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Exposing the AoL Brainwashing Machinery – Part 6

November 25, 2012

In Part 5 we looked at Cognitive Dissonance and how so many people who have been associated with Art of Living have been afflicted by it both during their time and after they left the organization. In this part we will take a look at how Social Proof is used to manipulate AoL devotees.

Social Proof

The principle of Social Proof states that whenever we are faced with a situation where we need to make some sort of decision, one means we use to help us to determine the best choice we can make is to look at what others have done in the same or similar situation. We tend to regard a particular behavior as being more correct if we see many people exhibiting that same behavior.

In Cialdini’s words:

Like the other weapons of influence, it provides a convenient shortcut for determining how to behave but, at the same time, makes one who uses the shortcut vulnerable to the attacks of profiteers who lie in wait along its path.

Cialdini notes there are two circumstances under which Social Proof becomes particularly effective as a weapon of influence:

  • Uncertainty: Whenever we are experiencing uncertainty about a situation, we are especially likely to look at how others have acted in the same situation and take a similar action as this helps to remove the uncertainty.
  • Similarity: In a situation when we need to make any given decision, our tendency to make a particular choice based on the actions of others becomes even greater if those whom we look to in order to help us make our decisions are similar to us in some way or other.

How it is Exploited in Art of Living

The first time we encounter Social Proof is usually during the Basic Course (or for some the Introductory Talk) when we are told that 20-30 million people have taken the course, and that Art of Living has a presence in over 140 – 160 countries. If this many people have done the course worldwide then surely it must be something worth doing, right? Although it is never explicitly stated as such, this is the exact reason why it is even used, because it triggers our response to Social Proof.

All too often we have heard pro-AoLers make comments along the lines of “millions of people are part of AoL” or that “RS has millions of followers around the world, so how can all these people be wrong”? Indeed if millions around the world really did support the organization, then it does seem highly unlikely to devotees that all these people have somehow been wrong in their decision. This gives devotees a great deal of reassurance and makes them believe they have made the correct decision in being part of AoL.

The truth is, no one really knows how many followers AoL/RS really have since we only have the organization’s word for this, and given their history of not only grossly exaggerating numbers (e.g. claiming 70,000 attended the World Culture Festival when we saw with our own eyes that the stadium was at least 3/4 empty) and outright lying, it is extremely unlikely to be anywhere close to the number which they quote. But even if this number were even remotely true, given that the majority of people don’t continue beyond the Basic Course and that we were specifically told that around 2% do continue, this would put the number of followers worldwide at closer to 600,000, a far cry from the millions which many devotees are claiming.

Statements made during AoL talks such as “Art of Living is the largest volunteer-based NGO in the world” (which incidentally is completely untrue) constitute another good example of social proof. If so many people have volunteered their time to work for this organization, then it definitely must be an organization worth volunteering for.

Even hiring the Olympic Stadium in Berlin for the World Culture Festival and claiming that they were going to fill it to its capacity of 70,000+ is yet another example of social proof. It was a manoeuvre designed to try to make people believe that this was a big event and that so many people were going to go. And as we saw, this was another tactic which severely backfired on them.

Another key tactic which Art of Living employs is to try to get as many of its followers to effectively give their “vote of approval” of Art of Living by sharing some account of how it has changed their lives. The more people who give these accounts, the greater the social proof for Art of Living. One notable example of this is the now defunct Art of Living Life Stories blog. Other examples include asking Art of Living devotees to leave a comment supporting a seemingly independently written article in praise of Art of Living, and even an attempt at doctoring the wikipedia entry for RS.

One example taken from Cialdini’s book which is worth noting here concerns the evangelist Billy Graham.

[…] an Arizona State University research team that infiltrated the Billy Graham organization reported on such advance preparations prior to one of his Crusade visits. “By the time Graham arrives in town and makes his altar call, an army of six thousand wait with instructions on when to come forth at varying intervals to create the impression of a spontaneous mass outpouring.”

Don’t Art of Living ask similar requests of their devotees, to give the impression that some event is worth attending?

As was noted in the introduction to this section, similarity is a key factor which enhances the overall effect that social proof has on us.

One of the main things which brings people to AoL in the first place is that they are on a spiritual journey of some description, because they are vulnerable in some way, lacking something in their lives and seeking something more fulfilling. And in AoL they will find many others in exactly the same situation as they are. Ordinary, everyday people from all walks of life, many of whom have similar jobs and who come from similar backgrounds. In particular, Hindus will find there are a great many other Hindus in the organization, which is hardly surprising as AoL is steeped heavily in Hinduism.

