In the Absence of the Body: Discipleship When the Guru Has Gone

By James H. Reho
Published in Parabola: Where Spiritual Traditions Meet, Vol. 37, No. 3 (2012). 

An ancient axiom holds that when the disciple is ready, the guru will appear.  Much less is said about what happens when the guru disappears—and for this, disciples are rarely ready.  It is often a more traumatic event than the death of a parent or spouse or child, because the relationship between disciple and guru is of a different nature than relationships with parents, lovers, friends, or one’s own children.  While all these relationships can involve deep and selfless love, the love of the guru (in both the genitive and objective sense) becomes the lens through which the disciple understands the self, the other, and the world. And at least initially, the locus of this love is the bodily presence of the guru.


The Ascension, by Benjamin West. Denver Art Museum, Berger Collection: (public domain)

The guru not only shows the way, but is that very way.  “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” is how Jesus’ disciples remembered him.1  Abhishiktānanda, a modern Roman Catholic monk initiated into Indian advaita by his guru, Gnānānanda, writes that “Guru and disciple form a dyad, a pair, whose two components call for each other and belong together.  No more than the two poles (of a magnet) can they exist without being related to each other.  On the way towards unity they are a dyad.  In the ultimate realization they are a non-dual reciprocity.”2

What happens, then, when the guru dies or goes away?  How do disciples cope with the absence of the one whose living and loving presence has opened for them the door to their own heart, the one through whom all reality has been filtered, and their own self understood?  The disciples of Jesus, Palestinian Jews living at the beginning of the Common Era, and the disciples of the Indian Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba, Indians and Americans in 1970’s India, were both forced to negotiate the absence of the guru.  These two groups of devotees, separated by almost 2,000 years and more than 2,500 miles, inhabited very different cultures. They told stories about their gurus that help us understand the evolving meaning of the body of the guru—both in its presence and its absence.

In looking at what devotees have chosen to recount we come to see what the disciple community finds destabilizing in the guru’s physical absence as well as how that absence can be transcended; how the pain of loss of the “non-dual reciprocity” of guru and disciple is eventually transcended through a new understanding of the body of the guru.

How and Why We Remember

Gospel scholars talk about the “messianic secret” that describes how Jesus in the Gospels tells his disciples not to talk about his deeds of power or identity as the Christ, but to keep these things silent.  Scholars often interpret this “secret” as a literary device (especially in Mark) employed to explain why, if Jesus was working all the wonders reported in the narrative, all of Israel did not come to believe in him, or at least know of him in his lifetime.3

In collecting the early stories of Neem Karoli Baba, Ram Dass encountered a modern corollary of the messianic secret.  He writes that it took a number of years for Neem Karoli Baba’s Indian disciples to openly share their stories of  Maharajji (as Neem Karoli Baba was known) due to his own directive that he should not be spoken about to others.4  There are stories of Maharajji ordering the burning of a collection of stories about him and of his tearing up a manuscript of an article on him.  Neem Karoli, much like Jesus, ordered those who witnessed miracles effected by or through him never to speak of them. In the case of Neem Karoli Baba, this reticence is certainly not a literary device.  Can it be that for Jesus, too, the “messianic secret” was real—and not a device of the Gospel authors?

We have similar instances of both teachers rebuking those who would compliment or draw attention to them.  When his contemporary, Deoria Baba, said that Neem Karoli was an incarnation of love, Maharajji responded, “Why, that wicked man!  What does he know?  Who does he think he is?”5 Jesus, when called “good teacher” by an inquiring outsider, answered, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.”6 Both of them were opposed having their deeds recorded, and yet their disciples felt the need to do so when they were gone.

Both Maharajji and Jesus often complained that their disciples did not truly understand their message, or even who they were.  Yet, in spite of the guru’s admonitions, the community of disciples feels responsible for interpreting him to one another after his disappearance, and for preserving/creating a body of material through which the guru will become known by others.  The gathering together of such stories offers those who experienced them a way to process the events of the past and gives new generations the possibility of experiencing an awakening similar to that of those who lived in the presence of the guru.  In theological language this is called anamnesis, a remembering that makes real in the present the being or event that is being recalled.  Anamnesis is one attempt at making the disappeared body of the guru present again.

What is Remembered?

The study of what is remembered and later written about the guru’s presence and body helps us map the development undergone by “abandoned” disciples.  Several themes come strongly forward if we consider the remembrances by their disciples of both Jesus and Neem Karoli Baba: themes of sacredness, fluidity, and identification.

