The Chandian Revolution
DEMYTHOLOGIZING RADHASOAMI BELIEFS
Over two decades ago I wrote a controversial essay entitled, The Guru has No Turban, wherein I argued that perfect masters don’t exist and that spiritual teachers (of whatever stripe) are—to echo Nietzsche—“human, all too human.”
I have long felt that the real, underlying problem in the politics of gurudom is the gross hyperbole surrounding so-called spiritual masters. Instead of simply stating that so and so (fill in the blanks) gives good advice on meditation, there is a tendency in various religious organization to elevate him or her to unqualified heights of glory and power, forgetting in the process that the guru in question has clay feet like the rest of us, even if he or she has access to levels of consciousness far beyond our present capacity.
This first came into sharp relief for me when I met Baba Faqir Chand in the summer of 1978. Although Faqir had been duly appointed by his own guru, Shiv Brat Lal, and had the express support of Sawan Singh of Radhasoami Satsang Beas, he stopped formally initiating anyone by 1942. Faqir had come to realize that all internal visions in meditation were projections of our own mind but we mistakenly believe our chosen masters miraculously project them to us. Instead of gurus telling their disciples that they have no paranormal power, they hide this secret in order to gain power, wealth, and fame. It is a sham.
Because of this deception, Faqir wanted to liberate spiritual devotees from this misconception that their respective gurus were omniscient and perfect. They are not. It is the disciple’s own faith and devotion which is the real modus operandi empowering the inner quest. Yes, the outer guru can be quite helpful but it is up to the disciple to actually do the practice.
It is not commonly known among Radhasoamis that Sawan Singh (1858-1948), honorifically called “The Great Master of Beas,” got sued in court by one of his own disciples. Om Parkash Kaushal in his groundbreaking study, The Radhasoami Movement: 1891-1997, details what happened:
“Giani Harcharn Singh Labana, General Secretary of Vicharni Sabha was a staunch opponent of S. Sawan Singh. His complaint was that he was badly beaten in 1933 by the Radha Soamis at Dera Baba Jaimal Singh, Beas. He wanted to take revenge on S. Sawan Singh. He instigated one of S. Sawan Singh’s disciples, Naitar Singh, to file a suit against the Guru in the Judicial Court at Amritsar. In the suit he said that the Guru had promised to make him see God within his physical body at the time of initiation. Naitar Singh alleged that at the behest of the Guru, he resigned from service and had to suffer a loss of eight thousand rupees. But, the Guru had not fulfilled his promise. Therefore, either the loss of a huge amount should be recovered from the Guru, or he should show God to Naitar Singh. In this case S. Sawan Sngh appeared before the judge and made the following statement.
Undoubtedly, God is within him and the process to reach and see his him had been explained to the claimant. But according to my instructions, he did not labour hard honestly, therefore, he could not meet Him (God).
Ultimately, on June 12, 1934, the suit was dismissed and S. Sawan Singh was acquitted of the charge.”
Here Sawan Singh explicitly points out that it is up to the disciple, not the guru in question, to do the heavy lifting in meditation. Faqir felt strongly that the very concept of “Perfect Master” and “Satguru” was wrongly used and as such has led to massive delusions on the part of those initiated by teachers employing such titles.
A close analysis of any so-called “Perfect Master” will quickly show that anyone assuming such a title will not be able to live up to it. Instead there will be all sorts of cracks in the titular armor—despite whatever desperate rationalizations we may invoke to band aid together the searing discrepancy between theory and praxis.
The mistake resides in the exaggerated claims published and broadcasted in much of Radhasoami literature that when read or interpreted literally puts the disciple in the untenable position of having to blind him or herself from the obvious fact that their beloved teacher has limitations.
I remember one particular incident back in December of 1983 while I was staying in New Delhi that captured in a nutshell the fundamental problem inherent in overly embroidered guru rhetoric. Four of us had just come back from a prolonged stay the Radhasoami Satsang colony at Beas, where Charan Singh was then the presiding spiritual leader. A young seeker was detailing his impressions of Charan and though he was quite impressed with the Beas guru, he couldn’t accept the idea that he was perfect or that he was God incarnated. Instead he thought of Charan as a nice, perhaps even elevated, human being. I immediately nodded my head in agreement, but right then an old-time satsangi woman got heated and shouted out, “He is not a man, he is God!”
Fortunately, I recalled what Charan himself had said about this issue, since he had talked about it in a question and answer period just days before at an evening meeting in the Guest House. Charan very clearly stated that, “It is intellectually impossible to believe that the Master is God.”
We may try to hold such a belief system, we may even have faith in such a concept, but eventually the mind and its doubts will have its way, particularly if one has day-to-day contact with the spiritual teacher or has access to different sources of information not yet sanitized by the organization.
The late Professor Bennett Berger, who was the chairperson on my doctoral committee at the University of California, San Diego, developed a very useful concept in sociology entitled “ideological work,” where one attempts to reconcile the difference between an ideal and its practical manifestation. The amount of “ideological work” one must engage in order to resolve the contrariety speaks volumes about the apparent contradiction.
When the discrepancy between ideal and outcome is small, then usually one spends very little time resolving the dispute. If, however, the incongruity is large, then one’s apologetics increase accordingly.
I mention this because all of us to some measure indulge in such “rationalizations” if our chosen idealizations fall short and we still want to hold on to them.
