Art of Living: Another Letter

Not having the gift of foresight, one rarely knows how far one will stray having embarked on an ill-advised direction. So it is with me and my simple assessment of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar many years ago. I began with concluding that SSRS is very skilled in marketing a good and ancient Indian technique generally known as yoga. Many others from India have done so and I approve of all of them because I approve of good ideas being shared. Some made huge fortunes (self-styled “Bhagwan” Rajneesh AKA Osho, for instance) and some labored out of sheer love and devotion for the ideas.

However, my conclusion that SSRS is a “useful” person, just like you and I, did not go down too well with those who are persuaded that SSRS is God Almighty incarnate (whatever “God” is.) So I get nastygrams from these fairly regularly. But once in a while I also get letters from dissatisfied AoL customers. The curious thing is that the nastygrams from SSRS worshippers are pretty incoherent rants; and the dissastisfied customers are generally pissed off but coherent. Because I have published one recent incoherent rant from an SSRS worshipper, I am publishing one from someone who has an opposing point of view. Here it is, for the record.


I wish I had read your Web site, long before my fiancé and I were lured into registering for the Part 1 course of the Art of Living Foundation. We walked out on the last day of the course because we couldn’t stand it any longer. I couldn’t have written or explained the experience better myself. You have beautifully verbalized your opinion of the Art of Living Foundation.

I have lost my money permanently, and I am also, without permission, included as a statistic in the set of AOL “followers” of 20 million or so now, even though I strongly oppose the organization. I have to believe that are many others like me. Only about 30% of the Part 1 course was about breathing and the remainder was ear-splitting, fear-psychosis propaganda (for example, “A question is a hook that tears the brain”, and “Questioning SSRS’s principles and teachings can prove costly”), illogical analogies and anecdotes, and disguised pressure to encourage more people (friends and family) to give their credit card numbers to sign up for the course.

It is a totally for-profit, commercial, very well-marketed product and organization. I do see some token projects here and there in poor and tribal areas of India and around the world, the expenditure on such projects is negligible compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the organization earns from a single “US tour” of a “specialist teacher” from India. I have not seen any document showing or even referring to exactly how much money the organization is really spending on building schools or hospitals for the disadvantaged, other charitable projects. Since the organization is so fond of shouting out the numbers of their followers and so fond of promoting themselves as a philanthropic organization, why not reveal how much they are actually spending on these philanthropic and charitable projects? Wouldn’t that make them more credible? Almost everyone that “works” for the organization does so on a voluntary basis. Almost every piece of land that the organization builds something on, is donated by the government or a wealthy but gullible member of the AOLF. So where is all the money that is collected from their members really going to? What is being done with the profits?

During several of our Part 1 propaganda sessions, we were told we would be the “privileged few” whose place would be reserved for the “coveted” Part 2 course, if we signed up right now. The whole six day course looked like a live version of one of those late night paid commercials that we were participating in and listening to. People from the class were picked on, randomly, to come up to the front and dance and sing, “so that all inhibitions would be vaporized and self-confidence would be developed”.

“Jai Gurudev” had to be the greeting instead of “good morning” or “good afternoon”. I cannot think of a better way to humiliate and control masses of gullible people than to make them do what is being commanded of them to do in front of uncontrollably laughing people. What upsets me more than my loss of money, is the sheer number of followers this organization has. When you can control a small class to dance on command, you can use that power to control the entire 20 million. SSRS is gaining popularity around the world, like never before and he loves to paste pictures of himself shaking hands with world leaders, on his Web site. “Wow, if he is shaking hands with world leaders, he must be good”.

He certainly falls in the “useful” category. Who is stopping all this madness?


Well, I sympathise with SG’s situation. But I don’t think that “this madness” has to be stopped. You pays your money, you takes your chances. SSRS and his Art of Living courses are products that are sold in an open and free market. Caveat emptor and all that. I am sympathetic towards those who get cheated but the burden has to be on the consumer to exercise proper care before forking out cash for a product.

My position arises from my conviction that free markets are best for all concerned. That is, everyone should be allowed to bring their wares to the marketplace and hawk them. There cannot be restrictions on what can be put out for sale. After all, who can decide if what is on offer is good or not? Surely not some bureaucrat or some self-righteous busy body. The consumer is the sovereign. Let the consumers decide if the product is good for them or not. So if the snake oil salesmen make a killing, so be it. It is part of the risk we take and part of the price we pay for the benefits that a free market delivers.

