Skip to content

Karma Chameleon

June 21, 2011

It is the viewpoint of the posters on this blog that the Art of Living is in fact a cult. Even taking into consideration the different definitions of that word, we still find that AOL  fits the description pretty well.

Cults have a system of religious beliefs and ritual. So does religion. So what is the difference? Here is one take on that:

A cult is usually defined as a “a religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader”, is also often considered as a “obsessive, especially faddish, devotion to or veneration for a person, principle, or thing”. It is also characterized for being “young in years of existence” and having usually “only relatively few followers”.

A religion in change is defined as a “personal or institutionalized system grounded in the belief, worship and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe”. It also has a “set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader”. Religions are usually “ancient or very old in years” and have “millions of followers”.

Therefore, a religion is not necessarily a cult, but a cult is always a religion. Being a cult a religion is usually characterized by radicalism, oddness, obsession, short number of years, small number of followers and guidance by a founder who almost all the times tend to be authoritarian. Another particularity is that in cults, you find that in many cases the cult-followers worship the founder as God himself.

Let us take a closer look on the religious belief system in the Art of Living. Bear in mind that this is not how AOL is marketed to the public; only when you go deeper in the organization, through phase 3 courses, DSN courses and especially teachers training courses are you introduced to these beliefs, and to the implied notion that if you want to be a part of the organization on a deeper level, you adhere to and do not question these beliefs.

New Age Hinduism

If you think that the religious belief system of AOL is simply a modern version of Hinduism, you are only partly right. Yes, the Hindu gods are spoken of as having literal existence. When the guru dances on Shivaratri, he is literally embodying Shiva. Scores of devotees pay good money to be blessed in the yagyas in the ashram, believing that prayers to these ancient gods are heard.

But there are also marked differences between classical Hinduism, and “AOL’ism”, one being the belief in Karma. The classical understanding of karma includes…

Karma is regarded as a fundamental law of nature that is automatic and mechanical. It is not something that is imposed by God or a god as a system of punishment or reward, nor something that the gods can interfere with.

Compare that to the AOL version of karma, which sounds something like this (I am sure you have heard the story before, if you are an insider):

Surrendering to the guru will minimize the effect of your bad karma. Say, for instance, that it is your karma to go to prison. Your devotion and surrender to the guru may result in you going to prison teaching a Prison Smart course, instead of being imprisoned as a criminal.

In a very subtle way stories like this one attribute immense power to the guru. More so, in fact, than the Gods themselves, who “cannot interfere”. It is quite common for devotees to attribute every good thing in their life to direct, literal intervention by the guru. That includes finding parking space or narrowly missing a rain shower. Similarly, when something bad happens, many devotees take comfort in the belief that things would have been much worse if not for the guru. Bad Karma Light!

So what, you may ask? If this belief system gives people comfort and hope, what is wrong with that?

For starters, it creates a huge dependency on an authority outside yourself. In my personal experience, that is not liberating; it is quite the opposite. In my years in AOL, I found that the closer people were to the guru, the more they relied on his “blessing” before taking even the smallest decisions, let alone decisions on important aspects of your life like relationships and career. I have met several people who told stories about how the guru made them (or their partner) break up their relationship. Some would brag about it, clearly implying that their degree of surrender was admirable. Others would tell the story with tears in their eyes.

Who says that the guru knows you better than you know yourself? That he can see you karma, and all your past incarnations? The answer is, of course: The guru himself. And yet, this simple belief is central to the AOL belief system. You. Do. Not. Question. The. Guru.

The Guru becomes the ultimate authority, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-existing and (almost) omnipotent.

If you are only peripherally involved in AOL, you may not have seen this yet. All you see is people smiling, you do some yoga and breathing, you listen to some knowledge, and yes- it feels good.

Later, on TTC (Teachers Training), after days/weeks of sleep-deprivation, ego-busting (abuse and fear-inducement), low-protein diet and trance-inducing, dissociating activities such as hour-long meditation and mantra-chanting, you are presented the “true nature of the guru”: He is Divine. He is The Savior, the likes of which comes only once in a thousand years. He will transform the world, and YOU are one of the chosen few lucky enough to carry out his bidding.

Say again that AOL is not a cult? Hmmm.

