Gurus, Celibacy, and Spiritual Authority

By Swami Kriyananda

Something has come up that, while disagreeable, asks to be aired. It concerns, to begin with, an attack on Ananda Church of Self-Realization, on one of the Ananda ministers, and on me as the spiritual leader of Ananda. But it goes far beyond that, for it affords me a golden opportunity to discuss important points that I’ve long been wanting to share with people, points that are of fundamental concern to the yoga community in America as well as to religious and spiritual organizations in general.

There are always two influences at work in the world: the twin forces of light and darkness, love and cynicism, divine and satanic consciousness. They are necessary to maintain the balance of dwaita (duality) in maya, or cosmic delusion. Their influence is demonstrated in our own lives by the way in which we react to circumstances: whether, by reacting positively, we become wiser and more loving, or, by reacting negatively, we grow darker and increasingly filled with despair. The issue is not whether evil exists objectively. It does, of course, if only as the product of deliberate evil in people’s hearts. But where we ourselves are concerned, the important thing is how we respond to it.

Religious institutionalism

Most readers of this magazine are no doubt Westerners, as I am. For us, there are certain cultural assumptions that we accept more or less unquestioningly, unaware, perhaps, how different they are from assumptions, equally unquestioned, of other cultures.

Religious institutionalism is one such assumption. Westerners generally believe that religion, representing absolute truth as it does, must be given the outward form of absolute authority by organizing it institutionally. Where the authority of the Pope is rejected, as it is by Protestants and Jews, absolute authority is invested in the literal words of the Bible or the Talmud, not in their inner spirit. The resulting profusion of sects demonstrates clearly the impossibility of arriving at a consensus even on those literal words.

Church-appointed authority tends to be biased toward institutionalism, and gives secondary consideration, if any, to the needs of individuals. Ego-based authority tends to be biased toward intellectual opinion and emotions. That some sort of higher authority is needed seems clear, in order to lift truth above the level of mere human opinion. The authority must be rooted in wisdom, however, not in mere intellectual learning.

Paramhansa Yogananda put it this way: “If you misunderstand a scripture, it won’t correct you. But if you express that misunderstanding to a wise person, you will receive correction.”

Characteristics of a true guru

A person of true wisdom—a true guru, in other words, and not one who merely wears the label—derives his authority from no external source, but from his own inner experience of truth. He or she does more than explain truth. What is conveyed to the disciple is not ideas, merely, but direct, intuitive insight and experience.

A true guru never says, “You must accept me and obey me, because . . .” proceeding, then, to support the statement with rational arguments based on title and position. The only influence a true guru exerts on the disciple is an influence of love, an influence of actual inspiration (as opposed to the self-induced “inspiration” people feel because they think they ought to be feeling it).

A true guru never says, “I’ve been on the spiritual path longer than you. Don’t you think I ought to know what I’m talking about? Don’t you think I ought to know more than you?” He (or she) never flaunts who he is. If the disciple feels inspiration from him, that and that alone is the reality within which the guru works. There is a vast and substantial difference between the disciple’s own willing and active cooperation in the training he receives, and the attempt that is sometimes made by less advanced teachers, and generally made by religious institutions, to force obedience through an absolute submission of the will.

Unceasing inspiration

I had the good fortune to live with the great yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda, and I never saw in him the slightest inclination to impose on the God-given free will of another human being. He had authority—the authority of realized wisdom—but he was never authoritarian. It must be added, however, that to live with him was not easy. This fact is well attested to by the great numbers of students and disciples who found it too difficult to remain with him for long. The image people have of Yogananda is of his sweetness and gentleness, both of which are true images. People are invariably shocked, however, when they first listen to recordings of his voice, and perceive the sheer power of his personality. He never ordered people, least of all those who didn’t want to obey him. That he won our willing cooperation was due only to the force of his own conviction of the truth, and to the unceasing inspiration we felt in his presence. It must be added that he also alienated people—those whose spiritual tepidity could not bear to be exposed to the burning rays of his wisdom. Even his unconditional love and unalterable joy became challenges in the eyes of those who simply felt unequal to the challenge of living dynamically for God.