Sacred Body

NKB statue (murti) Kashi Ashram, Florida-2The body of the guru is an object of veneration.  In Eastern cultures, this is often localized at the feet; feet are where we connect with the earth, and feet are always in need of care and cleaning in bare-footed or sandaled cultures.  The “lotus feet” of the guru mark where “heaven” (the guru’s body) meets the earth.  Disciples of Neem Karoli Baba recall vying with one another to rub their guru’s feet, an experience of communing with the Divine.

It was this foot [of Maharajji’s] that was the source of both the rapture and the jealous, for the man was massaging the foot with great tenderness and love, and I was yearning to be in his place.  How bizarre to find myself sitting in a tiny Hindu temple halfway around the world, jealous because I could not rub an old man’s foot!7

Jesus, too, had his feet anointed with expensive nard by at least one female devotee, while another female devotee washed his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair, to the consternation of his moralistic onlookers (except for their husbands and sons, women did not touch men in Jesus’ culture), but with the loving approval of Jesus.  Later, Jesus taught his closest followers how to serve one another when he washed their feet at the Last Supper, and at first they were horrified at his turning this venerated tradition upside down.

Even the bare touch of the body of the guru can bring about lasting effects.   When such a revered guru’s body is no longer tangible, remembrances can continue to fortify the community of disciples because it remains a source of healing: A woman suffering for years from hemorrhages touched Jesus’ garment:

When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”8

Likewise, disciples of Neem Karoli Baba recall:

We were doing kirtan and we expected J (who drank to excess) to come and quarrel with Maharajji.  He came rushing toward Maharajji and from the first touch of Maharajji he was changed.  He stopped drinking, and hasn’t drunk since, and that was some years ago.9 

In addition to a vessel of healing, the body of the guru is also remembered as a source of profound and dramatic theophany:

Sometimes the beauty of [Maharajji’s] body was so startlingly radiant it took your breath away… he came out wearing only a white dhoti, and all I could think of was the description of Hanuman in the Ramayana: “A body shining as a mountain of gold…”10

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.11

These remembrances can sharpen the pain of absence.  And if what was offered and available through the body of the guru were only and finally bound to that body, there would be nothing but grief upon his or her departure or death. A true anamnetic event would not be possible.  Instead, however, the body of the guru becomes fluid and not bound even to itself.

Fluid Body

The absent body of the guru is not only sacred, but is also remembered as fluid.  The dissolution/disappearance of the body of the guru creates an opportunity.  It allows what was earlier channeled through the sacred body to be present elsewhere and everywhere, offering accessible power to the abandoned group of disciples:

Because I have said these things to you [about my departure], sorrow has filled your hearts.  Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you…12

When a guru leaves his mortal form, his ashram becomes his form.13

The guru’s body becomes remembered as being unbound by space and time.  Jesus, after his resurrection, appeared more than once to his disciples who had been gathered behind locked doors.  There are similar stories of Neem Karoli Baba:

Maharajji appeared at 3:00 a.m. in the room of an old woman in her locked house and said, “Why are you bothering me, Ma?”  She had been praying to him at that time.14 

Disciples also remember the guru present in other bodily forms. One family of Neem Karoli Baba devotees told how Maharajji insisted upon knowing their old grandfather.  The grandfather was sure he had never met him.  Maharajji closed his eyes and said, “Don’t you remember?  You carried my sleeping roll at the railway station.”15 Maharajji recounted, and the grandfather remembered, having been paid very well—as a young boy—for carrying the bedroll of a wealthy man wearing a suit and shiny shoes and a derby hat!  Another disciple experienced Maharajji as present in her bathroom, and her sister, rushing in to see, found a cobra on the floor.  Jesus, too, seems to have taken other bodily forms.  He was not recognized by his closest disciples after the Resurrection, mistaken for a gardener by Mary Magdalene on Easter morning.16 He also walked a long way with two disciples on the Emmaus road in a form in which he was originally unrecognizable.17

Such fluidity of form carries the promise that any body could potentially be utilized by the guru.  And with the promise of an unexpected encounter comes a moral challenge as well: If all bodies could potentially be the guru, all bodies must be treated with the reverence one has lovingly lavished upon the guru.  Jesus’ disciples remember a parable he taught them in which a returning king separates people by how they have treated “him” in the form of all other bodies.  Both those who are praised for doing well and those who are upbraided for mistreating the king are surprised and ask:

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me.”18

And 2,000 years later in India Maharajji enjoined his disciples to “Treat every being that you come across as if it were me—it may well be.”19


The absence of the guru’s body initially catapults the community of disciples into the unknown.  The body through which they have come to experience the Divine, and by which they have been magnetically drawn together, is at some point withdrawn through death or absence.  This withdrawal represents a crisis.  Yet this crisis has a resolution. Anamnesis, only necessary when the guru’s body is no longer present, allows for a growth in their understanding of that body.  From “sacred space” to “fluid reality,” the body of the guru eventually comes to be understood as present within the body of the disciple or among the gathering of disciples.  Jesus is remembered as promising his disciples that he will be present with/in them whenever two or three are gathered in his name.  As the time of his death draws near, Jesus prays overtly that his disciples will experience the interpenetration of his presence in their bodies as he has experienced this with God the Father.

