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Paternalism and the Guru-Disciple Relationship

By: on Aug. 15, 2009
Photo Credits: BBT
His Divine Grace AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

Paternalism is so yesterday. We’ve all had our experiences growing up. Here’s my favorite. I’m nine or ten years old and sitting with my father in his office. He’s a U.S. Army social worker specifically charged with counseling new recruits, most of whom just don’t want to go to war or even be in the Army. Suddenly from down the hall I hear some guy freaking out. One minute he is shouting at the top of his lungs, the next he is sobbing uncontrollably, throwing stuff, the whole bit. In response, my father as well as other medical personnel in the building rush down the hall to where all of this is happening. Several minutes later my father comes back into his office, looks at me and says the guy “swallowed a burning cigarette.”

Swallowed a burning cigarette?!! Yep, that’s what he said. Seems I was the one who was expected to swallow something, to swallow a tall tale invented by my benevolent father to somehow protect me from the harsh reality of the world. But here’s the rub, to this day I still feel like an idiot when I think that I actually fell for this tall tale.

This is precisely the problem with paternalism. It’s based on the premise that it better to keep people, especially those people judged from a position of superiority to be vulnerable, in ignorance rather than given knowledge and the consequent rights and responsibilities. Not only is paternalism debilitating, but its effects can linger for decades. I’m living proof.

Paternalism, defined as the system, principle, or practice of managing or governing individuals, businesses, nations, etc., in the manner of a father dealing benevolently and often intrusively with his children, is akin to playing God, and creeps into every field of life.

Take health care for example. I hate paternalistic doctors. Can you believe that’s how they used to train doctors? Dr. Ronald B. Miller, MD, Founding Director of the Program in Medical Ethics at the University of California, Irvine, writing for Nephrology News & Issues, describes how things have changed during his fifty years of medical practice in his August 4, 2009 article, “Patient empowerment requires patient responsibility.”

When I went to medical school in the 1950s, physician paternalism was the name of the game in patient care. Indeed, it was paternalism because women were then a distinct minority amongst physicians and medical students.

Today, paternalism is no longer "the name of the game." In part aided by the civil rights movement in the United States; in part by the incredible technical advances in medicine, in part by the right of patients to make decisions for themselves, "bioethics" became the name of the game. Unlike paternalistic medicine, ethics allowed for a public voice along with that of health care professionals.

I don’t know about you, but as I enter the age where medical concerns heighten as my material body dwindles I certainly welcome the opportunity of making my own informed decisions on medical treatment. Not out of egotism, but rather as a matter of self dignity. Having some guy tell me what’s good for me without listening to me [Read: Medical paternalism] just doesn’t work for me as an individual.

Of course, paternalism is nothing new. It’s been creeping into lives for centuries. I recall the early life of the Buddha. The following account is from

Siddhartha, destined to a luxurious life as a prince, had three palaces (for seasonal occupation) especially built for him. His father, King Åšuddhodana, wishing for Siddhartha to be a great king, shielded his son from religious teachings or knowledge of human suffering.

Siddhartha spent 29 years as a Prince in Kapilavastu. Although his father ensured that Siddhartha was provided with everything he could want or need, Siddhartha felt that material wealth was not the ultimate goal of life.

At the age of 29, Siddhartha left his palace in order to meet his subjects. Despite his father's effort to remove the sick, aged and suffering from the public view, Siddhartha was said to have seen an old man. Disturbed by this, when told that all people would eventually grow old by his charioteer, the prince went on further trips where he encountered, variously, a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and an ascetic. Deeply depressed by these sights, he sought to overcome old age, illness, and death by living the life of an ascetic.

Is anyone really ready to say that the world today would have been better off had the paternalistic plan of the Buddha father had prevailed? Paternalism has never worked, not for individuals, not for society as a whole.

So, given my experience of a well meaning father, and those society puts in fatherly roles [Read - doctors], falling victim to the pitfalls of paternalism, it’s a fair question to ask me how I ended up voluntarily entering a guru disciple relationship in which the scriptures say the guru should be accepted not just as a father figure, but as good as God?