Author: Atanu Dey


24 thoughts on “Art of Living: Another Letter”

  1. Atanu, as much as I like free market I am bit queasy when it comes to products like Art of living or similar stuff like “siddha samadhi yoga”. These fall into “quasi-religious” category. When someone criticizes the products, the criticism can be mis-construed as bigotry or religious intolerance. You probably wouldn’t have received so many angry letters from Windows users if you had criticized Bill Gates and his company.

    In a free market one should also be free to criticize products being sold so that consumers can become aware of what they are buying and make informed decisions. I believe such criticism is possible but you risk being attacked as bigot etc. We are still not quite “free” to voice our opinion against crazy ideas and other general silliness especially when they are disguised in religious garb. How then will a free market control or stop the spread of this menace?

    The ideas that AoL or SSY preach may be benign or even useful. What about more extreme ideas being sold in the free market under religious garb? Would people dare to criticize them and risk injury or death?

    I guess what I am saying is free market is fine if one is also free to criticize products. Such freedom is not yet respected and protected in India – especially when the criticism is directed at religion. Lack of such criticism will only help spread bad ideas further.


  2. Very well written conclusion Atanu. This guy seems to be criticizing the experience by blaming AOL notwithstanding other people who have had better experience. His attitude reeks of same criticism that goes in India against Coke just because they are big companies making lot of money (though I am against the water exploitation and health hazards of the product). I cannot but dismiss the whole experience as rant simply because use of such gems.

    …without permission, included as a statistic in the set of AOL “followers” of 20 million or so now…

    We are statistics as soon as we are born, without permission. If we are not, then I explicitly permit you to count me in number of comments for this post.


  3. I think Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is a gentle loving spirit. I think the connection btwn. breathing and consciousness is very much under appreciated here in the USA. I also have seen him in person in San Francisco, CA at a Safeway-and I must say his energy and spirit-is bright and positive.


  4. SG’s expressions seem very similar to those from peopole who get frustrated with MLM (Multi-level Marketing). They curse the system too.

    Atanu, your argument is that no one should really control what gets sold in the free market. I agree. The customer is responsible for her buying decisions. After all, MLM does contribute a single digit sales for all the products that are sold.

    But the problem is somewhere in the middle. It’s the not-so-accurate portrayal that misleads some of us. Unfortunately, none of this portrayal is technically & legally inaccurate. So vendors can never be blamed in the future.

    Does AOL foundation have a money back policy? 🙂


  5. From their sales brochures, what AoL claims to market seems to be not just the techniques of yoga or pranayama, but love and peace and joy. Now how do the consumers decide on that?

    Their products (courses)were very good about seven or eight years ago. Feel-good workshops that gave the participant a sense of well-being. But of late the quality of the courses has come down considerably. There is way too much publicity. The same old courses are recycled to form several new ones for which astronomical rates are charged. Not a very good strategy.

    20 million followers? Ah well, sales talks are given to hyperbole.

    Nowadays there are ‘n’ number of other organisations offering yoga and pranayama courses. So as a commodity AoL courses are not very relevant anymore.


  6. Atanu, I like the objective viewpoint of the whole matter that you put forward: the marketing of one of the ancient sciences of India. Go here to see the story of a gal who was forced to do the whole AoL course:

    Anyway, the only point I would like to add to your reply to the email you’ve published here is that they should have walked out of the course or something. Maybe the AoL folks should have a money back policy if you opt out early — that might make a better marketed product.


  7. The thin line that separates laissez faire commerce from carpet bagging nevertheless exists. The whole point of regulation is to protect the rights of society.Your model for ‘free trade’ with the customer being discerning enough is specious. For instance your model would mandate the abolition of the FDA as the ‘costomer’ is king and can decide if the new cancer drug he is taking is efficacious enough. With modern media penetration and increasing high dB advertising the consumer is most often misguided into parting with his money. While you may quote P.T.Barnum on that, a society cannot allow charlatans and deep pocketed ethically challenged producers from duping people.
    This however is not a criticism of Sri Sri Dadi, anyone who is insecure enough to need a squeaky bearded mickey mouse thye guy to teach them to breathe deserves to get taken to the cleaners.

