The Path Of Devotion: Gurubhakti in a Master/Slave Context


Joshua had been studying yoga for a few years -- and, as a sideline, Indian religion -- when he came to me with the concept. He had by no means decided to be a Hindu; we are both staunch polytheistic Neo-Pagans. However, he felt that the concept of gurubhakti was something that came very close to describing the direction that our master/slave relationship was going in, and he wanted my opinion on it. After I had read about it and researched it, I had a shock of recognition: even as the word "guru" made me blink, I had to admit that this was described some of our practices on our path of spiritual service and mastery.


I wanted to explore gurubhakti because I really do adore my master in a way that is both personal and transpersonal, and I wanted to worship him in a way that was not self-serving for either of us. It seemed like a natural progression on our path.

I was told that one of the most fundamental misconceptions Western people have about Tantric sexuality is that they think it is about enriching your sexual practices by including spirituality, when it is really about enriching your spiritual practices by including sexuality. Incorporating gurubhakti in your M/s relationship is the same way. What we're talking about is one way to position your M/s relationship within your spiritual practice, not how to create a spiritual practice that is based on your M/s relationship. If you have no meaningful concept of spirituality to build on, then this probably isn't going to be very relevant to you. Also, this is only one of the many spiritual roles an M/s couple might find relevant and meaningful to them.

Part I: From Darkness Into Light


I was immediately uncomfortable when I heard the word "guru". That probably came as a side effect of being an American who was raised hearing that word as a negative thing, implying a cult leader who was egotistically charming his followers into shaving their heads, leaving behind their lives, allowing him to take sexual advantage of them in the name of "enlightenment", and turning over their money so that he could buy limousines while they begged in airports. I'd certainly seen enough media coverage of the ones who'd done just that, too. Apparently many Indian gurus just weren't prepared emotionally for the kind of temptation that would face them in America's capitalist and sexually freer society, and they succumbed to it, often in newsmaking ways. At its most positive, I thought that it meant someone who knows everything already, who is so much further ahead on their path than most people, who has rid themselves of most of the flaws endemic to being human. This certainly wasn't me either. I've got plenty of flaws, and I know that they show. I've got a long, long way to walk down that road.

But the more I read on the matter, the more I realized that the word originally just meant teacher, in a formal committed way, vaguely like the Japanese term sensei. It didn't even have to someone who knew everything -- just someone who had powerful knowledge in one area of life and living, and was willing to share it with others. The word is said by some Sanskrit sources to come from the Sanskrit words gu and ru, darkness and dispersal of the darkness -- as some texts put it, leading from darkness into light. That image hit home as a major part of the spiritual mastery-and-service path that we have crafted together.

The syllable gu means shadows,
The syllable ru, he who disperses them,
Because of the power to disperse darkness
the guru is thus named.
-- Advayataraka Upanishad 14-18, verse 5

As an adjective, the word has the connotations of "heavy" and "weighty", heavy with knowledge and spiritual weight. For us, this path is not play. It is work, it is serious, it is real, not a scene or an affectation. The above etymological explanation may also be, according to some linguists, an after-the-fact folk meaning, where the word was broken apart to poetically create the words for "darkness" and "light". According to them, Guru may actually be derived from either one of two Sanskrit terms: gri, meaning "to praise", or gur, meaning "to raise up" or "to make a great effort". In Tibetan Buddhism, the concept of the guru is present -- probably inherited from India -- and they are either referred to as lama (which became a term for a specific kind of Tibetan priest) or vajra, which means -- master. In my opinion, we can find things to learn about this practice from all these varied definitions.

Bhakti was an easier word, and it fit nicely -- because it was the word for the other side of the relationship equation. It is traditionally translated as "devotion", but the more modern American push is to translate it as "participation", meaning a fully engaged and deeply personal involvement with one's spiritual path. It is a form of worship whereby one conceives of the divine power in a human relationship with one's self, as a parent, friend, lover, or master to serve. Bhakti yoga, specifically, is a discipline of engaging with God/s in this deeply personal way. The word comes from the Sanskrit root bhaj, meaning "to share in", "to belong to", and "to worship". Some Western writers argue that "devotion" is a poor choice of definition for Westerners because the thought of "religious devotion" has become sterile and distant, and it does not give the proper connotation of the sense of deeply personal participation in the act of worship, or the ecstatic sense of love involved. I would argue that many modern consensual slaves would not have this difficulty.

I believe that words have power, and the most powerful words travel down an archetypal path; their multiple past and present meanings -- even the ones only vaguely associated with them -- collect around them, and much can be learned from them. Let's look at the major meanings I've listed from the etymology of this word. From darkness into light. To praise. To raise up. To make a great effort. To share in. To belong to. To worship. As I read these, they echoed in me, resonating with what we do in our path of spiritual M/s.

The urge to have power over another person can come from a very dark place. The urge to give oneself wholly can also come from a very dark place. Certainly the culture that we live in views it with suspicion, in the wake of many, many bad examples. To say that it is not dangerously prone to becoming unhealthy, on either side, would be a lie. To make it not only healthy but a vehicle for the greatest good and the furthest growth is a profound act of bringing light into the darkness. What spiritual SM does for the darkest urges of sex, spiritual M/s does for the darkest urges of relationship, dispersing the cultural darkness that has collected around it in favor of clear, open, ethical practice.

Part II: To Praise


I want be really clear that what we are talking about is a relationship with a master who is a human being. While doing gurubhakti only makes sense with a master that you respect and see as your spiritual superior in some way, they aren't God. Or rather, they are not the entirety of God. I happen to believe that all beings are manifestations of God, and that God is present in all beings. For me to worship God as manifest in this one person isn't to say this person is omnipotent, or omniscient, or infallible, or anything like that. I suppose it depends on your theology, but regardless, I think it is important to recognize that there is God beyond this one person, and this person might be really great, but they are not infallible.

(Even though I am a polytheist, I am intentionally using the term "God" in the capitalized singular because it has the most relevance and the strongest emotional impact on most people. If I say "your concept of divinity" or "higher power" or "the all-that-is" or even "Goddess", most Western people are able to approach it a lot more casually, as something "less-than-real-God", and that misses the point.)

It is important to fully understand your master's humanness and fallibility before doing starting a devotional practice. If you've only been together a few months and you think this person is perfect, it is almost impossible not to link the spiritual devotion to that illusion of perfection. In an impersonal relationship, as with most modern gurus, most people can maintain that illusion, but in an intimate relationship that is not possible. (Well, unless they are a saint or an avatar or something, and you know, I think even they have cranky days.) So if you are still in that illusion of perfection, when something happens that forces you to confront your master's humanness, the intensity of that devotion can add even more fuel to your feelings of betrayal and resentment. Coming to bhakti devotion with a full appreciation of this person's humanness yields a much more mature and resilient spiritual connection, one that can withstand the ups and downs of life.

During the active practice of bhakti devotion, however, you don't focus on that humanness. You accept it is there, but it is irrelevant. You focus on the person's "Higher Self", you focus on the part of them that reflects divinity. You don't sit there and go through a list of all the great things about them, or what you love about them, or why they are worthy of your adoration. In that moment, you aren't evaluating them. You are just with them, experiencing them.


Here I need to talk about the act of being an example. If the master wants the slave to struggle against great odds to perfect their path, to overcome their faults, to put their personal foibles and pettinesses aside for the sake of the goal, then they had better be modeling those behaviors themselves in their own life. It does not have to be toward the M/s relationship directly, although it can be. But we have found that watching the master strive selflessly toward a goal, while perfecting themselves along the way, is an amazing inspiration for the slave who is expected to do the same thing. It's not about whether it's fair, or tit for tat. It's about what works.

You can be worthy of being a master with no spiritual obligations whatsoever, so long as your slave thinks that you're an all right guy. When you add spirituality to the recipe, you are held to a higher standard. The Universe watches, and takes notes. When you add in the more complex level of gurubhakti, you need to understand that part of the guru job is being an example, a model -- all the time. You can strive, you can even fail, but you must never give up. Remember the line from Bertold Brecht's spiritually cleansing poem The Doubter: "How does one act if one believes what you say? Above all, how does one act?" Being worthy of praise is acting that way. That includes: According to this worldview that I am teaching and modeling for my slave, how does one act when one is stressed, or unhappy, or angry, or has erred? Those are the most important times to model the right way to live in the world.

