Non-Traditional Modern Advaita Gurus In The West And Their Traditional Modern Advaita Critics

By Phillip Charles Lucas

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ABSTRACT: The Modern Advaita movement has undergone a split between two factions: one remains committed to a more traditional articulation of Advaita Vedanta, and the other has departed in significant ways from this traditional spiritual system. Over the past fifteen years, the Traditional Modern Advaita (TMA) faction has launched sustained and wide-ranging criticism of Non-Traditional Modern Advaita (NTMA) teachers and teachings. This article identifies the main themes of TMA criticisms and interprets their significance using insights from the social sciences and history of religions. I suggest that some reconfiguring of the Advaita tradition is necessary as it expands in transnational directions, since the structures of intelligibility from one culture to another are rarely congruent. Indeed, adaptation, accommodation and reconfiguration are normal and natural processes for religious traditions expanding beyond their indigenous cultural matrices. In the end, the significant questions for Advaita missionaries to the West may be how much accommodation is prudent, how rapidly reconfiguration should take place, and what adaptations are necessary for their spiritual methodology not only to survive but also thrive in new cultural settings.

KEYWORDS: Modern Advaita, Neo-Advaita, Advaita Vedanta, Ramana Maharshi, Papaji, Nisargadatta Maharaj, transnational religious movements, Satsang Network, Transcendental Meditation, North American Hindu Communities, Chinmaya Mission, James Swartz, Dennis Waite

A well-attested development in the history of religious communities/movements is the tension between factions that attempt to preserve posited “original” beliefs and practices and those that seek to reform or recast tradition so that it communicates its liberating message and methods in new cultural settings. Western Buddhists following the Tibetan tradition, for example, have encountered resistance from traditional Buddhist lineage holders in their attempts to replace devotion to the teacher with a democratized institution that emphasizes the “collective wisdom of the sangha.” [See, for example, the article “Democracy and Vajrayana,” Protecting Nyingma, 27 November 2010, at <>, accessed 6 May 2013.]

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918-2008), to cite another example, was criticized by leaders of the Jyotir Math, a traditional monastic order in India with whom he had studied, for his innovations in the Shankaracharya teaching tradition, including a meditation technique that putatively did not foster the mental control necessary for authentic spiritual realization. [Lola Williamson, Transcendent in America: Hindu-inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 83-87.]

A similar phenomenon can be observed in the Modern Advaita movement, whose teachers and organizations have proliferated throughout North America (and many Western countries) over the past twenty-five years. These teachers/organizations number over two hundred as of January 2013, based on careful tracking of Internet sources and various print publications. [One source for these numbers is Sarlo’s Guru Rating Service, at <>, accessed 6 May 2013. Another source is the Satsang Schedules website, at <>, accessed 6 May 2013]

While some of these teachers come from Europe and Australia, a significant number hold satsangs (teaching meetings), seminars and retreats in, or at least have students and readers from, North America.

Modern Advaita, for the purposes of this study, delineates teachers/organizations who draw to a significant degree (though not necessarily exclusively) on the teachings of Advaita Vedanta. This Indian spiritual system asserts that absolute reality is infinite, formless, non-dual awareness, and that the supreme goal of human life is to realize this awareness as the ground of one’s being. [Ramana Maharshi, Ramana, Shankara and the Forty Verses: The Essential Teachings of Advaita (London: Watkins Publishing, 2002), 7-13. Advaita Vedanta is an ancient school of Hindu philosophical thought that was consolidated, rearticulated and spread by the ninth-century sage Adi Shankara, who authored seminal commentaries on the Brahma Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, and the ten principal Upanishads. He is also said to have founded four monasteries in India, which continue to be respected as authentic transmitters of Advaita Vedanta. Strictly speaking, “Vedanta” means the end of the Vedas, and refers to the Upanishads (ca. 600-300 b.c.e.), the final portion of the Vedic corpus. Although a number of teachers created philosophical systems based on their readings of the Upanishads, it was Shankara who articulated the system of thought known today as Advaita, the school that focuses on the non-dual nature of Brahman.

Phillip Charles Lucas, “When a Movement is Not a Movement: Ramana Maharshi and Neo-Advaita in North America,” Nova Religio 15, no. 2 (November 2011): 110.]

