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Feet of Clay

Saints, Sinners and Madmen: A Study of Gurus

Anthony Storr

Not all gurus have feet of clay. But many are unworthy of veneration. You wd think that history has provided enough lessons for people to distinguish the saints from the crooks and the madmen, but clearly those who seek a guru to give their life meaning find it difficult to make this distinction. This is partly because of their urgent need blinding them, and partly because of factors which most gurus share.

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A guru usually claims to have been granted a special, spiritual insight which has transformed his own life. Usually this revelation comes from God, but sometimes attributed to angels or extraterrestrial beings. They then generalize from that experience - believe it applies to everyone.

They start out as isolated children, introverted and narcissistic.

Many artists also fit this description. But creatives want to communicate with others through their work, and gain self-esteem from those who appreciate it. They may be very sensitive to criticism, but most are prepared to listen to, and learn from, people with different ideas.

Gurus tend to be completely intolerant of criticism, believing that anything less than total agreement is tantamount to hostility. Revelations can't be criticized, they can only be accepted or rejected.

Gurus attract disciples but not friends, who expect to be equals. The relationship with followers is one of dominance, not friendship.

The revelation invariably follows a period of mental distress or actual illness, and is perceived as the discovery of 'the truth'. The fervent certainty with which he proclaims that vision is basis for his persuasiveness, his charisma.

It is intoxicating to be adored, and it becomes increasingly difficult for the guru to resist believing what his disciples think of him. Then comes the exploitation - financial, sexual and labour. Belief in the guru completely overrules rational thinking, so behavior which would not be tolerated in the real world is accepted as normal.

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