Sometimes, however, the hypocrisy is too much and we are forced (even if at first unwillingly) to change course and adopt a new model, hopefully one more resistant to attack.
This reminds me, of course with limited import, of the famous children’s story called “The Three Little Pigs.” There are many versions of it, some of which date back to the mid-19th century and before, but they each revolve around a central point: how well prepared is each pig’s house when the big, bad wolf comes by. In one popular version, the first pig builds his house out of straw, the second out of sticks, and the third one out of bricks. The wolf then attempts to break down each house by blowing on them. The house of sticks goes down easily, the second one with more effort, and the third one not at all. The moral of the story is obvious: best to be fully prepared so as to avoid a future disaster.
In an analogous way (and keeping in mind that we should not push this metaphorical comparison too far), we are moment-to-moment building models about reality depending on the situation and what information is available to us. Our simulations work to the degree that they allow us to navigate the world around us and make reasonably accurate predictions about what we should expect in future moments. But as we all know, often our models are wrong or incomplete and we need to recalibrate them accordingly.
Arguably, science is based on the recognition that prototypes need to be competed and tested in order to allow for more accurate and comprehensive ones to flourish until they too are replaced or augmented by even better models. Yet, if we merely bow down to a preset paradigm, believing that such is inviolate, then we will remain unprepared when new and contrarian information upends what we previously held to be unimpeachable. Ironically, the deeper lesson of the three little pigs isn’t that a brick house is perfect, but only that it withstood the wolf’s most damaging winds. Given a bigger and a stronger wolf (a more robust test?), the third pig’s house too may tumble. Likewise, no model in science is perfect but the best ones remain as guiding maps to the degree that they resist falsification.
Thus, instead of being mired in continual ideological work (justifying what may in the long run be unjustifiable), the religious aspirant could be better off developing a wider, more inclusive understanding of the spiritual process—one which accepts and acknowledges the guru’s aberrations precisely as that and not legitimizing them under the guise of “crazy wisdom” or some other intellective dodge.
As stated in the essay, The Projective Arc:
“This procedure creates within the disciple a persistent tendency to take his or her experiences and filter them within the interpretative nexus that is provided by his/her spiritual path. But in so doing the student all too often ends up trying to relate what transpires in meditation to the expectations or desired aims of the religious matrix in which she is grounded. And in other instances, the disciple begins to justify or legitimize a given spiritual paradigm by injecting it with his own internal elevations. Such a dyadic loop can literally tether the aspirant to a given theology and lock him or her into a set series of bounded interpretations. The danger, of course, is that this two way intersection tends not to be open to alternative explanations (which might be more viable) and also prevents a more free form of exploration. Analogously this is akin to an ocean explorer like Columbus who consistently tries to conform new lands and new vistas with a prefigured map that he brought with him before his voyage. That he may be wholly mistaken in his conflations doesn’t readily occur to him and thus whatever newness that arises in his expeditions is refashioned to fit in with his preconceived model. This kind of habit can, if not checked, lead to one trying to substantiate the given map versus letting the newness or virginal state dictate a reformation.”
To summarize, the “perfect master” ideal doesn’t work simply because it will eventually crack under closer inspection since anyone opting to adopt that moniker is a human being. As Plotinus long ago pointed out in his Enneads, “But humanity, in reality, is poised midway between gods and beasts, and inclines now to the one order, now to the other.”
Yes, some spiritual teachers can indeed be remarkable, but that is precisely because they achieved greater heights within their very humanity, not outside of it. One oft told saying captures this dilemma well, “If these so-called masters are perfect or god, they are doing an infinitely lousy job, given what power they should possess. But if these masters are mortal and vulnerable like the rest of us, then some of them are doing a pretty good job.”
The koan that confronts us, and one that was voiced repeatedly by Faqir Chand and others, is that we don’t even know our own selves, much less the ontological status of the gurus we love. Hence, we are the ones who must undergo the transformation and embark on the journey. Surrogate gurus won’t do it for us.
As the essay The Disappointing Buddha concludes,
“Ken Wilber's Atman Project is a process of delay, a postponement of confronting the reality of our situation. As the wise sage from Hoshiarpur smartly opined, ‘O, man your real helper is your own Self and your own Faith, but you are badly mistaken and believe that somebody from without comes to help you. No Hazrat Mohammad, No Lord Rama, Lord Krishna or any God or goddess or Guru comes from without. This entire game is that of your impressions and suggestions which are ingrained upon your mind, through your eyes and ears and of your Faith and Belief.’ But are we ready to transcend our projective arcs and proceed unencumbered and unknowing into the source from which our very consciousness arises? Or, are we more predisposed to rely on proxy representatives to do our bidding? If we succumb to the latter option, we are left to be spectators to our own journey. Yes, it will be safer, less demanding, and temporarily satisfying, but in the end it will leave us empty and spiritually vacuous.”
Ever since I first read Edward Fitzgerald’s highly idiosyncratic (yet profoundly beautiful all the same) translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, one particular stanza has stood out to me and has served as a sort of Nicolas of Cusa like touchstone for me over the years. He writes,
“Myself when young did eagerly frequent doctor and saint, and heard great argument about it and about: but evermore came out by the same door as in I went. “
Grounding ourselves in what we do not know can liberate us from our projected delusions of grandeur about others. The bubble of our existence may rest upon an infinite ocean, but by its very nature is bound to pop. Infinity always exceeds its finite incarnations and transcends whatever limitations we attempt in vain to place upon it.