God, not man, decides

People nowadays, hearing that one needs a living guru, say, as children do, “I want one, too!” It is God, however, not man, who decides these things, though I wonder how many such people could survive in the presence of utter spiritual greatness. It is not exclusiveness that causes great masters like the Babaji described in Autobiography of a Yogi to remain apart from the masses. What most people really want, I suspect, is a sort of comfortable guru-doll, one who’ll do everything for them with a minimum of work, or even with no work, on their part.

A living example of perfection is not what most people are ready for. Therefore, it is not what they presently need. What they need, rather, is contact with sincere seekers, more advanced perhaps than themselves, but people who, like themselves, are reaching toward the Eternal Light.

Living contact is needed

Better still is contact with living instruments for the great masters. For it is important to receive into oneself the ray of divine grace. One cannot lift oneself into the higher realms. This blessing comes from above, and is transmitted through contact with a living human being who has previously received and nurtured it in himself. It comes not from books, or printed lessons, or religious organizations. In my experience, those students of Yogananda whose contact has been only through receiving his lessons by correspondence have not nearly the spiritual magnetism of those whose contact has been direct and personal with living disciples, especially in the form of initiation. Yogananda declared that many would find God through his work, but were there only books and lessons available, without the contact of a living line of disciples, it would no longer be possible to find God through his work. Affirmation and self-effort alone wouldn’t do it, for no one would receive into himself that living germ of divine power. This living contact is the true “eternal flame,” symbolized in several religions, but actually kept alive and passed on only by sincere disciples.

This is the way of truth, as saints have declared it since ancient times in India. The disciples of great masters receive the power to transmit those blessings as instruments of the masters, and in the name of those masters: never by their own power. Indeed, no true master will ever act in his own name. Yogananda used to say, “I have no disciples: They are God’s disciples”; and again, “I am not your guru: God is the Guru.” Because of his humility, a few students of his left him for more self-assertive teachers. Yogananda never tried to prevent them from doing so, even as he never tried to hold anyone except by impersonal, divine love.

Institutions are a necessary evil

In the West, the tradition of formal structure is so strong that religious institutions are easily accepted as substitutes for true spiritual authority. The plain truth is, however, that spirituality simply cannot be given a formal structure. Authority is claimed in the West according to a person’s outward position. Many people actually believe that the higher a person’s position in some church hierarchy, the more spiritual he or she must be. No such tradition exists in India. In that country, rather, religious institutions tend to be looked upon with a certain disfavor. I have always loved Swami Vivekananda’s remark: “It is good, no doubt, to be born into a religion, but it is a misfortune to die in one.”

Paramhansa Yogananda’s attitude toward religious institutions seems to have been to consider them a necessary evil. Evil, because they force people to think in terms of outer forms when the real divine search is within. Necessary, because Spirit needs forms to function in this world. Our very bodies are, in a sense, institutions. Their marvelous organization enables us to participate in the earthly drama, and thereby to work out our individual karmas. The ultimate goal of life, however, is not eternal involvement in the earthly drama, but the realization of the Truth behind the drama.

Experience, the Hard Taskmaster

I have had to affirm these truths in my own life against many odds. Sometimes it has seemed as though I were hacking my way through dense underbrush with a machete.

For I have been under considerable pressure for many years from fellow disciples of my guru to “knuckle under” to their demand for institutional conformity. Over thirty years ago I became dis-affiliated from Self-Realization Fellowship. Since then, I have been the constant recipient of discouraging remarks regarding my activities, based on a tactic of fear: “If you do so-and-so, you will suffer for many incarnations,” and so on. My response has been, “I am open to the truth, and to being proved wrong, but in the absence of reasoning based on truth rather than on institutional policies, and in the presence of deep inner conviction on my part, I don’t see what else I can do except follow my inner guidance.” I am ever open to being proved wrong, but I will not allow my actions to be motivated by fear.

As I expect my own integrity to be respected, so do I respect that of others. The opinions of my fellow disciples are important to me, but what shall I do, when my own understanding simply does not endorse their position? One thing I cannot be is a coward.

Perhaps the best test of the rightness of an act is to look at its consequences. If the act is right, there will be not only corroboration from conscience, but also beneficial outer results. If the act is wrong, on the contrary, the consequences will be damaging to oneself and others.

