I’ve enjoyed reading David’s comments on my “I is a humble word” post. One of the points he makes is that people shouldn’t take a guru’s statements—and, by implication, those of any other spiritual leader—as ex cathedra (infallible).
David argues cogently that Charan Singh, like many mystic masters, conveyed contradictory messages to different people. For example, (1) laws should be obeyed and (2) do this illegal thing. So, he says, “Which one is the ex-cathedra, eh?”
Good question. There seem to be two ways of approaching an answer.
One is to consider that each of the contradictory pieces of advice was perfectly suited for the person being advised (which allows a devoted disciple to continue to believe in the “perfect living master”). The other is to accept that ethics and morality are relative concepts, and gurus are as enmeshed in relativity as are the rest of us (meaning, they don’t have a fix on absolutes concerning worldly life).
David describes some examples of how Charan Singh’s advice appeared correct from the inside, the point of view of the advisee, but could have seemed wrong from someone else’s perspective.
He concluded with a statement that I heartily agree with: “Please do not make master into another pope.” No, I certainly don’t want to do that. One pope already is too many. Like David, I have no problem with viewing the guru, or any other spiritual leader, as someone who offers advice about how to live in the world which people can take to heart, or not, depending on whether the advice makes sense to them.
All of us need advice from an expert from time to time, whether this be an accountant, doctor, lawyer, auto mechanic, dietician, psychotherapist, or spiritual leader. When this happens one on one, person to person, it’s difficult to call that sort of advising absolutist or ex cathedrist.
However, here’s where I differ with David. When a collection of supposedly purely personal advice is formed into a book, as was the case with the letters to disciples in “Quest for Light” by Charan Singh, then the obvious intent is for this advice to be promulgated widely far beyond the original individual recipient.
It’s as if I were to ask a financial advisor what mix of investments would be most suitable for my personal situation. He writes me an answer—“Basically, 60/40 in stocks/bonds”—and then publishes verbatim that same piece of advice in a newspaper column without mentioning that it is suitable only for people like me.
In this situation, which is almost exactly comparable to that of “Divine Light” and many other similar what-the-guru-said books, you’d be hard-pressed to come to any other conclusion than that the advice giver intended his advice to be generally applicable. If this weren’t the case, then the financial advisor wouldn’t have written the column and Charan Singh wouldn’t have authorized publication of the book.
It is true that devoted disciples often make “popes” out of spiritual leaders who would rather not be elevated so highly. But it also is true, as with Charan Singh, that the mantle of infallible perfection is willingly accepted once it has been proclaimed.
As a final note, I’ve been reading an interesting book by Charles Freeman, “The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason” (note the “review” by Freeman himself on this Amazon page, written in response to other reader reviews; Freeman practices what he preaches, open-minded rational exchanges). The central theme of the book is that the rise of Christianity thrust the Western world into a dark age after the Greek intellectual tradition was abandoned.
This morning, in a chapter about Paul, I read:
When Paul composed responses to his communities in the turbulent and confused years after Jesus’ death, years that Paul believed were a prelude to the imminent second coming, he could hardly have expected that they would be given the status of universal and authoritative truths and be used in contexts totally different from those in which he had written them.
One consequence of Paul’s elevation as a theologian was to shift the emphasis away from his personality, yet it is certainly arguable that his own psychological needs defined the distinctive teachings that he preached to his communities and should be central to any study of him….He appears never to have married and to have been ill at ease with sexuality, above all homosexuality.
This is what happens over and over with religious writings: they get elevated from the personal to the universal. Paul can’t be blamed for his letters being enshrined as dogma after his death. But when a spiritual leader allows such to occur during his or her lifetime, then much of the responsibility for fostering a climate of moral absolutism has to fall on that leader.
When I got divorced some sixteen years ago, fundamentalist disciples of Charan Singh would mail me copies of pages from his books where he had spoken about the sanctity of marriage and the wrongfulness of divorce. I didn’t appreciate this intrusion into my personal life. I knew what was best for me, my now ex-wife, and my daughter much better than anyone else did.
I’m not saying that all fundamentalists are so judgmental. Many, hopefully, understand that love is a greater good than judgment: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
Of course, you can also find lots of admonitions in the Bible to judge. Contradictions abound in every holy book, as the wonderful Skeptic’s Annotated Bible makes clear. Each of us has to make up our own mind about spirituality. Otherwise, it’s roll the dice and take your chances with someone else’s gamble on God.