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Exposing the AoL Brainwashing Machinery – Part 8

December 3, 2012

In Part 7 we took a look at how the Liking Principle was used in Art of Living. In this part we will look at the power of Authority, which, more than any other technique which is exploited by Art of Living to manipulate followers, is probably the most powerful and also the most disturbing. As such, this is probably one of the most important articles in the series, so please take the time to consider everything written here and reflect on it as much as you can.


In the early 1960s, Professor Stanley Milgram of Yale University devised a series of social psychology experiments, which have now collectively become known as the Milgram Experiment, designed with one goal in mind: to measure the amount of suffering a test subject was willing to inflict on an innocent person when told to do so by an authority figure.

The experiment involved three individuals, designated the Experimenter, the Teacher and the Learner. The Experimenter and the Teacher were placed in one room, and the Learner in another. The role of the Teacher was to ask the Learner a series of questions. For each question the Learner answered incorrectly, the Experimenter would instruct the Teacher to adminster an electric shock to the Learner – as punishment for answering the question incorrectly. The shocks started out at a relatively low voltage but were increased with each successive incorrect answer.

What made the experiment particularly interesting is that the Teacher was completely unaware of two key factors. Firstly, that there really was no electric shock, that the Learner simply acting in a particular way whenever they received a cue that the shock was being administered. Secondly, that it was the Teacher who was actually being tested in the experiment and not the Learner as they were actually led to believe.

The experiment yielded some very surprising results, especially to the psychologists of that day. Most predicted that a very small percentage of Teachers – who were the true test subjects – would actually administer shocks beyond a certain voltage, or that there would at least be some reaction from the Teacher in response to the Learner crying out in pain and begging them to stop at higher voltage levels. But the shocking reality is that the majority of Teachers continued to obey the instructions of the Experimenter, administering shocks of increasing voltage each time the Learner answered a question incorrectly, in spite of any protests from the Learner.

Why did the Teachers behave in such a blatantly cruel manner? Although many explanations were proposed by psychologists who were familiar with the study at the time, the most suitable explanation and the one for which there is the strongest evidence to support it was provided by Milgram himself. He proposed that human beings are hard-wired in such a way as to unquestioningly obey the instructions of an authority figure.

In the case of the Milgram Experiment, the Teacher felt they had to obey the instructions of the lab-coated Experimenter – the authority figure in this scenario – and no matter what their conscience told them about the amount of pain and suffering they were inflicting on the Learner, they found it extremely difficult to disobey the Experimenter in any way. And many did actually protest to the Experimenter, letting them know that they wanted to end the Experiment at various points, usually in response to screams from the Learner himself, yet when they were told they couldn’t do so they continued until the Experimenter eventually told them they could terminate the experiment – at the highest voltage of shock allowed by the experiment.

The findings of this experiment are absolutely shocking. What they tell us is that not only do we have a psychological tendency to obey an authority figure, but that the authority figure can effectively override whatever our conscience is telling us, and can even override any moral values which we have. Even more worryingly is that once we have accepted an individual as a legitimate authority figure in our lives, obedience to any instructions from that authority figure can become automatic. In other words, we stop thinking and instead simply react to their instructions. This is seriously disturbing, especially when you consider how easily this can be exploited by those who are aware of this principle.

How Authority is exploited in Art of Living

By now it is probably obvious to most of our readers that the Authority Principle is exploited in Art of Living to great effect. The archetypal authority figure in at least Eastern religion is of course the enlightened Guru. But what makes an enlightened Guru especially powerful, and at the same time particularly dangerous, is that they are deemed by their followers to be the ultimate authority figure in their lives, more so than any other authority figure.

In Art of Living, most devotees will sooner or later be led into believing that RS has achieved enlightened status. So many devotees believe that their ultimate goal is to surrender to him, to allow him to control nearly all aspects of their lives, and will follow his instructions unquestioningly – even when they override their own basic moral values.

We have already seen so many examples of devotees on these blogs not only lying to themselves, but accepting the many disturbing lies which RS has told over the years and which have been exposed in these blogs. This is a testament to the power which authority has over individuals who allow themselves to be manipulated by it.

But those who have spent any time in Art of Living and who have listened to various discourses given by RS, or even those who have listened to any interviews with him on Youtube, will have come to realize by now that in actual fact there really is very little substance to RS whatsoever. There are even those who are ardent devotees who will tell you that they regularly fall asleep listening to his discourses, but who believe that the “grace” of the talks somehow enters their minds whilst they are asleep. There is certainly no reason whatsoever to believe that RS is an enlightened Guru, especially as a great deal of evidence uncovered in these blogs would indicaate that he isn’t.

