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Gurus/Spiritual Masters
current suggested assessment

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Tradition Advaita Vedanta
Guru HWL Poonja
Category Nondual
Psychology Seems genuine selfless
Disciples/Devotees See external link Gangaji Foundation
Critics (includes ex-devotees and others) Message board Mail List, blogosphereGoogle search results Guruphiliac, Google search results R Blog.
Abuses Sexual - None
Financial - not sure
Emotional - None
Thought - Occasional
Antagonism - None
Control info - Moderate
External - None
Cultism - ???
Assesment A (on the subtle level) beautiful teacher who some might argue has compromised her own teachings to defend her husband Eli's infidelity. Is this true or not? I don't know; I'm not Gangaji nor do I have her insights (I have my own insights). Certainly I in no way approve of her husband's actions. But I will always be grateful to Gangaji for being the link through which Sri Ranana was able to reach me

Impression from the photograph

The photograph shows a woman of very high spiritual attainment and selflessness. The light shines from her in this photo, although this is even more evident from seeing her in person. Although she is in no way comparable to someone like Sri Ramana (whose Light she channels), she is still of a very high quality for a spiritual teacher.


From Wikipedia link Wikipedia:

Gangaji, born Merle Antoinette ("Toni") Roberson in Texas in 1942, is an American teacher or guru who regularly gives Satsangs around the globe. She is said to have attained self-realization in 1990 after an encounter with Poonjaji, a disciple of Ramana Maharshi, who sent her back to the West to teach.

In 1972, Toni Roberson Varner moved to San Francisco with the intention of exploring deeper levels of her being. In her quest for truth, she took the vows of a Bodhisattva, practiced Zen and Vipassana meditation, and helped facilitate a Tibetan Buddhist meditation center. Between 1981 and 1987, she practiced as an acupuncturist, and worked in a clinic in San Francisco. Despite her success, she still had a deep longing for fulfillment, and she prayed for a teacher.

In 1990, her second husband, Eli Jaxon-Bear, traveled to Lucknow, India to meet Sri H.W.L. Poonja, or "Papaji," on the advice of a friend. Six weeks later, after receiving a letter from her husband, Toni left to join him and meet with Papaji (note: alternatively she may have learned about Poonjaji through Andrew Cohen; see below). In this encounter, she says, the fulfillment she had sought was revealed to her. Papaji gave her the name "Gangaji," after the river Ganga (Ganges), and sent her back to America to teach. Gangaji has described contracting an illness and high fever while in India, which preceded her experience of realization.

Gangaji and Eli live in Ashland, Oregon, and often give teachings together, there and around the world.

Andrew Cohen

Apparently Toni was a student of Andrew Cohen, before she tired of his abusiveness, left him to be with H.W.L. Poonja. The relationship regarding these three is little known and worth telling.

According to both Luna Tarlo (Amazon com The Mother of God) and Andre van der Braak (Amazon com Enlightenment Blues) Gangaji had been a student of Andrew Cohen's and then left him in the early 1990s and got involved with Poonja (Papaji).

The odd thing is in this account, Gangaji says nothing about her time with Cohen, through whom she could easily have learned about Poonja. Cohen's teaching career, instigated by Poonja, did not begin until 1986. He did not break up with Poonja until the early to mid 1990s.

But external link in this account Gangaji credits Eli with having led her to Poonja in 1990.

By contrast, neither Tarlo nor van der Braak mention Eli. But both situate her as a former student of Andrew's, through whom she could easily have learned of Poonja, as he was the one from whom Andrew derived his teaching authority--and perhaps a slender thread of energy from Ramana Maharshi.

Tarlo does not give a year in which Gangji left Cohen. She writes on page 286: ''But the fact was, Poonja couldnt stand being criticized either. And he had shown himself to be a hypocrite. For example, I heard that he told a former student of Andrew's, now called Gangaji, and presently operating successfully as a guru out of Hawaii, that he had been waiting for her, too, all his life and as he'd said, after teaching Andrew, he was ready to die! (She subsequently became Poonja's replacement for Andrew). Andre van der Braak, on page 95 of Enlightenment Blues, indicated that stress was beginning to develop between Andrew and Poonja about 1991-2.

On page 101-2, van der Braak wrote, 'The widening gap between Andrew's new teaching and Advaita Vedanta doesn't go unnoticed by the spiritual seekers who come to satsang. Many of them come expecting to find a teacher of enlightenment who will give them a profound spiritual experience. Instead they're told off about their lack of willingness to change themselves. Many people perceive this as a kind of moralizing they can do without, and decide to go to the source itself, and visit Poonja in India, as do some of the students who've been sent away from the community by Andrew. To their relief, and to Andrew's displeasure, they receive a warm welcome there. Some of them, having received Poonjaji's enlightenment, are sent back to the West to teach others. The most important of these is an American woman named Antoinette Varner, who had been with Andrew in satsang for a few months before going off to see Poonja. Poonjaji gives her the name Gangaji and sends her off to teach in the places that Andrew has just been teaching. He tells her to "clean up after Andrew", restore the proper understanding of Advaita Vedanta and heal any egos that have been wounded."

