Skip to content

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.

Exposing the AoL Brainwashing Machinery – Part 7

November 29, 2012

In Part 6 we took a look at how Social Proof is used to influence the many decisions that devotees make during their time with Art of Living. In this part we take a look at what has come to be known as the Liking Principle.


The Liking Principle states that we are far more likely to comply with any given request if we know and like the person who is making the request.

In Art of Living there are two ways in which this principle is exploited. Firstly, since the strongest liking bond is usually between existing friends, devotees are often persuaded to turn to their friends in order to ultimately bring more money into AoL. Secondly, the principle can readily be exploited to make devotees and prospective devotees better like Art of Living as an organization as well as other devotees, teachers and of course RS himself. These are described in some detail below.

Leveraging the Existing Bond Between Friends

The most obvious way in which AoL exploits the Liking Principle is simply to ask devotees to persuade their friends to enroll for an entry-level AoL course, such as a Basic/Part 1 or Yes!+ course, or even to attend an Introductory Talk. Since a bond of trust already exists between friends, this is usually far more effective and hence far less time-consuming than asking them to persuade complete strangers.

Whenever a natural or other disaster occurs, Art of Living ask their devotees to raise money to help those who have suffered as a result of the disaster. Devotees usually ask their friends for money, and since the bond of trust is already there, friends who generally are happy to give money to charity will more often than not make some nominal donation towards the given cause. Most people would not want to believe that their friend is raising money which will eventually end up for example financing one of several for-profit companies (for Inwinex Pharmaceuticals, Sumeru Realty, and so on) or to finance the 5-star hotel stays or business class travel for the founder of the alleged charity.

But more than just asking for donations to alleged charitable causes, AoL even asks devotees to canvass for donations for their Art of Living centers! This has happened and probably continues to happen in many places to this day. If devotees want to donate their own money to a local center that is one thing, but asking their friends and colleagues to make a donation? Isn’t this really quite far-fetched?

The Tupperware Party

One very interesting example of exploitation of the Liking Principle that Cialdini describes is the Tupperware party, which involves sales representatives of the Tupperware company approaching particular individuals, almost invariably women, and asking them to host a “party” at their homes and invite all their friends. Whilst it is sold to the friends as a party, and whilst even games are played at the party, it is in actual fact a very cleverly disguised vehicle for selling Tupperware products to the friends of the hostess. In return, the hostess receives a commission of all products sold.

What makes the Tupperware Party so powerful as a sales tool is the fact that the real sales power comes not from the Tupperware Party sales representative but from the hostess herself, or more specifically from the fact that all the guests at the party are already friends with the hostess – and will thus already like her.

The most interesting thing about this is that in an email which was sent out to devotees some time in 2010, and which was posted on Skywalker’s blog under 9 Steps To Organize a Part I Course, Bawa (author of the email) encourages devotees to use this exact tactic to manipulate people to signing up to a Basic / Part 1 course. It is specifically referred to in Step 7 as a “Home Intro Talk”, but in reality is just a variation of the Tupperware party.

As an interesting aside, this would lead us to believe that not only is Bawa well aware of this principle but he is most likely aware of the very same book where it is described – Robert Cialdini’s Influence. This should come as no surprise to anyone by now since, as we have already seen, all the manipulation tactics which have thus far been described in Cialdini’s book are being used to one extent or another in Art of Living. It is most likely then that many of those at the head of affairs in AoL are also familiar with this book and all the various principles of psychological manipulation described therein.

Manipulating Art of Living devotees

As well as persuading devotees to recruit and illicit donations from their existing friends, Art of Living further exploit the Liking Principle by manipulating these same devotees into better liking AoL itself and other devotees. By increasing trust in this way it makes it far easier to sell ongoing courses, events and of course to illicit donations from existing devotees.

There are a number of key factors which affect how the way we like something.

Physical Attractiveness

A great amount of scientific research has shown that we tend to like people more if they are physically attractive. Note that this relates not only to how attractive people are physically, but also to their clothing and general grooming.

I recall one senior teacher who likes to cry whenever he thinks of his beloved master that he thought that RS not only had a beautiful soul but that he was also physically beautiful. Even at the time this seemed like one of the strangest things I had ever heard, but now I realize that he was just implanting the idea that RS was physically attractive in the minds of all those present.

For those who recall there was a very heart-wrenching account on Klim’s blog about a woman who had spent the best part of a small fortune to take the TTC but who at the end overheard the teachers say that they considered her to be too ugly to become a teacher, and then subsequently broke down into tears.

So yes, physical attractiveness is considered an important factor in Art of Living, especially when selecting who can and cannot become a teacher.

One observation which Cialdini makes:

“Because we like attractive people and because we tend to comply with those we like, it makes sense that sales training programs include grooming hints, that fashionable clothiers select their floor staffs from among the good-looking candidates, […]”

It is fair to say that most Art of Living teachers and especially senior teachers are physically attractive. But on top of this, they are actually instructed in TTC to wear certain clothing, light-colored or preferably white, and to completely avoid dark colors, especially black. This is done on purpose – to make them more likeable.

The Halo Effect

That physical attractiveness is a key factor which influences how we like someone is actually due to what has become known as the Halo effect: when one positive characteristic of a person seems to dominate the way that person is viewed by others. Much scientific evidence shows that physical attractiveness is one such characteristic.

Research has shown that we automatically assign certain favorable traits such as talent, kindness, honesty and intelligence to good-looking people. In other words, we psychological associate good-looking with being good. Good-looking people are generally better liked, more persuasive, and seen as possessing better personality traits and intellectual capacities.


We tend to like people more if they are similar to us, especially if they hold similar beliefs and opinions, come from a similar background to us (for example geographically or professionally), have similar personality traits or a similar lifestyle to us.

Whilst many similarities can readily be found between Art of Living devotees, the most obvious one is simply that they are members of AoL. Implicit in this is the fact that devotees share many beliefs and opinions, and have many similarities in their lifestyles.

This is actually a huge influencing factor since it greatly increases the chances that devotees will already like each other – even before they know each other. Unless they have had bad experiences, they will believe that they will have a much closer affinity to other AoL devotees than for example to complete strangers.

This built-in likability then makes it far easier for AoL to persuade their devotees to ask other devotees to sit more courses or volunteer to organize them, participate in satsangs, or in short do pretty much anything that they ask for.


Whenever we are complimented in any manner and we feel the compliment is genuine, we automatically better like the person who made the compliment.

This is something which is used effectively in AoL once individuals have already become devotees. In the Advanced/Part 2/Art of Silence course, it is one of the first processes that participants have to go through, to learn to give compliments to others as well as to themselves. The take-away from this is that “All praise goes to the divine.”

Devotees are constantly complimented on one thing or another by other devotees and more so by teachers. In fact, as was already touched upon in the section on Reciprocation,
one of the greatest compliments a teacher can give to a devotee is to tell them that they should become a teacher.

