Disguised in political, spiritual, or mystical garb, a psychological contagion breeds self-mistrust, guilt, and makes one susceptible to authoritarian control.
The Guru Papers present a series of remarkable essays that challenge “unchallengeable” authorities and the age-old human quest for saviors, mystical enlightenment, and the guru-disciple relationship.
The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power is a book by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad. This post outlines the book’s main thesis. First, are two-to-three paragraphs about the two authors background in yoga, academia, and hippy culture. Next, we explore why this book is more than about gurus, but encompasses authoritarianism in politics, society, even love relationships. Richard, a former disciple and I share our personal anecdotes about the harms of surrendering to a guru. Next to last, is a critique of the book and conclusion, followed finally by a brief announcement.
Joel Kramer started teaching yoga in the late 1960s at Esalen, a new age, hippy retreat nestled on rugged bluffs overlooking California’s Big Sur coastline. Born in 1937 on Coney Island into non-observant Jewish family, Kramer graduated in philosophy and psychology at NYU and Columbia, and later moved to Berkeley in 1963. Swept up in hippy counterculture, in the mid-1960’s he also lived with psychedelic-guru Timothy Leary in Millbrook, New York. Kramer continued to teach yoga around the world and at Esalen into the 1980s. He eventually stopped teaching yoga after students kept treating him as if he was their guru. His first book, The Passionate Mind: A Manual for Living Creatively with One’s Self (1974), is a collection of his talks influenced by the teachings of J. Krishnamurti, who as a child was groomed by the Theosophical Society to be a World Teacher but later rejected the organization, to independently lead his own spiritual-intellectual followers.
Diana Alstad, Kramer’s life partner since 1974, was born in 1944 in Minnesota into a Lutheran family. Before discovering yoga, she received a PhD from Yale in 1971, was professor of humanities at Duke University, and taught the first Women’s Studies courses at Yale and Duke. Alstad co-founded New Haven Women’s Liberation in 1968, and was on the board of the Veteran Feminists of America from 1998 to 2004. Her article “Exploring Relationships: Interpersonal Yoga” (Yoga Journal, 1979) created a foundation for the Yoga of Relationship by extending Kramer’s yogic approach to the social arena, a modality they continue to teach.
Together, Kramer and Alstad, wrote two books: The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (1993) and The Passionate Mind Revisited: Expanding Personal and Social Awareness (2009).
More than a book about gurus
More than just a book about gurus, The Guru Papers unmask the philosophical and psychological dangers of surrendering to anyone who positions themselves as knowing what is best for others. Religion (including Buddhism and Hinduism), meditation, 12-step addiction programs, and even the concept of unconditional love are revealed as tools for authoritarian control. Gurus, as the epitome of unchallengeable authority, pervade society, politics, and religions. How so?
At the heart of most spiritual and ideological worldviews is a moral code of self-sacrifice, what Kramer and Alstad assert is a “renunciate worldview”. This renunciate worldview includes voluntary self-control and is the means of authoritarian manipulation of its followers. Being “good” requires sacrificing self-interest to some “higher” authority or power, which conveniently is defined by the guru, Church or State. The guru, then, in this context is any unchallengeable authority: whether political, ideological, or spiritual.
Looking to saviors or holders of special wisdom as the path to lead humanity (or oneself) to salvation or survival, argue Kramer and Alstad, is childish. People who distrust themselves, argue Kramer and Alstad, willingly surrender and obey authorities who promise salvation and survival. Manipulation is easy when disciples surrender and obey a higher authority who claims to know what is best for followers.
The epitome of surrender and authoritarian power is the guru-disciple relationship. Kramer and Alstad argue that the guru-disciple relationship demonstrates “what it means to trust another more than oneself”. When people distrust themselves they are easy prey for manipulation. In the guise of self-realization or spiritual liberation for the follower, the guru demands complete surrender of disciples.
Anecdotes: Guru, agent of truth or spiritual thief?