Personal Experience

In November 2006 I went to two of Gangaji's satsangs, which were held just up the road from me at the Caulfield Town Hall (in Melbourne). Gangaji is a beautiful lady, beautiful in her physical appearance, beautiful in her compassion and love, beautiful in her lack of ego, and in the amazing light that radiates from her (which I could sense on the subtle level, indeed you can see it in the photos but its stronger in person), and (if this is what you like) beautiful in the simplicity of her message.

The teaching basically is about being in the moment, not getting caught up in "stories" (all the thoughts and dramas we make of things), just being in the experience. So if you feel hopeless, just be in the hopelessness, don't try to avoid or fight it or run away from it. Then, being in that experience, look at where it comes from, what supports it. Go beneath the experience to its Source.

This was different to my practice at the time, which was the devotional practice of offering everything up to the Supreme. To offer things up is to adopt an active posture, basically a prayer, which is still part of the activity of the mental and emotional being. Whereas what Gangaji teaches is just to abide in that, experience that, without any activity or movement on your part. Just realise what one already is (in that and in all other states of consciousness) which is, as she said (due to her Buddhist background) Openness. Or as Ramana would say, the Self.

At each talk (satsang; in this context the word I guess goes back to Ramana) three or four people (who put their hands up and were invited by her) would come up in turn to sit next to her (to her credit she seems to discourage guruist elitism) to ask questions. Some were lovely, although two (I thought, being my usual judgmental self) were complete idiots. But she was totally patient and loving with all of them. So it seems that this attitude of love and selflessness is something that happens as soon as the ego is transcended.

The reason I went a second time is that I got such a good impression the first time. Not from her words as such, i mean this material is nothing new (even if it is updated for the modern westerner), and for me it is basically at the kindergarten level. It is rather the light that shines from her. To attune to this, one can attain the same state, just as she was initiated by her guru Papaji, and Papaji by his guru Ramana Maharshi

Gangaji didn't do anything deliberately, yet I received something.

I don't know how many others there felt this; most of them seemed like ordinary devotees, although i got the feeling that some of the disciples were a bit blissed out. But hard to tell without talking to people.

This whole thing made me for the first time really interested in Gangaji's grand-guru (if that's the right word) Ramana Maharshi, who is the ultimate source of this Light, via the medium of his disciple HWL Poonja (Papaji) a well respected figure who initiated many Westerners.

Comparisons with other Gurus

Gangaji's radical monism has been satirised in Andrew Cohen's What is Enlightenment? magazine as "neo-vedanta" (note - I need to check this), a very misleading term because it more properly applies to Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. In fact she is squarely in the Advaitin tradition and the lineage of Ramana Maharshi, whose Light she helps transmit.

My impression during the two talks (but not when the people came up on stage to sit next to her) is that something in Gangaji's mannerisms, delivery and choice of words were somewhat reminiscent of Adi Da. And the way she spoke, with pauses after each utterance, reminded me of a guy I knew who had become a disciple of Guru Maharaji, and then later presented himself as a gurui. I assume that he had picked up his mannerisms from Maharaji, who probably picked it up from observing other gurus. However it seems that different gurus also have different ways of speaking. Without being more knowledgeable in all this, it is best to leave these comments as passing and perhaps unreliable observations on my part.


While Gangaji's guru credentials are exemplary, and never once has she been implicated in any cases of abuse of trust (until now!), the situation is very different for her husband Eli Jaxon-Bear, who has been implicated in a sexual scandal (which he had no choice but to admit publicly), and seems to meet the hallmarks of the classic abusive guru. Message board More comments here. As a result of this the salacious affair is blogosphere all over the blogosphere.

It is not clear why someone of Gangaji's stature chose to stay with and even support this. I would assume it is a remnant of personal romantic attachment and feminine passivity. My understanding is that Gangaji - like most people who present themselves as gurus (and remember, authentic Realisers never claim to be gurus or seek disciples) - still has a lot of samskaras from her old life. These include the feminine ideal of "standing by your man". In any case the whole sordid affair has dragged her name through the mud. It is a real shame, because I do feel she is better than that.

But because of the gossip and shadow projection accompanying the scandal involving Eli, and Gangaji's forgiveness of Eli, many people consider her a false guru (see above comments on the blogosphere). But this means reducing things to simplistic good-bad dichotomies.

