In an era suffering from an overabundance of Gurus and Avatars, it has become difficult to distinguish the real from the fake, especially when these Gurus are surrounded by a retinue of adoring, immature minions who tend to conflate coincidences with miracles and fervent imagination with spiritual experiences. Whose story should we believe? Various ancient Hindu scriptures speak of the different methods by which a Guru may initiate a disciple, and these signs can provide a test for discernment. We briefly cover the modalities of this initiation process (called Diksha in Sanskrit) with a few examples from some modern-day seers.
According to the doctrine of Guruvada, the Guru plants a seed of his or her enlightened consciousness, an emanation so to speak, into the disciple, which the latter must then nurture through rigorous practice until he or she is eventually transformed into a “likeness of the Guru” (denoted as Gurumaya Avastha in Sanskrit). This spiritual transformation can consummate either in this life or in some future incarnation, but once initiated, the Guru and the disciple are tied to each other across incarnations until the process culminates in eventual success.
Both the Kularnava Tantra (chap. 10) and the Brahmanda Purana (II.4.43) speak of the following modes of initiation by which the Guru implants his/her power into the disciple:
- initiation by sight (drik diksha)
- initiation by touch (sparsha diksha)
- initiation by word or mantra (vak diksha)
- combination of all three (shambhavi-diksha)
The process of initiation by sight (drik diksha) can be illustrated with this anecdote of V.K.Gokak, who was subjected to the penetrating gaze of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, during one of the four Darshans they held every year:
The next day was 24th April and long queues had been forming hours in advance of darshan time. I had joined the queue at one point and was moving slowly but steadily towards the great event—the darshan of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Our line entered the room from which we could see Sri Aurobindo and the Mother seated near the threshold of Sri Aurobindo’s room. There were three or four persons ahead of me. The person who went before me persisted in standing before Sri Aurobindo and the Mother even after they had seen him. Sri Aurobindo, therefore, bent a little towards the left to have a look at me and then the person in front of me moved on. For a moment I stood before them. Sri Aurobindo threw at me a searching glance which penetrated my heart through my eyes and shook the very roots of my being. He then looked at the Mother who saw me in return, her pupils, moving like little fish in the depths of her eyes. I at once realised that I was recognised for what and who I was. This glance of recognition made all the helplessness in my heart surge up and I bowed down to them and stretched my hands, in vain to touch their feet. 
Jean Herbert, who later worked at UN, also experienced the power emanating from Sri Aurobindo during a Darshan. He went on to write several books in French on Sri Aurobindo’s teachings. The following extract was recorded in Romain Rolland’s epistolary journal on 20 June 1937:
Aurobindo vit invisible a ses disciples, sauf trois jours par an, au il fait son Darshan. Alors, il s’exhibe sur un trone enguirlande de fleurs; et il consacre une minute, -une seule minute, -a chacun de ses disciples et visiteurs, qui se prosternent a ses pieds. Jean Herbert parle de la force extraordinaire, de la profondeur et de la beaute de son regard: il n’a jamais vu un tel regard humain. 
It was the Mother Mirra Alfassa who was primarily responsible for initiating and guiding disciples who came to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The stories of her interaction are legion and won’t be covered here. Instead, we will shift focus to the lives of a couple of other sages.
Anandamayi Ma (“bliss-permeated mother”) was a Bengali mystic and spiritual teacher. The initiation process experienced by her disciples is discussed in Lisa Hallstrom‘s book Mother of Bliss, from which all the following material is derived.
Anandamayi Ma used to give gifts such as fruits which served as a mechanism for the transfer her Divine consciousness. (side note: Similarly, the Mother Mirra Alfassa used to give flowers imbued with her consciousness to disciples. See flowers website) In some cases, Anandamayi Ma would appear in a dream to give a Mantra as a mark of initiation by word (vak diksha) and in other cases, she would initiate through touch (sparsha diksha) by touching the Ajna Chakra in the middle of the eyebrows to awaken the electric current (kundalini). Her disciples spoke reverentially of the “x-ray look” with which she saw through them. One devotee said, “Just one look was sufficient in order to spend twenty-four hours in ananda (bliss).” Businessmen spoke of losing interest in material things from that moment on, housewives spoke of forgetting about fancy clothes, one man said he stopped losing his temper, another said he learned to play the harmonium and began singing devotional songs.