More often than not, we have little reason to suspect that we are actually being manipulated when we are being flattered in this manner. We just accept the flattery, believing it to be genuine, and leave ourselves wide open to be exploited by the Liking Principle.

Familiarity through Increased Contact

The more times we come into contact with something, the more familiar we become with it. And research has shown that we like things which are familiar to us. As Cialdini tells us: “Often we don’t realize that our attitude toward something has been influenced by the number of times we have been exposed to it in the past.” Ultimately, the more familiar we are with something, the more we like it and so the more social influence it can have over us.

The following passage taken from Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is of particular interest to the discussion at hand:

“For example, in one experiment, the faces of several individuals were flashed on a screen so quickly that later on, the subjects who were exposed to the faces in this manner couldn’t recall having seen any of them before. Yet, the more frequently a person’s face was flashed on the screen, the more these subjects came to like that person when they met in a subsequent interaction. And because greater liking leads to greater social influence, these subjects were also more persuaded by the opinion statements of the individuals whose faces had appeared on the screen most frequently.”

The most pertinent example of the way the familiarity aspect of the Liking Principle is exploited in Art of Living is the use of photographs of Ravi Shankar, usually smiling beatifically. These are ever-present at satsangs, on the cover of nearly all AoL books, in some of the more advanced courses, in posters throughout all the ashrams, and most prominently of all in the homes of the more ardent devotees. This is an integral yet somewhat subtle component of the Art of Living Brainwashing Machinery, with the overall purpose being to make devotees like RS a lot more than they would ordinarily, that is, without the use of the photos. As such, this becomes a major contributing factor to the overall influence RS has over his devotees.

Familiarity through Cooperation

Another factor which affects the Liking Principle is cooperation, specifically working together to achieve a common goal.

At the most basic level, there are so many group activities throughout various courses starting with the Basic/Part 1 Course which are designed to create a feeling of mutual cooperation and hence act as a binding agent between devotees. Any group activity, such as handing out flyers, organizing courses and events, and even sitting courses with other individuals all create a feeling of cooperation, and hence increase the chances that those involved will like each other.

But the best example of cooperation in Art of Living is that all devotees are working together for a common goal, to do whatever they can to spread the message of RS to the world, to bring as many people as they can into Art of Living and so to help save them from certain doom. Everyone working tirelessly together, one big happy AoL family, all striving for this common vision.

This really is one of the strongest social forces which keeps people trapped in Art of Living. So many people form such strong bonds with fellow devotees because of this that it becomes extremely difficult to break these bonds should they ever feel they need to. For example when the doubts become too great and they have to leave.

One way out of this particular trap is to realize that outside of Art of Living, one usually has very few if any commonalities with other devotees.

Conditioning and Association

One of the most prominent factors affecting the Liking Principle is the use of conditioning through association, as discovered by Ivan Pavlov. Specifically, it is the association with positive things whilst at the same time avoiding any association with negative things. The association with any given positive thing generally makes the person exploiting the association look more favorable in the eyes of consumers, thus making them more likable and giving them more social influence.

Art of Living are constantly trying to associate themselves with positive things. Whenever any disaster takes place in the world, AoL are quick to respond by telling all their devotees that they have taken some positive action to help the situation. A visit from RS himself to the affected area is usually part of the propaganda machine here.

A key association that AoL often boasts about is that it is affiliated with the United Nations. At the current time of writing the Wikipedia entry for Art of Living states: “The Foundation is working in special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations.” Whilst this may sound impressive on paper, in reality it doesn’t actually amount to very much at all, especially given that there are at least 3,500 NGOs worldwide that share this status (see

Art of Living’s involvement with Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption movement was actually a brilliant example of exploiting the association aspect of the Liking Principle. Not only did AoL associate themselves with a movement which was considered by many to be very positive, but due to the nature of the cause, they also tried to distance themselves from something very negative: corruption itself. This was an absolute masterstroke of pure genius. Incredibly, this internal email written by François Gautier and sent out to devotees
shows how AoL tried to spin things to look as if they were the major driving force behind the movement.

But it doesn’t end there. Nearly a year on and with the IAC movement seemingly on its last legs and looking extremely unlikely to achieve any of what it set out to, where is AoL now? It looks like they rode the media wave when IAC was in the limelight, but now that it has become unpopular, AoL has all but abandoned the movement and completely distanced themselves from it. See Bringer of Light or Desperate for Limelight for a detailed analysis of this. This link also describes how many of the service projects which Art of Living uses for publicity never really come to fruition.

Even though it has been covered adequately in both this post and across the blogs, the attributing of anything positive in a devotee’s life with their association with AoL and particularly with RS is also another good example of the exploitation of this principle. If a devotee believes that anything good which is happening to them is due to “Guruji’s Grace” in their lives, of course they are going to like RS more – thus opening themselves up to be further exploited by him.

In Part 8, we’ll take a good look at how the power of Authority is exploited in Art of Living.

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.

Exposing the AoL Brainwashing Machinery – Part 5

November 15, 2012

In Part 4 we continued our discussion of Robert Cialdini’s Weapons of Influence by examining the various ways in which Commitment and Consistency are used to manipulate people in Art of Living. In this part we take a detailed look at the phenomenon of Cognitive Dissonance, something which in fact has already been raised several times across these blogs.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance is something which in fact has already been raised several times across these blogs, but which we have never really gone into any detail over. It is something which is both subtle yet incredibly powerful, and works alongside Guru’s Grace to make it extremely difficult for devotees not only to to realize that they are being manipulated, but also to ever want to leave Art of Living should they want to for whatever reason.

Cognitive Dissonance is a psychological term describing a phenomenon which occurs when an individual who holds a particular belief or set of beliefs is presented with conflicting beliefs, which subsequently results in a feeling of pain and discomfort. In this state, people may experience anger, embarrassment, guilt, regret, shame, fear or any other of a host of undesirable feelings and emotions. They will subsequently feel compelled to act in some way to minimize or completely remove the conflict and with it the discomfort, for instance adjusting their beliefs and behavior, blaming, denying, ignoring, justifying and even lying to the point of deceiving themselves.

Origins of the Term

The term was coined by Leon Festinger who led a group of researchers that infiltrated a UFO cult in the 1950s as part of a sociological study. The members of the cult held a number of core beliefs including that the world was going to suffer a cataclysm in the form of a flood on a particular date and that they, the members of the cult, would be saved – by aliens.

When the date came and there was no flood, the subsequent behavior of the majority of the members of the cult was quite surprising. It began when the leaders claimed that for now the world had been spared because “The little group, sitting alone all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.” Instead of admitting they had been wrong the entire time, which would have left most members fairly embarrassed at the decisions they had made (many had sold all their possessions and given up their jobs to be part of the cult) it actually caused them to go out and proselytize in an attempt to recruit new members.