Many of us have had doubts during our time in AoL, and these doubts lead to uncertainty about the organization and in particular about RS. Although we’ve already discussed how Art of Living brainwash people to simply drop doubts, another incredibly powerful mechanism working for Art of Living against its devotees who are having doubts is that whenever doubts creep in, they can look around and see that there are seemingly so many other people around them who don’t appear to have the same doubts, who have complete faith in RS and in AoL, and this goes a long way towards allaying any doubts and fears they themselves are having.

This looking around for social proof arising from uncertainty is in fact another means by which devotees can deal with cognitive dissonance, because this uncertainty itself results in cognitive dissonance.

In Part 7, we’ll take a look at the Liking Principle.

  1. Sonia Talwalkar permalink
    November 26, 2012 1:44 pm

    Even wild animals recognize Guruji. He has emancipated so many ancestral spirits in africa. His calmness is something to be experienced. Nothing can shake his calmness. You tell him that you have won a million dollar lottery, or the mountains have come down and are crushing the building, he remains calm and unperturbed. Arise oh you ignorant people and recognize the master.

    • Nithin permalink
      November 28, 2012 2:25 pm

      @Sonia Talwalkar
      I persoanly had very bad experiance with this $$R$ he gets angry very fast if he has not given the best place to stay, audiance, sit, and if you ask any thing which is related to money spended. He want to be the centre of attraction. Let me assure you “He is the best actor i have ever seen in my Life” cant trust this guy in any manner, he manupulates the ancient knowledge (Asthavakra geetha) according to his wants, he always curses J Krishna moorthy because he belives in himself and not in fools who talks bigs and loots money for thier name and fame. I feel shame spending my 12 in and out for this stupid cult…

    • Nithin permalink
      November 28, 2012 2:31 pm

      To know good quality of a person look at the place he visit and books he read.. according to me he visits Politicians, diplomats and big stage to get attraction..(Answer is – Power, politics and fame..)
      To know the bad quality of a person: look at the garbage bag, or people dislike him.(Bloge like this is the answer) Recently to avoid exposing the truth, aol is now encouraging Bloggers of AOL and rewarding.. newer in the history this fellow rewqrded the good sevak. So this is an another proof that he admits the truth and trying to erase with innocent devotees…All the best Sonia.

    • Anonymous permalink
      November 28, 2012 6:04 pm

      Then you don’t know him, Sonia. I’ve seen him shaken on more occasions than I care to remember. He is a great actor. But when he ‘loses it’, look out! He’s more than unpleasant. And the only animals I saw “recognize” him were the dogs at the ashram who growled and barked at him when he walked by, and he always looked quite afraid. This is my experience of him. Maybe he changed? I doubt it though. He asked that the dogs be removed so he wouldn’t have them barking and growling at him when he walked around there. The same dogs were friendly to me and others. I think they recognized that he is very afraid of dogs.

      • Nithin permalink
        November 29, 2012 9:58 am

        Dogs are tue and natural.. even they recoganised this….
        Those who bark and those who questions him, he makes sure that he will through them out of his community by defaming with Morals and taging as bad karma..
        is he elegible to say “acccept people and situation as they are”?

      • November 29, 2012 10:28 am

        Lions will surround anything or anyone who they think will fill their tummies. Had he not been in a car and was walking then it might have been a miracle that they surrounded him and left him unharmed. There have been Enlightened masters who took on hungry tigers and lions without the protection of any car or cage, and who by using only their gaze made the tigers turn and run away or act like little pups.

      • November 29, 2012 10:30 am

        Though I would like to add that I did see pictures of birds coming up to him and resting on his fingers. So its like a 50-50 thing here, there is proof for and proof against.

      • Nithin permalink
        November 29, 2012 2:26 pm

        @ O because those are tamed birds and animals, used to live along with Human beings for a long time, they are not from forest. If he has guts ask him to go to the wild forest.. then u will see the reality of $$R$ :). My dear this fellow is jealous of other real masters, he is mocking other masters to get to that level.. which he cannot in another 1000 years for sure.
        Please google and see how many wild animals are close to human beings do you call those people as your master? If not you haven’t learnt to appreciate the nature of love and care, any tom dick and harry can get the bird in the finger and I do stand in front of elephant (I mean tamed ) let me not like fraud $$R$.

      • November 30, 2012 6:28 am

        I closely follow animals and am an animal lover.. there is this lady Marlice Van Der Merwe on you tube who just plays around in a group of wild cheetahs..

        I am not defending SSRS here .. what I mean to say is that one should hold a proper trial before declaring someone guilty…. But Lions surrounding car is no big deal .. and the effort which the volunteers take in proving him enlightened is surely a point taken against him ..

