Cameron Freeman Internet Marketing, Soci-Cultural Antropology

Cameron Freeman

Constructing and Deconstructing the Bonds of Modern Guruship in the Cult of Sai Baba

Taking a structuralist approach, I will show how the guru produced and reproduced within a habitus of practices, phenomena and activities that serve as systems of signification. By examining the construction of the global hyper-guru, as exemplified in figure Sai Baba, I will map out the three-fold dynamic that constructs the bonds of guruship—guru and devotee, guru and community, and devotee and community. I will show how these bonds are constructed, maintained and reinforced in this three-fold dynamic to build the global institution of the hyper-guru, both in India and abroad. I will explore the systems of signification that establish and build the hyper-guru's authenticity—lineage, deportment, charisma, and hagiography—as well as the necessary attributes of the devotee—attitude, surrender, obedience and devotion. Then, I will explore how the community at large reinforces the hyper-guru's authenticity, which subsequently reinforces the bonds of devotee obedience, and how the hyper-guru attracts rather than promotes, crossing sectarian boundaries through a universalistic message of unity and salvation through service. Lastly, I will examine the notion of the "anti-guru," and by using a comparative approach, show how the bonds of guru-ship can be broken or deconstructed, thus providing an overall analytical model to delineate systems for successful guru construction and their effect on devotion, momentum and credibility that occur within various guru movements. Thus, I posit that the construction of modern Indian guru movements are based on the absolute belief in the guru, which has three reciprocal and complementary aspects: 1) the guru's belief in their own divinity and the effectiveness of their technique; 2) the devotee's unreserved belief in their guru's power; and 3) the faith and expectations of the community functions as a cohesive domain or habitus where the relationship between the guru and the devotee are located and defined—it is through this mutually reciprocal and interpersonal matrix that the powers of the guru can be constructed and deconstructed.

An Experiential Model

Levi-Strauss posited an explanatory model of religious or symbolic healing as having three complementary aspects: 1) the sorcerer's belief in the efficacy of his power; 2) the patient's or victim's unconditional belief in the sorcerer's power; and 3) the faith and expectations of the community functions as a cohesive force within which the sorcerer and patient are a part of, and subsequently defined by, the community (Levi-Strauss 1963: 162). Furthermore, Thomas Csordas' research into religious healing argued that "the locus of therapeutic efficacy is in the particular forms and meanings—the discourses that are reified in a healing encounter" (Waldram 1997:72). The discourse between "healer" and "patient" is central and facilitates the patient's understanding of what is ailing him or her. Symbols and language are highly significant for both healer and patient. Moreover, the religious community at large plays a vital role in the healer and patient discourse, in that both the diagnosis of the illness or problem and the remedy or cure conforms to the agenda of the religious community. The healed patient is signified by their reintegration back into the religious community as a viable member (Waldram 1997:72). Furthermore, the healing is not a fixed event, but instead construed as an ongoing process requiring that the healed person receive the constant support and reinforcement of the religious community to maintain their health and well-being (Waldram 1997:72).

In what Csordas refers to as the "rhetoric of healing," there are several dynamics at play that are important to underline: one, being that the patient must be convinced that healing is in the realm of possibility and is predisposed to being healed (Waldram 1997:72). Secondly, the patient participates in a social and religious setting that exposes them to pertinent symbols that facilitate the healing process, whichs involves introducing and educating the patient to the relevant principles, symbols and discourses (Waldram 1997:73). Thirdly, the patient is enrolled into the cultural paradigm that facilitates a personal transformation—a personality change that embodies a profound alteration and reaction to life, thus achieving a new healthier, more whole self who is accepted into the wider community (Waldram 1997:73).

