Atanu Dey On India's Development

The 2008 Post on Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Some readers have been asking, “Atanu, when will you write more about SSRS?” As luck would have it, I got an email from someone who has actually met the man. He wrote me a very nice email saying that he has read all the SSRS posts patiently and then proceeded to inform me that he disagrees with me. That is not the least surprising as I am sure that an overwhelming majority of people won’t agree with me on anything of substance. That’s because my point of view is different from that of the majority, and the difference in the point of view is the result of differing life experiences. I merely state my opinion and note the differences and move on. Differences are good because otherwise it would be rather boring if we all had the absolutely same opinion.

Anyway, here’s my response to the gentleman, for the record.

Dear Mr N:

Thanks for writing. I believe that you have mis-read my pieces on SSRS. That is easy to do because many people — such as yourself — arrive at the posts with the preconceived idea that I am trashing SSRS. Let me restate my position even though it should not require restating as I have made these points again and again in my posts and in my responses to comments.

1. AoL is a personality driven cult. It makes many of its followers zombies who worship SSRS and have abdicated their reason. I have met SSRS followers in person and in cyberspace. Some of them — not all — are totally brainwashed and can only talk of SSRS as the Supreme Commander and Owner of the Universe. I am serious about this. And if you need some evidence, see some of the comments and emails that I have published from such people on my blog.

I am all for the promotion of good ideas — and Indian philosophy and religions have an incredible store of that sort of thing. But when the personality becomes the focus, the ideas take a back seat. This is a pity because the ideas are important, whereas the person is merely the instrument. Of course AoL is not the only organization which promotes a person over ideas, and SSRS is not the only demi-god in the world. We can name quite a large number of them — J Krishnamurty, Sai Baba, Satya Sai Baba, Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, and so on.

2. AoL is a commercial operation. Nothing wrong with that as I am an economist and fully endorse all commercial activities that contribute to society and make a profit. But to attribute superior motives to it is flawed, in my opinion. Coca Cola company and AoL are in this way doing exactly the same thing: supplying to what people want. There is a difference though: the CC company makes a product and sells it to make a profit. AoL takes donations (and course fees) and part of its income it devotes to social work. In purely economic terms, it is a transfer of resources, not the creation of wealth.

Suppose BigCorporation makes and sells cars and then of the $1 billion profits, contributes $100 million to build schools for the blind. That it makes a profit means that its cost of making the cars is lower than the revenues. And the revenues is a measure of how much value people who buy those cars put on the work of the BigCorporation. The BigCorporation therefore actually creates the wealth and then spends part of that to build schools.

Now AoL takes donations from people and aggregates it and does social work. It does not create the wealth — it only transfers it from a large number of people (who have presumably worked in creating that wealth) to itself and then claims that it has done social work itself. I am not saying that the intermediation that AoL does in taking the money from its followers and aggregating it is worthless. That is valuable. But it cannot be claimed that they created the wealth that they used. They merely took it by persuading people that they are good people.

I think that SSRS can claim that he built those schools only if the funding came out of his pocket. And if indeed it was his own personal wealth that went into the social work, then I don’t see why anyone can fault the position that he runs a commercial organization whose owner he is.

From my point of view, SSRS and Ratan Tata are both useful people. And so are most of us — useful. The scale differs but not the basic idea. We work, we create some wealth, we get paid, we consume some of that income, we give some of that income to charity, etc. Sure I don’t give the same amount to charity as say Ratan Tata gives. But qualitatively there is no difference, even though the quantitative difference is huge.

I note the dismissive tone you took to “logic” and other such things. Perhaps logic is not very useful in your scheme of things. Many people do derisively dismiss logic while quietly enjoying the luxuries that a hardheaded use of logic by others has created. Faith, they say, is more important than logic. OK, so tell me which of the things that you find useful was developed and created by faith? Let me put that in a different way: imagine a poor person who has little food, no shelter, and is materially impoverished. He is given two bundles of goods to choose from. One bundle consists of goods that are the end product of logic and hard work. The other bundle is of goods that are the result of faith. Which one is he likely to choose?

Only the rich can afford the luxury of claiming all sorts of benefits of having faith. The rest of us have to somehow manage to get some stuff so that we can continue to keep body and soul together in this material world. Once that is achieved, I am sure that I will be happy to talk about faith — with a full stomach.

