Though many spiritual teachers from India settled in the
West through the twentieth century, during the 1970s, the term
‘‘guru’’ (or ‘‘teacher,’’ the Indian equivalent of ‘‘rabbi’’) first became
well known in America and Europe through the rapid
growth of Indian movements built around such figures as Maharishi
Mahesh Yogi, and Guru Mahara Ji who attracted
many thousands of young adult followers. In the process of
moving to America and Europe, the guru concept underwent
a change.
In traditional Indian religious life, the guru-chela (teacherpupil)
relationship is a very personal one, restricted to a few followers
and usually involving strict austerities, religious observances,
study of scriptures, andor yoga exercises. And although
many gurus (for example, Satya Sai Baba) have been
reputed miracle workers and the subject of numerous anecdotal
accounts of supernormal feats, the goal of mysticism, union
with the divine, was generally regarded as paramount and miracles
merely incidental. That relationship remained the case
with most Indian teachers in the West. However, many in the
West were unfamiliar with the nature of spiritual guidance offered
by gurus and were put off by the absolutist language of
obedience used in traditional literature to describe that relationship.
In the wake of the unexpected favorable reception of Swami
Vivekananda at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago
in 1893, many eastern spiritual teachers settled in America and
developed relatively small followings. Gurus were often associated
in the public mind with miracles, even though their teachings
emphasized spiritual development. Following World War
II and the declaration of Indian independence from England
in 1948, and especially the opening of the United States to
Asian immigration in 1965, a number of gurus developed missions
in the West. The pop cultures and mass advertising techniques
of postwar America and Europe facilitated the spread of
large international movements. Some of the more popular
leaders presented a Westernized Hinduism with roots in the
nineteenth-century Hindu Renaissance developed in reaction
to the critique of colonial powers to abhorrent (to westerners)
practices in popular Hinduism. Some of these teachers promised
world peace, success in life, achievement, personal relaxation
andor spiritual advancement through simple meditation
techniques or prayers, while other Hindu gurus like Swami
Muktananda and Satya Sai Baba attracted thousands of followers
through ‘‘demonstrating’’ paranormal phenomena.
The transition from the Hindu concept of the family type
guru, rather like a local priest and psychoanalyst, teaching a
few followers, to the charismatic leader of millions adopting
Western movements, represented a significant transition of the
guru-chela relationship. In such a setting traditional admonitions
to sacrifice everything to the guru in return for spiritual
instruction took on a different meaning.
Greenfield, Robert. The Spiritual Supermarket. New York
Saturday Review PressE. P. Dutton, 1975.
Murray, Muz. Seeking the Master; A Guide to the Ashrams of
India. Jersey, U.K. Neville Spearman, 1980.
Uban, Sujan Singh. The Gurus of India. London Fine Books
(Oriental)New Delhi, India Sterling Publishers, 1977.