By Maria Wirth October 2007 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
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