Controversies do not diminish the great role played by many spiritual gurus

The term ‘godmen’ is problematic, especially in cultures where men, women, animals, birds, rivers, mountains — really, every particle in the universe — is revered and respected. The cultures of India, China, Japan, and other parts of Asia have been inspired by Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism for more than two millennia. The Hindu philosophy celebrates the ideas of divinity in each particle. The Buddhist philosophy celebrates the Buddha nature of each particle of the universe. The Jain philosophy similarly celebrates non-violence towards each particle in the universe.

If we focus just on male figures, we will have to start with the first historic figures such as the Buddha and Mahavira. The Buddha still remains one of the most popular figures in the world. And one of the greatest legacies of the Buddha and Mahavira is that thousands of men and women chose spiritual careers in India and elsewhere.

Some of these spiritual gurus, such as Adi Shankaracharya, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Surdas, Tulsidas, and Mirabai, achieved charismatic success. Almost all these figures would have been called ‘godmen’ (or ‘godwomen’). Almost all of them revived philosophical ideas that were losing their relevance in their contemporary societies. They also taught social equality and ecological sustainability.

Controversies and contributions

Unfortunately, many of them, their family members, and/or their followers were also involved in different kinds of controversies. The Buddha’s ascetic order was embroiled in immoral behaviour-based controversies after a few centuries. Mahavira’s disciples remain divided into two sects. Adi Shankaracharya’s different maths have been dragged into controversies.

And yet, all of these controversies do not diminish the great roles played by these spiritual gurus. Meditation taught by the Buddha and non-violence taught by Mahavira will continue to inspire humanity to become more mindful and cut down their meat consumption for the health of our own bodies and for our fragile ecosystem.

Enriching culture

Despite all the disparaging labels that are applied against few of our contemporary spiritual leaders, such as Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, we cannot ignore that yoga and pranayam have been revived and popularised by these two gurus in India. Both of these practices are now being scientifically tested and validated in the West thanks to similar efforts by the Dalai Lama and his Buddhist monks at Emory University in Atlanta, for instance. As an American citizen, I should also count several more such spiritual leaders who have greatly enriched American culture despite the controversies that are associated with them. Vivekananda, Yogananda, Osho, Prabhupada, Mahesh Yogi, Muktananda, Neem Karoli Baba, Kripalu Maharaj, Amma, and many Buddhist monks and nuns have transformed thousands of Americans who are now practising yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, breathing exercises, fasting, and vegetarianism.

Sociologist Max Weber had coined the term ‘Routinisation of Charisma’ to describe how the charisma of spiritual gurus is routinised into an ongoing authority structure. Almost all the spiritual gurus who either started out as charismatic, or who later achieved their charismatic appeal globally, were eventually routinised by their disciples to maintain this appeal. This process is not perfect and may involve controversies.

In our world, when anger, greed, false pride, selfishness, egoism, egotism, and all other materialistic ideas continue to separate us from other human beings, other species and other particles, let us remind ourselves what almost all the spiritual gurus have always tried to teach us. Let us not expect any of them to be 100% controversy-free.

Pankaj Jain is associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Texas

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