Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

From the Age of the Guru
to the Age of the Friend
Dr. Gregory Goode

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Recently a guru admitted to me, “You know, when I stopped believing that I was enlightened and others weren’t, all the fun went out of giving satsang!”
The age of the guru is over. This is the age of the friend. The message of self-knowledge and liberation is outstripping any guru’s ability to contain it. People have been discovering that the message is independent of the messenger. The message has become detached from its older, exclusivistic, privileged stage settings. No longer must it travel down from a hierarchy. These days it spreads horizontally from person to person.

Of course there are still gurus. There will be gurus as long as there are friends. There will always be some gurus able to serve as wonderful teachers and inspiring examples. But these days the friend is providing more and more of the same services. The friend is spreading the message of self-knowledge, opening hearts with lovingkindness, and inspiring others with enthusiasm.

Morphing the guru model

The turn from the guru to the friend is not just a matter of inspiration; it’s also a matter of information. We’ve got freer access to what was formerly more selective and closed. The message of self-knowledge has reached interested parties wherever there’s communication. And this communication no longer needs to flow through the narrow-band guru-frequency, but has overflowed and become broadband.

This has caused the guru model itself to morph into something more democratic and decentralized. There are more teachers with less charisma. In California, supply exceeds demand to the point where a student can choose from any number of retreats on a given weekend. Retreat leaders have had to lower their fees to keep competitive. And then during the following week, the students e-mail the teachings on to all their friends, who then tell others.

The connotations of the term “guru” are changing. Traditionally this Sanskrit word has been interpreted to mean dispeller (gu) of darkness (ru). It was understood primarily in personal terms, and the guru was worshipped as an incarnation of God—a sacred, exclusive conduit to self-realization. These days, the metaphor has gone stale. No longer do people accept the image that they’re in darkness until assisted by a purportedly perfected human being. In spiritual circles, the “guru” word is more and more taken to point to the seeker’s own innermost self.

Exclusivity not politically correct

No longer can people believe that liberation speaks only Tibetan, or that the world was created from holy Sanskrit syllables. People are saying, “If it can’t be said in my language, then it isn’t be as universal as it pretends.” Even as recently as thirty years ago, seekers of self-awareness had to trek to India or the Himalayas to see someone who could impart a message of liberation. These days there are many routes: Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon, Yahoo, Google, mobile phones and BlackBerries.

Teachings that used to be limited to a select few are now being joyously shared between friends in any language. Even decades ago, you had to go to ashrams or temples and maybe wait three days before the keepers would let you enter. Now the same message can be found in coffee shops, living rooms, cyber chat-rooms and even prisons. A few of the younger gurus are beginning to adapt their teachings to this new democratic tone. They’ve backed off from the stance of exlusivity and have come closer to celebrating friendship and enlightened ordinariness. And other gurus are digging in their heels and sticking to the old story.

Warts and information

Public figures are now commonplace. We know more about more people. We see their warts and indiscretions. This is inevitable in today’s infoculture where bloggers and paparazzi themselves can get famous. The older guru model can’t survive this much information. According to the older and exalted versions of the guru model, the guru is a unique and perhaps perfected example of humanity. Maybe divinity in temporary human clothing. Some have even said that the guru is beyond God. But as information increases, it becomes much harder for this image to survive. High perfection becomes low comedy with each new revelation of vegetarian gurus caught eating chiliburgers, celibate gurus discovered having affairs with their PR chiefs, or miracle-wielding gurus photographed with trinkets in the folds of their sleeves.

Information on gurus abounds in ways that were unthinkable a while ago. There’s up-close and personal information in books such as Feet of Clay, Mother of God, or Enlightenment Blues. There are websites such as Jerry Katz’s famous, which has helped deconstruct the older guru model by its sheer breadth of expression, and by listing so many gurus, including literary and movie characters. Then there’s Sarlo’s Guru Ratings pages, which freely give subjective and personal scores to gurus, along with their anti-sites where possible. There’s Jody Radzik, who for years has been a fly in the ointment, reminding people that a guru’s image of perfection is created by the student’s idealizations. Recently Jody has come up with, an newsy info blog with guru refugee-sites and other poop and scoop that makes it much harder to idealize the guru.

No power loss

Does the message of liberation get diluted if it reaches you through night-shift clerk at the local 7-11? Isn’t it better to go directly to the source? More and more people are saying “No - the source is everywhere.” People are understanding liberation as something that can be communicated by anyone, with every breath. Red flags go up whenever someone demands that only certain people can be message-bearers. The message can come from the convenience store, and people are now seeing that it’s the same message that comes from the wise old bearded guy on top of the hill. There’s a twinkle in his eye because he knows it too.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012