The Guru is a Donut

Applications of Social Network Theory to the Study of Religion


  • Vanessa Lange University of Bern



Gurus, Sathya Sai Baba, Social Relations, Social Network Analysis


How are global gurus successful in enchanting thousands of devotees? Common descriptions tend to highlight attributes of the actors, e.g. the charisma of the guru or the biographies and socio-economic backgrounds of the devotees. In my opinion this does not sufficiently explain the growth or stability of these movements. By using a social network theory approach, I focus on the types of ties between the involved actors. From this relational perspective, the network position of the actors and the qualities of the ties between them are the „material“ a guru-centered movement is made of. Instead of searching for more and more characteristics of the actors to explain the phenomenon (e.g. the guru's rhetoric skills and theological virtuosity or the devotee's disappointment with more conventional forms of religion), this approach helps to see a distinctive pattern of social organization that both enables and restricts interaction.

Author Biography

Vanessa Lange, University of Bern

Center for Global Studies / Institute for the Science of Religion


Aravamudan, Srinivas. 2006. Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Copeman, Jacob and Ikegame, Aya, eds. 2012. The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives. South Asian Studies Series. London: Routledge.

Kumaré. The True Story of a False Prophet. 2011. Directed by Vikram Gandhi. Kino Lorber, Film, 84 min.

Lucia, Amanda. 2014. “Innovative Gurus: Tradition and Change in Contemporary Hinduism.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 18: 221–63.

Urban, Hugh B. 2003. “Avatar for Our Age: Sathya Sai Baba and the Cultural Contradictions of Late Capitalism.” Religion 33: 73–93.

Warrier, Maya. 2003. “Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in Contemporary India.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 7 (1): 31–54.



How to Cite

Lange, V. (2017). The Guru is a Donut: Applications of Social Network Theory to the Study of Religion. Bulletin for the Study of Religion, 46(1), 10–12.