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Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in

Contemporary India

Maya Warrier

One of the most dramatic and important developments in present-day Hinduism

is the growth of popular and high-profile devotionalist organizations led by

charismatic Indian gurus. The more successful of the gurus head vast institu- tional empires, financed by generous donations from hundreds of thousands of

affluent devotees both in India and abroad. Many guru organizations today

have a transnational reach, with branches and centers not only in India's towns

and cities but also in the affluent countries of the West and elsewhere in places

with a sizeable population of Indian immigrants, such as Singapore, Malaysia,

and the Caribbean islands. They make extensive use of modern means of

communication and the mass media in order to keep in touch with devotees

scattered across the globe. Most necessitate a high volume of traffic between

India and the rest of the world. Foreign devotees throng the ~ramas of Indian

gurus in the quest of spiritual enlightenment, and leading Indian gurus and/or

their disciples go on tours abroad to spread their message of spirituality.

Within India, these organizations attract mainly persons from urban educated

middle-class backgrounds. From the point of view of these middle-class

urbanites, the world of spiritual gurus in contemporary India is marked by

rich diversity and offers a range of possible pathways of spiritual questing.

Gurus today vary widely in appearance and personal style, ranging from slick,

modern healers in business jackets and ties to wild sddhus with matted hair

and ash-smeared bodies. The spiritual wares they offer include discourses on

scriptural Hinduism, meditation techniques, stress relief and relaxation methods,

specialized ritual prescriptions intended to effect specific outcomes, and

methods of spiritual and physical healing. These persons are a visible presence

on television, in the myriad journals and magazines on religion and spirituality

readily available for public consumption, at websites maintained by spiritual

International Journal of Hindu Studies 7, 1-3 (2003): 31-54

© 2005 by the Word Heritage Press Inc.
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32 / Maya Warrier

groups, and in advertisements in the print and electronic media announcing a

guru's spiritual discourse here or a prayer session there. Pamphlets and

newsletters, posters, audiotapes, and video cassettes, often produced by guru

organizations as part of their publicity and promotion efforts, circulate widely to

provide potential devotees with a sampling of the available wares.

This variety and diversity is an important and immediate reality with which

guru seekers are forced to contend in the course of their spiritual questing. In

such a context, it becomes imperative to ask how it is that individuals make

sense of the bewildering variety that they encounter in the world of gurus and

guru organizations. How do they make their choices and selections from the vast

array of gurus available for their spiritual gratification? This is an aspect of guru

devotion largely neglected in existing studies of guru organizations and their

adherents. ~ Most studies of guru devotionalism in India tend to deal almost

exclusively with the internal dynamics of the particular guru faith or organization

chosen for study (see, for instance, Babb 1986; Carter 1987, 1990; Coney

1999; Juergensmeyer 1991; Kakar 1984; Knott 1986; Swallow 1982; Williams

1984). They focus on such aspects of guru faith as the origins and historical

background of the organization concerned, hagiographies of the guru(s) heading

the organization, its institutional structure, the beliefs and practices it advocates,

and the socialization of devotees into the ways of the guru's following.

Followers tend to be seen as "members" of the group, and often there is the

assumption of a clear demarcation of status between "insiders" and "outsiders."

This kind of approach fails to address the larger social context within which

guru organizations operate. It fails to address questions about individuals'

motivations for seeking out gurus in general, the processes by which devotees

select and choose between gurus, their perceptions of relations between gurus,

and the ways in which they maintain and/or dissolve boundaries vis-a-vis other

guru faiths and sustain or abandon particular aspects of their guru allegiances as

they negotiate their journey across modem India's ever-expanding spiritual

terrain. My attempt here is to explore these aspects of spiritual questing and

guru choice in contemporary India and draw attention to new and fruitful

directions in the research and study of guru devotion.

The observations in this paper are based on a year-long field research among

devotees of M~tfi An .m. ~nandamayi, a highly popular avatara-guru in contempo- rary India. This study, conducted primarily in Delhi, Kerala, and Tamilnadu, and

later among devotees in London, used the methods of participant observation,

informal interview, and analysis of publicity material, in order to explore guru

devotion in the Mata Amg. anandamayi Mission. ~ Devotees invariably had a high

degree of awareness about other gurus, their teachings, personalities, and religio- spiritual attitudes and orientations, which helped guide their own devotional
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Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in Contemporary India / 33

choices and paths of spiritual seeking. The M~t~, more often than not, was only

one of several gurus whom devotees tended to have sampled in the course of

their spiritual questing. The elements of guru choice and selection that I explore

in this paper, therefore, apply not just to M~t~ Am~'t. Anandamayi's spiritual

organization but to guru seeking across much of India's spiritual landscape.

A crucial point this paper seeks to highlight is the fact that most individuals,

at various points in their lives, owe their spiritual allegiance to more than one

guru, either simultaneously or in succession. What this means, in terms of

possible approaches to the study of guru devotion in contemporary India, is that

devotees are best seen not as members of any one guru organization but as

travelers along various and diverse paths of spiritual questing. Their attachment

to a guru or gurus at any given point in time may then best be seen as "stops" on

this spiritual journey, where they secure a temporary anchor at the feet of the

chosen guru before they move on to other gurus and guru organizations. To

perceive participation in guru organizations as part of larger spiritual journeys

undertaken by these travelers is then not just to address issues pertaining to faith

within each such organization but also, and more importantly, to take into

account the routes followed by different travelers and the choices and selections

they make along these routes. The focus thus shifts to their movement between

guru organizations or between one type of spiritual message and another and to

experiences of double or multiple attachment. There is, in this scheme of things,

no fixed and permanent boundary delineating any particular guru faith. Instead,

insides and outsides are negotiated tactically, and individuals create and sustain

guru allegiances through the process of journeying itself. At certain times

individuals may assert the authenticity of a particular guru faith and defend it

against criticism from "outsiders." At others, they may themselves move on

and become "outsiders" in their turn, questioning the authenticity of a guru to

whom they were previously attached. Alternatively they may opt for a faith of a

composite variety, picking and mixing items from several available alternatives,

and thus crafting individualized and personalized spiritual landscapes to suit

their individual tastes and inclinations.


