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Double-Edged Sword – Part 1

December 24, 2010

“Opposite values are complementary,” or so goes the knowledge point taught in the Art of Living Basic Course. Rishi Nitya Pragya further elaborated on this by explaining that whenever we come to consider anything which affects our lives, be it people, situations or things, we should do our best to look at both the positive and negative qualities at the same time. The mind has a tendency to see just the good or just the bad at any given time, and as such we rarely allow ourselves to see the bigger, more objective, picture.

As an exercise to help us to improve our ability to see both the positive and negative qualities in everything around us, Rishiji asked us to take a notebook and to make a list of a number of people we know, writing one person’s name at the top of each page. We then had to divide each page into two, on one side listing the positive qualities, and on the other side listing the negative qualities of that person. If I were to put my hand on my heart, I will tell you now that I found this to be a really powerful exercise indeed and I learnt a lot from it.

I also started doing the same exercise with many other areas in my life, and for one fleeting moment it even occurred to me to try and attempt it with Art of Living. However, I quickly dismissed the idea, believing that Art of Living was somehow above this sort of exercise, and that it probably wouldn’t produce any fruitful results. Such was the state of my mind at the time, I couldn’t bring myself to even try and find any fault with AoL.

Now that I have left Art of Living firmly behind me, I recently decided to revisit this exercise, and finally decided that it was time to put AoL under the same scrutiny. I have always maintained that I learnt many useful things from my time with AoL, however as I look back at a lot of these things with a more objective eye, I have come to the realization that a great many of these same things are in fact highly questionable, to the point that they may even be considered detrimental. I’d like to share my views on many of these things with you here.

Knowledge Point: Accept people and situations as they are

During the Basic Course, one of the first knowledge points we were taught was to accept people and situations as they are. To an extent, I do see merit in this point, especially inasmuch as it pertains to situations where I am powerless to do anything to ameliorate the situation. However, more generally I’ve come to see that this knowledge point potentially leaves one open to a great deal of abuse.

Fundamentally, I believe that we should question everything, and not accept anything purely on faith. If someone tells us something which we find questionable, we should challenge their point of view and make them provide some evidence to back up their point. If we encounter individuals whose behaviour we find unacceptable in any way, we should raise this with them or at a bare minimum make some effort to correct the behaviour. And if we find ourselves in a situation which we find undesirable, we really ought to do our best to make the situation better in whatever way we can.

This knowledge point, which essentially encourages people to just accept things as they are, actually goes completely against all the various things I have just listed. So much so that in fact if you start to internalize it and believe it wholeheartedly, it really does leave you open to a great deal of abuse from both Art of Living and from the world at large.

In my own case, every time something questionable happened in Art of Living, I would think to myself, “Accept people and situations as they are” and in most cases do very little about it if anything at all. Even in non-Art of Living situations such as at work, I often found myself conceding to something which looking back I really ought to have made the effort to argue for, as it would have actually made the overall situation better for everyone involved. But I didn’t.

Having spent much time studying these blogs, it is evident from the personal experiences reported here that a great many of the abuses perpetrated by Art of Living could have been addressed in some manner if the victims of each respective incidence of abuse had actually spoken up at the time instead of just accepting their fate.

Furthermore, several accounts within these blogs relate how individuals have been told simply to accept situations as it is their karma which is responsible, and this is something which is just used to reinforce the knowledge point even further.

Ultimately, then, those individuals who do end up internalizing this belief are the ones who become more vulnerable as a result, leaving them open to abuse at the very least from Art of Living and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, but also from the world at large.

Promoting the Idea of the Divine

During the Basic Course, for one of the homework exercises we were asked to consider the following questions:

Q: How do you bring out the divine in yourself?

Q: How do you bring out the divine in other people?

In our group, we all came to the same conclusion, that one can achieve both these ends by helping those people out who need our help. So by helping others, we bring out the divine in both those who we are helping and ultimately in ourselves as well.

Being an atheist before I came to AoL, this was my first introduction to the Eastern idea of the Divine, that it is something within each and every one of us, which differed greatly from the Western concept, that it is something which is external to us and to the universe. As such, this helped me tremendously to understand a great deal about what religion and spirituality were about, and I became a lot more open-minded as a result.

However, as time progressed, the idea of the Divine was developed further and further throughout advanced courses, particularly the DSN, and also in closed-group meetings with senior teachers, that towards the end of my association with AoL, I believed that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar himself is the linving incarnation of the ultimate Divine being, God. Many people associated with Art of Living, especially at the deeper levels, have been led to believe this.

And the belief that one person is the ultimate authority again leaves followers open to a great deal of abuse, as that individual can and in this particular case in actual fact does exert a great deal of power over his followers.

Rishi Nitya Pragya

During a series of talks given by Rishi Nitya Pragya (Rishiji) which I happened to attend, one of the things he brought up from the start, and which he mentioned at every appropriate opportunity throughout his talks, was a process something he calls “Observe, Filter and Surrender”. Whenever one experiences an undesirable vritti (or flavour of consciousness) such as anger, guilt consciousness, victim consciousness, complaining, aloofness or defensiveness, one should first take the time to become aware of it (observe), use one’s intellect to determine whether or not it is something desirable (filter), and if not one should let go of it (surrender).

I certainly found this tool to be very useful, however looking at the other side of the coin, what makes it questionable is the manner in which Rishiji asked us to surrender. He encouraged everyone present to “connect”, in the first place, with Guruji, or if they believe in Jesus, Mohammed or Buddha or another equivalent being, to connect with them instead, and then to surrender to that being. In actual fact, in the initial talks he delivered to an audience which consisted of just those who had done the Basic Course, he only mentioned Guruji as the definitive source to connect to. It was only during subsequent talks which were open to all members of the public that he expanded the list to include these others.

So from the start of his talks, he is already treating Guruji as someone who is equivalent to the prophets and enlightened beings mentioned above, and is also promoting the idea that Guruji can remove one’s problems in life if only one connects with and surrenders them to him. I can further make the argument that he is encouraging people to surrender to Guruji period.

On several occasions he actually came out and told those present that he was just a channel, an “instrument of the Divine”, and that Guruji was somehow inhabited him and controlled everything he said and did. He also explicitly told us that Guruji was the incarnation of God on earth, using almost those exact words, with tears in his eyes and showing a great deal of emotion as he delivered this. Finally, he told us that of all the paths in the world he had encountered, Art of Living was by far the highest path.

On the balance of things, then, everything which Rishiji expounds ultimately serves the purpose of promoting Art of Living to all those present, reinforcing the belief that Sri Sri is God, and trying to draw as many people into the AoL organization as possible. The spiritual knowledge he gives is really only a minor by-product of this at best.


Art of Living does teach people about karma, however it goes on to instil a belief that if they do seva for Art of Living, if they surrender to and worship Sri Sri, this will somehow remove some of their negative karma.

I have specifically heard a devotee ask Rishiji the question, “How much karma can a Guru remove”, to which he simply replied “A lot.”

So AoL use karma to entice devotees to do seva for the organization, promising them that this will remove their bad karma. As mentioned earlier, they have been known to combine the idea of karma with the knowledge point “Accept people and situations as they are” in order to convince people to accept their fate, especially in an otherwise undesirable situation.

  1. OASCS permalink
    December 26, 2010 6:20 am

    To be fair Doc .. in “the accept ppl and situations as they are ” Knw point .. aol pt 1 course also hs a theif entering the house story and how acceptance does not mean inaction and they also talk abt how passive acceptance is different from active acceptance.” aslo i hv also heard the points frm sme teachers as ” As accept ppl & situations as they are and then take action. .. i think in the yes!+ course it happens like that….

    Also almost all spiritual paths and teachers talk about acceptance.

    Agree with rest of the post(s).

    • The Doctor permalink
      December 26, 2010 7:59 pm


      It is not the idea of acceptance that I have a problem with, in fact I do agree it is something useful to teach, rather it is the way it is taught in Art of Living, and especially the way it is communicated among followers.

      Most knowledge points which are taught during the Basic Course are self-explanatory, that is, the message is contained within the aphorism itself. Take for example, “Don’t be the football of other people’s opinions”, or “Always give 100%”, each statement contains the totality of what it is trying to teach.

      With “Accept people and situations as they are” exactly the same thing should apply. I honestly don’t remember any story about a thief entering a house or any other “support information” which was ever told to me based around this knowledge point, and in fact it really shouldn’t be necessary.

      Because of this, I maintain everything I said above, that it leaves people open to abuse and manipulation, which it clearly has.

    • Peaceful Warrior permalink
      December 27, 2010 10:18 pm

      OASCS – It matters not what is said in course about passive acceptance, when the emphasis is on bowing down to the master. People in AOL choose to ignore its faults and suppress criticism, choosing to blame their mind for doubting the master or the path. This is not active acceptance – it is very very passive.

  2. OASCS permalink
    December 28, 2010 8:35 am

    Peaceful Warrior:- You need to elaborate a bit further.

    What I am saying that yes .. people may misused by AOL folks by manipulating the acceptance point, but the acceptance point is not at fault here. That part of the course is good and yes quite beneficial. There is nothing wrong in that part of the course.

    Yes later(4th or 5th day) the emphasis on making participants devotees may be questionable. (Espicially after the 1st and 2nd Kriya.)

    But this misuse of the acceptance point is because of lack of Swadhyaya in the manipulators and its not a fault of the course, it is a fault of the organization, Swadhyaya means using the knowledge on oneself, and not on others, and the lack of it results in using knowledge points to win arguments, manipulate others, prove a point, etc. The organization is guilty of encouraging people who lack Swadhaya and supress people who have Swadhaya. But having the acceptance point in the first two days of the course, i dont think there is anything wrong with that.

    • The Doctor permalink
      December 28, 2010 3:35 pm


      “[…] its not a fault of the course, it is a fault of the organization […]”

      This is in fact the whole message of the article, that Art of Living have taught people many good things but have then used these same things to exploit and manipulate its followers. So I’m curious, why specifically did you single out this one point on acceptance over all the others?

      • OASCS permalink
        December 28, 2010 6:09 pm

        @Doc .. Coz I agree with the rest of the points.. I do feel many people release a lot of stress with this acceptance point in the basic course.. And I feel the best moments of art of living lies in first day, or second day , when this point is discussed. Its can be downhill from there for some. I had also just read an article by Deepak Chopra “the law of least effort”. Its a good read, and there is a good deal written on acceptance in that article.

    • Peaceful Warrior permalink
      December 28, 2010 4:40 pm

      OASCS – You are right, the student also has responsibility for what he accepts – just because AOL emphasizes surrender over vichara, does not absolve him of his role as a willing participant. Whatever the words may mean, Acceptance the way AOL means it is letting go of judgement. However one cannot actually function in real life without judgement, so it either generates conflicts within you and causes a lot of psychological damage, or it makes you a useless doormat. ( AOL people will say that they also say that don’t be a football of other people’s opinions – but that kind of contradictions will only lead to internal conflicts and muddled thinking)

      Aside from questioning AOL’s interpretation of it, I do question the point itself. Not exercising any control over one’s life is one end of the spectrum, and being control freak is another. Between this is a happy medium, which is up for you to decide for yourself.

      My truth is this – It is not abou judgement – rather it is seeing life in terms of aesthetics, not morality. In aesthetics there is good and bad, but there is no right and wrong like there is in morality. Judgement is still there, but nature of judgement is different – it is no longer vicious, and you are a lot more open. When you see life in these terms, you no longer feel impelled to impose morality on society or other people, or to impose it on yourself. You are free – more than that, you become the creator of your own universe.

      • OASCS permalink
        December 28, 2010 6:16 pm

        True… Agreed .. Aol has a lot of manipulation… and i have seen many teachers who have no clue about the knowledge points at all .. when i tried to discuss this with them outside the course they have no clue .. I dunno probably they just mug up the manual without any understanding and blurt it out during the course…

        Some times Guruji says not to preach what one doesn’t practice and then he creates teacher who cannot walk the talk.. he thinks if they just talk the walk then probably they will start walking the talk too. I think there is some major ideological, intellectual and a moral flaw here.

  3. WIDE AWAKE permalink
    December 29, 2010 3:07 am

    YES…the teachers have no understanding of the knowledge points. This is one of the reasons for the crazy politics that exist in every center.
    Ever since the 3 day part 1 course was rolled out (jan 2010), to save the planet , Knowledge points are considered nonessential….

    As per Sri Sri, the people who come now, are not ready for the supreme knowledge. The teachers are asked to focus on the 2 kriyas , just mention the knowledge points and get done with the course. Now, if a teacher forgets to even mention a knowledge point, he/she would just say…This batch din’t need it.

    Honestly, I dont see any difference between the teacher and the students. One has crammed the KP ‘s and the other is listening to it for the 1st time.
    (Within a yr, this student can become a teacher! if he is influential / good at recruiting).

    HE dosen’t want either of them to think, understand or question. He just wants people to be airy headed and passively accept what is given to them.

    In part 2 courses, when there is shortage of food, no hot water in the room, your wallet/bag is stolen , you actively accept the situation and inform the concerened people about it. Why then should the same situation e.g food shortage still exist on the following days?

    In local centers, teachers and volunteers dont thrash out the differences. They label each other as NEGATIVE and try to ostracise each other.

    Despite people complaining about the negative effects of SK, proper research on its long term effects has not been done yet. People are not even cautioned about its possible side effects. The guru is not even open to listening to anyone’s concerns wrt SK.

    Is this active acceptance ? So who is living the knowledge here??

    There are many such egs..the memory of it is nauseating.

    As you all have mentioned, if :
    The knowledge points are self explanatory and
    the student takes the resposibilty to understand and implement it
    and practices Swadhyaya , then this is indeed supreme knowledge.

    P.S : The course fee , as always , has gone up from Rs 1000/- for a 5 day program to Rs. 1250/- for a 3 day program.

  4. Blossom permalink
    December 30, 2010 10:12 am

    I “accepted” the picture this blog showed me of AOL and my future if I had continued in it and I took “action” i.e., got out !!

    Any knowledge point by anyone followed blindly in all situations will mess you up. Use discretion according to the circumstances.

    On manipulation – SSRS repeatedly says that you can never repay me for the knowledge received. Seen from the other side, sounds like bonded labour for unending seva – seva for AOL.

  5. R.Kavitha permalink
    June 15, 2011 3:05 pm

    Most of the course points sound very astounding and make us feel that this is the ultimate truth we need to know. and that is true to some extent. but a little bit researching other paths like zen budhism etc reveals that all these knowledge points have been spoken by wise seers from time immemorial. so there is nothing aolish in these sayings. they are just pearls of wisdom envisaged by enlightened ones through out the world, simply lifted and repackaged for the benefit of the gullible. One more thing i observed was aol courses are a recipe of a bit of ancient wisdom combined with yoga practices and some personality development stuff thrown in to make a heady concoction. so no wonder people feel lightheaded, spaced or disoriented (read as bliss by aol teachers)

    • Peaceful Warrior permalink
      June 15, 2011 5:07 pm

      IMO – it’s not ultimate knowledge in the sense that it is complete and that is all you need to know to be happy and successful in life. It is something you need to hear once in a while – and it does complement what you learn from other sources, but so many times we see people dropping things in life to be on “the path” which in AOL leads to becoming a teacher.

  6. VSS permalink
    May 6, 2012 4:27 pm

    This is a very insightful post. And, all comments on this post are as insightful as the post itself. These “knowledge” points created several problems for me. They contradicted all that I had learnt. For instance, I had learnt that situations should be studied on a case-to-case basis. I had learnt that situations may be similar but are not identical. I saw this closely when I had to study a court case that lasted nine years (for the purpose of research on a social issue). How do judges judge? How does a judge ascertain if a law was violated? A judge studies each case — factors in all evidence — factors in all arguments — and then — based on the existing law — determines if a law was violated or not. Knowing the law is about knowing what constitutes a violation.

    How would this apply to human beings? One would need to know what constitutes ethics. Within that realm, one would need to know what is unethical but acceptable / forgivable, and what is not acceptable / forgivable. Then, one would need to know how to respond. Human beings tend to react. Being reactive creates problems. So, one would need to learn how to respond and not react as far as is humanly possibly. If we speak in terms of experiential learning, then, we know that we become less reactive, and more responsive as well as responsible, when we think before we jump to conclusions about people or situations. What do those thoughts constitute? These thoughts constitute reflecting about all the factors — responding is about factoring in everything that one possibly can.

    Blanket statements like “accept people and situations as they are” simply do not work. People are empowered when they know what to do. For instance, if one’s boss is being unreasonable, what should one do? One needs to think about a number of factors — if the boss is being only as unreasonable as all bosses — if the boss is being temporarily unreasonable because of personal reasons — if one has the option of trying out another boss — etc. etc. It’s not black and white. So far, only the violation of law — subject to legal evidence — is black and white. Therefore, if, instead of “accept people and situations as they are”, a guru said, “try your best to understand people and situations and then respond in the best way possible” — people will think — they will ask questions — they will discuss answers with each other — they will find ways to determine what the best response will be in a given situation — keeping their personal tolerance level and even limitations in mind.

    Unfortunately, what AoL does is to deliberately give vague directions that are open to interpretation — instead of giving directions that are crystal clear. The intention seems to be to prevent people from thinking. It is true that many of us suffer because our minds wander easily from the rational to the irrational — it takes a lot of time to learn how to respond in all situations instead of reacting. It’s not an easy journey. It is stressful too. It involves making mistakes along the way. Some mistakes might be painful.

    But that doesn’t mean one will react to this common problem by issuing blanket statements like “accept people and situations as they are”. Such statements disable people instead of enabling them. This is a classic case of a reaction — rather an overreaction. And, it reeks of a very high degree of impatience, intolerance, and cynicism. The word “accept” has the character of an instruction. If I say to the AoL extremists who post on this blog “Accept this blog the way it is”, I’ll be no different from AoL. Instead if I say “Please try and understand this blog and the reasons why it exists and respond to what is posted here instead of reacting”, then my way would be different from the AoL way.

    Words have a way of making people aggressive — especially if they are instilled over and over again. Just the tone of this statement “accept people and situations as they are” is aggressive. One way to understand the power of a statement is by studying the question or questions it answers.

    For instance —

    Guruji, there are some people in my life who are causing me pain. What should I do?

    Accept people and situations as they are.

    Guruji, the situation at my workplace is causing me stress. What should I do?

    Accept people and situations as they are.

    Compare this with —

    Guruji, there are some people in my life who are causing me pain. What should I do?

    Try your best to understand the people who are causing you pain and then respond in the best way possible.

    Guruji, how should I understand the people who are causing me pain and how should I determine the best response possible?

    And the conversation continues —

    This would be the way in which the Guru would guide his / her follower. Every human being is an artist. Every human being has to figure out their own art of living — something that is tailor-made for them — by them. An art is open to personal interpretation. It’s like making a painting. We get to pick the colours. We get to pick which colours work for us and which ones don’t. We learn from each other through discussions. Memorizing statements and applying them across the board — especially when it comes to people and situations — is disastrous.

    In today’s times, when we live in a world where intolerance is growing, we need to understand people and situations. We need to respond rather than react. The way to inner peace or world peace is through understanding — not through blanket statements. The details of any person and any situation are very important. A scholar of life is someone who would study the details as carefully as possible. A spiritual person is someone who understands the human spirit — and the human spirit is about the spirit of enquiry, the spirit of compassion, the spirit of empathy, and the spirit of understanding all the factors that go into making a human being what they are and a situation what it is.

    Yes, there is a risk. Our minds may wander into the realm of irrational thought. We may make mistakes. Some mistakes may be painful. But, we must have faith in our innate ability to learn. We must try and understand people and situations — who knows — a better understanding could lead to a positive change. The word “understand” is very different from the word “accept”. To “understand”, one has to be patient and tolerant and receptive to studying details.

    To “accept” is to reduce the options to “yes” and “no” — “black” or “white”. This is an impatient, intolerant and cynical approach to life. It has no depth. It is not artistic. It won’t make us delve. And, it is very, very likely to make us bitter — especially in the long run.

    Bitterness is good but only for chocolates. IMHO.

    (This is just my perspective as is the case with all that I have posted or will.)

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