What happens, then, when the guru dies or goes away? How do disciples cope with the absence of the one whose living and loving presence has opened for them the door to their own heart, the one through whom all reality has been filtered, and their own self understood? The disciples of Jesus, Palestinian Jews living at the beginning of the Common Era, and the disciples of the Indian Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba, both Indians and Americans in 1970’s India, were both forced to negotiate the absence of the guru. These two groups of devotees, separated by almost 2,000 years in time and more than 2,500 miles, in land mass, inhabited very different cultures. They told stories about their gurus that help us understand the evolving meaning of the body of the guru—both in its presence and its absence. It is an interesting tale of sameness.
In looking at what devotees have chosen to recall we come to see what the disciple community finds destabilizing in the guru’s physical absence as well as how that absence can be overcome; how the pain of loss of the “non-dual reciprocity” of guru and disciple is eventually transcended through a new understanding of the body of the guru. A process that many people face today while recovering from the loss of Sathya Sai Baba, who many worshipped and adored.
In the Absence of the Body: Discipleship When the Guru Has Gone
An ancient axiom holds that when the disciple is ready, the guru will appear. Much less is said about what happens when the guru disappears—and for this, disciples are rarely ready. It is often a more traumatic event than the death of a parent or spouse or child, because the relationship between disciple and guru is of a different nature than relationships with parents, lovers, friends, or one’s own children. While all these relationships can involve deep and selfless love, the love of the guru (in both the genitive and objective sense) becomes the lens through which the disciple understands the self, the other, and the world. And at least initially, the locus of this love is the bodily presence of the guru.
The guru not only shows the way, but is that very way. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” is how Jesus’ disciples remembered him.
Abhishiktānanda, a modern Roman Catholic monk initiated into Indian advaita by his guru, Gnānānanda, writes that “Guru and disciple form a dyad, a pair, whose two components call for each other and belong together. No more than the two poles (of a magnet) can they exist without being related to each other. On the way towards unity they are a dyad. In the ultimate realization they are a non-dual reciprocity.”
How and Why We Remember
Gospel scholars talk about the “messianic secret” that describes how Jesus in the Gospels tells his disciples not to talk about his deeds of power or identity as the Christ, but to keep these things silent. Scholars often interpret this “secret” as a literary device (especially in Mark) employed to explain why, if Jesus was working all the wonders reported in the narrative, all of Israel did not come to believe in him, or at least know of him in his lifetime.3
In collecting the early stories of Neem Karoli Baba, Ram Dass encountered a modern corollary of the messianic secret. He writes that it took a number of years for Neem Karoli Baba’s Indian disciples to openly share their stories of Maharajji (as Neem Karoli Baba was known) due to his own directive that he should not be spoken about to others. There are stories of Maharajji ordering the burning of a collection of stories about him and of his tearing up a manuscript of an article on him. Neem Karoli, much like Jesus, ordered those who witnessed miracles effected by or through him never to speak of them. In the case of Neem Karoli Baba, this reticence is certainly not a literary device. Can it be that for Jesus, too, the “messianic secret” was real—and not a device of the Gospel authors?
We have similar instances of both teachers rebuking those who would compliment or draw attention to them. When his contemporary, Deoria Baba, said that Neem Karoli was an incarnation of love, Maharaji responded, “Why, that wicked man! What does he know? Who does he think he is?” Jesus, when called “good teacher” by an inquiring outsider, answered, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Both of them were opposed having their deeds recorded, and yet their disciples felt the need to do so when they were gone.
Both maharaj and Jesus often complained that their disciples did not truly understand their message, or even who they were. Yet, in spite of the guru’s admonitions, the community of disciples feels responsible for interpreting him to one another after his disappearance, and for preserving/creating a body of material through which the guru will become known by others. The gathering together of such stories offers those who experienced them a way to process the events of the past and gives new generations the possibility of experiencing an awakening similar to that of those who lived in the presence of the guru. In theological language this is called anamnesis, a remembering that makes real in the present the being or event that is being recalled. Anamnesis is one attempt at making the disappeared body of the guru present again.
Now we have the same with Sathya Sai Baba, while alive he complained that his followers failed to understand him. He called himself an enigma, one who could not be known. His passing six years ago, came as a surprise to his community and left them in shock. How did they deal with his passing? On the surface, not very well. While some carried on just as before, holding on to their past habits and routines they had build up during their time with the guru, others floundered. Many left to find another guru or to find solace in a former student and imposter. Although, I feel that a certain Anamnesis has taken place and the steadfast following will overcome the humbug following, in making the guru’s Temple and Ashram, the guru himself.
Excerpted from Parabola: Where Spiritual Traditions Meet, Vol. 37, No. 3 (2012).
By James H. Reho
The key is in understanding that the physical body is only an instrument of the divine. It is not forever. What was it that Sathya Sai Baba said so well ? “You are not the body.” “Drop all attachments to the body and its desires.” I feel that includes all physical attachment to Sai Baba’s form also. ~ More importantly He said and I quote: “At first, name and form are essential, that is the reason why Avatars come, so that God can be loved, adored, worshiped, listened to and followed, and finally realized as nameless and formless.” And to end on a happy note, a beautiful video of darshan with Swami to the huanting music of Secret Garden.