By Maria Wirth
What is it about some gurus that seems to attract only westerners? A reflection into the teachings of hwl. poonja and ramesh balsekar
India has produced great sages at all ages. In the last few decades, however, a new phenomenon has appeared: gurus who mainly attract Westerners, and are hardly noticed by their own countrymen. They propound Advaita Vedanta, doubtless the highest wisdom and they tend to present it as a logical concept – very much in tune with Western thinking, which traditionally considers logic as the highest intellectual attainment. Yet even logic falls short, and only hinders the realisation of who one is in truth.
In the ’90s, HWL. Poonja became the main attraction for foreigners in India after Osho passed away. He lived in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state of India. Many followers of Osho moved from Pune to Lucknow at that time. Several books were published about Poonja, and all of a sudden he was popular as a guru in the West. And allegedly several of his disciples became enlightened and he authorized them to play a guru role themselves.
I, too, visited Poonja in Lucknow in April 1994. I found a place to stay in a bungalow which a German had taken on rent. She made a living by renting out rooms to visitors of Poonja. A Brazilian moved into the room next to mine at the same time and we teamed up for the four days that we stayed in Lucknow. I benefited from male protection when we went out in the evenings to eat at some stalls in town, and he benefited from the fact that after 15 years in India, I knew my way around and could give him helpful tips.
The hall was packed. It had been a long time since I was only among Westerners, and I noticed that people looked around in a different way than Indians do. Apart from some who obviously had already found each other and exchanged loving glances, many pairs of eyes looked around as if searching for their soul mate. The Brazilian, too, brown, tall, and at 40 in an attractive age, received direct, long glances from women, as he himself told me. Surprisingly, he was not happy about it. Once, when we were in town, he drew my attention to the following fact. “Did you notice that no Indian woman looks at me?” It was true. They did not look directly into his eyes. “Yet almost every Western woman looks directly at me and in Brazil it is the same. The women there make themselves cheap, and the culture is finished. The way Indian women conduct themselves is admirable. It shows that their culture is still intact.”
It was interesting that an attractive South American was not in favour of the Western free approach between the sexes.
Poonja came into the hall accompanied by a group of neatly combed Westerners dressed all in white. They looked like his bodyguards. He sat down in a low easy chair, closely surrounded by his devotees. He appeared friendly in a grandfatherly way, looking around, and smiling at some. A bunch of letters and chits was lying next to him. He took one of them, and started reading. He asked the person who had written it to come and sit right in front of him.
Relationships were a subject which often figured in the letters. For example, somebody had written that his girlfriend had left him, and he was completely desperate. He sat there with his head lowered as if waiting for a scolding. The scolding came:
“You claim that you want self-realisation. Yet when the boyfriend or girlfriend leaves you, you fall into a deep hole and you want to die. That is complete nonsense. Have you still not understood that you are the Self? That you need nothing and nobody to be happy?” Poonja reacted.
Then he became softer, and gave almost always the same advice he did to all who sat in front of him. “Be still, here and now, without any effort, and don’t think.” After a while he asked, “How was it?”
“Great! I felt so much peace”, was usually the answer and Poonja said, “See – you discovered it. Now stay with it and don’t lose it again.” And he sent the newly self-realised devotee back to his seat.
Then he took the next letter and the next disciple came up to sit before him.
I guessed why Poonja was so popular among Westerners. He propounded pure Advaita, doubtless the highest philosophy: you are the Self. You don’t have to look for the truth because you are the truth here and now. You are that what you look for. The self alone is. Everything is fine as it is.
And the logical conclusion: no meditation, no mantras, and especially no effort. It is enough to simply be still and not to think – and enjoy the good food in the garden restaurants which had sprung up all around the place to cater to the Western taste.
And Poonja is right from his point of view. The truth is always present and its realisation cannot be forced, not even by meditation. Yet did Poonja really do us a favour with his advice: “Don’t make any effort.”? To be still and not to think might not be possible for the great majority of his followers. At least one should be ready to drop thoughts off and on, not to be concerned too much with one’s own problems and not to take one’s own person so seriously. Normally, Westerners take thoughts and their own person and their own body very seriously.
Poonja himself admitted in the hot hall, “Maybe I do not discern properly. I give to everyone the same truth. But the truth will reject those who are not worthy of it.”
