Although I went to the Laymen’s Evangelical Fellowship from childhood, I gradually began to realise there were spiritual problems in the Laymen’s Evangelical Fellowship and with Joshua Daniel himself. It was almost impossible to find critical information on LEF but later I came across references to a book which I then purchased and have been reading. I want to introduce to our readers the book “Christian Gurus”: A Study of the Life and Work of Christian Charismatic Leaders in South India by Dr. Werner Hoerschelmann. I have already quoted from it and some readers are earnestly waiting for more from this book! The author was a pastor for the German speaking congregations in South India and Sri Lanka and a part time lecturer at the United Theological College in Bangalore from 1969 to 1974. During his stay in South India, he came across 40 German speaking followers of a “Christian Guru” (Lawrie) which included a German who had deserted her husband and child and refused to return. Realising that this was not an isolated case, he researched the phenomenon and wrote this book. Indians seem to be so used to Gurus that Westerners seem to be more alert to such deviations. I believe that we can learn a lot from this book and so I wish to share thoughts and excerpts from this book. It was published in German in 1977 and an abridged English version was published in 1998 by Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute. If you find this useful please purchase the book from the publisher.
The author has coined the term “Christian Guru” in order to define the phenomenon of charismatic leaders of independent, indigenous Christian groups in South India. He explains the environment from which this phenomenon has evolved comparing and contrasting India’s social and religious context, analysing Church history in the sub-continent especially the Pentecostals and using examples of Indian (non-Christian) charismatic personalities. Then 20 Christian leaders including Joshua Daniel are described with reference to a predefined outline. After that the author tries to systematise this phenomenon, compares the “Christian guru” with Hindu charismatic personalities and evaluates this phenomenon. The actual and possible impact of this phenomenon on the Church and society is described. Finally a conclusion is given along with some open questions.
Foreword by D. W. Jesudoss.:
“The author has a profound knowledge of not only the person and work of the “Christian Gurus” who are described herein but has acquired a deep insight into the various sociological, cultural and economic bases of the Gurus as is evident from the way he depicts the kind of followers they have and the person of the Guru. … Indians usually mention the caste of a person either to insult or to brag about, but for Westerners the mention of the caste to which a person belongs is necessary to understand context.”
“The author has tried hard to arrive at an understanding of the ‘holy man’ (swami, sadhu, sanyasi, guru). This charismatic personality of a high spiritual standard can look back on an impressive tradition in India and so he holds the conception of the classical Indian guru, properly understood, in high esteem.”
“When the author gives the title “Christian Gurus” to certain leaders of independent churches, it must be pointed out that these leaders are not self styled gurus. … The author ascribes this title to them because he finds some similarities between the Hindu gurus and these leaders.”
“In my view the author is specially qualified to do this work because, as a foreigner, he can write objectively. He has an excellent grasp of the Indian situation. Above all the author loves Indians and their spirituality.”
The author mentions how he first came across a “Christian Guru” in South India which let him to research this phenomenon. Referring to Indian religiosity, the author says that the guru principle is a potent force in Indian society and Christians cannot fully distance themselves from this influence.
“This book deals with “Christian Gurus” and their followers. … The author has coined the term in order to define the phenomenon of charismatic leaders of independent, indigenous Christian groups in South India.”
“According to the general Indian understanding of the guru, he is a savant of the holy scriptures, a teacher of divine truth, and the intermediary without whom salvation cannot normally be obtained. His followers (disciples, ‘chelas’ or ‘shishyas’) typically accept his claims to divine powers, direct divine revelations and the ability to heal and free people from evil (in the wildest sense of the term). For his followers, the metaphysical becomes manifest in the guru (in varying degrees of intensity). Therefore the term “guru” is used to express an entire range of concepts which includes charismatically endowed teachers who as, “go-betweens”, pass on religious knowledge and resources to their disciples; and even includes incarnation of gods, or ‘avatars”.”
“The “guru-shishya relationship” is clearly one of the fundamental patterns of social relationships in India. Through the ages, the authority of the “dominant personality” has had a great influence on religious life, and have even determined developments in the political sphere.”
