SSRS, AOL, and Devotees

AOL refers not to “America On Line” but rather to “The Art of Living” as taught by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (SSRS, in short).

A simple straight forward piece I wrote some years ago (Is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar a Con Man?) does get a lot of attention. I get emails from people, some of which is the average “I agree with you” type. Then there is the “How dare you even suggest that SSRS is not god almighty himself and that the sun does not shine out of his butt? You are an evil person” type. I would like to share part of one such exchange I had today with one SSRS worshipper (initials “AG”).

AG read my article on SSRS and wrote

U r right when u talk about ‘marketing & packaging’. To quote ur example to u, Tell me wud u buy a Pepsi or a coke without their jazzy punchlines and star power? . . . Are u aware that AOL has 20 million+ followers, by any standards. . .

‘SSRS’ does not has to travel anywhere. He can construct any modern state of the art works monument on the most expensive piece of real estate available on planet earth and stay there as long as he wants. Instead he travels more than 290 days a year. So much so that he is 2 time zones on the same day sometimes. And still he gives talks with same compassion, calmness & love. I wonder how much deciet, hidden agendas and money power u need to become like that in today’s world? . . .

I suggest u do 1 course, and then form ur opnion. It won’t take anything out of u, but will give u a lot more than u can possibly think of. And then form ur opnion and add a follow up to this post of urs with ur experience. . .

The presence, the strength, calmness, peace and love from ‘SSRS’ eyes & voice will shake u to d very core of ur being.

Otherwise u can be as closed as u r right now and use ur intelectual knowledge to reject things such as this as illogical, repacked material etc.

It was a long rambling email and I have quoted just a bit to give you an idea of what it was about. I wrote back saying:

Whatever AOL does, it clearly does not teach one how to spell or write coherently. Besides, I did not say even one unkind word about SSRS and yet you have been shrill about how great AOL is. That indicates that you have reading comprehension problems.

If you are a typical follower of SSRS, I have grave sympathies for the guy.


PS: The spelling of the pronoun is not “u” but “you.” Get a spelling lesson for SSRS’s sake — otherwise people will think that you are totally illiterate.

AG wrote back. Since it is brief, I quote the entire message.

Thanks for the prompt response Mr. Dey,

As I said U r a typical person who uses his intellect to prove things logically. Well, faith doesn’t works that way. U can’t reason everything untill u have faith, as it’s not an exact science, sir.

Probably in 5 years time when u r mature enuf to understand the scale of work and the mamooth size of comittment AOL has undertaken to make people peaceful and acknowledge and imbibe right values towards other people and towards life in general; around the world, then I shall talk to u again.

BTW are u aware that SSRS has been nominated for Nobel Peace Prize for the second time?

P.S: Please get ur facts straight first and get a clear 360 degree picture. Plus thanks for ur suggestion. My english is gud enuf and I am happy the way it is & if proper english is a MUST for healthy & happy living it will be taught in AOL shortly. U on the other hand r not fit for any AOL program coz ur time has not arrived yet.

Thanks but no thanks for ur grave sympathies.

Nothing personal and no offence meant watsoever.

Jai Gurudev!!

Well, slap me silly! I am so sorry that I lean so heavily on logic. Excuse me, I will try to be illogical and stupid. And how do I get there? Why, by joining an AOL course, of course.

Seriously, isn’t it worth noting that some movements depend on numbers? It is a defining characteristic of a cult: the followers repeat to themselves and others how many of them there are and how fast their numbers are growing. It is as if they are validating their belief by telling themselves and others that they cannot be wrong because there are many others who also share that belief. But delusions don’t stop being delusions when it is widely shared.

I have a theory about this fascination with numbers. In popular perception, a movement is a cult if the delusion is shared by only a small number of people; if there are a large number of followers wallowing in the same delusions, say one billion, then it is no longer a cult and becomes a religion. People involved in the movement want their set of beliefs to be regarded as a religion and not as a cult. So cults try to enlarge their membership constantly. And with time, it becomes second nature to them and thus are born proselytizing movements such as Christianity and Islam — essentially cults but because of their numerical strengths, they command respect.