Though the particular personal styles, teachings, and spiritual recommendations

of individual gurus are unique and distinctive, they all share certain elements

common to guru devotionalism through much of contemporary India. First,

gurus are perceived as spiritually enlightened individuals. In the view of
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34 / Maya Warrier

laypersons, gurus possess special powers that they can tap, in order to secure

their own well-being and happiness, and gurus' perceived miracle working

abilities are a crucial factor in attracting devotees to their fold. The popular

Indian guru and "godman" Satya S~i B~b~, for instance, manifests his "divine"

powers through an open display of his miracle working abilities, mostly the

materialization of ash as well as other objects like watches, diamond rings, and

cameras, during his public appearances before devotees? Devotees believe he

intervenes miraculously at critical junctures in their lives, resolving situations of

crisis and effecting solutions to apparently insurmountable problems. M~t~

Am.rt. ~nandamayi, a relatively recent but vastly popular female avatara-guru,

with a uniquely intimate style of interacting with devotees, is likewise known

for her miraculous abilities to alleviate her devotees' sorrow and suffering. She

embraces each devotee individually, and the power of the embrace is often

believed to work miracles "subtly" in devotees' lives, gradually transforming

both their personalities and effecting changes in their physical and material

circumstances (Warder 2003a,b). M~t~ Nirmalfi Devi, the well-known propo- nent of Sabaja Yoga, is believed to effect a spiritual transformation in her

followers' lives by generating experiences of "cool breezes," supposedly

indicative of the awakening of their kund. alin~, the seat, according to some

Indian traditions, of spiritual power and enlightenment (Coney 1999; Kakar

1984). In some cases, therefore, the efficacy of gurus lies in their ability to

provide solutions (miraculous or otherwise) to devotees' everyday problems,

and gurus whose remedies best "work" for their devotees are likely to be the

ones that become most popular. In others, the gum's ability to provide devotees

with an out-of-the-ordinary experience, which devotees take as an indication of

the guru's abilities as a spiritual guide and preceptor, is the crucial factor that

clinches their faith in the guru.

The size of the following of the more popular gurus is often difficult, if not

impossible, to estimate, given the fluid nature of the group's boundaries. There

is usually a numerically small core or inner circle, often comprising ascetic

disciples as in the case of the spiritual organization led by M~tfi AII~. Ananda- mayi, which plays a key role in the organization's promotional and institution- building efforts. The bulk of the following, consisting of hundreds of thousands,

if not millions, of lay devotees across the word from diverse national, religious,

and linguistic backgrounds, make up what may be described as a "floating

population" of adherents whose guru loyalties are likely to shift and change over

time. Devotees are most often not "members" but "participants" in the activities

of the guru organization. When they enter the guru's fold, they do not dissolve

into a community of like-minded adherents. Instead they enjoy considerable

freedom and autonomy to engage with the gum's spiritual teachings and his or
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Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in Contemporary India / 35

her recommended spiritual practices, in whatever manner they choose. They

form a network of individuals, rather than a closely knit "community" of

followers bound together by common rituals, codes, or practices.

Personal ties with the guru rather than a sense of group identity with fellow

devotees lies at the heart of most guru attachments. These personal ties are

sustained not on the basis of actual day to day interactions (guru-devotee

meetings are often as infrequent as once or twice in a year) but through

constructions of myths and narratives which idealize the guru's "omnipresence"

and "omniscience," thus creating an imagined sense of the guru's presence in

the everyday lives of devotees. Miracle experiences are often crucial to the

cementing of this guru-devotee bond, as are mass media that relay audio and

visual recordings of the guru's activities, as well as daily, weekly, or monthly

news about the organization, to each individual devotee regardless of his or her

location in the word. When the bond with one guru weakens, the devotee might

abandon that particular guru faith and set forth to explore others that might

satisfy his or her spiritual needs better.

Participation in these organizations usually entails attending collective ritual,

prayer and discourse sessions organised by local devotee circles, acquainting

oneself with the guru's teachings, following the daily spiritual observances

recommended by the guru, and making occasional trips to the guru's spiritual

headquarters, often in the hope of a personal meeting with the guru. "Surrender"

to particular gurus and attachment to their brand of spirituality means different

things to different individuals, and the selections that devotees make from the

guru's repertoire of ritual and other recommendations vary widely. Devotees

frequently combine particular items unique to one guru organization with others

prescribed by a different spiritual organization with which they are, or have

been, involved. The resulting "pick-and-mix" kind of spiritual practice and its

constituent items serve as a telling index of the extent and nature of spiritual

travel that the individual has undertaken in the course of his or her life and the

specific routes he or she has followed.


Not all individuals in India are equally well-endowed to sample the spiritual

wares of diverse gurus or to travel freely across the high-profile spiritual

landscape which gurus populate. Those at an advantage in this respect are

mostly wealthy and educated urbanites. Several studies of high-profile trans- national guru organizations have noted the urban middle-class profile of their
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36 / Maya Wander

Indian followers (see Babb 1986; Fuller 1992; Juergensmeyer 1991; Kakar

1984; Swallow 1984). 4 They are mostly urbanites in white-collar employment,

many in the newer and more prestigious occupations involving high-tech skills

and comparatively high earnings. They include government officials, lawyers,

doctors, teachers, college lecturers, journalists, managers in multinational

corporations or in smaller private sector concerns, computer software personnel,

engineers, and scientists. These individuals place a high premium on a good

education, seeing it as a vital investment towards ensuring their economic

mobility and their ability to access global opportunities. Educational qualifica- tions, obtained preferably in the more prestigious schools and universities where

English is the medium of communication, are therefore an important status

marker for these persons. The same is true of their consumption patterns, with

certain "positional goods" (Pinches 1999: 32) such as expensive cars, posh

residences, mobile phones, clothes with designer labels, costly holiday packages,

and recreational programs, separating the "elites" from the less advantaged)

Many of these persons command transnational connections. Theirs is a world

of accelerated flows of capital, technology, and information across countries.

