A few years ago, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was giving a public talk in New York’s Central Park and, like thousands of others, I woke before dawn and rushed to be there at 5 a.m. to get a good seat for the 10 a.m. event. What I found was a madhouse of competitive hostility. Everyone wanted to sit near the front and was doing whatever it took to get there and hold a place. But after an hour of listening to the Dalai Lama, this crowd changed. We were now the epitome of considerateness, picking up trash and going out of our way to be courteous.

There are countless such stories of elevation and transformation in the presence of spiritual gurus. I once heard an interview with a gentleman who was asked about his heavy involvement in serving the homeless community in Washington, D.C. He said that it all began when he was in charge of leading Mother Teresa to a stage for a talk she was delivering while on a visit to our capital. As he accompanied her up the stairs, the short and elderly lady smacked him in the chest with the back of her hand and demanded, “What are you doing?” That was enough to wake him out of a self-centered life to one filled with compassion and service.

In the same vein, many times I have turned to look at an audience in the presence of His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Faces previously clouded with stress, sadness, or anger are transformed and are now beautiful, innocent, and youthful-looking once again.

These great international spiritual teachers are people who, by example, show us how to be. More than that, these are people who transform us through their very being: people we might call “avatars.” What do I mean by that?

In Sanskrit, the word avatar means the embodiment of a deity; traditionally, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, who comes down to Earth. In the 1980s the word was picked up by the computer community to mean a computer user’s alter ego in cyberspace. And of course, James Cameron’s movie made “avatar” a household word, as we see a young wheelchair-bound soldier transformed through his avatar into a completely new being with carbon-fiber bones and the deep wisdom of an indigenous elder. My definition is a combination of these ideas. An avatar is a person who embodies the divine for us — and who draws us into being closer to the divine ourselves. Yet the great avatars see their role differently. As Sri Sri says, “With whomsoever we fall in love, we are really falling in love with ourselves.” Thus, the role of an avatar is to show us our own inner beauty.

On an individual level, an avatar can be your mother, your gardener, your spiritual teacher, or a holy figure that moves you. His or her thoughts and deeds continually inspire, uplift, and — most importantly — provide a home, a sense of rest, a sense of support and growth. In India, it is understood that devotion to a spiritual teacher is matched by the teacher’s complete commitment to the devotee’s individual growth. In other words, this is a relationship that should bring you closer to your own self.

But all this begs some questions: what are these avatars or teachers actually doing for us or to us? How does the process work? Whom do we choose? And, while spiritual teachers are seen as essential in many Eastern forms of spiritual practice, why does the idea of devotion, surrender, and the word “guru” provoke allergic reactions?

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