Let’s go back to the premise. The premise of paternalism is ignorance, however well-meaning. The premise of the guru disciple relationship is very different. The guru disciple relationship is based on the transmission of knowledge, and acceptance of the rights and responsibilities of human life.

The life and teachings of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada provide an excellent example of how the guru disciple relationship is anything but paternalistic.

First, the guru doesn’t see the disciple from a position of false or temporary superiority. Srila Prabhupada used to say that the character of his Guru Maharaja, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur was such that he never regarded his disciples as his disciples, but he used to see them as being that which was received from the lotus feet of his guru. He used to address them as "Prabhu" (master). Srila Prabhupada also observed that when he offered obeisances to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur, he used to say in return, "Däso 'smi": "I am your servant."

Second, Srila Prabhupada defined the very purpose of the guru disciple relationship in terms of giving knowledge, receiving knowledge, and accepting the responsibility that accompanies knowledge. While lecturing on Bhagavad-gita verse 4:34 he said:

So you have to learn from guru by three processes. What is that? First process is you must surrender. Tasmad guru prapadyeta [Srimad Bhagavatam 11.3.21]. Surrender. You have to find out such an exalted person where you can willingly surrender, "Yes." Therefore it is enjoined in the sastras [scriptures], before taking a guru, try to study him, whether you can surrender there. Don't accept any guru all of a sudden as fanatic. No, don't do that. That is the injunction. And guru also must study the disciple who wants to become a disciple; must study him, whether he's fit for becoming a disciple. This is the way of making relationship between guru and disciple. Everything is there provided we take them seriously. Then we can train up how to become bona fide disciple, how to find out bona fide guru, how to establish our relationship with guru and act accordingly and make our life successful. Because guru's business is ajana-timirandhasya jyanajana-salakaya. Guru's business is to enlighten the disciple, because he's in darkness.

Finally, Srila Prabhupada constantly challenged his disciples, even putting them in vulnerable situations. Why? The aim was to encourage their growth, to empower them by giving real responsiblities. In a 1967 letter to his young disciple Brahmananda Dasa he rejected the apparent paternalistic advice being given by others to his disciples:

I have read your statements regarding opening centers. I am not in agreement with Mr. Altman that we are expanding very thinly. In my opinion, a single sincere soul can maintain a center. You know I started the center at 26 Second Avenue alone. I took the risk of 200.00 dollars per month for the rent. At that time there were no assistants. Mukunda was at that time a friend, but there was no responsibility for him for maintaining the center. Gradually Kirtanananda and Hayagriva joined, but they did not take any responsibility. Still I was maintaining the establishment simply depending on Krishna and then Krishna sent me everything—men and money. Similarly, if a sincere soul goes out and opens a center in any part of the world, Krishna will help him in all respects. Without being empowered by Krishna, nobody can preach Krishna consciousness. It is not academic qualification or financial strength that helps in these matters, but it is sincerity of purpose which helps us always. Therefore, I wish that you will remain in charge of New York, let Satsvarupa be in charge of Boston, let Mukunda be in charge of San Francisco, let Janardana be in charge of Montreal. Let Nandarani and Dayananda be in charge of Los Angeles, and let Subala das be in charge of Santa Fe. In this way you will follow my example as I did in the beginning at 26 Second Ave. That is preaching, cooking, writing, talking, chanting, everything one man’s show. I never thought about the audience. I was prepared to chant if there was no man to hear me. The principle of chanting is to glorify the Lord and not to attract a crowd. If Krishna hears nicely then He will ask some sincere devotees to gather in such place. Therefore, be advised that thousands of centers may be started if we find out a sincere soul for each and every center. We do not require more men to start. If there is one sincere soul that is sufficient to start a new center. ”¦ Let us remain sincere to Krishna and His bona fide representative and we are sure to carry out our mission successfully. Hope you are well.

Now, I call that empowering. You can feel the same benevolent intent as in paternalism, but without the condescension. There’s the exhilaration of empowerment that comes from trust and respect. You can feel the difference between paternalism and the guru disciple relationship. Paternalism is so yesterday. The guru disciple relationship is so tomorrow.

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