In the American context, the traditional model of guru has frequently given way to a new type of spiritual masters having a non-exclusive relationship with their disciples, Lola L. Williamson (Millsapas College) explained at the Montreal conference of the American Academy of Religion (Nov. 7–10), which RW attended.
During what Williamson described as “phase one,” one could see charismatic gurus with a well-defined lineage and community; these still exist, but more and more we are experiencing “phase two”, i.e. American gurus, disciples of Indian gurus, who can share the same stage with other gurus on a non-exclusive basis. Two, three or more gurus teaming up together to offer a retreat is a new phenomenon in America. This is related to wider trends: the idea of devoting oneself for a lifetime to one guru is waning in North America.
In phase one, everybody had read Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, which shaped the image of the guru. In the meantime, in addition to developments in secular society, guru scandals may have changed the image of the guru. Having serial gurus is expected in phase two, and such a phenomenon fits the North American context well. Retreat sites have come to replace pilgrimage sites in the phase two environment.
Some ashrams today look like health spas, with a small nucleus of permanent residents and American teachers drawing from a variety of both spiritual and secular sources (Hindu and Zen masters, modern scientists, etc.).