A spiritual teacher is like a physician, helping cure one of a disease. Sometimes, the physician must take a scalpel and cut out an abscess or use a hot needle to cauterize a wound to bring a person back to health. The job of a Yoga sage is to remove the scum of his disciples’ false identifications with their ego identities, so they can find the clear light of the Infinite within. Although Swami Veda was the kindest and gentlest of human beings, he would not spare the rod if that’s what his student needed.

One time, early in our relationship, I attended one of his talks. He was on a stage, outside, and everyone else was sitting down below on grass listening. At one point, he said something like “I am an anthill to my Master’s Himalayas. I have so far to go to become enlightened.“

After his talk, when he took questions, I raised my hand and he called on me. “You said that you have so far to go until you reach enlightenment. But what about me?” I said that last sentence almost with a whine.

His face scrunched up and he looked at me like I was a week-old rotten fish. Nearly spitting out his words, he said “I don’t trouble myself with self-pity”— those last two words spoken with even more bile.

After the talk was over, someone came up to me and said, “Never ask him that question again.” I had no intention of doing so. A friend was waiting to drive me home, and when I got in the car, I spewed out the tale of what just transpired, finally saying “He is so mean!” My friend, who had graciously listened, said, “It sounds like he loves you very much and he was saying that for your own good.”

That was unexpected and it was true. My spiritual teacher’s job was not to support my weakness, but rather diminish that tendency. Strength and confidence is required to reach the heights of yoga, not self-pity.

Over the years, I had several more of those painful lessons. One time, I was staying at Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama and had just visited Swami Veda Bharati in his cottage. To my surprise, during that visit, he asked me to accompany him and others to the Kumbha Mela —a vast spiritual gathering that happens every four years in different places in India, which was going to be happening in Ujjain. I didn’t know where Ujjain was but had the idea it was far away. My immediate reaction was of fear. I hate big events and the thought of gathering with literally millions of people sparked off my worst anxieties of disease. So, I said, “Is there malaria there?”

Swami Ji said, “Yes! There is malaria and bird flu and …” he proceeded to name at least ten frightful diseases.

“So you’re telling me not to worry.” I said.

“Yes. I don’t worry about such things.”

I slipped out of his cottage without saying whether I’d go to the Kumba Mela with him and wandered around on the plaza in front of the cottage. There were dozens of others milling around too.

Suddenly, Swami Veda came out of his cottage with an entourage in tow, and like a guided missile he came straight to me. With a voice sharp as a knife he said “You have to get over your fears! Do you think he is afraid?” pointing to Swami Ritavan Bharati (he was known as Ananta then), one of the head teachers standing nearby. “No,” I said.  “He is fearless.” Swami Veda looked into my eyes and then turned and walked away, leaving me red-faced and feeling very small.

That happened right in the midst of the crowd where everyone could hear him admonish me. Embarrassed doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. Ashamed, embarrassed, flustered, and enraged might be a good start. I wanted to cry.

Like a wounded animal, I retreated to my cottage and spent two hours hating him. But as the anger subsided, a thought came into my mind: “He was doing me a favor. He was right; fear is hindering my life. Someone had to tell me and, as my teacher, he did so in a way that really caught my attention.” After that realization, rather than hatred, I felt profoundly grateful. It wasn’t comfortable, but I didn’t become a disciple of a spiritual teacher to be comfortable. I sought a teacher to overcome my old self-limiting mental and emotional patterns and to learn how to expand into my full Self.

Swami Veda’s words deeply affected me, and I became determined to face fears as they arose, and the opportunities started coming.

Everything the teacher does is not harsh. Often Swami Veda spoke to me in the gentlest, kindest tones. One time I was angry at him and went up to him and told him so. Immediately he put his arm around my shoulders and kindly asked me to tell him what was wrong. As I did so, he just kept pouring a look of love onto me and my rage disappeared and I felt sort of silly telling him why I was so angry because, in the face of his love, I no longer felt angry. After I was done, he said, “You may be right,” which helped me feel validated rather than stupid. From that experience, I learned it was okay to be angry at him and that he was willing to hear about it and even admit to possibly being wrong. I felt stronger from the interaction.

So, this is what a teacher does. Sometimes spreads the honey, other times pulls out the scalpel. All is meant to help the disciple grow. In my experience over decades, that’s how Swami Veda lived and why people came to him to learn.