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189 8 From Being to Becoming, Transcending to Transforming Andrew Cohen and the Evolution of Enlightenment Ann Gleig Several Asian religious and philosophical articulations of nonduality exist. One of the most fundamental contrasts is between a nonduality that affirms the identity of absolute and relative phenomena, and consequently embraces the material world as an expression of the absolute , as found within the pan–Asian Tantric traditions, and a nonduality that denies the reality of all phenomena except the absolute, and which devalues the material world, as found within Advaita Vedanta. This chapter considers which forms of nonduality have been embraced in America and under what conditions by tracing the American guru Andrew Cohen’s reinvention from a Neo-Advaita teacher to a leading proponent of “evolutionary enlightenment,” an essentially Tantric rendering of nonduality in an evolutionary context. Following Cohen’s own evolution affords some instructive insights into the transformation of Hindu concepts in America. His early period shows the further deinstitutionalization of traditional Advaita Vedanta within the radically decontextualized Neo‑Advaitin network, and his current teaching engages another less‑known but increasingly influential Hindu lineage, namely that of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga. Cohen has also been the subject of much controversy over the efficacy of importing a traditional Indian hierarchical guru‑disciple relationship into a modern American democratic and individualistic culture. While Cohen’s current 190 / ANN GLEIG metaphysics shows a clear Americanization of Hinduism, his role as guru has opposed that very same process and, as such, he both repeats and reacts against the modernization of traditional Indian religions. Methodologically, I employ both discourse analysis and ethnography . In addition to several books and articles, textual analysis includes a significant amount of Internet material. As much of contemporary spirituality is deinstitutionalized and decentralized, the Internet functions as a central forum for information and participation. This is true for the three main communities engaged in this chapter: Neo-Advaita, Cohen’s evolutionary enlightenment, and integral networks. Numerous websites are devoted to the topic of advaita or nonduality that provide discussions of current debates and controversies engaging the nondual community.1 This textual analysis is supplemented with participant observation and oral interviews and written correspondence with Cohen’s former and current students. My Master Is My Self: Cohen, Poonja, and Neo‑Advaita Born in New York City on October 23, 1955, the second son of upper‑middle ‑class Jewish parents, Cohen’s childhood was somewhat bohemian. He attended a progressive elementary school; began psychoanalysis at age five; read Freud, Laing, and Jung as a teenager; and was expelled from a Swiss boarding school for smoking marijuana. At age sixteen, a year after the death of his father, Cohen was talking with his mother when he suddenly had a spontaneous spiritual awakening: I suddenly knew without any doubt that there was no such thing as death and that life itself had no beginning and no end. I saw that all of life was intimately connected and inseparable. It became clear that there was no such thing as individuality separate from that one Self that was all of life. The glory and majesty in the cosmic unity that was revealing itself to me was completely overwhelming.2 Six years later, Cohen resolved to devote his life to the rediscovery of this experience, which he identified simply as “THAT.”3 His early years as a spiritual seeker were eclectic; he explored several Eastern and Western religious traditions, and traveled around the spiritual retreat circuit in Europe and India. During this period, three teachers particularly influenced him: an American martial arts master, an Indian kundalini yogi, and a British vipassana teacher. Following an initial period FROM BEING TO BECOMING / 191 of idealization, however, Cohen became deeply disillusioned with each of these figures. He became dismayed by what he described as the discrepancy between the teaching and behavior of these teachers. After this pattern occurred for the third time, Cohen swore never to submit to spiritual authority again. Yet, earlier on hearing about H. W. L. Poonja (1913–1997), a little‑known disciple of Ramana Maharshi, Cohen had been instantly compelled to visit him, and he decided to do so before leaving for Japan where he planned to undertake Zen Buddhist and martial arts training.4 Poonja, or Papaji as he was often called, was born into a devout Brahmin family in the Punjab in 1910 (according to him) or 1913 (according to official documents). Accounts of his life are inconsistent and unreliable , but some key...


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