Many travel abroad for educational, professional, or recreational purposes and

have friends and family members living abroad. India's economic liberalization

of the 1990s, which brought an influx of foreign consumer goods as well as

access to foreign television through satellite transmission, exposed the country

as never before to global economic and cultural influences. The result is a

composite package of consumption patterns among middle-class Indian

urbanites. On the one hand, brand products such as Barbie dolls and Nike

sportswear, television soaps like Santa Barbara and NYPD Blue, and fast food

centers like Pizza Hut and Burger King are all part of their everyday world and

reflect their "globalized" consumption standards. On the other hand, they keenly

nurture local cultural sensibilities, frequenting "ethnic" eating-places and chic

Indian boutiques and viewing popular Indian language television serials and

commercial films.

The transnational links of these middle classes are reflected in the religious

and spiritual organizations to which many attach themselves. Most such

organizations, as I noted earlier, command an international presence, and

connect devotees worldwide not only through institutional networks but also

through modern means of communication such as electronic mail and the

Internet. Through their participation in a range of high-profile spiritual activities

and organizations ranging from Reiki classes to "Art of Living" programs, these

individuals derive the benefit of perceived spiritual growth and healing and keep

up with their peers in matters not just of material but also spiritual wealth.

"Spirituality" comprises an important element in drawing room conversations in
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Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in Contemporao' India / 37

most urban middle-class households. Long, involved discussions on the latest

spiritual wares available or animated comparisons between different gurus and

between diverse meditation and healing techniques are all commonplace in the

everyday interactions of these individuals.

Scholars attempting to explain the particular appeal of modem gurus to

India's urban educated middle classes often perceive a supposed gap in their

lives that these persons purportedly seek to fill by attaching themselves to a

guru. This "gap" is described in terms of their inability to cope with modern

India's fast paced and rapidly changing urban environment, their lack of

anchoring in a closely knit community, and their sense of losing touch with

their Hindu religious traditions. While the resulting sense of "rootlessness,"

"alienation," and "anomie," as these scholars describe it, may be true for some

middle-class urbanites in contemporary India, it is certainly not a characteristic

feature of them all. Instead, as I have argued elsewhere (Warder 2003a), many

of these people have in fact benefited vastly from the changing conditions in

India's political economy and have done well for themselves by seizing the

education and job-related opportunities that have come their way. For the

majority of these individuals, their experience of the unprecedented pace and

scale of change in modem India's urban environment has resulted not so much

in a sense of despair and failure as in the hope of increasing possibilities and

multiplying opportunities. Most importantly, it has meant a growing awareness

of multiple choices in every sphere of life, including that of religion.

Their relatively privileged position in India's political economy gives these

persons a position of vantage in the matter of spiritual travel and guru seeking.

In the first place, they have the money and leisure necessary to (physically)

travel to different spiritual centers and to pay for their entry into spiritual group

activities or ticketed public programs and religious sermons. Second, they have

access to the media (print and/or electronic) where these wares are commonly

advertised. They are also often part of social networks that facilitate the relevant

information flows between individuals and groups. Third, they can in their turn

contribute towards the growth and publicity of these gurus and their organiza- tions through donations in cash or kind or through the influence they command

in the highest echelons of local business and political circles (Warder 2003b).


Devotees' motivations for seeking out gurus can, in very broad terms, be

described as either the desire for wish fulfillment or the hope of personal
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38 / Maya Warrier

(spiritual) development. Most studies of guru organizations show how

individuals are attracted to gurus initially in the hope of immediate solutions to

personal problems. They first seek out a guru when faced with situations of

crisis, such as failing health, marital discord, or financial problems. At such

times, the first channels of help are the systems of expertise intrinsic to modem

society such as medical and legal establishments. These systems, while they do

offer rational, professional, and standardized means of assistance, are, however,

unable to provide the personalized support that most individuals crave. 6 This is

where a guru holds out the promise of relief and reassurance. Persons in distress

come to know of particular gurus either from the guru's promotional material

appearing in the popular media or through the advice of well-meaning friends

and neighbors who urge them to seek the guru's blessings to alleviate their

distress. The first dargana of the guru requires either making a trip to the guru's

spiritual headquarters with the specific intent of meeting him or her to seek help

or visiting him or her when he or she tours their city or locality. The guru's

assurance of love and protection at such times serves to complement the services

offered by professional experts. Many experience this as an "unburdening" and

derive a sense of immense relief from the experience.

The guru attachment and surrender that follows usually entails seeing the guru

as the controller of one's destiny. Devotees often strive to relinquish their sense

of personal control in favor of an altered sensibility or outlook that perceives the

guru as a "divine stage manager ''7 controlling their lives. For most devotees, this

"surrender" is based on expectations of tangible personal reward. Attachment to

a guru and surrender to his or her divine agency is, for such individuals, inextri- cably bound up with the hope that he or she will work miracles in their lives and

thereby ease their personal suffering, avert situations of crises, and generally

smooth out their life's journey by offering them divine protection.

In some cases, the search for a guru is linked with expectations of reward of a

less tangible, more spiritual nature. Persons of this persuasion hope that by

seeking the guru's guidance and by following his or her spiritual prescriptions,

they might "mature" spiritually. These individuals tend to see the guru not so

much as a wish fulfiller but as an exemplar whose life unfolds as a shining

example for devotees and disciples to try and emulate. They often tend to see

their own lives as somehow lacking in meaning and hope that by following the

guru's example they might lead their lives in a more meaningful and spiritually

rewarding way.

In most cases, devotees' motivations are a combination of these two things.

