Truly, madly, deeply

All gurus believe madly in their own theories. But how do they entice well-educated followers? A new book by Anthony Storr tries to give us some answers, says Colin Hughes
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The Independent Online
They come with long white beards and sandals, and they come in sharp suits with shades on. They come in humble-seeming poverty, and they come trailing Rolls-Royces and Rolex watches. Sometimes, like David Koresh or Jim Jones, they turn into murderous lunatics; other times, like Jesus Christ or Sigmund Freud, they influence the lives of millions upon millions of people, arguably for the better.

Spiritual teacher-leaders come in all capes and guises. But they are all gurus, and for that reason alone any liberal sceptic is likely to eye them warily, and from afar. The very idea of guru-dom implies a submission or subjection of individual judgement too complete to be safe, or wise.

As one follower of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh put it, in words that could come out of the mouths of innumerable other disciples: "I gradually came to realise that he knows, he has the power, that if I can only say, 'yes, I leave everything to you,' everything will be taken care of."

But the power of gurus is not a power exercised over fools. Georgei Gurdjieff, the Armenian confidence trickster whose cosmic understanding included a conviction that our lives were affected by the moon getting warmer, counted Katherine Mansfield and TS Eliot among his followers. Intelligent well-educated people turn in droves to new spiritual leaders who claim to have found the answer - or, as the Sanskrit meaning of guru would express it, to those who claim to "bring light out of darkness".

So who are they? From what fount does their influence spring? Are they all pied piper nutters who conjure their followers off into a promised land of grand fantasy; or is it possible that they do, in fact, bear a divinely winged message?

And if some are truly saints, while others are little better than conmen, how do we tell the one from the other?

In Feet of Clay, published yesterday, Anthony Storr offers us the first good guru guide. Instead of tracking the mentality of the disciples, as many writers have done before him, Storr turns his sharp psychiatrist's light on the gurus themselves, to find out if these immensely charismatic characters actually have a lot more in common than we think.

His central argument is that gurus are different from the rest of us, but not so different that they belong to another psychological realm. Their difference does not lie merely in the fact that they hold "eccentric views about the universe and their own significance as prophets or teachers". After all, as Storr says: "Even the most rational agnostic secretly harbours beliefs which are deeply irrational, especially in areas concerned with self-esteem and love ... Many of us harbour grandiose delusions that we are more important than we are."

Gurus have common characteristics. They tend to overwhelm people with rhetoric, or sheer compelling personal presence. They brook no disagreement, they need disciples to confirm their own sense of self, not friends and equals. In fact, Storr ultimately argues, a guru's single most defining characteristic is his extreme narcissism.

On the way to that conclusion, however, he shows how almost all spiritual gurus are solitary children who have passed through a period of intense personal crisis, often provoked by feelings of isolation, leading to breakdown. They resolve the crisis through a revelation, usually arrived at in private, often on a long and never wholly explained journey.

Gurdjieff travelled for a period of his late youth from which he returned with his answer, but never properly explained where he had been. Koresh underwent his depression and change after being expelled by the Seventh Day Adventists. Rajneesh was a sickly child who nearly died, and suffered extended mental illness from which he emerged "enlightened". Carl Gustav Jung was mentally ill before the First World War, when he had visions of apocalypse, and during the war too. He emerged saying: "The years when I was pursuing my inner images were the most important in my life - in them everything essential was decided."

Ignatius Loyola (the 16th-century saint whose revelations founded the Jesuit movement) started started life as a vain, soldier hidalgo. He underwent his crisis after being appallingly wounded in battle. He too, went through a "dark night of the soul" at Montserrat, emerging with complete confidence in his discovery of a spiritual road that leads to complete submission to God's will.

And then, of course, there is Jesus. Knowing how controversial the exercise would be, Storr half-ducks the analysis, saying that "assessing the mental state of Jesus is a futile exercise" because the Gospels make scrappy evidence; it all happened too long ago, and we do not have any idea how Jesus would really have been understood in his time.

That does not stop Storr from pointing out that Jesus shows all the other key guru characteristics. Jesus, like other gurus, needed his disciples to relinquish family ties. He probably thought the Kingdom of Heaven would arrive on Earth quite soon. "It is," says Storr, "appropriate to view the sojourn in the wilderness as another example of a period of 'creative illness'; a time of inner chaos and struggle deliberately induced by a retreat into solitude, through which conflict was resolved and from which a new vision was born."

Many people have "creative illnesses". And many people, including scientists and mathematicians, experience the feeling of suddenly and unconsciously "arriving" at a solution of a problem that they have been grappling with for months, or even years. Storr recognises that this impulse, the need to resolve doubt and confusion, drives some of mankind's most creative achievements. He also accepts that some insights gained through such intense "prayer" might be genuinely revelatory. But, while Einstein might "arrive" - eureka - at the provable theory of relativity, so another scientist might "arrive" at a solution that proves on analysis to be wrong. Just because gurus see a light, it does not necessarily shine on the truth. They may be gifted; or they may be stone-cold crazy.

