Masks of Authoritarian Power

Inspired by and based on The Guru Papers by Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad

The scientific name for the human species is “homo sapiens”, which in Latin means “thinking man” or “knowing man”. This name signifies that the ‘the ability to know’ is the most discerning aspect of human beings as a species. A human being does not, in a fundamental way, know who he is or why he exists. Yet ‘knowing’ is essential to being human. This discrepancy is the reason why religion and philosophy have always been so important within human culture, because they are attempts of our ‘ability to know’ to find the final answers to these fundamental questions.

In the contemporary search of human beings for these answers, two different basic attitudes can be recognized. One attitude is based on trusting oneself, the other is based on not trusting oneself. The difference between these attitudes has far–reaching consequences.

Trusting oneself means trusting your own intelligence and judgment in deciding what’s right and what’s wrong for you in your search for the truth. Not trusting oneself means having little confidence in yourself and therefore placing your trust in an outside authority who is supposed to know better.

Note the inconsistency here. People who do not trust their own judgment in deciding what’s right and wrong for themselves in this search, do trust their own judgment in deciding who the outside authority should be that will be making those judgments for them.

So when people do not trust themselves, they want to follow those who supposedly know better. Those who are viewed as knowing better are most often the ones who claim to speak for one of the major world religions. A distinction can be made here between monotheistic religions and Eastern non–dualistic belief systems.

Monotheistic religions are based on the belief in one almighty God who created everything. Everything in God’s creation is less than God in every way, so in the monotheistic worldview humans are marked by inferiority and submissiveness in relation to their God. Because of their authoritarian nature, monotheistic religions are very suitable for people who want an outside authority to tell them what the truth is and how they must live.

Eastern non–dualistic belief systems are based on the mystical experience. The mystical experience is the experience of a fundamental unity within the universe. Mystical experiences can be induced by using drugs (like LSD or psychedelic mushrooms) and by techniques that change how the mind structures experience, for example practices that bring about a trance state (‘samadhi’) or deep relaxation. The mystical experience can also be caused by brain seizures, near–death experiences, or can just happen spontaneously.

In the East, concepts acquired from mystical experiences have given rise to the non–dualistic view and a corresponding religious system. This religious system brought forth a philosophy in which the individual is regarded as being of lesser importance and worth than its universal nature. This non–dualistic ideology (which is not the mystical experience itself) proclaims that the non–dual reality is higher and more real than individual reality. In this way the non–dual belief system manifests as an authoritarian religion, in which the authoritarian God of monotheism is, for all intents and purposes, substituted by the superiority of the non–dual nature of reality.

The non–dualistic belief brought forth the notion of enlightened people who are in the state of the mystical experience all (or most) of the time. The mystical experience is perceived as being beyond ego or individuality, therefore a ranking of values arises in this belief, in which the more selfless one is, the better, with the highest ranking going to total selflessness.

That means that somebody who is truly enlightened is, by the non–dualistic belief system’s own definition, supposed to be selfless, beyond selfish desires, full of unconditional love, and with no attachment to fame or fortune or lust, without feelings of competitiveness, beyond negativity and fear, completely giving, et cetera. This (in reality unlivable) ideal appears to be innocent because it is supposed to be about being completely selfless. But it is exactly through this image of selfless perfection that authoritarianism manifests and prospers.

Here yet another inconsistency can be seen. Although monotheism and the non–dual ideology require sacrifice and selflessness in order to go to heaven or attain enlightenment, the very intention to search for one’s own salvation or enlightenment is inherently self–centered. The previously noticed inconsistency was that people who do not trust themselves to have proper judgment in their spiritual search, do feel they can properly judge what authority can lead them in that search.

These inconsistencies both show that even when you imagine that you have shifted the locus of authority away to ‘outside of yourself’ in a selfless way, you cannot escape following your own authority in judging what’s right and wrong and you cannot escape being self–centered, even if you don’t notice that. This is because being self–centered and using your own judgment are absolutely necessary and functional aspects of human nature, despite what certain ideologies may claim.

Some enlightenment schools are aware of this and try to circumvent this conundrum by stating that the proper way to do meditation is to have no goal. Or they say one should seek enlightenment for the sake of all beings. In this way one is supposed to do spiritual practices in a (more) selfless way. But these guidelines are actually attempts at trying to deny the reality of the self–centered aspect intrinsic to seeking enlightenment.

