I was asked by one of my readers in a recent article about spiritualized ego vs. real awakening how to tell if a guru is real or fake.
I replied that all behavior can be faked, so unless you are awakened, it is really difficult to tell.
Upon further thought, here I’m listing some things to look out for in fake gurus as I see them repeated quite often.
Neurotic cycles of moods and behavior
The first thing to pay attention to is neurotic cycles in guru’s behavior. If a guru is happy but then gets periods of anger, dissatisfaction, irritation or unhappiness, that’s a sign that he operates through the ego.
Once you awaken, moods no longer hold you in their grip. Yes, you can still feel them, but you can’t be controlled by them – you always have a choice.
But people who are unawakened cannot decide whether to give into one mood or not. They are mood slaves, so one day they will be neurotically up, and another – down.
The excuse for unbalanced behavior some gurus give
I’ve heard some gurus excusing not only their inability to control moods but also other egotistic compulsive behaviors like beating their disciples or overeating as “taking on the karma of others”.
If such an excuse is accepted, the disciple’s perception of reality becomes distorted. No matter how the guru behaves, there will always be yet another excuse the disciple will need to accept of why the guru does the things that he does.
The truth is that some gurus are unable to control their moods and appetites because they are not liberated. And because their whole spiritual empire rests on the fact that they are, they will always have to come up with the excuses of why they behave like an average person on the street.
There’s no “taking on the karma” of another person. All of us are responsible for our own salvation. If you have a disease you can’t give it to another person to overcome, and if you have a temper problem you can’t get rid of it by making it a responsibility of your guru.
Those problems are there for you to pay attention to, take action and overcome. It’s a lazy man’s dream to get rid of problems this way, and that’s the reason some people badly want to believe that it can happen.
If a guru runs on nerves he bases his life on the ego. The liberated person’s background state is not nerves but peace. It’s also called “spaciousness” or “void”. It’s very different from the operating mode of most humans because the behavior of the liberated person is very even, without any jumps in highs or ups.
So if a guru is neurotically happy one day and snappy the next, it’s a sure sign that it’s an ego and not a spiritual empire that he’s building.
Appearance may give a clue
Another way to check if a guru is for real is to observe his appearance. Every vice is written on the face, but the problem is that most people are not sensitive enough to read it.
Also, those who do not give into their emotions aren’t used up by them so they age much slower, like we see in the case of Eckhart Tolle who is 71 years old now but definitely doesn’t look like it – his hair isn’t even gray yet.
Look at their lifestyle
Yet another way to tell if a guru is real is to look at their lifestyle. Yes, they can be rich, but if they’re awakened they won’t be attached to what they own.
I again would like to use Eckhart Tolle as an example. He’s rich, but he’s so humble and dresses so simply that you can’t tell.
The same could be said about Sri Ramana Maharshi – he would receive so many gifts from his devotees yet all he did was take daily walks around the same mountain wearing nothing but a cloth, and take basic daily meals not minding the crowd watching him eat.
He did not crave for any pompous experience because he had wealth within.
These people illustrate the fact that once you’re awakened you don’t lust for money like the ego-bound people do. And those gurus who thoroughly enjoy the play that the money can buy are still lost in the world. I’m not saying they’re evil; but it’s wrong for them to claim to be free from the seductions of the world when they show with every action that they are.
It’s especially sad to see devotees slaving for the rich guru’s empire and not seeing the hypocrisy of the guru promoting spartan lifestyle whilst living the opposite of it.
In Buddhism it is told that one of the fetters that a stream-entrant (an awakened one) gets rid of is to stop adhering to various customs and traditions.
If a guru is a typical one – wearing orange robes, a mala, sitting on a big luxury seat that makes him look like a midget and being surrounded by devoted disciples sitting way below – if a guru behaves this way, it is very likely that he’s an egotistic person following a spiritual tradition rather than an awakened teacher.
Once you awake you know that traditions are man-made and you are no longer bound by them. That doesn’t mean that you go about breaking them; you use the ones that are good, and ignore the ones that are unnecessary or evil.
For example, when Buddha got awakened and started teaching, he angered some “spiritual people” because he was not following the “spiritual tradition” of the time of having long hair!
Buddha told he doesn’t like long hair. (I couldn’t find the source of the quote but this was told by S. N. Goenka, the founder of Vipassana.)
Truly awakened people either follow the tradition because they see the benefit in doing that, or drop it because they find the tradition harmful. So it’s no longer about blind adherence but a wise use of it.
For example, I met the head of one Buddhist monastery in Thailand when I was staying there for 12-hours-a-day meditation. I wrote about him and his disciple already. He was truly awakened and I believe fully liberated, yet he was following institutionalized Buddhism.
I believe he chose to stay within the formal system of Buddhism because many Thai people have absolute faith in the institutionalized religion and therefore he can help many of them this way.
But most awakened people drop the traditions altogether and become their simple selves, without needing any external spiritual proofs or governmental backing to establish themselves as spiritual authorities.
We can see that being the case in the lives of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, Eckhart Tolle and Ramana Maharshi, for example.
Ramana wore almost no clothes at all, he really didn’t care how he looked. That’s in huge contrast to most Indian spiritual teachers who pay great attention to their flowing robes and beards.
Eckhart Tolle wears normal clothes rather than trying to sell a spiritual message through the way that he dresses. I think he looks more like a college professor than a spiritual teacher, and that’s a good thing because he is simply himself.
Nisargadatta Maharaj never tried to amass any sort of following. He remained an owner of a small shop, dressed in a way most people in his area did, and taught the methods of awakening on the second floor of his shabby house.
It’s good to be aware of which gurus are fake and which are real, and its praiseworthy to learn from the ones that are genuine; but at the end of the day you will not gain salvation by serving another human being. There is no special secret that he holds which will make you awaken.
Millions of people give up their lives and better judgment to serve self-proclaimed gods. It doesn’t make any sense.
You are the same as those gurus who are being worshiped today. You have the potential to awaken as any other human being does. But because a lot of work needs to be done and that work is very hard – staying in the present moment and being disidentified from the stream of thoughts – some people would rather believe that by simply serving another human they can awaken.
No guru can accomplish this for you now matter what they claim. Sure, it’s very important to know who is real or fake whether it’s a spiritual teacher or any other person we’re dealing with; but we should be motivated to find genuine teachers not so that we follow them but so that they inspire us to walk our own spiritual path.