When Spiritual Teachers Hurt Us

Yoga practitioners are warned—in no uncertain terms—that in this present age of kali (known for its quarrels and hypocrisy) we are more likely to meet a hypocritical guru than an authentic one, sadly enough. Many times, it is hard to tell the difference, until it’s too late.


By Catherine L. Schweig

It is said there are as many types of gurus and disciples in the world as there are varieties of desires in the hearts of humans.

Because we are more adept at weaving conditioned desires instead of pure, selfless ones, our sanghas and our guru-disciple relationships inevitably reflect this to one degree or another.

Yoga traditions anticipate this.

Everything—including our desires—start with a seed, or bija. Ancient yoga traditions liken us all to gardeners, sowing many seeds in the soils of our consciousness; seeds that further us in our yoga practice—or upon our spiritual journey—are worth watering. Seeds that later grow into weeds obstructing our growth, are best left unattended.

Ideally, the guru, or spiritual guide, is that “Master Gardener” who will help us identify the seeds worth watering (and teach us how), by offering us tried and tested gardening tips that have been passed down throughout the ages.

Examples of seeds worthy of our care are:

  1. Harmlessness seeds (Ahimsa-bijas)
  2. Compassion seeds (Karuna-bijas)
  3. Truthfulness seeds (Satya-bijas)
  4. Contentment seeds (Shantosha-bijas)
  5. Self-discipline seeds (Tapas-bijas)
  6. Love seeds (Bhakti-bijas)

Examples of seeds unworthy of our nourishment are:

  1. Seeds of selfish desires (Anyabhilasa-bijas)
  2. Seeds of anger (Krodha-bijas)
  3. Seeds of greed (Lobha-bijas)
  4. Seeds that further entangle us in this world (Karma-bijas)
  5. Seeds of pride (Mada-bijas)
  6. Seeds of envy (Matsarya-bijas)

When most of us start our yoga or meditation practices, our gardens are already full of unwanted seeds and the suffocating weeds that have sprouted from them: our soils in need of much tilling. This is the picture sage Patanjali paints of our conditioned consciousness at the start of the Yoga Sutra:

“Yoga…is…achieved when there is in one’s own core-awareness a conditioned turning that is uprooted and a pure turning that takes root and blossoms.” (Yoga Sutra, 1.2, Graham M. Schweig translation, forthcoming with Yale University Press, 2020)

Our “conditioned turnings” are the limiting stories we tell ourselves and identify with: burdensome narratives of victimhood, fear, attachment, codependence, paranoia, anger, etc. In watering those seeds, we restrict our existence to bodily designations surrounding upbringing, age, gender, race, nationality, political orientation, profession, position, etc.

Even sanghas and spiritual leaders can fall into their entangling traps.

Ancient yogis described these stories as sticky spider webs that we spin, and then also get caught in! Patanjali’s second sutra is an invitation to break free from the sticky web of stories that limit us, and shift out focus to more liberating endeavors.

We liberate ourselves from the power of our own conditioning by no longer watering unwanted seeds in the garden of our minds and hearts, while uprooting the weeds that already grow there. In doing so, Patanjali promises that we will unearth what’s at our core: pure awareness.

The yoga tradition likens pure awareness—unobstructed by harvests of illusion—to a fully blossomed lotus flower. It then goes on to poetically describe the teachings of pure gurus as the irresistible fragrance issuing forth from such enlightenment-blossoms. Such gurus can deliver master gardening tips—if you will—because they have applied them to their own gardens, yielding divine blossoms.

Under the tutelage of a master in whom we’ve invested our trust, we learn to tend to our gardens in new ways that help them to flourish. In the company of other gardeners doing the same—as when we join a sangha, or spiritual community—we develop faith: faith in the ancient practices and rituals we’ve been taught, and faith in the lineage of teachers who have bestowed them upon us.

In Sanskrit, faith is referred to as shraddha: “where we place our hearts.”

Healthy relationships with thriving sanghas and gurus will increase our faith, not harm it. “Master Gardeners” inspire and uplift us. We experience ourselves becoming less anxious and more joyful in their presence. At a most fundamental level, we feel safe around them. They become our spiritual shelters.

Yet, alongside the pretty pictures of pristine masters, the ancient yoga traditions also acknowledge their scarcity. If we haven’t ourselves felt betrayed by spiritual teachers or gurus, we either have a friend who has been, or have come across articles or posts online (time and time again!) about spiritual guides harming others.

Yoga practitioners are warned—in no uncertain terms—that in this present age of kali (known for its quarrels and hypocrisy) we are more likely to meet a hypocritical guru than an authentic one, sadly enough. Many times, it is hard to tell the difference, until it’s too late.

There is no greater act of violence upon a disciple, or student, than when their spiritual teacher—a proponent of ahimsa (non-harm)—behaves in ways that directly harm them, or others.

