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Religion & Culture | False preachers - Alarming number of spiritual teachers deceiving their followers

Published:Sunday | December 17, 2017 | 12:39 AMDr Glenville Ashby
Sri Ramakrishna

“There is no guru (spiritual teacher). You have to believe in yourself. You’ve got to get down to your own God in your own temple. It’s all down to you.” 

-John Lennon

With a Tikal (red mark) printed on their forehead they don saffron clothes with traditional danda (staff) in hand. Theirs is a striking aura of humility and deference. They are the godmen of the East ­ the swamis, rishis and mahatmas, who peddle their cleverly packaged religious wares to gullible Westerners searching for the elusive transcendental experience.

Amassing billions of dollars, they surround themselves with an opportunistic coterie, an essential part of their roadshow, as they wield unfathomable power, by virtue of their professed enlightenment. Behind this mask are irascible, manipulative, gourmandising, and perverted characters.

Their claims of godhood are ideated, purely fictional. The long, long list of disgraced godmen from the East is troubling, and a warning to Westerners who romanticise enlightenment as attainable only through an Indian guru.

In a recent expose, Forget Charles Manson: Why Indian Gurus Are A Cult Above The Rest (South China Morning Post, Sept 2, 2016), Vir Sanghvi sheds light on the enormity of this religious sleight of hand.

He writes, “The modern Indian guru phenomenon takes the most unpleasant elements of the Western cultist mentality and the Hindu tradition of total supplication before the teacher and gives it a pseudo-religious sanction.

“Though Hinduism makes it clear that no man can be a prophet, let alone a god, many of these gurus pervert that tradition and pass themselves off as semi-divine figures.”

He adds, “But there is a tradition that gurus who have reached advanced stages of consciousness ... can take disciples to whom they impart knowledge. And these disciples are required to blindly and obediently follow whatever the guru says.”

Psychoanalytic reductionism

Psychoanalytic reductionism offers clues to this loathsome behaviour displayed by self-styled godmen. Sexual obsessions, perversions, and arrogance are examples of a narcissistic personality disorder caused by conflicts in the psychosexual phases of development.

This disorder is defined as “a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism”. (Mayo Clinic syc-20366662).

The narcissistic personality seeks to overcompensate in seeking pleasure and adulation due to abandonment or abuse as early as the infant years.

Interestingly, the childhood of many cult leaders are wrought with disturbing psychological childhood experiences. (Tim Reiterman’s The Untold Story of the Rev Jim Jones and His People explores the childhood of Jones in great detail.)

But narcissism can emerge later in life, a consequence of power and greed. Materialism has become the object and downfall of too many godmen.

Fame plays on the psyche and behaviour of seemingly well-adjusted people. I am reminded of a very fitting Chinese proverb that admonished: “Men should fear fame in the way that swans fear getting fat. For sure, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Well-meaning intentions can easily be corrupted by boundless glitter. In truth, the fracturing and corruptibility of the human will is not all that difficult to accomplish.

Modern-day godmen have subverted the teachings of the Vedas and the Upanishads, the holiest books of Hinduism, casting a broad net of suspicion over devout teachers, past and present.

Gone are the days when Sri Ramakrishna graced the earth. Of this inimitable personality we read, “(His) God-intoxicated state alarmed his relatives in Kamarpukur and they got him married to ... a girl from a neighbouring village.

“Unaffected by the marriage, Sri Ramakrishna plunged into even more intense spiritual practices. Impelled by a strong inner urge to experience different aspects of God, he followed, with the help of a series of Gurus. (

Many eminent teachers learnt at the feet of this great saint, including the renowned Swami Vivekananda.

The genuine godman is a unique phenomenon. Today, we are polluted by a motley crew of self-styled saints who fabricate claims of Samadhi (god consciousness), and Nirvana (spiritual perfection), both elusive and unattainable in this life.

We are cautioned by no less a figure than Jesus Christ, who said in Mark 10: 18 ­ “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

- Dr Glenville Ashby is the author of the critically acclaimed: Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity. Feedback: or follow him on Twitter: @glenvilleashby