So this really begs the question, how has RS been established as an authority in this manner? The best clue to this mystery can be found in the following passage in Cialdini’s book:

“When in a click, whirr mode, we are often as vulnerable to the symbols of authority as to the substance. There are several kinds of symbols that can reliably trigger our compliance in the absence of the genuine substance of authority. Consequently, they are employed extensively by those compliance professionals who are short on substance. Con artists, for example, drape themselves with the titles, clothes, and trappings of authority.” (Emphasis added)

Whilst trappings aren’t a key factor in this particular case, I have added two further factors which Cialdini does not consider but which are certainly relevant to the discussion of authority with regards to Art of Living. Let us look at each of these things factors in turn.


There are a number of professions that we seem to be predisposed to respect as having a certain amount of authority. One of the best examples is that many people hold doctors to have unquestioning authority at least in the field of medicine, and so whenever we hear that someone has the title of “doctor”, we automatically accord them a certain amount of authority – even if they aren’t medical doctors.

Generally speaking, titles are very difficult to come by and can take years of effort before they are earned. However, individuals who are aware of the power which titles can provide them can and do give themselves titles without having to worry about actually earning them in any appropriate manner. Which is exactly what Ravishankar did.

RS is fully aware of the fact that those who are of a religious bent respect certain titles given to holy men. This is why he gave himself the respective titles of “Sri Sri” and “His Holiness”, the former designed to appeal to those in India, the latter to Westerners. Both titles given entirely for the purpose of establishing Ravishankar as a religious authority, specifically an enlightened Guru. And recall that at no point historically has he ever actually earned any of these titles following any religious system where either of these titles can be given to an individual who is deemed worthy of them.

As he has outright lied about titles which he doesn’t really have, that he is deceiving people in this manner would lead us to believe that in this respect he is behaving as a con artist. For those interested, the article His Holiness Titles & Lineage sheds a great deal of light on these particular issues.


In some ways, appropriate clothing is even more powerful a symbol of authority than title. And as with title, it too can very easily be faked.

Con artists regularly dress up as doctors, priests, security guards or even policemen, whatever a given situation demands. And so much research has shown that people find it difficult to resist requests from individuals if they are dressed in what they consider to be appropriate authority attire. Each type of authority figure has a corresponding uniform, and it is the uniform itself which is the symbol of authority.

Although there are many different uniforms which holy men in India are known to wear, the stereotypical holy man is usually seen dressed in a white robe, has long dark hair, and sports a beard. Which is the exact appearance that not only Ravishankar has adopted, but also the various Swamis, Rishis and even a increasing number of male devotees who try to imitate the appearance of their master.

RS’ appearance alone gives him such a powerful aura and status that without it he would not have the same level of authority which he does. Can you imagine how devotees would respond to him if he wore something far more contemporary, say a suit, and had short hair and no beard? The image is almost laughable, however no one can deny that they would not accord him the same respect as they do with his current appearance.

Symbols of Authority specific to Enlightened Gurus

Although Cialdini does not touch upon these things in his book, there are two symbols of authority which are used in Art of Living which are specific to enlightened gurus in particular.

With regards to Ravishankar, one reason many consider him to be an enlightened Guru is that they believe him to have intimate knowledge of Vedic Scriptures. He has certainly given a number of discourses on various scriptures, and in spite of the fact that these discourses themselves carry very little of any substance, this has established RS as an authority on the subject in the minds of many devotees. For those who haven’t even heard his discourses, the knowledge that he has even given these discourses in the first place is enough to make them believe this. By itself this is quite a powerful symbol of authority, however it becomes even more powerful when considered together with both the symbols we have discussed so far, and our next and final symbol of authority.

Unique to enlightened Gurus is the idea that after performing certain spiritual practices for a given length of time, some can attain supernatural powers known as siddhis. Whether or not these actually exist, the fact is that Art of Living devotees are made to believe that RS has attained a number of these so-called siddhis, including the ability to see into the future, to heal people from sickness, and to see into a person’s past and future. That RS possess siddhis usually goes hand in hand with the belief that RS possesses a related mystical power known as Guru’s Grace. These things have been discussed adequately elsewhere on this and other blogs so there is no need to go into any further detail here.

The upshot of all of this is that these symbols of authority are all heavily exploited in Art of Living to make devotees believe that RS is an enlightened Guru, and hence to establish him as an authority in their lives.

Art of Living: A Hierarchy of Authority

Whilst the discussion on authority in Art of Living has thus far mostly been confined to the ways in which Ravishankar has been established as the ultimate authority by convincing followers that he is an enlightened Guru, there is an incredibly powerful yet subtle aspect of the abuse of the Authority Principle in AoL which still needs to be discussed.

