It’s not difficult to find stories of spiritual gurus taking away their disciples’ money and ability to think for themselves, Yoga gurus sexually abusing their attractive female students, or world teachers telling disciples to be celibate while they carry on a decades-long affair. Like us, gurus, spiritual guides, and religious authorities, we always find out, are all too human. But, unlike us, they present themselves as semi-divine beings who can guide us mere mortals to enlightenment.

While I’ve never fallen victim to such figures, I’ve had a few float across my horizon, and it’s very easy to be taken in by their charm at least for a few months when they appear friendly, genuine, and interesting. Reflecting on my experiences, as well as some high-profile events, I’ve compiled a list of ten traits that you should probably look out for when you’re around an individual who presents him- or herself as a spiritual authority.

Add up the traits your fake guru has to get a score out of ten and find out what that says about them at the end. Here they are:

1. The Fake Guru Has No Past

Perhaps he (it’s nearly always a “he”) appeared one day in your life or in your Facebook feed. Or perhaps you went along to his group or to the New Age shop he owns and runs — along with that secret occult circle in the basement. Then, all of a sudden, you were in his life and he was in yours. But, on getting to know the fake guru you might notice that something is missing: All of those around him have only known him only for a short time — a couple of years or less. He appears to have no long-term friendships or to be a part of any organization over a number of years or decades. It’s as if he has no past (and he’s probably in his thirties or forties). If he’s been running a spiritual circle or group for some years, you’ll note that all of the members are new. There are no advanced students, only beginners. No one stays around.

2. Agrees With Everything You Say… At first

Being around a fake guru can be something of an ego boost. Once he has laid out his basic ideology, and you have begun to converse with him, if he regards you as potentially useful, the fake guru will agree with pretty much everything you say. It’s as if you’re reading each other’s minds, you might think. The fake guru seems as much a soulmate as a spiritual authority. He’s just so nice.

Yet, as time goes by, the fake guru will start to talk over you, become demanding, and will be upset that you don’t agree with absolutely everything he says. At some point, he may even be openly hostile towards you — though if he lets his calm and in-control guru demeanor slip, he will claim that he merely “picked up” on your hostility towards him (he is psychic, after all).

3. Allows No Dissent

It’s one thing not to agree with the fake guru wholeheartedly, of course (you can’t be expected to grasp the subtleties of the teaching early on), but open disagreement can never be tolerated, no matter how politely it might be stated. The fake guru cannot allow his knowledge to be questioned or his facts to be shown to be false. Once this occurs, the fake guru will see you as a rival and a threat.

Be prepared to be gossiped about when you’re not around. Presenting you as deceitful, a freeloader (no matter how much you’ve given), a loose cannon who doesn’t grasp the subtleties of spirituality (unlike the people being gossiped to, of course), or as simply mad and dangerous is the most effective way for the fake guru to undermine your authority.

4. Is closely Associated With Hangers-On

Treating you as an equal from the moment you met, it might seem that the fake guru is genuinely interested in you and, as such, in other people too. Wrong. At some point, you will probably notice that the fake guru surrounds himself not with equals, nor with people who are interesting in their own right, or with people that can help him to become a better version of himself.

The fake guru is always thrilled to meet someone important who might be of benefit to him, of course, but he surrounds himself with hangers-on. As the name suggests, these people will hang on to the fake guru’s every word. To get into his graces is easy, however. It simply requires subordinating yourself to the guru, agreeing with him, flattering his vanity, or doing him favors. This might be helping him with his business, buying lots of whatever he’s selling, keeping quiet about some indiscretion, or introducing him to more influential people than you.

5. Presents Himself as Having Secret Knowledge, But…

The fake guru might claim to have learned secret teachings from Tibet or from a secret tradition in the West — or both. But the fake guru will often prevent his disciples and students from acquiring knowledge that is freely available to anyone. He will ignore questions about basic practices or knowledge of the tradition that the guru claims to represent and he might also withhold the names of books and authors that could fill in the very large gaps in the student’s knowledge.

This is partly because he doesn’t want you to be able to form your own opinion, or to realize that he isn’t quite the authority that he claims, and partly because, if he senses that he is losing his grip on you, he can offer you a tidbit of information to keep you hooked. The fact that it comes so rarely will make the knowledge feel valuable, as if he has been carefully evaluating your progress and now recognizes your spiritual advancement.

6. Claims To Be Practicing Something Ancient, But…

Nothing is quite as alluring as an ancient tradition, and fake gurus often claim to be the representative of one — or, rather, the only authentic one. Yet, despite the claim of representing a pure and ancient tradition, the fake guru often appears to have mixed all kinds of modern teachings and practices into it. Indeed, after careful consideration, it might even appear that he has taken teachings and practices from those he criticizes the most. He probably has.

7. Knows More Than You About Every Spiritual Tradition. Of course

At some point, you might mention some obscure spiritual tradition that you used to study. The fake guru has never mentioned it — and never will again. But he has two basic responses (and listening to you explain it isn’t one of them). Either he will dismiss the tradition out of hand, without seeming to know anything about it. Or he will claim to have known about it all along, without elaborating on his knowledge of the subject (which, since he won’t mention even one single thing about it, seems to be non-existent). Either way, whatever you know is unimportant.