Cults are personality based. There is one person who is what I call the “god equivalent.” Some examples: Jesus the Christ, Mohammed, Jim Jones, Sai Baba, Satya Sai Baba, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. What the first two have and the rest of the list does not is numbers. If only a few millions share in a set of delusions, it is a cult; if there are hundreds of million, then it is a religion.

The AOL movement is a cult. It is totally benign from what I can tell. It is doing at least one valuable thing: it propagates yogic practice and thought. Yoga is part of the world lexicon and yoga is entirely Indian. (I cannot resist pointing out that Hinduism contributed yoga to the world, and Islam contributed jihad.) SSRS, the charismatic leader of the AOL cult, is doing valuable service by promoting peace and understanding between people.

Yet, I find the worshipping of SSRS distasteful and undignified. But then, that is what the common lot does, doesn’t it?

[Related post: A Letter from a SSRS Worshipper.]

[PS: The last and final post on the subject is here.]

Author: Atanu Dey


32 thoughts on “SSRS, AOL, and Devotees”

  1. While I myself am a major skeptic of all things AOL-like, in my opinion, I think it would be necessary to see for myself, first hand, just what it is that people like SSRS do that makes them so great. Of course, that would involve actually attending one of those programs, and that’s something I haven’t been able to get myself to do, so far 😛

    Atanu’s response: Actually, first hand knowledge is good but not really necessary for many things. For example, even without taking a course of Scientology, I do get a general impression that it is not something that would appeal to me. So while I am not against AOL, I think I will pass. Besides, life is short — one cannot get first hand experience of everything.


  2. Pingback: Anonymous
  3. Agree with you on the logic issue. But I just couldn’t see how the grammar questions were relevant. Off-topic?

    I think this man still has a chance. There are worse bigots trust me 🙂

    Atanu’s response: Grammar and spelling matter in written communications, as much as neatness, politeness, and demeanor matter in interpersonal interactions. Sure I will not disregard what a person is saying merely because he is dressed sloppily, appears drunk, and is shouting — but it will be hard me for to take him seriously.


  4. The need of the age seems to be spiritual guidance (in what ever form it may be). All the swamy types are packaging solutions or products that complement urbanized cousumption driven lifestyles. Given the reluctance to see a shrink in India, these sessions are sort of mass therapy. So why not ? Even Richard Stallman has a guru style beard. Guess it goes with the territory 🙂


  5. A couple of quotes from my personal bible : The dune 😉 For those not in the know Paul is Maud Dib the Atrides Duke and Hyat is a Ghola mentat swordsman trained in the zensunni way.
    Frank herbert had a great beard…

    * “Where is there substance in a universe composed of events? … Is there a final answer? Doesn’t each solution produce new questions?”—-Paul to Hayt / Duncan, p. 137

    * “I’ve seen the oracle at work… I’ve seen those who seek signs and omens for their individual destiny. They fear what they seek.”—- Hayt / Duncan to Paul, p. 138


  6. I have had personal experience of AOL courses- the basic and the advanced. It does some good, no doubt. I do thank SSRS for having packaged, marketed yoga and pranayama so well. At the very least no harm comes from it; at best it is a wonderful way to relax oneself and can prepare one for learning.

    However, and this is a big however, the AOL way stops short of what we would call “real knowledge”. It can prepare one to receive Vedantic knowledge better. For this, one does need to ultimately spend a lot of time with some one who has extensive knowledge of the teaching and has the capability to communicate this well- not easy. Anyway that is my view and verdict on the AOL issue for what it is worth.


  7. Your email exchange cracked me up.

    I saw AOL’s big welcome celebration stunt at the Bangalore airport. I heard they were doing their religious-equivalent of Woodstock.

    Fortunately in next couple of years we will have tools to create our cults and religions. or ?

    You can get T-shirts from cafepress and group travel discounts from priceline !!



  8. People involved in the movement want their set of beliefs to be regarded as a religion and not as a cult.

    I disagree with you here. People of this specific cult will go all out to tell you that AOL is not religious. I know this because a lot of my friends and colleagues have asked me to join up and I refuse politely by saying “No, thanks, I am an atheist”. Then they start telling me that it has nothing to do with religion, it is more about “breathing techniques” and “spirituality”.

