The Indian Institute of Guruology (IIG) – A White Paper
Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 13 September, 2015
Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar. All Rights Reserved.
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A proposal is presented to start a new institute in India, the Indian Institute of Guruology, with the express purpose of training highly qualified spiritual teachers (gurus) rooted in the Hindu ethos but endued with a modern vision and purpose and with a strong sense of ethics. The aim of the proposed institute is to train modern spiritual teachers who can fulfil the hunger in Hindu society for gurus to provide solace in their lives. The objective is to fill a higher social need in India which is not currently met by existing institutions.
The motivation for such an institute, the offerings such an institute will provide, including a tentative list of courses, the prospects of such students, and why such an institute is superior to what is currently available – these topics form the rest of this document.
Motivation: The Allure of Religion
India is the land of a billion Hindus and many of them are very devout. It is also a land famed for its godmen and godwomen. The very word “guru” is an import into English from India – so synonymous is India with the idea of gurus or religious teachers. In India one can find religious teachers at every level – at the neighbourhood level, catering to a few hundred devotees, all the way to the international level, with Hollywood and Bollywood stars and statesmen in attendance.
Why is this so? What is the allure of godmen and godwomen? Why does religion exert such a powerful hold on people? And what can be done to address this need in a better way? These are the concerns of this article.
The motivations of religion are universal, and so some of what I say here will apply equally to other religions. My focus, however, will remain Hinduism, and so all my explanations and examples will be limited to Hinduism, although one can always make the leap to other religions. This white paper is specifically concerned with a teachers training program for Indian gurus.
Religion evolved as a leftover infantile reaction to the vagaries of life. When we were small, and things that we could not control and that we did not like happened, we used it run to a daddy or a mommy. Today, as adults, when we have problems that we cannot control, many of us have this urge to run to a father figure or a mother figure for solace.
This is because no matter how competent we are, we cannot control everything, because the world is a many-body problem. What happens to us may depend on what the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi does; what the President of the USA, Barack Obama does; what happens to oil prices in the Middle East; whether there's a war going on in Africa; whether the Dow Jones Industrial Average crashed recently; whether there are religious riots near where we live; and a host of other things, regardless of how competent, honest, sincere or hard-working we may be.
The human body is also uncertain. For reasons that we do not know and may never know, we, our spouses, our children, our parents, our siblings, or our relatives, may fall sick, and we have no answers as to why this is happening to us or if, when, or how things will get better.
Most people find this uncertainty very distressing. Some may be strong enough to consider all this as simply bad luck. But many, conditioned by their childhood, like going to a parent figure and asking for help. This may just be an idol in a home altar or a temple or a photograph of a deity, but there is some solace in the thought that somebody is listening and may help.
The Allure of Gurus
This is where gurus come in. Here is someone who may claim to be divine, or at the very least more aware of higher truths and more “realized” than you are; someone who is perceived as being closer to God; someone who may claim to be able to communicate with God; someone who claims to understand the universe; or someone who claims to know why things are going wrong.
There may be no way to verify any of this, but for the desperate person this does not matter. Speaking to a living person and getting an answer from that person is vastly superior to speaking to a photograph or an idol and hoping they heard you. You finally have – or hope you have - direct communication with God through his channel – the Guru.
That is a huge psychological reassurance and is the reason why there will always be a market for Godmen and Godwomen.
So that is the job of a Godman/Godwoman: to provide solace and reassurance to his followers. Of course, in reality he or she is no wiser than they are but he or she has to say something. For instance, in spite of advances in medicine, nobody knows why you have a heart attack exactly when you do, but Hinduism offers lots of rationalizations. So you say that it is bad karma; that the ways of the divine are mysterious; that God is testing you - any number of standard bromides.
Even if you know in advance that this is all you might get from the person, it is still reassuring to hear these things. When my father died, the priest told my mother that he had died on a very auspicious date and time, which would guarantee he would go straight to the Lord. The priest had no way of knowing this, of course, but it still gave my mother peace to think that my father was in a good place even though he was no longer with us.
Someone may have lost a child – and such pain is unbearable and is something one can never really get over. But when you go to a guru and he tells you – “I am an embodiment of God, and your son was very dear to me, so I brought him close to me – his soul now lives within my heart” – this is solace that no amount of psychological counselling can buy, if the person completely believes the guru.
I am actually an atheist, so it may surprise many to see that I am arguing for a training center for gurus. But I am under no fond illusions that one day atheists will dominate this world. In fact, I know that people like me will always be in a minority. So why would I propose something like this? Because I have seen (as in the case of my own mother) the solace that a guru can give. I have no use for a religious guru, but others have. I have found that it is futile to argue with religious people on the existence of a God. I have myself written about the moral arguments why there cannot be a God, but I know that to those who believe, these arguments simply do not matter.
