There is a true account told in the Autobiography of a Yogi (by Paramahansa Yogananda) of a great yogi who went on pilgrimage to the Kumbha Mela. The year was 1894. As he walked through the holy event, he inwardly criticized the hypocrisy and shallow devotion that he saw in many of the priests, ascetics and devotees. He was then summoned by a great rishi who corrected his criticism by pointing out that among the hypocrites were many hidden saints. His instruction took the form of a simple metaphor: “Be like the wise ant that separates the sugar from the sand.”
Over a hundred years later, we in America are living in a time when spirituality has an unprecedented corporate and fashion based influence. The many truth seekers I’ve met have told me that nowadays the “sand” is easier to identify, but the “sugar” seems harder to find.
When I pondered this metaphor years ago, I found very useful insights that guide me still today. Firstly, a granule of raw sugar and a granule of sand look alike. Imagine looking for fine sugar on a white sand beach. Appearance is deceiving. Secondly, sugar is not just sweet, it gives sustenance. The ant cannot nourish itself with sand. But sweet taste is not enough—it must give nourishment. Lastly, the sand is a reality and poses no threat. It’s there, in abundance, but the ant isn’t fighting it. It focuses on the sugar.
America’s contemporary spirituality and commercial yoga is influencing the world, even India. Many people ask me, “Is this teacher the real thing?” “Is this kirtan authentic?” “Did such-and-such website give me the correct mantra?”
Rather than give judgment, I share the following method that I have found most helpful in my quest for divine sugar amidst the sands of this world. A new teacher, a new technique, a new remedy, a kirtan style, a conference, a guru, an astrological reading or a quote from the Vedas on Facebook—all of this is a mixture of sand and sugar, all looking alike. To find out whether or not it is truly nourishing, run it through the following four criteria making certain to get validations from at least two of them:
1) Direct Experience
While it’s true that our experiences are most often manipulated by imagination, desires and the will of others, it is still extremely valuable. “Trust your gut” as the saying goes. In India, direct experience is given far more importance than mere belief. Look for an experience or its impression that is constant over a period of time, rather than just one passing experience.
Lineage is the vehicle through which tradition and wisdom is passed down. If you cannot identify an actual lineage of teaching or initiation, be cautious. Self-proclaimed teachers and self-created techniques or practices are only authentic when divinely ordained, and that is extremely rare. Even the great avatars Sri Rama and Sri Krishna had gurus and followed tradition. I’ve found that a long and unbroken lineage of teacher-student often insures purity, authenticity and blessing. It also protects us from what I call “spiritual start ups” that want to earn money or fame in America’s 20 billion dollar wellness industry.
India’s scriptures are vast and range over many centuries from many divine authors. Spiritual books by great masters are rooted in scripture and are presented to us in a form that is easier to understand, especially when written in English. Scripture is often very concise and often requires profound meditation to comprehend. Those of us who don't know Sanskrit have to rely upon translations, which makes the search exhausting and precarious. But valid translations exist of most great scriptures and I encourage you to try to find them. Having actual scripture goes well together with one of the enlightened commentaries on scriptures by a holy personage. These give a strong voice of clarity and validation when you are faced with questions, confusion, or problems.
In India, the Guru-disciple relationship is the primary way that the Divine guides, blesses and liberates the soul. Guru can mean "teacher" and there are different types of gurus. A spiritual guru is only concerned with helping you attain moksha, soul-liberation. It is a sacred relationship that lasts eternally, even beyond death. Ideally we have received an intimate initiation (diksha) directly from a living guru, not through an organization or an impersonal mass-initiation with a thousand other people. But the original way of initiation and guru-disciple relationship is hard to find in this day and age, though not impossible. If you have received this diksha, then it goes without saying to seek the counsel of your guru. But there is hope for those who do not have this opportunity. The Sat-guru is a divine being in the category of enlightened saviors that guide disciples through divine communion even when not incarnate. While it's often hard to receive that kind of counsel, that relationship can be very real and can become a living force in your life. Those without a guru can turn to the jagadgurus, or world teachers, whose teachings are accessible to all, even long after they leave this world. Their writings are a blend of scripture and a living guru. You may not get specific and personal counsel, but often you can find the validation you need, especially in combination with scripture and your experience.
I have used the above method with success and have shared it with many friends and fellow seekers. So far, all have benefited from it. I hope this proves effective in your life. Put it to the test and share your experiences with our community. As always, feel free to comment below.