The Art of Living: Cult or cultural sensation?

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Some days it is just helpful to repeat to myself, “I am having a cultural experience. I am having a cultural experience.” Saying this little mantra is especially helpful when things don’t go as planned. Today I visited the  Art of Living Ashram to see their schools in action. I’ll write about the schools tomorrow, but there’s too much to think about regarding the AOL movement first.

Art of Living is a massive worldwide phenomenon headed up by the guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (“known as Sri Sri to his followers). At the heart of AOL is the value of meditation for health, quality of life, being with others.   It was founded in 1981 by Sri Sri with the vision of creating a stress-free, violence-free society. Its website and wikidpedia say that it has reached out to over 300 million people in over 150 countries with its various programs.  Sri Sri was named by Forbes Magazine as the fifth most influential person in India. You can’t be in India right now and not know who this guy is. Given all of this attention to AOL,  I figured it was important to understand the hype behind the beard.

AOL is extremely popular with young urban professionals in Bangalore. You can drive through town without seeing a banner with Sri Sri’s face on it.  It is so widespread worldwide even that I actually took an AOL course in State College years ago when I was searching for a meditation class. I learned a series of breath patterns called the “kriya” Basically, it is 20 long breaths, 20 medium size breaths, 40 short breaths repeated in several cycles. If you stick with it, you really do feel your mind cleaning and you feel much calmer.  According to Wikipedia’s AOL site,  mental and physical benefits are reported in independent research studies on AOL kriya practice, including” reduced levels of stress (reduced cortisol—the “stress” hormone), improved immune system, relief from anxiety & depression (mild, moderate & severe), increased antioxidant protection, and enhanced brain function (increased mental focus, calmness and recovery from stressful stimuli), among other findings.”

The rest of the teachings that happened during my class that weekend reminded me a lot of Eckert Tolle kind of things—useful concepts. But for me, I have to admit that the overall vibe was annoying. Mainly it was because the instructor had no sense of time. Class would be from 10-2 and he wouldn’t let us out until 3:30 (and he takes your watches for the kriya, so I had no idea I was an hour and a half late and Todd was waiting outside to pick me up!). So, for a busy mom of 2 a group that has no sense of time is simply not an option. But I wondered if it was just this instructor or AOL in general that was not sitting well with me.

I have met many people in Bangalore who attend AOL groups around town. The Ashram itself is located south of the city. With the horrendous traffic, it took me two hours to arrive there. Upon arriving, it was hard to realize just how big this place really was in size.  Truly immense. A village unto itself. I was interested  in the opportunity to walk around.  The reception area  gave me a map. Turned out the distance between the locales on the map was 20 minutes!  The campus has everything from massive meeting spaces to many dormitories. A massive dining hall. Several book stores and souvenir shops of AOL materials. The center piece is a lotus flower shaped building where the evening meditation occurs.

I was directed toward the lake and to the Radha Kund area where boys were trained to learn how to chant. Sri Sri himself was leading a chanting session until noon. I should have hopped an auto because it was a good half an hour walk over there and it is HOT these days!  I finally arrive very sweaty . The chatting hall was packed.  Looking through a window, I could see Sri Sri seated at the center on a throne of sorts. People were sitting outside with their eyes closed listening to the chanting. I was hot and tired so I sat down and did the same. Here is the irony of my life. I am at an ashram that is supposed to bring peace and calming and all I can think about is how I literally sprinted through the heat to get to this building and that I need to leave in the next 45 minutes to trek 2 hours back home to pick up the kids. But okay, breathe for ten minutes, Dana!

Then I noticed why these folks were staying outside. They wanted to be on the handshake line when Sri Sri left the chanting area. You knew he was coming because these young kids/disciplines (?) came down the road  beating drums and they brought a beautifully painted elephant up to the receiving line as well. (No photos were allowed inside the ashram and I was afraid they’d lock me a way if I tried! But the website has tons of photos. ) Sure enough, out comes Sri Sri—very Jesus like in the white cloth and long hair. Very calm presence. Very gracious with all of the onlookers.  He spends some time nuzzling the elephant. He is highly idolized, with people lined up to just see him, touch him. All giddy to have a look before he got sped away in his car.

At this point I was going to visit the rare cows further down the road called Goshala. But it was ridiculously hot. I was wearing the wrong kind of clothes, and I wanted to get something in my stomach before I took the two hour drive back. So I walked very quickly (again as others are sitting and meditating, there’s me, hustling it across the campus and down the dirt roads). I found the dining hall, bought my ticket for 20 rupees, kicked off my shoes and headed inside. It was a massive space, with dal and rice being scooped out of buckets onto tin plates (very traditional Indian way of serving  food). Long lines of thin carpets were on the ground and it looked like you got your tin tray and sat on the floor. Sure, why not? Cultural experience, I repeated. But then the guard said, “No no!”  And pointed me to an area that was hidden by partitions. Back there you had the same food but there were Western tables. Honestly, I thought the floor idea was more fun but all the non-Indian people seemed to have chosen the cordoned off area. So then I worried that the food may have been prepared differently. Perhaps it was extra sanitary back here  for our lame Western stomachs. And indeed there was bottled water back i this area. So I figured I should play it safe and eat back here so that I don’t get sick. I ate in silence listening to people at my table whisper about the vastness of the universe. Then it had to wash off my metal tray at the sink. I then caught an auto rickshaw back to the main gate because I wasn’t up to walking the 20 minutes back!

And that was my day at the Art of Living Ashram.  I was hoping to be swept away by the peaceful ness of it all. But the place just made me a little grumpy. I wasn’t inspired to sit still or be quiet as I am when I’m around Quakers. It just felt weird.

Some folks call AOL a cult. I don’t know. They don’t encourage you to change your life or drop out of society or to give massive amounts of money or anything like that.  And I think most importantly in their favor, anyone is welcome and the teachings are encouraged to fit within wherever you are in your life. You aren’t expected to give up your beliefs or religious background to learn these teachings. According to Wikipedia,”Shankar teaches that spirituality is that which enhances human values such as love, compassion and enthusiasm. It is not limited to any one religion or culture. Hence it is open to all people. He feels the spiritual bond we share as part of the human family is more prominent than nationality, gender, religion, profession, or other identities that separate us. According to him, science and spirituality are linked and compatible, both springing from the urge to know.”

And I do respect the large focus on charitable acts that the Ashram does. I’ll write tomorrow about the numbers of schools he has built in poor areas. Plus AOL has a huge focus on empowering rural women. Plus projects on prisons, environment, peace, disaster work. rural development, youth leadership.

Yet, there is this cult of personality of Sri Sri for sure. And something of a cultish feeling in how people gathering to meditate/do the kriya seem to act. While some say that AOL is a pseudo religion that teaches relaxation but also that it is okay to aspire to be rich and you don’t have to change much of your life as long as you de-stress.  Others swear that the kriya has really changed their whole outlook on life. For me, I don’t think that the teachings are that different than any other relaxation practice. But I’m sure AOL folks would strongly disagree. And I have friends from home and here in Bangalore that swear by AOL.

Whatever it is, it is taking India by storm. And parts of the rest of the world as well. And something this big, it’s important to learn about it!

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