Do I believe that Yogananda’s blessings have been on my work? Considering the countless blessings that have attended it, how could I possibly doubt?

People make assumptions

In the current attack against Ananda and me, it has been alleged that we are authoritarian. The very opposite is true: At Ananda we make it a principle never to impose on anybody’s free will. One of our guiding principles has always been, “People are more important than things.” There are, of course, times when decisions must be made on the basis of broader-than-personal needs. In such cases we do our best always to be fair—not only to everyone at Ananda, but to what we view as our own larger community: our immediate neighbors, and people everywhere on earth.

These are unusual positions to take. People generally assume the existence of an authoritarian government in a spiritual community. They assume patriarchal attitudes in the leader of such a community (if the leader is a man, or matriarchal if a woman), with all the authority and coerciveness that such an image suggests. They can scarcely imagine my own attitude toward leadership, or the fact that I assign no special importance to this role at all. To me, it is simply a function that must be filled by someone, even as other jobs must be fulfilled if a community is to function at all.

False notions of reality, not the realities themselves, are driving the present attack, which has taken the form of a lawsuit—another lawsuit, for those familiar with SRF’s ongoing one against Ananda. The charges must be taken simply as an example of the play of maya. If such problems never arose, one might well worry that one wasn’t trying hard enough to do good. But we live in a world of mirrors. What people condemn in others is a clear sign of the faults they have in themselves.

Adversarial roles

So then, what are these charges? Imagine them for yourself: authoritarianism, suppression and unfair treatment, harassment, brainwashing, the usual sexual misconduct. The interesting fact is that the lawyer for the opposition merely lifted most of these charges from another lawsuit he himself previously filed against another church.

I have never harassed anyone, sexually or in any other way. It would be contrary to my most basic instincts and principles to go against another person’s free will, which it is my practice to support even at great cost to myself. But the charges here are so routine, I am reminded of that famous line from Casablanca: “Round up the usual suspects.”

The trouble with lawsuits is that they force people into adversarial modes. I myself don’t feel adversarial toward anyone. If others succeed in destroying everything I’ve done, they cannot destroy me. As Yogananda used to say, “Praise cannot make me any better. Blame cannot make me any worse. I am what I am before my own conscience and God.” Success and failure, in themselves, mean nothing to me. The only thing I want is my Divine Mother’s love, and eternal freedom in Her.

If any of my “antagonists” were ever to come to me or to Ananda for help, we would assist them with no thought for their previous efforts to hurt us. Meanwhile, unfortunately, we are obliged to accept the role into which their lawsuits have cast us: an adversarial role. In the present instance, we have little choice but to initiate a counter-suit for defamation of character. For in fact the statements against us were lies, and lies that are being fed aggressively to the media. To respond (as we’d like to), “We love you just the same,” would be unrealistic, given the legal system in America.

A society preoccupied with sex

For the purposes of the present article, it doesn’t seem necessary to respond directly to these challenges. A complete reply is available from Ananda for anyone who wants it. My guess is that people are getting fed up with all the dirt, and would like to get on with their spiritual lives.

I myself would like to leave matters where they lie. But it wouldn’t be sufficient. These self-styled adversaries (whom we consider our friends) have raised the general subject of my status as a celibate, claiming that I have misrepresented myself publicly in order to deceive people. I welcome this charge as an important opportunity to clear the air not for only myself, but for many other spiritual teachers in America who have faced similar charges in recent years.

We live in a culture where sex is paraded as the ultimate human fulfillment. Advertisements, movies, books, magazines, newspapers, radio, television—all put out the message that sex is wonderful—the ultimate answer to the quest for happiness. I read an advice column in a newspaper a few years ago in which a woman correspondent stated that sex didn’t really attract her all that much, and that she was perfectly happy without it. The counselor, evidently considering herself a mouthpiece for contemporary opinion, replied by commenting on that woman’s “problem,” ending with the suggestion that she get psychiatric counseling.

It all began with D. H. Lawrence, and, my! have people brought sexual “liberation” a long way. Meanwhile, there are more divorces in our society, more marital battles, deeper disillusionment with the very subject of love. And what is the general solution offered? Less of this “nonsense” about love, but ever-increasing emphasis on sex. Our society is morally sick.