    Atanu’s response: Anthropomorphising society leads to lots of muddled headed thinking. There is no such things as “the rights of society” the protection which you claim is the role of regulation. At best, regulation is to prottect the rights of the individual and society is not an individual. Going down that route is a form of collectivism that is hazardous for the health of the individuals that make up society.

    Yes, the FDA should be abolished. Why? Because what you need is to protect the rights of a consumer, not society. If a consumer is falsely advertized to, then the consumer has recourse to the courts. The courts will decide if the claims made were false. Firms will automatically weigh the benefits of false advertising and the costs arising from legal challenges and that will ensure that the consumer is not cheated.

    In the case of AoL, if they make patently false claims about their product, I am sure that they can be hauled to court and made to pay damages arising from false claims.


  8. Atanu,

    So what if AOL is a for profit organisation?
    I’d put it this way — so what if people make money on the name of religion?

    The Catholic church has been doing that since its inception. It is the world’s oldest and most vicious Transnational Corporation that has makes money and deploys it most efficiently for the conversion of heathen like you and me.

    If AOL takes money to make people Hindus, I’m all for it.

    Alas does not do that… it sells the principles of Ved Dharma (the real name of hinduism) without giving them credit.
    Just like Deepak Chopra — who copy pastes hindu concepts en masse but refuses to state them as such.
    Pretty much like selling a book without the cover (which, if the inserts are to be believed implies that the author has not been recognised or compensated as the IP owner).

    Atanu’s response: You write: “So what if AOL is a for profit organisation?” I don’t know; you tell me. I have not claimed that there is anything the matter with AOL being a for profit organization. Indeed, I celebrate that fact. I am a market economist and fundamentally believe that if a product is successful in the market, the buyers value the product at least as much as they are willing to pay for it. So it is up to the consumers, not some third party that has the least interest in the trade between the buyers and the sellers — except if there are “externalities.” So if Joe buys cigerettes, it is between him and the manufacturer. It is not your business unless Joe’s smoke gets in your eyes when you are in a public place.

    I think AoL is perfectly correct in selling whatever it sells AS LONG AS there is no false advertizing or coercion involved. If there is some shady business going on, they should be hauled to court. They have pretty deep pockets and I am sure that litigants will have a pretty good chance of making a few bucks if they catch AoL on the wrong foot.


  9. Self styled prophets and gurus are a major source of annoyance. If not them, then its their followers who fulfil that void.

    Also,good marketers are not God incarnates.
    But if some people do believe so, then they have all the right to do that. As long as they don’t expect others to follow suit.

    I completely agree with Mr. Dey’s views regarding SSRS. I wonder what views he has regarding Baba Ramdev. Listened to his interview on BBC Hindi service and he struck me as a much more rational person, though extremely opinionated and loud about his views.

    And as for:

    “SSRS and his Art of Living courses are products that are sold in an open and free market”…

    I feel that just because they are allowed to be sold opwnly doesn’t mean they are always safe for ‘consumption’ by the masses, especially considering how gullible people can be when it comes to faith. I don’t believe that’s ethically correct but practically speaking, there is nothing wrong with it. Overall, its sad that regulation of religious/lifestyle products/programs is something which is impossible. The onus lies upon the consumer to make a sound decision.


  10. The key difference in our world views is that you take ayn randesque view of humanity ,that of the brave individual battling adversity whereas i view humans more as a colony organism within the biosphere.. No extreme is desirable.Even galt’s gulch was a collective.The courts are but a reflection of common law and the standards a society (not individual) sets for itself.The political economy is only an abstraction to make energy flows equitable (by some standard), not an end in itself.

    Atanu’s response: Aren’t you making some huge assumptions in concluding that my views are “ayn randesque”? I am for free markets with minimal government intervention. How that makes me ayn randian is hard for me to follow. I am fortunately quite familiar with the notion that humans are social beings and that without cooperation one can not get very far. What makes you think that simply because I hold that free and unfettered markets implies that humans are not social is beyond comprehension. Indeed, cooperation is the hallmark of a market system — you cooperate with others to achieve your goals, irrespective of whether you like the other fellow or not.

