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Mother of the Universe

by Andrew Cohen


The female saints called "Divine Mothers" are unquestionably extraordinary women whose outpouring of unconditional love has profoundly moved and opened the hearts of many. But how is one to understand the nature of their attainment?

Ultimately, understanding the attainment of the Divine Mothers is only possible if one understands the nature of enlightenment itself. The following article, taken from spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen's autobiographical work An Unconditional Relationship to Life, examines the experiences of two disciples of Indian Divine Mothers, experiences which raise important questions about the relationship between unconditional love and liberating discrimination.

In the summer of 1994, I was invited to teach in southern France. The occasion was unusual. I was invited there by another spiritual teacher to speak to a large gathering of mostly his own students. We had met for the first time several years earlier in Israel and had become friends. During this, my second visit, my wife and I stayed as houseguests with him, his wife and their two teenage children. They were gracious hosts and our meals together were always festive gatherings, with friends, other teachers, writers and students in attendance. These times were often highlighted by serious and occasionally intense dialogue.

It was during those meals together that I met a German man and his wife, who had been specifically invited by my host to spend some time informally with me. My host had told me that this man had been a longtime devotee of one of the most famous Indian female gurus of our time. He said that his friend had recently left her and was still very upset and confused about what had happened. Knowing my own story, my host thought that I might be able to help him.

His guru was known for her extraordinary compassion and unconditional love. I had read about her and had been very impressed by her purity, utter abandon and intense ecstasy. Affectionately called "Mother" by her devotees, she was supposed to be an avatar (an incarnation of God, the rarest and highest manifestation of enlightenment) and thousands flocked to receive her blessings as she traveled around the world.

During the weekend, over lunches and dinners together, he told me his story. He said that he had met his guru fifteen years earlier, well before she had become famous. He had lived in her intimate company for the first few years and had taken a formal vow of brahmacharya (celibacy). Along with long hours of meditation, he spent the rest of his time in her service. His descriptions of her were both marvelous and intriguing. There was no doubt that she was a profoundly awakened human being whose experience of the Absolute was far beyond the bounds of most. He said that after nine years with her in India, she asked him to go to Europe and serve her teaching work there. This involved setting up and procuring ashrams, arranging her travel schedule and representing her through teaching in her name. She said that when necessary she would "speak through" him. Surviving on what were only meager donations, he described to me how he worked for her tirelessly, eighteen hours a day every single day. He said that because of this, at one point he became so sick that he almost died.

After fifteen years in her service, he asked her permission to give up his vow of brahmacharya. He told her that for some time he felt he had been living a lie. She responded by saying that she didn't care he was living a lie, and went on to say that if he gave up his vow it would weaken the resolve of the other brahmacharyas. He described how in her way of thinking, giving up celibacy was tantamount to giving up true spiritual life altogether. After some time, he felt he had to be true to himself in spite of her refusal to meet his request and took the bold step of marrying one of her Western devotees. According to his story, they were both summarily rejected from her circle and denounced as having gone back to the "world." This was apparently unbearably painful for both of them as she was not only the center of their universe, but to them was literally none other than God incarnate. The agony of this separation from their beloved was written in the lines in their faces. His wife, to my surprise, even expressed a fear that their guru had put a "curse" on them. Seeing the terror in her eyes, I couldn't help but encourage her to begin to make the effort to question some of her ideas and also to be willing to take greater responsibility for the choice that she had made. This was to no avail.

Then the story became even more complex. He described how over his years as her servant in Europe, he had accepted large donations in her name and at her request had funneled them all through his personal bank account, apparently because she felt the governments in the West were as corrupt as in India. He said now, years later, he was living in fear of the day that the government would ask him to pay taxes on that money. He was afraid he would have to go to jail. He said that he was at that time in negotiation with her lawyers, asking only that they provide him with a written statement saying that none of the money had been his own, but had all been given to her. So far they had been unwilling to do so.

Over breakfast on Sunday morning, to my surprise my host told me an alarming story about yet another world-renowned incarnation of the divine mother, Mother Meera, who is also considered to be an avatar. The story is by now well known. Her longtime devotee and messenger, the famous scholar and poet Andrew Harvey had left her. Harvey, openly homosexual, claimed that his former guru was homophobic. He said that she wanted to break up his relationship with his male lover and told him that he had the choice of either being celibate or getting married to a woman. If he chose to marry, she wanted him to write a book about how the force of the divine mother transformed him into a heterosexual. He even claimed that she censored some of his writings, removing all references to his homosexuality.

I took a deep breath and turned my head, momentarily taking in the stunning beauty of the rolling hills, covered here and there with thick vineyards and patches of trees that made up the landscape of this part of southern France. I thought to myself how several of my students had been to visit Mother Meera and were impressed by her purity, simplicity and love.

I was amazed but my amazement soon turned to fascination. Both of these women were said to be avatars, incarnations of the divine mother and living expressions of unconditional love and compassion. They were known for the depth and power of their samadhi—absorption in joy so deep and profound it was beyond description. If their love was truly unconditional, what kind of conclusions was one to draw from this? If these stories were true, what did they say about enlightenment?

What I found so fascinating was that these two remarkable women, in spite of their rare, extraordinary and unquestioned spiritual attainment, still seemed to be attached to fixed ideas! The knowledge of and ability to express a love that was profound beyond measure, the experience of and ability to share intoxicating bliss and joy apparently were not necessarily enough to liberate the mind. This was staggering.

For some time it had been clear to me that one definition of enlightenment is none other than the attainment of freedom from all fixed ideas. Why? Because it is the liberating experience of freedom from all fixed ideas which alone enables the awakened individual to see clearly. Indeed, it is precisely because of the freedom from all fixed ideas that the awakened individual is able to discriminate in a way that is profound, extraordinary and evolutionary.

Without that attainment, even unquestioned purity is not enough to insure that the powerful and penetrating discrimination that is the expression of a truly liberated mind will arise. Without it, that perfect response that is the consistent manifestation of the attainment of that middle place between all pairs of opposites where heaven and earth meet will not occur.


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This article is from
Our Women's Liberation Issue