Do you have any comments on the concept of “guru’s grace” or ‘shaktipat guru’; the idea that some teachers are able to ‘induce’ experience in seekers or ‘transmit’ knowledge or ‘spiritual power’? Numerous reports of this sort of thing abound in the literature, and I myself have experienced something along these lines many years ago from a “mystical teacher” I followed for a couple of years in 1978-1980. I wonder what is actually going on in this sort of incident. Is it just 100% psychology at work, pure self-deception? Such “transmission” experiences can often be the seed or catalyst that spurs further effort on the path. There are so many examples of an aspirant “feeling something” in the presence of a teacher or guru that it seems inappropriate to just dismiss such claims outright.
It is true that some teachers can “induce” experiences in seekers. The teacher’s ability to do this might be called a “spiritual” power in the sense that is seems both extraordinary – i.e. something most people can’t do – and mystical – i.e. beyond the normal range of mundane or worldly occurrences. The qualitative effect of this energy transmission on the seeker might, as well, be referred to as “spiritual power” in the sense that it powers up one’s mind-body-sense complex – most specifically the subtle body – in the same way that an influx of warm air heats up a room or the blare of dance music livens up a party.
Mystical and magical as shaktipat, the transmission of “spiritual energy” or the “descent of grace” seems to be, it is fundamentally a phenomenon that is rather commonplace and familiar to all. It is no secret that energy affects energy, that, for instance, weather conditions affect one’s body or that the mood of someone with whom one is interacting affects one’s own. Indeed, it is for this reason that most – if not all – spiritual traditions advise one to be mindful of the company one keeps, both in terms of one’s own thoughts as well as other people.
In this sense, examples of shaktipat abound in popular culture. Sex symbols such as Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Madonna, and Marilyn Monroe incited thousands of fans with emotional reactions ranging from attraction to admiration to unalloyed lust. Power mongers such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung as well as peace warriors such as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela ignited in their countrymen intense feelings of respect, loyalty, and purpose. Spiritual titans such as Jesus, the Pope, the Buddha, and Ammachi are said to bestow blessings upon, invoke transcendental experiences in, and inspire the unwavering faith of countless devotees.
In more ordinary terms, if you have ever fallen in love, been motivated by someone who believed in you, or had your hurt feelings soothed by a friend, then you have essentially experienced shaktipat.
The shaktipat we speak of in terms of spiritual awakening seems different from these mundane forms of energy transference because it can, depending on its degree of intensity, induce extraordinary experiences, uncommon insights, and/or a sense of expansion that reaches beyond the boundaries of one’s conditioned notions of time and space. As awe- inspiring, powerful, mind-blowing, or beautiful as these epiphanies may be, however, they are essentially no different than any other experience in terms of substance and shelf-life. In other words, they are nothing more that apparent objects that arise, abide, and subside in awareness. They are transient and temporary, ephemeral and impermanent. In short, they do not last.
More significant is the fact that experience itself does not transmit knowledge. Though it can be said that experience is the container of knowledge, most often in the case of spiritual epiphanies one is so entirely overwhelmed by the experience itself that one is rendered incapable of analyzing or inquiring into it as it is happening and so fails to glean the knowledge it has to offer. Furthermore, most often the mind of the one having the experience is still riddled with ignorance concerning its true nature and would, therefore, be incapable of correctly interpreting the experience anyway.
The bottom line, in light of what has been said, is quite simply the basic fact that no teacher can transmit enlightenment.
But if the teacher is not transmitting enlightenment, then what exactly is going on, and – perhaps more to the point – how is what’s going on happening?
The phenomenon of shaktipat involves three essential factors: 1) the teacher’s reservoir of “spiritual” energy, 2) the student’s expectation and/or readiness, and 3) the “group mind” that surrounds the event.
One’s reservoir of “spiritual” energy – i.e. the amount and quality of the spiritual power one has at one’s disposal – can be cultivated by means of tapas. In the Vedas, tapas refers to both the “inner heat” created by the practice of physical and mental austerities and the ascetic practice itself that is voluntarily carried out to achieve spiritual power or purification. The practice of tapas is intended as a yogic discipline through which one can purify the body in preparation for more exacting spiritual practices that lead to moksha or liberation. But tapas can, as well, be used as a means of developing siddhis or special esoteric powers. There is both external tapas, such as fasting, restricting the intake of food, holding difficult and sometimes painful bodily postures, meditating, and living in seclusion, and internal tapas, such as contemplation, confession, and repentance of sins. Essentially, the practice of tapas calls upon one to conserve one’s energy by harnessing it, so to speak, through physical and mental discipline and refusing its dissipation through any outward expression. Over time, one essentially becomes a highly-charged “spiritual battery” that can energize any instrument – or person as it were – to whatever degree such is capable of conducting that energy. If a teacher has done a great deal of intense tapas during his or her sadhana or spiritual practice through which he or she has accumulated a ready supply of subtle energy, then he or she can, to a greater or lesser degree, infuse others with that energy and give them a glimpse or experience of their own expansive nature at will.