Part III: To Raise Up


The hardest thing for most people to get over with this sort of practice is that it needs to be taken seriously. It isn't that it is a grim or somber or formal kind of thing -- it can be spontaneous and joyful. But the slave has to really mean it, in a deep and sincere way, not in a detached "I'm too cool for this" or "I'm too rational for this" kind of way. More than anything, that is the surrendering of the ego that most folks I've talked to need to be able to do this practice. If you've usually got a very irreverent attitude to your M-type (or to life in general), you need to be able to set that aside. Being reverent is what this is all about. You can use these practices to develop that reverence, but you need to be willing to go there.

First I want to be very clear that gurubhakti is not compatible with every spiritual tradition. Even within Hinduism, there are traditions where is it seen as appropriate to worship the guru as a manifestation of the divine, and there are traditions where that would be considered offensive. If you have sincerely-held spiritual beliefs or a strong investment in a particular religious tradition that would find worshiping the divinity within another human against their rules, this practice may not be for you.

Second, my understanding of the spiritual experience is strongly biased towards there being some type of a personal god that one can have a relationship with, a conversation with. I'm not saying that you can't do gurubhakti unless you share that understanding, only that it's challenging for me to explain it in a way that might make sense outside of that understanding. But I'll try!

I want to talk in fairly concrete terms about what "doing" gurubhakti looks like, but first I need to talk about the different places people might be approaching this practice from. There are two important questions here -- whether there is a spiritual tradition that is personally meaningful to you, and whether you've had a deep emotional experience of spirituality within that tradition.

If you have a spiritual tradition that is personally meaningful to you, begin by using that framework. This is easier with some spiritual traditions than others, but I strongly encourage you to try. If your connection to that spiritual tradition is primarily social or cultural, it might be irrelevant to you, and that is okay. But if you have had any kind of spiritually meaningful connection to that tradition, I strongly encourage you to look for a way to integrate the two within your own mind and heart. (Whether you choose to share that understanding with anyone else in your spiritual tradition is entirely a different issue.)

If you don't have a strong connection to any spiritual tradition, you might still find value in exploring bhakti devotion as it is done in an existing spiritual context, in order to create your own. I think that it is easy to take a very superficial approach to a bhakti practice, and grounding it solidly in a coherently examined spiritual tradition is one way to stabilize a deeper connection.

Understanding bhakti devotion is easiest if you have already had a spiritual experience of this kind, where you felt the overwhelming presence of divine love. If you understand the heartfelt worship that naturally arises from that feeling of awe and adoration, then you know what state we are looking to evoke with this practice. If you haven't had this experience within some kind of spiritual or religious framework, it can be very difficult to find it for the first time with your partner. When people talk about "seeing God" in another person, they tend to assume we all know what "God" looks like. Well, maybe, maybe not. In an unmediated experience it is hard to mistake it for anything else, but it isn't so clear when your only experiences with it are all bound up with someone toward whom you have a wide range of strong feelings. Still, I can't imagine there is any actual harm done by practices that fall short of hitting that transcendent bhakti devotion, so there is no need to fear doing it "wrong".

Part IV: To Make A Great Effort


I know that for many people, my talking about gurubhakti in a relationship which we label "master" and "slave" will sound like an incredible act of hubris. For others, it may sounds downright cultlike. On the other hand, I am not looking to create waves of followers. I have only one follower, one person for whom I am explicitly the guru. One. And he signed up for it with open eyes.

Probably the first feeling that a reasonably self-aware dominant experiences when the slave attempts gurubhakti is a sense of vague inadequacy, or at the very least a thought of "Wow, this is a huge thing to live up to!" That's a normal and reasonable reaction, and it shows that they are actually thinking realistically about their position, instead of just treating it like an ego-aggrandizing game. It is an enormous expectation to live up to, and their job is to make that "great effort" -- not to be perfect, but to never cease to strive toward that goal. As the slave kneels at your feet and consciously concentrates on seeing the divine connection within you, on seeing you as your higher self would have you be, something is put into motion in the Universe. You feel pressure, and not just from the slave, to be that higher self.