By seeking social support for their beliefs, this actually had the effect of reinforcing the various commitments they had made, which was a far less painful option than any admission that they had in actual fact ever been wrong. (This particular phenomenon of seeking social support for validation will be covered in detail subsequently when we look at Social Proof.)

Certainly a small handful of members who had been on the surface did leave, however the majority remained and continued to proselytize. (A full account of this story is chronicled in the book When Prophecy Fails, for anyone interested.)

Cognitive Dissonance and Art of Living

One cannot help but draw a number of similarities between the UFO cult and Art of Living. Those following the AoL path will certainly have committed to many beliefs which form the Art of Living ideology, beliefs which in fact a great many will hold to be “truths”. Some will have given up their jobs or studies to move into one the ashrams, a few will have cut ties with family members, and some will have become teachers and full time teachers.

In many cases, followers will have made choices in life which are irreversible. And those who haven’t completely cut their ties with those they knew prior to their involvement with AoL will have kept family and friends informed of their progress. As such, if any information came to light which challenged their core beliefs, it would put them in a very difficult position as far as these relationships are concerned. They will at the very least feel embarrassed and almost certainly humiliated, not least of all because they would have to admit they had been deceived and manipulated the entire time.

Rather than admit they had been wrong about their choices thus far, they would do whatever they can to deny the new information in favor of preserving their original beliefs, thus saving face and removing the dissonance.

For those who have had positive experiences from Sudarshan Kriya, they would prefer to believe that it produces a spiritual experience brought on by “Guruji’s Grace” flowing through the teacher, rather than accept that the effects are actually due to hyperventilation and that the teacher is doing little more than guiding them through the preparatory pranayamas then pressing the play button on the tape recorder. They would prefer to deny that the tape works without a trained teacher, in spite of the fact that many readers on these blogs have already confirmed otherwise. This is something which has already been raised so many times on previous blogs but which has always been denied or ignored. Art of Living people don’t want to believe the truth about the tape, and if you know any teachers, try telling them this and see how they react.

For those who have taken TTC, they would much rather believe that the processes they went through have somehow prepared them to become “channels” through which “Guruji’s Grace” can flow and that they have in some way transcended their egos, rather than believe that they have actually been manipulated and abused, and that these processes are actually responsible for breaking down their will and sense of identity, ultimately turning them into obedient slaves. Especially if they have spent the best part of a small fortune not to mention the time they took out of their lives to take the course.

For those who believe that Art of Living is a humanitarian and spiritual organization spreading love and light to the world, they would prefer to believe everyone associated with AoL can only benefit from their experiences, rather than accept the many accounts of physical, psychological, spiritual and sexual abuse reported in these blogs. They would rather conclude that the victims of these abuses are being untruthful in some way, are being negative, than admit that the wrong-doings actually ever took place.

For those who believe that all money collected from courses goes to humanitarian projects, they will find it difficult to accept that money has actually been channeled into various commercial enterprises controlled by RS and his family (such as Sumeru Software, Sumeru Realty and Inwinex Pharmaceuticals) in spite of the fact that the money to start these enterprises had to have come from somewhere. They would prefer to avoid asking any questions about AoL’s lack of financial transparency, where the money came from to finance RS’ nephews’ education, and the fact that RS flies business class and stays in 5-star hotels.

For those who look up to senior teachers and who expect them to practice the values they preach, they would rather turn a blind eye to any instances where these teachers behave and act in ways which completely contradict the very values they preach, or at the very least try and justify them in some way. One of the best examples of this behavior can be seen in the comments left in response to Swami Sadyojatha’s email by devotees praising the things that both he and RS said in that letter, in spite of the fact that much of what they said was both hypocritical and completely unethical.

For those who were involved in the campaign to try to win the Nobel Peace Prize for RS, they would rather believe that the reason they didn’t win was that the world wasn’t ready to win it (which is exactly what they were told to believe when they lost), rather than that RS had been wrong in his prediction that he was going to win it that year.

For anyone who believes they have been healed by RS, perhaps from a chronic illness they have been diagnosed with but which doctors have told them is incurable, they would rather believe that RS healed them using special healing powers rather than their own faith in him being the cause of the healing.

For those who believe that RS is an enlightened master, they will find it extremely difficult to accept that this isn’t true, that in fact he is just an ordinary human being with flaws just like everyone else, who simply happens to have some knowledge of Vedic scriptures and is able to convey this knowledge effectively. Even when they see him behaving in a questionable manner, they will still find some way to justify it to themselves.

These are all real examples of cognitive dissonance and some of the ways in which followers deal with it. And of course the majority of Art of Living supporters who have expressed themselves in one way or another on these blogs have also done so as a result of cognitive dissonance, in many cases arising from the exact issues outlined above. Thus far we have seen much abuse, denial, justification, ignoring of revealing questions which have been asked, desperate attempts to discredit many of the contributors whilst avoiding the actual issues, and above all outright lying. Even the various counter-blogs which have arisen over the years trying to discredit these critical blogs, none of which lasted very long, arose as a result of cognitive dissonance.

The problem is that thus far, Art of Living supporters (whether on this blog or on their own counter-blog) have been completely unsuccessful in any of their attempts to sway the opinions of the readers of these blogs who are either critical of AoL or who are researching AoL before taking a course. This is primarily due to the fact that at a subconscious level this has never really been their intention. Rather, what they have been trying to do all along is to convince themselves and anyone else who still supports AoL that they are doing the right thing by being part of AoL. Notice how so many accounts posted by AoL supporters are trying to show that AoL is doing charity work around the world, that Sudarshan Kriya changes people’s lives for the better, that Ravishankar is an enlightened being, that AoL has been involved in the Anna Hazare movement and so on, and using these and similar arguments in an attempt to counter the criticisms raised in these blogs – without actually addressing any of the issues?

This one-sided portrayal of Art of Living by its supporters as an organization which only does good and using this as an argument that the many criticisms written in the blogs is untrue is another way in which they try to deal with cognitive dissonance. Whatever good Art of Living does, what they are really doing here is outright denying all the real issues that are going on in AoL, pretending to themselves that they don’t exist at all. And worst of all, those at the head of affairs in Art of Living have desperately tried to persuade all the remaining AoL supporters that anyone who has made all these criticisms against Art of Living is disgruntled, cowardly, deceitful and whole host of other negative labels. Just look at the articles which appeared on Bawa & Dinesh and Kashi’s blogs immediately after Art of Living lost the lawsuit (see this post for links) to see some pertinent examples of this exact behavior.

The saddest thing of all is that this is the easiest thing for all the AoL devotees to believe. If on the other hand they were to admit that many of the things written here are true, they will at the very least suffer a great amount of pain, discomfort and even humiliation. For some, especially full-time teachers who have nowhere else to go, their entire realities would collapse and they would be left devastated. Just as many of us felt when we finally came to terms with the fact that AoL wasn’t the organization we were led to believe it was and decided to leave.