Many Modern Advaita teachers claim to have been influenced in some degree by at least one of three Advaita gurus of the twentieth century: Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1981), and H. W. L. Poonja (a.k.a. Papaji; 1913-1997). These gurus are not the only sources revered by Modern Advaita teachers, but they are a significant line of transmission for their core teaching of non-dualism—the assertion that reality is a unified field of pure awareness and being. [See, for example, Eckhart Tolle’s interview with John W. Parker, at
< eckhart_tolle_interview_parker.htm>, accessed 11 October 2012. Some Modern Advaita teachers also reference Zen Buddhism as a significant source for their teachings.

The Modern Advaita movement has experienced a split between two factions: one that remains committed to a more traditional articulation of Advaita Vedanta teaching and methodology, and one that has departed in significant ways from this traditional spiritual system.

Over the past fifteen years, the Traditional Modern Advaita (TMA) faction has launched sustained and wide-ranging criticism of Non-Traditional Modern Advaita (NTMA) teachers. TMA defenders, many of whom are Westerners, align themselves with Vedanta traditionalists in India such as the Chinmaya Mission, Sri Ramanasramam in Tamil Nadu, Swami Dayananda Ashram in Rishikesh and the mathas (monasteries) of the Shankaracharyas, gurus who trace their lineage directly to the great Advaita sage Adi Shankara. Critics often cite the teachings of revered Advaita sages such as Adi Shankara (788-820), Vashishtha, Siddharameshwar Maharaj (1888-1936), Nisargadatta Maharaj and Ramana Maharshi. [Adi Shankara has been discussed above in note 2. Vashishtha is a legendary Indian sage and hero of the Advaita classic, Yoga Vashishtha. Siddharameshvar Maharaj (1888-1936), a student of Shri Bhauseheb Maharaj (1843-1914), a head guru of the Inchegeri Sampradaya (lineage), was considered a realized master of Advaita. He also was the satguru (enlightenment guru) of Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1981), a popular Advaita guru who lived and worked in Mumbai. Many Modern Advaitins considered Nisargadatta Maharaj to be a fully enlightened guru and flocked to hear his teachings.]

The NTMA faction is much less concerned with the teaching strictures and methodology of traditional Advaita Vedanta and tends to be more eclectic in its appropriation of teachings and methods, sometimes reaching into traditions as far afield as Sufism, Zen Buddhism and transpersonal psychology. In this sense, Non-Traditional Modern Advaita resembles in some ways what Liselotte Frisk identified in 2002 as “The Satsang Network.” Frisk argues that this transnational network is a post-Osho phenomenon, correctly linking several key Satsang Network teachers with Papaji and the eclectic spiritual teacher Osho (1931-1990), formerly known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.[vii] However, what I identify as the NTMA faction is more strongly influenced by Advaita Vedanta traditions and teachers than the more eclectic Satsang Network.

This article attempts to identify the main themes of TMA criticisms and to understand their significance using insights from the social sciences and history of religions. Of special interest is how these criticisms reflect well-attested debates that inevitably confront transnational spiritual movements when they seek to accommodate themselves to the norms and attitudes of cultural settings that bear little resemblance to their lands of origin. I suggest that some accommodation and reconfiguring of a tradition is necessary in these transnational migrations since the structures of intelligibility from one culture to another are rarely congruent, and if a tradition is to speak to individuals in new cultural settings some form of re-articulation/translation must occur.

As Frisk observes, “Religions always change when they migrate to another culture. … A translation—of the language and the religion—can never be made literally. Something from the original is always lost, and something new is created.” [Liselotte Frisk, “The Satsang Network: A Growing Post-Osho Phenomenon,” Nova Religio 6, no. 1 (October 2002): 64-81 and “The Satsang Network,” 74.]

The crucial question that transnational spiritual movements like Modern Advaita must confront, then, becomes how much accommodation and reconfiguration can occur before the integrity and efficacy of a spiritual system is compromised beyond repair. This question lies at the heart of the voluminous TMA criticisms of NTMA teachers. The critics can thus be understood as safeguarding a putatively proven methodology for enlightenment from NTMA gurus who, they claim, have distorted this methodology and rendered it ineffective.

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