David Christopher Lane, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
Why Inner Attainment shouldn't be
equated with Outer Knowledge
A meditating guru may be completely ignorant about molecular biology and yet still be a great guide for helping one to meditate.
I have great admiration for deep meditators, those who have by dint of their tireless practice penetrated into the hidden corridors of their own self-reflective awareness. The interior quest is a noble one and worthy of emulation. However, it is a fundamental mistake to believe that those who have enlightened states of consciousness are, by such awakenings, also able to explain the outer world of astronomy, physics, chemistry and the cosmos at large. As the oft-repeated truism underlines, “Being an expert in one field doesn't automatically translate to being an expert in another one.”
I say this precisely because far too often we have conflated inner knowledge for outer and vice versa, neglecting the too obvious fact that experiencing exalted, internal states is distinct from knowing their ultimate causality. I may know the taste of a sweet apple but such an experience tells me little about how it was made.
Far too often we have projected onto our teachers, gurus, and masters omniscience and omnipotence, falsely believing that because of their great spiritual achievement they have also secured a supreme working knowledge of the physical universe. Spend any time with such sages and you will immediately realize that this is not the case.
But believers tend to persist in their idolatry and when confronted with their teacher's mistakes try to ideologically spin them away. This is tragic. Why? Because any guru worth his or her salt is only helpful to the degree that they serve as a transparency. The transparent guru is a window that allows the neophyte to see beyond the form that is instructing. In other words, the teacher is not so much a mirror that reflects back to the student (though this metaphor has its uses within limits), but rather a portal for showing her what is beyond.
Yet, it is too easy to get caught with our own distentions about spirituality and even worse when the teacher manipulates the same for his or her own aggrandizement.
A meditating guru may be completely ignorant about molecular biology and yet still be a great guide for helping one to meditate, if (and this should be underlined) he or she doesn't pretend otherwise. Yet, instead of realizing that we must ultimately travel alone on our contemplative sojourns we too often opt for a Wilber like Atman Project (an Eastern version of Vicarious Atonement) where we attempt to find the underlying truth “in ways that prevent it and force substitute gratifications” instead.
The guru far too often serves as our replacement for real work, since we project upon him or her chattels we are not. We defend the image in all sorts of immature ways so as not to come to grips with the reality that he or she is just as human as ourselves, even if a far superior specimen of it. Therefore, we opt for the master is “perfect” and “knows all things” and is “without blemish” as a way to inflate our own self worth, even as it sabotages our own efforts to take responsibility for what we must do. In sum, it is easier to project that our guru is god (and defend such tooth and nail) than to take stock of our own limitations (and perhaps his or hers) and then reflect upon how best to progress.
I bring this up because recently I was re-reading for the umpteenth time a book I loved in my youth, Daryai Lal Kapur's Call of the Great Master, which is a personal memoir that describes the life and teachings of Sawan Singh (honorifically called the “Great Master”).
Baba Sawan Singh Grewal
Sawan Singh (185-1948) is a highly esteemed master of shabd yoga and had a very large following throughout India and abroad. Having read everything that I could by Sawan Singh that is available in English I became a deep admirer of him and I turn to his advice on meditation almost daily. He has some remarkably good suggestions on how to meditate and what to expect.
However, many followers of him (and of those who follow his successors) have tended to believe that Sawan Singh was also god-like in his knowledge and that it extended to science as well. This is not necessarily true since though Sawan was educated as an engineer his knowledge of other subjects, such as physics or biology, was limited.
For instance, in attempting to explain his own version of intelligent design and the majestic order of the universe around us, Sawan Singh is quoted as saying the following: “Look at the billions of stars and planets moving in their orbits, never straying an inch from their appointed tracks or colliding with each other. You often hear of railways and steamers, so carefully and ably directed by your wise engineers, coming into collisions. But did any star ever dash against another?”
When I was younger, I probably skimmed over this passage and didn't give it a moment's attention since I was more interested in the narrative flow than in any astronomical predictions. However, I was certainly aghast the other night when I read it again. My first reaction was “What? How could Sawan Singh be so wrong about something so elemental in astrophysics?”
But then I paused for a second and realized that Sawan said this at a time when knowledge of astronomy was still in its infancy and that he was not conversant with astrophysics and what it has uncovered. Sawan was mistaken and that should not be surprising. I see no other way to spin this, and yet I know devotees will be tempted to do so since the guru must, by his ultimate spiritual attainments, know the inside secrets that us mere mortals are not yet privy to access.