    This sort of response comes from the affluent and sophisticated devotees. The reason for this is that these people are well aware of the sort of mayhem that religious people are causing all over the world now, and they do not want to be associated with that. But they also do not want to let go of the warm fuzzy feelings that being part of a religion gives them, and AOL provides the perfect outlet.

    I think the reason for the great success of this cult in India is that it gives people a sense of belonging that people get in the west from churches and the associated community actvities. Of course, being part of a church would be unthinkable for most in India, because it would involve conversion, but AOL gives you all those feelings of community while staying comfortably inside the nebulous boundaries of Hinduism.


  9. I don’t suppose you have taken the writer of these mails as a typical AOL member, but perhaps, in the interests of fairness, you could post a couple of mails sent to you about AOL which present other, less strident viewpoints.

    My personal experience with AOL is that regarding SSRS anywhere from a guru to a minor deity is not a necessary condition to be a member or participate in its activities. My AOL teacher spoke a lot about his personal interactions with SSRS but did not insist or imply that we start worshipping him on a daily basis. AOL sessions typically do have a picture of SSRS in the background, but he is

    With any large organisation or widespread idea, there are bound to be a wide variety of reactions. During my college days, there was a time that the writings of Ayn Rand became a rage among many of my batchmates. It was ‘hep’ to talk about it, and endlessly find parallels between John Galt’s USA and India. A couple of years later some of my batchmates continue to be as fervent about it, some still using it to convince others of their sophistication, others see the merits of it and mix it with pragmatism and others don’t care about it anymore.

    Its quite similar with those who do the basic AOL course. Some, like the writer of the email above, become somehwat fanatical, many others continue with the exercises and meditation because of the improvement to their mental and physical state it brings about (this I state from personal experience and those of my acquaintainces), and finally, there are people who don’t bother about it after some time. AOL does do a lot of charitable work, and not all volunteers are in it for the blessings one might expect from SSRS.

    So I will say, that the common lot do not, in fact, worship SSRS.


  10. Mr Dey,

    U hv deeply offended me. U are so much a servant of logic that U dun understand the immense transcendental significance of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. He has no need to travel as he can be found on dinner plates everywhere yet he may be found in all four dimensions at the same time. U may call us a cult today, notwithstanding FSM having a cult following, but Global Warming is really a result of the eradication of Pirates. Servant of Logic, don’t try to analyse the previous sentence, for you will only prove your unsuitability for such things.

    We have 20 million+++ members (which like taxes and surcharges on your restaurant bill are simply horizontally expressed exponents). If you think that’s not mamooth enough, we also have Mamootty. And Mohan Lal too.

    Rot in hell, U servant of logic U, as U should.

    Atanu’s response: Nitin, you cannot parody the stuff the whackier members of AOL write because they parody themselves much better.


  11. I have no strong opinions about ssrs or your view points. What I am not comfortable is that you publish someone’s email to you, here, to build a public story? Thats poor taste. Probably worse than people coming together as some community to overcome their personal weaknesses. And whether he believes in SRSS or whether his spellings are right or wrong, you have effectively ridiculed him first for taking contact with you – in defense of what he believes in. Whether you do or not.


  12. Atanu,

    While not a member of AOL, I think you are being a tad unfair.


    How exactly does logic work with anecdotal evidence ?

    Or merely being atheist gets you an embossed certificate somewhere.



  13. If AOL brings happiness to people, whats your problem with it ? Why this need to label them as a cult or (horrors!!) a wannabe religion ?

    I am not an AOL follower, and I have no opinion about whether what Sri Ravi Shankar says is the truth or not, yet the happiness or comfort that his followers find in his teachings is something that is very real. You can argue about defining AOL till ‘kingdome come’, but can you argue against real life people and their experiences ?


  14. Gaurav,

    How logic works with anecdotal evidence? Hmm…perhaps to arrive at conclusions based on anecdotal evidence. But I confess, I’m not an expert. Neither am I an atheist, for I couldn’t find evidence either way, apart from anecdotal ones, that is. Bulla ne jana mein koun.


    Because Mohanlal is much more mammooth than Mammooty. 🙂


  15. i agree with trang.
    i know nothing about the art of living other than the fact of its huge followings. however the post is in bad taste. someone has sent you a personal email and you make it public.

    instead of keeping the discussion with the art of living devotee on ideas and concepts, you make personal attacks (“There is no pronoun called ‘U’.. its ‘you’ “). i wonder what next level of intolerance can we all dive to.

