Gurus, Dictators and other cults

In Egypt, there’s little we don’t know about giving up authority to a revered, all powerful father figure, and the abuse this invariably leads to; in homes, in mosques and churches, on the streets, in police stations and polling stations. Likewise, it should not be any surprise to followers of the yoga scene to hear of the most recent yoga-guru abuse scandal. Such stories float up from the murky depths and make waves with predictable regularity. They are the flip side of that overused holistic metaphor of the ripples made by the pebble dropping into clear calm water; they are the shit floating to the surface. Amrit Desai, Sai Baba, John Friend, Kathsub Desikachar and Akhandananda leader of the Bihar yoga Australia ashram Mangrove Mountain, to name just a few. Now, most recently, it appears that the revered founder of Bihar Yoga himself, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, who preached and wrote extensively about many aspects of yoga, including the chastity he claimed to practice and prescribed for his followers, used his god-like authority over some of his more vulnerable female followers to force sex on them implying that this was part of their spiritual path.

The guru and the dictator have much in common. They share a cult aspect to their leadership, which brings extraordinary power over people’s beliefs and behaviour together with the illusion of salvation from horrors, named or unnamed. Gurus, particularly, attract the vulnerable because of their promise of wholeness, healing or even nirvana. Dictators tend to promise stability where there has been uncertainty, prosperity where there has been economic struggle, security where there has been fear, unity where there has been discord, reducing everything to the childish dichotomy of good versus evil. It is easy to see how the message of both types of leader seduces.

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The other side of the equation is that both require complete subservience. If the promises are to be delivered, we ordinary people must renounce our judgement and our behavior, our very thoughts to the leader’s superior understanding, trusting in and colluding with his every act, cruelty and violence notwithstanding; we must keep the faith that he is behaving in our interests even when we can’t see how; that he is beyond question. Such cult-like standing requires guru and dictator alike to be faultless. It also dangerously ignores the innate tendency of power to corrupt. For the cult to hold, every aspect of the leader that is not consistent with the image of perfection must be banished from sight and, most perilous of all, from his own psyche. I believe this is where the inherent, pathological denial that characterises all such regimes is born.

One of the headlines in Shurouk Newspaper, an Egyptian broadsheet, about ten days ago declared that the minister of culture had been commissioned to monitor deviant thought, ‘al-fikr al-munharif’. So it is that in the dictator’s regime, whether secular or religious, anything ‘different’ becomes a challenge, implied or explicit, to the status quo; anything ‘other’ becomes an unacceptable wrong projected onto society’s marginal communities, who are labelled enemies of the state. It is interesting to me that the Arabic word munharif, deviant or perverted, comes from the same root as that of harf, margin or edge. Whether the association is conscious or not, the link between the marginal and the deviant is there.

Of course it is not only in dictatorships that marginal groups suffer from the negative projections of the society they live in. The response to last week’s dreadful massacre at the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris is a case in point, where the abhorrent acts of a couple of terrorists have now been projected onto the whole of the Muslim community in France and the world at large. Far easier to do this, than to question a cultural arrogance and world order that suggests it’s ok for US drones, controlled by pilots sitting in offices half a world away to bomb the hell out of rural villages in Pakistan, killing innocent men, women and children on a daily basis, but where the Muslim community world wide must be held accountable for the murderous actions of three fundamentalist freaks whose French upbringing has apparently ‘failed to civilise them’.

But where the person in charge is a cult figure who cannot be questioned, criticized or even ridiculed, these projections becomes particularly insidious. So it was that in December a so-called journalist, Mona Al-Iraqi, tipped off police about a ‘den of male sex-trafficking’, which she’d been investigating. Without a hint of irony she proudly published photographs of herself photographing ‘the biggest den of group perversion’ as naked men, all making futile gestures to hide their faces from the cameras, were herded out of the hammam and into waiting police trucks in the early hours of the morning. The reputation of the Egyptian police suggests that these men are likely to have had perversions of a far more brutal nature inflicted on them after their arrest than what they may or may not have been doing with each other in the public bath-house, and, sickeningly, Mona al-Iraqi must be aware of this.

Another more poignant example of this particular regime not tolerating what it cannot identify with or understand appeared when Atef Saad was arrested. This unassuming young man had been dressing up as Spiderman and going around Cairo doing ordinary things like running for buses and smoking shisha in a witty piece of what would in most cities be called performance art, honouring with gentle humour the courage and stamina ordinary Cairenes show in the course of their daily struggle through the city, and providing real entertainment in the process.

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The authorities saw it differently.

As any student of elementary psychology knows, the more that denied aspects of the self are pushed into the shadows, the more they pop up in the world outside. If the dictator’s shadow appears in the form of enemies of the state, then within the smaller truth-seeking community of the guru’s ashram, it is perhaps more likely to manifest as a hypocritical transgression of the guru’s own spiritual principles, disguised as a necessary part of the spiritual path. In both cases it involves violence and abuse.

Many of those of us whose lives are not directly affected by it, can put our heads down and get on with our work, pretending that everything is basically ok. There are plenty of reasons why we might wish to embrace authoritarian leadership and turn a blind eye to its transgressions: perhaps we have never known anything else; in Egypt there is a genuine fear of either anarchy, which is increasingly evident across the region, or the only other apparent alternative, Islamist rule – another version of the fascism we’re already dealing with but where the thought-police want your soul as well as your mind. In ashrams and on yoga retreats perhaps we become willfully blind more because we have already invested so much in our beliefs about the leader, in our membership of the cult, in the personal growth that refuses to look at its own shadow, that we cannot bear to see the hard evidence in front of us. In both cases we ignore the abuse at great cost, for in doing so we give up our personal responsibility and collude with the horrors. We become, like the abusers themselves, split off from a part of ourselves.

The great irony of the abuse and self-delusion that goes on in the name of yoga is of course that yoga can and should be a powerful practice for healing, integration and assuming personal responsibility. Part of the process in yoga is to learn to connect, often viscerally, with one’s own actions, and to feel their consequences. As decent parents and teachers know, responsibility and independence come hand in hand; A G Mohan, a student of Krishnamacharya, responded to the Kathsub Desikachar scandal saying, ‘Proper yoga practice and the right teacher should reduce the dependency on anybody or any other object; makes the student independent.’ Unless we can learn from and admire our teachers and leaders without needing their perfection to make up for our own flaws, we will never grow and nothing will ever change. We will just go round and round in the same old cycles of violence and abuse. In times of fear and uncertainty it is tempting to look for leaders and guides to show us the ‘right’ way, but as Jung said in Psychology and Alchemy, ‘the right way to wholeness is made up, unfortunately, of fateful detours and wrong turnings.’ Do we want to make our own fateful detours and wrong turnings to find our own way, or those of an apparently powerful individual whose faults are too horrible to acknowledge?

Matthew Remski, one of the most interesting writers on contemporary yoga culture, wrote: ‘At the nitty gritty level, boycotting guru culture means looking at the ways in which we’re seduced by an over-determined notion of “teacher”. A regular and useful teacher of yoga is just somebody with good manners and a few good tools for self-inquiry that they can show you in an encouraging way. You learn with them until you more or less get what they have to offer. But in the process you’ll make it into your own thing, because what’s worked for them can’t ever completely work for you. When you’re bored you’ll move on to someone who has a different focus. No teacher can give us everything we need: expecting them to is a psychologically immature refusal to accept the always-incomplete nature of the growth process.’

I think this observation is as relevant to those citizens of today’s Egypt who are looking to big daddy to solve all the problems, as it is to the yogis searching for a guru to revere. Whether their rule is based on the personality/branding cults of the western consumer culture or on corrupt patriarchy and lineage, dictators and gurus flourish among the many of us who are afraid to do the mortal work of growing up.

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About Rebecca Porteous

Cairo-based mother, wife, Yoga teacher, Trager practitioner and workshop organiser with a special interest in working with psychological trauma; serial venter, looking for balance in post-uprising Egypt.
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3 Responses to Gurus, Dictators and other cults

  1. Very interesting Rebecca and totally spot on!

    Like

  2. Catherine James says:

    As a voice in the wilderness I totally agree with this . Very well written and it needs to be said over and over again. Catherine J

    Like

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