Advaita Gurus and Critics – part 2

by Prof. Phillip Charles Lucas

<Read Part 1>

Modern Advaitins are the successors of a long line of Vedanta-inspired teachers and movements in North America that reaches back to 1830s New England Transcendentalists, the Theosophical Society (founded 1875), New Thought (originating in the late nineteenth century), Vedanta Societies (founded in the 1890s), Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship (founded 1920), Transcendental Meditation (founded 1959 in Los Angeles as the Spiritual Regeneration Movement), the Integral Yoga Institute (founded 1966), Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers (founded 1959), and many other teachers and movements. [For a recent and comprehensive view of these teachers and movements see Philip Goldberg, American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation (New York: Random House, 2010).]

TMA proponents have witnessed the profusion of NTMA (sometimes pejoratively called “Neo-Advaita”) satsangs and teachers in the past twenty-five years with a growing concern that the forms Advaita spirituality is taking in Western cultures may no longer be providing spiritual seekers with an effective methodology to achieve moksha, the ultimate liberation from the ocean of human suffering and rebirth (samsara). This article takes no position on the efficacy issue but seeks to examine various dimensions of tension between these two factions that might shed light on the larger phenomenon of orthodoxy versus innovation in transnational spiritual movements.

My sources for this study include primary texts such as NTMA teachers’ and TMA proponents’ books, articles, Internet discussions, websites and email exchanges, as well as participant-observation at various Modern Advaitin satsangs and oral interviews with TMA proponents and participants in NTMA events. My work as a scholar of new religious movements equips me with a long-term perspective on new and minority religious currents in American history, as well as a sense of the challenges and opportunities that spiritual “entrepreneurs” encounter in contemporary North American culture. As a historian of religions, I also am familiar with the anxieties of various “orthodoxies” in Western religious settings when their sacred traditions are confronted with innovation, adaptation, accommodation and reconfiguration. I am not a partisan of either faction and can appreciate the sincere motivations, intentions and concerns of both parties.

Five Thematic Trajectories of TMA Criticisms of NTMA

TMA criticisms can be plotted along five main thematic trajectories. The first of these centers upon NTMA teachers’ alleged disavowal of sadhana, or spiritual effort, in the process of self-realization. TMA proponents claim that a time-tested method of mental purification/preparation is essential in Advaita, is incremental, and requires disciplined effort over a sustained period of time.

The second theme follows from the first and entails the charge that some NTMA teachers ignore the necessity for moral development as a prerequisite for authentic spiritual realization. Critics assert that efficacious sadhana includes fostering specific virtues and allege that many NTMA gurus make insufficient reference to these virtues in their teachings.

A third theme criticizes NTMA teachers for their lack of grounding in Advaita texts, languages and traditions. Critics see this grounding as essential for any teacher who is to serve as an effective agent of Advaita awakening. Related to this criticism is the charge that too many NTMA gurus begin teaching within a short time of their first awakening experiences and thus lack the necessary ripeness for authentic instruction of others. Traditionalist critics argue that Advaita gurus should have the necessary training and skills for effective teaching.

A fourth theme focuses on the teaching events (satsangs) of many NTMA gurus and the alleged shallowness of the seekers who attend these events. Critics see the satsang format as limited, ephemeral and ultimately of little value. They allege that NTMA students eschew ongoing assistance in the arduous task of ego transcendence in favor of seeking an “instant enlightenment” that bypasses essential steps in spiritual development. TMA proponents observe that satsang attendees might be more concerned with psychological empowerment, self-help and the experience of spiritual community than authentic Advaita liberation.

A fifth theme is the charge that NTMAs make no distinction between absolute and relative levels of awareness, thus tending to devalue a life of engaged spiritual practice and balanced development of physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual dimensions of the self.

One could argue that each of these themes resonates with the others and that all five could be reduced to one overarching criticism: NTMA gurus strip away essential aspects of the Advaita system, leaving a pseudo-spirituality that is ineffective for the arduous task of achieving moksha, ultimate spiritual liberation. Nevertheless, a sequential focus upon each of these sub-themes will help to better understand the depth and breadth of TMA criticisms of NTMA.

Theme One: Disavowal of Sadhana

The first criticism centers upon NTMA teachers’ alleged disavowal of sadhana, or sustained practice, in the achievement of spiritual liberation. According to their critics, NTMA teachers wrongly contend that Advaita’s essential teaching of non-dual truth has been buried under a layer of myths, practices and symbols, which are culturally bound and dualistic in their mindset. These teachers, it is claimed, assert that realization of absolute non-dual awareness can be gained instantly through their version of satsang, an intimate but public discussion between students and their teacher. Because of this, students do not need to learn foreign terms, master abstruse texts, or engage in mental preparation in order to “get it.”

In fact, all the elaborate methodology of traditional Advaita sadhana is seen as inimical to spiritual realization since it fosters the illusion that there is someone to get to some future state of enlightenment. Full enlightenment is here and now, if one simply realizes Advaita’s ultimate truth that atman (the spiritual self) is none other than Brahman (Absolute Reality). [Dennis Waite, Enlightenment: The Path through the Jungle (Winchester, U.K.: O Books, 2008), 3.]

German-born painter, musician and NTMA guru Karl Renz articulates this view in his answer to the question: “Is there any necessity of inner work or development?”:

For being what you are no work or development is required. All concepts, of way, development and even cognition, appear with the first I-thought. This first idea creates time, space and thus the entire universe. And as long as this I-thought appears to be real…there appears the desire for unity and herewith the longing for a way out, for an end of suffering…. By being what you are, or better, as you are, absolute, prior to all and nothing, all concepts are destroyed. [“Karl Renz Interview,” 8 January 2013, at <>, accessed 6 May 2013 (Defunct).]

A younger NTMA teacher, British-born Unmani (né Liza Hyde), gives a similar explanation for why practice is ultimately unnecessary:

Practice is a way of avoiding feeling the reality of what is, which can often be uncomfortable. If I feel pain or anxiety, thought will try to do anything to fix it, change it, just “witness it” or practice anything which has the goal of making it go away. But seeing the futility of thought and that there is no one here who needs the experience to be any different, all that is left is the actual raw painful sensation.

There is no escape from it as it is…. While you still feel to practice and work on yourself, there is the hope that things will improve in some way. This message is a message of no more hope. It is the end of the road, the end of the spiritual path…. If we drop the question of whether or not practice is necessary for a moment, to ask the more relevant question—who am I? […] Who is here right now? If I believe that I am someone who owns my problems and my suffering and my mind, then I will believe that I need (or could) do something to make a change in my life.

But seeing that in fact there is no one here living a life at all, then the question of whether or not practice is necessary, becomes irrelevant. I am not suggesting that you don’t practice if you feel it is necessary. In answer to the question of whether there is any point in practice, I would say that as long as you feel that it is necessary, then it is necessary. But if you are ready to lose all hope and see that there is no escape from reality, then stop and ask yourself who needs any practice? [Unmani, “Is There Any Point in a Practice,” Die to Love with Unmani, at <>, accessed 6 May 2013.]

*** Go to Part 3 ***