8. His Private Behavior Blatantly Contradicts His Public Image

We’re all at least a little contradictory. As we strive towards our goals, we inevitably fall back on bad habits or give in to a momentary weakness. Indeed, truly interesting individuals spend a lifetime working out how their inner contradictions can and should work together — their spirituality and sexual drive, their desire to create beautiful art and to shine a spotlight on the ugliness of contemporary society, their attraction to both militancy and compassion, their love of tradition and will to innovate, and so on. The fake guru doesn’t want to resolve his contradictions, however. He wants to hide them.

Consequently, if the fake guru presents himself as calm, wise, and humanitarian, you might find yourself witnessing him exploding in a fit of uncontrolled road rage, cursing angrily at some driver for a tiny — or imagined — infraction on the road and threatening to kill them. Or, perhaps, he advocates a strict, health-conscious diet while downing eight pints of beer in a single evening. Or talks about the necessity of discipline but always turns up two hours late. Or presents himself as somehow aloof to the vast majority of humanity (because of its lowly obsession with immediate pleasure) while secretly sending dick pics to every attractive woman he encounters.

A particular skill of fake gurus is what psychology calls “projection.” He will psychoanalyze everyone, pointing out their rather tawdry secret motivations, not realizing that his diagnoses perfectly describe himself — even if his theories rarely accurately describe anyone else. Despite the fact that his claims about other people are false (and are actually a projection of his own shortcomings and secret desires), this is an especially powerful element in the use of gossip as a weapon against potential troublemakers (see “No Dissent Allowed” above). So, if your fake guru goes all Freudian, telling you that the latest person he’s upset at is sexually repressed, wants to marry their mother, or is some sort of sexual deviant, watch out. He might just be…

9. Sex Obsessed

Whether it’s messaging unwanted dick pics, hugging every attractive twenty-something-year-old woman who floats across his horizon (to sense their auras, of course), encouraging free love (while hoping he’ll be the beneficiary), stealing the girlfriends of male disciples, or carrying on secret affairs with, or sexually molesting, female disciples, the fake guru is often sex-obsessed.

Of course, a high sexual drive is a sign of high testosterone, which can push the individual to take risks and to go after what they want in life. (That’s often a good thing.) And no doubt being around lots of attractive women can heighten sexual desire. But this wouldn’t be an excuse for anyone and it’s even less of an excuse for a “spiritual master.”

Around attractive women, the fake guru’s behavior is sneaky, manipulative, and often abusive. (Frankly, he’s more like a beta male or a Hollywood movie director than a spiritual teacher.) Even if there’s no actual, sexual abuse, the behavior generally involves mind games. Most obviously, the fake guru presents himself as possessing tremendous knowledge and mysterious power, and might imply that a sexual relationship with him would fast track you on the path to becoming a spiritually enlightened being. Sex is spiritual, after all, at least with him (though not with any other man). So, it’s almost as if he’d be doing you a favor.

10. Associates Himself With Jesus

While small-time fake gurus might not go there, once he’s got enough groupies a really first-class fake guru is going to bring up Jesus. It doesn’t matter if the fake guru has formed his only religion or — even weirder — if he claims to be a Buddhist, Tantrik Hindu, Satanist, or a pagan, or if he’s just hostile to Christianity.

Of course, only the boldest ever claim to be the literal reincarnation of Jesus. Most simply imply a connection, letting you come to the conclusion yourself. Perhaps the fake guru will remark about the startling similarity of his teachings to Jesus’s — which, he will imply, is everything to do with some mysterious force connecting the two “spiritual teachers,” and nothing at all to do with plagiarism. Or perhaps he will talk about Jesus — as if he has some special insight into him, the way only an enlightened individual might — while posing serenely… almost as if Christ has returned. Or, perhaps he will just radically distort Biblical teachings for his own benefit, claiming unique — even otherworldly — insight.

How Did Your Fake Guru Score?

Okay, you’ve added up the number of traits of your fake guru and it’s time to find out how they did.

  • One or Two — Sorry, but your fake guru is a common huckster. (You’re new to the whole spirituality thing, right?) You’re going to meet lots of these as you move through New Age-type circles. Mostly, these people are naive dreamers who are more interested in fooling themselves than in fooling you (though they enjoy that too because it makes them feel that they must be right).
  • Between three and five — He probably knows he’s manipulating you and might well be aiming, long term, to possess some of your money or all of your body. But, for all his talk about karma, angels, reincarnation, and Tantric love-making, he probably can’t pull it off. Perhaps he has a domineering “high priestess” (A.K.A. his girlfriend) who’s keeping a careful eye on him. Or maybe he’s a little too obvious in his manipulations. (And you’re probably already wise to his little games, aren’t you?)
  • Between six and nine — Your fake guru is either a natural-born psychopath or has had a lot of practice in this particular con. Either way, he wants a lot more than your admiration. Maybe it’s time to reflect on all his weird behavior — that you witnessed but made excuses for — and all of the inappropriate comments you’ve heard your fake guru say and leave, calmly, while you can.
  • Ten out of ten — It’s time to get the hell out. Because, men, you’ve been fast-tracked to hand over both your last cent and your long-term girlfriend before being placed on all-night guard duty at his compound out in the middle of nowhere. And, ladies, sorry, but you’re about to become the latest addition to his “family” of a dozen or so “wives.” Grab whatever guns you can find and whatever illegitimate children you’ve already had with “the messiah” and get to the nearest outpost of civilization before daybreak — ’cause a whole Waco/Manson Family/Jonestown/Heaven’s Gate/Aum Shinrikyo thing is about to go down.
The Three Stages of Initiatic Spirituality — Now available from Amazon dot com, Barnes&Noble and other major booksellers in your country.