At its core, Art of Living is an organization consisting of a large number of members, many of whom take on various assigned roles and responsibilities (whether voluntarily or otherwise), but more importantly each having a particular position within the organization. Whilst the majority of members are simply devotees, a small handful of are teachers, senior teachers, Swamis and Rishis, and those who are at the head of affairs in AoL.

Although there are those who have been convinced that Art of Living is a flat organization where everyone is equal (there are so many teachers who espouse this and it is even mentioned in Guru of Joy) the reality is that like any other organization, Art of Living’s organizational structure is hierarchical. Irrespective of the underlying purpose, all hierarchical organizations have one unique aspect in common: the redistribution of power from those lower down in the hierarchy to those higher up.

Every single business from the smallest shop employing a small handful of employees to the largest multinational employing tens of thousands worldwide operates in this manner. The organization has a particular set of goals, and those who wish to be part of the organization must surrender some power to the organization, usually in the form of labor, in order to help forward the agenda of the organization. In small organizations the head of the organization usually deals with employees directly, but in larger organizations where this becomes too impractical, intermediaries – known as managers – are needed to act on behalf of the head to ensure that the objectives for the company are carried out. Those who surrender their power to the organization are usually given financial rewards in return for their efforts.

This organizational model is also used in Art of Living, with a number of small exceptions. Firstly, as mentioned above, whilst this structure is apparent in nearly all companies, Art of Living deceive their followers by trying to claim that this structure doesn’t even exist, that there is no hierarchy at all.

Secondly, instead of having managers, they have teachers who are supposed to ensure that the vision of RS is carried out. Many in AoL treat teachers with a special reverence, and this is in no small part due to the fact that teachers are portrayed by the AoL Brainwashing Machinery as being somehow specially chosen individuals, above everyone else. And so many devotees treat teachers as authorities, happily surrendering their power to them in so many ways which are asked of them, as if the instruction came from RS himself.

Finally, unlike most companies, the majority of those who are part of the Art of Livng hierarchy do not receive any financial rewards in return for surrendering their power. In fact, many actually contribute financially and do so ongoing because they see it as their duty to do so – or rather they have been brainwashed into believing it is their duty to do so. In terms of any reward for their efforts, they have been conned into believing various things like doing seva is reward enough, that any bad karma they have will be burnt off, or that they will receive more Guru’s Grace in their lives.

These things are what make AoL unique and set it apart from most other organizations. At the core, devotees are conditioned to surrender their power and even money to the organization, and this power feeds from the bottom of the organization upwards. Those at any given position in the hierarchy effectively feed off those below them, and in turn act as a source of food for those above. And so on all the way to the top, to those who are at the head of affairs in AoL culminating with RS himself.

In Part 9 we will look at Scarcity.

  1. Anonymous permalink
    December 4, 2012 8:50 pm

    Regarding appearances: I have heard in talks and interviews various times – when RS is asked the reason for him to grow a beard he replies saying that he started growing a beard so that people start taking him seriously….
    Though I used to have this nagging question as to why he keeps up with an appearance just to garner respect from others, I used to defend him thinking – oh look at his response –so honest….! So the mind has the ability to defend anything when it is brainwashed in a cultic group…

    Bottom line – RS is no different..!! like we dress up for an interview or function, RS keeps up an appearance for his job…

    • Anonymous permalink
      December 5, 2012 10:32 am

      Yes you are right 🙂

  2. Anonymous critical permalink
    December 5, 2012 8:00 pm

    Compliments for dissecting AOL in a manner nobody has done it before. It may prove last nail in coffin of AOL. You have analysed AOL according to scientific psychological principles in finest details possible. I ve read all urs parts & feel that ur analysis is more than perfect n accurate. wish u will save many new possible from being entrapped.

  3. stupidseeker permalink
    December 8, 2012 4:48 am

    This blogpost, an extract from his latest book “Believing Bullshit” by UK based philosopher Stephen Law, tries to explain the techniques employed by gurus and such like to get the public to swallow their “bullshit”. Ravi Ravi certainly seems to employ a few of these.

    • December 9, 2012 5:17 am

      A very interesting article indeed, and yes, RS does employ more than a few of those tactics to sound like he is saying something deep and meaningful. Whereas in reality he is either stating the obvious or not saying anything of import at all.

      What amazes me is the way his followers incessantly quote him at every opportunity believing his words to somehow be amazingly insightful, yet when you leave the Art of Living daze and haze you realize that when you actually look at what he is saying, there really is nothing that special at all. They are mostly just empty words.