        Bird usually are scared of human beings. So its interesting to see a wild bird sitting on his fingers, its not a matter of courage, but making the bird feel comfortable. And he probably does make people feel comfortable. What do you think? I am pretty much open to putting up Sri Sri Ravi Shankar on trial. But I’d also give the benefit of the presumption of “innocent until proven guilty”.

    • anon permalink
      November 29, 2012 9:20 am

      Look around you will find so many people calm and composed. Arise and awake. Learn the philosophy of life just by observing people and events happening in yours and in your near and dear ones’ life. You dont have to pay and learn the lessons of life . Every person whom we come into contact has something to teach us. Start to believe that every soul has some divinity. Be discerning. Miracles occur all the time and everywhere. Respect God and Nature and not in the middle men. Believe in your self, in your karma and be compassionate, understanding and helpful to all those around you. Every night ponder whether you spent the day usefully, did your behaviour help at least one soul in a special way, were your actions justified etc etc. Realize YOUR OWN SELF POWER and be a MASTER of your life

      • ABC permalink
        November 29, 2012 3:18 pm

        Anon ,

        Honestly ,too good of a para.

        Inspirational ,motivational and very very true .

        Will love reading more!

      • November 30, 2012 6:33 am

        Well said anon .. even I feel very calm and composed after I have taken up exercising .. just plain exercising, not breathing exercises. may be a little about 10 to 20 long deep breaths and I feel much more calm than when I was doing some 310 breaths of sudarshan Kriya along with 300 other breaths of bhastrika, and ujjai.. too much of breathing seemed like an overload.. It did it have its benefits but one needs to move on .. moderation is highly essential..

    • Dayalu permalink
      November 29, 2012 6:07 pm

      The ‘experience’ from Beatriz Goyoaga just illustrates how much miracle mongering happens in Art of Living. Just the fact that the Lions surrounded Sri sri’s vehicle, which most likely would have been the first in the entourage, is being attributed to his assumed state of ‘enlightenment’…. Just shows how these stories are cooked up – many of these stories are not documented like the above is and each teacher knowingly or unknowingly adds her/his own embellishments and makes the story sound like a real miracle.

      I remember listening to Beatriz speak in one of the TRMs. She was relating her success stories in Argentina and Brazil. The one thing she emphasized was “Do not hesitate to inflate your numbers when you speak to people – if 200 people come to your Satsang, you can say 1000 – it is not a lie, it is just an exxaggeration and the DIVINE LOVES EXAGGERATIONS”

      Sonia, the choice is yours whether to fall for these partial truths or to preserve your integrity.

      • Sri Sri Ravishankar permalink
        December 7, 2012 9:40 am

        @Dyalau- One of the Swamiji from Canada ashram was expressing divine love with a girl and”$$R# did not accepted…:), can we have divine love putting in action with exaggeration…is that okay? . Hello dayalu.. Lie is lie wheather it is black or white… Lie is nothing but hiding the truth.
        Lie is not new for $$R$ so he will says do it. In, one of his talks he said better to be silent that telling lie.. and later he does this so much. THE ART OF LYING

    • freeOne permalink
      December 4, 2012 9:09 pm

      If he was calm to see the lion surrounding the car and shows god like love then he should have got down the vehicle not sitting comfortably inside! Hey just remembered when we went to jungle safari in our car (with kids) there were couple of big bison (they are huge) came to the window, yes was not frightened, happy to see them. Now believe me I am enlightened!

  2. November 27, 2012 1:28 pm


    I just want to say how much I am enjoying your articles. It is great to see the mechanisms of control and manipulation laid out so clearly. Thank you so much for taking the time and effort in doing this. These articles are filling in the blanks for me.

  3. November 27, 2012 1:36 pm

    Another example of social proof is the reference in Art of Living to ‘Ancient wisdom for the modern day’. Referring to AOL;s wisdom and techniques as ancient and time honored is an attempt to prove that it is valuable because it has been around a long time. The whole reference to the “holy tradition” in the puja is a very powerful way to prove that this knowledge is worthwhile. Not only are millions of people using this knowledge now, but many, many people in the past found this to be valuable.

  4. November 30, 2012 6:38 am

    This is for the aolites who feel its a big deal to have wild lions surround your car.

  5. Anonymous permalink
    November 30, 2012 5:45 pm

    Well ‘O’, I do not know where you got the idea from that birds are scared of coming to humans? I have personal videos and photographs to prove how birds are all over you if you just show some love. I can post my personal pics/videos from St. Marks Square,Venice, multiple places in London as well as from Gateway of India, Mumbai. Maybe it happens because I’m enlightened.