  • Vaidehi

    My very close relative is one such victim. She has run heavily into debt and her marriage too is all messed up because of the slyly manipulative and intimidating practises of aol. He makes it out as if there are different grades of realization and repayable loans are offered to do so called ” “advanced courses ” for trouble shooting , health whatever. It is a vicious circle. Fear makes her unable to extricate herself.He has held out many threats like …” I will destroy you if you leave…”. Anyone enslaving you is certainly no Guru.

    Sometime back, ravishankar made a visit to Ramanashramam and the Priest who teaches in their Veda Pathasala was coaxed by ssrs to leave and join his aol organization, that he would offer more money, in short the crafty ravi was attempting to poach him. Of course he refused. This was told by that priest himself.

    The trouble with most Indians is , when singed , seldom come out in the open with truths. This leads to “collective insanity” (Bertrand Russell ) among the so called followers.

  • Sameer

    Atanu,

    Thanks for a wonderful read on quite dull Saturday morning. This SSRS post is by far the best of all the SSRS posts on this blog.

    From my point of view, SSRS and Ratan Tata are both useful people. And so are most of us — useful.

    While being useful to the society is perfectly fine state to be in for you and me as long as the society is willing to pay us for whatever services we provide that it finds useful. For people like SSRS and Sathya Sai Baba(SSB) on the other hand being ‘merely’ useful is not enough. They have to be ‘holy’, ‘venerable’, ‘supreme’… being useful is for the chumps.

    The followers of SSRS and SSB want to believe that they are something more than useful… otherwise the solace they get from the platitudes dished out by SSRS and SSB is diminished.

  • Amit

    Of course AoL is not the only organization which promotes a person over the ideas, and SSRS is not the only demi-god in the world. We can name quite a large number of them — J Krishnamurty, Sai Baba, Satya Sai Baba, Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, and so on.

    Add to the list: Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Peikoff, Marx, Che, Chomsky – to expand the sampling range of demi-gods a bit. ;)

    Re; point # 2, Coke and SSRS-spirituality, you’ve already covered the latter and made some good points. Allow me to say a few things about the former. An unhealthy concoction of chemicals, sugar and water packaged as a status symbol, the “cool” thing to drink, linked with feelings and concepts like fulfilling one’s potential and dreams, being super active and “doing the dew,” getting a beautiful girl or a boy just because you drink coke/pepsi…the list is long. I’d say both of them come out even when it comes to taking people for a ride and making them part from their well-earned money. It’s all in the mind. :)

  • http://chaitanya1.wordpress.com chaitanya

    >>> Of course AoL is not the only organization which promotes a person over the ideas, and SSRS is not the only demi-god in the world. We can name quite a large number of them — J Krishnamurty, Sai Baba, Satya Sai Baba, Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, and so on.

    Would it be fair to infer from the statement above that you meant that J.Krishnamurti himself promoted his personality over ideas, and considered himself to be a demi god ? OR, did you only mean that only the followers projected those ideas ? Please clarify. It seems to me, you meant the former.

    From all my reading of JK’s works, i’ve never come across an iota of impression that he projected himself over ideas. Infact, in every other lecture you will see him asserting “please don’t just listen to the speaker and accept the speaker words as dictates.. work out the ideas in your mind.” JK is known to strongly reject all forms of gurus, cultism and personal worship.

    So, please clarify what you meant, and in absence of supporting evidence please remove JK’s reference from the sentence. I personally think it would be an injustice to include JK among the rest of the group.

  • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

    Chaitanya:

    I wrote “organization which promotes a person over the ideas” and therefore my implication was in the case of J Krishnamurty it is not the person who is promoting the personality but others. As far as I know, Jiddu never gave himself high sounding titles. He did not call himself “Sri Sri 108 times” or any such nonsense. He indeed disbanded the organization which considered him to be an incarnation of the divine.

    SSRS, however, does promote himself vigorously and even shamelessly. He has carefully created a powerful organization to promote himself. His hirsute visage is prominent on every piece of promotional material littering the landscape.

  • Alpana Sadya

    “There is a difference though: the CC company makes a product and sells it to make a profit. AoL takes donations (and course fees) and part of its income it devotes to social work. In purely economic terms, it is a transfer of resources, not the creation of wealth.”

    Atanu:

    Do you want to say that providers of service do not create wealth, only manufacturers do? Per your logic teaching anything would be a wasteful economic activity.

