He was born Franklin Albert Jones. He died as Adi Da Samraj. What happened between these points in time is up for dispute depending on who you ask, what they believe, and the relationship they have to him.
The roller coaster began sometime in the 1970s. Before that, Adi Da had studied philosophy at Columbia University and gotten a master’s in English literature from Stanford. But with the counterculture in full swing, he began to experiment with psychedelic drug-use, which then led to a fascination with spiritual practice. Over the years, he dipped his toes into everything from Hermeticism to Scientology to the Vedantic traditions of India. By the time the 70s rolled around, he considered himself spiritually enlightened, in touch with the true nature of reality, ready to preach his wisdom to others.
Over the years and decades to come, he wrote many books, explored many ancient traditions, giving charismatic talks along the way. He was one of the first popular modern teachers in the West to understand and incorporate the insights of meditation practice, and people loved him for it. Many other big names in the world of philosophy and spirituality gave glowing recommendations for his books and his methods, insisting that he had come to new realizations that very few other people could even perceive.
By the time the 1980s came around, however, things had changed. His following had continued to grow. Building on his spiritual teachings, he had started to claim that he was a reincarnation of God in human form, in the vein of, say, Jesus or Krishna. A church was formed and a community nurtured. And all was well until, suddenly, reports started to leak out about allegations of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse and humiliation that people claimed they had suffered under his tutelage.
There was no real resolution to these allegations. There seemed to be enough evidence that perhaps something was wrong, but on the other hand, there are many other people — people who still stand by him and partake in the religion he formed — that argued against them. Adi Da himself had a breakdown after these allegations, feeling that his work was being nullified, but after an eventual recovery, he predicted that by the year 2,000, the world would recognize him as the God-figure that he was. When this failed to materialize before his death, he supposedly had another breakdown.
It’s hard to know the exact details of his specific story because of the various conflicting accounts. Still, the general pattern here is eerily familiar to anyone who pays attention to these things. If not Adi Da, then there are ten other gurus, supposedly enlightened, supposedly respected beyond just their own community, who can take his place, who have committed atrocities in spite of the grand spiritual claims they fill our imagination with.
Perhaps his claims about being a God to be worshiped are laughable enough not to take seriously, but there is something that distinguishes certain kinds of gurus and their claims from others. Many cults are run by charismatic leaders who intentionally prey on the psychologically vulnerable, but if you stand far away enough, you can generally use basic logic to see through the garbage they are preaching, the lies they are telling. There is, however, something scarier about someone like Adi Da. And ignoring some of his grander claims, that something is that a lot of what he says could make sense. In fact, even if he did do horrible things, the chances are that he genuinely didn’t believe he was doing so, that whatever he was doing was for the greater good.
The idea of enlightenment, or nirvana as the Buddha called it, has a long history. It has a superstitious history. But it can also be grounded in rationality. Many of the Buddha’s teachings about meditation, for example, are simple enough that anyone can try, results available with time and practice. There also seems to be enough cross-cultural evidence that something like those blissful and mystical states of consciousness that many Western and Eastern sages speak of exist and perhaps even contain some sliver of truth that many of us are blind to — that many of us could learn from. And there is also a non-trivial chance that teachers like Adi Da have actually done the work to experience and live those states.
But how, then, do you go from experiencing pure love or pure compassion or pure wisdom or whatever else is experienced in those incredibly profound states of mind to causing harm in the real, tangible world?
Around the same time that Adi Da was becoming a new-age leader, a young scientist began to propose an entirely new framework for understanding how humans relate to one another. He didn’t have any new data to contribute, but he did have a new way of looking at what we already knew. He published three revolutionary papers that covered topics like how we learn to cooperate with strangers, differences in mating strategies between the sexes, and the conflicts that arise in interactions between parents and their offspring. On the surface, these topics diverge, but at their core, they connect to provide a startling revelation about human nature.
The scientist’s name was Robert Trivers, and his big idea was that the reason human relationships are such a strange mix of competition and cooperation is that we have evolved to lie to ourselves. It’s a theory of self-deception that argues that, from an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense that we would look to deceive other people. If I want someone to join my tribe in a dangerous world, I need to give them a good reason to do so even if I don’t really have one. Lying is beneficial. But that alone isn’t enough because other humans are also pretty good at spotting lies — facial expressions, voice tonality, and body language give us away, if not right away then at least over time. But what if we subconsciously lied to ourselves? Wouldn’t we then believe our own lies and thus not give away any clues to others?
That’s exactly what Trivers argues. The human body, at its core, only cares about surviving long enough to reproduce and extend its genetic code. The brain, no matter how intelligent or wise or enlightened, is still a part of this body, and this body has drives and desires that don’t completely go away unless it literally withers away and dies. The brain, then, learns to tell itself increasingly complex lies and stories so that it can perpetuate itself in the world. No matter how rational we think we are or truth-oriented we aspire to be, as long as we have a physical body, the brain can and will find a way to fool us, especially if there are other people around to fool, too.
This theory has incredible explanatory power — from providing a framework to explain irrational tribal behavior to pointing the way to showing us how someone who is perhaps quite smart and rational in one domain can be completely irrational in another. We may be the most intelligent of the great apes, but at the end of the day, we are still apes.
One of the reasons that enlightenment makes logical sense is that the process laid out often resembles the method that underlies modern science itself. The Buddha preached the middle way — you shouldn’t fear anything, and you shouldn’t desire anything. Through complete non-attachment (even to the concept of non-attachment), the egoistic self within us can be overcome, and the true nature of reality can be observed. The meditative process is a practical method that digs deeper and deeper into the subconscious until there is nothing left but authentic action within the bliss of higher states of consciousness. Other ancient traditions provide parallel paths.
Adi Da and others who have fallen from grace may well have been enlightened in the way that is laid out by the ancient texts. They may well have had good intentions throughout. They may even have had more wisdom than many of the people who judge and criticize their actions. But at the end of the day, no matter how enlightened one is or how much self-work one does to reach the depths of the mind, as long as a person is tied to a physical body, they have to interact with other human beings in the social world of norms and traditions and complexities that go beyond individual liberation. No matter how perfect or blissful their own states of consciousness, they have to deal with the consciousness of others who aren’t so seemingly pure and perfect. And sooner or later, they, too, get corrupted again. Their brains, too, make up stories and lies and delusions to suit their hidden social agenda. For them, dangerously enough, it just happens more subtly.
Sages like Jesus and the Buddha who once walked this Earth have been mythologized to no end, and the stories we tell about their perfection may serve well as archetypes, but chances are that, in actuality, they were more complex than whatever purity we attribute to them. They likely made mistakes and learned from them throughout their lives. The world is messy. History and myth and religion flatten that messiness.
If there ever was a truly enlightened person, they likely would have known what we would all do well not to forget: Wisdom is intellectual and epistemic and moral humility, and our work is never done.
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