I posit that this experiential model explained by Levi-Strauss and Waldram/Csordas can be found in many different forms of healing, biomedical, traditional and spiritual communities, including the India hyper-guru movements. For example, the Twelve Step organization known as Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), includes three-fold interpersonal dynamic between "sponsor," "prospect" or untreated alcoholic, and the A.A. "home group," or the "A.A. fellowship" at large. To recover, the prospect must have entire confidence in their sponsor—that he or she is an alcoholic who has found a solution that the "prospect" needs and wants in order to recover from a "seemingly hopeless state of mind and body" (Alcoholics Anonymous 2001:xiii). Alternatively, the sponsor must be entirely convinced that the prospect has an "honest, willing and open-minded" attitude that recovery is possible with the sponsor who will guide, educate and enroll the prospect into embodying the necessary behaviours, principles, symbols, literature for a full and lasting recovery. Lastly, the relationship between the sponsor and the prospect is sanctioned, reinforced and modeled by the A.A. fellowship, signifying that both sponsor and prospect share the same culture and world view in order for a full recovery to result and be maintained (Waldram 1997:76).

In this paper I argue that this three-fold dynamic is used by Indian hyper-guru movements, but moreover, these "gurus" have expanded the model using universal symbols, principles, rituals and behaviours, cross sectarian and political and national boundaries to build and embrace a global religious community.

From Local Acarya to the Modern Global Guru

Historically, the guru-devotee relationship of early Vedic tradition (1500-500 B.C.E.) was dyadic. In this early institution, the acarya (guru) functioned as a transmitter who imparted the wisdom of the Vedas to the pupil. Drawn from Brahmin, Ksatriya or Vaisya castes, the pupil lived with his guru in a rural area free from worldly distractions. Written texts was rare in Vedic times, so the guru, who was generally a brahmana householder, used sophisticated mnemo-systems to ensure accuracy of the Vedic transmission (Broos 2003:74). It was by such practice that the student was initiated (diksha) into ritual Vedic matters of philosophy and spirituality by his guru who was a vital repository of truth or ultimate knowledge and a necessary guide to right ritual action as dictated by the Vedas (Mlecko 1982:34). The early Vedic guru was not only a ritual priest, but also a teacher of respect and obedience because he belonged to the right family and he knew and could recite the Vedas; but this Vedic guru had not yet attained that statue of awe and veneration of an incarnated divine being, as exemplified by the modern hyper-gurus such as Sai Baba—this kind guru would develop later in history.

An important homocentric perspective would come to dominate the Epic literature where they speak of man's greatness and of gods in human form serving men (Mlecko 1982:43). The anthropomorphization of the gods is a significant development in the movement away from the gods as amorphous entities of the Vedas and Upanishads and towards a focus on embodying the divine in the human guru. This shift helped set the stage for the guru's subsequent deification in the Puranic and medieval period, where the guru is fully identified with one's personal deity (Broos 2003: 76). By the Puranic period a more theistic and humanistic conception of the nature of God developed, thus increasing the guru's divine stature. The development of a divine-human personality, as exemplified in Krishna with his relationships with Yosoda, cowherders and the gopis, represent how personal relationships illustrate various human emotions such as, friendship, love, passion, kindness, affection and reverence. These emotions come to signify modes of devotion that were to be expressed towards God (Mlecko 1982:43). Thus, human emotions became a means of religious devotion and demonstrated that salvation was accessible to all who could embody them. Furthermore, the devotee's attitude of obedience, propriety and devotion directed at the guru, elevated his guru's stature (Mlecko 1982:43). But it was the renaissance of the bhakti tradition between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries that made the guru the key aspect for devotional worship. Poet, Jnanesvara's commentary in the Bhagavad Gita highlights this sentiment: "where he exalts the guru, deserving the complete focus of the shishya who makes himself a worshipper of his one and only object of worship—the guru. This results in all desires coming to fruition" (Mlecko 1982:49). Guru deification was also emphasized by fifteenth century Bhakti poet, Kabir, who rejecting caste, and having little regard for scripture, renounced all philosophies and maintained that only a spiritual guru could safely navigate the dangerous waters of this materialist world. Kabir further argued that if one could recognize the true guru, one could see God (Darshan). And, without a guru's grace, one could not escape samsara (Mlecko 1982:49).