    Let’s get our positions right before we start arguing against them.


  11. My experiences with the Art of Living has been geniunely positive. I was sceptical in the start,it was different from what I expected. Turned out to be just my prejudice and after a bit of more experiences, my questions got answered and my trust gained. After some courses, I could really feel a positive shift in my life. I want to live!
    Later I have become to know more of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and must say that he truly cares for the whole world and every being in it. The organisation of Art of Living, is just a structure, a way to reach those people. It may be hard to swallow, but those are the feelings aroused in myself – from being with AOL for about 6 years now. If Art of Living as an organisation disappeared tomorrow, nothing would be lost, the knowledge and care is still there. It would just lose the structure, but the knowledge and great sadhana (spiritual practices) will always be with me.
    There is nothing so great a feeling, as to do seva, service, without any expectation of payback. In business, you are always giving less and taking more. Not so in seva, there you are mostly giving more, and taking less. Its wonderful and really works wonders sometimes. I discovered the fountain of abundance and eternal knowledge within myself. I thank SSRS for this, even though thanks create separation, and also want to give all these gift sto someone else.
    Wether SSRS is god or not, who knows? All I know is he tells indian reporters to not call him godman, and that he interchanges universe, god ,self, consciousness in many of his talks. So maybe there is some prejudice about god that people need to let rest? If god is in everything, why not every human being also? We need to let go of mistrust and blaming, and instead start honoring everyone. We can become bridge builders. Look at the big picture.

    Atanu’s response: This person write: “In business, you are always giving less and taking more.” I suppose this person advances that as a criticism of business. This is a classic case of misunderstanding deep rooted in ignorance of how the world works. I will have to write a separate piece addressing that wrong notion because it is too long to include as a response to a comment. I will just mention here that it is our flawed education system which produces unthinking adults. No wonder SSRS and his tribe have such a massive following. Critical thinking is not the strong suit of the majority of the population.


  12. “In business, you are always giving less and taking more.Not so in seva, there you are mostly giving more, and taking less.”

    I think this is a quote from SSRS. I have heard some of his talks that were mostly platitudes of this kind.


  13. The intention was not to delve into economics theory, which of course has a sound explanation for everything dealing with markets.As long as every part of the chain provides a wanted service to enough people, it will of course be marketable and perhaps even useful. While money in itself has no inherent value and bends to the spiritual will of man, channeling the distribution of net produce of mankind to those most fortunate/arguably useful – while at the same time ironically being devalued. That was not the point at all, since many books have probably been written on the subject already, in much more detail than I can care for. It is boring, as it makes you blind to other ways to look at reality.
    The point, which is valid in itself, is about seva, which is pretty unique in todays ratrace, the benefits for doing good for society, creating a community and belonging to eachother as human beings, all the while being healthy and happy. It is quite extraordinary and unheard of. Look up on the word seva, and if you find a good source, be amazed what has been done in the name of seva.
    One day, you will be amazed to find the world a different place than in your own mind. I know I did.


  14. There seems to be many similarities between Vedic Knowledge and channeled teachings like Sanaya Roman’s work with orin, or Marciniak’s work. If we truly are ‘smart’, and ‘intelligent’ and ‘not gullible’, I think that these teachings are more practical(orin’s work) and makes more sense. Why are ‘intelligent’ people of ‘sound mind’ not commenting or studying these principles and commenting on them?

    Isn’t this true ‘spirituality’?
    I see no contradiction in these teachings (of Sanaya Roman’s:
    I’m certainly not as scholarly as you but I can see the logic of the simple teachings.

    Example, how our thoughts create our reality; connecting on the ‘inner planes’,
    and even the more esoteric views like the chakra systems.

    May we come together on ‘the inner planes’
    to create a greater vision for humanity.

    I would be delighted to hear feedback.

    Thank You.

    Murray Naraine

    Thank You


  15. Murray, Vedic knowledge was in ancient times also channeled and researched by seers. Intuitively they explored the realms of the mind, spirit and the Self, and this experential science was peer-reviewed by other seers (rishis), and further built upon for thousands of years.