  4. Anonymous permalink
    December 20, 2012 3:05 pm

    Did you guys hear about AOL’s latest initiative- Volunteer For a Better India (VFaBI)?

    Genuine? Or is this also another attempt at hogging publicity?

    • freeOne permalink
      December 27, 2012 7:03 pm

      Seems like they get your information which they can use it for future business (sell you courses of-course) contacts. Have not see one thing they do genuine. Same old, same old always.

      • Anonymous permalink
        January 3, 2013 8:16 am

        The funny thing is, in their very first meeting, they made wildly exaggerated proclamations. The first project they declared was helping lessen the traffic problems which were expected on the New Year’s eve; they had decided to divide into groups and handle areas which are most traffic prone. A week later, we heard that this was completely scrapped and we were to celebrate New Year with a “Yoga Rave” party, fees charged of course. But, later, because of the rape incident that happened, they went for the peace rallies. And there too, didn’t forget to publicize “volunteer for a better India”, wearing t-shirts and carrying placards of the organization. After all, they wanted to introduce the organization with a bang!

  5. Anonymous permalink
    January 17, 2013 10:24 am

    I know of a certain Mr.X ( an ardent AOL follower) who sent his parents to the AOL ashram for doing “seva” and “becoming enlightened with divine knowledge”. As per Dr.Manikantan – after leaving his parents in the ashram, the AOL follower has initiated them into VANAPRASTHA and HIS RESPONSIBILITIES are OVER. Mr. X now claims that since his parents have renounced all wordly attachments, his duties as a son are completed and THERE IS NO NEED TO TAKE CARE OF THEM ANYMORE …
    In reality, the parents are quite miserable staying in the ashram. Deep down they have realised that AOL is not as “BLISSFUL AND DIVINE” as it claims.They wish to come out and get back to their old routine life as soon as possible . What kind of misguided knowledge are these AOL teachers imparting to their followers ?? No wonder they have damaged many relationships and families with their manipulative brainwashing techniques !!

  6. parting_seeker permalink
    January 19, 2013 11:31 am

    Eagerly awaiting Part-9 on Scarcity…..

  7. Mangal permalink
    February 17, 2013 9:17 pm

    Check out this twitter comment

    Khurshed (Bawa) ‏@khurshed No water in the loo of the 1st ac compartment of the train between kolkata and bhuvaneshwar. Can we get some refund on our tickets?!

    Amit Kumar Amit Kumar ‏@TimeToScoot Why exactly does a Guru need to travel in a 1st AC compartment? You people should not be leading such luxurious lives. @khurshed

    Khurshed (Bawa) ‏@khurshed @TimeToScoot hmmmm… getting jealous are we? 🙂

    Amit Kumar ‏@TimeToScoot A real Guru would never give such a response. You just exposed yourself and others who work at the Art of (Luxurious) Living. @khurshed

    Amit Kumar ‏@TimeToScoot @abhinevitable @keerthanavnath You see the glow on @khurshed ‘s face? It doesn’t come from meditation. It comes from your money. (1/2)

    Amit Kumar ‏@TimeToScoot @abhinevitable @keerthanavnath People like @khurshed don’t have to struggle and earn their luxury. You fools give it to them for free. (2/2)

    • anon permalink
      February 18, 2013 8:53 am

      Strange! Bawa had to face this inconvenience?? The story of another AOL friend is quite contradictory. By Guru’s grace, whenever he boards any train any route in Indian Railways, the entire train becomes spic and span. The compartments don a new look. The loos are sparkling clean complete with fresh running water, hand wash soap, toilet rolls etc. Even if the train is running behind schedule, there is divine intervention. Guruji takes care and blesses and miraculously the train always reaches on time. That is the RS power my AOL friend enjoys. Is Bawa missing out on something!!

  8. Anon permalink
    February 18, 2013 6:44 am

    Right. The star Aolites really do not have to do anything. Long live the organization so long as there are fools. Cut the money. Then we can see how they survive after getting habituated to free boarding, lodging, food, 7 star luxury hotels, chartered tours etc etc…
    The funniest part is like the Guru, every not so important Aol member outside the organization also expects freebies even to run his own household. After all they have the guru’s grace. Their money is for the organization but not for their own family members. The sufferings of their near and dear ones bereft of financial support for decent living, are ofcourse due to their own negative karma. The family has to face the brunt literally leading lives like beggars just because the so called head of the family happens to be an Aolite.


  1. Exposing the AoL Brainwashing Machinery – Part 9 | Further Beyond the Art of Living
  2. Exposing the AoL Brainwashing Machinery – Part 10 | Further Beyond the Art of Living
  3. Summary of Criticisms Against Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Art of Living | Further Beyond the Art of Living

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