Double-Edged Sword – Part 1
“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.