in Gurus & Disciples, Reviews: Books and Stuff

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.

Guru-buster authors

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”[1]. 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”[2]. 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”[3]. 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

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  1. I’ve read “The Guru Papers” myself and found it excellent, on the whole. What I found slightly annoying was when the authors started, with mission-like zeal, to come up with their own world solutions to this age-old problem of absolute authority. It seemed as if they were starting to put themselves up as the new authority. But, aside from that, their assessment and understanding of the guru system was spot on. I followed a guru myself for many years so I know from whence they speak.

    I’d like to also add that I really appreciate what your friend Richard had to say how gurus practice spiritual thievery. Now that I no longer have a guru either, my days are spent trying to find myself again and to reclaim the parts of myself from the time before my involvement, the parts which I had to suppress in order to be a good disciple. Funny how these spiritual groups can differ in their beliefs and practices yet also have some very fundamental things in common.

  2. Thanks for sharing, uwsboi14. I’ve heard some critics of Guru Papers authors, Kramer and Alstad, that they are presenting themselves as “authorities”. Perhaps they do get too much into changing the world in their proposed solutions. However, I’d only agree that was a problem if Kramer and Alstad were presenting their assertions or solutions as “unchallengeable” like the guru’s they criticize.

    I don’t think Kramer and Alstad are presenting themselves as infallible. A willingness to stand corrected if proven wrong is something “perfected”, infallible masters do not, never do. To admit mistakes, or to not have all the answers to life’s mysteries, for a guru-savior would be fatal blow to their authority–at least undermined follower’s beliefs in their savior status. Unchallengeable authorities, gurus, have to be always right else everything they say is questionable.

    In my view: Nothing is absolute. All is open to revision, except if you are a guru or disciple of a guru. Yellow flags go up for claims made with certainty. Red flags for absolute certainty from claimants.

    Glad to hear you have reclaimed the activities and identities of yourself that you lost when you followed an infallible “guru”. It took me time, years, to do get back to “ground zero” self, if that’s even possible, after leaving my indoctrination into guru-disciplism. I might have just invented a word :0.

  3. “ground zero” self – that’s a perfect way to describe it. I can tell it exists and yet am still hovering a few inches away from it. At least it’s not 10 feet, like I used to be when I was dreaming of final liberation and samadhi. Oy.

  4. Scott, Just wanted to comment on your “Sabbatical”. I hope you are able to continue your work here. You have challenged many of my beliefs rendering me a much more “free” individual.

    That said, I just wanted to catch you up on a few thoughts that I have had in trying to understand our brains a bit better. I’ve been reading, as much as a lay person can, about brain activity and locality as relates to depression, anxiety and panic attacks. As a bi-product of that reading, I have come to believe that virtually any spiritual experience that one can imagine can be generated solely by our brains alone. I was moving in the direction of this belief for a while, but now I am a total believer.

    I had mentioned to you in a prior post that Yogananda seemed totally convinced of his own mystical experiences. And that each of us can have those very same experiences if we follow his techniques. I do not think he was fibbing. I do believe that he and many other people have had these experiences.

    But, because the brain can produce religious hallucinations, feelings of bliss, spatial disorientation, feelings of oneness and so on, it brings lie to the notion that God is somehow involved. We now know conclusively that the brain can bring these altered states on all by itself. And yes even without drugs.

    This means that NO guru or spiritual leader teacher can make a claim that because you have these experiences that there is some type of “God Contact” or some degree of enlightenment that is causing it. It just isn’t true. Based on the reading I’ve done, ANY type of “spiritual” experience can be based solely in brain.


  5. Thanks, Brent, for your encouraging words for me to keep writing and posting. Means a lot to me. I’m interested in hearing or reading more about what you’ve found in your research about the brain and so-called mystical experiences. Please feel free to share in the comments on this blog or if you’d like to draft a guest blog post, please let me know. I find it helpful, important, to share sources too, so feel free to share relevant sources with us.

  6. @Mat: Thanks for sharing the link to the essay. I look forward to reading it further and perhaps incorporating its ideas in a future post(s). I wonder if I’m subscribed to your blog/site. I don’t recall getting an automatic email for your new articles.

  7. Brent, I find your comment interesting. I am not sure that the brain could produce an experience at the same degree of intensity and level as any strong drug can. In fact, I personally spent 13 years meditating attempting to reproduce a high by trying to contact “God” which the literature I had been reading (the same as Scott) assured me was possible and found that it in no way compared to previous usage of marijuana. The marijuana was “infinitely” better for me.

    I would also question the idea that meditation or a mystical experience brought about by meditation can be compared with the effects of any hard drug since double blind placebo trials rule out the possibility that such drugs have no effect with respect to a placebo effect, while meditation would definitely fall under the category of a placebo as far as I am concerned.

