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Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in
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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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.
KEY ELEMENTS IN GURU DEVOTION
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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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.
MIDDLE-CLASS PROFILE OF INDIAN SPIRITUAL TRAVELERS
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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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
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).
MOTIVATIONS FOR GURU SEEKING
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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(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
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.
CHOOSING ONE'S GURU(S)
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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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
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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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.
DEVOTEES' ORIENTATIONS: INCLUSIVISTS AND EXCLUSIVISTS
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
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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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~.
PRECEIVED RELATIONS BETWEEN GURUS: UNITY,
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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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
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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MAYA WARRIER is Lecturer in Indian Religion and the Anthropology of
Religion at University of Wales Lampeter. <email@example.com>
laying Maya Warrier, Guru choice and spiritual seeking in contemporary India.pdf.