Advaita Gurus and Critics – part 6

by Prof. Phillip Charles Lucas

<Read Part 5>

Theme Three: Insufficient Grounding in Vedanta Traditions (concluded)

Tony Parsons articulates the NTMA counterargument on this matter quite clearly:

Traditional Advaita appears to make proper use of logic, reason, belief, and experience, rational explanation, truth, and traditional wisdom, all directed towards helping the seeker along the path to their enlightenment. The Open Secret’s apparent communication is illogical, unreasonable, unbelievable, paradoxical, non-prescriptive, non-spiritual and uncompromising. There is no agenda or intention to help or change the individual. Its resonance is shared energetically, not through the exchange of ideas. It is prior to all teachings and yet eternally new. [Tony Parsons, “Traditional Not Two-ness.”]

Waite counters that Advaita tradition, although holding a high degree of reverence for its scriptural corpus, does not regard the scriptures as a perfect articulation of absolute truth that cannot be questioned or clarified. Rather, they are a “reliable source of self-knowledge in which one can trust until such time as the truth is realized for oneself, at which time they are discarded along with the ignorance they helped to dispel.” [Waite, Enlightenment, 24, 37-39]

Rational questioning and clarification of scriptural teachings under the guidance of a qualified guru, in other words, is seen as a valid means for removing students’ ignorance. In this way, Waite observes, Advaita teaching avoids making an idol of scripture, recognizing both its utility in the dispelling of illusion and its ultimate limitations. [Waite, Enlightenment, 40]

In the TMA proponents’ view, NTMA teachers’ lack of respect for Advaita scriptures deprives them of a reliable guide to self-awakening for their students and a safeguard against their own self-deception and distortion of Advaita truths. [Waite, Enlightenment, 48]

Waite also draws attention to Shankara’s admonition to seek the blessing of an enlightened one, but not if this person is unskilled in teaching methods passed down through an authentic Advaita guru lineage in which disciples lived with the teacher for a period of time and had the scriptures explained to them carefully, logically and thoroughly. A competent teacher is “one who was a competent disciple.” [Waite, Enlightenment, 42]

Against NTMAs who claim that their teaching role “simply arose” and that their answers to student questions spontaneously come to them, Waite maintains that the “Self” does not authorize someone to become a teacher or give them the correct answers to student questions on the spot. Without proper training in Advaita method, the enlightened person may be a “mystic” but is not a “teacher” or guru. Simple knowledge of truth does not give the methodology and skill to communicate it effectively. [Waite, Enlightenment, 42]

This TMA insistence upon scripture and its interpretation by qualified guides is, of course, a common traditionalist theme in battles within other religious communities between orthodox and non-traditional factions.

Another source of skepticism among TMA proponents concerning the “ripeness” of NTMA gurus is these teachers’ claim to be in the lineage of Ramana Maharshi through their association with Poonja. Swartz, for example, observes that some of Poonja’s students (who later became teachers) were ex-followers of Osho, a popular guru for Westerners during the 1970s and 1980s. After Osho died, many of his followers moved to Lucknow, India, and gathered around Poonja, who was relatively unknown outside a small coterie of Indian students. In Swartz’s view, these students “had virtually no knowledge of Vedic culture” and, in spite of their self-designation as sannyasins (renunciates), were not really known for renouncing anything during their time with Osho. [Swartz, “The Horse’s Mouth.” Examples of Osho students or admirers who became NTMA teachers include Arjuna Ardagh, Premananda, Neelam and Madhukar.]

Although he acknowledges that Ramana Maharshi was indeed Poonja’s guru, Swartz maintains that Poonja’s version of self-inquiry involved much less persistence and moment-by-moment effort than that of Ramana. More problematic for Swartz is Poonja’s admission that he did not give his students his final teachings because the students were “arrogant and egotistic,” and basically unworthy, unqualified and unprepared to receive them. [Swartz, “The Horse’s Mouth.” Swartz observes that the withholding of advanced Advaita teaching from those unqualified is in line with Advaita tradition.]

In an interview with David Godman, Poonja admitted that he gave these jejune students “lollipops,” bursts of shaktipat (spiritual energy), as a means of ridding himself of the “leeches,” as he referred to his Western followers. Those who experienced these ecstatic states then interpreted Poonja’s casual advice to go and hold spiritual discussions (“tea sessions”) with their friends in the West as a kind of commission from their guru to become gurus in their own right. [Swartz, “The Horse’s Mouth”; David Godman, interview with author, Tiruvannamalai, India, 3 January 2008. Krishna responds: “It is on record that [Poonja] told many people to teach, and he told Andrew Cohen and Gangaji that they were totally enlightened Satgurus, that they were in fact his successors, and that he wrote many letters to them confirming this, evidence which can be found in Cohen’s book, My Master Is Myself, and on Gangaji’s website.” Email communication with Krishna, 15 August 2012.]

Added to these putatively documented admissions is the well-established fact that Ramana Maharshi never trained his disciples to be teachers, never authorized anyone to teach in his lineage, and showed no interest in initiating students in the Advaita tradition. Swartz concludes that the claim of some NTMA teachers to be in Ramana Maharshi’s lineage is no more than a clever invention designed to confer undeserved status and gravitas on immature teachers needing validation. [Email communication with Krishna, 15 August 2012; Swartz, “The Horse’s Mouth”; and Lucas, “When a Movement Is Not a Movement,” 114.]

This questioning of teaching credentials—whether claims of “apostolic succession” in various Christian sects, guru lineages in yoga traditions, or authentic lines of dharma transmission in Buddhist sects—is another common point of contestation between traditionalist and non-traditionalist factions in religious communities worldwide.

The main difficulty with the TMA line of argument on this issue is that neither Ramana Maharshi nor Poonja (often cited by TMA and NTMA gurus as their inspiration and teachers) belonged to any recognized sampradaya. For this reason, NTMA teachers sometimes cite these respected gurus as proof that rigorous scriptural studies with a qualified Advaita teacher are unnecessary. Even Waite, respected by many in the Modern Advaita world for his adherence to Advaita traditions, concedes:

Not formally belonging to a sampradaya does not mean that a teacher is ipso facto not worthy of reading/listening to. What it means is that they are much less likely to have a complete grasp of all of the teaching methods and aides, stories, metaphors and so on that would automatically be handed down, learned and totally understood within a sampradaya. But they may still be a good teacher by virtue of their own reading, understanding etc. and because whoever taught them had a good grasp. The point is that the probabilities are imponderable outside of the sampradaya. It is unfortunately the case that there are many self-claimed [NTMA] teachers who are simply in the business of making money (a sampradaya teacher would never ask for money) and who are neither good teachers nor enlightened. [Dennis Waite, Interview with non-duality magazine.]

Despite this recognition that few Modern Advaita teachers have a legitimate sampradaya lineage, TMA proponents insist that scriptural training with a qualified Advaita teacher ensures that the full methodology of Advaita tradition will be competently and thoroughly communicated to students.

*** Go to Part 7 ***

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.