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.