This is, of course, silly and completely unnecessary. But does Sawan's limited knowledge about the cosmos at the large and how it operates then disqualify him from providing wise counsel on how to meditate? I think not, since the two spheres of inquiry are quite distinct, if not wholly mutually exclusive.
Thus we do a disservice both to our chosen spiritual mentors and ourselves if we think they know more than they actually do. Better to focus on their area of expertise than to willy-nilly expect that they are Einsteins without limit. Ken Wilber went right to the jugular on this issue when he insightfully pointed out that he had never seen a “perfect” guru run a sub 4 minute mile with his “perfect” body or explain Einstein's theory of relativity with his “perfect” mind. Wilber argues that perfection is in essence, not existence. One could go even further and say that to expect perfection from anyone, regardless of his perceived status, is to be forever disappointed.
Why intertwine our minds and hearts with such convoluted notions? Why not accept the humanness of our teachers and get on with the real task at hand, which in this specific context is: meditation. Or, if we choose to persist in our mythological beliefs then we will have to bypass day to day, if not moment to moment, our intellectual integrity in the name of blind faith.
It is here that I think Ken Wilber's hierarchical spectrum is not only illuminating but also extremely practical in differentiating what we are trying to accomplish when meditating.
In the magical phase of meditation, the guru is perceived as having miraculous powers, including the ability to transmit Shakti or Awakening just by a single touch or glance. Even the mantra that the guru conveys is believed to have sacred, numinous power. To the degree that a neophyte believes in this occultism, it acts as a very powerful aphrodisiac, regardless of its actual facticity or lack thereof. It isn't too hard to understand why. The placebo effect is a universal phenomenon, though poorly understood, and works when an advertised product is taken as efficacious. Humans have an inherent structural capacity for a fantastic array of inner experiences. Couple this with our innate predisposition to project power onto others, particularly those we see in elevated positions of authority, and it is little wonder that gurus reap the psychic and monetary benefit of our Freudian like transference. The meditator drinks up this magic potion where cause and effect gets confused and where image and reality become crisscrossed.
The problem with the magical phase of meditation is that it takes a naïve mind to sustain it, since any rational discernment will immediately upend its chicanery. As anyone conversant with sleight of hand tricks knows too well, the moment a magician explains how he or she does it, the mesmerizing spell vanishes and we are left deflated by not seeing its obviousness sooner.
The mythic stage in meditation is governed by a set of beliefs and an in/out group mentality. If I follow just the right rules and don't deviate from what is required, then I will invoke the grace necessary to achieve an enlightened state. Even if my mind rebels, I should have faith that the spiritual master and the teachings know best. Whatever doubts may arise boomerang back to me since I have obviously not conformed properly to what is required. The guru is not at fault since he is “perfect” or “flawless.” It is my karma, my weaknesses, and my lack of understanding. The mythic meditator is the sinner par excellence since he or she must be lacking not the path or the teacher. The rules cannot be questioned since they are inviolate or divinely revealed. Thus, the mind surrenders to the authority of tradition or of the holy book, or to the will of the ordained leader.
Now the magical and mythical aspects of our mind can in the right context serve us quite well during meditation (at least in the preliminary stages), but they invariably fall short and we see through the weaknesses of these dogmatic pronouncements.
Our rational mind breaks through and asks question that magic and myth cannot answer and we realize that doubt and skepticism are superior forces that should be unleashed and not held in check out of fear. In the paper and scissor game of the mind, Occam's Razor cuts right through the thin topography of fanatical divination.
The doubting mediator ignites a fire that burns through any and all isms and through a painful “dark night of the soul” upturns even the most cherished of ideals. In this existential impasse God is dead, the guru is human, and the sacred books nothing more than letters on a page.
The meditator confronts the abyss where magic and myth have no impact and where logic and reasoning seem to be the only guiding beacons.
But this too is but a stage and there comes a point where doubt itself leads beyond itself to direct experience wherein the meditator now free from the shackles of religious obligation embarks on an adventurous quest to find the very source of one's own consciousness, ever realizing that whatever arises cannot be defaulted into a preset model or interpretation. Faqir Chand, the renowned shabd yoga sage, explained this process well with his metaphor of “hanging on the gallows” where one is without prior support since what had come before were a hierarchy of bonded attachments. Letting go, the meditator sets sail for uncharted waters and by necessity must discard the maps that had hitherto given so much purported guidance and solace.