    I hope your blog sticks to discussions and thoughts on India’s Development.


  16. BTW are u aware that SSRS has been nominated for Nobel Peace Prize for the second time?

    It doesn’t count when you nominate yourself, retard.


  17. Atanu,

    Your post was hilarious. Devotees like AG make the organisation appear in a bad light, and contradict the simple and useful principles taught in the course.

    Wonder why people have this tendency, even need to hero-worship someone? Worshipping a person, whether it is a rock musician, a film actor or a spiritual teacher is equally distasteful.

    I fully agree with your view that AoL is a benign cult that is useful to society. Personally, I find AoL better than many other God-people cults as the courses focus on personality development and they do good social work. Deifying SSRS, trying to get massive publicity and collect a lot of funds for various reasons are the con side.



  18. Dear Atanu

    I have been observing the AOL movement for a while now. My conclusion is that it is an organisation using religion to grow big in size and scale and bring name and fame to SRS. Would like to put forth the observations that drive me to this conclusion

    1. Every one is asked to greet saying “Jai Gurudev” akin to “Hail …”

    2. Celebrities were signed on early to do reference marketing. I remember around 6-7 years back friends in Mumbai wanted to do the course because a certain celebrity was the organiser / teacher!

    3. For influential people, (big business magnets), teachers are sent off to conduct one to one sessions

    4. The meditation centre built at the ashram in Bangalore, with public money, is named after SRS’s mother – Vishalakshi

    5. Steep fees are charged for the courses, thus accumulating huge funds

    6. Close association with a national newspaper, so that SRS is in News every day. Good PR strategy.

    7. It is a classic case of multi level marketing – teachers are produced after a 3 level course. From a novice, one could become a teacher in 3-4 months, and starting dishing out spiritual guidance for a fee. Easier than aquiring a driving license!

    8. Participants of the courses are asked to get their friends, so as to increase collections and no. of followers.

    9. There is a divine shop in the ashram, selling potato chips amongst other things. There is a brand of products – Sumeru. There are cassetes and CDs sold to increase revenues. Not only sold from campus but placed in music shops to increase revenues.

    10. The 25 yr celebration had a stage set up at an estimated cost of Rs. 7.5 million. What public good is that?

    11. AOL has ventured into ayurveda, schooling, etc. to increase source of revenue. It has projected itself as an NGO to increase grants from Govt. and international donors. Yet you see SRS spending more time abroad than in uplifting the poor and needy in the country.

    12. Recently, there was a big buzz by AOL supporters that SRS had been nominated for the Nobel Peace prize. The truth being the names of the Nominees are not revealed, so how would they have known?

    These are a few among the many questions that fox me and I dont need to do a basic course to get answers for these, do I?

    I agree SRS is above the average to have started this whole movement with so many followers and centres. Hats off to his marketing skills. But any suggestion of making him out to be an incarnation, etc. is outrageous. I would agree with your scale and his rating as – “Useful”



  19. 1. Jai Gurudev means victory to the Big Mind. Often we follow the Small Mind, telling us to chase fun and pleasure all the time. But then we ignore the important aspects of life, and trouble and pain comes sooner or later! Jai Gurudev means victory to that mind that includes everyone on this planet, sees the best in everyone, and all that which is best in the longer run. The idea being that short-term pain/discipline and long-term happiness/benefit, is superior to short-term happiness and long-term pain and trouble.

    2. To my knowledge, some Hollywood stars and world-famous singers have done the AOL-course, but it is certainly not promoted to any significant extent around the world! Never have I seen _anything_ resembling that in 6 years of AOL.

    3. You can’t expect leaders and significant persons to do a regular AOL-course, so special arrangements are done to meet their steep criterias and time-schedule. If you were Bush, would you share your intimate person in a regular course, or in a course with Clinton?

    4. It is a tradition in India to honour your mother, father and teachers. These person influence your life in such profound ways. So to name the Mantap to the mother is quite natural. In the West we often name our children after grandparents and others. This is quite natural and common.