    I see no reason to speak about the brain as if it is something different from me and attribute magical powers to it that are somehow induced by me without me knowing it. It is a type of dualistic thinking pattern IMO. Honestly, I can honestly say that I think the inability for people to distinguish between subconscious half awake mentation and full blown dreaming, and the outside world and reality, is probably responsible for meditators losing touch with reality and imagining that their internal “dreams” as mystical experiences reflect reality objectively. It bears no future scrutiny.

    On the other hand, when people have some kind of mystical or spiritual experience that is not the product of meditation or drugs or genetics, that comes spontaneously and with the mind being completely awake, alert and sober, I would opine that something different is going on which bears investigation and not just philosophic speculations about the actions of the brain and how it is supposed to account for everything a person experiences in a reductionistic form that is extreme in its absurdity.

    Scott, I tried to email you several times in the past couple of months and I have seen you post at the SRF forum recently, but you probably didn’t see my emails? I wanted to share some information about the early days of SRF that is completely damning to Yogananda. Original documents from the times and so on. If you would like to download them then let me know. Otherwise I can understand why you might want to move on and and put all that nonsense behind you. So if I don’t hear from you by email I will assume it is the latter at work!!

    Oh Scott, I just thought of a question I wanted to ask you before but never got round to. I have never been able to understand why there was a large exodus of the monastics around the years 2000. Something big must have happened to make so many monks leave SRF besides the popular ideas about the monks needing psychological councelling and how that all kind of fell through? I could be wrong about it but I think it has something to do with the advent of the WWW and internet?

    Did you ever have to speak to people by phone or in person that were requesting assistance with their experiences and questions about techniques and so on, where you felt inside like a complete phony pretending to have answers when you really didn’t in your role as a monk? I know I would feel slightly pretentious if I wore robes and gave people advice about things I didn’t really have the answers to! I guess that is why these monastic orders have so many rules and dogmas to adhere to to make sure that a monk is trained properly through a kind of vetting process that goes in higher and higher stages. But being an actor instead of a real person probably makes the monks meditate instead of sleeping properly because they can’t sleep with that pretense going through their mind every time they go to bed at night!!

    You have to feel sorry for some of the big players like Anandamoy etc etc. I wonder how that dude sleeps. He probably doesn’t sleep though because he is in some weird samadhi state 24/7 in his old age. You know, just like how Yogananda said that he could remain awake for several days and sleep at will even though he would spontaneously fall asleep at all hours of the day at Mount Washington!!!

    I know you don’t subscribe to religion or spiritual junk anymore (though I could be wrong?), I wanted to leave you with a quote from the Bible by Paul that would destroy SRF forever and everything that has ever come out of it. Set aside any antagonism you have to the Bible and feel the joy in the following quote from St Paul:-

    “Do not be deceived, for the enemy comes as an angel of light”

    Happy internet camping!

  8. @David: Where did you send what you “tried to email me”?

    The SRF monastic exodus, around year 2000 and timeframe I left, I described briefly in several posts. I’ll try to link to that for you so you can reference.

    Your comments about monks being “phony pretending” seems to miss a few key points: monks and disciples utterly believe and are convinced of the truth or their teachings and teachers. If they did not believe but pretended then they would be liars, frauds, no?

    Seems what you describe about pretending is a general characteristic of “faith”, which has been defined as pretending to know things you don’t know. “I know that what I felt in meditation, prayer, road to Damascus is god, Jesus, guru or some higher power.”

    Yet, how does one know what they experience is god, guru, higher power—or whatever? How are we to verify psychological experiences of another person?

    There’s a critical difference between psychological experiences (which I don’t debate) and the interpretation of the experiences (which whether they are a god, mystical energy, or samadhi and so on is debatable).

    What do you believe now? After leaving SRF? You quote Paul of the Bible, so I assume you consider yourself a Christian.

  9. Scott,

    I tried to email you at your email contact address. I think it is the contact you have on this website?

    Yeah I meant the second: pretending to know what you don’t know.

    And I agree with you about psychological experiences and the interpretation of them being different. For example, we may have some kind of mystical experience but since there are so many different religions and cults and belief systems how does one know which interpretation is supposed to be an objective and true one.

    I really try not to have any beliefs these days. I am quite agnostic in general even though I know this position has some problems philosophically. I am certainly not a Christian. I thought that quotation from Paul was apt in light (no pun intended) of the LIGHT of the spiritual eye teachings. Just a little joke on my part if you will forgive me. 🙂

  10. @David: I wonder if you could resend me your email? In June I made major backend changes to the site. I wonder if the email address you sent to is working properly. I need to fix if not.

    We all have beliefs. It depends on what, content, of our beliefs and our interpretations of our experiences. Some “see” something swirling in their inner forehead and it’s interpreted as a spiritual eye. Others, might see nebulous “lights” as normal (like I do). These seem extraordinary because they are not ordinary unless we frequently lack oxygen, our body or brain is altered in some way, or we have a fever.