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The guru, from the Indian sage to the “perverse and paranoid” despot


History of a concept. Gurus are everywhere. In recent months, the cases of naturopath Eric Gandon, alias the ” guru of fasting cures”, indicted after the death of a 40-year-old who was taking part in one of his internships; by Thierry Casasnovas, “raw food guru”, arrested after investigation for illegal practice of medicine over videos promoting raw food diets; or Christian Ruhaut, the “Vienna Guru”yoga teacher judged for having organized “sex workshops” with his students, hit the headlines.

But what exactly does the term “guru” mean? In our secularized societies, where spiritual practice, especially if it is collective, tends to be marginalized, even to become suspect, the use of this word from Hinduism is almost exclusively pejorative, associated with individuals with deviant practices, even criminal, against a background of mental manipulation. However, it has not always been so.

“A ‘swear word’ in the West”

The term appeared in India around the middle of the Ier millennium BC. In several ancient texts, it designates both scholars, philosophers, spiritual advisers to princes or masters with more practical teachings, some of which will later inspire yoga. “’Guru’ is a Sanskrit word having common roots with the word ‘grave’, in the sense of ‘heavy’. The guru, originally, is the one who is “heavy” with knowledge. He is also ‘heavy’ in the sense that he is ‘pregnant’ with his disciples, he ‘brings’ them to spiritual life. deciphers the historian Ysé Tardan-Masquelier, author of Masters of the Upanishads. The wisdom that frees (Dots, 2014).

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Medieval India then saw the proliferation of biographical accounts of many semi-legendary, semi-historical figures, qualified as gurus. A bit like Christian saints, especially Orthodox, these characters are endowed with extraordinary powers, capable of reading souls or predicting the future. Often the guru withdraws from the world in his youth, embracing a life of destitution, until he becomes wise enough to welcome disciples and found a community.

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Even today, in Hinduism, the term designates all sorts of spiritual leaders who claim to be heirs to these traditions. “But we are in another context, transnationalsays Ysé Tardan-Masquelier. Some have many foreign followers, with branches all over the world. Even if there are many honest gurus, this multiplies the risk of abuse. It can easily develop a villainous business and a cult of personality, with an aloof and idealized guru. »

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