Advaita Gurus and Critics – part 5

by Prof. Phillip Charles Lucas

<Read Part 4>

Theme Three: Insufficient Grounding in Vedanta Traditions

A third theme criticizes NTMA teachers for their lack of grounding in the Sanskrit language and Advaita scriptures, and their concomitantly premature assumption of the guru role. TMA proponents see this grounding as essential for any teacher who is to be an effective agent of Advaita awakening. Without it, the Advaita system of self-realization gets watered down, key Sanskrit terms are misinterpreted, and NTMA teaching becomes little more than a psychological massage for stressed-out Westerners.

Sanjay Kumar Srivastava, a frequent TMA commentator on various Advaita-oriented discussion forums, bluntly summarizes the TMA position: “In ‘Advaita’ you get enlightenment only through study of Upanishads and other Vedic scriptures. All other religious practices including meditations etc. are considered at best a preparation of mind to understand the message of Upanishads and at worst superfluous.” [Sanjay Kumar Srivastava, “Watering down Advaita: Westerners Corrupt Hindu Terminology!” Sarlo’s Guru Rating Service, at <>, accessed 6 May 2013. The first entry is written by Sanjay Kumar Srivastava, but the whole seems to be Waite’s.]

In the view of TMA critics, NTMA teachers consider the rich methodology offered by traditional Advaita—including the study of Sanskrit, systematic understanding of the Upanishads, and careful study with a guru—as impractical “baggage” from an earlier era that is no longer necessary for enlightenment. The alleged NTMA disregard for traditional Advaita studies is well summed up by Sedona-based NTMA author John Greven:

Traditional Advaita—a kind of path using knowledge, reason, logic, investigation to dispel the clouds of false ideas so that the sun (Self) is realized. Neo-Advaita—a kind of path that pretends to ignore the clouds of false ideas and encourages seeing Oneness directly…. Neo, it seems, offers the opportunity of removing some traditional Advaita baggage that was born in a different era and culture. Ultimately, it is the One—not the temporal teaching or teacher [—] that removes the veil.  [Greven is quoted in Sailor Bob Adamson, “The Eternal State: A Very Silly Argument: Neo-advaita vs. Traditional Advaita,” at <>, accessed 21 January 2013 (Defunct). Greven’s book, Oneness (Salisbury, U.K.: Nonduality Press, 2005), attends to such themes as the ego’s inability to control thoughts and ending the painstaking search for enlightenment by becoming aware of the immediacy of the “natural state.”]

Sociologist Rodney Stark would agree that it is implausible to expect contemporary Western seekers to have the time, aptitude or inclination to follow traditional Advaita methodology fully. In his theory of how new religious movements succeed, a key factor is the need to establish cultural continuity with potential adherents. The study of an ancient sacred language, the systematic consideration of a large body of scripture written in that language, and the multi-year apprenticeship to a qualified teacher for the purpose of mastering these scriptures are simply not culturally congruent for the vast majority of Western seekers. If Stark is correct, the putative success (at least in terms of adherents and book sales) of NTMA gurus stems directly from their willingness to make concessions to Western cultural norms and to tone down traditional requirements of Advaita study.  [Rodney Stark, “Why Religious Movements Succeed or Fail: A Revised General Model,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 11, no. 2 (May 1996): 133-46.]

Waite disputes the NTMA argument in strong terms, insisting that Advaita teachers from a legitimate sampradayaare qualified to pass on the teaching of that sampradaya. And the key point about such teaching is that it has been proven time and again to work. Thus, in order genuinely to “belong” to a sampradaya, one has to have studied with a teacher of that sampradaya for however long it takes fully to understand all of the aspects (i.e. many years). (In the past, this would have meant learning scriptures by heart, in the original Sanskrit, and knowing how to explain their meaning to a seeker.)  [Dennis Waite, Interview with non-duality magazine.]

In Waite’s view, Sanskrit training also is highly desirable since there often are no suitable words in other languages to translate Sanskrit terms. Even when a relatively accurate word can be found, it likely will not carry the subtle nuances of the Sanskrit term. The use of an ordinary modern word also makes it less likely that the concept referred to will be examined thoroughly. [Waite, Enlightenment, 104.]

Swartz asserts that, because they were insufficiently grounded in the Advaita scriptural tradition, students of Poonja experienced moments of awakening and then quickly returned to North America to teach enlightenment to others. As a result, they were ill-prepared to maintain their state of awakening when their old patterns of dualistic thought returned in full force. [Waite, Enlightenment, 101; Swartz, “What is Neo-Advaita?”]