Thus, the early dyadic relationship of guru/shishya of the Upanishads and its subsequent trajectory from this initial guru/teacher/ritual priest into an object of devotion underlines the fact that the institution of the guru has its roots deeply embedded in Indian history. Moreover, the dyadic relationship between guru and shishya mandates not only the necessity of having a guru, but also requires the devotee to give their unconditional surrender and devotional service—the cornerstone of this dyadic bond between guru and devotee.

Construction of a "Godman"

Hyper-gurus or religious leaders who rehabilitate souls and act as saviours, "Godmen" as they are sometimes called, are a new class of gurus who have been forged and modified by colonialism, theosophy and orientalism, anti-Christian sentiments, Indian nationalism and modern technology. Sai Baba is an example of such a guru who has attracted mass audiences and global allegiances of devotees who signify their devotion in terms of money and service volunteerism in a wide range of community projects across the planet. The traditional foundations of guruhood remain intact, but tensions at the margins of traditional Hindu culture and the borders of Western globalization actively create adjustment, variation and revision to the devotional aspects guru-bhakti.

Sathya Sai Baba's belief in his own divinity and the effectiveness of his technique

Born in Puttaparthi, now known as the state of Andhra Pradeshi in southern India, his Indian brown skin coupled with his striking dark curly "Afro" hair-style and donning a orange/saffron monastic robe, Sathya Sai Baba exemplifies to both the East and the West, the modern Indian Guru. Sathya Sai Baba has constructed his identity on two recurring motifs: 1) at the age of 14 he proclaimed himself as the incarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, a Maharashtrian saint who has been compared to Kabir (Srinivas 1993:295) and 2) announced himself to be an avatar who had come to restore and revitalize a sanatana dharma, based on Vedic learning and modern science for all of humanity (Dalmia et al. 2001:8). The significance of Shirdi Sai and Sai Baba's embodiment as an avatar are important Hindu symbols. The cult of Shirdi Sai Baba celebrated festivals, used sacred ash, was a healer and attempted to mediate between Muslim and Hindu religions—all elements of the Sai Baba cult. In addition, he overcomes the Saiva-Smarta and Vaisnava divide by incorporating Krsna and Rama devotionalism into his symbology and nomenclatures, which he surrounds himself (Dalmia et al. 2001:8).

Manifesting miracles is what the Sathya Sai Baba cult is all about (Babb 1983:117).
Sai Baba's immense personal power and charisma is amplified by his showmanship in materializing substances and objects, such as vibhuti (sacred ash of which he is reported to manifest on average, over a pound per day), amritam (ambrosia), and various sweets and talismans—rings, necklaces many of which are adorned with his portrait when giving darshan to devotees (Srinivas 2010:286). It has been claimed that Sai Baba has manifested a pound of vibhuti every hour of his life, which translates into several tons over his lifetime (Srinivas 2010:291). For devotees, the gifted objects are an extension of Sai Baba's miraculous power, affectivity and efficacy creating an existential bond between Sai Baba and the devotee (Srinivas 2010:292).

Lastly, Sathya Sai Baba, the avatar and restorer of dharma, demonstrates his ultimate manifestation powers in his three sets of institutions and programmes: 1) Sathya Sai service organization established throughout various states and districts; 2) Pedagogic programmes, such as colleges he established in the 1960s and 3) the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences founded in 1991 (Srinivas 1993:299). All three legs of these programmes appeared designed for the transformation of civil society, science, religion and the nation (Srinivas 1993:300).

