In Hinduism a guru is an esoteric spiritual teacher. It is believed that the guru instructs and purifies disciples with the help of God’s grace and other spiritual elements.
In many cases, the mechanism of purification is said to be karma transfer, where the karmic impurities of the disciple apparently fly from the disciple to the teacher, who then spiritually ‘cleanses’ him or herself through intense devotion or meditation. A similar, although certainly not identical, mechanism is described among Catholic saints when they speak of spiritual intercession and the taking of sins.
Critics of the guru system often claim that gurus try to transform disciples into a carbon copy of the guru—or perhaps into mindlessly accepting the type of spiritual powers mediated by the guru, which arguably are not suitable for everyone (or perhaps only suitable for a certain period in an individual’s lifelong journey of becoming).
Moreover, Rabbi Allen Maller argues that spiritual experience and practice should bring one back to one’s social, interpersonal and personal duties with enhanced spirituality instead of creating recluses and ascetics, as we often find with Hindu gurus. This view of ‘genuine’ spirituality being intimately wedded to worldly action may, however, be critiqued from both Christian monastic and Hindu meditative perspectives.
As politically incorrect as this might seem today, both C. G. Jung and Joseph Campbell suggested that Westerners might lose their unique sense of individuality under the influence of an Eastern guru. Along these lines, some gurus have been accused of brainwashing and manipulating their disciples, usually by concerned family members of the disciples who don’t share guru’s religious beliefs
According to Bishop Kallistos Ware:
There are many false guides. There is no automatic way of discovering a true guide, but there are certain criteria. First, the spiritual father, if genuine, does not automatically impose himself. He doesn’t necessarily hide, but he waits for the others to come. The true spiritual father helps us to develop our own freedom. He does not impose his way on us, but helps us to discover our own way. The true spiritual guide does not promise instant success. In the spiritual life there are occasionally shortcuts, but ones provided by God. In general, what is asked of us is fidelity and the willingness to go deep. Those spiritual teachers who claim to offer us the higher gifts of contemplation through a few simple exercises should be treated with great caution.¹
In religions like Sikhism, the term guru may refer to a great spiritual figure recognized by everyone within that tradition, such as Guru Nanak.
¹ “Image and Likeness: Interview with Bishop Kallistos Ware” in Lorraine Kisly (ed.), The Inner Journey: Views from the Christian Tradition, Parabola Anthology Series, Sandpoint ID: Morning Light Press, 2006. p. 160.
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