    Look at it this way: the value of AoL course is what people are willing to pay. The cost is SSRS own establishment, which obviously is lower than his revenues. Now there is a consumer surplus (satisfaction over and above what consumer paid) and there is a seller’s surplus (fees), then by what logic you say that wealth is not created in this instance?

  • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

    Alpana:

    First off, I did write “I am not saying that the intermediation that AoL does in taking the money from its followers and aggregating it is worthless. That is valuable.”

    So I am not disregarding the service of aggregation of donations. But I explicitly note that it is not the same as creating the wealth.

    Now your question about whether in my opinion only manufacturing matters and not services. Some people have doubts about whether I am smart but no one has accused me so far of being so stupid that I don’t appreciate the value of a service such as education.

    The consumer/producer surplus argument you make is well and good in the case of private goods with upward sloping supply schedules and downward sloping demand schedules. Will you be able to do that for a good that has public good characteristics?

  • tanimadutta

    hi atanu
    i am from bhopal and he was recently in town for a discourse and most of the people who turned up belong tp the affluent class which says it all. he remarked in a talk that he has worked wonders in Etopia and somebody from the crowd rightly pointed that he need to do a lot in our country first.
    somebody has compared him to Ayan rand and milton friedman which i think is not done because they never gave themselves such reverend titles.

  • vindu_hans

    Dear Atanu ji,

    I was just reading your comments on SSRS, and AOL, and, frankly I agree to most of what you say. However, I have a few questions.

    You talk of “creation of wealth”. Frankly, I am not sure I understand it. As far as I could see, we don’t really “create” wealth, rather give more value to what IS. Is this a true statement ? In your BigCorporation example, you say that it makes profit (people give more value to the cars – more than the cost of making it) and therefore it “creates wealth”

    I wish to consider a simpler example. Suppose I know something valuable to be taught to others (say some skill), and will charge $100 to teach it to any one who comes to me. Suppose also that many people do indeed come to me to learn that skill!

    First of all, what is the cost price here ? Well..that depends on how I define it doesn’t it ? One could say, I am not manufacturing anything, neither am I using any resources to teach the skill, so that the cost price can be, ideally, $0

    Does this mean that I am creating wealth ?(because I am clearly making profit !)

    If the answer is NO, please let me know why it is NO.

    If it is YES, then I dont see why you say that AOL (or any such organisation for that matter…I am not particularly into any organisation) does not create wealth.

  • Alpana Sadya

    Atanu:

    Sorry to have offended you. I did not mean any insult.

    Now coming back to the question of creation of wealth, I do not understand why you want to compare it with a public good. All I can see is that it is a private good of zero marginal cost a la Microsoft Windows. A product of zero marginal cost is created, patented and sold to those who are ready to pay for it for gains in their productivity. And if Mr. Gates is credited with creation of wealth, I do not see why this credit should be refused to SSRS.

  • anusha

    Dear Atanu,

    I want to tell you my personal experience.

    1. When i did my basic course, i dont have food at home to eat. Due to personal problem i have lost everything. But my friend suggested me to gothrough this course. I went and been doing at home regular. That gave me confidence.

    Now i am in a good position. Guruji has been doing good thing only to people.

    I feel this excercise will bring out your skills and talents which is hidden inside you.

    Guruji is there only for public. He is helping lot of people. Nobody will teach anything for free of cost. Guruji is teaching somany things for lesser cost.

    I felt you did not understand the course.

    There are lot of people who has done so many good things to people still doing. But still we are losing so many people in war. Still terrorism is there in our country.

    Guruji is teaching this techniques to spread the peace.

    My life is bright now its just because i have been doing sadana’s properly everyday.

    Thanks
    Anu

  • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

    Anusha:

    Very happy to note the valuable help you received from the Art of Living course. It is very clear that SSRS and the AoL courses provide a service that matters to a lot of people — for otherwise they would have gone out of business years ago.

    Now about the matter of wars and terrorism. Sadly, like death and taxes, they are part of the human condition. I am sure that SSRS is fighting the good fight in those areas as well. More power to him.

    Thanks.
    Atanu

  • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

    Alpana:

    Windows–or any software–is an information good and therefore a public good in the sense it is non-rivalrous in consumption. A recipe or technique for meditation or breathing exercise is also an information good. So the economics of information goods apply.