“One cannot conceive of Hinduism sans the guru. All the amorphous diversity and doctrinal nebulousness of religion are held together by one common thread, viz. reverence for charismatically endowed spiritual teachers. The guru is the backbone of Hinduism.”
The author believes that there would be hundreds of “Christian Gurus” in South India alone and since it is not practical to research all, he had to limit his research. So he concentrated on one urban area Madras (Chennai) and one rural area (Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari). He selected “Christian groups outside and independent of the Church, led by individuals who claimed exclusive authority in matters of doctrine and community life.”
The methodology used was of direct questioning in personal interviews and first-hand observation. Discussions and observations took place on the following levels: visits to group meetings; interviews with group leaders; interviews with members of the groups; interviews with outside informants.
Case study outline
Each case study was done in described in a specific format. This format will be available in the post about Joshua Daniel.
Chapter I: The setting for the phenomenon of the “Christian guru”: Social aspects and the historical development of ideas
Remarks on the social and religious context
In this section the author describes the social and religious context of Tamil Nadu and the two castes from which many of the leaders come.
“The number of people who can today be called genuine, committed representatives of Bhakti, or of philosophically speculative Hinduism or even reformed Hinduism is amazingly small. It is estimated that more than nine tenths of those who are designated as Hindus in the statistics actually subscribe to a piety which is significantly closer to that of the African tribal or folk-religions than that of classical Hinduism”
The principal ideas which appear in every form of Hinduism are mentioned, next the conceptual basis of a “more popular religiosity” is introduced briefly and finally the affinity of Indian Christians to this “popular religiosity” is explored.
“According to the “doctrine” of karma, the issue of human beings’ salvation is settled by their deeds. … The principal of “grace alone” is alien to the Indian religious sensibility. Salvation through deed is indeed possible viz. in a theoretically infinite chain of reincarnations.”
“It was the privilege of the upper castes, particularly the Brahmins, to read and interpret the scriptures. The social classes from the Sudras down were forbidden to study them. … The denial of access to the higher and highest sources of knowledge to all but the elite worked to the advantage of the popular religiosity. On the other hand, the awareness of the existence of a “higher truth”, and a dependence on the priest or teacher class which “possessed” this truth marked – and still marks – the popular religious consciousness. It is but a small step from the feeling of dependence to a divine veneration of the “teacher” (guru) who possesses the divine truth and divine powers as well. Thus the veneration of the guru is, more than any other of the aforementioned principles, characteristic of popular religiosity.”
The author then explores the Indian’s belief in spirits and the local deities. He also write about how many Indian Christians get involved in religious practices of their Hindu neighbours due to social, traditional and work obligations.
“Christians avail themselves to Hindu rites in areas of life concerning security or prosperity, such as pregnancy, birth, puberty, birth, marriage or death. … The wearing of amulets, the observance of auspicious and inauspicious days and times. … Special attention should be given to the influence of Hindu “spiritual authorities” on Christians. This influence can best be explained in the light of an impelling earning for security, for: “A disease can be cured, a stolen thing retrieved the success of an undertaking be assured, is use is made of certain means and methods.” However, the decisive prerequisite for success is always “The way to such achievement goes through the assistance of professionals!”.”
Remarks on Church history
“To comprehend the phenomenon of the “Christian guru” one must be clearly aware that the mission extended to the South Indian area was pietistic in nature and influenced by several revival movements. … What mattered most to the missionaries was not the theological aspect of training but rather the cultivation of a devout heart. … The ideal represented here esteemed more for charisma than for erudition is still relevant to a significant degree for South Indian Christians today. The ideal is realized most fully in the concept of the Christian guru. It is therefore not surprising that all attempts to develop an ingenious Indian Christian identity which have been based on intellectual conceptions have been sterile and ineffective.”
The section ends with a quote from Steven Neill: “Perhaps the Western rates too highly brain and administrative abilities; India responds more to the grace of saintliness. It is true today as it was in the days of Schwartz that the power which will win India for Christ is the radiance of His life seen again in men and women wholly devoted to His will.”