The bubble in order to understand its essential nature in the ocean must at one point burst and merge back from where it came. Meditation then truly becomes dying while living and the meditator along with his or her meditation dissolves into that which is Unknown, and ends up echoing Ludwig Wittgenstein's famous last line of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
 The Kirpal Statistic explains how this works in meditation.
It turns out that almost everybody has the inherent ability to see inner light and hear inner sound. Moreover, almost everybody has the capacity to have an out-of-body experience and behold wondrous inner visions. You don't need to go to an Indian guru to have such experiences; indeed, you don't need to go anywhere at all.
But that's not what Kirpal Singh and his successors told their vast following. Instead, unsuspecting seekers (who number in the thousands) were taught to believe that it was the guru himself, not the disciple, who was orchestrating the elevation of the soul into higher regions. But Kirpal and crew were not being completely forthcoming about the mechanism that governs access to such amazing sights and sounds. That mechanism is the brain and that three pounds of glorious tissue is the lot of all humans.
In the early 1980s when I was teaching religious studies at a Catholic high school, I tried several meditation experiments with my students which convinced me that Kirpal Singh and other gurus like him were taking undue credit for their disciples' inner experiences. In my trial mediation sessions, I informed my students beforehand about the possibility of seeing inner lights and hearing inner sounds.
Naturally, given the boring routine of secondary education, my students were intrigued. I informed them that I knew of an ancient yoga technique that would facilitate their inner voyages. I turned the lights off, instructed them briefly about closing their eyes gently and looking for sparks of light at the proverbial third eye. I told them that I would touch some students on the forehead lightly with my fingers. They meditated for some five minutes. I then proceeded to ask them about their experiences.
[Kirpal Singh invariably did such a process directly after his initiation ceremonies; he also kept a running tally of how many saw stars and so on-something that I have called the 'Kirpal Statistic'.]
To my amazement, since I felt that Kirpal Singh and others were actually transmitting spiritual power, the majority of my students reported seeing light. A few students even claimed to have visions of personages in the middle of the light. Others reported hearing subtle sounds and the like.
I repeated the experiment on four other classes that day. I have also in the past ten years conducted the same experiment on my college students (both undergraduate and graduate). The result, though differing in terms of absolute numbers, is remarkably the same. The majority sees and hears something. It doesn't take a neuropsychologist or a sociologist trained in statistics to realize that Kirpal Singh and others were simply tapping into an already built reservoir of meditational possibilities.
What was unique about Kirpal's approach, at least in comparison with other Radhasoami gurus, was that he claimed to be the responsible agent, the medium through which such inner experiences can be transmitted. Kirpal's disciples generally did not question his grandiose claims, since many of them did indeed see and hear something during their meditation. What they, of course, did not fully appreciate was that almost anybody could have induced them to have inner experiences.
[I don't mean to suggest, though, that Kirpal Singh was not a good catalyst, but only that he was not unique and that his success at providing thousands with access to inner lights and sounds was not necessarily connected to his mastership.]
Religious devotees seem overly eager to give up responsibility for their own neurological happenings, believing instead that it takes a 'Master' to draw their attention 'within.' This may or may not be the case (and I am not implying that gurus don't have anything good to offer), but one thing is certain: Kirpal's claims, and others like his, cannot be divorced (as they often are in Sant Mat related groups ) from an initiates own cultural and psychological field of interplay.
It is that interplay, that acceptance as fact of a guru's method and the disciple's own inherent capacity-neurological or mystical-for inner experiences, which fuels the claims of would-be masters.
It seems wise to me, in light of Near-Death Experiences and the plethora of other meditation accounts, to inspect how we see and hear during our inner voyages of light and sound. Then we may be able to understand why such experiences can occur to almost anybody, anywhere, anytime. It may also help us contextualize and appraise the claims of gurus like Kirpal Singh, who insist on taking credit for their disciples' wondrous visions.
If, as I have suggested, that anybody can act as a conduit for such other-worldly experiences, then Kirpal and gurus like him should be judged on some other criteria, since their claims for uniqueness and exclusiveness are anything but unique and exclusive.
The 'Kirpal Statistic' is exactly that: the probable outcome that the majority of meditators, provided the necessary instructions in Shabd or Nad yoga practice, will see and hear something.