    Note that only the technique is a public good, not the actual act of teaching the technique which is a private good. That is analogous to the recipe being a public good, while the chef teaching you how to cook is a private good.

    The rest of the analysis, as they say in books, is left as an exercise for the reader. :)

  • anusha

    Dear Atanu,

    Guruji is not using donation or course fees which is collected from the publice for his use.

    He is using the same fund for poor children. Guruji is teaching the breathing techniques to prisoners and poor people for free of cost.

    If guruji is using the fund for himself then we can say he is running profit organisation. He is using it for public welfare only.

    He is giving education to the poor people in village. We are all staying in nice place, i am sure we would not have bothered about village people.

    Guruji had been to many villages and gave them food and education inspite of it, he is teaching breathing techniques for free of cost.

    I am sure guruji is putting his whole effort to develop our country.

    Guruji has given back my life. If i would not have done this course then i would have become mentally ill person. I should say thanks to god, to showed me right person in the right time.

    Jai Gurudev.

    Thanks
    Anu

  • Alpana Sadya

    Hey Anu:

    Neither me nor you have seen the audited balance sheet of AoL, so it is just your opinion that he is using all that money for public use. I have a CA friend who is a devotee of SSRS. He told me that AoL has several registered organizations including AoL, Vyakti Vikas Kendra, Ved Vigyan Vidyapeeth, H5 and about a dozen satellite organizations that keep on making reciprocal donations to each other for managing taxes. When confronted, my friend justified it by saying that money paid as taxes goes to the pockets of corrupt babudom while money saved by AoL can be directly used for the poor. Now it may be a perfectly legal way of saving taxes but do not find it very comfortable.

    Moreover, apart from the school on his Bangalore campus (which has hardly 250 students), there is absolutely no school or hospital or anything run by AoL that comes free. Even their courses are organized at the places of their devotees and instructed free of cost by other devotees. Here in the US, I see them charging upto $500 per person with practically zero cost. So, where does all that money go?

  • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

    Anu:

    What I find creepy is the “Jai Gurudev” that the real devotees of SSRS keep intoning. It is zombie-like. It gives me the creeps the same way that “Heil Hitler” does. It elevates a person to be the supreme commander of one’s existence.

    That mindless devotion to SSRS by his worshipers — and SSRS’s sickly acceptance of that sort of pathetic groveling by his followers — is what I find repulsive.

    I have nothing against ideas or techniques that SSRS or AoL teaches. It is the personality cult that is revolting to me.

  • tanimadutta

    atanu
    just a tought.if the followers could just calculate the total amount that they spend annually on guruji’s stays, travels, food, publicity, they would find that they could have done a lot of productive work instead of just putting the money back for consumption.

  • samarkand

    Atanu:

    “What I find creepy is the “Jai Gurudev” that the real devotees of SSRS keep intoning”

    Well, I am sure one might feel that way and that comes from only a superficial understanding built on top of the conditioning of our mind, life experiences and hard concepts. I do not blame you or anybody for that! I too felt exaclty the same.

    But then I took a concerted mission to scratch beneath the surface. I think there lies does the difference between an intellectual arm-chair critic and a person who would take the open-minded, sincere responsibility to really find out.

    Do you know that Sri Sri himself says “Jai Gurudev” many times just like his devotees, not necessarily referring to any specific person but to the Guru principle just as his devotees utter it with the same intention behind it.

    Whether it was Sri Ramakrishna or Buddha or Ramana Maharishi all of them had ardent devotees. My dear, what does “Buddham Sharanam Gachhami” mean? the intention behind it can be a mystical/esoteric subject in one way a matter of experience. I tell you there is a difference between being a follower, a disciple and a devotee.

    Perhaps not experiencing the pinnacle of devotion it is hard for the intellect to even grasp what it is all about…the Guru-Bhakta relationship. Again cannot blame the person.

    Even though cliched, I cannot rob it of its eminence: An experience needs no proof and is a million times clearer than words.

  • amolkh

    “Jai Gurudev” means I give thanks, salutation etc. to Gurudev (heavenly teacher).
    Jai Guru Dev Om was also used in the Beatles single “Across the Universe”. Guru Dev was none other than Swami Brahmananda Saraswati who is in direct lineage of gurus as Sri Sri is.

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