The reason that believers will always greatly outnumber atheists is that atheism does not offer hope to the suffering. When you ask someone, “Why did my loved one die?” the answer the atheist will give you is “Nobody knows. We are organic mortal beings and must die. It was chance that your loved one died when he did.” If you then ask, “Will I meet him again? Is there any aspect of him that is left that I can encounter again?” the atheist will again say, “No, there is nothing for you to hope to see this person again. He is gone and will never come back.” Compare this to the message that Hinduism gives you: “Your loved one has not died at all. Only his body is dead. He has an invisible, insensible soul. That soul is immortal and will be reborn.” There is absolutely no proof of this; yet it offers you some hope. For most people, hope in an unverified, unprovable but comforting assertion is superior to hopelessness.
The Problem with Religious Gurus Today
It is important to realize that "Gurudom," if I could coin such a word, is a professional activity. To pretend that it is otherwise is to delude oneself. I scarcely need to add that it is an extremely lucrative activity.
If we are willing to concede that Gurudom is a profession like any other, then the standards and best practices that we apply to other professions ought to apply to it too. For instance, no one would suggest that one become a doctor without adequate training in medicine; nor would one suggest that one could become a doctor without a proper course in medical ethics. Why, then, do we think that a person could become a Guru, a spiritual solace-giver, without the requisite tools?
People become gurus today due to their personal charisma. But charisma itself does not guarantee a knowledge of issues, nor does it ensure a person’s ethics. Some of the gurus in the market are absolute ignoramuses, and do not even know many of the genuine tools that can help people in trouble, such as meditation, breathing exercises, or yoga. The point is that there is a lot of variability in the quality of service offered by these gurus to their followers. There is a crying need for standardization.
There is also a significant entry barrier for those who actually have good people skills and would make great spiritual counsellors if only they had the right tools to advise people on. These are people who have little idea of what Hindu philosophy and religion have to offer in terms of counselling people in deep distress; little idea of Hindu concepts such as karma, reincarnation, and nirvana; and little idea of Hindu relaxation techniques. Such people with the right skills would make great spiritual solace providers if they only had the right background.
There are also those who have a deep religious or spiritual background, being born in priestly families, who lack social skills (language, delivery, presentation) and could make great gurus if given the right lessons in dressing, public speaking, and knowledge of Indian and western languages such as English.
Many people who have all these skills may not have organizational or financial skills. They may not know how to handle a large organization (in case they ever end up being heads of large spiritual organizations); they may not know how to handle finances when devotees end up contributing huge sums of money; they may not know techniques to reduce their tax burden; and various other financial matters. These can be important in being financially viable as a guru or as the head of a spiritual organization.
Another major gap is in the area of ethics. The field of godmen and godwomen in India has witnessed a lot of scandals with these people committing acts of impropriety, financial, sexual, or otherwise. Part of the reason for this is a lack of ethics training. It must be clearly understood that the interests of ALL godmen and godwomen are affected even if a single person violates common notions of ethics. This is a profession, and the objective of a profession is to earn a good living while providing a necessary service or product without endangering it. Training is therefore necessary to inculcate a strong sense of ethics among future gurus, so that godmen of the future do not bring disrepute to their entire profession.
In today’s India, one does not have to be celibate in order to be a spiritual guru. One can take care of one’s own physical needs and yet be a source of comfort to others. It is not unethical to offer spiritual advice as can be found in the philosophical texts of Hinduism to people in trouble – one is giving of one’s knowledge in exchange for money. Because godmen in India have traditionally come from the ascetic fold, it is customary to think of gurus as being celibate monks. But there are many gurus in India today who do not fit that mould; and, indeed, Hindu scripture does not say that one must renounce worldly life in order to be a guru. It is also not unethical to charge for one’s services – priests in Hinduism routinely charge for their ritualistic services, so it is absurd to expect that a person who imparts spiritual wisdom should do it for free. What is unethical is being underhanded about it.
In this context, one must emphasize the necessity of having a class of godmen who make no claims to supernaturalism. There is way too much emphasis in India on the need to produce miracles, and many gurus recognize this and build myths around their own “enlightenment” experience in order to attract disciples. Yet, if you go to their satsangs or sessions, you find that typical questions from their devotees have almost nothing to do with how to become enlightened but how to make sense of everyday life. You find devotees asking the gurus what do to about their job worries, about their love lives, and about chronic conditions. People ask how childless couples can be helped; whether there are any prayers they can say so that they may finally conceive; whether there is any ritual they can perform for their daughter to get married; and so on. Most of these questions do not require supernatural powers to answer; what they require is a clever psychologist who also understands the tools that Hinduism has to offer people in distress.