  1. anonymous permalink
    June 21, 2011 3:25 pm

    If any part of the definition of a cult includes a group that insists you behave a certain way, obey the commands of a head person or authority figure or you will be “damned” (bad karma will accrue according to AOL teachers), and if you leave you are ostracized and avoided as someone who is to be shunned for not obeying and toeing the party line, then Art of Living is, indeed, a cult. But it really only reaches that status for those who venture beyond the basic course, in my opinion. Those who stop at the basic course and go about their business, don’t have this experience of cult behavior as far as I know. Ravi Shankar is careful these days to be sure his people don’t cross certain lines in the basic courses, like demanding devotion or surrender to Guru, etc. But afterwards, if one continues with AOL……….. Even some devotional people who go to more courses don’t feel the cult affects for some time, as their nature in the first place is to join a group like a temple or church and surrender in the first place. So it will feel natural to them for awhile, until they get further inside, then they begin to see the cult behaviors, such as people who have been long with Ravi Shankar acting any way they please, insulting others, then saying it was ‘someone else’s’ bad thoughts affecting them, ‘making’ them behave badly. Something like the devil made them do it. Or that they are just so sensitive as a result of being sooooo close to the master, and doing so much sadhana/teaching, that they need special leeway to behave in such otherwise unacceptable ways. Anyone who has spent any time inside Art of Living teaching, will know what I’m talking about — teachers who prance around all smiles and charisma with their students, then acting truly horribly with other teachers, throwing tantrums, becoming violent at times, etc. And because they are “close” all this is somehow overlooked and people on the periphery never find out about it. Most cults have this going on inside — as members get higher up in the food chain, closer to the person running the organization, they get more unruly, more antisocial, acting out whatever they please on others. Each cult has their own special signature as to what types of actions are labelled in which ways. Unfortunately, due to the nature of this particular cult leader, Ravi Shankar, and his followers being quite litigious, names cannot be named here, nor even specific incidents noted, of which I am painfully aware, having been there. Demands will be made by Art of Living trolls: “Prove it. Name names. Identify yourself”. And if one does that, they are sued. If they try to remain anonymous they are sued! Obviously this is a cult. I was unaware that this blog was now posting itself as an “anti-cult” site in general, though, until today. I’m only acquainted with the activities of Art of Living, not other cults, and so would hesitate to ‘join’ another group, even an anti-group group. 🙂

  2. Jr. permalink
    June 21, 2011 11:30 pm

    “… then they begin to see the cult behaviors, such as people who have been long with Ravi Shankar acting any way they please, insulting others, then saying it was ‘someone else’s’ bad thoughts affecting them, ‘making’ them behave badly. Something like the devil made them do it. Or that they are just so sensitive as a result of being sooooo close to the master, and doing so much sadhana/teaching, that they need special leeway to behave in such otherwise unacceptable ways.”

    So that’s how Harshy and Anna justify their behavior..

  3. Nomadic Writer permalink
    June 22, 2011 3:40 pm

    Talking of cults vs religions, how is this any worse than slavish belief in the son of God born of virgin birth who would absorb all our sins if we surrender to him, or rather to the multi-billion dollar empire headquartered in their own little country. Maybe Ravi looks upon them as an example, aspires to possess their extent of power, money and control.

    To me it’s simple, cult = religion, religion = cult.

    • Sumanta permalink
      June 27, 2011 4:57 pm

      I agree completely … What’s difficult is – are the masses so gullible?

  4. Anonymous permalink
    June 23, 2011 7:49 am

    Here is another perfect example. See the tone of that discussion.