My personal anecdote: For 14 years I lived as a renunciate disciple in the San Diego and Los Angeles ashrams of famous guru-yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. The yoga-meditation guru proclaimed, “There is complete surrender, there is no compulsion, when a disciple accepts the guru’s training”. According to the Self-Realization Fellowship, the guru’s worldwide organization, the guru is a living embodiment of truth and “an agent of salvation appointed by God in response to a devotee’s incessant petitions for release from the bondage of matter”. And, the guru is supposedly the best of givers. I believed these claims all for decades, until I stepped outside the system of beliefs and challenged the so-called “truth”.
Richard recently became a former-disciple of guru-Yogananda and a subscriber to Skeptic Meditations blog shared: “It’s very satisfying to reconnect with myself again. I am taking voice [singing] lessons. . . The guru’s professed connection to God steals from the disciple the disciple’s own experience of life. It is the worst kind of spiritual theft. The disciple’s own spiritual experiences are stolen from him and instead credited as blessings from the guru-god. The disciple can own nothing. And when one can’t own anything, not even oneself, the connection to life and others is completely severed.”
Under the guise of objective truth
Under the guise of objective truth, assert Kramer and Alstad, the seeker finds “the age-old ploy of authoritarian indoctrination: A worldview is presented by an unchallengeable authority as the truth to be found. Then practices are given that reprogram and condition the mind to that viewpoint”. The guru-disciple relationship dismantles self-trust–instills doubt in follower’s own senses, intellect, and feelings–and reprograms disciples with the guru’s worldview through indoctrination, esoteric teachings and meditation practices.
Critiques and conclusions
The Guru Papers is a patchwork of essays sketched by the authors in 1984 “as a dalliance”. The book has a few irritating flaws. The chapters titled Satanism and the Worship of the Forbidden and The Authoritarian Roots of Addiction “dallied” perhaps too long into Satanism, 12 step programs, and Alcoholics Anonymous. The footnotes referencing Control throughout the book were a planned but unpublished text by the authors. Why did the authors keep these footnote references to Control? To tease and confuse? Publish Control or abolish the dead-end footnotes. But, overall the author’s writing style and tone are straightforward, conversational, and non-technical.
The assertions of Kramer and Alstad are clear, compelling, and incisive. The Guru Papers’ main thesis is that much of humanity or society is deeply conditioned to seek and to obey unchallengeable authorities. And, that surrender and obedience is what keeps humanity from the intelligence needed for solving human and world problems. Will humanity ever get “outside” or “higher” help? Not likely. The solution, say Kramer and Alstad, is moving beyond childish following of authoritarian saviors and for individuals to take personal responsibility for solving world and human problems. The Guru Papers unmask and decode authoritarian power which pervades society, love, and daily life.
Announcement for Skeptic Meditations subscribers
June through July 2016 I took a “sabbatical” from blog posting for personal and professional reasons. After two and half years of regular posting of blog articles, I felt it was time to step back and to stew–creatively and intellectually–on what might be next for you, me, and Skeptic Meditations. My hope is that I’ll be able to post new content regularly and get your feedback.
You have discovered, during my two month sabbatical, several new pages were added to Skeptic Meditations website: including new Home, new Start Here, and new subscription/follow options. Check these out, if you haven’t yet. Please don’t hesitate to float me your comments or emails when you discover anything that could be improved, challenged, or elaborated on by your own comments and critiques.
1 The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, Frog Books, 1998, p. xiii
2 The Role of a Guru in One’s Spiritual Search, Self-Realization Fellowship website. What is one searching for anyway? The guru-authority instills the desire for the objects of the search. Then sells the disciple the methods (meditation, lessons, and trainings) to gain and keep followers. What proof that the guru is a holder of special wisdom? “Wise” words and extraordinary promises (sometimes claims of miracles) are typically all that is offered.
3 The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, Frog Books, 1998, p. 128