The end of the 20th century saw the rise of a new spiritual movement, inspired on the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (and one of his most influential disciples, Papaji) and Nisargadatta Maharaj. It has been called by many neo-advaita or pseudo-advaita. I haven’t found anybody calling it McAdvaita yet, so I’m coining that term.
(Read the comments, below, for my thoughts on Papaji’s teaching style of no-effort.)
Even though these post-modern teachings have been inspired by those authentic sages, it is important to clarify that they are not in the lineage of any of them. Ramana, Papaji and Nisargadatta did not leave any official representatives or lineage-holders. As Papaji said, “When there is a lineage, impurity enters in the teaching.”
While neo-advaita shares with Advaita many of its theoretical teachings, the approach to practice is radically different in the former, if not totally absent. The modern “adaptation” of Advaita that happened in the 20th century got morphed into something else, and this watered-down version got greatly popularized in the West.
This brought both good and bad results.
- Good results: It opened the doors of nondual spirituality for people that would not otherwise be attracted to it, serving as a platform for further inquiry. It has benefited people in abandoning certain conditioned beliefs.
- Bad results: The distortions, disappointment, superficial realizations, spiritual stagnation, and even abuse of power and sex.
Just as Yoga has undergone many distortions in the West, which has reduced it largely to a physical asana practice, so too Advaita is often getting reduced to an instant enlightenment fad, to another system of personal empowerment or to another type of pop psychology. (…)
Faced with both old and new misconceptions, the Advaitic student today is in a difficult position to separate a genuine approach and real guidance from the bulk of superficial or misleading teachings, however well-worded, popular or pleasant in appearance these may appear to be.
The West has a tendency to standardize, stereotype, mass-produce and even franchise teachings. The neo-Advaita movement, like the western Yoga movement, is affected by this cultural compulsion, and often gives the same teachings en masse. True Advaita is not a teaching than can be given uniformly to people of all temperaments.
The bird’s eye view of the neo-Advaita outlook is this:
- Since only the Self (Awareness) is real, and everything else is illusory, there is no need to do any spiritual practice, any learning, any growth, and, of course, any enlightenment. Because you are inherently That, there is no need to study, learn, grow or transcend anything.
- All forms of spiritual practice, education, devotion, are regarded simply as illusions of the ego. All you need to do is to hear this enlightening news, drop the belief that there is something more to do, something to achieve, something wrong with you, call off the search, and rest in the Self.
- “Right and wrong”, “good and bad” are all illusory concepts, so there is no expectation of ethical behavior from the teaching.
- The fact that you have egotistical thoughts, emotions, and suffering does not prevent you from being the Self, because the ego is an illusion, and the Self is real.
There are many shades of neo, but this serves as a brief generalization. It is the get rich quick approach to enlightenment—the results you get are not real wealth, nor are they sustainable.
These ideas are problematic on many levels.
Neo-advaita has received severe criticism from scholars and spiritual teachers, both traditional and modern, for its one-sided interpretation on the teachings and lack of practical approach. Although not my area of expertise, I see some signs that nondual teachings in Zen Buddhism underwent a similar transfiguration, although perhaps on a lesser scale (I digress).
I will now explore the main problems with the neo-Advaita movement, and suggest a more wholesome approach to nondual spirituality.
While I can find dozens of teachings from authentic modern Advaita masters (such as Ramana and Nisargadatta) that supports some of the claims of neo-Advaitins, there are also many other teachings, from the same masters, that present a more balanced view on this. These are usually ignored or misunderstood by many contemporary teachers, who tend to focus only on the teachings that seem to promise immediate realization.
This is not a criticism to any particular teacher, nor I am saying that they are necessarily ill-intentioned people. I don’t want neo-advaita to completely vanish—there is a place for it in the big scheme of things. My goal is to simply read the current neo-Advaita movement under the lens of traditional and modern Advaita, thus providing a map for the serious spiritual aspirant to sharpen his discernment (viveka).
[These first parts were expanded from guest article I published on elephant journal. Continue reading (items 3.1 onwards) for a detailed deconstruction of the problems with neo-Advaita.]