Strangely, Poonja himself had put in tremendous effort – for about 25 years. As a boy of eight he had had an enlightenment experience of great bliss which however left him after some days. He was longing for this state again and his mother advised him to worship Krishna. His mother was the younger sister of Swami Ram Thirta, a well known saint, as well as a brilliant mathematician. Yet Poonja had not met his famous uncle, because he had drowned in the Ganga in 1906 at the age of only 33 years – four years before Poonja was born.
Poonja took the advice of his mother to heart and devoted himself fully to Krishna. Later, after marriage, he repeated Krishna’s name almost non-stop. He even took his food in the pooja room.
Then one night, he had a vision of Ram, Sita and Lakshman. Poonja was disappointed. His whole life he had dedicated to Krishna and now Ram stood before him instead of his beloved Krishna. After the vision had disappeared, Poonja could not continue with his spiritual routine. He was worried and finally went to Thiruvannamalai, to request the great Ramana Maharshi for advice.
Ramana Maharshi asked him how he had come to Thiruvannamalai.
“By train,” Poonja answered.
“And what did you do when you arrived in Thiruvannamalai?”
“I left the train.”
The Maharshi then explained to him that his spiritual practices had brought him to his goal and he did not need them any longer. Thereafter, a glance from Ramana Maharshi purified all his cells, and he became aware of his Self that, as he realised, had been there all along.
Understandably Poonja now advised “No effort”, because he had realised that the ego makes the effort and the ego consists only of thoughts. So the activities of the ego lead away from the Self, because it is thoughts that veil the Self. Only when the ego is still, the Self emerges from the depths of one’s being. Maybe it can be compared with one of those pictures in which a figure is hidden: either one sees it or one does not see it. Activity, pondering, analysing or waiting for the future won’t help to see it.
On the other hand Poonja seemed to have forgotten that his intensive search over 25 years might have been a vehicle, which carried him to the point where he only had to get out to open his eyes. It seems that the long preparation was necessary for him to be able to really see and not only to intellectually comprehend that what he searched for was always right here. It may not be logical, but logic is valid only in the realm of thinking and not wherefrom thinking arises.
On the next morning I also handed over a letter, mainly to get an opportunity to sit right in front of Poonja. I asked in the letter how I could get rid of useless thoughts, which especially then obstinately crowded my mind. For instance, my restless search for appropriate expressions for a forthcoming article, while resting in bed. This was a waste of energy, because when I actually wrote the article, it was in a completely different way. Yet I just could not stop the flow of thoughts.
My letter was read out on the last day of my stay. I crossed over the tightly closed rows of people sitting on the floor and sat down in front. Poonja smiled at me and said, “I will give you now some homework. Tomorrow you report to me how it went.”
“Tomorrow I won’t be here anymore, because I leave tonight,” I said.
“If you are here for only such a short time, I can’t help you,” he responded slightly annoyed and sent me straight away back to my seat. I climbed again over the rows-embarrassed and awkwardly-missing out on the enlightenment which seems to have been granted to several persons there in front.
Poonja’s declaration “You got it”, after they had sat still for a while before him and then said that it had been so peaceful was for many Westerners the start of their career as a guru. Many Western gurus whose advertisements can be seen in Western magazines and who go on tours even to India had once sat in front of Poonja and got their enlightenment confirmed. Yet it happened several times that he withdrew his confirmation later – before his death in 1997.
Andrew Cohen, one of Poonja’s most famous disciples, split up with him after years of having been deeply devoted to his guru. Andrew accused Poonja of being jealous of his success and popularity. Poonja, in turn, responded that he could create a thousand Andrew Cohens, but Cohen could not create even a single Poonja. Earlier, however, Poonja declared Andrew to be his beloved, enlightened son. I read in Andrew Cohen’s book about the goings-on between them and got the impression that power can corrupt even spiritual personalities.
Neither the Brazilian nor I were inspired to become Poonja’s disciples. One reason why I was unconvinced might have been the fact that only Westerners clustered around him. Hardly any Indian found his way into that hall. Usually, when a great soul shows up somewhere, Indians are the first to show their respect.
When I visited Ramesh Balsekar in December 1999, strangely there also I found mainly Westerners, though a few Indians were present. A German had raved about him. “Listening to him has completely changed my life,” he had told me and I wanted to see him. About Ramesh, too, several books had been published in the ’90s and he suddenly had become well known. He had even held seminars in Germany, which he later stopped because of his age.