Charismatic personages in India
This section begins with a quote from Khushwant Singh: “There have always been at least 500 living gods in India… Every village has had its own holy man, the Babaji. Mostly religiously inclined Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, (sic!), Parsis and some Muslims as well pay homage to one living saint or another whom they regard as God incarnate.”
The author contrasts this with the West which “has had its “charismatic”, heroes, leaders and stars, but these stellar personalities are no more than human beings whose potential, though greater than that of an average person, nevertheless has a clearly defined upper limit. An anthropology whose basic premise is that the Creator and creation are distinct entities can by its very nature leave no room for trees growing all the way to heaven.” The “Indian” understanding of the human being is quite different! Its basic idea is the absence of a fundamental distinction between physics and metaphysics; between humanity and God.”
“Hindu philosophy teaches that the human being is identical to the highest spirit; the sanyasi who has realized this identity through ‘concentration’ and ascetiscm is entiteled to say: ‘I am God’ and receives as such the sort of veneration that is offered to a Hindu deity.”
“It is hardly surprisingly that the Indian finds himself surrounded by so many living demi-gods and gods who, though as high above him as the heavens, can still live with him in human solidarity. … One cannot conceive of Indian society sans the “spiritually superior being””.
Charisma and social activism: two examples
The examples of Sri Narayana Guru, the “saviour” of the Ezhavas and Chattampi Swamika, the “prophet” of the Nairs are given.
Elucidation of the terms “rishi”, “sadhu”, and “sanyasi”
The definitions given by the author are beyond the scope of this post and useful quotes have been shared.
“India’s “holy men” (and women) and “swamis” are legion. Equally obvious is the statement that their teaching and life styles are multifarious and varied. … Out of the swirling mass of perceptions and descriptions, a few basic models can be distinguished. Of these, the most important examples are described by the terms “rishi”, “sadhu”, “sanyasi” and “guru”. The root of all “holy living” in India is the will to ascetic renunciation of the world.”
“Set physical exercises and positions, and especially breath control, were used to suppress every stirring of the senses in the body and soul to develop the mental powers of concentration to the point where an ecstatic state of trance could be induced. … “To think nothingness was believed to be the path which led to the apprehension of the Absolute.””
“The holy man is above the laws of morality and social mores. In the eyes of the Indian people, therefore, sadhus are “saints, just or pious men, those who are free from all defects.” They are the ones who spend their lives in “sadhana”, prayer and meditation, to a greater degree than others do.”
“The “divine” authority of the holy man rests not so much on his character as on his knowledge and ability to avail of certain practices which have an impact on the realm of the spirits and the gods.”
In the beginning of this section is a quote from the book Godmen of India by Peter Brent: “The skeleton of Hinduism is the Guru. The continuity of divine awareness which runs through the succession of Guru by Guru is the chain which binds the religion together. Revelation is not, as among Christians and Muslims, something which occurred at a particular moment in history, a unique and seminal event from which the essential vigour flows. The continuous presence of self-realized persons gives Hindus access to a constant inspirational source. In a confusion of ideas, philosophies and sectarian beliefs, in a morass of idolatry and superstition, faith in the Guru as intermediary resolves all problems of doctrine.”
“The guru’s relevance depends on the absence of doctrinal, hierarchical and other organizational structures, and that he is considered the source of an ever-flowing stream of divine revelations. In Monier Williams’ Sanskrit-English Dictionary the guru is defined as a “venerable, respectable man, any venerable or respectable person …, a spiritual parent or preceptor (from whom a youth receives the initiatory mantra or prayer, who instructs him in the Sastras ..)” i.e. etymologically speaking as a personage of some weight.”
The author then briefly describes three distinct types of gurus in the time of writing: Vellimalai Mounguru, Swami Ramdass and Satya Sai Baba.