Like toxic pesticides, the effects of abusive gurus poison the communal water source—so to speak—making everyone in the sangha sick, threatening the growth in their own gardens. The repercussion of harm from spiritual leaders may even reverberate through entire sangas, organizations and individual lives—generation after generation—creating a ripple effect of abuse in the name of spirituality.

Like a deadly fungus that continues to spread, betrayal of spirit can often take years to expunge, so sweeping is the erosion of trust and faith. Hardly any of us are immune to the effects of struggling and hurtful spiritual leaders.

So how do we salvage our gardens, and continue sewing seeds with the potential to uplift and enlighten us, after such destruction? How can we trust ourselves again, and our own ability to discern between the pure fragrance (teachings and guidance) that flows from a genuine guru, and the synthetic perfumes of illusion and deception engaged by hypocritical ones?

In the Yoga tradition, there is an ancient three-point check system implemented to protect us from harm that may come to us through our spiritual teachers. That such an old system even exists, sadly points to how common being betrayed by one’s guru, or spiritual guide, has been throughout the ages.

The ancient guru three-point, check system is based on the principle of resonance, and was most recently elaborated upon by the medieval Bengali saint and poet, Narottama Das Thakura. Simply put, the teachings and behavior of true spiritual leaders will resonate with universal wisdom, or sanatam dharma, that we simultaneously find:

  • In the teachings of the guides in our tradition—including the inner guide within us
  • In the sacred texts of the tradition (shastra)
  • In the lives of those dedicated to the spiritual practice (sadhus)

This is called the guru-shastra-sadhu shelter, or sharanam. It preserves a delicate balance in our spiritual practice, by reminding us that the authority of the guru, or spiritual teacher, is by no means singular. We will have many gurus in our lives, but the reality about which they speak is one. “Ekam sad vipra vahudha vadanti” (Rig Veda)

When we take shelter of guru, shastra and sadhu, we recognize that wisdom concerning the one reality will consistently reverberate through respected teachers in our tradition, through the essential teachings in the ancient texts of our tradition, through the lifestyles lived by those seriously dedicated to practicing our tradition, and through the intuitive sense in our own hearts, or our chaita-gurus.

The chaita-guru, is also referred to as the Supreme Self within us, or the paramatma. It is the eternal Self that is beyond the temporary designations we identify with in this lifetime. It is beyond the limiting narratives that entrap us in webs of illusion. In honoring this inner guru, we learn to set up healthy boundaries, so that others won’t ravage the gardens of our budding spiritual practices.

When a guru asks us to do something that doesn’t feel right to us, that is our chaita-guru speaking.

When we repress our own inner wisdom to follow the orders of an external master, we endanger the delicate seeds germinating in our gardens. Within the guru-shastra-sadhu shelter paradigm, the two must resonate. In the Bhagavad Gita, this power of discernment is a type of Yoga called Buddhi Yoga.

Like pearls on a thread, the teachings and instructions of worthy gurus are held together by the same universal wisdom. Each tradition may have its characteristic differences, but, in essence, the same thread of spiritual wisdom runs through them all.

We attune ourselves to this universal wisdom by dedicating ourselves to a daily practice that honors all the gurus, or guides in our lives: Inner gurus, outer gurus, sangha gurus, instructing gurus, initiating gurus, shastirc (textual) gurus, deceased gurus, living gurus—as well as the guru-like teachings, or lessons, that we encounter every day in the world around us, the specific circumstances we are in, and the people we interact with.

In the Yoga and Buddhist traditions the concept of guru is vast! So long as we remember this—and not place all our eggs in one basket—we won’t feel as crushed when our baskets break.

As an old sage said once: “Be surprised at those who stay on the wisdom path, not at those who stray from it,” because breaks are bound to happen, but they need not shatter us. In fact, in yoga, we learn to use the breaks as opportunities to dig new wisdom wells. For, the nourishment our seeds need to grow is always there for us to tap into.

True shelter never misleads or abandons us. Our gardens will blossom yet!



Catherine L. Schweig has practiced yoga in the Bhakti tradition since 1986. Her regular treks into nature and relationships with others are a valuable part of her spiritual journey. Passionate about inspiring women to honor their voices, in 2012 Catherine founded the Journey of the Heart, a women’s poetry blog through which emerged four anthologies, the latest titled GODDESS: When She Rules (Golden Dragonfly Press, 2018). Catherine is also the creator of the Vaishnavi Voices Poetry Project, the first poetry collection featuring the voices of contemporary women in the Bkakti tradition. As co-founder of The Secret Yoga Institute, with her life partner, Graham M. Schweig, Catherine designs yoga workshops and publishes in various magazines. Catherine and Graham live in Virginia with their cat, where they enjoy a vegan lifestyle and mentoring yoga practitioners. You may connect with Catherine on Facebookemail her or visit her website: catherineschweig.com


Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall



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