There have always been cheaters posing as gurus. Many thousands of years ago, the demon Ravana dressed himself as a svami to win an audience with Sita, the wife of Lord Ramacandra (an incarnation of Lord Krsna). Ravana kidnapped Sita, but Lord Ramacandra killed him. Five thousand years ago, when the Lord appeared in the world in His original form as Krsna, He dealt with another cheater: King Paundraka donned an extra set of arms, in imitation of Lord Krsna's four-armed Visnu form, and demanded that Krsna worship him. Again, the Lord did away with the cheater personally.
The current age presents a special dilemma. To begin with, as the ancient Srimad-Bhagavatam predicts, most people are spiritually lazy and ignorant. And what's more, when they finally bring themselves to search for aguru, they find thousands of latter-day Ravanas and Paundrakas. Granted, today's cheaters are insignificant next to those personally dispatched by Lord Krsna, but they're running unchecked. There are no laws against pretending to be a great guru or even God Himself. So it's extremely difficult to stop the cheating "gurus" and "incarnations." But Vaisnavas (devotees of the Lord) have to try, at least, to expose them.
Nowadays, the cheaters are so brazen that even when caught in the most scandalous behavior, they matter-of-factly admit they're cheating because they know their followers will go on worshiping them anyway. One famous "guru" had an affair and tried to pass his consort off as the divine mother of the universe. After the divine union broke up, he simply said his mate was no longer the divine mother, and the "disciples" went along with it. Other so-called gurus make drastic doctrinal shifts whenever it seems their popularity is slipping. After all, next year's meditational techniques may make this year's eternal truths look passe. So the cheater may have to change his act, much like a popular entertainer. And how many times have thousands of people paid millions of dollars, only to discover that they all received the same "secret" manual But still the cheated come forward and pay even higher fees for new "secrets," like levitation. It makes you wonder; what's the use of telling people they're being cheated when they already know?
One positive note the recent wide distribution of authentic translations of ancient India's Vedic literatures. Though the cheaters often say they base their teachings on these books, the books themselves draw a clear line between the cheaters and the genuine teachers:
The pseudo svamis and yogis and man-made gods do not believe in the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and thus they are known as pasandis, offenders. They themselves are fallen and cheated, because they do not know the real path of spiritual advancement, and whoever goes to them is certainly cheated in his turn. When one is thus cheated, he sometimes lakes shelter of the real followers of Vedic principles, who teach everyone to worship the Supreme Personality of Godhead according to the directions of the Vedic literatures. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.14.30)
In other words, if you want to find a bona fide guru, you have to consult the standard literatures (the Vedic literatures) and the standard spiritual masters, who come in disciplic succession (parampara) from Lord Krsna. Five thousand years ago the Vedic literatures were put into written form by an incarnation of Krsna named Vyasadeva, and even today the spiritual master's chair is called a vydsdsana. To sit there, a guru has to teach exactly what Vyasa did, and he has to be a disciple of a spiritual master who comes in succession from Vyasa. Another symptom; the guru's life must show that he is personally convinced of the message the Vedic literatures set forth namely, "Worship the Supreme Personality of Godhead."
It's much in vogue today to say that all teachings are the same, "Take any path you want," the cheaters say. "They all lead to the same place." But common sense says that if you buy an airline ticket to New York, you'd better not try to hop a plane to L.A. And the Upanisads say, "One result is obtained by worshiping the supreme cause of all causes, and another is obtained by worshiping that which is not supreme." Different forms of worship or meditation will lead you to different goals, and only through devotional service to the Supreme Godhead can you transcend the cycle of repeated birth and death and attain eternity, bliss, and knowledge in the kingdom of God.
Nor can a genuine guru be a debauchee or a "New Age" hero given to mundane psychology, frivolous sports, rock music, or other whimsical games and speculations. Even self-realized persons have to follow basic standards of morality. Avoidance of illicit sex, meat-eating, gambling, and intoxication is prerequisite not just for some people but for anyone interested in actual spiritual life. Anyone who claims to be above these standards is following in the footsteps of Ravana, and his followers will join him in ruin. A real guruhas to be a humble representative of the Supreme, a servant of God.
We have attempted to give a public warning about the cheaters who lake the name of svamis and "god-men." The whole purpose for going to a spiritual teacher is to find the genuine path of God-realization and self-realization. But if we go to a cheater, we're only cheating ourselves; we'll have to stay within the cycle of repeated birth and death. Yet even as we issue this warning, we know that it won't stop the moths from entering the fire of the false gurus. So we're interested more in the innocent and in the cynics. Anyone who is actually sincere about finding the genuine path shouldn't conclude that all spiritual life is a fraud, even in the midst of this bad age. There's an old story about a man whose dishes were stolen he decided that from then on, he'd eat off the floor. No, even though one may have been cheated once or twice he has to go on with the business of life, striving to find the truth.
The human form of life is meant for self-realization, so we have to take guidance from a genuine spiritual master. As the Vedic literatures inform us, God is within each person's heart, and when someone is actually sincere about finding the genuine path back to Godhead, the Lord will guide him from within. When he meets a pure devotee of the Lord, the Lord will confirm it from within: "Yes, you can inquire from this guru." By sincerely inquiring and hearing from a bona fide spiritual master, we will reawaken our natural, eternal, joyous relationship with God. What we need first of all is sincerity. That will help us avoid sensational, concocted paths, and it will lead us to real knowledge and advancement in spiritual life, no matter how bizarrely the fools carry on in their caricature of spirituality.