And finally, one needs to have a sense of what is considered right and wrong in the modern world. It should be recognized that Hinduism is about 2000 to 3000 years old. The mores of a religion conceived so long ago cannot completely be in sync with the values of the 21st century, and so some updating of the teachings of Hinduism in order to reflect modern realities is necessary. For this, gurus have to be honest about the misogyny and caste discrimination present in Hinduism and preach the good things in it and urge people to do away with the bad. Not only is this the right thing for Hindus in general today, it is also the way to save Hinduism from deterioration – for, if a religion is seen as retrograde and out of sync with the times, there is a huge risk of its followers abandoning it. So gurus trained in the proposed institution will not advocate retrograde practices mentioned in Hindu texts, and will argue for women empowerment and a world free of discrimination, while still preaching the good that may be contained in scripture.
Precedents in Other Domains
Some may find this proposal to be quite radical. One friend actually asked me in a WhatsApp discussion on this idea why I thought this was even necessary in the first place. Weren’t there already many godmen in India, he asked me.
My answer is that yes, there are many godmen, but the question is who becomes those godmen and what is the quality of the godmen (and women). As I have already argued, the quality of the available people is rather inconsistent, and entry to the clique is quite restricted.
The idea of taking something that was a traditional profession and opening it up to the public with an accompanying standardization of the profession is nothing new. There are many such precedents, some of which I will list now.
In the old days most trades were hereditary. Only a carpenter's son could become a carpenter. Only a plumber's son could become a plumber. That is because information access was tightly controlled through extended families.
Then the Indian Government set up Industrial Training Institutes, and now anyone can become a carpenter or plumber or electrician or part of any number of professions, regardless of family background. The ITIs have levelled the playing field.
Take another example: Hindustani classical music. This was once the preserve of a few families, and they guarded their knowledge very carefully. Outsiders were rarely allowed to learn, and even if they were, some secrets were always kept from them. Then came Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, the eminent musician and musicologist of the Gwalior gharana, and he decided that this situation needed to change.
So he started the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, and so today any talented person can become a musician. The point is not that there were plenty of musicians before Paluskar started his music schools. There were plenty then and there are plenty now. What has changed is who can become those musicians. Access to music has become more democratic because of Paluskar.
The present proposal for an IIG is to do the same in the field of spiritual gurus.
A Tentative Syllabus (In No Particular Order)
· Brief Introduction to Bhagavad Gita
o Essential Philosophy
o Common Sayings
o Four-Fold Path of Renunciation
o Examples of Application of Karma Yoga to Practical Situations
· Introduction to Ramayana
o Main Plot
o Holes in the Story and Discrepancies in Rama’s Character
o Cultural Dissonance in the Treatment of Sita and How to Address These Issues Today
· Introduction to Mahabharata
o Main Plot
o Discussion of Dharma and Karma – How Do These Translate in Today’s World
o The Active Man’s Dilemma – Examples of Adharma in the Mahabharata
o Understanding the Mahabharata in Its Cultural Context And NOT as a Divine Text (This Helps in Interpreting It for Modern Audiences)
· Puranas Primers I & II on the 18 Maha Puranas
o Focus Will Be on Select Stories – e.g. Bhasmasura in Shiva Purana, or the stories of Prahalada and Hiranyakashipu from the Vishnu Purana, or the story of Mahishasur from the Markandeya Purana
o These Stories Are Very Important in Connecting with the Lay Public, for Whom The Puranic Stories are the Chief Influence of Hinduism
· Special Course on the Bhagavata Purana
o On the Stories of Krishna
o A Separate Course is Needed Because of the Influence of this Purana on the Bhakti Movement
· Special Course on Garuda Purana
o The Garuda Purana is the “Book of the Dead” in Hinduism
o As a Spiritual Solace Provider, Very Essential to Understand
o However, Not Everything in It May Be Appropriate Today - Filter
· Introductory Sanskrit
o Objectives are to Know Basic Language Structure – Sandhi, Samasa, Declensions, Conjugations, Etc.