Gurubhakti isn't just about pressuring, though. It is about mutual manifestation. After a while, once you get over the initial reaction, you realize that your slave's conscious devotion to your higher self also begins to give you the wherewithal to make that great effort. If it's being done right, if you are both actually hitting that spiritual "groove", then the way begins to become clear for the master's striving. I experience it, often, as a penetrating serenity and clarity; while I still have the same life with the same number of problems, they don't seem overwhelming to me. Gurubhakti gives me an inner quiet, at least temporarily -- and, at times, both an urge to confront and improve my internal issues, and the inner resources to do so.

In most spiritual discussions of M/s, it's the master who is helping the slave along their spiritual path, guiding and improving them. The reverse is not done, because it is assumed that the if the slave knew better than the master about how the master's path should be walked, they would be on an entirely different path together. The master is expected to make their "great effort" (or not, depending on how self-serving that particular couple's dynamic is) by themselves, with no help from the slave. I've always been down with that road, because I believe in spiritual masters taking responsibility for their own spiritual evolution, and no, I don't believe that my slave knows best. But I didn't know, before we began to practice gurubhakti, that the slave could actually have a practical effect on the master's evolution. To be clear, the slave does not concentrate on "making" the master connect with their own higher nature, nor attempt to push their intention on them. They simply kneel there and concentrate on seeing that divine nature, believing it as thoroughly as they can, and the Universe does the rest.

But you have to make the great effort. In one of the books that Joshua brought to me about gurubhakti, it listed a number of types of guru-disciple relationships, divided by the nature of the archetype that the guru manifested in the world. Some were parental -- strict but loving, firm but fair disciplinarians who would call their followers on their illusions. Some were like children -- innocent and wise, serenely engaging in their openness and honesty. Some were like playful friends, especially the "crazy-wisdom" gurus. Some were distant and mystical, like oracles or living votive objects. Some, the book said, manifested male and female energy in a balanced way and showed people how to do that in the world.

As a master, I resonated with the first archetype; as someone who works with transgender spirituality, I resonated with the last one. Either way, while his devotion uplifted me, I have to put my own will and commitment into the path. Only when I am fully doing that can I uplift him in turn. Gurubhakti is mutual great effort.

Part V: To Share In


Joshua and I have spoken publicly about our concept of three kinds of service rendered by submissives or slaves: Transactional, Devotional, and Positional. Transactional service is done for a negotiated reward, Devotional service is done out of love, and Positional service is done because serving is an integral part of the server's identity. Transactional service is fairly self-explanatory, and we've written a good deal about Positional service because it's so closely a part of who Joshua is. However, we haven't said much about Devotional service, and we certainly haven't spoken about the far end of it. That's because it took us some years to fully understand what it looks like.

To serve and/or submit out of love can be a wonderful thing -- or it can be something of a difficulty. There are ongoing arguments about the place of love in M/s -- does it fall down as a motivation for the slave when they're angry at their master and don't feel love for them in the moment? Does it make the master prone to poor decisions -- perhaps not being strict enough when it's needed? Does it get in the way? What about when the slave is in love and the master isn't? Some couples say that they can't imagine M/s without it, and look suspiciously at nonromantic M/s. Others mistrust it and their possible reactions were they to fall in love.

When people talk about love, they often bring up the "what do you mean by love, anyway?" question. We've found it useful to group Love by the three Greek definitions: eros, philae, and agape. Eros is romantic love: "being in love", complete with fireworks and all those brain chemicals that make you feel crazed desire and want to smell their hair all the time (because the brain chemicals are making you respond to their pheromones). Philae is "family" love: brother, sister, parent, tribe, best friend ever. People talk about their "leather family" or "leather tribe" sometimes in this demographic in the same way. Then there's agape, which is transpersonal love -- seeing the "highest self" of the person you're looking at, and loving that, regardless of their actions in the moment. Agape is both more distant and impersonal and more compassionate and unconditional than either of the other two.

Think of these three forms of love as a triangle. It's easy to imagine the axis between eros and philae, between romantic and family love. It's also not so hard to imagine the axis that blends from philae to agape, but the third axis is more difficult. How does one envision the middle ground between the deeply personal, romantic eros and the impersonal, spiritual agape? For us, this axis is where bhakti lives.