For those of us who managed to pull ourselves away from AoL, most of us will also have experienced cognitive dissonance at one time or another during our time with AoL, as is clearly evidenced by a great many of the personal accounts written in these blogs. Many of us have already reported how we had doubts during our association with AoL and how we ended up “dropping” these doubts as we had been instructed to through various courses and knowledge points. But what we were really doing was suppressing these doubts, in the hope that they would go away. As Carl Jung said, what you resist persists (yes, it was Carl Jung and NOT Sri Sri Ravi Shankar as is commonly believed by the latter’s followers).

Eventually our doubts resurfaced and we came to realize we could no longer suppress them. And when we listened to our doubts, we realized that after all there really were things about AoL which we couldn’t accept, and we made the decision to leave. It was by no means an easy decision, and each of us would have gone through our own recovery process which in most cases will have involved some degree of pain and suffering.

To admit that we are wrong is the first step to recovery, but it is also the most difficult. The far easier and far less painful alternative would be to deceive ourselves, to turn a blind eye to all the wrong-doings in AoL or to completely deny their existence, as so many do. Yet the longer we deceive ourselves in this manner, the greater the pain and suffering we will have to endure when we eventually realize we should have listened to our doubts as they were trying to warn us all along.

So finally to those of you who are reading this who have become so deeply involved in AoL, who have put so much faith in RS and in the organization, who at one time strongly believed many of the things that have been challenged and outright debunked in this blog about AoL but are currently having certain doubts and finding yourself trapped in the organization with no real means of leaving, my heart really goes out to you. I really wish there were some easy way that you could pull yourself out, but there really isn’t.

All I can say which may be of some help is that whatever pain and suffering you go through if you do decide to leave, you do not have to do this alone. From reading so many accounts across these blogs, I have noticed that many who left Art of Living actually kept in contact with their non-AoL friends, or made some effort to reconnect with them in cases where they had cut their ties. And in all cases, their friends and family were so supportive that it considerably helped with their recovery process.

I also hope that these blogs go some way towards helping you to recover, not only in the capacity of helping you to better understand how you were manipulated and otherwise abused, but also allowing you to share your own experiences and talk to others who have been in a similar situation to you but who have managed to free themselves.

I know I can speak for everyone here who has left Art of Living when I say that freeing ourselves AoL, going through all the pain and suffering caused by the cognitive dissonance we experienced over time, was far better than staying and and accepting all the deceptions, manipulations and other wrong-doings of the organization. So if you find that you too are unable to accept these things, you need to make a decision as to whether or not you really want to stay with the organization. Ultimately, this is something you need to decide for yourself.

In Part 6, we’ll take a look at Social Proof.

Exposing the AoL Brainwashing Machinery – Part 4

November 12, 2012

In Part 3 we began to take a detailed look at some of the processes employed by Art of Living to manipulate their devotees, beginning with Robert Cialdini’s Weapons of Influence. In Part 4, we continue this discussion by looking at the power of Commitment & Consistency and how it is used to influence people.

Commitment and Consistency


When an individual commits to a certain idea or belief, either verbally or in writing, they become far more likely to honor that commitment. The reason for this is that the idea or belief which they commit to then forms part of their self-image, and as such they want to be seen as being consistent with this self-image. Inconsistency is more often than not seen as a sign of weakness.

In Cialdini’s own words:

It is, quite simply, our nearly obsessive desire to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have already done. Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.


Once a stand had been taken, the need for consistency pressured these people to bring what they felt and believed into line with what they had already done. They simply convinced themselves that they had made the right choice and, no doubt, felt better about it all.


Indeed, we all fool ourselves from time to time in order to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided.


The drive to be (and look) consistent constitutes a highly potent weapon of social influence, often causing us to act in ways that are clearly contrary to our own best interests.


To understand why consistency is so powerful a motive, it is important to recognize that in most circumstances consistency is valued and adaptive. Inconsistency is commonly thought to be an undesirable personality trait. The person whose beliefs, words, and deeds don’t match may be seen as indecisive, confused, two-faced, or even mentally ill. On the other side, a high degree of consistency is normally associated with personal and intellectual strength. It is at the heart of logic, rationality, stability, and honesty.

Reinforcing Commitments
Cialdini focuses not only on the power of commitment and consistency, but specifically on how compliance practitioners leverage this natural tendency to manipulate us. In particular he notes that there are two circumstances under which a commitment an individual makes is greatly reinforced.

Firstly, by asking individuals to make a commitment in front of others, it becomes even more important that they honor this commitment in order to remain consistent in the eyes of those who have witnessed them making this commitment.

Secondly, by asking individuals to make a commitment in writing, a written record solidifies the commitment and makes it very difficult not to honor it. This is even more powerful than a making a commitment in public.

Cialdini also makes a note about a tactic commonly used by compliance practitioners who exploit this particular weapon of influence by beginning with the elicitation of a small, trivial commitment from an individual, and then goes on to note that it then becomes far easier to ask for increasingly greater commitments from that same individual in the future.

You can use small commitments to manipulate a person’s self-image; you can use them to turn citizens into “public servants,” prospects into “customers,” prisoners into “collaborators.” And once you’ve got a man’s self-image where you want it, he should comply naturally with a whole range of your requests that are consistent with this view of himself.

Does any of this sound familiar to anyone?

How it is Exploited in Art of Living

From as early on as the Basic Course, participants are asked to make various seemingly trivial commitments to Art of Living. At the end of the course, participants are usually asked to commit to practicing home kriya every morning for anything from 40-90 days, and to attend long kriya sessions once weekly.

Participants are also asked to commit to signing up 5-10 friends to do the Basic Course, and are often asked to write down the names of these individuals then hand the list in to the teacher. Similar requests are made towards the end of most courses, to bring friends to courses, talks, satsangs and any other AoL events.

But it is in the Basic Course points and the manner in which they are taught that AoL particularly excels at eliciting a powerful commitment from course attendees. Rather than just asking course participants to write down each of the points and to memorize them, the teacher asks attendees a series of questions and instructs them to discuss these within the group. On a subtle level, the teacher actually leads the participants to arrive at each respective course point by guiding their responses (as they have been taught to do), however it is done in such a way that it appears as if the participants arrive at these conclusions spontaneously. In this way, the participants are far more likely to accept the points as truths and commit to internalizing them.

What makes the Basic Course points particularly interesting is that the majority of them refer to things which are either completely intangible or which are very difficult or next to impossible to attain. In Part 1 of this series I already stated that I didn’t consider the majority of these course points as part of the Art of Living ideology. However, they are a very good means of bringing people into Art of Living, by having a set of guiding principles which devotees follow, and as such these can be considered as an agent for group cohesiveness, that is, to bind followers to each other and to the organization.