· Advanced Sanskrit
o Poems and Prose Material in Sanskrit, Including Recitations
o Objective is Basic Facility in the Language, Including Ability to Recite Shlokas and Poems Correctly
o Objective is NOT to Become a Pandit or Scholar in Sanskrit
· Foundation Course in English
o Essential Grammar and Syntax Concepts Plus Vocabulary
· Advanced English
o Focus on Essay Writing and Speechwriting
o Plenty of Hands-on Exercises
· Comparative Religion (Islam, Christianity, Judaism)
o Comparison of Hindu Religious Concepts with Those of Abrahamic Religions
o Lack of a Central Prophet in Hinduism
o Lack of a Central Text (Bible, Quran, etc.) in Hinduism
o Identification of Core Themes of Hinduism in Comparison with Other Religions
· Religions Similar to Hinduism (Sikhism, Jainism)
o Understand These Two Religions Well
o Huge Potential for Overlap in Devotees
o Need to Understand the Similarities and Differences
· Dale Carnegie Course in Public Speaking
o An External Expert to Be Invited to Conduct a Semester-Long Course in Public Speaking
o Plenty of Practice for Students
· Bhajans I & II
o Bhajans are One of the Core Spiritual Solace Techniques
o Will Cover the Main Poets – Mirabai, Tulsidas, Soordas, etc.
o Bhajans in Hindi As Well As Regional Languages
o Modern Popular Bhajans Will Also Be Taught
o Focus Not on Beautiful Singing but on Creating the Right Atmosphere
· Hindu Rituals I & II
o Will Cover Most of the Important Hindu Rituals Across the Country – for Marriage, Birth, Death
o Covers Regional Differences
o Vital Information When Counseling People in Distress
· Public Speaking in Hindi
o External Trainer Will be Invited
· One Public Speaking Course in Regional Language of Choice
o External Trainer Will Be Invited
o Gujarati, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada (Others Considered Later)
· Vaishnavite Traditions
o The Focus Here is Not On Texts, But Cultural Practices
o Aim Is to Understand the Devotees
· Shaivaite Traditions
o Similar to the Vaishnavite Traditions Class
o Additional Focus on Tamizh Shaivaite Tradition
o Murugan Worship in Tamil Nadu
· Basic Ayurveda
o An External Teacher Will Teach Essential Principles of Ayurveda and Common Remedies for Well-Known Conditions
· Basic and Advanced Yoga
o Yoga is an Absolute Must for a Modern Spiritual Guru
o Will be Taught by Institute Faculty
· Meditation I & II
o Will be Taught by Institute Faculty
· Atharvaveda and Keralite Black Magic
o The Atharvaveda is the Foundation of Ayurveda as Well as Black Magic Rituals
o Idea is NOT to Teach Black Magic, but Awareness to Help Devotees Against Charlatans
· Introduction to International Pseudoscience: Acupuncture, Reiki, Phrenology, Crystal Healing, Magnetic Healing, Seances, Witchcraft, Voodoo, Scientology, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Past Life Regression, etc.
o Again, the Objective is To Guard Against Frauds
o Recall That the Objective of the Institute is to Minimize Any “Miracle” Component in Hinduism and in Gurudom
o Objective of Institute is To Offer Solace
· Contemporary Successful Gurus and Their Styles
o Will Cover Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, Deepak Chopra, Devdutt Pattanaik, Mata Amrutanandamayi, Satya Sai Baba, and others
· Introduction to Main Pilgrimage Centers in India and Their History – I & II
o Will Cover Stories and History behind Tirupati, Nathdwara, Jagannath at Puri, Madurai Meenakshi Temple, Chidambaram Temple, Shirdi, Ashta Ganapati Circuit, Kumbh Mela, Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Somnath Temple, and Many Other Such
· Seminar in Karmic Theory
o Extremely Important in Practical Gurudom
o Students Will Be Presented With Different Life Challenges
o They Will Have to Give a Written and Oral Presentation on How They Propose to Address It Using Karmic Theory
· Field Trips: Go with a Senior Guru in the Field and Assist Guru in Converting Disciples to Join the Fold. (4/5 Required Trips of Two Weeks Each Required in the 4 Year Course)
o Astrology is Very Dear to Hindus
o Students are to Be Trained in Astrological Calculations Using Standardized Texts
o The Idea is For Students to Only Use This Tool As a Healing Tool – To Help People in Distress
o Also to Understand Devotees Concerns (e.g., “My daughter is a Manglik”)
o Not to Help Matchmaking And Other Uses
· Saints in Hinduism – I & II
o This is a Fairly Vast Topic
o Will Cover Saints and Their Histories From All Parts of India
o This Material Will Come in Handy During Sermons
· Accounting Basics
o The Students in This Course Will Go On to Become High Net worth Individuals (HNI)
o Consequently, Money Management is an Essential Part of Training in Gurudom
· International Banking and Finance
o Taught by a Professor from IIM Ahmedabad
o Students Will Have to Understand Cash Transfer Procedures, Differences in Banking Regulations in India and Abroad, Tax Havens, and the Like
· Public Relations
o How to Write Media Blurbs
o Handling Journalists and Interviews
o Crash Course in Webpage Design, Social Media
o Basic Concepts in Search Engine Optimization, etc. (Not for Students to Do Themselves – They Will Later Hire IT Professionals)