There were about 20 people in the spacious flat high up in an apartment block near the ocean. Some were sitting on mattresses on the floor, some on chairs. The first three chairs were called “hot chairs” and whoever came early could sit on them. Ramesh made his way through the group of visitors to his arm- chair. He looked delicate, pale, and almost transparent in his white kurta pyjama. He had been a banker earlier and spoke fast in a low yet intense voice.
In the beginning he put questions to the people on the hot chairs. Most of them had a history of a long spiritual search with the help of several gurus. Ramesh asked whether their search had been successful. “Not yet”, all of them answered, regretting that so far they had obviously not put in enough effort and hoping that this would change soon. That was the cue for which Ramesh seemed to have waited. He smiled a little derisively that those questioned thought that they had an influence on their life and presented his concept which appeared logical, coherent and without any flaws.
“Your life is like a film which has already been shot at your conception,” he claimed. And further, “Consciousness is all there is. This consciousness (or God) is responsible for all that happens. Nothing happens without God’s will.” In short: whatever I do, I don’t really do, but it just happens through me. And this of course is valid for everybody.
Ramesh believes that this understanding that there is truly no individual doer produces peace. Feelings of guilt or anger disappear. After all, people can’t help their behaviour. They have to act as they act, because it is God’s will. In the same way, I can’t help what I do… And logically, not only the feeling of guilt and anger disappear, but all other negative emotions like hatred, envy or jealousy as well. Inner peace is the result and inner peace is as good as enlightenment. And my German friend had claimed that exactly this state had happened to him.
“How do I know what is God’s will if I have to make a decision,” an Englishman asked, “for example whether I should go to a pub tonight or sit and meditate?”
Ramesh’s answer: “Wait and see what you are going to do. You will do, what you like to do, i.e. what this body-mind organism is programmed for.”
“In that case I’ll go to the pub,” he replied and everyone laughed. “Do whatever you like,” advised Ramesh quite often. And only occasionally he added, “And what you feel is right according to your moral and social conditioning.”
Logic is on his side: if everything is God how could anything exist apart from Him and even act against His will? Persons are like shadows. They are not real. This view is in tune with the ancient Indian wisdom that claims that pure, thought-free consciousness alone is real and the variety in the world are impermanent appearances which are based merely on thoughts, and have no substance in themselves apart from the consciousness in which they appear. And how could a mere appearance be responsible for itself? However, most ancient scriptures, including the Bhagavad Gita, clearly tell how one should live one’s life. Is this not a contradiction? Or maybe truth is not that logical and does not fit into a concept?
When I listened to Ramesh for the first time, I was fascinated by his coherent concept. If I, as Maria, am not a separate entity (which I felt was true), then of course Maria can’t do anything. Whatever is done through Maria is God’s will. And I wondered why I had not reached this simple conclusion on my own.
His concept is no doubt helpful to accept more easily what was and what is. It has to be so because it is like this and it had to be so because it was like that. Endless discussions in one’s head “Why did I ….?” Or “Why did I not…?” are stopped short and this is helpful.
Yet in daily life in Mumbai, this concept didn’t work for me. I felt something was not all right. When I was sitting with Ramesh listening to his fast and intense flow of words, I could not formulate my uneasiness about his concept. I felt that Ramesh pushed me too strongly into the Maria corner and ignored my essence. “Maria” is based on thoughts, is a concept, which needs past and future to exist. But am I only Maria?
My fascination with his concept disappeared. I doubted that truth can be put into a consistent, logical concept. Ancient Indian wisdom claims that thoughts turn back from truth, even intellect can’t approach truth. And quantum physics supports this view. I felt that Ramesh’s concept could be helpful for people who suffer from strong feelings of guilt. But it may also be dangerous for those who have no moral or ethical principles or who have a tendency to fatalism. The conviction that whatever I do is God’s will, can surely lead to irresponsible behaviour, which, of course, Ramesh will argue, is also God’s will…
Ramesh looked like an intellectual who is convinced that he has figured out the ultimate truth in his head and now wants others to see his point.
I don’t know whether he is full of inner peace, because all negative emotions have gone away thanks to his logical deduction.
I cannot judge, nor do I have to, whether a guru is genuine or not. I only have to find out, whether his presence is good for me or not. In fact only the guru himself knows for sure whether he is genuine. The genuine gurus are relaxed. They don’t feel the need to state to anybody that they experience the oneness of all. And the not so genuine gurus also don’t state it to anybody, but usually they don’t prevent their followers from believing it.
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