During the DSN course, participants are asked to form groups based on their geographical location, and at the end of the course are told to make a commitment to keep in contact with their groups ongoing. They are actually asked to give out their contact details to the “team captain”, whose responsibility it then becomes to ensure they meet on a regular basis to plan how they can promote Art of Living in their respective areas.

One interesting thing I personally experienced occurred towards the end of a session which had been organized for TTC aspirants where Rishi Nitya Pragya asked everyone present to make a donation towards the local Art of Living center. We were specifically instructed to donate one month’s salary, and were further asked to write the amount we wanted to pledge on a sheet of paper and hand it in. Not long afterwards each of us who had made a pledge received a phone call asking us to honor our donations, and as per Cialdini’s observation, the fact that we had made this commitment in writing made it very difficult to back out at that stage.

Effort and Initiation

Anyone who has spent any time with Art of Living will have come to realize that there is a well-established path for devotees to follow. For most it begins with the Basic or Yes!+ courses, Sahaj Samadhi, one or more Advanced Courses including an Advanced Course with SSRS, optionally interspersed with voluntary work to promote the organization, attending group activities such as long kriya sessions, knowledge sessions, satsangs, and then progressing onto more advanced courses such as DSN and eventually TTC. Beyond that, teachers can become senior teachers (how exactly do they do this, and in fact what are “senior” teachers?), and a small handful go on to become TTC trainers, Swamis and Rishis.

The further one progresses along this path, the more overall time, money and above all effort one needs to expend in order to remain on the path. As Cialdini observes, “And the evidence is clear that the more effort that goes into a commitment, the greater is its ability to influence the attitudes of the person who made it.”

This idea is greatly expanded upon by Cialdini when he covers initiation ceremonies and their effect on the attitudes of those who have to undergo them. In particular he cites one anthropological study where boys who are part of the Thonga tribe in southern Africa have to go through an elaborate coming-of-age initiation. “During the course of his initiation, the boy undergoes six major trials: beatings, exposure to cold, thirst, eating of unsavoury foods, punishment and the threat of death.” Those who successfully manage to survive these trials then effectively become “initiated”, that is they are accepted as adults in the eyes of the rest of the tribe.

One cannot help but note similarities between these ordeals and various processes which participants of DSN and especially TTC have to undergo. We have such trials as the Hot Seat (where participants take it in turns to be criticized and in some cases humiliated by members of their group), a strictly controlled sattvic diet, exercises involving handing out of flyers to strangers to bring them to for example an introductory talk or course (which many find unnerving), the Buddha Process (which consists of dressing up in one’s worst clothes and begging on the streets), and of course forced sleep deprivation (which it is well-known can induce psychosis, a state of deep confusion, and make people a lot more susceptible to brainwashing).

Those who make it to the end of TTC and who end up being chosen (not everyone is) are rewarded for their efforts not only by being handed the much coveted Sudarshan Kriya tape, but also by going from being ordinary followers to becoming fully-fledged teachers for the Art of Living.

In so many ways, then, the TTC is itself an elaborate initiation process, and in a subtle way it is even marketed by Art of Living as such, especially by existing teachers. It is seen as some sort of holy grail, something which all followers should strive for, and once a follower has attained it they somehow become more “special”, more dedicated, more committed and ultimately initiated in the eyes of the organization and of all other followers.

Cialdini cites one pertinent example where researchers conducted a study to show that “persons who go through a great deal of trouble or pain to attain something tend to value it more highly than persons who attain the same thing with a minimum of effort.” In this study, two groups of college girls were trying to gain admission into a sex education group. One group, who had to go through an embarrassing initiation process, valued the group much more highly than the other group, who didn’t have to expend any effort whatsoever, and who in fact found the group to be “worthless and uninteresting”. In particular he notes, “The more electric shock a woman received as part of the initiation ceremony, the more she later persuaded herself that her new group and its activities were interesting, intelligent, and desirable.”

There is little doubt that those who are at the head of affairs in AoL are fully aware of this principle as it is something which underlies many of their courses, especially TTC. All the effort one has to expend to go through the processes which are part of the TTC, combined with the time and money one has to spend on this and all prerequisite courses and materials, elicits one of the most powerful commitments in the devotee and makes them value the organization and especially their newly acquired teacher status all the more than they would have done had they never taken TTC.

Art of Living Ideology Revisited

Ultimately, all the commitments which devotees make to Art of Living result directly or otherwise in their aligning their core beliefs to and hence adopting the Art of Living Ideology (discussed in Part 1.) Because of their commitment to the Art of Living Ideology, it becomes very difficult for them to acknowledge any of the many red flags they may encounter during their time with the organization, or to accept any points of view which radically challenge these beliefs, such as those presented throughout these blogs. This is because of a condition which has come to be known as Cognitive Dissonance, and which will be discussed at length in our next part of this series.

In Part 5, we take a detailed look at the phenomenon known as Cognitive Dissonance.

Exposing the AoL Brainwashing Machinery – Part 3

November 7, 2012

In Part 2, we looked at Lifton’s eight criteria for brainwashing, and showed how Art of Living had created an environment which features all of these criteria. We also showed how the AoL Brainwashing Machinery is ultimately composed of its devotees, and concluded that its greatest weakness is its inability to control every aspect of its devotees’ environments, which in turn has led to devotees discovering revealing information about the organization through the internet. In Part 3, we look at some of the processes which Art of Living actually employ to brainwash their devotees.

Brainwashing Techniques and Processes

Central to brainwashing is the idea of belief change, which Robert Jay Lifton originally referred to as “thought reform”. But how exactly can an individual’s beliefs be changed? After all, simply telling an individual to believe something is usually insufficient.

One of the main factors which can influence how a person’s beliefs can be changed is their existing belief system. If for example an individual is already a Hindu, or is well-versed in Hindu philosophy, it doesn’t take a great deal to persuade them that a particular human being – in this case Sri Sri Ravi Shankar – is an incarnation of God, since the idea of “God-realization” is part of Hindu philosophy. An individual who follows another religion such as Christianity is not as easy to persuade, however it is still possible. One technique which is employed by Art of Living on Christian followers is to convince them that RS is actually an incarnation of Jesus Christ, who himself they believe to have been a “God-realized” being.

Essentially, if a potential convert’s existing (that is, pre-brainwashing) belief system is in some way in accord with the new belief system the brainwasher is trying to convert them to, the amount of work required by the brainwasher to bring about these belief changes is greatly reduced. A far greater challenge is to convince an individual whose existing belief system is in conflict with the new belief system.

A good example is to take an individual who is an atheist and convince them that RS is a God-realized being. There are a number of challenges here, first and foremost that before the atheist can even be convinced of RS’ “God-realized” status, he needs first to be convinced of the existence of God! Since it is highly likely that the atheist is also a rationalist (although one does not necessarily always follow from the other), another challenge this presents for the brainwasher is to overcome the atheist’s ability to use reason and critical thinking.