    • anonymous permalink
      June 23, 2011 11:31 am

      Yes, did you notice all the CAPS shouting how great the man was? That they will never lose faith? This is what blind followers are like — they shout as much to reassure themselves that their leader is great, as to tell others to shut up. They are terribly fearful that something negative could be true of their leader. Art of Living followers are just the same. They cannot stand any type of criticism of Ravi Shankar. Even if someone says “this happened to me in private and it was awful”, those people simply scream that one must prove that the event took place. True, someone could lie about something like this (because it was in private), but when dozens and dozens of people report the same things over many years, shouldn’t the screamers start taking at least some of this into consideration? For many years, before seeing Klim’s blog and this blog, I wondered if what I expeienced at the hands of Ravi Shankar and what I knew close friends had experienced, was just an aberration, and so I kept my mouth shut. I knew of some 6 cases, but decided to pass it off to something that happened “at that time” and probably had stopped. To read these blogs, written by people I never knew, and still don’t know, I realized that the behaviors that caused me to leave Art of Living only got much, much worse. The abuse has escalated, it appears, and is now something systematic. Horrible. It’s difficult for people to admit that they’ve been fooled. It was difficult for me as well. But the more distance I put between myself and all Art of Living members, and Ravi Shankar, the better I began to feel. I realized I had wasted time and energy and had many regrets. But what I do not regret is leaving.

  5. Harshal permalink
    June 23, 2011 12:17 pm

    “what I do not regret is leaving”- You are a living regret.

  6. Harshal permalink
    June 23, 2011 1:23 pm

    all this cult talk is BS. There is no such thing as a cult. All your cults are inside your heads. It is just an imaginary entity created by people who want to identify an object of blame so that they can free themselves from the responsibilities of their actions.

    • anonymous permalink
      June 23, 2011 2:53 pm

      Ah, I see, Harshal, so if you or Ravi Shankar abuses someone, you are both just “imaginary”? How convenient. That way, no one in Art of Living, least of all “Guruji” needs to take any responsibility for their actions, because it’s all just in the minds of those they’ve injured. And the Art of Living suing people who complain anonymously, is not pointing blame at others? You live by some very bizarre double standards from everything you’ve posted here. Tell it to the many people who have been and continue to be hurt by Art of Living. All your pseudo enlightenment talk is just that. Talk. Give up Harshal, this site scares you to death. You fear you may have made a mistake and now are stuck with AOL and Ravi Shankar. You are a living excuse for others’ bad behavior, sorry to say. No matter what you write, how nasty and insulting it is, it doesn’t take away the fact that your beloved Guruji is not what you think he is. He is a terribly flawed man with grandiose ideas that he is God, prancing around the world twirling his rudraksha beads, until, of course, his face turns bright red with anger when someone points out any of his flaws, or except when he is screaming at them that they are nothing but mosquitoes, and they should bow to him. Oh? Didn’t you know these things occurred? Go find out before you defend him so loyally. Do you even know him? If so, why would you defend such things?

    • Jr. permalink
      June 24, 2011 5:32 am

      Learned nothing from TTC 1 yet, mm Harshy? 😉

    • Pankaja permalink
      June 24, 2011 6:39 am

      Harshal – Can you also give some lessons on this ‘mind and imagination’ stuff to aol guys who are spending so much of their efforts and money to sue this blog. It is all imagination dude.

    • June 27, 2011 6:56 am

      Harshal, I think any human organization is open to a cult dynamic. Heck, look at all the cult-like followers of Sarah Palin! With a spiritual organization the cult dynamic is even more possible. But that being said, this cult-like relationship is something people also bring to the organization. There are plenty of people involved with AOL that do not have a cult-like relationship to it. And there are plenty that do. It’s a lack of spiritual/psychological balance that leads one to introject the values of an organization without any examination. This along with people in positions of power who also want others to believe as they do and you have a cult dynamic. But it also works in the opposite direction too. Notice how so many, not all- to be fair, have a cult-like negative attitude towards AOL and SSRS? So much of their attention and time is spent “warning others” about AOL. Who are these fantasy others they are saving? I see so many people that post in this blog are trying to resolve some internal conflict, but they are doing it in a pretty dysfunctional fashion. Just as they adamantly once supported AOL with no discrimination they now oppose it with the same lack of discrimination. It’s as if they have learned nothing from their experience.

      • Anonymous permalink
        June 27, 2011 2:43 pm

        One AOL lackey saying ‘there’re no cults’ didn’t work so another lackey says ‘cuts are everywhere’. Funny 🙂

      • harshal permalink
        June 27, 2011 4:16 pm

        Yes Peter. That is why i said that a cult exists only in minds

  7. PasserBy permalink
    June 23, 2011 4:06 pm

    Cheap attempt to provoke, then this cult member will claim how the people here squirmed when he threw salt at them. Please ignore…

  8. June 24, 2011 5:34 am

    Finally, Andhra govt to rein in Sai Trust

    Who is next? The day of judgement is not far away.

