was nectarian). I also thought that his lineage connection was somewhat clean (he was a disciple of Nityananda) and he made it quite clear that he was celibate. Or, at least that is what we were led to believe. Then in 1983 Co-Evolutionary Quarterly came out with a scathing inside look at Swami's private life detailing his sexual escapades with American women; there were even reports of a secret tunnel in his Ganeshpuri ashram which led directly from his room to the women's quarters. I was quite surprised. I never expected the Swami of such things. But that is precisely the point that I am attempting to drive home. We never do know all that much. And this caveat applies (apparently) to all gurus, even the ones that appear squeaky clean.

Even a spiritual master as esteemed as Ramakrishna turns out to have clay feet, as evidenced by Jeffrey Kripal's remarkable, if arguable, book, Kali's Child (University of Chicago Press). Apparently Ramakrishna was sexually abused as a child and this trauma acted itself out later on his adult life with his own young male disciples. I won't go into the details (a few of my students at Mt. San Antonio College were horrified by the book) except to say that watch your guru's feet when he goes into samadhi!

In addition, Mother Teresa, the admirable Catholic nun and Nobel Peace Prize winner, could be caught in less than honorable money gathering circumstances. In the book, Missionary Position, the famous atheist author, Christopher Hitchens severely criticizes the diminutive Mother Teresa for accepting several thousand dollars from John-Roger Hinkins, who the late Peter McWilliams alleges used death threats and other forms of violent intimidations against defectors to his spiritual movement, MSIA.

Yet the disciples of such gurus are usually not privy to the inside details surrounding the private lives of their spiritual teachers. Indeed, even those associates who do forge a close bond can still be left in the dark about the more "personal" affairs of their guru (see the expose' of Krishnamurti's apparent affair with a married woman disciple, as just one suggestive illustration of this). What these revelations force us to do is confront anew our own relationship with why we are following our guru in the first place. It is a why, I would suggest, that is pregnant with possibilities.

One answer to this query that I have heard over the years is this: "I follow my guru because he is not only Enlightened but because so and so Baba (who was obviously Enlightened) transmitted his spiritual power to him. Yet, how do we know this to be the case? We don't know this, as I have suggested, by "lineage" (an endless query with no apparent resolution). We don't know this because we have inspected every nook and cranny of the guru's life ( we haven't even inspected every recess of our own lives) and found it flawless. We don't know this because the previous guru was enlightened. We don't know this because we have "tested" every guru in the marketplace. Even in the restricted field of shabd yoga this would prove to be a nearly impossible task, since we have hundreds of light and sound teachers offering their services. Do we have all their addresses? I suspect, in sum, that we really don't know. To be sure, there will be those who will argue for the verdicality of their mystical encounters with Sri Gurusohigh, but such assertions, though not to be discounted ad hoc, also raise a whole new series of questions which are perhaps more intractable than their empirical counterparts. How do we know it was the guru in question and not our own self? How do we know that other gurus wouldn't work better? Etc. It may turn out that we follow our respective gurus for some mundane reasons, some of which are not as pretty or illuminating when cast in the stark daylight of rationality.

Do we really know our gurus so well and so intimately that we are absolutely certain about their relative spiritual status? Or, are we merely extrapolating from our limited experience with them and by elevating them to spiritual heights glorifying ourselves in the process?


Exploring the Make-Up of One's Spiritual Teacher

You know, the Pope could be for all intents and purposes a real scoundrel (though this does not appear to be the case), but I have no way of fully knowing. Yet, for millions of Catholics worldwide the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on this planet and he garners tremendous respect in that role. But I suspect that what we might respect about the Pope is not necessarily his humanity (does television really capture such things?), but rather the status of his office. The Pope almost invariably appears both metaphorically and very often literally on an Elevated Podium, whether it be in a special car, a special outfit, or a special stage. As I once told a friend of mine, it sure seems like perceived charisma has a lot to do with how well it is packaged.

It may at first glance seem like a silly analogy, but think of movie stars versus television stars. One of reasons (but surely not the sole one) that certain people are awe struck by Brad Pitt is because of the context in which they first saw him. He has appeared on a pretty big screen (much larger than life-size) and in a pretty dark room. Well, the machinery behind movie stars has a huge part to play in how we ultimately perceive them as content or as personalities. I am not so sure that the supposed charisma of movie stars is at all inherent. Indeed, I tend to believe that charisma is more and more a manufactured product that we have somehow mistakenly mislabeled as some sort of ineffable personal trait.

Let's get back to gurus. The moment you put a turban on a guy, stick him up on an elevated podium, and have thousands of adoring devotees listening to his every word as if it was a Divine revelation, it is bound to have an effect on the newcomer who has no seasoned clue about the spiritual heights of the Talking Swami. Yet, that's the kicker. Think of all the spiritual masters we have honored throughout history. Why such honor? Is it because we have really done the research and truly know the inner and outer attainments of the master? Not very likely. It may well be that we honor many of these spiritual leaders only because of the trappings surrounding them.

