Advaita Gurus and Critics – part 9

Analysis and Interpretation
by Prof. Phillip Charles Lucas

<Read Part 8>

In the remainder of this article, I analyze and interpret the criticisms of NTMA teachers and teachings using theoretical frames drawn from the sociology of religions, history of North American religions, and ongoing scholarly conversations concerning adaptations and distortions that occur when Hindu traditions move from their homeland to the cultural matrices of North America.

On one level, the spread of Modern Advaita (both NTMA and TMA) gurus and organizations is simply a manifestation of the entrepreneurial spirit that long has characterized the North American religious landscape. In a sense these teachers are engaged in niche franchising of the Modern Advaita message. This is the case because most teachers active in North American Modern Advaita circles today spent time as disciples of one or another guru from either the TMA or NTMA orbits.

Typically a guru either commissions disciples to go and teach, or students have a falling out with the guru and begin their own unique satsang enterprises. Examples of these trajectories include Oregon-based NTMA guru Gangaji and Jamaican-born, England-based NTMA teacher Mooji, both one-time students of Poonja; John Wheeler, a student of NTMA teacher “Sailor Bob” Adamson; Wayne Liquorman, a student of Nisargadatta-disciple Ramesh Balsekar (1917-2009); and Nick Gancitano, a one-time student of NTMA guru Arunachala Ramana (1929-2010).

Because there are no established hierarchies (along the lines of the sampradayas or guru lineages of India) or “quality-control” mechanisms in place, persons claiming to be enlightened can put out their shingles and commence satsang events anywhere in the worldwide Modern Advaita network. From the perspective of this economic model of religion, TMA proponents’ attempts to delegitimate their rivals are part of an ongoing proprietary battle to maintain market dominance for their own teaching enterprises. Following the logic of this model, we can expect continued criticisms of NTMA from TMA writers and teachers, and spirited defenses from NTMA gurus themselves. After all, every Modern Advaita teacher represents “competition” for every other teacher’s message/product. [For a complete treatment of the economic model of religion, see Larry Iannacone, “Economy,” in Handbook of Religious and Social Institutions, ed. Helen Rose Ebaugh (New York: Springer, 2006), 21-40.]

The tension between TMA and NTMA teachers, as argued in the introduction, repeats a well-attested historical phenomenon where new versions of an older tradition cause consternation and criticism from the upholders of orthodoxy. In many such cases, the most virulent criticisms come from those who see their religions as systems of interlocking and mutually reinforcing doctrines, rituals, ethical codes, scriptures, and spiritual methods. Selective choosing of these elements for either rejection or special focus is seen as a dangerous weakening and debasement of the entire religious system and an unwarranted attack on time-tested methods of salvation and awakening.

Whatever the actual merits of the criticisms described in this article, they clearly constitute at the very least a predictable defense of a spiritual tradition believed to have proven methods for awakening and built-in safeguards against abuse of authority and self-deception. What these criticisms fail to address, however, is how to continue this tradition in transnational cultural settings that bear little resemblance to the distinctive historical and cultural matrix that is India. How realistic, for example, is it to expect that Westerners will become apprentices of trained teachers from a traditional sampradaya and master the scriptural corpus of Advaita Vedanta with its highly technical study of Sanskrit?

An interesting and relevant example of this tension between innovation and tradition is the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Early in his life, the future Maharishi became a disciple of Swami Brahmananda (1870-1953), the Shankaracharya of Jyotir Math. This math (monastic organization) was one of four created by the great Advaita teacher Shankara in the eighth century and thus had impeccable credentials as an upholder of the orthodox Advaita tradition.

Maharishi left Jyotir Math after the death of Brahmananda and eventually came to the West. As he built up the TM organization, he continued to associate himself with the Shankaracharya lineage. One way he did this was by directing TM instructors to perform a worship ceremony honoring the Shankaracharya tradition (and Brahmananda) before initiating new students. In spite of this open acknowledgment of his legitimate spiritual lineage, Maharishi was roundly criticized by Brahmananda’s successor, Swarupanand, for his departures from the Shankaracharya tradition.

In particular, Swarupanand took issue with Maharishi’s teaching mission since he was not a Brahmin and by tradition should not have been engaged in spiritual instruction and initiation. Swarupanand also criticized Maharishi for teaching Westerners who were not fit for advanced spiritual practice and for mixing worldly aims with the striving for ultimate liberation (such as charging money for spiritual instruction). Finally, Swarupanand strongly condemned the TM meditation technique, claiming it did not foster the mental control necessary for authentic spiritual realization. [Williamson, Transcendent in America, 83-87.]

One cannot help but hear echoes of TMA criticisms of NTMA gurus in Swarupanand’s traditionalist condemnation of Maharishi; but, it also could be argued that Maharishi was engaged in an experimental yet necessary process of translating Advaita Vedanta teaching into Western modes of thought and convention. Whether he succeeded is an open question, but the point is that some form of translation/accommodation becomes the complex challenge for any spiritual tradition as it moves out from its home culture. This process becomes even more complex in the current era of transnationalism and globalism, since the home culture (in this case modern India) is itself in a process of rapid change as citizens migrate to the West in large numbers and then return to their homeland influenced by Western cultural ideas and practices.

