restricted access 7. Neo-Advaita in America: Three Representative Teachers
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163 7 Neo‑Advaita in America Three Representative Teachers Phillip Charles Lucas Ramana Maharshi (1879–1950) was a prominent Indian exemplar of Advaita Vedanta during the first half of the twentieth century.1 Advaita Vedanta philosophy asserts that Brahman or One Absolute Reality is infi‑ nite, formless, nondual awareness, and that the supreme goal of human life is the realization that atman or the inner self is not separate from Absolute Reality—“Atman is Brahman.”2 The Maharshi (great sage) was widely acclaimed in India as a jñani, a master who had realized complete identity with Brahman. He was seen by many of his followers as the spiritual descendent of the ninth‑century sage Shankara and the Primal Sage, Dakshinamurthi.3 Among his few written works is a translation of Shankara’s most famous teaching, Crest Jewel of Discrimination, from Sanskrit into Tamil.4 Although the Maharshi gained widespread fame during his lifetime and seekers from around the world visited him, he never created an organization or movement in his name. In fact, he told Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952), during the latter’s visit to the Maharshi’s ash‑ ram in South India, that his path was not amenable to a mass movement or churchlike organization, but was an interior process for ripe souls only.5 He maintained that authentic spiritual instruction must be tailored to the unique mentality and karmic disposition of the individual; he therefore eschewed lectures in front of large groups.6 Given this background, it is somewhat puzzling to observe the many contemporary teachers and organizations throughout the world 164 / PHILIP CHARLES LUCAS that trace their lineage to, or at least claim a strong influence from, Ramana Maharshi. In North America alone, at least seventy‑seven teachers and organizations acknowledge or claim the influence of the Maharshi, or of prominent followers of his such as H. W. L. Poonja (also known as Papaji, 1913–1997).7 Many of these teachers fall into the category of Neo‑Advaita, a term not always complimentary from a traditional Advaita perspective. What most of these teachers have in common is independence from established or traditional religious insti‑ tutions or hierarchies. They are free agents, as it were, although a few have taken steps to create their own organizations, institutes, or teaching networks. Many Neo‑Advaitin teachers have published books, such as Eckhart Tolle (b. 1948) and his best‑selling The Power of Now.8 Most have websites where viewers can read excerpts from their published works or get streaming audio or video of their satsangs. Some Neo‑Advaitin teachers, such as Francis Lucille (b. 1944), A. Ramana (1929‑2010), and Gangaji (b. 1942), have offered private counseling, weekend seminars, longer retreats, and various levels of teacher training.9 The extent to which North American Neo‑Advaitin teachers use the Maharshi “brand” varies. In some teaching centers—for example, that of Nome (b. 1955) in Santa Cruz, California—large pictures of the Maharshi hang on walls and shrines honor him. Many Neo‑Advaitin websites fea‑ ture a picture of the Maharshi or a link to Sri Ramanasramam’s Indian website.10 Others offer an explicit statement that a particular teacher is in the “lineage” of Ramana Maharshi. Still others make only the claim to be in the Advaita tradition and some mention of the Maharshi’s books or teachings. This chapter explains how the Maharshi, in spite of his disinter‑ est in founding a mass spiritual movement, appears to have inspired a host of spiritual teachers and organizations dedicated to spreading their own interpretation and expression of his Advaitic teaching and practice in North America. Framing the “Ramana Effect” Ramana Maharshi was born Venkataraman Iyer into a Brahmin family near Madurai, in Tamil Nadu, India, and was educated in a British mid‑ dle school and an American missionary high school. During a crisis at age sixteen brought on by an intense fear of death, followers believe he experienced sahaja samadhi (permanent Self‑realization). Within six weeks he had left his school and family and moved to Tiruvannamalai, also in Tamil Nadu, located at the base of Arunachala, a large, red‑granite hill NEO-ADVAITA IN AMERICA / 165 Hindus traditionally believe to be a local manifestation of Lord Shiva. Young Venkataraman took up the life of a sadhu (renunciate ascetic) and remained on the mountain the next fifty‑four years, living in several caves and temples before moving to the site of the present ashram, which is called Sri Ramanashramam.11...


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Subject Headings

  • Hinduism -- United States.
  • Gurus -- United States.
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