    5. The fees are usually below average fees for such courses and duration (usually 22 hours). Free courses are being provided in India in rural areas where there is no such funds, so some of the funds goes to funding this and other projects. But you may be right that keeping the Ashrams certainly demands alot of money, so the fees should really be much higher! Red numbers are unfortunately just as common in AOL as in bussiness, but that may also be due to the very expansive nature of the organization.

    6. What to do to get media attention these days? Have journalists on the course and experience for themselves is a good and honest strategy. It is actually a part of a special journalist-program to educate journalists into more responsible reporting. Just a few days ago, news of the pope hit the world, saying he was villifying Islam, while he was just quoting some other pope’s talk from a few centuries ago in an intellectual debate not meant for common consumption. Now, this fuels the fire in many muslims, and they hate the West even more. What is good in that? Responsible journalism is actually a burning and pressing issue these days.

    7. You go and try. See how “easy” it is.. You go and DO something good for the world, anything really, and watch how “easy” people will support you..

    The moment the “doing” starts, you realize there is yet so much to learn and experience! What you thought you “knew” becomes mostly irrelevant – or refined rather.

    8. The primary source for course participants are friends, relatives and others. People have fantastic experiences on AOL courses, but may feel shy to recommend it. We shouldn’t be shy to show what is positive in the world, or to do something to contribute. This is actually one of the most important messages of Art of Living, to contribute positively to the world around us, instead of blaming others (politicians) and shunning responsibility.

    9. Branding is important for all businesses, even spiritual. Music and knowledge should be available everywhere, not just in one obscure Ashram.

    10. How much is that divided by the 1-2 million people that was there over the days? I would think it would be much more expensive even.

    11. AOL is a global organisation, based in 140 countries. To travel so much that SSRS is doing, is evidence in itself that he is something extraordinary. In 2004 he visited 175 cities, in his tireless effort to spread the message of harmony in diversity across the globe. This was just one year, he’s doing this all the time, with multiple flights every week. Nobody of his closest aides are able to keep up with this his schedule of meetings and talks more than a week or two..

    There are programs for the poor. But the most important thing you can teach the poor, is that they’re not poor. You just don’t give people a free lunch all the time, but you encourage them to find solutions themselves, and also give some practical tools for the body and mind.

    12. Officially, nobody knows. Of course, human nature is not “official”. Why, all the newspapers were announcing Bono, SSRS and others had been nominated. How did they know this?

    “These are a few among the many questions that fox me and I dont need to do a basic course to get answers for these, do I?”

    If your mind is loaded with doubts, I see no reason to do the course at all. However, if you want to be free from all that, I can heartily recommend the AOL-courses.

    Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has once said enlightenment is the path from head to the heart. In the head we analyze and destroy the world, taking everything apart, while the heart includes everything and everyone – talented people and feeble-minded people, poor people and rich people, powerful people and helpless people etc. Art of Living gives a challenge to everyone, which is why so many diverse people are attracted.

    The idea is not to throw away intelligence, but infuse it with an unshakable love and service to humanity.

    Love attracts many, but service only attracts the most potent.

    “I agree SRS is above the average to have started this whole movement with so many followers and centres. Hats off to his marketing skills. But any suggestion of making him out to be an incarnation, etc. is outrageous. I would agree with your scale and his rating as – “Useful””

    We will see 😉

    I’d also like to add that Sri Sri himself constantly begs people NOT to call him Godman, God, kneel, do pranams or otherwise make him higher than others.

    Of course, if nobody does anything like that, would also be a disgrace, given the culture in India 😉

    My experience has been genuinely positive. Of course, you can always find things that go wrong, or left missing from the planning. This is a volunteer-driven organization after all, which empowers ordinary people to accomplish the extraordinary.

    The more you focus on the negative, the more it will grow. More questions, more doubt, will grow, _in you_.

    The more you focus on the positive, the more that will grow. We have the choice, and the responsibility to make things right.



  20. People at different times will have different needs. Sometimes people need someone to worship, or have a sense of being taken care of. Other times, people need someone to guide them further along the path, an inspirator to encourage growth and go beyond limiting barriers. Then again, some may need correction and have a living example as reference point to further their bearings.

