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Gurus not just for jet set anymore

San Francisco Chronicle, USA ~Sep 14, 2008

In July, Dattatreya Siva Baba, also known as the YouTube Guru, and guru to self-help superstar Wayne Dyer, held a ceremony at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral to welcome "the Grace Light," a divine light that he believes will usher in a new era of compassion and enlightenment for the human race.

The place was packed.

And not with New Age space cadets or Burning Man neo-spiritualists. According to one attendee, it was a clean-cut, professional crowd. "Definitely not fringe," he said, adding that it might have had to do with the $40 admission fee.

Three days before that, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, guru and head of the International Centers of the Art of Living organization, held "Health and Happiness 2008" at a most un-patchouli, un-flowers-in-the-hair venue, the Santa Clara Hyatt Regency. Again, the 750-plus crowd was not what one might expect: It consisted mostly of South Asian Silicon Valley professionals, office workers and engineers in casual work clothes.

These days, it seems housewives, accountants and baristas are just as likely to seek out snowy-bearded advisers as celebrities and devout ascetics. While gurus once used to seem exotic or strange, they're now becoming a regular part of our world. Some say it's because clear-cut customs, old-time religion and staid social conventions have given way to more freedom, resulting in more doubt, dysfunction and stress. We're floundering, according to this view. But others see it quite differently.

"People are becoming intelligent," said Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, known as Sri Sri among associates and devotees. "Intelligent people go for spirituality."

The slight, white-robed man from India sat calmly on a white-cloth-draped sofa cum divan with baskets of snacks from Trader Joe's and assorted gifts surrounding him. The entire carpeted floor of his Santa Clara Hyatt Regency suite was covered with white cloth as well. His handsome young assistants sat attentively nearby or slipped off quietly in the background to field calls on their cell phones.

"They see life in a broader perspective, broader context," he said, wiping his face and arms with moistened towelettes. Then he began combing his long hair and said he was seeing "more spiritual awareness, human awareness."

Locally, Amma, the hugging guru, has built an ashram in nearby San Ramon, complete with resident swami. And in August, the Palace of Fine Arts hosted a talk by Benjamin Creme of Share International titled "The Time of Change Has Come" to make known the fact that "Maitreya - the World Teacher for the coming age - and his group, the Masters of Wisdom, are now among us, emerging into the public arena - gradually, so as not to infringe human free will."

Other gurus are making a name for themselves via mass media, i.e. finding an audience on YouTube and self-publishing spiritual guides and selling them via the Internet. Books about spirituality and religion are the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry. But, as Srinivasan Dasasathyan, 31, Xilinx software manager and Art of Living teacher, said, "We need somebody in physical presence. Books are everywhere. We need a real person."

For those who follow a guru, that human connection is what makes the experience so powerful. It can also make it ripe for abuse. After all, we've already seen our gurus fall. Osho (formerly Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) was outed as having 96 Rolls-Royces while telling devotees to renounce attachment to possession. He was also known as "guru of the vagina," which really needs no explanation. And his organization was even linked to attempted murder cases.

Another major 20th century pop-culture guru is Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who gained fame from his association with the Beatles. Although the Beatles had a falling out with him, his popularity did not wane. The Maharishi is known for creating a multimillion-dollar industry around his persona. His pupils include Sri Sri as well as Deepak Chopra, both big moneymakers in their own right.

But perhaps that's why they're so successful. It's what we're primed for. The consumer transaction is a familiar one that people trust. That, plus the smiley cheerfulness and "anything's possible" positivity, make gurus a good fit for a confused and restless world.

Every person I spoke with listed numerous ways their lives were bettered by following their guru. "You have more capacity to take responsibility for yourself and others," said Jennifer Stevenson, 31, account manager for Bloomberg and a Sri Sri yoga teacher. The bottom line, she said, is "being happier. Happier from within."

And who doesn't want that? But if you decide to go shopping for a guru, perhaps, it would be best to bear in mind the axiom:caveat emptor. Beware what you buy, materially as well as intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.

This article appeared on page F - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle