Atanu Dey On India's Development

Is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar a Con Man?

My brother is a follower of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Around May 2000, he wrote to me and asked me to check out the Art of Living website. He clearly wanted my opinion on the man. This was six years ago. Sri Sri Ravishankar has gone from strength to strength since then.

I wrote to my brother then and here is what I wrote:

My dear Baku,

I visited the site of art of living and looked at pretty much all of the things there. This is my opinion on the Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. (Not just once but twice Sri. I bet in a few years it will be Shri 108 times.)

First, whatever works for a person is what is important. So if sudarshan kriya works for you, that is great.

Second, breathing is at the core of pretty much most Indian meditation practices. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (henceforth abbreviated as SSRS) has repackaged a well-known breathing technique and commercialized it. To the extent that commercialization of anything — from candy to computers — brings benefits to both the provider and the consumer, it is a good thing. But one should be quite aware of the motive of the provider–it is motivated by the desire for commercial profit. That in itself does not make the good or service provided any less than what it is supposed to be. But the consumer should be aware that the provider does not work out of pure altruism.

The reason I am cautioning you about this is often a consumer may start attributing superior motives to a provider where none exists. And once you misjudge a person’s motives, you can make mistakes like putting them on pedestals, giving them all your money, accepting all that is said uncritically, etc.

Third I read some of the archives. Finding overworked and rehashed homilies was not too much of a surprise. I conjecture that SSRS is an intelligent person who knows the art of marketing. Many people search for answers to questions. These questions arise in all humans and there is nothing new about these. So over thousands of years, millions of people have asked these questions and some have given answers. Of the whole range and variety of answers that were accumulated over the thousands of years, you can pick and choose what suits you. In the present case, SSRS has picked his choice set of answers and presented them to the audience that he wants to appeal to.

Again I must caution you that my comments are my opinion and do not have an objective validity. What works for you is what matters, not what I think of the technique or some person. In fact, that is the crux of the matter. The mind is the ultimate and what happens to you is what your mind makes possible. If you believe that something is good for you (and indeed it is not bad to begin with), then it WILL be good for you. In medical terms, it is called the placebo effect.

I have asked myself what the secret of most of the “new age” gurus is. This is what I believe it is. First, they have to be charismatic. An image is very important. Whether it be Rajneesh or any other guru–a dashing figure is important. Then comes the presentation: long flowing hair and a beard is good. It adds to the mystique. Long hair is the substitute for a halo around a person.

Second, they have to be good marketers. A good marketer looks at what among the things on offer is most likely to sell. What, he asks, is it that the market demands? In our case, the market demands easy answers and quick results. (Diet gurus are also an example of this phenomenon.)

The essential requirement—the CORE—is that the answer has to be easy to comprehend. The masses are not brain surgeons. (They are more likely to need the attention of brain surgeons than be brain surgeons themselves.) Anything that would involve thinking is quite out of the question as a general technique. So you has to come up with something that your intended customer base is comfortable doing and go with that. That is the core, the part that will have the ‘sound bite’ associated with it. Name it. The name has to be catchy and has to become a brand identifier. So you see “COKE IS IT” or Nike’s “JUST DO IT”.

The core then has to be packaged, put in wraps. That’s where the talk and the seminars and the reconstituted homilies and the books and the press briefings and the stories of superhuman feats come in. The website is the packaging in our post-modern world wide web world. It is the window dressing inviting a curious onlooker to step into the store.

The thing being sold has an intrinsic value which is not completely known to the prospective buyer. So the wrapping gives pointers to people who have endorsed it. So a great basketball player endorses coke or Nike shoes. The masses reason: “if MagicJ likes Nike, and he is much better than I am, I believe that Nike shoes are worth the $200 a pair; hence I will check them out.”

In our case, the window dressing that I found was a heavy emphasis on talks at UN and WHO. I can imagine what the reaction to this is: “Wow, he spoke to the general assembly of the UN? He must be good.” In truth, the UN is a large organisation.

I can also claim to have made presentations at the University of California at Berkeley to visiting delegations from foreign countries. Fact is that I sometimes speak to Korean tour groups who visit the university for a fee. One can speak to some group in some room at the UN building–and truthfully claim to have spoken at the UN.

I do believe that breathing techniques are very common. They are also very effective — otherwise they would not be so commonly endorsed by various schools of thought. Vipassna is also a breathing technique that claims its lineage to the Buddha himself. What SSRS has done is what a few dozen Indian gurus have done and will no doubt continue to do–packaging of what already exists. In the US, that simple core wrapped in a few hours of homilies sells for $250 (with a concession for students.) I don’t know what it costs in India but my conjecture is that since the willingness to pay is lower in India, it will sell for somewhat lower.

This has been a long reaction to your simple request that I should have a look at the web site of Art of Living.

Yours affectionately,
Nu

Well, it was a personal letter. But since I spent a lot of time on the usenet, I posted it on the newsgroup soc.culture.Indian a few months later. Some liked it; some saw red; some argued that I was being unfair. Here are some of my responses to the discussions that follow: (The quoted bits are in blue below)

“Well, again. Art of living foundation is non profit. So he is not making any money out of it.”

Being non-profit is neither necessary nor sufficient for an enterprise to be good and useful. I suppose you are for-profit entity and yet I would guess that the work you do adds value to society, just as the work of the corner shopkeeper or the baker who are also in it for profit. Hence it is not necessary to be non-profit to help improve welfare.

Many entities who are non-profit are distinctly harmful to society. For instance, most terrorists organizations are non-profit. Clearly being non-profit is not sufficient for human welfare.

Regarding The Art of Living – I fully endorse the venture. I have nothing against businesses. I endorse the corporate objective of Hewlett-Packard (whose first corporate directive is “To make a profit”; then come the other objectives that are all worthy – but would make no difference if the first objective were not met) too.

Whether SSRS is making money or not is a matter of definition. It can be empirically determined.

“I am not saying that he is enlightened as his followers claim He is an ordinary man. But his breathing technique is different from what others teach and i know people who have benefited from it.”

I support fully all ventures that give value for money as long as they don’t cheat the vulnerable. For instance, mass advertising aimed at children should be banned. But adults should be free to dispose of their property (wealth and income) any which way they wish. If someone wants to pay $400 to learn how to do breathing exercises, they evidently value it at least as much and therefore the trade is welfare improving.

“How can you make an impression just by visiting a website. I do agree with you that he knows marketing and he is certainly not enlightened. But that does not make him a con man.”

It was just an impression – and I made it very clear in my letter that I was expressing my opinion and it was not an objective and dispassionate evaluation that a court of law would accept as coming from an acknowledged expert.

I am not sure where you got the impression that I claimed that he is a con man. I am not willing to question his motives. Perhaps he is a genuine altruist and all the hype that surrounds his organization is not his doing. Or perhaps he is a snake-oil salesman who preys on the gullible. In any event, unless he engages in patently immoral activities, he is presumed as good and useful to society as any other business.

I believe that people like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Deepak Chopra are useful to India in general. They are not perfect but neither are they any worse than Bill Gates – they are doing what they like, they provide some value, and if in that they also make money – good for them. SSRS and Deepak Chopra actually increase the awareness about Indian philosophy abroad. They are in a sense cultural ambassadors. Which is why I hope they are not jerks. SSRS and DC don’t belong to the same league as good old Jiddu Krishnamurty, of course. JK was something else. Too celebral for the average guy on the streets. But then JK did not have the marketing savvy (nor did he want to have) that SSRS and DC have.

Marketing makes all the difference. How else can there be multibillion dollar enterprises selling caramelized caffeinated water? If sugar water can be profitably sold, why not a tried and tested breathing technique?

“Ravi Shankar is no Ramana or Ramakrishna. But he is nevertheless a great man whose meditation technique has benefited people.”

Depends on your definition of ‘great’ I suppose. My informal ranking is thus:

  1. Enlightened (and Great, Good, Useful)
  2. Great (and Good, Useful)
  3. Good (and Useful)
  4. Useful

In “Enlightened” I would put the historical Buddha, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Mahavira, and a few others.

Great would include Einstein, Newton, Shakespeare, Tagore, Krishnamurty, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Darwin, and many more.

Good would include many people who have invented stuff that have benefited mankind – from the inventors of dynamite to penicillin.

The useful category is for the rest of us – you and me and a few billion others. We don’t do anything really harmful such as killing others. Some of us are known – as Sri Sri Ravi Shankars and Deepak Chopras. Some make big bucks – such as Gates. But most are merely useful and mostly harmless.

(I am not including the negative side of the scale here: that would include Stalin, Bush, bin Laden, Hitler, the founders of the monotheistic faiths, and so on.)

I believe that Ravi Shankar falls in the “Useful” category.

[Also see these posts on SSRS.]

Postscript: I occasionally receive emails from the devotees of SSRS (I use that word advisedly since now SSRS has been elevated to the position of a minor deity by some of his followers.) These emails basically advise me to enroll in an Art of Living course because then I too would see the light and convert from my evidently uninformed view which makes me consider SSRS to be merely useful instead of being an enlightened being. I guess my enlightenment will be postponed due to my reluctance to enroll. So be it.