More generally speaking, these schools noticed the covert dualism in their non–dual belief systems. They tried to resolve this by introducing the concept of non–dualistic dualism, proposing that in reality there simultaneously exists separation as well as non–separation, implicitly putting them on an equal footing. This notion can be found in statements like “Nirvana is Samsara” (in Buddhism).

Although these kinds of views show more sophistication of thought, if we were to take them seriously, there would be no point in searching for enlightenment, because oneness would not be more real than separateness, which is contrary to the basic workings of these ideologies. Because in reality these ideologies bring forth an authoritarian guru–disciple framework, where disciples are taught that oneness is more real and more important than diversity and that getting enlightened happens through becoming more selfless by surrendering to a (supposedly perfect) guru.

Monotheism states that God is the ultimate spiritual authority. Likewise the non–dual belief system presents enlightened beings as the ultimate spiritual authority. And so the idea of enlightenment basically brings God’s authoritarian control to the personal (guru) level. And yes of course, surrendering to the guru and obeying the guru are presented as essential to making progress on the path to spiritual enlightenment.

According to monotheism, a human being cannot question God. Likewise in the non–dual belief system a non–enlightened person cannot question the actions or words of an enlightened person. So gurus can do whatever they want because they are looked at from a different perspective and therefore whatever they do is perfect by default. That’s why this notion of enlightenment almost always leads to corruption and abuse, because so–called enlightened people are worshiped and never held to account by their disciples.

Just to be clear: What is not taken issue with here is the possible usefulness of committing to a spiritual friend, who admits to being imperfect and is open to criticism. But what is examined and disagreed with here is the complete surrender to a supposedly perfect and unchallengeable guru in the context of authoritarian control.

A lot of scandals involving the abuse of power by gurus or their disciples (with the gurus’ knowledge) in different spiritual groups have surfaced in the past decades. Although there was much diversity in the type and background of these spiritual organizations, these scandals were not just unrelated incidents, because these groups did have in common that they were based on an authoritarian guru–disciple framework.

Once these abuses surface and become public knowledge, gurus will try to justify or deny the fact that they were behaving in ways that are inconsistent with their own teachings. Their disciples will also try to justify the behavior of the guru, because they are psychologically invested in believing their guru is (near) perfect. If the guru would be proven to be far from selfless and ‘enlightened’, their whole believe system about the guru being perfect would crumble to the ground. And so again self–centeredness turns out to be what’s really behind (protecting) these images of the selfless and saintlike guru.

Disciples need these ideals of perfection because surrender is regarded as essential in the guru–disciple relationship. The image of surrendering to an imperfect ordinary human being who can make mistakes does not create a compelling ideal. So people need a picture of a perfect being (like a God or an enlightened guru) to be able to muster the desire to completely surrender to that being. Therefore the guru can never be selfish, make mistakes or lose control. In the disciples’ mind the guru didn’t just get angry at a student or just selfishly had sex with a student, but the guru gave an enlightened teaching to the student through the selfless use of anger or sexuality…

So non–dualistic belief systems do not allow disciples to use reason to examine the validity of the guru. But reason is a useful and necessary tool to sort things out and establish a realistic view of how the world works and so it is very dangerous to reject it. Because of this rejection of reason, students will view the most outlandish and inconsistent behavior of their guru as part of enlightened behavior that they cannot understand because of their own lack of insight. They put the blame that, at least in part, should be put on the guru upon themselves for supposedly lacking in understanding. In doing so, they are subconsciously protecting their own deeply cherished beliefs about their guru.

Authoritarian power, be it ideological or political, has been the most used form of controlling individuals and populations in human history. People have always been looking for a savior (with a supposed pipeline to the truth) to make things right and comfort them, which keeps people childish. One aspect of developing a more mature view of life is realizing that ultimately others cannot know for certain what’s best for you in your search for the truth. And so a less dysfunctional attitude is to take personal responsibility for your own life by trusting in your own intelligence and judgment and allowing yourself to make mistakes and learn from them.

The advance of science has proven that reason is a valid and reliable tool for determining what’s real and what’s imagined. If we use reason and look at life in an unbiased way, it seems very unlikely that life is some kind of test or exam for which the human animal can succeed or fail, according to the judgment of some divine authority. The evolution of life and the universe looks more like a process without goal, essentially without an authoritarian structure.

Those who see themselves as seekers of truth and awareness should be aware of the truth of what goes on behind the masks of authoritarian power.

This article is in part a summary of the book The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, by Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad.

© Steven van der Hut