Yogiji Maharaj is quoted: “ A Guru is one who eradicates our ignorance, who lifts us. He is one who can interpret the scriptures in such a way that the disciple may know the significance of the spiritual path. He is one who carries within him the divine form of God. … The performance of miracles has also a place in the spiritual life. The Guru performs them, not to show that he is the Guru, but when they are needed to attract the disciple. And when the disciple is attached to the Guru, he gives him knowledge, purifies him and makes him fit for the worship of God. The miracles have no importance in the later stage of spiritual life. They are merely to attract the disciple, to make him feel that the Guru has some supernatural powers … The definition of a Guru should always be this, that he is one who knows the Vedas, the Scripture. But that does not mean one who knows the books merely; the Vedas describe God. So ultimately the Guru is one who knows God. And he should be one who lives in God …”
Based on this, the author defines three qualifications required of a spiritual teacher: a knowledge of the sacred scriptures, purity in life style and extraordinary powers.
“It is crucial that the guru” be able to prove that he possesses “spiritual powers” because he has not only to pass on knowledge to his disciples but also to guide them into a new kind of existence.”
“The key to the guru’s role as an intermediary through who salvation is procured lies in the fact that access to the sacred scriptures was restricted to only a few during the Vedic period. Gurus transmitted their knowledge to only select disciples from their own caste and background. So developed the Brahmin domination based on an education in the scriptures. The son of a Brahmin had to live for at least eight years with a guru chosen by his family. During this period at the ashram, the boy would imbibe divine and secular wisdom.”
Farquhar is quoted: “The devotee, whether man or woman, chooses a guru for himself or herself, and a permanent spiritual relationship is supposed to be established between teacher and disciple.”
“As soon as the guru feels that his disciple has reached spiritual maturity, an initiation rite called “diksha” is performed. … Through diksha, the guru puts his seal on the spiritual maturity of the disciple.”
A quote from the article “Guru” in the “Hindu World” encyclopaedia is given: “ Important truths do not come through study of books or independent intellectual compilation, but are the result of inherited wisdom handed down from inspired leaders.”
Based on this the author feels it is not surprising that “the guide to God is himself exalted to the divine sphere”. Quoting others the author shows that some say that “The true Guru is like God; he is not God himself” while others dispense with the second half and claim “Divinity itself in the form of flesh”. He also cites Sai Baba’s followers who make also make no distinction between their god and their guru.
“The shishya accepts the authority of the guru unconditionally. The correct attitude of a shishya towards a guru is best described by the word “surrender”. This surrender is matched by the guru’s equally absolute acceptance of responsibility for the shishya. He is concerned with every aspect of the shishya’s life, even – or rather, especially – his eternal salvation. In this way the guru functions to a great extend as a counsellor to his circle of disciples, whatever its size.”
“The guru himself exudes a self-image which is a mixture of divine authority and modesty. He would never say “I am God” but he will keep on suggesting it, and the chelas will keep on discovering it”
“Practicall every guru with a larger following is surrounded by an inner circle of trusted chelas. The most distinguished disciples in terms of qualifications and social status usually make up the inner circle. From this group, the guru selects his successor that is, if he does not pass his position to his son.”
“The guru acquires the financial resources he and his family need through free donations and offerings, and occasionally through a fixed system of dues. The gurus with international following frequently amass considerable fortunes.”
“The followers of an especially gifted guru recount legends as well as stories about the miracles performed by him.”
The author concludes that “the guru concept is still a potent force in the life of the Indian populace and cannot be lightly dismissed”. “The need for an experience guide is built ito the very nature of Hinduism. Hinduism is not a finite collection of doctrines which can be learned; rather it is an experience of gradually perfecting oneself. Having himself walked the path of knowledge of the unity of self and the absolute, the guru is indispensable for the salvation of others.”
My concluding remarks
I hope you have read this very long post. I have spend countless hours in reading the book and writing this article with the hope that Christians, especially those in India will get a better understanding of the Guru phenomenon. By comparing this information with the principles laid down in the Bible, I hope you will be alert and not fall prey to “Christian Gurus” and warn weaker brothers and especially weaker sisters.
In this part I have introduced this book and it’s initial chapters. In the next part I will list the 20 leaders that were researched by the author. After that I will post the section on Joshua Daniel. Finally my analysis and the author’s analysis will be posted.