14. Guru Americana

Om-Grown Gurus Gather Disciples

From Chapter 14: Americans think of gurus as bearded, barefoot, dark-skinned men in robes. That a guru may be female is relatively new to us. That one may have light skin, wear ordinary Western clothing, and speak in an American and European accent–that’s very new.

A number of Americans became gurus in the traditional sense, albeit with their own, unique styles. The chapter profiles three of them, and then discusses the group of guru-like figures who comprise the neo-advaita movement.

rudi in store

Brooklyn-born Albert Rudolph became Swami Rudrananda and was known simply as Rudi. He gathered followers to his low-key after-work satsangs at his Greenwich Village Asian antique store, and later added retreats upstate. A direct disciple of Swami Muktananda’s guru, Swami Nityananda, Rudi sponsored Muktananda’s first world tour. He died tragically in a 1973 plane crash at age 44. The Nityananda Institute carries on his lineage. Wikipedia entry. Other teachers who studied under Rudi are also actively teaching his methods.  One is Swami Khecaranatha at the Rudramandir Center in Berkeley CA.




Born Franklin Jones in 1939 on Long Island, he became known as Bubba Free John and then a series of other names culminating in Adi Da Samraj. Along the way, he gathered devotees to his communities in Northern California and Fiji, triggered scandals and lawsuits, published a boatload of quirky but brilliant books, and died in 2008 worshipped by disciples as an avatar and disdained by some ex-devotees as an abusive charlatan. Dull, he was not.

Official Ad Da website



Andrew Cohen occupies a unique place in the East-to-West transmission because he not only wears the label of guru proudly in an age that’s said to be post-guru, but he is also the founder and publisher of perhaps the most important magazine in contemporary spirituality, EnlightenNext (formerly What is Enlightenment?). A controversial figure in the early days as a guru with a small but devoted following, he has adjusted his teaching style and become a leading voice for what he calls evolutionary enlightenment.

Official site EnlightenNext magazine

The radical nondualists who have been lumped together under the term neo-advaita are a loosely knit group of teachers who function kind of like gurus but not quite. Most of them were followers of a guru in northern India named H.W.L. Poonja (aka Papaji). Others were inspired by the enlightened Mumbai shopkeeper Nisargadatta Maharaj. All pay homage to the great early-20th-century master, Ramana Maharshi. The best known of them is the former Toni Roberson, aka Gangaji.

For a scholarly but readable and blessedly short book about classic Advaita, read Eliot Deutsch’s Advaita Vedanta. For information about contemporary neo-advaita, click here. For a spirited critique of neo-advaita by Timothy Conway, click here. By James Swartz, click here. By David Frawley, click here.