  9. Anonymous permalink
    June 24, 2011 2:38 pm

    And btw, why Sri Sri was trying hard to get into the good books of congress govt, by fixing the fasting of Ramdev? And why he is very silent on the entire lokpal issue?
    Afraid of an investigation?

    • Anonymous permalink
      June 24, 2011 8:59 pm

      Good point.
      Also, when will Ravi declare his/AOL’s assets like Ramdev for transparency?

  10. anonymus permalink
    June 26, 2011 8:06 am

    Ha ha the weather in Berlin on 2 july will be kold +12 degreese, and with rain. We will see how Sri Sri helpless is to bring nice weather :))) The time of truth is there! 🙂

  11. Doubtful guy permalink
    June 27, 2011 7:51 pm

    It looks SriSri is acting very smart in the case of Lokpal bill. He is not stupid like Ramdev. He knows that if he gets into Lokpal bill Congress might turn against him. So he wanted to act in such a manner to favour the Congress so that no enquirers will come against him.Moreover he is passively involved in the movement. I have even seen his picture behind the Lokapal movement Like Dr Kiran bedi.At the end he decided to go back fearing trouble.He is a very learned politician making use of all opportunities to get a good image

  12. Pankaja permalink
    June 29, 2011 7:15 am

    “You make a lot of noise by barking but the ambulance doesn’t hear and doesn’t care ”

    Forget all that top of the hill guy. With all the law suits and intimidation on this blog, AOL has only proved that it is this small guy living in a fragile glass house.

  13. Anonymous permalink
    June 29, 2011 7:15 pm

    Interesting.. See what Harshal says

    “It is just an imaginary entity created by people who want to identify an object of blame so that they can free themselves from the responsibilities of their actions.”…

    So, what responsibilities Harshal? I thought the ‘higher cause’ was to free yourself from all this bull shit concepts like action, responsibility etc.. Anyway, don’t get too much tied up with the Karma cycle in the name of responsibility and ‘higher cause’ – the ultimate purpose is to be free 😉

  14. Anonymous permalink
    July 1, 2011 4:37 am


    I received this email today.

    Guys n gals

    Our world culture festival facebook page has a measly 5900 likes. Please get ALL your students to go and like it in the next 2 hours. We need to get the likes up by at least 50,000 in the next 2 hours and it should reach a few lakhs by end of day.
    Here is the link:

    PLEASE treat this as super urgent and make it happen. Don’t email people to do it, its not working. After doing it yourself, Physically Call 10 people, and make them do it while you are on the phone and ask each to call another 10 and then call you back saying it done and so on.

    Please drop everything else and do this.

    Jai Gurudeva!

    Check out our Blog:

    • anonymous permalink
      July 1, 2011 11:54 am

      Pump up those numbers! All that matters is the numbers! LOL!

      I feel sorry for these poor lackeys being ordered to each call 10 people just so it looks better for AOL. Sad.

      Ravi Shankar is so jealous and competitive, he said at least one time that he would be “bigger than Ammachi” (as in Amritanandamayi Devi from Kerala, who doesn’t ask for money, but accepts donations). He also said that all his followers were so happy, and all her followers were so sad and tired. Well, I guess he is trying to get all his followers tired too with all this mandatory phone calling :-))

      What exactly is spiritual about competing for who has the largest crowd? It sounds like any other business to me.

    • Anonymous permalink
      July 2, 2011 8:34 pm

      It is still standing on 7778

      Hm.. reality check for AOL.

  15. The Doctor permalink
    July 21, 2011 9:50 pm

    My trusty Hindu friend just told me that according to tradition, when it comes to Karma a Guru can only do one of the following:

    i) He can take on any of a disciple’s bad karmas himself, thus relieving the disciple of the burden
    ii) He can temporarily delay the fruits of the bad karma to another time in the future

    My friend categorically told me that the Guru cannot simply “remove” the bad karma in any way, as is taught in AoL.

    So you are absolutely right, AoL/SSRS do twist the definition of karma to enslave people.


  1. It’s not only a cult, it’s a dangerous cult « Beyond The Art of Living

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: