The Guru Question: Are Spiritual Hierarchies Inherently Oppressive?

Painting of a noblewoman seeking counsel from two Tantric yoginis, in the Mughal style, about 1750. From the British Museum’s recent exhibition, Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution. A beautiful starting point to learn about Indian spirituality in its original context. May all our paths be crossed by wise teachers.

I’ve received a tremendous response to my essay on cults, published on Feminism and Religion in December last year. The topic continues to be a burning issue as more and more survivors break their silence on the spiritual abuse they suffered. Cults are a feminist issue because women and girls suffer the worst abuses at the hands of male cult leaders.

To fully understand how this cult dynamic works, I highly recommend watching Dan Shaw’s lecture on the subject, in which he explains how cult leaders are traumatizing narcissists whose goal is to subjugate their followers and “purify” them by utterly destroying their sense of self. Yet for me, the most haunting moment of his presentation came just near the end, during the Q & A session. An audience member and survivor of Siddha Yoga, the same cult that Shaw once belonged to, asked, “Are there gurus that people can trust?” She asked if guru-driven spirituality was “inherently subjugating.”  

Shaw, perhaps understandably not wanting to come across as a white man casting judgement on another culture’s deeply-rooted spiritual traditions, wiggled out of answering by saying that it was up to the individual to discern if a particular guru was safe or not.  

But I think this anonymous woman’s question deserves a more nuanced answer.

In Hinduism, since the age of the Upanishads, gurus have played a crucial role in preserving wisdom teachings in a religion with no centralized authority figure or governing body. The teachings are passed on orally to disciples who worship the guru as a divine being in order to realize their own innate divinity. I would love to hear from Indian feminists on how this guru-disciple relationship plays out in India today, particularly with female practitioners.

However legitimate and honorable these systems might be in their original cultural context, I think it’s fair to say something gets lost in translation when Eastern spirituality moves West. Great abuses have come to light. Katy Butler, in her article, “Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America,” writes that guru abuse has become so prevalent due to the “unhealthy marriage of Asian hierarchy and American license that distorts the student-teacher relationship.”

It’s pertinent to point out that many of these misbehaving gurus, lamas, and swamis are white men. Spiritual hierarchies can be abusive across cultures—look at the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Cults are not necessarily “Eastern” or “foreign.” There are plenty of Christian cults, self help cults, and wellness cults.

Another thing that often gets lost in translation is what Eastern spirituality actually intends to offer the student. Many Western students turn to Eastern disciplines like meditation and mindfulness for stress reduction, but that is not their original purpose. These disciplines are intended to liberate the practitioner from the wheel of death and rebirth, to transcend this world of suffering and our worldly attachments, in order to enter an enlightened state—i.e. not to be reincarnated again, a goal some Western people might find world-denying and nihilistic.

Dr Willoughby Britton, professor of psychiatry at Brown University, speaking to Rachel Bernstein on IndoctriNation podcast asks, “How problematic or paradoxical is it if you believe that enlightenment is a destination that someone else can take you to? What dependence does that create?”

The goal is unmeasurable and the endpoint keeps shifting according to the power dynamics. You become much more dependent on the teacher who decides if you have reached this invisible destination. If you’re being charged a lot for the teachings, the teacher may decide that you don’t achieve the end result for a very long time.

Willoughby says practitioners can empower themselves by asking themselves the following questions:

Where do you want to go with this practice?

If you are seeking enlightenment, what does that mean for you?

You get to define your own outcomes and measure your success by what you want to show up in your life, i.e. better sleep, reduced anxiety, improved relationships, and inner peace.

In evaluating teachers and spiritual groups, ask yourself:

What were you initially promised?

Has it been achieved after all your hard work?

Do you feel you are closer to your goal?

Or have your initial reasons been shifted by the teacher into their reasons and their goals that are no longer yours?

Are you under pressure to perform for and please the teacher?

Are you expected to use scripted, stilted language to describe your experience?

If you question the teacher and the teacher retaliates, that’s your tipping point, says Britton. If you say that a practice isn’t working for you and the response you get is, “Well, that’s because you don’t have the right karmas/aren’t dedicated enough/haven’t reached the right level of spiritual maturity”  etc., you need to leave and find a different group.

In order for anyone to have a healthy experience with a teacher, you need the freedom to say, “I think this isn’t working for me, and, in fact, it’s hurting me and I need to move on.” Depending on how people respond to you setting your boundary, you’ll know if you’re in a healthy space or not.

As Dan Lawton says on another episode of IndoctriNation Podcast, a spiritual practice can only be as healthy as the person teaching you that practice. The endgame for a lot of teachers is often building a personal brand around the supremacy of a certain spiritual practice. Once you’re locked into that box, there are a lot of things you’re not going to be able to see and there’s a possibility of doing real harm to your students.

