Why do sex scandals seem to follow people in positions of power? Politicians, Hollywood producers, priests, gurus – none seem to be exempt. Money and sex: the combined forces that corrupt and surround powerful public figures. When accusations emerge, they tend to center on the moral failings of a particular individual. But this individualization provides no rationale for the extraordinary proliferation of sex scandals. In short, we miss the opportunity to recognize broader social structures of power relations that allow and even enable these kinds of abuses to occur.
The unapologetic authoritarianism of guru-disciple relationship makes it a revealing case study through which to analyze power relations, particularly those related to physical touch and sexuality. As I argue in a recent article, “Guru Sex,” in the guru-disciple relationship there are social conventions surrounding touch, what I call haptic logics. Put simply, the guru is believed to be a powerful conduit for both spiritual and social power. In response, believers want to be close to the guru, which has both spiritual and social effects. Spiritually, devotees believe that proximity to the guru (and the guru’s touch) results in positive spiritual effects, such as miracles, healing, enlightenment, or personal transformation. Socially, proximity to the guru has a direct correlation to increased power within the devotional community. Recognizing these positive effects, devotees yearn to be close to the guru, and, importantly, they are expected to do so and to want to do so. These haptic logics give gurus extraordinary power to use, abuse, and demand proximity within a system that justifies, reinforces, and sacralizes their physical touch.
Devotional cults that exalt gurus envision the guru to be in possession of “special gifts” (a term used by sociologists Max Weber and Emile Durkheim to describe charisma). The guru’s charisma is embodied, contagious, and intentionally transferrable. Gurus are believed to be physical embodiments of spiritual power and to be able to transmit that power to their followers. This perceived ability justifies the guru’s exalted social status. It also cultivates followers’ desire for proximity to the guru so that they might gain access to the perceived source of sacred power. The physical body of the guru is a sacred object; proximity to the guru is a sacred opportunity.
In such a social system, increased proximity to the guru, such as private audiences and unconventional intimacies (massaging the guru’s feet, for example) are communally envisioned as a blessing for any devotee. Deliberate rejections of proximity are unthinkable within such communities, for example: leaving a position near the guru for one more distant without reason; discarding any of the guru’s possessions received as gifts; or rejecting the guru’s blessed food. Instead, devotees rush to be close the guru, to follow the guru, and outstretch their hands in an attempt to touch the guru. Many gurus employ bodyguards, flanked personal assistants, and sometimes even an armed entourage to protect against this desire to touch them. This institutionalized communal longing for and valorization of the guru’s physical touch systematically justifies gurus’ physical contact with devotees. Devotees are socialized to long for the guru’s touch; the guru is socialized to impart his or her touch (and access to be touched) as a blessing to devotees.
But as Tulasi Srinivas has discussed, proxemic desire is not only devotees’ longing to be close to the guru for the possible effects of spiritual transformation; it is also the social recognition of them as “good devotees,” because the devotional community recognizes the value of proximity. The social hierarchy of the guru community is based on a pyramid of proximity. The closer one is in proximity to the guru, the more institutional power one has and vice versa; the more institutional power one has, the more proximity one is granted. In various domains, those closest to the figure in power, in Weber’s terms the “charismatic aristocracy,” wield extraordinary power and are similarly governed by the haptic logics of proxemic desire, as they function as gatekeepers and spokespersons for the guru.
Within this hierarchical pyramid, subordinates are expected to desire proximity to those in more powerful positions along the chain of charismatic aristocracy, leading up to the guru. Such a system easily lends to abuses, wherein the powerful can take advantage of the proxemic desires of the neophyte. These haptic logics do not always result in sexual abuse, but when it does occur, they create serious barriers to the vindication of victims. In countless examples of guru sex scandals, fellow devotees characterize physical contact and private sessions with the guru as a blessing and reject victims’ allegations of abuse. When Shyama Rose told her mother of Prakashanand Saraswati’s sexual advances to her as a pre-adolescent, her mother viewed the special contact with the guru as a blessing and told her to “just enjoy it.”
Allegations of abuse represent the refusal of proximity to the guru, in essence, a refusal of the social conventions that govern the guru-disciple relationship. As a result, most victims become ex-devotees and fellow devotees often blame victims for their rejection of the guru. Within this system of haptic logics, one can imagine a powerful charismatic leader saying something like “when you’re a star, they let you do it.”
Featured image credit: “Photographed in Kolkata” by Biswarup Gangly. CC.BY.3.0from via Wikimedia Commons.