Spiritual enhancement and immediate physical and material gain are not

necessarily seen as mutually exclusive goals. Instead most devotees see these as

inextricably linked with each other such that spiritual well-being may well yield
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Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in Contemporary India / 39

material rewards and vice versa. The difference in the two kinds of approach lies

only in the different sets of priorities of the seekers; whereas some lay greater

store by tangible changes in their external environment, others accord greater

priority to inner growth and self-discipline. It is not uncommon to see, in

devotee circles, the perception of a hierarchical relationship between the two

kinds of approaches to gurus and guru questing. Those who claim to seek a guru

for purposes of personal spiritual enhancement often tend to view others more

concerned with wish fulfillment as spiritually "immature." The former neverthe- less tend to treat the latter with a measure of indulgence, often claiming that

prolonged exposure to the guru must necessarily "reform" these persons and

make them see, sooner or later, the relative insignificance of outer (material), as

opposed to inner (spiritual), questing.


Given that devotees encounter not one but hundreds of gurus in India's spiritual

marketplace, how do they make a choice between the various gurus visibly

present in their immediate environment? How do they decide which of these

several gurus is "right" for them'?. This question becomes doubly significant

given the climate of doubt and distrust that often clouds guru seeking. Guru

seekers, while they revere and respect so-called "holy" persons, at the same time

regard these figures with extreme suspicion and unease. The fear that a guru or

godperson may not be "genuine" is one that nags even the most trusting, and this

unease is borne out by the numerous stories that circulate through local gossip

channels or are prominently publicized in the mass media about godpersons

being exposed as con men (and women) with criminal connections using their

spirituality as a facade for making money or sexual predators using the mask of

their celibacy to run clandestine sex rackets) The Indian film industry, with its

mass appeal and pervasive influence over the public imagination, often fans

these doubts and fears by portraying gurus as crooks and libertines who exercise

clout in the highest circles of power and cannot, therefore, be easily brought to

book for their criminal activities.

The language of guru recognition and choice, as I learnt in the course of

interviews with the guru devotees in urban India, is highly nuanced. Devotees

perceive gurus to be part of an inscrutable scheme where it is divinely ordained

as to whether and when the fight guru will make his or her appearance before

the individual concerned. Thus there is no personal agency involved in

"choosing" or "selecting" one's guru. Instead, the guru "appears" before one,
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40 / Maya Warrier

and one simply comes to "recognize" him or her as the intended guru. "When

you are spiritually ripe enough for the guru," devotees explained, "the guru will

herself appear before you and take you in hand."

Some devotees attribute one's recognition of one's guru to an intuitive

knowledge that cannot readily be explained. One devotee described how he had

met a range of gurus in a desperate search for the "right" one. None of the gurus

had inspired his confidence. It was only when he met the guru he was attached

to at the time, that he finally felt he could "surrender" himself to her and that too

not at the first meeting but after several meetings. This devotee compared his

search for the fight guru to the search for one's life partner. "You can't describe

it," he said. "It is only when she comes before you that you know she is right."

In both cases, he asserted, this knowledge is based not on reason or logic but on

such factors beyond the pale of reason as faith and instinct. Some devotees

described this knowledge in terms of certain "vibrations" that one senses in the

presence of the right guru. Others described it in terms of a matching of

chemistries between guru and disciple. Not every guru's chemistry matches

with yours, they explained to me, and you are lucky if you happen to find the

one who resonates with your inner being and personality. This same "intuitive"

knowledge, according to devotees, enables one to discriminate between a

genuine guru and a fake one.

Though devotees deny all conscious choice or agency in selecting their

guru(s), their narratives of their experiences with various gurus point to several

vital factors that implicitly go into guru assessment and choice. From these

narratives, it appears that most devotees do have a conception of what a guru

ought to be like, and it is to the extent that a guru matches their expectations and

preferences that they become willing to enter his or her fold as devotees. These

factors are manifold and are accorded different degrees of importance by

different individuals. It is interesting that the very factors which attract some

devotees to one guru turn others away, because of their conflicting interpreta- tions and assessments of the guru's personality and style.

The most important factor is, of course, the guru's perceived efficacy or

otherwise in solving devotees' immediate problems. Persons who seek out a

guru in the hope of specific outcomes are more likely to attach themselves to the

guru if, during their initial meeting(s) with the guru, their immediate needs are

met, their personal crises resolved, and their anxieties allayed. A second

important factor is the guru's personality. Different devotees seek different

personality traits in their gurus. While some cherish intimacy, easy accessibility,

simplicity, and spontaneity in their guru, others prefer gurus who appear remote

and even unpredictable in their dealings with devotees.

This can be illustrated with the case of devotees of M~t~ Amg. ~nandamayi.
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Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in Contemporary India / 41

Most devotees of the M~t~ appreciate her easy, intimate style of engaging with

devotees. A devotee in Delhi contrasted the M~t~'s style of relating to people

with what he had encountered at the Divine Life Society in Rishikesh in North

India. 9

It wasn't as though I thought the gurus at Divine Life Society were fake. It is

the cleanest organization, but...the whole orientation is philosophical. The

emphasis is on intellectual striving. Here [in Mit~ Am~. ~nandamayi's fold] it

is more from the heart. There is love .... You feel it is your home .... Everyone

is so loving. You don't feel you are an outsider. Your concept of a guru

changes after you come here. Amma ["M~t~" or "mother" in the guru's native

language, Malayalam] is so practical. She comes down to your level, wherever

you are. She understands your mental level. And you understand her .... In the

Divine Life Society, you feel hesitant to go forward and talk to them. They are

in their own intellectual worlds .... In Amma's dgrama, you feel part of the

whole thing. You don't feel like coming away ....

Devotees of M~t~ Am~. ~nandamayi often criticize Satya Sai Bab~ too for what

they perceive as the remoteness and inaccessibility of this guru. The B~bfi's

public appearances today are far fewer than the Mfita's, and he chooses to offer

private audiences only to very small and select groups of individuals, a fact that

visitors to his agrama, most of whom are anxious to meet him privately, often


Conversely, several people treat the M~t~ with circumspection precisely

because they find her intimacy, and especially her embrace, unsettling and

undesirable. For non-devotees who have had her dargana and come away

unimpressed, it is the physicality of the embrace that decides them against

choosing her as their guru. Receiving an embrace from a woman is, for many,

an uncomfortable experience, especially if the recipient is male. This kind of

perception is laden with sexual undertones, and these skeptics often describe the

embrace as an act by which both M~t~ and devotee seek sexual gratification. ~°

For them, the M,~t~ is an object of derision because of the physical intimacy she

lavishes on her devotees.

Guru seekers also tend to be very skeptical about gurus who openly demand

donations and services from their devotees. Any hint of personal aggrandize- ment on the guru's part is seen in a negative light, and it is often those gurus

who are seen to lead austere lives and to engage selflessly with devotees who

carry maximum credibility in devotees' perceptions. An important index of this

self-denial and altruism is the extent of a guru's involvement in charitable

ventures intended for the welfare of society. Many gurus in India today channel
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42 / Maya Warrier

the donations they receive from devotees into such charitable institutions as

hospitals and hospices, nursing homes, schools, and orphanages. Followers see

these as evidence of their gurus' commitment to "social service," their altruism

and philanthropy, which constitutes for them an important basis for the guru's

legitimacy and "genuineness." Skeptics, on the other hand, may question a

guru's legitimacy precisely on the grounds of the guru's own and his or her

organization's visible affluence, which they often perceive as contradictory to

the ideals of asceticism and austerity they associate with "authentic" gurus.

Another important criterion devotees often use for choosing between gurus is

the style of their religious discourse. Some guru seekers prefer the extremely

simple and spontaneous discourse of gurus like M~ta Am~. ~nandamayi and

Satya S~i B~b~, who capture devotees' imaginations with their simple stories,

anecdotes, and parables. M,~t~ An~. ~nandamayi, for instance, conveys her

teachings in a very direct and often emotionally charged manner, avoiding the

Sanskrit terms and abstractions commonly found in spiritual discourses by other

gurus. Non-devotees often find the M~t~'s style overly childish and simplistic

and prefer the spiritual discourses of other more erudite gurus like the late

Cinmay~nanda. u The content of Cinmay,~nanda's speeches derived more often

than not from ancient Sanskrit texts and provided the guru's interpretation of

particular verses and passages in these texts. His discourses tended to be far

more intellectually demanding and often even obscure in comparison with the

M~t~'s simple oratory.

As avid travelers along India's spiritual highway, guru seekers are clearly

guided by a well-defined set of criteria in their choice of gurus. These indi- viduals display a keen awareness of the spiritual wares available and sample

several gurus before attaching themselves to one or more chosen spiritual

preceptor(s). In making their choices, they opt for gurus who match their

individual preferences. Not all devotees use the same criteria in their decision

making, nor do they attach the same weightage to these criteria, but they

invariably do use several criteria, in whatever order of importance, in making

their selections from the range of gurus populating India's dense spiritual world.


In terms of their guru loyalties at any given point in time, there are two kinds

of guru orientations commonly observable amongst devotees. I refer to these

here as the "exclusivist" and "inclusivist" orientations. Exclusivists see their

attachment to the guru as precluding the possibility of simultaneous attachments
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Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in Contempora~, India / 43

to other gurus. They find it contemptible to owe allegiance to more than one

guru at the same time or to drift from guru to guru in the hope of tangible

rewards. To be a "tourist of gurus," in their view, is to take an altogether

frivolous approach to spirituality. It is like "digging for water" in not one but

several places at the same time. According to this logic, if you dig shallow

holes in the ground at several places, you will not find water, whereas if you dig

deep in one place, you must, sooner or later, find it. Exclusivists therefore try

and remain loyal to their chosen guru. They might still sample the wares of

other guru figures and even attend the discourses, prayer sessions, and rituals

conducted by other guru organizations, seeing such attendance and participation

as spiritually meritorious activity. In terms of being "attached" to a guru,

however, they remain exclusively loyal to their chosen one. Only in extreme

circumstances, such as the passing away of the chosen guru or disillusionment

with him or her, will exclusivists consider the option of attachment to a new

spiritual mentor.

Unlike exclusivists, inclusivists attach themselves simultaneously to several

gurus. Each individual selects his or her cluster of chosen gurus on the basis of

personal preferences or practical expediency, and the cluster's composition

keeps changing over time, with older attachments yielding place to newer and

more attractive ones. Inclusivists constantly sample the spiritual wares of new

gurus, form new attachments, and add to, or discard from, their chosen guru


Devotees' orientations--whether exclusivist or inclusivist--are usually

reflected in the guru iconography with which they tend to surround themselves.

Their homes usually bear visible signs of their guru allegiances. The walls of

living rooms are adorned with framed photographs and calendar pictures of their

gurus, past and present. Often invocations to the gurus, most commonly in

Sanskrit, are printed across doorways. Stickers and magnets bearing the visages

of the gurus or some related symbol are prominently displayed on refrigerator

doors, dashboards, and windscreens of cars and on the surfaces of satchels and

brief cases. Most persons wear some kind of reminder of their gurus on their

person. These include rings and lockets bearing miniature photographs of their

gurus, bracelets with the guru's name carved on the surface, or rosary beads that

have been blessed by one or the other guru. Many carry photographs of the

gurus in their wallets and purses. They surround themselves with books

containing hagiographies of the gurus and compilations of the gurus" teachings.

Whereas exclusivists usually tend to display the icons of only the one guru to

whom they are currently attached, inclusivists often combine iconography from

different guru traditions. It is not uncommon to see, for instance, photographs

of Satya S~i B~b~, alongside those of M~t~ An~. ~nandamayi, adorning the
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44 / Maya Warrier

homes of some guru-devotees. Similarly it is not uncommon to discover the odd

devotee wearing, alongside a bracelet with the M~t~'s name carved on it, also a

pendant beating the visage of a smiling S~i B~b~.



