On the spiritual path, why is it necessary or valuable to have the guidance of a teacher, or “guru”? And, if you choose to work with a guru, how do you find one that is authentic? These are questions that are answered here by Somananda, a tantric spirituality teacher who holds retreats in Europe and South America among other places. Somananda started his spiritual path in 1996 when he was working as an attorney, and found himself attracted to yoga.
How did the spiritual path begin for you?
Most people who hear the term “yoga” think of some sort of lifestyle choice or simply gymnastics, but actually the physical aspect of yoga is the smallest part. Fortunately, I discovered this at an early stage of my spiritual path, when I got my hands on some ancient yogic texts. After three years of study and joining some courses, I decided to discover the real yoga and so, I quit my job and went to India in search of a teacher. It took quit a bit of time to find an authentic yoga teacher because India has become quite commercialized, but I did find my guru Swami Vivekananda Saraswati. He is not only a yoga teacher, but also a tantra master and meditation master. I studied under him for four years in India, and then followed him to Thailand for another six years, and he continues to be my teacher today.
How can we identify a spiritual path, and what needs to be there to call it that?
My goal is to open people to a more authentic spiritual lifestyle, and to show them that spirituality doesn’t need to be new age mumbo jumbo. What I share with people comes directly from my teacher Swami Vivekananda and his lineage. I didn’t invent any of this. Authentic yoga teachings are incredibly powerful, and there’s a lot of real content. My teacher has compared it to engineering – there are specific techniques, it is structured, and comes from ancient knowledge of yoga and tantra. It is all very practical knowledge that you can apply immediately in your life.
That is why I am very relaxed teaching this knowledge – I know I am not sitting there just telling people whatever comes to my mind because of my personal inspiration. Unfortunately, it is very common in many so-called ‘spiritual’ workshops these days that the facilitator will say “I am just speaking from my heart, and I am inspired to tell you that you should do this and do that”. This is irresponsible from my perspective, and from the perspective of ancient knowledge and ancient spiritual science.
The yoga and tantra tradition in India goes back more than 6000 years and there are many yogic teachers and masters who have reached full enlightenment. In other terms, they have reached Buddhahood, and through their expanded and high levels of consciousness, they have seen the ultimate reality; they have seen and understood what can take a person to self-realization and what does not. It is those high levels of consciousness, which make it possible to write sacred texts with methodologies of reaching that very elevated spiritual state. This information and these teachings are not open to individual interpretation or improvisation; this is real structured practice that can take a person from A to Z. It is doable if you follow a clear path built by enlightened masters.
Enlightenment isn’t something to take lightly. Now, people are saying that they’ve done a weekend ayahuasca ceremony or some short of a spiritual course and they have reached liberation. That means that the yogis who spent 30 years practicing or in a cave in meditation were fools, because all they needed was a weekend of ayahuasca and they would have solved the problem! This is how, unfortunately, today’s alternative environment misleads most people.
This type of thinking shows us that people don’t really understand the truth. The truth is that there is a path to enlightenment, it is real, and available to us even in modern times, we have not lost that. But it can’t be traveled in a weekend or a short course. If you want to truly understand and master anything, it takes dedication and time. Spiritual knowledge is also often quite esoteric, so once you learn a new element, you have to practice to assimilate it and to allow it to transform you. This is something that Western culture has lost sight of. Most people aren’t willing to commit to an ongoing practice and are looking for a quick fix.
Why do you need a guru when you can read the sacred texts yourself?
When you read these texts, they all say very clearly that whatever is written here must be shown by a teacher (a guru). And that is why in 1996 when I read these texts, I saw the same formula again and again: “This is the technique, but you need to have a guru showing it to you, otherwise it is irresponsible”. So I went to India to find my guru. I realized that, in order to make progress in my spiritual development, I needed to do it the proper way, the right way. In modern times we have a lot of diluted and even completely wrong interpretations of ancient teachings and fake gurus, so “doing it the proper way” can actually be quite challenging.
How do we know that a guru is authentic?
This is indeed an important question and a challenging one for modern times. There is a lot of false spirituality being taught by many fake gurus, who are not authentically spiritual. This means that they have not truly reached higher spiritual levels of achievement and are still ego-oriented and looking for followers while being full of attachments. Worst even, many so-called gurus, actually believe they are spiritual and authentic, thus misleading themselves as well as their followers.
Since a fake guru can look and feel as good as real, it is indeed not easy to identify his/her authenticity. The yogic spiritual texts recommend to verify your guru in comparison to the teachings given in the authentic spiritual texts, for example The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Shiva Samhita and others. By checking to see if the teachings of the guru are in concordance with the content and spirit of authentic spiritual texts, you can get a good idea.
Secondly, you need to be patient and see if the guru, especially in challenging situations, is still detached or responding from the ego. That is another clue. Eventually, listening, as best you can, to your most inner intuition will also be essential.
What difference does it make to have a guru?
Oh, a big difference! Imagine someone wanting to become a medical doctor by only reading medical textbooks. This, by definition, is very different than studying in a university for years under the guidance of your professors and then practicing in a hospital under the supervision of actual doctors. You cannot compare these two paths.
It’s the same thing in spirituality: Reading spiritual texts, although a necessary addition to your studies, will not make you successful on your spiritual quest. For the average person, relying only on self-study can even be extremely dangerous, and it is very-very rare that it will give any profound positive results.
Your teacher and guru can guide you through the pitfalls of spiritual practice and ensure that you get the teachings the right way. A true guru is objective and can witness where you are having difficulty and correct your path accordingly. It is necessary for this teacher to have reached a certain level of spiritual liberation himself, so that he not only guides you from personal experience, but he is also able to see things that no ordinary human being can see.
A guru needs to have a type of global perspective or panoramic view that allows him to see not only the next step you need to take, but the next hundred steps. Sometimes the guidance that your guru gives you might not even make sense to you at that moment, but if you are ready for the spiritual path, you will listen to it, trust your guru, and get results.
In 2008, by the grace of his Guru, Somananda reached self realization and Samadhi, and he has been deepening these experiences ever since. In 2010 Somananda founded a new Agama branch, this time in Estonia. Recently this initiative evolved into Somananda.org, an inspired international enterprise in which Somananda and his wife and fellow teacher Liisa offer unique teachings around the world, conducting seminars, retreats and workshops. Together they bring a modern approach by conveying ancient spiritual teachings in a clear, practical and charismatic way, always with dedication and passion.