  6. December 15, 2012 2:39 pm

    The “proof” of someone’s enlightenment is not in all these silly outward behaviors or signs, it is in the impact they have on your own awareness through the practice of their techniques and their presence. In the Bhagavad Gita Arjuna asks Krishna what are the behavioral signs of enlightenment. Krishna answers by discussing the mechanics of the enlightened person subjectivity, not their gross behavior. If someone in the AOL talks about Guruji being enlightened because lions surround his car, this is just foolishness and lack of knowledge on their part. One day the lions might surround his car, the next day they might flee and the third day they might try to eat him! Unfathomable are the ways of karma!

    • Mangal permalink
      December 18, 2012 10:35 pm

      “One day the lions might surround his car, the next day they might flee and the third day they might try to eat him! Unfathomable are the ways of karma! ”

      Peter, isn’t SSRS beyond the ambit of Karma ?

  7. Dayalu permalink
    December 18, 2012 7:13 pm

    Peter, Within AOL, the whole premise behind the theory that the guru is enlightened, are stories like these. Senior teachers start feeding these stories at the DSNs and TTCs and your guru himself does nothing to dissuade them from doing so, in fact he covertly encourages the propogation of these stories.

    Regarding the impact of his presence on your awareness, being a psychologist you know how the mind plays these games. The peak experiences that are you refer to as awareness are created by your own mind and though precious, they have nothing to do with your guru’s presence.

    I know so many AOL teachers who mistake sleep for meditation, they simply cannot understand the difference. I have heard them snoring during guided meditation sessions and very few of them know that in meditation your spine needs to be upright. Most of them start their meditationa in slouched postures, go off to sleep and at the end of the session, claim ‘amazing experiences’. Again, your guru hardly makes any effort to correct these stupidities.

    Just a simple question – Does being enlightened obviate the need to be honest and to behave with integrity?

  8. December 19, 2012 11:15 am


    “The “proof” of someone’s enlightenment […] is in the impact they have on your own awareness through the practice of their techniques and their presence. “

    Here you are reducing something which is purportedly an absolute, in other words something which is objective, into a subjective experience. You are saying that it is up to the individual whether or not someone is enlightened.

    Are you absolutely sure this is what the Bhagavad Gita says, or is this your own interpretation?

    • December 20, 2012 3:20 pm

      Hi Obi-Wan,
      In one sense all spiritual teaching is “interpretation” in the context of one’s level of consciousness and vasanas (mental tendencies). A great example of that is Christianity in the USA. I consider myself a Christian, but the Christianity practiced by so many that focus on gay marriage and abortion seems to have nothing to do with the Christianity that I see arising out of the teachings of Jesus. I’m sure in other religions you see the exact same thing. I understand why you say enlightenment is “objective”, but it is is a very “subjective” event for something so objective! And by “subjective” I mean private, not relative. Whether someone is enlightened or not, I would argue, is only open to that person. Based on our cultural influences we will associate certain surface behaviors with enlightenment, but all you have to do is read the histories of various saints or even experience different saints (yes, there is an assumption here) and you will see that their surface behaviors can be quite different. Again, the Bhagavad Gita even talks about this when it mentions the enlightened “following their own nature” and that constraining that nature is foolish. So, an individual only knows his own enlightenment and whether someone else is enlightened or not is something we can only guess at. Of course with Guruji I function out of the assumption that he is enlightened. This is based on my own experiences around him and the results of following his practices. I do recognize that someone else, such as yourself, has had different experiences and has come to a different conclusion regarding Guruji.

      • December 21, 2012 8:17 am

        Well Peter, that’s absolutely fair enough and I’m not about to challenge your methods or reasoning. As far as I can tell if there really is such a thing as enlightenment, the only way any person can really ever know for sure is if they reach that state themselves. If that ever happens, they reach a new level of awareness where they just “know” that they are enlightened, in the same way that we know we are conscious now. It isn’t something which anyone can ever explain, and it certainly isn’t possible for non-enlightened individuals to ever be able to detect enlightenment in another. All anyone can do is if they believe a particular individual to be enlightened for whatever reason, and that same individual to somehow be capable of transmitting the enlightened experience to them via their teachings, then at the very least if they find that individual’s teachings to be helping them to become better people, then that in itself should be adequate for them. Trying to find some objective yardstick with which to measure or detect enlightenment in another is an impossible task it would seem.


  1. Summary of Criticisms Against Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Art of Living | Further Beyond the Art of Living
  2. Exposing the AoL Brainwashing Machinery – Part 10 | Further Beyond the Art of Living

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