In drawing comparisons and contrasts between the various gurus whom they

may have encountered in the course of their spiritual explorations, guru seekers

most commonly tend to perceive relations between gurus in terms of one of

three possibilities: identity, complementarity, or competition. Different indi- viduals conceptualize the relationship between any two gurus differently. This

can perhaps best be demonstrated by exploring the different ways in which some

guru seekers conceptualize the relationship between M~t~ Arartinandamayi and

Satya S~i B.~b~.

Some perceive the relation between the two gurus as one of unity and identity,

seeing both as manifestations of the same divine force. A devotee of M~t~

Am!'t. ~nandamayi used the analogy of electricity to explain the unity of the

divine energy manifest in both gurus: "The creator may have a billion different

forms but the source of energy is all the same. Just like electricity. Whether it

lights up a bulb in this house or one in the next, it is all the same. The source

that generates this electricity is one." Devotees of this persuasion may appeal to

both gurus equally for divine protection and guidance and participate equally in

the activities of both guru organizations. Alternatively, they may prefer to focus

their devotion on either one, in the belief that single-minded surrender to any

one chosen guru, rather than devotion to several, is the superior way of

disciplining the mind and enhancing one's spiritual progress.

Others perceive the relation between the two gurus in terms of complemen- tarity rather than unity. According to some devotees of M~t~ Am.ft. ~nandamayi,

there are occasions when Satya S~i B~b~ tells particular individuals to approach

the Matfi rather than him for solutions to specific problems. Devotees often take

this to mean that each guru has a particular area of expertise that the other does

not share. Devotees do not venture to speculate on precisely what these "areas of

specialization" are but hope that in the event that they approach the wrong guru

for a particular need, they will be redirected to the "right" one! Discussions

among devotees about the relative merits and limitations of different gurus often

center around speculations as to which guru is best approached for what kind of

problem. Some gurus, in this scheme of things, may be most effective as healers
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Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in ContemporaD, India / 45

of particular kinds of illness, others may be particularly effective in blessing

childless couples with offspring, still others may be most useful in resolving

marital discord and/or sorting out financial problems.

Several devotees locate Mfit~ Am!'t. ,~nandamayi and Satya S~i B~b~ in a

relationship not of identity or complementarity but one of competition. They see

their personalities and/or their teachings as incompatible and therefore find it

imperative to make a choice between the two. Some devotees of the M~t~, for

instance, consider Satya S~ B~b~ undesirable as a guru because of his visibly

conspicuous miracle working. They see his miracles (most commonly the

materialization of various objects out of thin air) as the cheap conjuring tricks of

a magician and express their reservations about the B~b~ precisely because of

this open and brash display. This is the point made in a story about the MAt~ that

one devotee narrated to me. "I heard one story. She was feeding people out of a

bucket--in the crowd .... People kept coming, kept coming .... And this was a

bottomless bucket. And people started saying, "Oh! Miracle! Miracle!' And she

finishes feeding them and throws down the bucket and says 'That's the last time

I do that, otherwise I'll have an agrama like S~i B~b~.' "

In this view, the M~t~, unlike S~i B~b~, does not need to display her super- natural powers in order to convince her devotees. Underlying this perception is

the premise that gurus who are glamorous and pretentious, who seek to project

themselves in order to impress the public, and who woo devotees by means of

spectacular display are to be treated with circumspection. "Genuine" gurus do

not seek to impress because they do not need to; their personality, their actions,

and their graciousness speak for themselves. In this scheme of things, the M~t~

is "genuine" whereas S~i B~b~ is not, and therefore choosing the M~t~ as one's

preferred guru simultaneously entails rejecting SAi B~b~ as a potential option. ~2

M~t~ Am~. ~nandamayi and Satya S~i B~b~ are only two among the many

gurus whom guru seekers may encounter in their travels along contemporary

India's busy spiritual highway. In making their evaluations of the relationship

between gurus, devotees use different yardsticks, and depending on which

yardsticks they use, they perceive differently the compatibility/continuity or

otherwise between guru faiths. As a result of this, different individuals draw

boundaries between guru organizations differently. From the point of view of

one devotee, two guru faiths or organizations may appear to be completely

distinct and incompatible. From the point of view of another individual, on the

other hand, the same two may appear as constituent parts of a single spiritual

complex of which he or she wishes to be part. He or she may perceive no clear

boundaries demarcating the one from the other and may participate equally

in the activities of both. This same individual may, however, perceive a third

guru faith as entirely incompatible with the first two and may therefore locate
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46 / Maya Warrier

this third entirely outside the limits of his or her preferred guru cluster. These

evaluations and guru choices of course are in no sense binding for all time.

Devotees' choices change frequently, necessitating a move from one guru (or set

of gurus) to other, potentially more satisfying alternatives. This is the theme I

explore in the next section.


The mainstay of devotees' loyalty to the guru are his or her miraculous interven- tions in their lives which they claim to experience at the point of entry to the

guru's fold and to continue to experience long after. What happens, however,

when personal experiences proving the guru's divine love for the devotee are

not forthcoming? In the first instance, devotees tend to persist in their devotion

to their guru and intensify their efforts to win his or her grace and protection.

They attribute the spiritual drought to inadequacies in their own devotion or see

it as a test which the guru is putting them through for their own good. What will

eventually see them through the period of drought, they believe, is their

constancy, patience, and unflinching trust in the guru.