In the following extract, Rupali Frank speaks of her initiation:
Ma was just sitting on the bed cross-legged. I was standing at the foot of her bed. With her eyes, Ma started at my feet and worked her way up. When she got to my eyes, she let out this incredible, “Aacha! (Ah!)” At that moment, it sounded to me like the Universal Sound. I fell to my knees and pranamed(bowed). I hit my head on the mattress…. I gave Ma an orange. She took it. Then she gave it back to me…. God gave me that experience. One word, one look, and she has been in my being every since. I can feel her touch allover. I met my Divine Mother. Her “Aacha” still resonates in my being. I just have to think of it. The experience is not in my head. It is in my heart.
Swami Turiyananda describes a dramatic awakening in 1944 which culminated in his joining the Ashram a few years later.
…She looked at me–her look was full of compassion. Something you cannot describe. And that started transforming my world, my inner being. She just looked at me. For some months I couldn’t take food or water. I was thinking that my samskaras (impressions from past lifetimes) and inner things were breaking away just like a river can break away part of a mountain. I was feeling something that I cannot describe. I lost fifteen to twenty pounds. I was full of consciousness. I had no other thoughts other than thoughts of the Absolute.
Even though Anandamayi Ma left her body in 1982, her disciples feel no diminution of her presence. Whenever they step back from the chores of life and focus within, they can still sense that blazing flame – the seed of her consciousness – that she lit in their hearts
Another Bengali mystic, the renowned Ramakrishna Paramahansa used to employ the method of touch (sparsha-diksha) with all his disciples. The following anecdote illustrates his method of working with Narendra, who would later become Swami Vivekananda :
“As a member of the Brahmo Samaj, Narendra accepted its doctrine of monotheism and the Personal God. He also believed in the natural depravity of man. Such doctrines of non-dualistic Vedanta as the divinity of the soul and the oneness of existence he regarded as blasphemy; the view that man is one with God appeared to him pure nonsense. When the master warned him against thus limiting God’s infinitude and asked him to pray to God to reveal to him His true nature, Narendra smiled. One day he was making fun of Sri Ramakrishna’s non-dualism before a friend and said, ‘What can be more absurd than to say that this jug is God, this cup is God, and that we too are God?‘ Both roared with laughter.
Just then the Master appeared. Coming to learn the cause of their fun, he gently touched Naren and plunged into deep samadhi. The touch produced a magic effect, and Narendra entered a new realm of consciousness. He saw the whole universe permeated by the Divine Spirit and returned home in a daze. While eating his meal, he felt the presence of Brahman in everything — in the food, and in himself too. While walking in the street, he saw the carriages, the horses, the crowd, and himself as if made of the same substance. After a few days the intensity of the vision lessened to some extent, but still he could see the world only as a dream. While strolling in a public park of Calcutta, he struck his head against the iron railing, several times, to see if they were real or a mere illusion of the mind. Thus he got a glimpse of non-dualism, the fullest realization of which was to come only later, at the Cossipore garden. “
- V.K. Gokak. Sri Aurobindo Seer and Poet. (Abhinav, 1973), p 13. (amazon) (google books)
- Romain Rolland. Inde. Journal, 1915-1943, (Albin Michel, 1960), p 396. http://wikilivres.info/wiki/Inde._Journal,_1915-1943
- Lisa Hallstrom, Mother of Bliss: Anandamayi Ma, (NY : Oxford University Press, 2008) pp 142-143.
- Swami Nikhilananda. Vivekananda, a biography, (Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1989) , p 20. http://www.vivekananda.net/PDFBooks/BiographybyNikhilananda.pdf
- How does a Guru act?
- Receiving guidance from Masters of a bygone age
- The ability to withstand hardships in the spiritual path
- Why does Yoga give you a “high”?
- Explaining the Ascent-Descent in Integral Yoga
- The subtle sounds which indicate progress in Yoga
- The inversion of day and night (Gita 2:69) which occurs in Brahmic consciousness
- Signs of readiness for the spiritual path
- Signs of spiritual apitude
- Stages in the spiritual journey (as per Anandamayi Ma)
- Equanimity as the foundation of Integral Yoga
- Triple movement of Integral Yoga (Witness, Consenter and Enjoyer)