    It has been a tradition to repackage and refurnish this knowledge, according to every unique need at the time and place in history. But also to preserve what is working, and experiencing why, so that it can be called an evolving science. Over many thousands of years, many different traditions, have evolved from the Vedas.

    This is still going on. Although more books are now written, the whole knowledge was in ancient times many, many times larger than now, and given in an oral / experential tradition. The seers remembered whole volumes, and passed it on!

    This knowledge touched every aspect of human life, just like our libraries do today: medicine, herbs, technical instruments, yoga, pranayama, knitting, effects of music and sounds on human body and mind, instrument-making, etc.

    But in the meanwhile, the energy has gone down in the world, and the ignorance has gone way up. Increasingly, the need to write down the knowledge came, but also to protect it from manipulation and greed, so it had to be worded very mysteriously. So only a person living the knowledge, could possibly understand it. And such a person would never want to misuse it.

    The world was/is currently in an age called the Iron Age (Kali Yuga), of spiritual darkness: ignorance, exploitation, spoiling the environment, violence, waging wars etc. Read more about it here (go to the middle):

    To really grok the knowledge, you`ll have to be guided by a guru (teacher), someone living the knowledge. Just reading the books will not be sufficient.

    It makes more sense to me, to go with the vedic science, which has been refined and proven itself for thousands of years.

    What is it in the concepts and texts that attracts you? How do you know one guru, New Age or not, speaks more truth than the other?

    Isn`t it because something is resonating in your own heart? Something in you is longing to open up to this and experience it. Really taste the ice-cream. It is already within you, the guru, the words, are there just to gently wake it up.

    You see, there are two ways you can speak: One way creates separation, more concepts, more work for the mind, more limitation for the mind.

    The other way, is of unity, it unites all concepts, unites all kinds of different people, inspires people to wake up and get participating in life, instead of being helpless spectators.

    So most important is to experience and practice for yourself. Whatever path attracts you, go deep in it, go to the core, and you will find it is all the same. No need to compare different paths then. Instead, YOU will be able to WRITE those books if you wish, or just continue doing the work of Good / God.


  16. atanuda, i see it this way…

    1. SSRS is on his own trip, not unlike you and i… he works towards his purpose/agenda as best as he can… we all do.

    2. SSRS is human, therefore flawed, therefore not the supreme being he is made out to be. however he probably is a good teacher. it is the individual’s decision to learn lessons on life and living from him. there are many other sources of life’s wisdom(of course there is life itself)

    3. one only hopes his disciples/followers have gotten their cards figured… trouble is every ssrs follower seems to want to think and be like their master… bad idea… i think a good student learns to interpret his education in his own life-context.

    4. my experience suggests yoga/meditation techniques are useful life skills. but they are only a part of life. sudarshan kriya is one of the many options.

    5. regular practice of any focused activity can have the “life changing” impact… so can one random action.

    6. each unto his own.


  17. From my experience with art of living the number of dissatisfied participants is negligible. personally for me it was a life changing experience. AOL has made my life beautiful and worth living. So would be more than 90% of participants whom I have met. Usefulness of any product must be tested from the experience of the majority.


  18. I am a satisfied & happy “customer” of the Art of Living.It has changed my life for the better in every single course that I have done.That is why I plan to continue doing,organising & “luring” other people too to the courses till kingdom come.Coming from a family which respects & reveres Gurus & being taught the value of a genuine Guru in one’s life may have been the reason for my receptiveness.And I consider myself fortunate enough to be receptive to the forward & inward looking teachings of the long line of Indian Gurus at the right age & the right time.
    All those here who take pride in describing Gurus etc as “well marketed” & “necessary”(not for them but other less intelligent people) miss the whole point.
    In my view,it is like saying that a child should not be taught how to read or write as he/she would learn everything herself.
    Due to the dominance of “crowd” based “religions” (no such word should,in my view be used for Indian Spirituality which,for want of a better word,was named “Hinduism” by the invading Muslim hordes) like Islam & Christianity where one size (philosophy) fits all,the very individualistic concept of Guru & Disciple is not appreciated anymore.
    A crowd of disciples around a Guru is in fact a crowd of individuals who are very well aware of their individuality & their purpose of being near the Guru.If someone confuses that with a “religious fervour”,he/she is mistaken.
    Ditto for people’s responses.If some people have ranted in this forum,it is their personal attribute.Maybe a lot of people contributing here would react similarly if I were to say something condescending & disrespectful (however intellectual or critical) about something very dear & central to their life.
    As far as flaws are concerned,the world is not 3 dimensional (even physicists agree now) so attributing flaws to an action or person is purely a matter of individual perception.I believe in the Vedantic concept of God in human form & therefore I love my Guru as he is.We in India are God loving not God fearing.We love,adulate,idolize,hate,demand,surrender,question,argue & fight with our God-all at the same time.This is called Bhakti-bringing your God up,close & personal,dedicating all human emotions to God.God is not some old guy “up there”,here in India he is “one of us”.Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is a teacher of the same line of Indian Masters who teach people how to be happy & fulfilled in life.And if India has to develop,it will have to develop by keeping in touch with its Spiritual roots,not otherwise.Otherwise we would be a carbon copy of the empires of yore-greedy,inconsiderate & exploitative,breeding a thousand revolts,discontents & bloody wars & ultimately being razed to oblivion after a usually bloody & painful period of time.