Monastic lifestyle on the wane

Meanwhile, the concept of renunciation receives little or no support in the public consciousness. To be a renunciate seems irrelevant to most people. Even among those who want to live a spiritual life, there is a growing tendency to feel that God must be sought in a more “normal” life. And indeed, with so much gross abnormality in so-called normal life, examples are desperately needed today of people living Godly lives not in monasteries, but in homes.

The Virgin Mary has been appearing in hundreds of places on the planet to warn against living an ungodly life. Usually, though not always, her appearances are to children. And her message to them is no longer, in one respect, what it was to Bernadette Soubirous, at Lourdes, and to Lucia, at Fatima. No longer is she telling the child visionaries to enter monasteries. She’s telling them to marry and have children.

Monasteries today all over the world are virtually decimated. Most of their few remaining inhabitants are men and women in their seventies and eighties. New monasteries, like those of Self-Realization Fellowship, include younger members also, but the rate of attrition of these bodies is extraordinarily high.

The first thing most monks and nuns do when they leave their monasteries is get married. Stripped of the protection of the monastic enclosure and rule, they find themselves defenseless against the barrage of temptation that awaits them on the outside. Most of them, alas, see themselves as having fallen. They might look upon marriage as an alternate way of living for God, but instead they consider themselves spiritual failures. They might be marching in the vanguard of a new understanding of the spiritual needs of this age. Instead, all too many view themselves as the debris of battle left strewn by the wayside, while others, worthier than themselves, continue the war of light against spiritual darkness.

Swamis in America

The problem is very similar for swamis who come to this country from India. Indeed, for them the problem is exacerbated. On the one hand, there is no support in our society even for the very concept of swami. On the other hand, they are accustomed to the attitudes of people in India who understand, accept, and support their renunciate status in society. In the West, they find themselves in what amounts, spiritually, to a very alien culture.

Women here, even if they respect the ideal of renunciation, have yet to learn how to relate to swamis in the impersonal way women are accustomed to do in India. What is lacking is guidelines of behavior. It is not surprising that the swamis, altogether unprepared for what they find here, find themselves tempted. Few of them are liberated souls. Many, if not most, are sincerely willing to do what they can for others, while they themselves do their best to grow spiritually. Few swamis in America live in the safety of monasteries, and even those who do usually have more women than men students. That they have held to their ideals as well as they have is, I think, cause for praise rather than censure. If some of them have slipped, and if the slip is recognized as such by them and personally repudiated, I would say only this: A slip is not a fall. Rarely do we find anyone perfect in this world. What we must do, usually, is look at the direction a person is moving, and not define him or her in terms of a few deeds, good or bad. If the direction is upward, we should be encouraging, not judgmental. If it is downward, we may feel we have to withdraw our support, but even then we should not withdraw our love.

I am reminded of Yogananda’s meeting with his guru, Sri Yukteswar. The guru said, “I give you my unconditional love. Will you also give me yours?”

“How can I love you unconditionally?” the young man asked. “What if you were ever to slip from your spiritual ideals?”

“I don’t want your love,” the guru stated. “It stinks!”

At these alarming words, Yogananda understood and gave Sri Yukteswar his unconditional love.

How to succeed

You see, there are two sides to this question. The first is the difficulty of renunciates—swamis, priests, and others—who want sincerely to live by principles in which they deeply believe even when, occasionally, they make mistakes. The second is that of a public that demands a level of perfection towards which few people even aspire in their own lives.

Supposing a swami, or a priest, slips? Shall he then declare, “I am no longer a swami”? Certainly he should not put up a false front. At the same time, there is nothing false about clinging to what one truly believes. Why should he open himself to a worldly self-definition that he himself repudiates? Why should he, for that matter, declare himself “fair game” for the romantic notions of others? And would it not be defeatism on his part to accept occasional failure as a definition of who he is, and of what he deeply wants to do with his life? To accept such a definition would be cowardice, surely.

