Are you looking for a spiritual guide to help you on your journey of self-discovery? Do you feel drawn to a charismatic teacher who promises to reveal the secrets of the universe? If so, you might want to think twice before you surrender your mind and soul to them.
Many people who seek spiritual growth end up falling prey to the “guru syndrome”, a phenomenon where spiritual leaders abuse their power and followers lose their critical thinking and moral sense. This can lead to exploitation, manipulation, sexual abuse, psychological damage and even death.
The guru syndrome is not a new problem. Throughout history, there have been countless cases of gurus gone wrong, from Jim Jones and David Koresh to Osho and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. But in recent years, the rise of social media and online platforms has made it easier for gurus to attract and influence large numbers of devotees.
One of the most notorious examples is Keith Raniere, the founder of NXIVM, a self-help group that turned out to be a cult. Raniere was convicted in 2019 of racketeering, sex trafficking, forced labor and other crimes. He branded his female followers with his initials, forced them to have sex with him and starved them to make them more obedient.
Another example is Bikram Choudhury, the creator of Bikram yoga, a popular form of hot yoga. Choudhury was accused by several women of sexual assault and harassment. He also created a cult-like atmosphere in his training courses, where he humiliated and controlled his students.
How can gurus get away with such behavior? And why do followers blindly follow them?
According to experts, there are several psychological factors that contribute to the guru syndrome. One is the need for disciples to regress to a childlike state of unconditional devotion and irresponsibility. As Steve Taylor, a professor of psychology and author of The Leap: The Psychology Of Spiritual Awakening, writes: “They want someone else to take control of their lives, to make their decisions for them, and give them a sense of direction and security.”
Another factor is the ego-inflation of gurus who believe they are perfect and divine. They lose their moral compass, believing that the most unethical behavior is acceptable. As Taylor writes: “Once they are surrounded by hundreds of adoring disciples, they begin to suffer from ego-inflation. They really believe that they are perfect, even that they are divine.”
A third factor is the lack of critical thinking and discernment among followers. They are often so dazzled by the charisma and wisdom of gurus that they ignore or rationalize any signs of wrongdoing. They also fear losing the approval and love of their gurus if they question or challenge them.
Remember that spirituality is not about following someone else’s rules or dogmas. It is about finding your own truth and your own connection to the divine. As the Dalai Lama, one of the most respected spiritual leaders in the world, said: “Don’t try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.”