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).
Death Threats, Personality Issues, Financial Intrigue,
And Murder in Guru Succession
David Lane interviews Professor Bhagat Ram Kamal, the current spiritual leader of Manavta Mandir in India.
In other words, the guru's power is derived from us, not vice versa.
Guru succession can be an ugly business. I have long noticed that whenever a spiritual leader dies there is almost invariably a contest among disciples over who should be regarded as the rightful successor. Of course, if the guru leaves clear instructions before departing the in-fighting can be greatly lessened. But even then, troubles can still arise.
In addition, it is often difficult for disciples of a spiritual master to readily accept his successor. This is particularly the case if he has personality quirks or acts in ways contrarian to what is expected. While some devotees may find the new successor winsome, for others it can be a hard sell, especially if the successor alters specific aspects of the philosophy or has a unique approach that one finds disconcerting.
The problem is that in Sant Mat and Radhasoami circles, there is a longstanding belief that the guru and his successor are essentially one and the same. Rejecting the teacher's heir apparent is akin to rejecting the teacher himself. Thus, if a disciple sees a discrepancy between his beloved guru and his scion he tends to indulge in “ideological work”, rationalizing why there are inconsistencies or intellectually massaging away any perceived discrepancies (moral or otherwise) in the belief that it is a “teaching moment.”
This came into sharper relief for me after the death of Baba Faqir Chand (1886-1981), the famous “unknowing” sage, whose main center, Manavta Mandir, was in Hoshiarpur, Punjab, India. I have a deep respect and admiration for Faqir, even though he wasn't my guru. We had a number of intimate talks together when I visited him for several days at his ashram and we corresponded for three years. He was planning on flying to Los Angeles and staying at my home but he took ill and died at the age of ninety-five in the hospital in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.
I was already aware that Faqir had appointed two of his closest disciples, Munshi Ram Bhagat and Dr. I.C. Sharma to succeed him in promoting his philosophy. However, tensions arose among many followers of Faqir Chand when Dr. I.C. Sharma, neglecting the advice that was given to him to remain in America for a couple of more years, decided to move back to India early and take control of Manavta Mandir. Moreover, Sharma's personality and way of teaching contrasted dramatically with Faqir Chand's.
I first came into contact with Sharma when arranging flight plans for Faqir to visit me in Los Angeles. We had secured two first class roundtrip tickets (via John-Roger Hinkins) for Faqir and his personal doctor to fly from Pittsburg late in August. Around this time I got a hurried phone call from Sharma requesting that he too be given a first class ticket to Los Angeles. When I explained that Faqir (who was then ninety-five years old) had only requested one for himself and his physician, Sharma protested and said, “I too can give talks.” I politely declined his persistent demand. My initial impression of Sharma was not a good one, as he seemed entirely too self-serving.
This would become much more evident a few years later in 1984 when I published a two-part article entitled "The Enchanted Land: With the Saints of India" in Fate Magazine. In one section I had written at length about Yogini Mataji (Tripta Devi), who was appointed by Faqir to instruct women and other seekers on the spiritual path.
Sharma took umbrage at this, falsely stating that he was the only true guru appointed by Faqir Chand and that he was planning on taking a lawsuit against me for claiming otherwise. I knew at once Sharma was wrong and that Faqir had in his own writings years prior mentioned how and why he chose certain disciples to serve as spiritual teachers.
I was wonderstruck by Sharma's threats which went against the very essence of Faqir's inclusive and tolerant message of Manavta, be a good and kind human being first.
I wrote a scathing letter back to Sharma and his then secretary detailing how mistaken they were. They immediately dropped their threats. I am not sure why but then a couple of years later Sharma attempted to become my friend, asking me to visit him when he came to the United States. I accepted his invitation and we had a pleasant conversation at the house he was staying at in Palos Verdes, California. He even asked if we could write a book together about the last days of Faqir Chand. I readily accepted. But it was not meant to be. A year or so later, Sharma came back to Palos Verdes from India and on December 12, 1991, again asked if we could meet to discuss the book project. I arrived on time, only to find out that Sharma had learned of a new sale at the Sears Department Store and was eager to buy something. I waited for an hour, but had to leave since I was teaching a class that night at Palomar College. As I was driving away I saw Sharma in a taxi on his way back from
Sears. It was the last time I saw him.
Sharma's personality was, in my experience, the opposite of Faqir Chand, even though it is quite true that he, along with Munshi Ram Bhagat, was duly appointed by Faqir to carry on his teachings. I was not alone in my assessment as many disciples of Faqir Chand just couldn't stomach Sharma's self-aggrandizing ways, even if they tried to stay the course.