The devotee's unconditional belief in Sathya Sai Baba

Sai Baba has attracted devotees both non-Indian from around the world as well as urban middle and upper-class Indian nationals, with estimates of a million or more devotees in India alone (Srinivas 1993:295). On November 23, 2005, it was estimated by national newspapers that more than 500,000 Sai Baba devotees attended his eightieth birthday celebration to receive darshan in Puttaparthi, India (Srinivas 2010:323). Sathya Sai Baba delivers such a visual, tactile, alimentary intimacy which is a central component to guru-bhakti devotionalism, that his devotees long to see him, touch his feet, experience private audiences with him and receive and/or consume objects touched by him or manifested by him (Babb 1983:117). Furthermore, Sai Baba's manifestation of these commodities play an important role in his devotees' consumption of religious objects, which have the symbolic power to transform self and habitus, thus further developing the devotees' stakeholdership (Srinivas 2010:286). Devotee reiterate that these miraculous materializations are important to the cult (Babb 1983:118). Furthermore, Sai Baba's objectification of the spiritual signifys to the devotee that he or she has been personally blessed and instantly raises the devotees' standing within the Sai Baba community. (Srinivas 2010:285). The gifted object holds a reciprocal power that binds the devotee to Sai Baba with indebtedness and repayment in that devotees have an unquestionable faith that their guru can do no wrong.

The faith and expectations of the community functions as cohesive domain or habitus

The Sathya Sai Seva Organization (SSSO) has three major missions: 1) to bring awareness of Sai Baba divinity to individuals; 2) to assist humanity to live by the principles sathya (truth), dharma (righteousness), prema (love), shanti (peace), and ashimsa (nonviolence); and 3) to require devotees to adhere sincerely to the religions of their forebears (Srinivas 2010:244). The organization is entirely voluntary regardless of caste, colour or creed (Srinivas 2010:245). Thus, the SSSO rejects proselytization and instead, provides an organization that has universal appeal and acceptance in 137 countries, all without membership fees and governed by an unregistered charter, making it the biggest selfless, entirely voluntary organization in the world (Srinivas 2010:245).

When scandals erupt, the habitus of the SSSO is silence, secrecy and ambiguity as a "quality and behaviour that emphasizes restraint to protect the divine honor and ultimate truth of Sathy Sai Baba" (Srinivas 2010:272). Restraint to share secrets is considered the highest morality of Sai devotees, for concealment retains the honour of Sai Baba and honour is a precious commodity especially when scandal gives credence to anti-sai networks (Srinivas 2010:272). Furthermore, secrecy facilitates devotion and enables control of the uncontrollable—it makes secrecy a format for trust within the organization and builds cohesion (Srinivas 2010:272). When confronted with scandalous information, true Sai Baba devotees would respond with several strategies reinforced by the SSSO habitus of silence, secrecy and ambiguity. Devotee strategies include: secrecy—ignoring the problem through conversational evasion (Srinivas 2010:261); ambiguous body language that indicates unwillingness to engage or even acknowledge a contentious issue (Srinivas 2010:262); masking and diverting attention away with parables from Sai Baba's life (Srinivas 2010:263); reframing the contentous question into statement of judgement of the interlocutor (Srinivas 2010:264); and lastly, bluring unpleasant details with vagueness, omitting names, places and events (Srinivas 2010:264).

Lastly, less than thirty percent of Sai Baba devotees ever have an intimate, private audience with their guru or receive personal gifts from him, therefore the SSSO functions as a global distributor of Sai Baba ephemera, including, books and literature, CDs and DVDs of Sai Baba's discourses, as well as officially sanctioned Sathya Sai Baba images and other iconographies of him as Shiva or Krishna throughout their retail outlets. Many stories abound of devotees experiencing a private darshan with tales of amritam manifesting on pictures of Sathya Sai Baba (Srivinas 2010:285).

Anti-Gurus and deconstructing the bonds of Guruship

If I posit that the bond between the devotee and a guru is based on mutual relationship—the devotee's attraction and confidence in the guru's charisma and divine power, and in return the guru's self-assured belief in his own divinty to nuture that bond of devotion through intimate darshan—together the relationship between devotee and guru is reinforced and strenghtened by the cohesive habitus of the religious community to which they belong by telling and retelling stories of the guru's magical powers and his divinity. A break or disruption to this three-fold matrix can deconstruct those bonds and subsequently lead to the guru's demise.