    One person can be so much different to so many people. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar never demands anything of anyone. There have been teachers which have shun responsibility and gone on their own personal trip for years (hmm, think I’ll lose the count if I start the counting here… ;), instead of doing what everyone else was “expecting”. One teacher told me she was for years expecting to be called and placed demands on to do what she perceived the “right thing” to do (she were feeling guilty). It never came.. There were calls,, in both directions, just pleasantries and no expectations. She felt so free, despite trying her best to feel guilty for herself 😉

    You try to understand someone, a satguru, a spiritual teacher, through worldly logic and knowledge, but it is simply different from what you expect.

    After a while, you start to appreciate what you don’t understand – your mind shifts. 🙂 This might sound very esoteric and complex – or even like a great idea, but it is in actuality the simplest and most natural. 🙂

    It does require stopping being a beggar for entertainment though.


  21. ‘Sun does not shine from his butt!!’.
    Was it absolutely necessary to add this line?
    Apart from his posters and some friends attending AoL, I knew nothing about SSRS till I went through your posts. I myself am against blind faith. However if 20million+ whatzits become yoga/ssrs fanatics rather than jehadi-terrorists, I will not complain.


  22. Well said Frank. That is the appropriate conclusion to a stream of “logic” driven arguments that sounded totally illogical. I pity these folks, who are stuck in their 2+2 =4 worlds and are not fortunate enough to understand the amazing and beautiful world of spirituality.

    I agree with every word of what you said.I can only wish that your words instill some sense of awareness in these minds limted by their own intellects, and stop these supposedly learned and intelligent folks from depicting the mass movement led by HHSSR towards world peace and unity, as a “cult”.

    Jai Gurudev!!
    (Victory to the big mind)


  23. To Frank and Dayalu,
    May I ask, if spirituality is such a beautiful and uplifting thing, why are some people priced out of the Art of Living Basic Course? Why aren’t people charged gurudakshina according to what they can give? Don’t tell me that AOL does offer free courses to the poor, because that’s not true. They only get an edited version of the course, and to get the full version they have to pay the hefty course fees. Why does this guru guide only those who can pay?


  24. These are some of the questions I asked Sri Sri Ravishankar in 2004 for which I was assaulted and threatned of dire consequences by his AOL teachers:

    How much money did you spend for building a memorial for your mother. An architect friend of mine in Bangalore estimates about
    a few crores for that building. Why not use the money for seva and other activities which your organization
    is supposedly involved in. After all that building does not serve any great utilitarian purpose and for all that the building is being used a cheaper alternative could easily have been provided. Being a charitable organization with tax exempt status how can
    you spend a huge amount of money for personal aggrandizement like building a memorial for your mother or is there any spiritual esoteric reasons behind that building which lesser mortals like us
    cannot understand. You could have probably used that money to help atleast the native village of udipalya where the ashram is situated. The village is the same
    as it is since i have seen it since the last few decades except that it has got worse because the ashram has encroached all the farm land which used to be there for cattles to graze.
    The amount of real estate owned by the ashram and your organisation is
    huge. Why not use that to home many of the homless.
    What about the income from your capitation fee colleges what do you do with all the money. Why should government give tax exempt status to your organisation. Is it to ease many of the moneyed and powerful people to keep their unaccounted money or
    more popularly called black money in the safe confines of your organisation.


  25. Vishalakshi mandap is built with crores of rupees but the amount of advance courses, blessing courses , basic courses, with 2000 and more people capacity people doing satsang is amazing, people doing this can understand it.Thousands of people come every month and stay at ashram from poor to rich…Ayurvedic center is built to help people with various ailments.

    And on the Seva part what details do you have:))) with you, i myself is not able to cope up even to think about the service Guruji is doing through different volunteers.
    AOL is building houses, bathrooms, toilets in different villages in Maharashtra, Orissa, Assam etc.It is adopting kids in villages to educate them , provide them with food and cloths. Courses are done in slums, jails to make them stress free. Different projects are going on, can you even understand people being away from home and family for months to do seva. Their is lots to say, but when you already have a negative mindset with your own logic involved in it with cost and budget;),than you can never think positive at all.So its better not to speak bad about anyone without having full knowledge.


  26. i am amazed by all the communication going on on SSRS/AOL/Devotee. Some know abt subject some dont. Mr. Atanu Dey what did you get out of all this. Its so rediculous to discuss on such subject. I think you should take it back and hence forward stop putting such mail.


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