Advaita Gurus and Critics – part 7

by Prof. Phillip Charles Lucas

<Read Part 6>

Theme Four: Shortcomings of the Satsang Format

A fourth theme of the TMA criticisms focuses on the shortcomings of the satsang format itself. The usual format of the NTMA satsang begins with a period of quiet reflection followed by mantra invocations/chanting and questions and answers from attendees. Some participants approach the raised platform where the teacher is seated and enter into an intimate dialogue with the teacher. As Frisk observes in her study of the Satsang Network, there is sometimes an element of entertainment and laughter in these events, often focused on questioners and their interactions with the teacher. [Frisk, “The Satsang Network,” 67.]

Music and dance also can be part of the program, although this was rare in my fieldwork experiences. The satsang format is well suited to North American seekers, who have been conditioned to the public confessional approach found on daytime talk shows such as Oprah and Dr. Phil and who may expect personal attention or “therapy” along with spiritual instruction from their teachers. TMA proponents question the core motivations of attendees and allege that many of them are simply seeking self-empowerment, “self-help,” and an ephemeral experience of spiritual community rather than serious engagement in the arduous task of ego transcendence.

This judgment aligns with Frisk: “The postmodern self no longer seeks sacredness and freedom from sin, but rather an experience of excitement, closeness, and fantasy. This could well describe the Satsang network. Satsang is both entertainment and emotional closeness.” [Frisk, “The Satsang Network,” 81.]

TMA author and teacher Sadhu Tanmaya Chaitanya sees the satsang format as doomed to failure because it bypasses the necessary preparatory stage of purifying the mind. The “self-appointed saviors” of NTMA, in his view, claim that they can transmit their realization to attendees in their satsangs but in truth are only communicating intellectual insights that do nothing to burn out the ego’s identification with the body and its desires. Chaitanya warns his readers that the “parodies of ‘modern’ Advaita” rest on a fallacious logic that countenances a life of self-indulgence.

Satsang events never mention the words devotion, surrender, renunciation, and perseverance. They speak of “understanding” but never “self-realization,” in which false identification with the body form is completely eradicated. In the end, he argues, attendees return to their habitual lives of sensory pleasures and egocentric striving secure in the knowledge that they have “gotten it.” [Sadhu Tanmaya Chaitanya, “Modern Advaita: Its Lure and Snares,” Mountain Path (Advent 2007): 58-59.]

Timothy Conway echoes Chaitanya’s observations and asserts that NTMA teachers such as I. M. Nome created large organizations before they were “fully ripe” and that many fell into an abusive pattern of one-upping, “power-grabbing” behavior at their satsang events. He criticizes the charging of program fees and alleges that mastering the satsang discourse requires little more than ease in social settings, some knowledge of Advaita truth and learning how to employ certain dialectical questioning maneuvers. [Chaitanya, “Modern Advaita.”]

He and other critics allege that the disavowal of sadhana by even the few NTMAs who are able to “abide as the Self” during satsang events has made it difficult for them to remain in that state once the satsang is over. This can lead to very “un-self-realized” behavior once they have left the platform. [Aziz Kristof, “The Dangers of Pseudo-advaita,” at <http://www.enlightened-spirituality.org/neo-advaita.html>, accessed 17 September 2013.]

Dhanya, a TMA essayist and contributor to Dennis Waite’s Advaita Vision website, sums up the general TMA view of satsang attendees. [For more on Dhanya’s biography and writings, see “Essays by Dhanya,” Advaita Vision, at <http://www.advaita.org.uk/ discourses/durga/durga.htm>, accessed 6 May 2013.]

In her experience, many of the seekers were unclear about what to expect from the satsangs and were interested mostly in finding new friends, a sense of spiritual community, and a few moments of epiphany. Attendees engaged in a pattern of jumping from one NTMA teacher to another, comparing notes with other attendees concerning what they had experienced at each of the satsangs, and attempting to place all the teachings and experiences into some coherent framework of spiritual understanding. Dhanya questions whether attendees are receiving anything of lasting value, given that the common pattern of responses from NTMA gurus is off-the-cuff and idiosyncratic. She complains that no overview is given of basic Advaita principles and methods, and books and tapes published by these teachers do not help since usually they are simply transcripts/recordings of satsang events. [Durga (now known as Dhanya), Comment on Guru Ratings Forum, at <http://www.globalserve.net/~sarlo/yadvaita.htm>, accessed 11 December 2010 (Defunct).]

The vision of satsang by NTMA teachers themselves appears to conform to the TMA proponents’ charge that these events are primarily about an experience of “awareness” in the presence of the teacher and group rather than a systematic communication of traditional Advaita philosophy and methods. A representative example is Nirmala, a Sedona-based NTMA teacher (and student of Polish-born NTMA teacher and Poonja-student Neelam):

What is the most important part of satsang or any spiritual gathering? Contrary to what you might expect, the most important thing in satsang is not the spiritual teacher sitting at the front of the room. A true spiritual teacher is an invaluable blessing, but the teacher is not the most important element. Similarly, the spiritual teachings being shared in are a great gift. But the words being spoken and the wisdom being shared are not the most important thing. And while the word satsang implies a gathering or community of like-minded souls, this community or sangha may be a tremendous support in someone’s spiritual journey, but it is still not the most important thing.

The most important thing in satsang is you. Not the usual egoic sense of yourself, but the mysterious awakeness that is reading these words…. Any opportunity to gather in satsang is a tremendous blessing, whether it is a room full of people or a one-to-one conversation with a spiritual mentor or friend. There is a cumulative aggregation of this mysterious awareness. Whenever two or more are gathered, that can make the Presence and awakeness of consciousness into a palpable thing…. Awareness is the heart of satsang, and that is who you are. [Nirmala, “Satsang with Nirmala: The Heart of Satsang,” Endless Satsang, at <http://endless-satsang.com/>, accessed 6 May 2013. More biographical information on Neelam can be found at “Neelam: about,” at <http://www.neelam.org/about.php>, accessed 6 May 2013.]

Unlike many critics, Alan Jacobs, former chair of the Ramana Maharshi Foundation in England, believes that NTMA satsangs can at least serve to introduce attendees to Advaita teaching. Satsang attendance, flawed as it may be, does “undermine the ‘phantom ego’ intellectually at least.” At best, a partial surrender of the ego can be achieved, but without the full devotional component that leads to “total surrender when the mental occlusion is absorbed in the Heart.”

Jacobs observes that many satsang attendees, after a period of chasing the latest hot NTMA teacher, do begin to earnestly inquire into the authentic Advaita tradition. He predicts that the NTMA movement will continue as a “valid, if imperfect stepping stone” that draws seekers into the net of deeper Advaita awakening. [Alan Jacobs, “Advaita and Western Neo-Advaita: A Study,” The Mountain Path (Deepam 2004): 88.]

It is clear that the transformation of the traditional satsang format into Western cultural contexts inevitably must deal with the valorization of the individual self and its interests, which lies at the heart of the Western conception of the self. The promise of instant enlightenment for all at these events—so reminiscent of Christian evangelical aspirations to salvation for all who are born again—combined with special attention to the self and its problems may be necessary inducements for NTMA teachers to offer if they are to succeed in attracting attendees. [Frisk, “The Satsang Network,” 76.]

What occurs to that self and its identifications after repeated exposure to Advaita teachings at these events is not entirely clear, but the satsang format’s continuing popularity suggests it is successfully addressing the self-perceived needs of a significant population of Western seekers.

<Read Part 8>

Leave a Reply

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