Beware Gurus

I asked a little while back if a guru is necessary. Many people (with good reason) say yes. How can one navigate the complex path of human spirituality with no guide? For me personally, I put a lot of faith in my inner Self to guide me. But I am jaded from the experience of coming from an organization that some would call a cult.

Most people will want or need a guru to guide their progress. What I ask is that you select such a teacher with extreme care.

I definitely believe that there are enlightened gurus out there. But there are many, many more who are either very wise but still subject to mistakes OR actually con artists who prey on people’s insecurity to get money or power.

It would be extremely rare to find a guru who is fully realized to the extent that he would no longer have human failings.

I know what it’s like to idealize a person who is further along than you are spiritually. I’ve worshiped and adored my masters. And then in the end found them to be very human. They fell victim to, most often, an over inflated ego. I regret the hero-worship, knowing that I always had the Truth already within me.

When you are involved with a teacher, guru, or school, I urge you to keep your eyes open and your mind sharp. If something doesn’t sit right with you, don’t ignore that instinct. They may tell you that your uncomfortablness is simply your selfish ego standing in the way of your spiritual development. Think long and hard before you accept that answer.

It is an enormous temptation for human beings to give ourselves over to someone else’s care. We seem to want to let someone else take care of our spiritual growth and tell us what to do. But in the end, it is you who is responsible for your spirituality. No one else is going to do it for you.

Being devoted to a guru can be a wonderful thing, but it can also leave you feeling bitter and used when you come out of the trance twenty years later. Always be very careful what guru you are attaching yourself to.


There is a strange feeling that someone who has been in a cult-like group experiences. It’s a contradiction of feeling. Because the same place that can give you great spiritual insights and moments of total bliss can also be hiding abuse, power plays, and inappropriate control. You can experience both things from the same organization. And so it is difficult to renounce the cult or to tell anyone that it was bad. Because it did wonderful things for you. Parts of your experience you wouldn’t trade back. Yet a place that does wonderful things for you can also have damaged you at the same time. It is okay to feel both anger and love at the same time.

I wrote this short story that is closely based on my own experience. I tried to get across that feeling of being torn about how you feel about your past, but I don’t know if I succeeded.


 It is extremely difficult to define what a cult is. Too often the word is used for any group or organization that the person using it does not understand or know much about. There may be a guru or a group that you are involved with that some people call a cult and you do not think it is.

What I’m talking about here is any guru or organization that practices deceit and abuse of any kind: whether emotional, physical, sexual, or spiritual. 

Here is a definition:

 A cult, by modern standards, is any group that incorporates mind control to deceive, influence and govern its followers. Although most people think of cults as being religious, they can also be found in political, athletic, philosophical, racial or psychotherapeutic arenas.

(The rest of this article is definitely worth reading)

If they or it are making you feel unworthy, lowly, unimportant, stupid, or dirty in some way, you are most likely dealing with a cult.

Even if you start out with a guru you trust and love, if anything changes please do not be afraid to question and to take a step back to examine what is really going on.


Memoirs of people who have left cults:

Shame On You by Clara Salaman <—-This one is about my organization

Advice on Dealing with Cults:


A truly enlightened guru is not going to be perturbed by your questioning and keeping your mind sharp. A guru worth following will never coerce you to do anything. A guru worth following practices what he teaches (if he claims to be celibate, he is not meeting alone with young girls; if he claims to live in poverty, he doesn’t have Swiss bank accounts). The guru worthy of your respect will not make you feel worried or uncomfortable.

Finally, a reminder of how easy it is for someone to claim spiritual knowledge for ulterior purposes:

Others From My Background Aren’t Hindu
Others From My Background Aren’t Hindu
Scripture Study: Bhagavad Gita, book two verses 35-38
When You Find Your True Path
About Ambaa

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • Ryan

    Thank you for this. At the temple on Mahashivratri, I was approached by one individual who asked me if I had a guru, and more or less would say nothing else to me after I said I did not. Everyone else was friendly, but that one conversation left me feeling somewhat uncertain of myself, even though I had long since realised that I would find a guru if when and only if that was the optimal situation for my spiritual development, and that looking with longing for someone to follow did nothing but put me in the kind of danger you describe. It is very comforting to have someone as well informed as you validate me on that.

    • Ambaa

      I’m sorry you had an experience like that!

      It’s a common saying that when the student is ready, the master will appear. So it is with gurus! The right person will come into your life when you need it, I think.

  • Seeker

    Thanks for this column. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had a brief touch with an organization that appeared cult-like and it’s left me suspicious of other organizations.

    One factor that doesn’t seem to be talked about regarding the need for a guru is that when that was first advocated, knowledge was passed along verbally, one teacher to one student. Many (probably most) people couldn’t read so self-education wasn’t an option as it is today. Is the guru the main factor in helping the person on his spiritual journey or is it the information he or she transmitted?

    In the past I’ve sometimes longed for a guru but realize that what I really wanted was an idealized parental figure who would smooth the bumps in the path, always look out for my welfare, and have no needs of their own. In other words, I wanted a god rather than a human being. That’s why now I’m looking for a wise teacher who is ahead of me on the path but who can admit to not knowing or even being wrong at times.

    • Ambaa

      You make a great point about the knowledge! I didn’t think of that.

      It sounds like a really good idea to be aware as you look for a guru that you want to find someone who is able to admit when he doesn’t know something. I have that tendency too to want someone totally perfect to idolize, but I have not found that figure in real life and it does seem like that is mixing up the guru with the God (though some say one being can be both!)