"Gurus go through a period of intense stress or mental illness, and come out on the other side with what generally amounts to a delusional system which, because of their lack of friends with whom ideas could be discussed on equal terms, is elaborated in solitude ... They then seek disciples. Acquiring disciples who wholeheartedly embrace the guru's system of ideas is the final proof of his superiority ... Confidence tricksters are convincing because they have come to believe in their own fictions. Gurus are convincing because they appear sure that they are right."

Not all gurus domineer, nor do they all end up persuading their followers to commit mass suicide. But they do, according to Storr, all have a sense of overwhelming conviction that the complete solution they have found to their own distress is, in fact, a solution to everyone's distress.

Even Freud treated his ostensibly scientific "findings" as a personal revelation, and accused those who disagreed with him of being "heretics". Jung believed that he understood things which others knew nothing of: it is, Jung said, "important to have a secret, a premonition of things unknown".

So how do we tell when a guru has something to offer, and when he is dazzling us with madness? The fact that someone holds bizarre beliefs is not enough to strike them out, says Storr: "Religious faith is an answer to the problem of life, not to a series of intellectual puzzles or artistic dilemmas ... The majority of mankind wants or needs some all-embracing belief system which purports to provide an answer to life's mysteries, and are not necessarily dismayed by the discovery that their belief system, which they proclaim as "the truth", is incompatible with the beliefs of other people. One man's faith is another man's delusion".

So a barminess test won't work. Instead, says Storr, we should distrust "characters who are both deeply self-absorbed and also authoritarian", because "the charisma of certainty is a snare which entraps the child who is latent in us all". It is a straightforward, and in some ways obvious conclusion - yet little of the burgeoning literature of new religion has arrived at such simple understanding.

'Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus', by Anthony Storr (HarperCollins, pounds 18).


Freud (above) developed a theory of the mind largely from his own self- analysis, which is why, according to Storr, "Freud was certain that they were valid". He gave humanity many central psychoanalytic ideas, including the Oedipus complex, a theory of dreams, and the concepts of ego, super- ego and id. Says Storr: "Although Freud continued to proclaim that psychoanalysis was a science, psychoanalysis became a movement which more closely resembled a secular religion." However, he adds, "his influence on the way we think about ourselves has, on the whole, been beneficial".


Jung (below) broke with Freud largely because he could not accept Freud's almost exclusive emphasis on the importance of sex. He also did not believe human problems could be treated in a purely scientific way. He developed a theory of the unconscious, of symbolic archetypes, and the notions of extrovert and introverted personality types. Storr says: "Some of his beliefs bordered on delusion; but his period of mental illness opened doors of perception which are closed to normal people."


Indian mystic taken up by middle-class youth in the 1970s. Like many gurus, Rajneesh started on a road of good intent, and had some (to some people) useful ideas: loving yourself, saying "yes" to life, loosening inhibitions (particularly sexual). But he ended up watching films like Patton and The Ten Commandments all day, collected 93 Rolls-Royces, inflicted terrible privations on his orange-dressed sanyassin followers at his various ashram communities. Storr says "Rajneesh descended into a monster of greed ... arrogant ... and inflated with his own importance."


Storr says: "Perceiving Jesus as one example amongst many gurus actually emphasises his unique qualities; but those who regard him as their saviour may think this approach irreverent. It is important to remember that Jesus was not a Christian." Storr says: "In 20th-century England, an individual announcing that he was the son of God and would return after death in glory would probably attract psychiatric attention; but earlier generations might have regarded such claims as unsurprising." However, Storr concludes that: "Few subsequent gurus seem to have matched the simplicity and directness of Jesus's message."


Koresh (above) started life as Vernon Howell, son of a 14-year-old girl. Developed Branch Davidian breakaway from Seventh Day Adventists, basing its belief on the idea that God would return to earth and establish a new kingdom in Israel with Koresh on the throne. Subjected his followers to beatings and 15-hour harangues, as well as sex with any women (and girls) he chose. Besieged by the FBI at his Ranch Apocalypse near Waco, Texas, ending in a self-inflicted fire and suicide shootings which killed most of the group.


Jones (below) caused the mass suicide of more than 900 of his followers, at Jonestown, Guyana. He started out in Indiana as a "socialist worker God" (as opposed to what he called the "sky God"), and recruited many of his followers among black people who responded to his rejection of racial superiority. He sexually abused male and female disciples, and subjected them to concentration camp conditions when he finally went crazy. Storr concludes that these "evil madmen... exhibited in exaggerated form... all the worst possible characteristics of gurus."