This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1998, Volume 15, Number 1, pages 98-100. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.
“A mother’s account of her experience as a disciple of her son, a well-known American guru, and of her struggle to free herself from his control” is the apt subtitle of this intimate, revealing story by Luna Tarlo. Beyond the story, it is the author’s effort to make sense of the spiritual seeker’s folly, her folly, of absorption into the enigmatic manipulation of a controversial guru. In her case it is easy to see why she was attracted to Andrew Cohen in the first place: she loves her son. When he transformed into an enlightened guru in India some 10 years ago, he no longer related to her as her son. He became her “god,” an embodiment of the Absolute Self that all persons must know and experience to be truly “free.” Tarlo struggled to make sense of this, and for some years capitulated to whatever degree she could to the guru-chela (disciple or slave) relationship that Andrew exacted. She was somewhat overwhelmed at Andrew’s uncanny ability to collect devotees who “experienced” enlightenment from him, but she finally broke the spell while living in one of the group homes (sanghas) in 1989. Her recovery from that spell has not been an easy journey. Her story is one that many disenchanted devotees of gurus will understand.
Today, dozens to hundreds of devotees – some quite wealthy -support Cohen and his enlightened status. He has established FACE (Friends of Andrew Cohen Everywhere) centers in many cities around the world under the Moksha Foundation in Lenox, Massachusetts. By New Age-guru standards, Cohen has not reached great numbers of followers, but he is one of the more recent rising stars. His biannual magazine, What Is Enlightenment?, is a slick production that features articles by and about some of the more fashionable spiritual teachers. For example, a recent edition features Ken Wilbur, Georg Feuerstein, and Deepak Chopra. And, of course, Andrew Cohen. In his article, “Releasing the Unspeakable Glory of the Absolute,” Cohen talks about his philosophy like a broken guru record: “The true Self cares only about itSelf [sic]; …that power reveals itself to be a hurricane of destruction leaving in its wake only perfect peace and unqualified harmony; …permanent revolution of body, mind and soul…” Cohen’s teaching includes skillful means, a euphemism for the guru-can-do-anything to trick, attract, coerce, embarrass, or shock a devotee who wants enlightenment. To such gurus, enlightenment means entitlement to money, power, sex and unquestioning submission. The illusion to be entertained is that the guru as Andrew Cohen, son of Luna (or name any enlightened one) is not the person the devotee worships; rather, it is the Absolute Self that has seized Andrew’s being that is being worshipped. Meanwhile, little Andrew enjoys the entitlements without taking responsibility it is the big Absolute that makes the demands.
Cohen’s mother found all this “revolution” to be too much to sustain, despite her persistence in following her godman son’s challenging commands. Tarlo experienced Cohen’s ruthless verbal putdowns about her behavior, her emotions, and her thoughts to the extent that she did not know who she was any longer. It all began in 1985 when Cohen took his substantial inheritance from his grandmother and became part of the Western, leisure-class tradition of spiritual seekers in India. After considerable guru-hopping with his Indian girlfriend and fellow seeker, Alka, Cohen happened upon H.W.L. Poonja, a then-obscure teacher who claimed to be of the lineage of Ramana Maharshi. Tarlo later discovered that Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) left no lineage. Poonjaji had little to no success gathering devotees at the time; nevertheless, he claimed enlightened status and gave it to Cohen, as if it were a transferable condition. According to Tarlo, Poonjaji and Cohen were no longer friends at the time of Poonja’s death last summer. Cohen, then in his early thirties, got whatever “it” was from Poonja, and has claimed enlightenment ever since. His version of enlightenment means that his “personal history” is gone, or, at least, his acknowledgment of it. He identifies only with the “other” or the Absolute.
Tarlo was with him off and on during this period as she deigned to become one of his followers. If she had a vulnerability other than being “God’s” mother, it was her personal history of self-analysis and seeking that gave her a sophisticated but naive awareness of the spiritual milieu. In a subtly humorous passage Tarlo recounts how she did not feel enlightened after both Poonjaji and Andrew said she was. Once she had been set up with this knowledge, her struggle was to make sense of it, with only her son as a guide. It was a conundrum she could not easily dismiss. Her break came after she and a few other Cohenites dared to meet the irascible Indian teacher, U.G. Krishnamurti (no relation to J. Krishnamurti). U.G. convinced them that they did not need a teacher. It was the nudge Tarlo needed to stall her ambivalence long enough to feel free of her son’s control, and seek further resources to help her gain perspective on her experiences.
Luna Tarlo’s book is now the must-read publication for anyone wanting to understand Andrew Cohen beyond his group propaganda. Her book is also a plea to her son to “come home” to the real person she believes he is. Tarlo argues convincingly that Cohen exhibits the characteristics of narcissism and anti-social personality disorder. They are not diseases, but character flaws that the bearer covers with a mask. In this case, the mask could be one of pseudo-enlightenment, one he is not likely to give up easily. Nor will his cocoon of devotees permit him to be anything less than their enlightened godman who tinkers with their awareness. Cohen’s teachings, as described by Tarlo, remind me exactly of fascism, its political counterpart. Because he’s enlightened, Cohen the Absolute believes he has a right to ask total submission from devotees and then to dictate their reality. Fascist ideas have some roots in Futurism, an early 20th century art and political movement. The Futurist poet and leader, F.T. Marinetti, directly influenced Benito Mussolini as well as many proto-Nazis in two ways: the elite among us “know” the pure spirit world, and to bring that pure world into mundane life, even war could serve as a purifying agent. Cohen’s skillful means is his technique to create “wars” within his devotees to purify them. Or, as Luna Tarlo tells us, to destroy them by destroying their personal history. Not that there is a connection, but Tarlo points out that Andrew Cohen likes to smoke cigarettes and drink Italian coffee.
The Futurist Manifesto of 1909 declared “a new beauty…a roaring motorcar which runs like a machine-gun, is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace…We wish to glorify war.” (Murray, Peter and Linda. 1968. A Dictionary of Art and Artists. Penguin Reference Books)
Enlightenment gurus who use “skillful means” to “liberate” their devotees from personal history, karma, or psychological baggage will assert that they mean no harm, but the fast track to moksha (soul liberation) requires total submission and sacrifice to a living master if one is to succeed in one lifetime. As to the “death” of the self, even St. Paul of Christianity wrote: “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20). In much of guru submission, the Absolute is a parallel to the Christ of Paul, though the proponents of either view might dispute this assertion.
Joseph P. Szimhart
Cult Information Specialist
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1998