When William the Conqueror first set foot on English soil, he slipped in the mud and fell forward onto his hands and knees. A gasp of dismay went through his troops at this apparent omen of failure. Just then, William stood up, his hands filled with mud, and cried, “I am so determined to conquer this land that I have grasped it in both my hands!” Cheers soared to the sky. His troops then proceeded to Hastings, and victory.

Years ago, at the age of twenty, I resolved to give up smoking. Unfortunately, I “backslid” repeatedly—after a good meal, for example, or with a cup of coffee: in other words, at times when a smoke tasted particularly good to me. Each time I returned to smoking again, I affirmed mentally, “I have not yet succeeded.” I didn’t allow myself to define my backsliding as failure. Thus, though I slipped repeatedly, I found my affirmations of eventual success, repeated just as frequently, strengthening my will power instead of weakening it. After a year of this seesawing I finally reached the point where I felt equal to the task of giving up smoking altogether. I announced to a roommate that evening, “Tomorrow I’m giving up smoking permanently.” “Oh, sure,” he jeered, going on to sing a line from a popular song: “It seems to me I’ve heard that song before!” I awoke the next morning without the slightest desire to smoke. For two weeks I carried in my breast pocket a half-empty packet of cigarettes, passing them out to friends. Never was I even tempted to smoke personally. From that day to this, I haven’t had the slightest desire for a cigarette.

Sincere teachers

Renunciates need to reaffirm their renunciate status much more for their own sakes than for the sake of others’ opinion of them. Some swamis, presumably, do like to impress others, and enjoy the outward trappings of respect. For a person to receive respect does not mean necessarily, however, that he courts it or revels in it. It may just as easily be a burden he accepts unwillingly, as a price for sharing his knowledge with others.

A sincere teacher will never accept people’s devotion for himself: He will give it to God. Indeed, the fundamental ideal of renunciation is to act without considering the ego a causative factor.

A sincere teacher will never say, “Look at me. See how great I am!” He will say, “God alone is great. I am nothing but His servant, and the servant of all of you.”

A sincere teacher will never say, “I am perfect.” If in God’s eyes he really is perfect, he will be the last to say so. If he knows himself to be less than perfect, he will point to the ideals towards which all true aspirants are struggling. He will never say, “I am your ideal.”

Sharing humbly

In India, many years ago, I was invited to address the students at a women’s college. The principal, while introducing me, said, “When I was a young girl I was taught, every time I saw a swami, to place my hands together and bow to him. In that spirit all of us here greet you.”

I began my lecture with this reply: “If you bow to me as an individual, you bow to something imperfect and worthy of no special reverence. If, on the other hand, you bow to the ideal I represent, then I must reply that I also bow to that ideal, and strive ever to be worthy of my dedication to it. In the same spirit, moreover, each of you represents, to me, the Divine Mother. With even greater reverence, therefore, I prostrate myself before you.”

I have never thought of myself as teaching anyone. And certainly I make no claims for myself. All I see myself doing is sharing humbly with others the insights I have received from my guru, and gained in my own life. I share these insights not only because I believe in them, but because I love them. They thrill me. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that these are the truths people need in this time of darkness. I share in this way because my guru told me to do so, over—I must confess—my resistance, in the beginning. He put it to me that this was my duty, brought over from previous lives. In that context, why pay any attention to institutional approval or disapproval? He himself told someone I know to give Kriya Yoga initiation to those whom she felt to be ready for it; then, when she asked, “What will the organization say?” he replied to her, “Are you following the organization? Or are you following me?”

The “teacher role”

How often I have seen audiences trying to force us “teachers” into an artificial mold: “heads of organizations,” “gurus,” “perfected masters,” “spiritually superior.” Sometimes, I regret to say, I have seen a few of the “teachers” themselves accepting the roles into which their public cast them. Most of the teachers, I imagine, “go along with the gag” because they think people would be disappointed if they behaved too naturally. I was told of one such teacher who, caught reading a newspaper by someone as that person entered the room, hastily sat up straight and closed his eyes, as if in meditation. This was of course hypocrisy, and I have no use for it. But I have seen many other teachers who sincerely wanted to serve, and who didn’t themselves know what image of themselves to hold up to this culture, alien as it is to most of the things a swami is supposed to represent. I myself am perhaps unusual in that I’m an American, and am happy, besides, to let people think of me whatever they want. But I do want to say to people, “Please, treat spiritual teachers as human beings. That’s what we are. We do know something worthwhile, and are eager and happy to share it with you. But for God’s sake don’t treat us as gods. You haven’t the cultural background even to understand what that means.”

