Emotional and spiritual enlightenment is a necessary need in the difficult times we live in. But because it is in such demand today, there is also a vast scope for exploitation…

“What is your position on God, spirituality and messengers of God?”, asked a potential client who was interviewing me to see whether I would be appropriate for him as a therapist. “My personal beliefs are neither here nor there and would anyway play no role in your therapy,” I ducked. “But no,” he persisted. “What if I decide to go to a spiritual retreat in the midst of my therapy? Would you consider that incompatible?” This question I didn't need to duck. I could answer it because I had thought it through since several of my clients have been in the position my interlocutor was. Needless to say, I do not believe that the two processes are incompatible at all. Nor do I believe one is superior to the other. In the final analysis what is important is that, during a dark period of one's life, one gets the support of an individual or group of individuals whom one trusts enough to walk one through some of the most difficult days of one's life.

Heavy responsibility

This is why the role of the therapist or the spiritual leader or the guru or whoever one turns to for support is so onerous. The individual is extraordinarily vulnerable and only when the intervener is sensitive to this and responds to the individual's emotional state with respect and grace can the individual ever reclaim Hope and Faith, the twin touchstones of human growth and development. This is also why unscrupulous ‘god men' and untrained ‘quack counsellors' can cause considerable damage to an already fragile psyche. It's a reality of modern life that large numbers of people seek the guidance and support of spiritual leaders of established eminence. I have been impressed by the inspiration and hope that such individuals have received from their chosen gurus. This has ensured that they have been able to overcome whatever problems or issues they were bedevilled by, thereby placing them squarely back on the path to development.

I believe that those who choose to follow a guru or a spiritual leader do so for one of two reasons. The first of these is emotional. Those who are in the midst of a personal emotional crisis or are going through a period of emotional vulnerability may seek a guru's guidance, support and acceptance as a way of feeling legitimised, in order that they may heal from their emotional wounds. Their belief in the spiritual guru helps them believe again, in themselves, their fellow human beings and in their own future. The rituals practised in the restful environs of the guru's ashram or other retreat venues serve as a soothing balm and as a method by which they get back into a state of Hope and Faith. And all this may sometimes be accomplished even without a single face-to-face darshan with the Guru. Such is the healing power of spirituality.

Seeking answers

The second reason to seek a guru has a more intellectual and cerebral basis, although emotions do also play some role in the process. Some people may seek spiritual guidance when they are at a stage of their lives where they seek answers to spiritual questions that have nagged them all their working lives, but which they have never had enough time in the past to pay attention to (a contemporary vanaprastha, if you will). They see their spiritual leader not just as a healer, but as a teacher who shows them the right way by virtue of being an accomplished authority in the interpretation of the scriptures. The focus here is on acquiring knowledge from ancient treatises and understanding the philosophy of life itself from the chosen guru, to help them prepare, even if only very subconsciously, for the ‘after-life', if indeed there is one.

Whatever one's religious orientation, established modes of obtaining spiritual enlightenment do exist and it is not at all uncommon to see people of different ages and backgrounds seeking answers aimed at spiritual fulfilment. In urban India, some people tend to approach a counsellor or a therapist who's seen as a ‘miniature guru', particularly if they don't want someone to ‘talk religion' to them. Whatever the reason people seek healing interventions, you don't have to be a social scientist to observe that they are today doing so in massive numbers and therein, sadly, lies the possibility of exploitation. One does hear of and read stories, far more often than one would like, of susceptible men and women being taken undue advantage of by imitation ‘ god-men', ‘sex-seeking gurus' and untrained ‘ quack counsellors', who often end up causing incalculable harm. Proper healing from emotional pain is absolutely critical, and just as the fractured bone will heal improperly unless appropriate interventions are instituted, so too is the case with the wounded soul. In the absence of licensing authorities and regulatory bodies (for counsellors I mean; it's hardly possible to have ‘licensed gurus', I would imagine), one can only hope that, with increasing education and exposure, our masses will learn how to spot a fake, and zero in on the real thing more successfully than they do today. Considering the difficult times we live in, compassionate and legitimate peddlers of hope are always welcome.

The writer is the author of the forthcoming Fifty-50 Marriage: Return to Intimacy and can be contacted at: vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com