Today we have godmen presiding over empires—of money, of real estate. We have godmen adding prefixes upon prefixes to their name. We have godmen on whose behalf the boast is carefully orchestrated about the throngs that flock to them. We have godmen who make sure that everyone notices the VIPs who come and sit at their feet. We have godmen whose real accomplishment is that they can outdo the best advertising guru and event manager.
And not just godmen. We have temples that are known by the amount of money that they garner per day. We have idols whose power is judged by the number of diamonds that are studded in their crowns.
Do you remember what happened when Guru Nanak reached the Jagannath temple at Puri to pray, and, disconcerted by the ostentation, left to pray under the open sky? There he sang that beautiful aarti:
Gagan mein thaal
Rav chand deepak baney
Taarka mandal janak moti
Dhoop malyaan lau pavan jhavro kare
Sagal banraye phulwant jyoti
Kaisi aarti hoye Bhavkhandan teri aarti ...
The sky is the platter
The sun and moon the lamps
And the stars the jewels
Sandalwood's fragrance is the incense
The wind is the flywhisk
And all the trees in the forest are
Your flowers How wonderful an aarti, O Lord, is Your aarti...
But the godmen and the controllers of temples and maths alone are not responsible for the resulting debasement. We are. Most often because of our desperation, often because of our greed. We are stricken by an illness, someone dear to us is stricken. We are desperate, and look for miracles. We flock to the latest godman. Often we just want a boost in our careers, we want a project to succeed, a business deal is stuck and we want it to turn in our favour....
We don't even notice the incongruity. We pride ourselves at the weight of gold in the ornaments that we have donated for the idol. And simultaneously we sing that beautiful aarti of Sri Guru Nanak.
The Buddha said—not about some sundry godmen, but about himself—do not accept something because I have said it; test it on the anvil of your experience. Both in the Buddhist tradition as well as in that of Hinduism—for instance, in regard to being initiated into sanyas—the teacher as well as the aspirant were to assess each other for twelve years.
That implied both things: that each must judge the other, and that she or he must do so over an extended time—for, after all, the two were not to judge each other by what the person said, but by her or his conduct. And while that conduct too could be faked for a short while, it could not be faked over twelve years.
That is sound practice. We must judge those to whom we flock; we must judge our own motivation.
Is the guru a person of spiritual attainments? Or is his hallmark worldly success?
Is he known for miracles? For the empire he has built? For the numbers that flock to him? For the VIPs who sit at his feet?
Does he lead us into an inner-directed search? Or does he lure us with promise of worldly boons?
Does he cause us to strive on our own? Or does he make us progressively more dependent on him?
Does he just spin words? Maya, Brahman, Ananda, Satchidananda ... Does his conduct accord with what he urges us to do? Is he addicted to being reverenced even as he hectors us to erase our egos?
Has the conduct of those who have been with him for long become exemplary? Or do they 'do what businessmen just have to do in the world today' and, as a Tibetan text says, look to him to wash away their sins with water? Are they buying, and is he selling indulgences?
Even more important, and ever so much easier to do, we must be watchful of our own motives.
Have we gone to him so as to advance on an inner search? Or have we gone to secure some mundane goal—through his blessing or through the contacts we will make, especially with those VIPs at the sangat?
As conspicuous religiosity is but a variant of conspicuous consumption, have we gone to him to be seen by others as being pious?
Has despair carried us to him?
We must hold the guru/godman as well as ourselves to the highest standard. Ever so often when a godman is exposed for what he is, I hear the cry go up, 'It is all a Christian conspiracy.'
Firstly, so what if the exposure has come about as the result of a conspiracy? The question is, 'Are the charges correct or not?'
Second, it is vital that these personages measure up to the highest standard—to the Ramakrishna–Ramana standard. The one 'pearl of great price' that we have, the one treasure that our culture can still give to the world is what our rishis discovered about the inner-directed search. And these persons are either the bearers of that treasure or ones trading in it. When they stray from the strictest standard, they don't just fool a few persons, they endanger that singular tradition.
As for us, we too must remember that that tradition is about the inner-directed search. Ever so often, we depart from that search. We flock to these persons for miracles. But, as Gandhiji said, there are no miracles contrary to the laws of nature. If we do come across an occurrence that is incomprehensible, we should look for the natural explanation and see how far that will carry us before lunging for the supernatural one.
Beyond this futile search for miracles, as far as the inner-directed search is concerned, if I may be so bold as to report my own experience, the vicissitudes of life are an adequate guru. We do not need the godmen of today. The ups and downs of our lives hurl us this way and that. As they buffet us, we have but to observe our mind, and we would have put them to work.
Excerpted from Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa & Ramana Maharishi by Arun Shourie with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India.
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