Some people, despite their sincere and meaningful connection to a particular spiritual tradition, haven't ever had a deeply emotional experience of that faith. Some spiritual traditions emphasize emotional experience more than others, and some people aren't naturally inclined towards this sort of experience. I really do believe you can more easily come to a genuine expression of bhakti devotion with your partner if you've first experienced it in a more obviously "spiritual" way, but some people may need to come at it from the other direction, starting with the personal love and opening to the transcendent aspect of that. How you get there doesn't really matter, but if you are having trouble getting there, and this makes any sense at all in your personal understanding of spirituality, ask yourself, "What would it feel like to fall madly in love with God?" Forget that there is any distinction between personal and transcendent love, and just try it. That is what bhakti devotion is, at its essence. I can't possibly explain what steps to take to fall in love with God, but my impression is that 90% of the process is just being willing and opening your heart. Part VI: To Belong To


This meaning struck me particularly when I came across it. What is more indicative of a master/slave relationship than to say, "You belong to me," or "I belong to you," and actually mean it in a way that is more than metaphorical? The feeling of being held and possessed can be a gateway to setting aside the ego. In the other direction, it can be a gateway to being moved to care for, to tend, to guide the soul who offers such raw vulnerability.


A person who devotes their life to a guru is called a chela or hishya. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, and both are commonly translated as "disciple". The term shishya is the one used in connection with describing the lineage, the chain from teacher to student stretching back through time, each guru being the shishya of his own guru and so on. The term chela, however, comes from the Sanskrit term for "servant" or "slave". Of the two terms, it is the one that most emphasizes the concept of completely surrendering to one's guru, of obeying without hesitance, of turning over your will in its entirety. Often there is an emphasis on the spiritual value of surrendering the ego, and that process is exceedingly difficult to do without some kind of external guidance. The ego, being clever and intent on self-preservation, creates all manner of compelling justifications and explanations and exceptions, to keep you from really facing your shit and doing the hard work that needs to be done. A guru is someone who can call you on this type of thing, but only if you are willing to listen.

In the traditional understanding of the guru-chela relationship, it is assumed that while a guru may be strict with his students, he never takes unfair advantage of them, and any hardships he inflicts on them are for their own good. Traditionally these gurus were often sadhus, renunciates who owned little besides a bowl and a single garment, and perhaps some ritual items. They clearly were not amassing wealth and power at the expense of their handful of disciples. But both in India and in the West, we now hear of "gurus" who do abuse this relationship, and this has caused many sincere gurus to question the appropriateness of the full expression of the guru-chela relationship in modern times.


Master/slave relationships are also heavily scrutinized and mistrusted in our current culture, with similar worries about abuse. The guru and the master have similar pitfalls of arrogance and out-of-control behavior; the chela and the slave similar responsibilities for being discerning about who they give themselves to. We've often found, though, that when you claim a M/s relationship is spiritual, the Universe intensifies its scrutiny of you -- and when you don't walk your talk, you fall much more quickly on your face.

Part VII: To Worship


To do any of these practices, it is important to be in the right frame of mind. In fact, the frame of mind is the whole point, and in a sense, once you've got the right frame of mind you don't actually have to do anything. However, it is good to do something. It helps bring one more solidly there, and once the pattern is established, the actions themselves can help bring about the right mindset. I'll use three examples from Hindu worship, but you can likely figure out similarly effective practices from any tradition.

Begin with both people doing some kind of preparation that makes sense to them, either together or separately. It can be saying a prayer, meditating, taking a shower and putting on nice clothes, whatever action says to you, "and now I'm going to do something spiritual". The attitude that the s-type is cultivating is reverent, loving, and joyful. It isn't an "abject slave" frame of mind. It is closer to, "Being near you makes me so happy I can barely contain myself." or "I am overwhelmed with how wonderful you are." There are other attitudes appropriate to worship, but this is specifically a bhakti devotional practice. During the practice, the s-type strives to feel the presence radiant of God, and see their M-type as a manifestation of that presence. The M-type cultivates an attitude that is reverent yet assured, something like, "I am a worthy and fitting vessel of God. To honor me is to praise the glory of God." (For some people, this attitude comes naturally, for others it is more of a challenge.) The s-type can also do bhakti devotion to the M-type without the M-type doing anything at all. The first two practices I'll describe are reciprocal, the third isn't.

