There are many reasons to be wary of gurus.
An overarching reason is that often, if not usually, devotees of a guru trust them way more than is justified -- since gurus obviously are human beings, flawed and imperfect like we all are.
Below you can read the experience of "Sonya," a regular commenter on this blog who shared a comment today that I felt deserved to be featured in a blog post.
Gurinder Singh Dhillon
Sonya describes how Gurinder Singh Dhillon, the guru of Radha Soami Satsang Beas (an Indian religious organization), responded after she courageously asked him about suicide. His response was uncaring, factually wrong, and distasteful.
Gurus shouldn't give mental health advice. If you wouldn't trust a guru with no medical expertise with telling you how to deal with a physical health problem, why would you trust what they say about a mental health problem?
I say this as someone who has been married for 29 years to a woman who was a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice for quite a few years. My wife counseled people with a wide range of problems. Previously she worked as a school counselor, and before that, at a mental hospital.
(I have a Master's Degree in Social Work also, but I never actually worked as a social worker after graduate school, going into health services research instead.)
Reading Sonya's comment made me simultaneously sad and angry.
Sad, because she was treated so badly by Gurinder Singh Dhillon. Angry, because no one should make light of suicide or depression, especially someone in a position of authority -- like a guru.
The good news is that the experience led to Sonya losing faith in the RSSB guru. I enjoy hearing "deconversion" stories about how people come to the realization that spirituality is best practiced independently, rather than within the confines of a religious organization.
Here's Sonya's story. I've corrected some typos and added some paragraph breaks, but didn't change her comment otherwise. "Satsangi" means an initiate of Radha Soami Satsang Beas. "Dera" refers to the RSSB headquarters. "Sant Mat" is the RSSB philosophy.
Hi Arjuna and Jen, OK, I'm going to attempt to respond to both of you with one very long answer. :)
At the Dera during a Q&A session I asked Gurinder what happens to a soul when it commits suicide because I had tried to commit suicide twice in a 6 month period when I was 26.
I asked him this because I thought maybe my thoughts and actions of self harm during that period of my life and my continual self loathing that existed after that event might be at the root cause of my panic attacks which I had been suffering from for 15 years. They started about a year before I became a satsangi.
I was diagnosed with severe panic disorder because the attacks would last longer than an hour. One attack lasted 8 hours and I had to go to the hospital. It took me 6 months after that to feel like a normal human being again.
It felt like one day I was a normal person, then I had an 8 hour panic attack and the next day I was paraplegic. I wasn't really paraplegic, it's just that's how much my life had changed and permanently changed. I guess having a really long panic attack is like going through battle and then you have PTSD from the panic attack.
BTW, It was a miracle that I lived both times because I was truly very happy that I would never wake up again. I didn't leave a note... it wasn't a cry for help. I tried to make sure no one would find me till it was over.
And if you ask me why I tried to commit suicide (looking back it seems really dumb), I was really depressed after my boyfriend and I broke up. We had a very serious relationship... I was madly in love... He asked me to marry him and then I found out he was seeing someone else.
You know, the usual.
Anyway, yes I am fairly blunt and outspoken and the only reason I shared something this personal was because there was no way for me to get an interview with him [Gurinder Singh Dhillon] and I wasn't sure I'd ever be back at the Dera.
He said "Nothing happens to the soul. It's just the mind. Depression is a first world problem. You don't see poor people getting depressed because they're too busy working. Stop feeling sorry for yourself." That's what he said. Just like that.
The weird thing is that I had really been starting to question Sant Mat and him. However, even then I was very much in awe of him and somewhat "in-love" in a Master/disciple kind of way. I thought he would be the last person on earth that would ever hurt me.
My heart was absolutely broken and if my husband hadn't been with me I guarantee you I would have taken the 3 months supply of sleeping pills that I happened to bring with me. I would have taken them all at once right after that happened.
So, I went from the memory of one betrayal and broken heart to the realization that there isn't really anyone you can totally trust in this world. So, maybe I deserved it.
The reason I think he was so harsh was because I had been talking with some ladies after one meeting about how inappropriate he had behaved. They brought it up and I joined in because we all witnessed the same thing. Basically he was just being super flirtatious with some young women but it's not like he "took them home or anything". It just seemed a bit off-color.
And I think the word got back to him that some people were concerned about it.
Of course, that may not be it at all. He may never have even heard about it. Maybe I just needed someone to tell me that I was a selfish fool for trying to commit suicide twice over some stupid guy (I didn't tell him about the guy - I didn't say exactly why I did it--just told him I had been depressed).
And maybe I needed to realize that a guru isn't going to be there for you either to comfort you. Maybe he wanted me to learn that it's a mean, mean world, and that only the god inside of me can ever comfort me. Maybe he also wanted me to understand that love is bullshit.
He also told me that mental health problems are a first world problem. He made that very clear over and over. During that session someone asked him about people with serious mental health problems (like it was their family member or something) and he just shook his head and said you don't want to know what I think about mental illness.
He said that. Exactly like that.
So, I would never ask him about depression or anxiety if I were you. And God forbid you mention anything more serious like bipolar or schizophrenia. I think besides being born blind at birth, having a serious mental health problem like bipolar or schizophrenia are the only other things that will keep you from being able to be initiated today.
Now all that is very dark. It's hard for me to see how I could have been in such a dark place like that at one time in my life when I'm usually really happy these days. I also don't have panic attacks anymore.
After that experience I left Sant Mat for good and when I left Sant Mat I stopped having panic attacks. The panic attacks were horrific and I no longer have them, nor do I have depression.
So, yes Jen, I think you're right. He gave me exactly what I needed. And what I need is not him.
I shared some other comments by Sonya in another post, "Being worshipped leads Gurinder Singh Dhillon to behave badly." Here's how that post starts out:
I no longer believe that any person deserves to be worshipped. Respected, yes. Everybody is deserving of respect. But worship, no.
For a long time, though -- some 35 years -- I was a member of an Indian religious organization (Radha Soami Satsang Beas, or RSSB) headed by a guru who is considered to be God in human form.
Just imagine how Christians would act around Jesus if he appeared on Earth. Worshipful, right? Well, that's how RSSB devotees act around Gurinder Singh Dhillon, the current guru.
Recently Dhillon was accused of criminal conduct by his cousin, Malvinder Singh. Defenders of the guru are fond of saying that the death threats and massive financial fraud are just allegations. That's true, but they're believable allegations, given what's been previously reported on this blog about Gurinder Singh Dhillon.
To put it charitably, Dhillon doesn't act like the traditional RSSB guru. Less charitably, Dhillon acts very much like many other powerful men: full of ego, greedy, controlling, using women in less than admirable ways. (The Me Too movement has done a lot to raise awareness of this.)
Below is a comment left by Sonya on a recent post.
She does a good job of explaining why Gurinder Singh Dhillon behaves the way he does, given that he's worshipped everywhere he goes. Of course, other men are worshipped who don't end up behaving badly: the Pope, Dalai Lama, many others.
The RSSB guru, though, is treated like the god he is believed to be by his devotees, while the Pope and Dalai Lama are just considered to be holy men. Of course, this doesn't excuse Dhillon's behavior -- it just helps to explain it.
Here's the first comment from Sonya. I'll share another one also.