According to Swartz, traditional Advaita emphasizes practices of sacrifice (yagna), which he understands as the need to sacrifice one’s ingrained ego desires and obsessions. Since this long, painstaking process was never enjoined on Poonja’s students, when they returned to the West they turned to the development of therapies aligned with Western transpersonal psychology to help clear up their students’ ego-related problems. Swartz argues that this work distorts authentic Advaita by applying its metaphysical concepts to the ego’s dysfunctional patterns, reversing traditional Advaita sadhana, which assumes a mature, healthy ego. It is only from this foundation that Advaita then attempts to reveal the true nature of the universal self. This occurs not by attempting to destroy the ego (as NTMAs often maintain), but by embracing a greater, impersonal self that allows the ego to function in its proper place. [ Swartz, “What is Neo-Advaita?” Krishna, another commentator on Poonja’s influence, maintains that many of Poonja’s prominent Western students either did not develop specific transpersonal therapies for their students following their time with Poonja or were already practicing therapists before their encounter with him. Gangaji’s husband Eli Jaxon-Bear, for example, had long used therapeutic tools such as the Gurdjieff-derived enneagram in his workshops. Krishna maintains that many Osho disciples who later studied with Poonja simply continued their former work as therapists when they returned to the West, adding Poonja’s non-dual perspective to their therapy tool-kit. Krishna’s main correction to this broader critique is that Poonja did not foster or create any psychotherapeutic technique for his students, but he also did not dissuade them from continuing therapeutic work upon their return to the West. Moreover, there were students of Poonja who did not engage in psychotherapeutic work when they embarked upon their NTMA teaching careers in Western countries. Email communication with Krishna, 15 August 2012.]

Swartz maintains that Advaita scriptures are carefully designed to remove ignorance and guide self-inquiry. He cites Ramana Maharshi as an example of an enlightened sage who read, interpreted and translated Advaita scriptures into various languages for the guidance and support of those who came to him. Swartz also discusses his own training under Swami Chinmayananda, including “three Vedanta classes a day, every day for two years.” During these classes, his teacher explicated the major Vedanta scriptures verse by verse. The swami would remain focused on a text until each student clearly understood it. Not surprisingly, Swartz finds NTMA teachers wanting, because they provide no systematic exposition of foundational Advaita texts and lack the required training in Sanskrit to qualify for such teaching. [Swartz, “What is Neo-Advaita?”; see also “The Horse’s Mouth: An Essay on the ‘Lineage’ Game,” Shining World, at <>, accessed 6 May 2013; and discussion of the question, “If I cannot know myself and there is no other what is all this?” Shining World, at < enlightenment.htm>, accessed 11October 2012.]

Swartz also questions NTMA teachers who stand outside the ancient teaching tradition of Advaita. He maintains that a proper understanding of this tradition and how to communicate it in changing contexts has survived in the sampradayas of India; moreover, these traditional guru lineages have protected the teachings from innovators who believe it is necessary “to make them palatable for modern audiences or hide them for want of qualified aspirants.”  For Swartz, the genius of the Vedanta tradition is that it reaches humanity “where it lives, in the dream of duality, and provides an effective roadmap and method.” [ Swartz, “The Horse’s Mouth.”

Waite emphasizes the necessity of having a qualified guide who can carefully relate the scriptural tradition of Advaita to students, discuss their questions and clarify their understanding. A guide schooled in Advaita scriptures can provide students with a solid foundation for their private meditations on the tradition’s teachings. Just as it is not possible to see your own face without using a mirror, it is impossible to see the self without the mirror of scriptures and a qualified teacher to interpret them correctly. The qualified teacher can monitor the student’s ongoing progress, resolve misunderstandings, enable the assimilation of difficult teachings and help the student avoid straying from the path. [Waite, Enlightenment, 24, 97]

Waite is highly critical of NTMAs who essentially “wing it” at their teaching events and who provide no systematic explication of core Advaita scriptures and commentaries.

Neither satsang nor Neo-Advaitin teachers will usually refer to scriptures in any form or at any time…. It must be admitted and acknowledged that a skilled teacher, who is able to use the scriptures as a pramana (valid means for acquiring knowledge), is what is needed…. The scriptures are claimed to have no value by Neo-Advaitin [NTMA] teachers. The Neo-Advaitin argument is that: since there is no one to become enlightened and the Self is already free, it follows that the scriptures cannot serve any useful function. Such teachers have probably not read them and will certainly not have understood them. [Waite, Enlightenment, 37-38.]

*** Read Part 6 ***

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