Good, ethical teachers, whether they call themselves gurus or not, are deserving of deep respect. But they need to be vetted and held accountable. And maybe in the West, at least, the obligation to see the teacher as enlightened or divine is indeed too subjugating. Maybe it would much healthier to look up to them as a wise elder or mentor. Surrendering our agency to another human is always going to be subjugating.

Perhaps we can follow the example of the female seeker in the 18th century painting above, who is taking counsel from two yoginis, female practitioners who live in the forest, outside the strictures and hierarchies of patriarchal society. Instead of placing all our hopes in one exalted individual, why not instead seek the deep wisdom of the female collective?

Mary Sharratt is committed to telling women’s stories. Please check out her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, and her new novel Revelationsabout the mystical pilgrim Margery Kempe and her friendship with Julian of Norwich. Visit her website.

Author: Mary Sharratt

Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history and is the author of eight acclaimed novels, including ILLUMINATIONS, drawn from the life of Hildegard von Bingen, and REVELATIONS, which delves into the intersecting lives of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, two mystics and female literary pioneers who changed history. Visit her website:

14 thoughts on “The Guru Question: Are Spiritual Hierarchies Inherently Oppressive?”

  1. I personally find these gurus frightening and cannot imagine placing my spirit – soul – body self in any human hands…

    Nature is my Muse and my Teacher. What I have to do is show up and pay attention to my dreams.

    This sounds maybe too simple for people who are totally disconnected from Nature as Source? I don’t know – but I think its incredibly important that you are bringing these abuses to the public’s attention.

    And yes, this is certainly a feminist issue!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree with Sara. I pay attention to nature, and my dreams and visions. And my own intuition. I am becoming my own Guru. The older I get the more I seek simplicity in my forms of spiritual engagement. It seems like external Guru systems are always seeking to layer logic and structure over mystical experiences, thus diminishing or destroying the essence. I believe I’m quoting Woody Guthrie here, though it may be Pete Seeger or Albert Einstein. “Any damn fool can make something complex. It takes a genius to make something simple.” Seems like many of the world’s religions are provided with an abundance of fools and far too few geniuses. And of course this is related to patriarchy–almost everything is in one way or another.

        Thanks for your work, Mary.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. the guru trap… even with a legitimate Self-Realized guru (not your typical cult-leader masquerading as Self-Realized), instead of Seeing and Realizing the Perfection in Self, one gets trapped into worshipping the Perfection / Love / Oneness emanating from the guru…

    Neem Karoli / Ram Dass is a perfect example: Neem Karoli says “we ARE Love” which implies no conditions, distinctions or subject/object separation – and Ram Dass excitedly replies “and when I was around him [Neem Karoli] I was in love”… now, the vast majority won’t see anything wrong with that in the slightest – but it is immersed in conditions, distinctions and subject/object separation… how many have said “when I was around _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ I was in love” and actually believe they are experiencing Love? it’s really just an extreme connection / attachment / affection (affected by) to an ‘other’ – and actually a parody, even mockery of Love / Oneness…

    Love is not a deep feeling of connection or even ‘Oneness’ with a few select people – they confuse a deep connection / attachment / affection with an ‘other’ with Oneness, which is the profound and rare Realization you are the Whole Ball of Wax… the trick is to grasp that Love is absolutely UNCONDITIONAL – and then to actually See the myriad conditions all your different forms of ‘love’ are rooted in, hanging right beneath your nose while simultaneously you are in Denial of…

    even when I point it out, many will not be able to See the separation that ‘in love’ is rooted in – such is the brain-washing we’ve been subjected to that being ‘in love’ is the highest form of ‘love’… being ‘in’ the ocean (you + the ocean) is vastly different than Being the Ocean (just the Ocean)… “I’m in love” is vastly different than “I Am Love”…

    there is a very real reason why Neem Karoli, Yeshua and others who were / are Self-Realized did/do not say ‘in love’, or “I love you”… watch the Ram Dass documentary on Netflix where he is surrounded with photos and statues of Neem Karoli – he could not get out of the guru trap…

    Love is not a verb…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I had a similar experience with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their obsession with the “anointed elders” and placing them on a pedestal as if they were Apostles of Christ made it impossible for anyone to say anything in critique of the religion or its practices. It’s why I left and became a Pagan. I had three Masters who were like the “gurus” described above. Two were Wiccan and one a Medicine Woman. With the Medicine Woman I understood. It was part of her culture. But in her case it was more “you’re not listening, do this again,” and to her credit I did eventually do better on the path of the Red Road. Native Culture is big on listening to the elders in your family and trying to do instead of ask how to do. It’s hard to explain. At least that was my experience with her. The other two though, total self absorbed control freaks. And people got a bad feeling from them. So I began to distance myself from them.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes she was a great Master. And I learned things from her no book or article could ever teach. I miss her though. We lost touch a few years ago. She taught me to step outside of my ego. To think of others and not just myself. She also taught me a major dose of humility lol. Native Teachers take no shit. I miss our conversations.

        Liked by 1 person

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