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Beyond "Good Guru, Bad Guru"

When I interview a former devotee who’s become disillusioned with a spiritual teacher, they often sound like someone who’s just gone through a bitter divorce. The wondrous lover is suddenly the conniving cheater, but we’re talking about the same person.

A book just crossed my desk—a memoir of spiritual disillusionment—that prompts me to ask a couple questions about all this.

Do the human failings of gurus or the shadow side of other “enlightened” teachers invalidate whatever wisdom or spiritual energy they pass onto their followers?

Does the familiar devotee/defector narrative tell us more about the failings of the guru or the student?

The memoir on my desk is about a woman born in India on September 27, 1953 and given the name Sudhamani Idamannel. She is known today as Amma (or “Mother”) by tens of thousands of followers around the world. She’s become known in the media as “India’s Hugging Saint” because over the last two decades millions of people around the world have stood in lines for hours to simply embrace her.

My Amma hug came in the summer of 2005. It was out at the guru’s bustling ashram in the foothills east of San Francisco. It was nice hug, but I can’t say it changed my life.

But Amma has changed many people’s lives. For some spiritual seekers, just sitting in darshan in front of a guru like Amma or staring at their picture or being touched by them can transit a mystical charge that brings up old childhood memories or sends them soaring off into a state of divine bliss.

I didn’t come to see India’s “Hugging Saint” to find God. I was there to write a newspaper story for the San Francisco Chronicle.

By 2005, I’d lost count of how many guru scandals I’d covered. You know the story—the spiritual teacher who turns out to be a sexual predator, the enlightened master who can’t seem to collect enough Rolls Royce sedans. Just this past month, Vanity Fair published this piece about Bikram Choudhury amid sexual harrassment allegations.

Out at the Amma ashram in Contra Costa County, I found devotees who had been followers of some of those fallen male gurus I’d written about over the years.

Amma was different, they said.

There was a woman who’d been a follower of Swami Muktananda Paramahansa, who died in 1982 and was posthumously tainted by allegations that he had seduced his female followers and hidden funds.

(Details a Muktananda expose published in CoEvolution Quarterly can be found here.)

This woman told me that Muktananda had “a very powerful electric energy” but was surrounded by people who were “not always kind or gentle.” Amma, the woman told me, “comes from a state of infinite compassion.”

After my hug, I asked Amma about all this. She didn’t not want to talk about scandals involving other East-meets-West gurus, but then said, “People are looking for love. There is so much dryness in society today. Only feminine energy alone can bring that love and compassion and create a balance between action and love.”

Nevertheless, I can’t say I was all that surprised last month when the latest ashram-tell-all memoir crossed my desk. This one is titled Holy Hell—A Memoir of Faith, Devotion, and Pure Madness by Gail “Gayatri” Tredwell, and it’s all about Amma.

Looking back on her many years with Amma, Tredwell sees a spiritual dynamic that I’ve noticed in other guru/devotee relationships.

“Anything good that happened in your life was supposedly to be purely a result of Amma’s love, Amma’s blessings. Anything bad that happened suddenly had nothing to do with her but was solely due to your bad karma.”

“Why the lack of personal empowerment?” Tredwell asks.

Good question.

Do any of you have stories to share about the promises and pitfalls of the guru/devotee relationship?

Don Lattin

Don Lattin is a veteran journalist and the author of five books on religion and spirituality in America. His national bestseller, The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America, won the 2010 California Book Award for nonfiction. His most recent work, Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, With a Famous Writer, Forgotten Philosopher and a Hopeless Drunk, is a memoir and group biography of writer Aldous Huxley, philosopher Gerald Heard, and Bill Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Lattin’s stories have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle, where he covered the religion beat for two decades. He lives on an island in the San Francisco Bay with his wife, Laura, and his dog, Bella. Visit him at

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