Gangaji, born Merle Antoinette ("Toni") Roberson in Texas in 1942, is an American author, speaker, sometimes considered a lay or spiritual counselor, teacher or "guru". Since 1990, she has met with people in the U.S., Europe, and Australia, sometimes appearing with her husband Eli Jaxon-Bear, in what she calls an invitation to "discover the possibility of living your life in the freedom and joy of simply being. She and her husband live in Ashland, Oregon.

Her philosophy is described as nondualism consistent with Advaita Vedanta.


According to her autobiography, Toni Roberson was raised by her parents in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Growing up, she loved her mother but didn't feel liked, was ashamed of her drinking, experienced feelings that her body had somehow disappeared, and occasionally took medication for those feelings until her college years. When briefly attending a Catholic school, a religious fire awakened in her and she fell in love with Christ, but her Protestant Episcopal parents didn't approve, moved her to a public school and had her confirmed as a "restrained" Episcopal, by which she felt her true call to confirm God was denied, and a search or "strategy of escape" developed as a result, which she said included her becoming popular at school, becoming a cheerleader and homecoming queen, making a good marriage with her first husband (a physician), becoming a mother, getting divorced from her first husband who was "too nice", therapy, a series of relationships seeking intimacy, using psychedelic drugs which revealed to her the beauty of her mother and how her beliefs about happiness were made up, becoming a spiritual seeker, and more.

She considered herself a good student in school, attended the University of Mississippi, was a sorority girl, went on to graduate studies in English literature, did some teaching including after her child was born working as a substitute high school English teacher in Memphis, also worked as a cocktail waitress, massage therapist and acupuncturist in the San Francisco Bay area, often commuting, got burned out, and moved back and forth between San Francisco and Maui a number of times.

She did a stint of personal development training with a group called Arica which included "mantras, physical exercises, group processing of emotions" as well as dancing naked in an old mansion on a hill, took Bodhisattva vows and a Tibetan name of "White Tara, the female embodiment of wisdom and compassion", switched to Zen, practiced peer counseling, took Erhard Seminars Training, studied Chinese herbal medicine, took T'ai Chi lessons, leaned toward a Taoist understanding, took lessons in Chinese, taught dance, became disenchanted with Zen and everything Japanese, became interested in Vipassana and practiced sitting still but felt a dissatisfaction with one of her teachers, and came to peace with her mother as she was dying.

She marched for civil rights, protested the Vietnam war, met her current husband in Berkeley, tended chickens and a goat, got arrested for protesting at a nuclear power plant, spent ten days in jail, lived off the sales of marijuana crops, married her current husband in Hawaii twice - once in a church and again in a cave.

And after all that, she still identified herself as a sufferer and had a sense of something unresolved, something longed for.

Then in 1990, while her second and current husband, Eli Jaxon-Bear, was traveling in India, she gave him the name "Sri H.W.L. Poonja" which she had found in a book (likely written by Andrew Cohen). Upon finding and meeting with this man, her husband wrote to her from India with information about him. A month later, Eli returned to the U.S. wanting to introduce Gangaji to Poonja. In April 1990, Gangaji and Eli traveled together to India to meet with Poonja. Gangaji states that Poonja gave her the name "Gangaji" after the river Ganga (Ganges), and that he asked her to go back to the West and share his message.

She recalls when she first met H.W.L. Poonja (also known as Papaji) he told her "You are the one. You are the one I've been waiting for," and at the time, she understood what he was saying only in the ordinary sense, and it made her feel very special. But when she later saw Papaji extending the same greeting to everyone he met, she says Papaji helped her understand that being "special" wasn't special at all, and that "the willingness to give up specialness was required for what has been here all along to claim Itself.

After her first six weeks visit with Papaji, she and Eli returned to Maui, but soon left for California so Eli could teach at Esalen where she recalls "the major, the essential shift occurred", "[her] story was gone", and realizing how much had been wrapped up in "me, me, me", she says she began laughing out loud. According to her, "the teaching started to happen" the next day.

A few months later, in September 1990, Gangaji and Eli returned to India to see Papaji again. And once again, she recalls how she felt privileged in Papaji's presence but again how Papaji taught her a lesson about not being special, questioning her, pushing her, not letting her escape from whatever she thought was obstructing her from Truth. According to Gangaji, she visited Papaji five times between 1990 and 1995, each time "filled with grace and deeper discovery," but "then it was clear that those trips to India were over.

Activities and the Teaching

Gangaji has published a number of books and offers talks in different parts of the world, which she calls satsang. However she does not limit satsang to any particular time or place, saying, "It is time to... recognize satsang in the marketplace, on the street, and in the bedroom as well as beyond space and time... Then any meeting is satsang, and satsang is meeting in truth... This meeting called satsang is not different from the simple willingness to be.

Though Gangaji is often perceived to be a teacher or guru, she responds, "I am your own self. I am perceived as whatever you project upon me... If you have to call me guru to hear what I'm saying, fine. She states that she is not teaching anything, and on being called a teacher, she says, "I truly have nothing to teach you... The truth of who you are is yours already, a pointing to the "self-teaching" or invitation to experience directly That, what/who one is, without a concept. In her words, "The truth of who you are is untouched by any concept of who you are, whether ignorant or enlightened, worthless or grand... I invite you to let your attention dive into what has always been here, waiting openly for its own self-realization... the indefinable, boundless recognition of yourself as inseparable from anything else. The title of her first book, "You are That!," refers to the Hindu concept Tat Tvam Asi. Gangaji also discusses religious concepts from other cultures, including discussions on Jesus and Rumi. Conceptually, Gangaji's discussions focus on the tenet that humanity's true nature is not the body, not the mind, but forever free awareness.


Gangaji's husband's actions were a source of controversy. In October 2005, Gangaji's husband, Eli Jaxon-Bear, admitted to Gangaji that after twelve years of celibacy he had been seduced and that he had been having an affair with an adult female student who became a teacher in her husband's organization. Gangaji's husband subsequently stopped teaching and resigned from his organization and the organization was merged with the Gangaji Foundation. "What was initially seen as a matter between two adults is now recognized to be a betrayal of the teacher/student relationship and an abuse of power," wrote Barbara Denempont, the Executive Director of both foundations, adding that "The repercussions of this betrayal are reverberating in ways that were never imagined, but are very painful." "People are shook up, as they would be in any relationship or family," Gangaji said. "The staff is upset because they didn't know. It's been referred to as a family secret. I expect some people will leave and some people will stay." The merged organization held public meetings with the stated purpose to heal whatever wounds may have been experienced in their spiritual community.

According to Gangaji 20 years prior to this incident she said to Eli, before they were married, "Eli, if you want to do this, fine, but I'm not interested in having an open relationship anymore." And at that point their relationship became monogamous, they married in 1989, their roles switched, and she became his teacher.


  • "You are That!" ISBN 0-9632194-3-X
  • "Freedom and Resolve" ISBN 1-887984-01-1
  • "Just Like You, An Autobiography" ISBN 0-9646999-2-3
  • "The Diamond in Your Pocket: Discovering Your True Radiance" ISBN 1-59179-272-X


  • Downing, Jerry N. (2000) Between Conviction and Uncertainty ISBN 0-79144-627-1

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