Actually before I went to Gangaji's talk (satsang) i did a google and blog search and i did find a lot of dirt, mainly involving Eli. So I went with a very sceptical mind, not as a naive devotee. That makes my experience all the more remarkable.

Closing assessment

In my meeting with Gangaji (I didn't actually "meet" her in person, but rather sat on the floor in the first row nearby), the powerful experience and transmission of Ramana's Light, and the positive Light I feel around her reveals to me that she is a teacher of great integrity and selflessness.

I have recently (adding this and the following paragraph here on 17 Dec 2010) been told that Gangaji doesn't espouse a practice or present herself as a model, but rather points to the Source. As long as she does not claim to be a Realised being, I have a lot of respect for her.

But the question then must be, if Gangaji by her own reckoning, does not claim to be "enlightened" or Realised, why follow her? Is it justy this off-putting herd-like mentality people have, because they don't have the strength to follow the Truth independently, they need some sort of parental substitute to hold their hand?

For this and other reasons, Gangaji would not be my guru, although I will be forever grateful to her for the role she inadvertently played in being a catalyst in my own receiving of Sri Ramana's Light. All I can say is that for me she helped a lot, but only because I was receptive and ready to receive the spiritual transmission at the time. Were I in a different state of consciousness or spiritual development it would never have happened. Interestingly most critics speak very poorly of Gangaji, in relation to other gurus. Sarlo refers to her as a "lightweight"). external link This commentator says "Intelligent words and good feelings, but no practice, and an emphasis on special awakening experiences at the expense of simple, moment-to-moment clarity". And indeed, if you look at her words, the substance of her message, from a rational perspective, from the perspective of the outer personality, it is indeed pretty thin. There is nothing of the power of teaching that one finds with truly self-realised sages like Swami Vivekananda, Sri Ramana, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, or Sri Aurobindo. What matters, and what mattered to me those two times I sat in her presence, had nothing to do with the words and teachings. It was all about the Light. And the Light I received isn't even her Light, it belongs to Sri Ramana. She just happened to be the instrument that conveyed it. But please note, this itself is no mean feat, and speaks greatly of her sincerity and selflessness. On the other hand her participation in smoothing over her husband Eli's sexual abuses, and the fact that she even charges money for the workshop concerning this, is deeply troubling. All this, and blogosphere going the legal route, might be taken to show that she is not strong enough in herself to resist the pull from a spouse who is clearly at a much lower spiritual station than herself. If this is the case, it is indeed very different to the position of Mirra (the Mother), whose second husband was certainly of a much lower spiritual stature than herself, yet she was never pulled down by this. So it may be that what we have with Gangaji is once again the classic Intermediate Zone phenomenon, genuine Light mixed up with human imperfection.

In spite of what might be her weakness to manipulation and control by Eli, I feel that Gangaji still has attributes of being a beautiful teacher. But because of that weakness, she should not be teaching, because she will only be sucking devotees into an ugly vortex of deception that has formed around Eli's infidelity. This means only a downward spiral for her, and is evidence, if any is needed, that the true guru has to be first be firm in themself, before they can possibly think of in any way helping others. This is a good lesson to all potential gurus; make sure you are firm in yourself before you think of taking on the karmic responsibilities of others. Formerly a good example of a non-abusive teacher, Gangaji's new willingness to manipulate others for the sake of her husband's own weaknesses does not accord with what one would expect of a true self-realised master (although, as mentioned, Gangaji does not claim to be Enlightened, even though her devotees at the meeting I attended certainly seemed to respond to her as if she was!). It was good I saw her when I did, before things get too low. But maybe I am totally wrong in my assessment. I seriously hope that I am. Even so, presenting Gangaji as some sort of false teacher (as a result of this controversy) totally and completely misses the point of how the whole guru phenomenon works. In any case, I will always be grateful to Gangaji for being the link through which Sri Ramana was able to reach me (or is it vice versa?), and this may be why I see her more kindly then most of her critics do.

Web links Links Web links

Typing Gangaji into Google Google search results in some 93,600 hits (as of Nov 06). The following is therefore just a brief listing of links. If you know of other good links, please contact me

Website Gangaji Foundation - Home Page

Web Page Gangaji: Interview with Alexandra Hart for AHP

Web Page LA Yoga. Sitting Down With. Gangaji - interview with Julie Deife

Web Page Cullen Anderson on Gangaji - email to Sarlo (Guru Ratings, Visitor Feedback) - a few of Cullen's impressions here match my own experience; he also thinks highly of Isaac Shapiro, another Papaji disciple who I don't know (apart from his website). Sarlo's assessment seems fair enough

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page by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 20 November 2006, last modified 17 Dec 2010