o Understanding Organizational Structures of Large Corporates
o Mock Debates in 24-Hour Television Format with Other Students on Given Topics
o The Importance of Honesty and Transparency in Business
o Communicate to Students That Their USP is Spiritual Solace Givers, NOT Miracle Workers
o Teach Students on Guarding Against Romantic and Monetary Involvement With Students
o Modern Concepts on Human Rights, Equality of Humanity, the Civil Rights Movement in America, and Apartheid In South Africa
o Caste Discrimination in Hindu Society and The Need to Downplay These Aspects in Hinduism, Even if Scripture Contains Such References – Without Duplicity
o Re-interpretation of Hindu Scripture for a Modern World
· Psychology and Sociology
o Essential Basics of Psychology and Sociology
o The Sociology of Groups
o The Role of Religion in Human Life – the Need for Symbolism, for Meaning, and for Ritual in Human Existence
As can be seen, this is a fairly intensive four-year course with approximately 40 courses over 4 years, or 5 theory courses per semester. At the end of the course, a 1-year continuous apprenticeship with a senior, established guru and a report of experiences there and documented successes will have to be shown to the committee and successfully defended to get the degree.
The Institute will have tie-ups with major corporates. One of the major jobs anticipated in the future is the role of Company Counsellor in these extremely stressful and competitive times. Modern companies do not want to lose good employees through attrition and can retain the services of skilled spiritual counsellors as a resource for their employees. (A real-life example of this is the well-known author and mythologist, Devdutt Pattanaik, who was Chief Belief Officer at FutureGroup.)
I have laid down my rationale for a standardized training program for spiritual gurus, and the need for an Indian Institute of Guruology (IIG).
The IIG is needed to impart standardized training for students in becoming Hindu spiritual gurus, with an emphasis on psychological techniques, Hindu philosophical background, Hindu techniques of meditation and yoga for achieving balance in life, understanding customs and rituals of Hinduism, and Ayurveda, as well as knowing how to handle administrative and financial matters, and becoming expert in public speaking and in written and spoken communication in English and Indian languages. Ethics training will be a strong component of the teaching. The gurus trained in the IIG are to be in sync with modern realities and modern, advanced social concepts on the treatment of women and minorities.
I have already mentioned that some will be surprised that an atheist will plump for an institute such as this. In response and defence I offer one more piece of thinking.
There is a landmark book called “The Fountainhead,” written by Ayn Rand, that many people will be aware of. The protagonist in the book is an architect, Howard Roark, who believes that the form of buildings should follow from their function, and that there are no other rules on the form of buildings. He is a minimalist and does not believe in useless ornamentation. This is in contrast to the existing philosophy of the times, where buildings were adorned with motifs like gargoyles, etc., simply because that was the Renaissance practice in France since the 15th century. One of Roark’s classmates, Peter Keating, who religiously follows these traditional ideas, but has no original thinking of his own, comes to Roark to ask his help in a new project that he is working on. Roark agrees to help him and starts reviewing Peter’s draft designs. He finds them hideous, not only because they are Renaissance designs, but because they are BAD Renaissance designs. Roark tells Peter, “All right, damn you, give them good Renaissance if you must and if there is such a thing!”
I am in the same boat right now. If they must have religion, at least give them good religion.
I am in the same boat right now. If they must have religion, at least give them good religion.
Having said all this, though, I will admit that establishment of such an institution is not going to be easy. The main reason is that such an institution, at its core, is a relatively selfless institution. Being a guru is a very lucrative job, and to have professors teach guruology instead of practicing it themselves and making a lot of money is going to be a challenge. But one can take heart by looking at management schools. Graduates of IIM make a lot more money than the professors who teach at IIM; yet there are always those for whom teaching is the calling. So perhaps this paradigm will work in the IIG as well.
In this context, I hope the Modi government will see it fit to sponsor such an institute. I recall very well his speech at the SRCC in New Delhi on February 6, 2013, where he spoke proudly about having established an Indian Institute for Teachers’ Education (IITE) in Gujarat. That was his education legacy to the state of Gujarat. Well, the IIG can be his education legacy to the entire country of India.