Jeremy Morse’s (2014) article on guru-bhakti, and Tulasi Srinivas’s (2010) article discussing secrecy, ambiguity, truth and power in the Sai Organization, reveal the various dynamics of how bhakti and vidhi function and operate to maintain the guru’s hegemonic influence over devotees. I will argue that the institution of the guru demands the unconditional surrender of the devotee to maintain the socio-religious power and ideological hegemony of the guru, and in return, the devotee earns the high merit.
Morse follows a textual and historical approach, outlining the dynamics in the Datta sampradaya of how intense altruistic devotion to one’s chosen guru, and continual exhortations of obedience to various prescriptions and rules as stated in Vedic and sastric corpuses, show, that the gods can be controlled by the one who has the grace of his or her guru, and that the gods have no power to save the disciple who has troubled their guru (Morse 2014:227). Morse’s focus is that of the “literary guru,” which is embodied in the Datta sampradaya’s handbook of guru-devotion: the Gurucaitra by Sarasvati Gangadhara. Morse outlines how Sarasvati Gangadhara teaches bhakti in the Gurucaritra—placing significant weight on vidhi (obedience to the rules and prescriptions) and teasing out the tensions that exist between bhakti and vidhi (Morse 2014:224). What is significant about the Gurucaritra are its hagiographies, particularly the narratives about the influential figure of Nrsrimha Saravati or “Sriguru.” Seeded throughout the Gurucaritra are Brahmanical elements dating back to the Vedas, Epics and Puranas stressing the necessity and importance of devotion—the surrender of mind, body, wealth and will to one’s guru (Morse 2014:226), which rewards a devotee with a guru’s grace to cure ills, raise the dead to life and deliver a host of other miraculous deeds, all of which are manifested by the guru’s omnipotent grace, compassion and mercy (Morse 2014:226).
The origins of the guru-devotee relationship is embedded in the early Vedic tradition (1500-500 B.C.E.). The ancient institution of the acarya functioned to transmit various parts of the Vedas to the pupil (usually drawn from Brahmin, Ksatriya or Vaisya castes), who usually lived with his guru in a rural area free from worldly distractions. According to Morse, nearly every page of the Gurucaritra exhorts the reader to surrender completely to Sriguru, treating one’s guru as god (Morse 2014:226). What I find significant about “The Literary Guru,” is that the Gurucaritra is treated as a sacred object of worship and praise. Thus, the listening and reading the text of the Gurucaritra acts as a powerful mode of religious self-programming and reiterates obedience to the rules and prescriptions described throughout the text (Morse 2014:233). Furthermore, by telling and re-telling of the miraculous stories of the first two incarnations of the Datta one develops a devotional disposition. One such narrative is the story of Dipaka, who represents a paragon of guru-devotion and morality. Sarasvati Gangadhara emphasizes that afflictions of all kind are due to misunderstanding the true nature of the guru (Morse 2014:226). Dipaka affirmed that his guru, Vedadharma, was Visvanatha—an appellation of Siva—and vowed to serve him unconditionally. Dipaka’s willingness to suffer his guru’s afflictions through his own body, out of love for his guru (although rejected by his guru), and his single-minded service despite his guru’s good and bad qualities, captured the attention of Siva and Visnu, who came offering boons. Dipaka, thinking only of service to his guru, wanted these boons bestowed upon his guru to end his suffering, and still the guru rejected Dipaka’s offer. Dipaka, ignoring his own duties, such as performing pilgrimage, going to festivals, and daily activities of caring for his own person, wished only to serve his guru. Moreover, risking the wrath of Siva and Visnu, Dipaka rejected their boons, but finally acquiesced asking only for a boon to increase his guru-bhakti, so that his knowledge would also be increased (Morse 2014:228). Pleased by this, Vedadharma praised Dipaka’s unquestioning devotion and, predicting he would liberate others, expired. Thus, Vedadharma, who was never really sick, was only testing Dipaka and instructing him on how to attain Isvara (Siva), by which Isvara would be under his control (Morse 2014:228).
I posit that the ideal of absolute guru-bhakti devotion exemplified in the Gurucaritra, stems from the ancient institution of the acarya and that devotion to one’s teacher is ubiquitous throughout the Hindu tradition, permeating modern Hinduism with devotional examples, such as those illustrated by Srinivas’ ethnography (2010) of the Sai devotees and their handling of scandals involving Sai Baba, their guru.
The scandals in the Sai Ashram and the responses of the devotees illustrates the ancient embodied guru-bhakti relationship. Srinivas’ analysis of organizational secrets, truths, power relations, and the use of ambiguity as means of not only deflecting damaging controversies within the Sai Organization, also highlights the manifestation the extreme guru-bhakti of Sai devotees in the face of what appears to be injurious truths about the guru, Sai Baba. Despite scandals of deaths, controversial sex-healings and the debunking of his magical materializations, millions of Sai devotees maintain absolute devotion and adherence to Sai Baba’s decrees, particularly the guru’s command to all devotees not to repeat bad information they have heard—not to tell friends and disturb their minds and to forget to have heard them (Srinivas 2010:258). Srinivas ethnography teases out many of strategies employed by Sai devotees to deflect interrogations by non-believers—silence, ambiguous body language, masking, turning questions into judgments of the interlocutor, and blurring any harmful details (Srinivas 2010:261-264). What I find interesting throughout these strategies are the responses of devotees reiterating their unquestioning loyalty and defense of their beloved guru: “Swami is omnipresent and omniscient. He has anticipated these problems. All great religious leaders: Jesus, Mohammed, all have been persecuted” (Srinivas 2010:263) “Do you believe Baba would do such a thing? Baba is God and would God take advantage of us?” (Srinivas 2010:264). By practicing concealment, devotees retain the honour of Sai Baba—an important commodity that devotees enact through restraint and reserve and, as a result, are honoured themselves (Srinivas 2010:272). Thus, through tactics of silence in the face of glaring incongruities, Sai devotees and officials create a complex and continuous mobile political system based on loyalty to Sai Baba and honour based on devotional loyalty (Srinivas 2010:281).
“Reality is nothing… it is all Maya conjured up by Swami” (Srinivas 2010:278). Such statements illustrate the pervasiveness of the institution of guru-devotion as reflected in Morse’s textual and historical exegesis of guru-bhakti in the Western Indian Datta sampradaya, and Srinivas’ ethnographical account of Sai Baba devotionalism in the midst of scandal and controversy. Lastly, Srinvas’ account of the animosity among Indian devotees towards Western devotees, and Westerner’s seemingly lack of understanding and criticism their Swami’s behaviour, signifies that the institution of guru-bhakti is primarily an Indian construct that is alien to Western ideals of individualism and autonomy.
Morse, Jeremy G. 2014. The Literary Guru. The dual emphasis on bhakti and vidhi in Western Indian guru-devotion. In Copeman, Jacob and Aya Ikegame. (eds.). The Guru in South Asia. New Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Routledge. 222-240.
Srinivas, Tulasi. 2010. Secrecy, Ambiguity, Truth, and Power: The Global Sai Organization and the Antii-sai Network. Winged Faith. Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism through the Sathya Sai Movement. Columbia University Press. 232-281.