Scholars of Hindu traditions in South Asia and the West also have advanced perspectives that are helpful for assessing NTMA and its TMA critics. Reid Locklin and Julia Lauwers, in their study of the TMA-oriented Chinmaya Mission, document the mission’s use of Shankara’s “conquest of the quarters” (dig-vijaya, or missionization of India) narrative to rationalize and promote Advaita Vedanta as a global movement. They observe that similar efforts at global diffusion of Hinduism across national boundaries have aroused two distinct and opposing responses from within India itself.

On one side is the India-centered “geo-piety” of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and other forms of religious nationalism. Opposite is the more expansive and accommodationist Hindu universalism, associated with Swami Vivekananda and other twentieth-century Advaita Vedantins, which deemphasizes caste, culture and national identity.

In Locklin and Lauwers’ view, these two tendencies—one using Vedic tradition to promote more geocentric, exclusive, local and national identity formation, and another that attempts to universalize Vedanta as a contribution to global culture and development—have been harmonized by the Chinmaya Mission, whose founder Swami Chinmayananda sought to revive and defend traditional Advaita for Indians and to promote a universal Advaita message for all humanity. The former was accomplished by contextualizing his Advaita teaching in the local and particular religious cultures of historical India. The latter was accomplished by presenting Advaita philosophy in the “universalist, objective language of natural science, meditative technique, and spiritual therapy,” which effectively translated ancient Upanishadic traditions into a contemporary Western idiom. [Reid Locklin and Julia Lauwers, “Rewriting the Sacred Geography of Advaita: Swami Chinmayananda and the Sankara-Dig-Vijaya,” Journal of Hindu Studies 2, no. 2 (2009): 179-228.]

It might be argued that TMA opposition to NTMA has come about largely because, in their translation of Advaita spiritual insights into modes of expression and conceptualization accessible to contemporary Western seekers, NTMAs have neglected to retain the local rooting in the religious cultures of historical India that Swami Chinmayananda putatively accomplished. TMA criticisms—that NTMA erases the need for traditional sadhana, ignores development of personal virtues, neglects proper training of teachers (including study of Sanskrit and Advaita scriptures), distorts traditional satsang, and suffers from confusion about levels of spiritual reality—all resonate with this larger translation issue.

It may be unrealistic, however, to expect North American and European teachers who have not experienced the cultural conditioning and education of their Advaitin counterparts in India to be sufficiently rooted in Indian spiritual traditions/methods. Moreover, to transmit Advaita spirituality successfully to North Americans, there almost certainly must be some degree of adaptation to Western cultural norms and conditioning. Since Chinmaya Missions primarily serve Indian emigrant communities around the world, they do not face the same translation imperative. Given all this, perhaps the relevant issue for both factions is how many elements of the Advaita system can be jettisoned before its efficacy as a means to spiritual liberation is unduly compromised. Perhaps this is the real underlying negotiation currently underway between NTMAs and their TMA opponents.

South Asian scholars Chad Bauman and Jennifer Saunders have noticed several trends in North American Hindu communities that also are relevant to this discussion. The first trend includes a tendency toward ecumenization that entails the use of English and Sanskrit rather than regional Indian languages in ritual settings; the blending of deities, scriptures, rituals, and ethnicities in temples in ways that would not be found in India; a representation of Hinduism as tolerant and peace-loving; emphasis on the trimurti (trinity) of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; and a focus on the health and environmental benefits of Hindu rituals.

A second trend is the increased importance of temple attendance for North American Hindus, a phenomenon that may have to do with the temple’s crucial role as a preserver of cultural identity and communal solidarity for Hindu emigrants in North America.

A third trend is the accommodation of Hindu ritual cycles to North American norms, including the celebration of life-cycle rituals (samskaras) on weekends and the paring down of these rites to the four or five deemed most significant. What all these trends tell us is that Hinduism (in all its diverse manifestations) undergoes constant change, both in India and North America, and that adaptation, accommodation and reconfiguration are natural processes for religious traditions that expand beyond their indigenous cultural matrices. In the end, the significant questions for Advaita proponents in the West may be how much accommodation is prudent, how rapidly reconfiguration should take place, and what adaptations are necessary for the spiritual tradition to not only survive but thrive in new cultural settings. [Chad M. Bauman, with Jennifer Saunders, “Out of India: Immigrant Hindus and South Asian Hinduism in the United States,” Religion Compass 3, no. 1 (2009): 116-35.]


Given the pluralistic religious context of North America, it is certainly not without precedent to see a tendency toward sectarian divisions and fragmentation within new religious movements, as well as the “franchising” of popular spiritual methods and practices by energetic entrepreneurs. Without any legal or organizational tools to enforce conformity within Modern Advaita movements in North America, there is little TMA partisans can do other than articulate criticisms in public communications media—blogs, chat rooms, websites, lectures, television and radio interviews, books, magazines, journals and symposia. Whether TMAs’ criticisms of NTMAs will dampen the growth of this movement in the North American cultural sphere or bring NTMA gurus more in line with established Advaita traditions remains to be seen.

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