Sunday, November 1, 1997


Book review by Joe Szimhart


  “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 sociopathic 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 around ten 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.” She 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. Tarlo 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 guru devotees will understand. 

Others, who have never succumbed to the seduction of a godman, will wonder “what was she thinking” all those years. To those “others” who read the book, Andrew Cohen will appear as someone with spoiled brat syndrome. I am reminded of an incident between another mother and her adult son who was in the Ramtha group at the time. During the counseling session the tall, young man explained to his diminutive, Catholic mother that he was “God.” The little lady stood up with concern in her expression. In an instant she hit him with a roundhouse slap across the face, and in a measured, firm voice, she said, “You are not God.” Tarlo tells us that she had visions during her discipleship in which she told her son off and left him. The vision made her feel better, but she could not easily act on it or just walk away. She suffered from that condition cult experts call mind control.

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, Massachussetts. By New Age guru standards, Cohen has not reached great numbers, 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 fashionable spiritual teachers. For example, the Fall/Winter 1997 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 who the devotee worships; 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 to follow her godman son’s challenging commands. Tarlo experienced Cohen’s ruthless verbal put-downs 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, but he nevertheless claimed enlightened status and gave it to Cohen, as if it were a transferable condition. According to Tarlo, Cohen had a strained relationship with Poonja in the end. I heard that Poonja died in 1997. Cohen, then in his early thirties, got whatever “it” was from Poonja, and he 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 both said she was. Once she had been set up with this knowledge, her struggle was to make sense of it, and she had 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. She later told her story to exit counselor Steve Hassan, a former “Moonie,” who helped her put her experience into perspective. She also benefited from The Guru Papers by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstadt, a book that clearly exposes the dangers inherent in guru submission.

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. I doubt Cohen has it in him. Studies show that narcissism and anti-social personality--Tarlo argues convincingly that Cohen exhibits these characteristics-- are incurable. 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. He would need a healthy conscience to pull that one off, but by Tarlo’s description, what conscience he has is inadequate. Nor will his cocoon of devotees permit him to be anything less than their enlightened godman who tinkers with their awareness. Cohen’s teachings remind me of exactly what Tarlo called it--“fascism” is the 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 an early twentieth century, Italian art and political movement called Futurism. 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.

1. 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)

2. 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.