As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me… so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.20 

Neem Karoli Baba, in much simpler language, asks his devotees to “Keep me in your heart.”21

This experience of identification or interpenetration, of knowing the guru’s body to reside within oneself, is the final healing of the wound of the bodily absence of the guru: the “non-dual reciprocity” can be fully alive within a single heart.  This experience is at the heart of the hesychastic tradition of Christianity, for instance, in which breath and mantram are combined with attentiveness to the heart center in order to experience the living reality of the Presence of the guru (Jesus).22

Similar practices have come about among certain devotees of Maharajji.23 Kirtan chanting is also often used by Maharajji’s disciples to facilitate this experience.

One way a community of disciples legitimizes this experience of interpenetration is through the full acceptance of emerging leaders in the community who did not know the physical body of the guru, but have come to discipleship only through the experience of interpenetration.  If the experience of identity with the body of the guru is real, the community must remain open to such “new” devotees taking central roles; if the experience is suspect, or considered secondary, they will remain outside the innermost circle.

In the discipleship communities that initially gathered around Jesus and Neem Karoli Baba, we find that such “new” devotees have, and do, come into large roles.  In early Christianity, for example, Paul of Tarsus claims the status of “Apostle” although he had never met Jesus in the flesh:

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.24

In spite of his very different approach to Christian community than that of the “original” Apostles, Paul is eventually accepted as a central leader in the new Jesus movement.  After the death of Neem Karoli Baba, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, a modern spiritual teacher, and the kirtan artist David Newman  have each had “Pauline” experiences of Maharajji and claimed membership in his lineage. Their acceptance by older disciples who knew Maharajji in the flesh represents a similar assent to the reality of the identification experience.

The loss, confusion and grief experienced by devotees when the guru disappears is perhaps a necessary part of the path of discipleship; if the guru were present always, the non-ultimate duality of guru-and-disciple would never need to be transcended; only in the pain of the guru’s absence is the community of disciples forced to work toward identification and interpenetration through anamnesis.  The power of the guru’s body in life is mirrored by the depth of initial despair at the loss of that sacred body.  Continued reflection by the community of devotees brings remembrances of the sacred and fluid nature of the guru’s body.  Finally, the discovery of the guru present in the heart of the devotee brings the indivisible dyad into a single non-dual reality.  The “otherness” of the guru, necessary at first for the love and play between guru and disciple, the “otherness” that can cause such despair in the devotee upon the death or disappearance of the guru, is eventually transcended:

When I entered into Thy depth,

Oh! What happened to me?

Oh!  What happened to Thee?

When I entered into Thy depth,

There remained no longer either Thou or I!25



1 John 14:6a (all Biblical quotes are taken from the New Revised Standard Version).

2 Abhishiktānanda.  Guru and Disciple.  ISPCK: Kashmere Gate, Delhi (1990), p. 11.

3 Delbert Burkett, An Introduction to the New Testament and the Origins of Christianity. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK (2002), pp. 160-161.

4 Ram Dass. Miracle of Love.  E.P. Dutton: New York (1979), p. x.

5 Ibid., p. 260.

6 Luke 18:19.

7 Ram Dass, Miracle of Love, p. 34.

8 Luke 6:47-48.

9 Ram Dass, Miracle of Love, p. 155.

10 Ibid, p. 172.

11 Matthew 17:1-2.

12 John 16:7.

13 Keshav Das, ed. Barefoot in the Heart.  Sensitive Skin Books: USA (2012), p. 110.

14 Ram Dass, Miracle of Love, p. 176.

15 Ibid., p. 174.

16 John 20:15.

17 Luke 24:13-32.

18 Matthew 25:31-45.

19 Keshav Das, ed. Barefoot in the Heart, p. 121.

20 John 17:21b-23a;26.

21 Ram Dass, Miracle of Love, p. 261.

22 The hesychastic compilation known as The Philokalia states this in numerous places.


24 Galatians 1:11-12.

25 Abhishiktānanda.  Guru and Disciple, p. 81.


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