Nepali Times
New age gurus


olumn inches devoted to Meg Ryan's split with husband Dennis Quaid often included the delicious detail that they had squabbled, in very spiritually suspect style, over which of them had rights to their guru. The lady in question, one Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, dispenses Siddha yoga from her ashram in upstate New York, and a bitter custody battle was only averted at the eleventh hour, when Ryan and Quaid decided to get back together. Other celebrity worshippers must have exhaled serenely; knowing that no further bad karma would surround their Chosen One.

The likes of Isabella Rossellini, Diana Ross, Lisa Kudrow and Lulu, (the British 1960s pop singer) all make regular pilgrimages to receive official blessings from the forty-something leader, a procedure which involves being tapped on the head with a wand of peacock feathers. It is rumoured that some of her servants hold her in such obeisance that they anoint themselves with her dirty bath water. It'll come as no surprise then to learn that although gurus traditionally frown upon worldly goods, Gurumayi's ashram is apparently worth a cool $21million.

The rise of the career guru really began in earnest back in 1967 when The Beatles pledged their faith in the Hindu swami, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the man who introduced Transcendental Meditation to the West. During that period, a rival guru also attracted famous disciples, a sacked Ivy League psychology professor named Richard Alpert, who went to India and returned as Ram Dass, servant of God.
These days, laying claim to a guru is an instant signifier of power, wealth and status. For some peculiar reason, entrusting a complete stranger with the wellbeing of one's mind, body and spirit is not only accepted as sensible behaviour, it is positively essential if you want to get ahead. In some cases, it's a guilt thing. Whereas once the goal was to be rich and successful, now it is only all right to brag about those achievements if we also appear to be spiritually evolved human beings as well.

Once a guru gets a celebrity endorsement, the rest of us are right behind buying the books or the beauty regime. Right now, spirituality is omnipresent and seriously chic. Donna Karan gave out Deepak Chopra cassettes instead of programmes at a catwalk show, while ex-supermodel Christy Turlington was so inspired by her yoga teacher that she has launched Sundari, a skincare range based on Eastern philosophy. And who can forget how, a few years ago, the Dalai Lama edited a special edition of that deeply spiritual journal, Paris Vogue?
So it is that the world suddenly seems to be swarming with deities to address every conceivable dilemma; from how do I wash my face (with your saliva, suggests Deepak Chopra, ayurvedic spiritual maestro and adviser to the likes of Demi Moore), to how do I survive mid-life pregnancy (ask Bharti Vyas, the spiritual beauty guru who helped prepare Cherie Blair for baby Leo)?

"Right now there is a tendency to turn to gurus because organised religion is increasingly not meeting people's needs," says the Rev Dr Geoff Scobie, who has researched the psychology of belief systems at Glasgow University, Scotland. "Maybe they feel that the level of commitment demanded by conventional religion is too high, yet they've got to do something to fill the spiritual void. This is where the guru comes in. You pay them, they tell you something deep and incomprehensible, and you feel you've had your money's worth. But while people may believe that this equals commitment, it doesn't. You can't buy spiritual development; money is no substitute for faith, time and love. It's a quick fix."
Psychologist Oliver James, author of Britain on the Couch, believes there are other reasons people are going to gurus. "Human beings have always put their faith in authority figures to help them work out what to do. Generally, we all want certainty. But in the past 50 years, we've moved from a collectivist society to an individualist society. Our identity is no longer determined on the basis of family position or social role."

"It's no longer so clear who the authority figures are, which is why we're seeking consolation in self-appointed gurus, be they involved in alternative medicine, herbalism, psychotherapy or religion," says James. He believes followers would be better off spending their money on therapy. "Shrinks are the opposite of gurus-they're going to be your disciple."

His scepticism seems well placed. A few years back, two of Gurumayi's most ardent followers gave their baby the middle name of Mayi to bestow spiritual wellbeing on their family. Alas, even the blessing of a top guru could not save Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson from getting divorced for the second time. (Observer)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)