The student’s own degree of “spiritual readiness” also plays a role in this transmission. Depending upon the level of purity one has cultivated either through spiritual practices undertaken during one’s present lifetime or in previous lifetimes, one will be more or less able to conduct the teacher’s charge and, thus, will have experiences characterized by a greater or lesser degree of intensity, expansiveness, and lucidity. Moreover, one’s expectation indubitably affects one’s experience. Though quite obviously experience doesn’t always accord with one’s intentions, wishes, or assumptions, the more primed one is with expectation the more likely it is that such desire will “project” itself upon or manifest through one’s experience. For particularly “sensitive” individuals, this more or less subconscious imaginative capacity can serve to not only color but also create experience.
The atmosphere created by the collective attitude or “group mind” can also wield a powerful influence upon the flow of energy between the teacher and the students. It is a readily observable fact that a field of energy characterized by a specific emotional quality can be established by a gathering of like-minded people holding a similar intention. Hitler’s Nuremburg rallies provide a dark example of this phenomenon, the frivolity of a rock concert a lighter one. Equally apparent is the influence such a collective mind-set can have on an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Such is the basis of peer pressure.
Shaktipat cannot be attributed solely to some special power wielded by the teacher, nor can it be credited wholly to the student’s imaginative capacity. Rather, it is a curious mixture of both. Whatever the case, shaktipat is nevertheless nothing more than an object or phenomenon appearing in awareness (which is satyam or real), and is, thus, by definition, mithya or only apparent – i.e. dependently real. And that which is only apparently real and, thus, by nature limited cannot produce something that is absolutely real and, thus, by nature limitless.
This is not to say that shaktipat has no value. One’s awakening to the sense that there is something more to life than meets the eye and the inspiration to undertake or continue the journey toward enlightenment and liberation can be initiated or reinforced by such a transfusion of energy from a person who has cultivated a store of subtle power as the result of his or her own spiritual practice. And such, no doubt, is a great stroke of grace.
There are several potential drawbacks with regard to shaktipat that render its value in terms of sadhana or spiritual practice at best questionable and at worst of no practical value.
For the student who is enamored of spiritual experience – and who but the most mature seeker isn’t, especially at the point in their spiritual development when he or she is most likely to receive shaktipat and put an inordinate share of stock in its merit? – the allure of such an altered state is irresistible and the penchant to repeat it almost invariably becomes his or her top priority. In no time one develops a vasana for such experiences, and thus, rather than serving to free one from the ultimately fruitless pursuit of object-happiness, the experience has only further enmeshed one in the pursuit of pleasure and bound one ever more tightly to the wheel of samsara, the repetitive cycle of gladness and grief.
Another drawback is that, harboring the belief that the teacher is source of one’s spiritual experiences, one can develop a dependency on the teacher. Inherent in this dependency is one of the most prevalent and insidious misunderstandings concerning the teacher’s role in the student’s spiritual development: the belief that the teacher is some “higher” or special being who eat one’s karma, burn away one’s vasanas, speed up one’s sadhana, and deliver unto one moksha. Such, however, is not the case. The teacher is the teacher. The student is the student. Each is an apparent individual in his or her own right. And no one individual can do the sadhana of another. Each person has their own karma for which to account, each their own vasanas to alleviate. The teacher can describe the route to self-realization, but the student must trek the path of self-inquiry on his or her own.
Taking enlightenment to be a particular type of experience and the teacher to be its catalyst, the student dooms him or herself to the same temporary satisfaction that characterizes samsara. Worse, without knowledge to show for it, as soon as the shaktipat experience wears off one suffers the same feelings of incompleteness and inadequacy and remains stuck in the same state of ignorance as ever.
Overall, the value of shaktipat is relative and ultimately of little importance with regard to self-realization and permanent freedom. Experience itself does not effect emancipation, and the teacher can’t do it for you. Moreover, as the scriptures indicate, there are no experiential qualifications for enlightenment. Knowledge is the result of a prepared mind meeting with a proper means of knowledge. And only knowledge sets one free.