One of the key aspect of Hindu worship is "taking darshan". This is seeing and being seen, on a deep level, by the object of worship. It is a moment of intense spiritual connection, and is often the culmination of temple worship. With a guru, this is more than just making eye contact. It is seeing them, seeing deep into them, and seeing far through them, all at once, while they do the same. There is also a practice called tratak, gently gazing at something for a prolonged period. In the context of sexual Tantric practice, the practice is to sit with one person in the other's lap, facing each other, and gaze into each other's eyes. Other positions are fine, but this one is traditional. This isn't a staring contest -- the gaze is soft -- but you are actually looking into their eyes -- or at least one of their eyes -- not at their whole face or their forehead or nose. Being able to do this without feeling awkward is a very big step towards being able to unselfconsciously hold a reverent headspace toward your partner. Darshan is a more intense connection than tratak, and generally much briefer. Tratak is something you can just do any time. For it to be darshan, there needs to be not just a connection between the two people, but a palpable connection to God.

Some people can make that connection consistently, but for most people (at least at first) it is something that either arises spontaneously, or doesn't. If you can make that connection reasonably consistently, a very simple interaction involving darshan is this: the master sits, and the slave kneels at their feet, in prayer, with their head on the ground. When the master feels the time is right, they put their hand on the slave, who sits up. They make eye contact, for as long as seems appropriate, and then the slave returns to the floor.

Another key element of Hindu worship is prasad, the eating of blessed food, often sweets. Food is given to the object of worship, who blesses it and gives some or all of it back to the worshipper, infused with divine energy. This is a simple and very beautiful exchange, evoking the concept of taking one's nourishment from the object of worship, and taking the object of worship into oneself. One way of using this practice in M/s gurubhakti is for the slave to prepare some small special food and present it to the master, who holds the food for a moment and then feeds the slave. For some people, it may be more powerful to do this in a very formal way, with specific language. For some people that might feel awkward or unnatural, and they might prefer a less formalized interaction. You might start with something formal, and then scale it back to a very simple exchange, or you might start with something simple and gradually incorporate more formal elements as they begin to feel less awkward.

Another way of incorporating this element in M/s involves oral sex, but I think that way is actually very challenging to do when you don't yet have a solid feeling of the basic interaction. It has always bothered me that in SM slang, "worship" can almost always be translated as "thoroughly licking". They aren't mutually exclusive, but they are by no means the same thing. A third form of worship, and one that is very closely associated with bhakti practice, is devotional singing. Songs of joyful surrender and devotion are found in many religious traditions. One song from the Hindu tradition, Mere Gurudev, is specifically a devotional song to one's guru, and it begins, "My guru, I offer these flowers of my faith at your feet, whatever I have, you have given to me, and I dedicate it all to you." If you can find songs that speak to you in this way, it can help to create the right mindset to listen to them. (Feel free to change the words around a little if some lines don't work for you.) It is best to actually sing them. Even singing them quietly when you are alone, or singing along with the recording, has more of an effect on your brain than passively listening.


I sit there with him at my feet, and my eyes meet his. I can feel that he is seeing me at my highest potential -- not just imagining what it might look like, not just thinking about how nice it would be if I was a better person, but honestly doing his best to see through my everyday, mortal, flawed self to the part of me that touches the Divine Force. At some point, eye to eye, it came home to me -- this is how the Universe sees me. This is how the Gods see me. This is what they see.

And I am struck with awe, and then a deep and abiding gratitude, and then an even deeper peace, the serenity and clarity that I spoke of earlier. And then after that -- a great love wells up in me for him. It is not exactly the same fierce, possessive love that I normally experience for my slave, although it is not entirely alien to that sensation. It is like clear, warm water rather than a tumultuous stream. It comes through me, from beyond me -- from that place that my slave, my chela, sees that is through and beyond me. He reaches up and I take his hands, and it passes back from me to him.

I teach, and I am Seen. He learns, and he is Seen.

The Universe teaches both of us, in turn.