Let's take that most infamous of gurus, Thakar Singh. Let's imagine you know nothing of his sordid past (abusing women and children, etc.) and that he is giving a satsang in front of 30,000 earnest disciples in Chandigarh, India. Let's further imagine that you are on a quest and that this is the first time you have ever been to India. You see this guru on an elevated platform (a given if the crowd is that big) and you listen to him speak in Hindi. You don't know the language and thus can't tell that Thakar is a real bore as a lecturer. Moreover, everybody is pressed up against you in this tight arena and the devotion is thick (some are crying, some are riveted, some are meditative) and the air has a certain peculiar smell (different than anything you have sensed before). And to top it off, the underlying premise is that the Turbaned Guru on the Elevated Platform is God in human form.

Well, this scene (or something like it) has happened numerous times in India and elsewhere. It is probably happening right now as you read this. But you know something about this scene that the naive seeker does not: Thakar is a scum bag.

Now it is exactly in our naiveness (a condition that may never leave us, by the way) in which we might impute power and majesty upon the guru on the dais. Yet, in this example, we know that the Turbaned One has neither. We are the ones elevating the guru, we are the ones giving him charisma. We are the ones, in sum, doing the magic: mistaking an image for its reality, mistaking an effect for its cause.

Okay, forget Thakar. Now let's put somebody up there on the dais really impressive, really cool, really sincere. Is it that much different? Really? Why? Criminal or Saint, we are doing most of the mental gymnastics. Don't get me wrong: it is easier to get a mystical charge for a guru who looks and acts the part (Pee Wee Herman in a turban vs. Alec Guiness in a turban, for instance), but the hard-wiring is all our own. And in the midst of all this, we still don't know that much about the best of gurus. We know, rather, much of the buzz, the staging, the infrastructure interplay. And we have been, consciously or otherwise, seduced by the whole affair into believing we have more certainty than we actually do. The seduction is the game. And I am not all that sure that we know who the real seducer is. I think, to be frank, that we mesmerized by the theatre in which these gurus appear and that we have mistaken the medium for the messenger. We have, in other words, bought the picture because of the beauty of the frame. We have given ultimate value to the cheap stone because it happens to be inlaid in what we perceive as pure gold. And in being persuaded by the wonderful staging, lighting, and sets, we just happen to think the actor is a star; whereas in actual practice the understudy could have done the job just as well.

Let me punch line this: If you think your Guru is God and he appoints some guy as his successor, the odds are that you will think highly of him, even if you have not a clue who the guy is. The successor could be, for all we know, a complete loser. The guru screwed up on his choice and he chose an air-head. How many of us are going to recognize that immediately? Or, are we instead going to mainline the successor like a new drug and take the hit anyways?

Well, we already have a pretty good answer: We have mainlined the predecessors without inspection (remember lineage?) and the same holds true, in many cases, for the successors. The drug does work (perceived guru charisma can cause a tremendous high) but we have mistakenly thought that the paraphernalia and the substance were one and the same. Or, more accurately, we failed to distinguish the Guru from his Elevated Podium. We bought into the cosmetics as if such make-up were the real face. We don't really know about the real face of our own selves, much less the guru some 100 yards away yapping in Urdu.

We are pretty adept, however, at blushing when we see a pretty guru dressed to kill, not stopping to reflect that a good dose of Noxzema will reveal the true nature of a Crawford like mole. It is that very mole, I would suggest, that demands some more inspection. But in order to do that we need to leave off the cosmetics and get at the blemished face. That is, we need to sink the elevated podium, shave off the beard, de-turban the head, rip off the third eye patch, unplug the automatic lineage legimitizer, get a good translator, and take a Stridex Pad and wipe clean the accumulated glossing sheen pasted on by the hype police. We need, in other words, to see the guru just as he or she is, devoid of the costumes and jewels. We need to see the guru naked. Be forewarned: it may not be a pretty sight. But then again: how beautiful are we naked?

Or, do we (in ways not so subtle) wish to see our gurus in romantic costume, dressed up by our own uninspected desires and projections? I must admit that seeing gurus unadorned can be quite a sight. What might we see in the pantheon of shabd yoga masters if we went into their "dressing" rooms? What would strike our eye, or our ear, or our heart, as odd, as unbecoming, as "human"?

Can we accept that humanness while at the same time not condoning it? Can we love our guru while at the same instant critiquing him/her? Can we admire some features of the guru play while at the same moment argue for a new scene? Can we, in sum, be discriminating in our love? Or, do we doom ourselves to the either/or arena of guru adoration?

The fictional Judas says to Jesus "I will kill you myself with my bare hands if you are not the Messiah." Jesus is the one who is scared of Judas, not the other way around. The guru should be fearful of the disciples' wrath. The guru should be shaking in his/her proverbial boots, lest he be less than what they think.

The guru is nothing but the idealized version of our own quest for transcendence. The acceptance of a guru's highs and lows (and the clear demarcation of both) is proportional to the honesty of the disciple. The Naked Guru does not come in peace. He comes in pieces . . . shattered images of what he is not . . . but more accurately of what we are not.

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