The Guru Papers by Kramer and Alstad

Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad.The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books/Frog Ltd., 1993. 385 pages. Paperback.

Authoritarianism is the exercise of authority and power demanding obedience without questioning. The authors seek to unmask the countless manifestations of authoritarianism in our contemporary culture. They expose authoritarian control in both personal and global issues, such as parenting, love, intimacy, sexuality, reproduction, abortion, addiction, ecology, censorship, freedom, capital punishment, and not least in the area of religion and spirituality.

The twenty chapters of this book are divided into two parts. The first part is entitled “Personal Masks” and deals primarily with the authoritarian ingredient in the relationship between gurus and their disciples, which often assumes cultic proportions. Included in this consideration is the authoritarian influence of “disembodied authorities” who voice their pronouncements through channels. The second part, entitled “Ideological Masks,” endeavors to show how our psyche and society are infested with authoritarianism—an infestation that the authors believe is crippling us personally as well as threatening our survival as a species.

Two writer friends of mine independently urged me to read this book, and so I readily accepted the opportunity to review it. After reading only a couple of chapters, I had to agree with my friends that the authors had thought long and hard about gurus, cults, and authoritarian control. But I also questioned whether they had thought deeply enough about these issues in all cases. As I read on, my misgivings multiplied as readily as my appreciation for their accomplishment. Having addressed many of the same issues in my book Holy Madness, I felt no stranger to their main arguments, though I reached somewhat different conclusions.

Let me first state what I consider to be the book’s positive contribution to the debate surrounding authoritarianism and particularly religio-spiritual control. The authors cover vast territory and succeed in raising all the vitally important questions. They use the guru-disciple relationship as their paradigm for examining forms of personal control, and the chapters in the first part itemize every conceivable aspect of authoritarian manipulation in cults. In the second part the authors chip away at religious fundamentalism, satanism, and various other “isms” that have tended to curtail individual self-expression. Many of their ideas are provocative in their often somewhat radical formulation. All of them are very useful for those who want to understand authoritarianism in its various guises.

“We feel very strongly about the point of view presented in this book,” write the authors in their preface, and indeed this is evident on every page. However, they were aware that they themselves might come across as authoritarian and so hastened to add that they are open to being shown wrong.

In this review I will focus on a few select points about gurus and cults, which best capture the book’s purpose and orientation. But it is impossible in the compass of a short review to properly demonstrate why I think they are wrong on many counts.

The authors argue that all worldviews hitherto have been essentially authoritarian and that the new worldview, which they see emerging, will not have authoritarianism as its pivot. They equate “authoritarian” with “dysfunctional,” which effectively dismisses all traditional worldviews, past and present. They explain authoritarianism as “characterized by unquestioning obedience to authority” and agree that “not all authority is authoritarian.” But, in practice, they show great uneasiness about authority in all its forms.

The authors make an all-important point: We tend to look at individual figures of authority as corrupt when in fact the corruption lies in the authoritarian structure itself. This does not mean we cannot hold individuals responsible for their shortcomings, but we also must examine the total context and seek to change its authoritarian bias. So far so good.

Viewing the guru-disciple relationship as a “formal structure of extreme authoritarianism,” they summarily dismiss it as no longer viable and positively destructive. While I agree with them that the days of unchallengeable gurus are numbered, the arguments presented in The Guru Papers tend to be rather monochrome. In fact, there are gurus and gurus. Hence the Hindus have coined a special word for gurus who are above reproach: sad-gurus, that is, true teachers or teachers of truth and reality.

Moreover, contrary to the authors’ opinion, not all gurus have attained spiritual realization by blind obedience to their own guru, nor does their method revolve exclusively around the “transmission of information.” In fact, some gurus do not have a teaching at all, and at the heart of the guru-disciple tradition lies not verbal communication but the transmission of states of consciousness—or spiritual presence—directly to the disciple. Words may be used by the guru only to the extent that they prepare the disciple for the heart-to-heart transmission.

Of course, some (perhaps even many) gurus have only words to teach and nothing else, and others who could teach more, for whatever reason, choose to merely abuse their position of power to keep their disciples in place.

The authors complain about the traditional demand for self-surrender, as if personal freedom and self-surrender were mutually exclusive. However, when I create a work of art, I feel supremely free, and yet in order to create I must surrender a large part of myself to artistic ideals and the demanding process of creation.

The authors fail to distinguish the kind of self-resignation advocated in extreme cults and perhaps in most Eastern schools from genuine forms of self-transcendence. Hence they one-sidedly reject surrender as a childish gesture.

Some of what the authors have to say about gurus and obedience reads like a caricature of the real thing. However, I do not fault them for this because many gurus, disciples, and cults behave exactly like caricatures.

My criticisms notwithstanding (and there are more than I can cite here), I still recommend this work, which is replete with insights, as a thought-provoking exercise. It should definitely be placed in the hands of anyone who has been, or is, or contemplates becoming involved with a guru or cult.

Originally reviewed © Copyright 1993. All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in any form requires prior permission from Traditional Yoga Studies.

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