Guru's become gurus by descent, initiation, designation by a former guru or reborn as the incarnation of a former guru or deity (Copeman and Ikegame 2014:6). Anti-guruism challenges the devotee/guru relationship in a number of ways and threatens to break the devotional bonds. Fakery and copying is one manner in which a guru can be deconstructed, such as in the case of the Dera Sacha Sauda, where by the guru's constructed authority, authenticity and lineage can be challenged and subsequently deconstructed as well as blur the lines between authenticity and fakery between two traditions, and establish new lineages and usurp old ones (Copeman 2014:162). However, easier said the done; deconstruction is not always successful, as illustrated by the case of DSS guru which successfully models the Sikh tradition and Guru Gobind Singh as well as their symbols, dress, rituals and ceremonies and community demostrations of charitable endeavors (Copeman 2014:162).

The 2011 film, Kumaré, with director and actor, Vikram Gandhi, a Hindu raised in New Jersey, whose disenchantment with the popularity of American yoga gurus, has ventured to India on a quest to find a "real" guru. Finding no "real" gurus in India—only those who were no different than the imitations residing the United States—he decides to create himself as the fabricated guru, Kumaré. His brown Indian skin, long dark pony-tail and bushy long beard, donning a saffron/orange robe and sandals, and an Indian accent he models after his Grandmother's way of speaking English, Kumaré returns to United States and resides in Phoenix, Arizona, where he learns yoga and hires a public relationsh woman to promote him as an Indian guru and begins to attract a following of fourteen disciples. His teachings are all fabricated, including his "inner blue light" meditation, but his overall message is "finding the guru within" and that he is just an illusion. Over the weeks, Kumaré establishes a community of disciples, who learn, meditate and work together, creating their own habitus for enlightenment. Towards the end of the film, Kumaré, shaving his beard, cutting his hair and donning jeans and an untucked dress shirt, reveals his inner guru as Vikram Gandhi, a New Jersey Indian American. What is interesting about the anti-guru Kumaré, is that once he revealed his true identity, one would have thought his disciples, being duped, would have disavowd any further connection with him. But, this was not the case, 10 of the 14 disciples are still in contact with him and some still believe he as supernatural powers and consider him a great master. I think one reason the majority of his devotees remained faithful was that his message, whether as Kumaré or Vikram, was still authentic. This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that the ten who remained faithful, despite his revealled identity, all achieved their own inner guru goals in life. Even though four disciples lost their faith and dropped out of the group, the majority remained faithful—their cohesive devotion reinforced the individual bonds between the disciples and the imagined guru, Kumaré.

Even in the Sai Baba network, former devotees—many of whom are Western in world-view and do not share the cultural embeddedness of guruship as Indian devotees are exposed to—have lost faith due to exposed fakery of Sai Baba's materializations or his sexual healings. However, the anti-Sai network seems to lack significant progress in deconstructing Sathya Sai Baba as a divine guru. Furthermore, as I have highlighted, the SSSO is adept at maintaining a cultural/social habitus that continuously underpins the bonds of devotion.


Hindus have had a long history with entrenched devotion to the institution of the guru and the guru's proclaimed divinity. That legacy, spanning thousands of years, creates a cultural habitus not easily deconstructed. The construction of modern hyper-guru movements are grown and maintained on three reciprocal and complementary dynamics: 1) the guru's belief in their own divinity and the effectiveness of their technique; 2) the devotee's unreserved belief in their guru's power; and 3) the faith and expectations of the community functions as a cohesive domain, where the relationship between the guru and the devotee are located and defined; it is through this mutually reciprocal and interpersonal matrix, the powers of the guru are constructed or deconstructed.


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