Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus

Book Review by Dr. Ng Kam Weng

Book Title: Anthony Storr. Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus. Harper Collins


We are truly living in an age of anti-heroes. This can be inferred from the way films make fun of traditional role models of society. For example, priests are depicted as hypocrites and law officers are often portrayed as incompetent and abusive. In response, some government authorities have resorted to religious education as a means to repel such cynicism. Unfortunately, in the process, religion also becomes a means of social control. Consequently, many people find spirituality desiccated and deadened by formal social rituals. Religious seekers looking for inspiration feel oppressed by legalistic authorities and their religious regulations.

Even religious leaders may not be what they profess to be. As a child I had my own apocalyptic revelation. A relative of mine couldn’t resist helping himself to the delicious mangoes fruiting in the grounds of a nearby temple. Unfortunately a nun caught him red handed. She vehemently heaped upon him curses that his stomach would dissolve and his intestines be corroded. So much for the holy claims of religious leaders for an impressionable child.

Not surprisingly, many people direct their spiritual quest in the direction of religious communes at the fringe of society that are often organized around a charismatic guru. Unfortunately, their quests often end up with grievous consequences. Their desperate hunger for spiritual authenticity make them vulnerable to exploitation. Many sink into mindless submission to powerful guru personalities.

The world of the gurus provides endless fascination for press voyeurism. The exclusiveness of such religious communes only enhance their exotic character. Then again, nostalgia over the loss of childhood faith and religious beliefs generates a vague sense of personal vulnerability to promises of peace and exclusive, privileged membership in a utopian community.

The followers of gurus have been intensively studied. In contrast, less research have been carried out on gurus themselves. Anthony Storr, an accomplished psychiatrist and author from Oxbridge, offers in his book Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus path-breaking explorations into the esoteric world of the gurus.

Storr possesses the necessary psychiatric skills to fathom the complexities of the human psyche. He acknowledges the inadequacy of psychoanalytic categories and the inherent difficulties in plumbing the human psyche. But with apt use of earlier reports he manages to offer succinct profiles of prominent gurus that are both interesting and plausible. This is no mean achievement. Gurus are known for their complexities, if not irrationality.

Storr rightly adopts a dispassionate and sometimes sympathetic approach to the extraordinary behaviors and often astonishing claims of the gurus. He offers a wide range of case studies. As expected, his subjects include well known and infamous gurus such as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Jim Jones. The former especially fits into the stereotype of the genre of ‘karma-cola’ gurus exported from India to USA. However, eyebrows are raised when Storr includes Carl Jung and Freud in his list of gurus.

How does Storr manage to bring together such strange bedfellows? He links the gurus with the following characteristics. First, gurus exhibit charisma. This is the sociological term first used by Max Weber to describe “a special magical quality of personality by virtue of which the individual possessing it was set apart from ordinary men and women, and treated as if endowed with supernatural or superhuman powers.” A powerful ability to influence and control devoted disciples follows. Second, gurus pass through a period of definable mental illness. Some recover with new springs of creative energy while others continue with life-long neurosis. Third, gurus proclaim superior wisdom, some backed by an alleged discovery of hidden archaic wisdom in their mysterious adventures. Finally, gurus demand unquestioned obedience from their followers. Such absolute power may even lead to sexual exploitation.

Ng Kam Weng

Comments are closed.