“My Guru and His Disciple” by Christopher Isherwood— Isherwood’s Worldliness and Holiness

Isherwood, Christopher. “My Guru and His Disciple”, Picador Reprint, 2020.

Isherwood’s Worldliness and Holiness

Amos Lassen

Christopher Isherwood’s “My Guru and His Disciple” is his portrait of his spiritual instructor, Swami Prabhavananda, the Hindu priest who was his guide for some thirty years. This is also a book about worldliness and holiness in Isherwood’s own life. Isherwood was known for his sexual excesses, all-night drinking bouts, fast cars, scriptwriting, intellectual bouts and his six-month period of celibacy and sobriety. 

He was driven by both sensuality and spirituality, abandon and discipline and in his book he writes about the passionate dialectic between these drives. Here is a memoir of Isherwood’s apprenticeship in Vedanta practice and a loving portrait of Prabhavananda. We read of the beginnings of the settling of eastern wisdom teachings on western shores in southern California. Isherwood writes of his struggles with Vedanta practices and ideas and of his homosexuality and sexual adventures. We move between reflective historical and personal accounts and excepts from Isherwood’s diaries. But the book is mostly about Swami who Isherwood devotedly loved. He was a real person who does not seem to have an ego hang-ups. He was patient with and devoted to his students but he “didn’t stand in the way of the light” or put his mind in the way of things – he let it shine through everything he did. The Swami’s selflessness was his deep love, simple ease, warmth, sense of humor and patience.

This is a book of confessions that gives insight into Isherwood’s complicated character based partly from his diaries and his progress of ‘enlightenment’ through the guidance of a Hindu holy man whose own authenticity was perhaps dubious. “My Guru and His Disciple” is an enlightening that has improved with age. I first read it many years ago and found it boring back then. Isherwood was not too good at the Hindu discipline and only took it up when he couldn’t find another source of entertainment. He was unaware of the perplexities to be encountered in inner searches for the meaning of life and so on, or to be unaware either that no ultimate answers have ever been found, other than that every individual has to discover his own. There are several  prolonged speculations, uncertainties and lapses and these made it hard to follow at times.

It is hard for me to understand how a man like Isherwood with such literary talent desired to leave the material world behind and follow an Indian holy man into a Hindu cult. Isherwood never was completely successful in renouncing worldly pursuits, especially sexual relationships, though he briefly took up residence in the temple and aspired to be a monk. Nonetheless, his friendship with the guru was strong enough to withstand a return to his hedonistic and heretical lifestyle. The two men shared a complex relationship. Isherwood adored and revered the man and had an ordinary friendship with him that lasted over thirty years.

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