I mention this because I realized that just because a guru appoints someone as his spiritual heir, it doesn't mean that he will necessarily live up to the same high standards as his predecessor. Of course, it could also be that certain individuals resonate more with the successor than his predecessor. While clearly Sharma was not my cup of tea, I am fairly confident that for others he was perfectly fine.
This raises a pregnant issue that is not often explored in the world of guru politics. Forget theology and all that it suggests, the real dividing line in the world of spiritual teachers comes down to personality types and our own perceptions of charisma. The cliché' “what's good for the goose is good for the gander” doesn't hold true when it comes to gurus and their successors, given the wide variance of individual preferences.
Sadly, Dr. Sharma's life took a tragic turn when his wife, with whom he was quite close, was murdered. It appears that there was some political intrigue behind her beheading, since Sharma's wife had kept a close eye on the ashram's financial accounts and saw that money donated to the spiritual center in Hoshiarpur was being illegally siphoned off by certain unscrupulous individuals. The murderer (s?) made sure that Dr. Sharma was hundreds of miles away in New Delhi when she was alone in Hoshiarpur to make it easier to kill her. There was much political intrigue which seems to have been motivated by Vijay Negi, a highly ranked police officer, who desired to be Dr. Sharma's successor and a guru in his own right, even while Sharma was still living. A Will was produced which allegedly had Sharma's imprimatur transferring the gaddi over to Vijay Negi.
The story turns even uglier. Dr. Sharma was mortified by the murder and beheading of his dear wife. After this horrific episode, Dr. Sharma's physical well-being and mental condition deteriorated considerably. He never recovered from this and died a few years later. Before this time, Sharma left Manavta Mandir and was replaced by Vijay Negi, whose satsangs contradicted with many of Baba Faqir Chand's own teachings. Vijay Negi's questionable appointment led to a rift at Manavta Mandir and he decided to appoint a woman as the next guru, even though she was mostly unknown to the Manavta Mandir membership. This further alienated long-time followers of Faqir Chand. The board of trustees at Manavta Mandir decided that something must be done to reestablish the lofty humanistic goals of the center, since Vijay Negi's actions were contrary to the essence of Faqir Chand's life and work. Perhaps realizing that he was losing control of the sangat, Vijay Negi decided to install Professor Bhagat Ram Kamal as the spiritual leader of the satsang.
Vijay Negi then left Manavta Mandir forever and he has subsequently cut off ties with the organization. He even asked that none of his earlier satsangs be published by Faqir's organization. Today Vijay Negi goes by the Shoonyo Ji Maharaj and has set up meditation camps for interested seekers, which he promotes for a price.
Presently, Manavta Mandir is under the leadership of Professor Bhagat Ram Kamal. He doesn't claim to be a guru as such but only interested in spreading the ideals of his guru Baba Faqir Chand with whom he has been in close contact with since 1956.
The tragedy of this particular tale is that it is not unique in the world of gurus, since far too often the desire for god like statuses and all the entitlements that go with it is too tempting for some envious disciples to resist. Perhaps one solution to this troublesome tend for religious authority is for us to wake up to the fact that all spiritual teachers are fallible human beings and we should stop elevating them and their organizations to unreasonable heights of glory. If we would acknowledge the intrinsic hubris involved in hoisting humans into gods, we could liberate ourselves (and our teachers) from this needless delusion.
Wouldn't it make more sense to view our gurus as meditation coaches instead of objects of worship? Then, like trainers in all athletic sports (from football to basketball) they would be held accountable for their successes and failures and pay the price accordingly. The greatest lesson in all of this, of course, is that it is time for religious aspirants to grow up and take responsibility for her/his own spiritual development. Otherwise, we become prey for those who would take advantage of our naivety and innocence. Any guru worthy of the honorific must serve as a transparency (not a closed circuit) to the disciple's own growth. After all, as the late Baba Faqir Chand so astutely pointed out,
“Now, you see no Jesus Christ comes from without in anybody's visions. No Rama, no Krishna, no Buddha, and no Baba Faqir comes from without to anybody. The visions are only because of the impressions and suggestions that a disciple has already accepted in his mind. These impressions and suggestions appear to him like a dream. No body comes from without. This is the plain truth.”
In other words, the guru's power is derived from us, not vice versa. Therefore, we are doing the heavy lifting and instead wrongly project on him all sorts of magical powers which he doesn't have.
It is high time that we liberate our gurus from god-like statuses and let them descend back to terra firma so that we may have a more truthful and honest relationship with our fellow human beings, even if they may possess gifts that we ourselves don't yet possess.