A brainwasher faces many similar challenges when it comes to changing the beliefs of individuals. However, if the correct techniques are applied, over a given period of time it is possible to overcome the majority of these challenges in order to bring about the desired changes to a person’s belief system, and to do so irrespective of their original beliefs.

As it happens many such techniques are employed to great effect by Art of Living, and I will attempt to cover as many of them as I can in the remainder of this series of articles. However, whatever I cover here is by no means exhaustive and the reader is invited to contribute any further techniques they may be aware of at the end of this series.

The Psychology of Persuasion

In 1982 a professor of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University by the name of Robert B Cialdini first published a book entitled Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. In this book Cialdini discusses a number of techniques, which he refers to collectively as Weapons of Influence, which are predominantly used within the arena of sales and marketing to illicit certain responses from customers. Ultimately, as a result of the application of these techniques, customers end up buying goods or services which they most likely otherwise would not have done. Cialdini argues that there are certain seemingly natural impulses which many of us respond to in a predictable manner, and that those with sufficient knowledge of these can exploit individuals to bring about a desired result in those who are exploited by them.

Although the book’s main focus is on sales and marketing, the author cites many examples where these same techniques have been used by cults on their members. Unsurprisingly, without exception every one of the techniques discussed by Cialdini is used to one extent or another within Art of Living.

The following is a list of all of the techniques which Cialdini discusses, and I will spend some time going into detail as to how each of these is employed by Art of Living:

  • Contrast Principle
  • Reciprocation
  • Commitment and Consistency
  • Social Proof
  • Liking
  • Authority
  • Scarcity

The Contrast Principle

The first technique which Cialdini describes is what he calls the Contrast Principle. When we compare two items or events against each other, the way we perceive one item or event is radically altered by our perception of the other item or event.

For example, most people will have heard of and may even have carried out an experiment featuring three tubs of water, one cold, one warm, and one hot. When an individual’s hands are placed respectively one in the cold and one in the hot tub, and then both hands are removed and placed in the warm tub, the hand which was in the cold tub will perceive the warm tub as being warmer than the hand that was in the hot tub, which will perceive a drop in temperature.

The Contrast Principle is often put to good use in stores where on a particular item an old price is seen crossed out and a newer, lower price is placed underneath it. More often than not the “new” price is the actual price of the good, and the old price is just an exaggerated price at which the item was never really priced at in the first place. But our minds tend to see this information, process it as a bargain, and hence we are more likely to buy the item if it is something we would have purchased anyway, because of the apparent drop in price.

How it is Exploited In Art of Living
In Art of Living, the Contrast Principle is used in a very subtle way – especially compared to other techniques – to try to emphasize a difference between a devotee’s life before and after they joined AoL. The longer the time they spend with the organization, the greater the perceived contrast between their life before and their life since becoming part of AoL. This technique is even used to great effect in some of the more advanced courses.

For example during the DSN course, participants are asked to come forward and share with the group how much of a positive impact Art of Living has had on their lives, particularly with regards to Sudarshan Kriya. Inevitably those who have had the most profound changes will be the ones who share their stories, and this results in those present believing that Art of Living is directly responsible for making their lives better. Ultimately, this makes those who hold this belief far more willing to promote Art of Living to the public.

I am not saying that Art of Living does not improve people’s lives, it certainly does as it did for me. What I am saying is that people are reminded of this regularly during their time in AoL, and as such it brings the contrast in their lives into focus and makes it easier for AoL to persuade followers to market AoL to others.


When someone gives us something of value, shows a certain kindness to us, or does us some favor, we feel indebted to that person, and as such we are naturally inclined, and at times even feel obligated, to reciprocate the favor.

Throughout this article, I will refer to this principle as the Reciprocity Rule.

How it is Exploited in Art of Living
At every opportunity, AoL tries to convince its followers that all they have received from AoL – for instance Sudarshan Kriya or any “sacred” knowledge they have learned – is far more valuable than any money they have ever paid to the organization.

As with the Contrast Principle, this again is one of the underlying themes of the DSN course, the entire purpose of which appears to be to turn individuals into AoL marketing robots. During my own DSN, our teacher outright asked us “Don’t you all feel that the money you paid for learning Sudarshan Kriya is nothing compared to the benefits you received from it? Hmmm?”

Along similar lines, volunteers and teachers have a tendency to use one of a plethora of techniques, such as yoga, meditation, playing games, giving knowledge, and satsangs to bring about a feeling of happiness and well-being in a participant. This in and of itself is not a bad thing, however they then go on and try to attribute that feeling to Art of Living and ultimately to RS.

In Art of Living, this attributing of a person’s happiness and well-being to RS is commonly referred to as “Guruji’s Grace”, and is discussed at length in the post Original Sin in AoL & the Final Salvation, which details how “Guruji’s Grace” is really just a mechanism used to enslave devotees to AoL and RS. It has also been challenged further in a the series of posts entitled “Debunking Guruji’s Grace”, Part 1 of which you can read here.

There is also a tendency amongst teachers to single out individuals whom they believe will themselves make good teachers, and to try and make them feel as special as possible in order to groom them for becoming teachers in the future. Bizarrely enough for an organization which talks endlessly about the need to transcend the ego, most techniques which teachers employ to make a prospective teacher feel special involve massaging the prospective teacher’s ego. The more senior the teacher who singles out the prospective candidate, the more “blessed” that candidate is made to feel, and they often feel they need to give something in return for this blessing.

The effect of this technique becomes even more powerful when RS himself suggests to a particular individual that they should become a teacher, because then it seems as if it is a mandate from God himself – if the individual is sufficiently conditioned to believe that RS is God by that stage of their development. In any case, those who are singled out and appreciated in this manner feel they have received something precious from AoL, and this makes them highly susceptible to exploitation by the Reciprocity Rule.

Once AoL successfully convince an individual that they have received something of great value, then by the Reciprocity Rule that individual then feels duty bound to repay AoL in some way. This may be in the form of volunteering such as handing out flyers, organizing courses, or in the case of those who have already been singled out, taking steps to becoming teachers.

In Part 4, we continue to look at how Cialdini’s Weapons of Influence are used in Art of Living by looking at Commitment and Consistency.

Exposing the AoL Brainwashing Machinery – Part 2

November 3, 2012

In Part 1, we began by introducing a working definition of brainwashing, described in some detail the Art of Living Ideology and what the benefits are for those responsible for propagating it, and showed how devotees can be considered as assets to the organization. In Part 2 we will look at how Art of Living has created an environment which is highly conducive to brainwashing.

An Environment Conducive to Brainwashing

In his 1961 book “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A study of Brainwashing in China”, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton discusses his research into a recurring phenomenon he discovered amongst a number of American servicemen who were held captive during the Korean war, namely that a small minority of servicemen had actually emerged from the POW camps seemingly having converted to Communism, something which baffled many people at the time. His findings revealed that during their captivity, these servicemen were subjected to various processes by the Chinese to bring about drastic changes to their core belief systems, specifically to align their beliefs with the Communist ideology.