Even while stoically tiding over the drought, devotees are constantly on the

lookout for instances in their lives that might potentially be interpreted as

miraculous "experiences" of the guru's love. Towards this end, they often

engage in an active process of miracle construction in order to establish their

state of grace as the guru's devotees. Devotees' "miraculous experiences"

include such mundane incidents as getting train reservations during rush season

or discovering a petrol station close at hand after being stranded with an empty

tank in an unfamiliar part of the city, all of which are attributed to the guru's

divine intervention in their lives at critical junctures. Devotees' accounts of such

"miracle" experiences indicate that they have no room in their lives for "luck" or

"chance." Every fortuitous event in their lives comes to be interpreted as a

miracle worked by the guru and a sign of his or her grace. It is thus up to the

devotees to be able to see the guru's divine love behind the most ordinary, the

most mundane incidents in their everyday lives, and to see every chance

happening as a miracle worked by him or her. Devotees' "experiences" then are

not merely a sign of the guru's love for them. Equally, they are devotees'

expressions of their absolute faith in their guru. The onus of making miracles

happen rests not on the guru but on each individual devotee. By engaging in a

narrative process by which miracles are actively constructed, devotees

painstakingly reinforce their faith in the guru and adhere to it.
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Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in Contemporary India / 47

Yet, however hard devotees may work at making miracles happen, long and

apparently interminable phases of spiritual drought do tend to wear down the

devotees' faith in the guru, especially if the devotee happens to be in urgent

need of miraculous solutions to pressing problems. A guru attachment devoid of

miraculous experiences or of demonstrable signs of the guru's love tends to

become dull and uninspiring. Faith in the guru requires a constant cranking up

through experiences ever more wonderful and miraculous. In the absence of

such cranking up, devotees begin to lose faith in the guru and may drift away to

other gurus who show greater promise of delivering the desired results, t3

Of the many guru devotees I met in the course of multisited fieldwork in India

in 1997-98, some had switched guru loyalties by the time I revisited the field in

2001. The reasons for their disenchantment with their previous gurus were many

and varied. Some had simply found other gurus who offered more effective

solutions to their problems, others had tired of their devotion after long spells of

spiritual drought when no miracles were in evidence, still others were disillu- sioned by some aspect of the guru's organization and wished no longer to be

part of it. Among those who had thus moved on to other gurus, some spoke

harsh words about their earlier guru(s). Whereas they were previously "insiders"

to the guru's fold and reveled in a narrative that glorified the guru, they were

now outsiders who appeared to hold insiders in contempt.

One such individual, previously a devotee of Mfitfi An~. ~nandamayi, who

insisted that his reasons for leaving her fold be kept "off the record," now

described faith in her guru-ship as "blind faith" which lacked a "scientific

attitude towards religion." He criticized the MAtA's devotees for seeking only

material gain through their attachment to the M~tfi and for never questioning

their own beliefs and therefore for failing to grow and develop spiritually. He

even went so far as to describe them as spiritual "ignoramuses"! The M,~t~, by

encouraging this miracle-preoccupation, he claimed, actively contributed

towards stunting her devotees' spiritual growth. All this was a far cry from the

eulogistic tones in which he had described the Mfit~ during my previous

interview with him, more than a year before. At that time, he had said:

Aroma [mother] is everything. If we look through colored glass, we see

everything in that color. When we look at her as a guru, she appears as a guru.

When we see her as Amma, she appears as Aroma. So she is everything. But

then she is none of this. Only god can assume all forms. So Aroma is none of

these things, but she is everything. Only such an entity can be all things at


On this latter occasion, however, this devotee had changed his mind completely
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48 / Maya Warrier

about the merits of the MAtfi as a guru. He saw her as little more than a "miracle

monger." His own spiritual quest, he explained, had come to focus increasingly

on an exploration of his true inner being---on the "science of the inner self of

humankind." He had now found a new guru who was able to help him on this

quest. This new guru, recommended to him by friends, was well-versed in the

Hindu scriptures. With the aid of this guru, he was now acquainting himself

with ancient Hindu texts and striving to rediscover what he described as the

"true" essence of spirituality.


There are two important points I wish to highlight. First, it is not my intention in

this paper to suggest that there is no longer any such thing among urban middle- class Indians as lifelong devotion to a single guru. A lifetime's undying loyalty

to one chosen spiritual preceptor is certainly one possible option among the

many facing the devotee, and some individuals do in fact settle for this option.

Second, I am also not suggesting that guru seeking and spiritual travel is a

completely new phenomenon in India. Indeed stories abound of ardent guru

seekers in the past who traveled great distances across the subcontinent and

sampled different gurus until they finally secured anchor at the feet of the one

they considered "right." However, these stories are noteworthy precisely

because what they narrate is rare and unusual, and therefore the stuff of myths

and legends.

In the world of guru devotion in contemporary India, on the other hand, such

spiritual seeking and traveling is increasingly commonplace. Gurus and their

wares are far more accessible to devotees across India, and indeed across the

globe, than ever before. Rather than remain confined to particular geographical

regions or locales, gurus and their spiritual products can now travel far and

wide, if not physically, then by means of modem media which freely circulate

printed material, visual images, and audio recordings across time and space. The

implications of these developments are twofold. On the one hand, the more

popular and successful gurus, many of whom command a vast following

running into hundreds of thousands of devotees often scattered across the globe,

can no longer sustain close personal ties with each individual devotee. Largely

revolutionized media and communication systems mediate their relationship

with devotees. On the other hand, devotees who readily access the promotional

material produced by different guru organizations, can, for their part, develop an

enhanced awareness of other available options in the world of gurus.
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Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in Contemporao, India / 49

The result is an altered context within which guru-devotee bonds are forged.

This is a context where gurus of different genres and traditions, and especially

those heading vast spiritual organizations, often vie with each other for the

attention of potential devotees. It is a context of revolutionized communications

where the mass media constantly remind guru seekers of the great variety of

spiritual wares available for their ready consumption. It is also a context where

guru seekers enjoy a high degree of awareness about the existing alternatives

and are forced to make active selections and choices from the range of options

available to them.