True renunciation

Celibacy is an important aspect of renunciation. So also are other aspects, such as simplicity, non-attachment, harmlessness, truthfulness, and a refusal to view the ego, and egoic desire, as causative factors in life. Nor do these other aspects define the whole of what it means to be a true renunciate. The essence of renunciation is to reach the realization that man, himself, is nothing; that God is everything.

A swami is a man or a woman vowed to renunciation, including the practice of celibacy. In this sense he is like a Catholic monastic or priest. Has a person failed in his renunciation if he is ever tempted, or, worse still, if he or she succumbs to the temptation? To carry this thought further, has a person failed as a renunciate if he or she slips in any of the other aspects of renunciation? Is he, for example, a failed renunciate if he accepts a compliment to his ego? Celibacy is important not only for the renunciate, but, in relative measure—that is to say, the practice of at least moderate self-control—for everyone. So, we speak of error, but why define error as failure? Indeed, why define it as sin? A slip is not a fall. Swami Sri Yukteswar, Paramhansa Yogananda’s guru, said, “Forget the past. The vanished lives of all men are dark with many shames. Human nature is ever unreliable until anchored in the Divine. Everything in future will improve if you are making a spiritual effort now.”

Directional values

To be a perfect renunciate is wonderful. Nowadays, however, outside the protection of monastic walls, I wonder how many people really succeed. I think we must view renunciation, and the status of a swami, in two ways. The first would be one who declares, “This is a state I have attained. Nothing can make me fall from it.” The other would be a directional view of moral values in general. This is, I think, more realistic than condemning others while living, ourselves, as we please.

I remember saying once to my guru, “I would rather kill myself than give in to sexual temptation.” “Why speak of killing yourself?” he gently scolded. “Do your best. This quality is not deep in you, and you will overcome it.”

To kill oneself, I later came to understand, would be to identify oneself with failure, not with one’s potential for eventual spiritual victory.

Yogananda also said to me, “Remember, you are not safe until you attain nirbikalpa samadhi (the high state of union with God).” I have not attained nirbikalpa samadhi, so I must assume that, although I’ve reached a point in my life, after a lifetime of spiritual effort, where sexual desire seems to me fairly pointless (I watch two people kissing on a movie screen and find myself thinking, “Get on with the story!”), yet I will not say that I am above the possibility of being tempted, because one never knows what karmic impulses still lurk in the subconscious. I have always done my best, have never presented myself as spiritually different from or superior to anyone else, and even when thoughts of temptation came I have resolutely refused to accept that they defined who I was.

Self-transformation is a process

If a person is doing his best, that is all God Himself could possibly ask of him. And it is not being hypocritical. It is struggling, with the strength and ability at his command, to rise toward the Truth, and to leave error behind forever.

Hypocrisy must also be considered from an opposite standpoint: in the attitude of the condemners. For is it not hypocrisy to demand so much of others, when one has not the remotest interest in overcoming, or ability to overcome, desire in oneself?

I think it is time people involved in the spiritual scene in the West, particularly those who practice yoga, became more real in their assessments. For there are many teachers who have much to give, if we don’t ask the impossible of them. If they are sincere, they are not merchants trying to get people to buy their wares. They are fellow human beings who understand that the less importance they give to themselves, the more good happens through them. That good isn’t their doing. It couldn’t be, or it wouldn’t really be good. For myself, I may say that, with diminishing interest in myself and in what others think of me, an awareness comes of another Presence, and, with it, a desire to awaken in other people a sense of the Divine Reality in themselves.

Self-transformation is a process. It is not the sudden consequence of a mere resolution to change. Values at every level of society should be taken out of the rusty enclosure of absolute definitions, and viewed in terms of directional development. We are all working to become better. That “better” may someday become our own personal “best.” But it certainly won’t become so in a day, a year, or perhaps even in one incarnation.

copyright 1994 by the author


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