As a result of his research, Lifton describes in his book eight conditions which were used to bring about what he termed “thought reform”, a term which essentially means the same thing as brainwashing. The more of these conditions which are present within a given environment, the more that environment is conducive to brainwashing those individuals who are kept within it.

Lifton’s eight criteria were actually discussed in one of the first posts on Skywalker’s blog, Know Thy Enemy, under the section “The Mental Prison”, and the reader is encouraged to read the whole section if not the whole post, as it is still as valid today as it was when it was first written two years ago.

Since it is pertinent to the current discussion, I will re-list Lifton’s eight criteria here, and will provide a number of additional comments to those mentioned in the “Know Thy Enemy” post.

I have taken from the source for each of the points (in italics), and supplemented these with extracts from Kathleen Taylor’s excellent resource on the subject, Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control.

  1. Milieu ControlThe control of information and communication, not just between the individual and the outside world, but between the individual and himself.
    Over time, devotees are encouraged to spend more time within Art of Living circles, to abandon their friends and even any family who they are unable to bring into Art of Living. Within this essentially closed environment, devotees are encouraged to consume information produced by Art of Living, especially any and all propaganda about the organization, and are actively discouraged from reading anything which criticizes the organization, including internet blogs such as these.
  2. Mystical Manipulation – Wikipedia: The manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated.
    Taylor: Mystical manipulation often refers to higher purposes or supernatural authorities such as fate, the hand of history, or God, or to being chosen, or to the divine or semi-divine status of the controlling organization as representative of a supernatural authority.
    Both of these aspects of mystical manipulation are present in AoL. In the first place, we have a leader who has established himself as divine, enlightened, and the very incarnation of God himself on this planet. And together with this, we also have one of the most powerful mechanisms at the heart of the AoL brainwashing machinery, and that is the idea that devotees are somehow affected by this mystical power known as “Guru’s Grace” which stems from RS and which flows into a devotee. Any good feeling which a devotee experiences is due to this “grace”. The “grace” also gives rise to special abilities such as mind-reading, something many believe RS is capable of in spite of the fact that he is usually fed any information by other devotees beforehand which he uses to give the impression that he is able to read minds. There are actually many techniques for bringing about this good feeling, and we will look at some of these subsequently in this article.
  3. Demand for PurityThe world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection.
    There are several ways in which this is manifested in Art of Living. Firstly, those who eat meat and who indulge in alcohol and drugs are seen to be of “low prana” and hence impure. Those who do not conform to the Art of Living ideology and who cannot be converted are seen as being not ready, inferior, outsiders, unspiritual, materialistic and so on. And those who criticize Art of Living and RS are completely disgruntled, negative, have very bad karma and are considered to be the enemies of Art of Living.
  4. ConfessionSins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group.
    From as early on as the basic course, members of the groups are encouraged to share their life experiences with each other. This is emphasized again and again in all subsequent courses. In the Blessings Course, everyone in the group is encouraged to share their deepest sexual desires with every one else in the group. Many in Art of Living confess their deepest, most private secrets to teachers, senior teachers and even RS himself.
  5. Sacred ScienceThe group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute.
    Taylor: He also lists sacred science, which like mystical manipulation involves a moral/spiritual mystique, in this case applied to the ideology’s basic tenets. As sacred science, these are regarded as morally unchallengeable—the very act of challenge can render the challenger a ‘non-person’—and scientifically exact; ‘thus the ultimate moral vision becomes an ultimate science’.
    This is exactly what Art of Living devotees are led to believe, that they are on the highest path, that it is the ultimate Truth, and that they should accept it unquestioningly. Many simply refuse to read other sources of spiritual knowledge, or have been told that they shouldn’t shop around and should stick to just AoL resources.
  6. Loading the LanguageThe group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand.
    The use of negatives, and any negativity general, is strongly discouraged in Art of Living. Any words dealing with doubts, such as “skepticism”, are completely redefined to suit the needs of the group (see for example A Deeply Disturbing AoL Brainwashing Video). But most prominently, the use of words which have no universally accepted meanings or definitions and which are completely intangible, such as “enlightenment”, “grace”, “love” and “bliss”, are used to great effect to manipulate followers.
  7. Doctrine over personThe member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
    A devotee has to conform to the AoL ideology, and if they don’t, they are the one at fault. Whenever anyone has any doubts about the teachings, the organization, or RS, it is their “small mind”, their “low prana”, or their “bad karma”. Criticism of the AoL ideology is not only frowned upon, but any critical thinking is actively discouraged. Blind faith in the master and the teachings is required to stay on the path.
  8. Dispensing of existenceThe group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not.
    Taylor: […] the right granted to the Party, it believes, to determine the fates not only of its adherents but also of the non-people beyond its sphere. This right follows from the Party’s belief that there is only one path to truth […] that it alone knows that path, and that false paths must be eliminated.

    What this actually means is that the group decides who will be “saved” (the right to exist) and who will not. In this case, Art of Living decides that those who are part of the organization are the ones who will be saved, and everyone else who will not conform to the organization’s ideology will not. This includes everyone who rejects the AoL ideology, especially anyone who is critical of its various doctrines such as the many contributors of these blogs. In other words, by the AoL Ideology, we who are not part of the organization are effectively “doomed”.

So we can see that all eight of Lifton’s criteria are very much present within and in fact integral to the Art of Living Brainwashing Machinery. But there is a further condition which Lifton’s research revealed which is of particular interest to us. Whilst the American servicemen were held captive within the Chinese prisoner-of-war camps, these processes were continuously being carried out on them to bring about the radical changes in their belief systems. However, once the prisoners left that environment, over time the small minority who had emerged as followers of Communism eventually rejected those beliefs. This was usually accompanied by a period of confusion, and in some cases even mental illness.

We have already seen how most if not all of us who left Art of Living has gone through a period of confusion, and for some it has been a lot more intense than for others. But this observation further tells us something crucial to our understanding of what is happening in Art of Living. It tells us that for the brainwashing to be fully effective, it needs to be maintained ongoing. In other words, those being brainwashed need to be kept within the Art of Living environment. This is something which is absolutely imperative to the survival of the Art of Living Brainwashing Machinery, and is the only way for it to maintain the AoL Ideology. If anyone leaves this environment, the conditions for brainwashing are no longer present, and hence there is a good chance that over time they will come to reject the AoL Ideology.

This of course is something which Art of Living does not want. And this is the exact reason why devotees are constantly being enticed to sit and resit courses, attend satsangs, attend regular weekly kriyas, and of course develop close friendships with other devotees and try and spend as much time socializing with them as they can. This is the exact reason why the Art of Living environment is promoted as being better, safer, more fun than the world outside, and why devotees are discouraged from spending time with those who are deemed not ready for Art of Living or who oppose it in any way (“low prana” people). They need to keep their devotees within the confines of the Art of Living environment in order to constantly feed them the dogma which constitutes the AoL Ideology.

In Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, Kathleen Taylor reinforces some of these points and sheds some further light on what is occurring within AoL:

[…] many of the methods used in brainwashing have been refined over centuries […]. The use of uncertainty as a psychological weapon; exposure to a group of people with the beliefs to which the victim is to be converted; removing the victim from his or her former environment and from any chance to reinforce old beliefs by, for example, talking to friends […].

And specifically with regards to Chinese POW camps during the Korean War Taylor tells us:

Prisoners were cut off from their homes and friends […]. […] Individuals were typically put into small groups of ‘believers’ and subjected to prolonged discussion meetings, in which intensely detailed self-criticism, and criticism by other group members, was required. The aim of this criticism, which was used on Chinese citizens as well as on prisoners of war, was to ‘bring out political and ideological viewpoints’ and to ‘overcome erroneous thoughts, to correct various ideological errors, to elevate the Party consciousness of the Party members, and to assist the comrades.’

If this sounds all to familiar to some of you, that’s because Taylor is describing something which sounds almost identical to the now infamous Hot Seat process which takes place during both DSN and TTC courses. Designed to “transcend the ego”? Or to break down a devotee’s individuality and align their beliefs to the AoL Ideology?

[…] Finally, as many researchers have emphasised, the sheer amount of repetition experienced by those undergoing thought reform was mind-numbing. For hours every day and sometimes for months and even years, the Party apparatus reinforced, with lectures, posters, broadcasts or discussion meetings, its ideological messages. Sheer exhaustion undoubtedly contributed to the victim’s psychological surrender.

Again, it really does sound as if Taylor is describing, in lucid detail, the AoL Brainwashing Machinery, with a special emphasis on its operation again during DSN and TTC courses.

The Nature of The Beast

We have already looked at the different ways in which devotees can be considered assets of Art of Living, and this is the most obvious reason why AoL does not want to lose its devotees. But there is another aspect of this we have only alluded to in passing.

We have talked a lot about the “Art of Living brainwashing machinery”, but what exactly is it that constitutes this machinery? We know that at its core we find Ravi Shankar, his family, and his Inner Circle who are effectively the driving force behind it and who are ultimately its key beneficiaries. However, they are only a very small handful of people and by themselves simply have neither the time nor the means to continuously propagate the AoL Ideology.

No, if we were to examine what is actually happening in any detail, we discover something astonishing: the AoL Brainwashing Machinery is almost entirely made up of devotees themselves. The environment which Lifton describes as being conducive to brainwashing is actually an environment made up of devotees, with the majority of brainwashing carried out through courses, satsangs, long kriya follow ups and through the various friendships with each other. Devotees brainwash each other and they brainwash themselves, and so the AoL Ideology survives and those at the head of affairs in AoL prosper.

Whereas with the Chinese there was a clear distinction between the brainwasher and brainwashee, in Art of Living they are almost invariably one and the same. A brainwashee is effectively brainwashed so that eventually they become a brainwasher. It is part of the evolution of a devotee along the AoL path.

Whereas the Chinese were actually able to physically confine their captives within prisoner-of-war camps and hence have complete control over the environment conducive to brainwashing which Lifton describes, Art of Living cannot readily do the same. And so whilst it has done its best to control the environment of its devotees to whatever extent it can, it has been unable to keep its devotees cut off from the one thing which may prove to be the cause of its eventual downfall: the internet.

A Fight For Survival

The internet is something which, save for a few sites which are within its remit, is completely outside of Art of Living’s control. Yet it is an integral part of most people’s personal environments, its devotees included. And this is the crux of AoL’s problem: whatever amount of control they have over the AoL environment which they create through devotees, they can never fully control their devotees’ personal environments. The best they can do is to make suggestions and use fear as a weapon to keep its devotees from visiting any sites which are critical of its activities.

We already know from accounts of TRMs (Teacher’s Refresher Meetings) over the last couple of years that teachers are actively discouraged from visiting these blogs. And we have seen on Bawa & Dinesh’s blog how they warned their devotees to stay away from these blogs to avoid being “poisoned” by what is written here, which incidentally is a brilliant example of the application of Lifton’s “Demand for Purity”. But we also know that these tactics clearly aren’t working, since, by their own admission, Art of Living have told us in this document that “Since the false and defamatory statements were published on the blogs […] Art of Living’s enrollment and revenue have dropped.” (see point 68). We can only assume that this pattern has continued to the present day and has shown no signs of abating.

So, try as they might, it really does seem as if there is very little AoL can do to prevent its devotees from visiting these blogs, learning what is written in them, and ultimately leaving. The one time they tried to actually suppress content written against them by bring a lawsuit against Klim and Skywalker, they failed dismally and it cost them dearly.

Why exactly are the blogs such a threat to AoL? Simply, because they promote critical thinking, and critical thinking is the direct enemy of that which is essential for the AoL ideology to flourish: blind faith. Through the use of critical thinking, the whole of the AoL ideology has been scrutinized, with glaring flaws pointed out and entire aspects of it outright debunked. Whilst devotees’ critical thinking circuits are suppressed through the continued application of the AoL brainwashing machinery by keeping them as much as possible within the AoL environment, they cannot readily see these things. However as soon as their critical-thinking faculties return, they realize for themselves a great many of the things that have already been concluded on this blog. And then they leave.

And now as more and more devotees leave, not only is Art of Living losing their most valued assets, but the overall AoL Brainwashing Machinery itself is dwindling. Remember first and foremost, it is a machine, and one which feeds off the very people who are part of it. It needs people in order to operate, to serve its needs, which in turn serve the needs of those who are its head, RS, his family and co.

If more devotees leave than it is able to replace them with, over time the organization will shrink to become a shadow of its former self. And it seems, this is exactly what is happening at this time. This is why it is now fighting tooth and nail, fighting bitterly for its own survival, trying to do whatever it can to prevent its devotees from leaving, whilst at the same time aggressively trying to bring more and more fresh devotees into its fold. But in both respects it really does seem to be failing, and this as we have seen is because of Art of Living’s inability to either fully control its devotees’ personal environments, or to prevent prospective devotees from finding what ex-members have to say about the organization on various internet websites.

Whatever successes it may have enjoyed in the past in terms of recruiting and keeping devotees are now long gone and will most likely never be again. Its only hope of survival is to reform the way it operates, but this is extremely unlikely since it would have to completely rehaul its entire ideology and change its entire modus operandi – which would effectively mean dismantling the whole AoL brainwashing machinery as it stands and starting again. But really, is there any other hope left for the organization?

In Part 3, we start to look at some of the processes which Art of Living actually employ to brainwash their devotees.