  19. yes, i have gone through the part one course, Who asks you to say “jai gurudev” , who ask you “to dance” there no body , if you want to do so,do it otherwise dont do,
    Ok people are saying these are all ancient techniques , and he is just fooling people marketing all those techniques, Buddha , Mahavir and all other people has already taught this. CAn Budhda ,Mahavir come in today’s age and can teach people thsese techniques, people can critiscise it becuse now they know These techniques also exsists,WHat if you never know it. How many people know about these techniques of meditation, Whats wrong in it if he is teaching these techniques to people. he has organised few of the good excercise together, he has made a package whcih can be taught in todays high velocity. This is what he has done. Most of Newton’s laws were already done by other scientists before him , why do you call them newtons laws?Rishis has already found so many of facts of modren sciences, why dont you people says its already done by india,WHy he is doing wrong if he teaching our cultural plus points to the people.
    Indian culture , is one of the ancient culture, and it lasts so long because it has some thing inside it.some facts which helps in living life. Poor people are dying with hunger, Rich people are suffering from Fat, one want food and one want diet. This is condition today. He is telling the way how people can live healthy, help socity, and can be happy.
    few people who are taliking about marketing, can talk about it because they are getting food three times in a day.
    BUt sri sri is giving three times food to the people who can not get it, PEople who are talikg about the mony what association is getting from different countries, should go and live i aashram , where people are eating with paying any thing.they should go in those villages where AOL is taeching for free.
    They should talk to those people who are being benefited by the meditation processes.Our science teacher never invent some thing new and then teaches us in science classroom , he is tellinig us all others work done , but for us he is the only one who is giving us this gyan.NO matters where he lerned from, what matters is it is effective.


  20. Want to rewrite one line , i have typed wrong in previous post. People are eating for free in the aashram.

    He belongs to a normal family . No body can teach the world without money. There is no problem in buisiness,He is taking money from richer world and investing it to the poor world, all Those people who are getting benifits from it and in free, do not know all these Word marketing and websites, otherwise there may be so many replies to this mail , that this page could have become to slow to open.


  21. Some people seem to think that Sri Sri is a compassionate person. I don’t think so. I’m a subscriber to their mailing list and a long time ago, there was a story about a woman who allegedly practised Ayurveda under the name of AOL. It was alleged that she was suggesting that her treatment was endorsed by AOL. This somehow ticked SSRS off and I received an e-mail where he exhorted AOL practitioners to stop seeing this woman altogether. Now, if I were in the place of SSRS, I would have sent an e-mail that said, “We have come to know that so-and-so is claiming that AOL endorses her practise. But we have never endorsed anyone’s practice.”

    Just such a simple e-mail is enough… But the man (SSRS) went crazy and bonkers !

    So much for evidence of his compassion!

    Also, I attended the course in India, where the trainer kept saying that he was a volunteer. But I came to know later on that all these teachers are paid handsomely but they’re instructed to tell their audience that they’re volunteers!

    Such bull*shiite — again from a man claiming to be spiritual!

    And once again look at the Service Trade Mark — they talk about giving freely but they’ve patented their stuff!

    There goes your compassionate Soul SSRS!



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