  • Andrea

    I do not think that a guru has to be a person dressed in saffron, wearing beads, with a beard and bare feet and speaks so loftily no one can understand them.

    My gurus are my parents, my teachers, my friends who teach me with love and humility the things I need to know. I learn more about God from them than I would sitting at the feet of some person who has abandoned this world. Sure, I have things to learn from those kinds of people too, but I don’t put all my eggs in that one basket.

    Any guru who says “listen to me and not to anyone else” isn’t a guru worth following.

    • Ambaa

      Eloquent as always! Yes, there are teachers all around us in our life.

  • Agni Ashwin

    “I have not said that a Guru is not necessary. But a Guru need not always be in human form. First a person thinks that he is an inferior and that there is a superior, all-knowing, all powerful God who controls his own and the world’s destiny and worships him or does Bhakti. When he reaches a certain stage and becomes fit for enlightenment, the same God whom he was worshipping comes as Guru and leads him on. That Guru comes only to tell him ‘That God is within yourself. Dive within and realize’. God, Guru and the Self are the same.”
    – Ramana Maharshi

    • Ambaa

      Beautiful! Thank you for that quote. (In fact, I might post that on the facebook page!)

  • Arjun

    Ambaa , I dont think a person really needs a Guru but is important before looking for a guru in hindu tradition is at least a person should know the basics of Hinduism first otherwise its very easy to be taken in and end up in hero worship more than any teachings ..I do have a guru myself who came into my life at very young age around 11 luckily otherwise i would be in jail or doing something out of control. So the right gurus can turn up at the right time in your life.

    But ive never been trapped into one belief system within the hindu tradition because ive never felt like that from what ive learnt and picked up from my guru.Instead the direction i shown was to be open to all gurus and masters learning from all which to me is in tune with Sanantan Dharma.I can see the underlining connection with all Dharmic traditions regardless if they are vaishnava, shaivate, or shakta, dwaita, advaita ect or even pagan traditions .

    The trouble is people especially in the west are always looking for the next Messiah and then end up in rock star worship blinding themselves eventually to end up disillusioned.And there are also many wannabe gurus,swamis , new age mystics looking for a following.One just has to check to see how many facebook gurus and swamis are waiting in cue to find followers so one has to be cautious first..

    One should question everything.In Hinduism one is even allowed to question the gods and even the scriptures because its only by questioning one acquires more knowledge and the truth.And on the other-side theres also a big agenda spreading anti guru/swami propaganda by anti hindu groups which one also has to lbe aware of.

    • Ambaa

      Exactly! Thank you for your good points. It is a good idea to understand the basics of Hinduism first!

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  • Drakenobody Iam

    “guru bina gyan nahi” which means there is no knowledge without guru. What is guru? One fundamental mistake we all make is that we make guru based on his ability to create miracles or showing siddhis, that is inappropriate. Guru is shiva himself.

    you mentioned above that u served a guru only later to find him a simple human being with inflated ego, well guru is human being first and he too is bounded by his body and mind so however enlightened he be, there is always room for humanliness in him. Guru is a human but its a devotee duty to take him as shiva and to be intact in that feeling for always but after a short while the devotee finds the guru as a human and looses his interest and learns nothing. so there is a proper way to learn something from a guru and your attitude towards him that counts too. without guru there is no knowledge for sure so guru is the most

    inner guidance is good but what if the inner guidance goes wrong and is inspired by ego?

    check out my blog too

    drake brake

    • Ambaa

      I disagree that there cannot be knowledge without a guru. I think since we have the Truth within us, it is possible to access without help from a guru. Rare, but possible.

  • Comrade Ray

    For the most part, a guru is supposed to find…you.

    You may follow any wise person that you can learn things from and be dear to them forever. Do you need a guru? Why yes, you do. But understand that you too are a guru. There are many gurus for many different aspects in life, but the important guru is your heart and your mind. If it doesn’t walk like a duck and quack like a duck, your own common sense should ring out as clear as a bell.

    Take music. I am currently learning the sitar and Indian Classical Music (ICM). Unless you are a genius, most people can not learn sitar and ICM without a teacher, a guru.

    The Hindu “scriptures” are many. My living quarters are lined with Hindu scripture as well as purports from many gurus. You could begin reading the Vedas, as an example, and read them for your entire life, but without the guru, expect to learn little. What makes it even more difficult is when you are not born into the culture, but merely “parachute in” without any real compass.

    While I searched and searched for my guru, my guru found me. That, in itself, was a learning experience, in that it taught me to keep looking inward for Truth. He has since passed on, sadly. There was no question he could not answer. Now, I have several gurus, but none of them physically close. There are many gurus who have passed, but through the written word and the recorded word, you can still learn from them. “Papaji”, Swami Satchidananda, are now gone, but are still wonderful gurus, as is the living Sri Baba Shiva Rudra Balayogi, who’s ashram in India came under attack in March.

    • Ambaa

      I love that! Sorry I didn’t see your comment before. You make a great point that the guru finds you. And I totally agree that you too have a guru within your heart.

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  • David Murali Cowan

    i had a full kundalini awakening two years ago. I really wish i had been in ashram at the time. Luckily my guru appeared a year later and now i practice kriya as taught by my guru :)

  • David Murali Cowan

    drake i disagree with you. siddhis are a sign the teacher has realisation. padmasambhava says without siddhis that person cannot be enlighened.