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.
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.
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.
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.