Conventional approaches to the study of guru devotionalism, I have argued in

this paper, fail to take into account this altered context in which modern gurus

and their organizations are situated. This altered context often leads to an

attenuation of the guru-devotee bond, such that movement between gums, rather

than sustained loyalty to any one, becomes the preferred mode of spiritual

engagement for some sections of India's population. This aspect of guru

devotionalism in contemporary India, largely neglected in the existing literature,

can perhaps best be studied by focusing not so much on faith and practice within

particular guru organizations but on the life histories and narratives of guru

seekers, even as they chart their varied and diverse routes across India's spiritual



1. Bruce (1998: 224) notes the multiplicity of religious and spiritual alterna- tives in the affluent societies of Western Europe and North America, where the

spurt of new religious organizations since the 1960s has opened up a wealth of

choices for potential adherents. Whereas this profusion of spiritual alternatives

in the Western world has invited much attention from sociologists and anthro- pologists, the same phenomenon in an Indian context has received little or no

attention in the existing literature.

2. My doctoral dissertation entitled "The Appeal of a Modern Godperson in

Contemporary India: Mata Amritanandamayi and Her Mission" (2000) carries

the results of this research (see also Warrier 2004).

3. On the miracle working of Satya S~i BfibL see Babb (1986); Swallow

(1982). Babb (1986: 178) notes how S~i B~bfi sometimes calls his miracles his

"visiting cards," signs of his gakti by which he may be known for what he really


4. Compare Parry's (1994: 257) description of the "wild" Aghori ascetics of

Banaras, some of whom attract a wide circle of committed devotees, mostly of
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50 / Maya Warrier

"high-caste" origin and very often members of the professional middle classes.

5. On India's urban middle classes, see, for instance, Appadurai and Brecken- ridge (1995); B6teille (1991); Froystad (2003); Lakha (1999); Mazzarella

(2003); Robison and Goodman (1996); Urban (2003); Varma (1998).

6. Weber (1958), the most pessimistic of the commentators on modernity,

lamented the modern world's increasing reliance on these systems, which he

saw as detrimental to the fulfilment of the psychological and emotional needs of

individuals. Giddens (1990: 27) echoes these sentiments when he points out how

trust in abstract systems provides for the security of day-to-day reliability, but

by its very nature, it cannot supply either the mutuality or intimacy which

personal trust relations offer. Relying on abstract systems, he asserts, is not

psychologically rewarding in the way in which trust in persons is.

7. See Exon (1997), who provides an interesting exploration of notions of

"divine," as opposed to personal, agency among Western devotees of Satya Sai

Baha and followers of the Hare K~...ha movement.

8. See, for instance, Narayan's (1989: 132-59) insightful observations on

stories of "false gurus and gullible disciples" narrated, interestingly, by one who

is himself a guru. Two of the most controversial guru figures in India in recent

times have been Chandraswami and the late '+Bhagwan" Rajneesh. Chandra- swami's myriad political connections and intrigues as well as moneymaking

rackets made him a much-maligned figure in the popular press in the 1980s.

Rajneesh, throughout his career until 1990 as an international guru with a large

American following, invited media attention for his sensational teachings, the

most widely known of which was his advocacy of sex as a path to enlightenment

(see Carter 1987, 1990; Mehta 1993; Mitchener 1992: 16, 116-13). Both gurus

faced allegations of corruption in the course of their careers as gurus and fell

into disrepute among sections of the Indian public. Satya Shi Babh, too, has

for some time been under a cloud of controversy with ex-devotees making

allegations of murder, sexual abuse, and financial racketeering within his

organization (see, for instance, Menon and Malik 2000).

9. The Divine Life Society, founded by Sv~ni ~ivananda in 1936, is notably

different from the M~ta Am_ft. ~nandamayi Mission in its emphasis on intellec- tualism, Hindu philosophy, and scholarship, rather than devotion, as the

mainstay of spiritual progress. On the Divine Life Society and its founder, see

Miller (1981). This spiritual organization too commands a substantial following

both in India and abroad and has centres in most of India's big cities and towns.

10. Various communist-backed "rationalist associations" in Kerala and

beyond have repeatedly attacked the M~ta as a fraudulent guru and sexually

perverse individual who uses her spirituality as a cover-up for nefarious

activities. The sexuality of gurus and questions regarding their moral conduct
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Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in Contemporary India / 51

have long constituted a highly contested and publicly debated issue in India (see,

for instance, Pocock 1973:118-19 on the scandal surrounding a Vai.s.navite

order, the Pus.t.i M~rga, in Gujarat; Carter 1987, 1990 on Rajneesh; Menon and

Malik 2000 on Satya Sfii B~b~; and Kripal 1995 and SvSani ,Atmajfi~nananda

1997 on the sexual dimensions of the life and teachings of RSmak~...ha).

11. Sv~ni Cinmay~nanda, a Br~hma.n from Kerala, started off as a disciple of

SvSmi Sivfinanda, the founder of the Divine Life Society. He founded the

Cinmaya Mission whose main activity was to educate school students and

teachers about early Hinduism's Ved~ntic philosophical tradition. He also

established an agrama, the Sandipany Academy, in Bombay to provide training

to Hindu preachers. One of his lifelong concerns was to win back modern

educated middle classes in India back to the Hindu fold. To this end, he

organized conferences on the Vedanta and delivered sermons in English,

winning a sizeable following from among India's urban middle classes (see

Jaffrelot 1996: 194--95).

12. Devotees' emphasis on the lack of exhibitionism in the M~tfi's style of

miracle working reflects Parry's (1994: 258) observations on the problematic

relationship between the laity and the ascetic (guru) in the matter of miracle

working. What is problematic here is not so much the miracle working itself as

its brash display, which devotees regard with suspicion since, in their view, truly

accomplished ascetics should not have to display their powers. Yet, without this

display, there is no "proof" that these persons are indeed what they claim to be.

The M~t~ gets around this problem by means of her "subtle" style of working


13. Coney's (1999) observations regarding the experience of persons

disengaging themselves from a religious organization to which they were

previously attached are significant here. The ease or otherwise with which

devotees can break away from a guru's fold would depend, Coney argues, on

the extent of their "socialization" within the organization. I would further argue

that this depends also on the extent to which the religious organization values

notions of personal freedom and choice in the matter of religious preference. In

the case of organizations where personal freedom is emphasized, devotees can

disengage themselves from the group with relative ease.

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