Copyright © 2009, Glenn Story
I can’t tell you the exact date, for it was many years ago–in the early 70s. I can, however, tell you the exact location: the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco, A large hall, holding over 3,000 seats, and boasting that no seat is more than 21 rows from the stage. The man I came to hear was Werner Erhard, the founder of an organization known as “est”. I didn’t know who he was at the time. I didn’t know that he was controversial for making large sums of money from selling the “est training”. I didn’t know that he was feared by some as a demagogue or, worse, a cult leader. (This was the time of Jim Jones and Sun Myung Moon.) I also didn’t know that he was greatly loved by his followers, the “graduates” of the est training. I didn’t know that these graduates were sometimes referred to as “estholes” for their persistent, persuasive, relentless attempts to convince their friends to also take the est training. No, I knew none of those things then. All I knew was that I had been invited to attend the meeting by a friend (who had not been overbearing).
I found Erhard to be an engaging and powerful speaker. He spoke of many things, but they all focused on the point of the evening: to convince the members of the audience to take the est training. I later heard a description of the est training as a mixture of “the profound, the obvious, and the absurd..” Erhard’s talk that night contained a similar mixture. Yet there was enough of the profound that I was intrigued Nonetheless it was only several years later (and with encouragement from another friend) that I took the est training. It changed my life.
Now we fast-forward to 2007. Once again I find myself in the Masonic Auditorium. And once again I am here to listen to someone advocating a kind of training that will transform my life. The leader is intriguingly similar to Erhard: He is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. He supposedly added the “Sri Sri” himself to distinguish himself from the musician of the same name. “Sri” means “lord” in the religious (not aristocratic) sense. So giving yourself that title seems a little presumptuous to me. Shankar (whose follower simply call him “Guru-ji”) is the founder of “The Art of Living.”
Like est, the Art of Living has a charismatic leader. It also has an enthusiastic set of followers who idolize their leader. And it has a set of detractors, one of whom called it “warmed-over yoga”. But if it is warmed over, much of the overt religious content has been boiled away, leaving a set of breathing exercises and meditation techniques.
I have heard no one call it a “cult” partly because this is a different time, and cults are less in the news. Partly because the adherents are less intense in their recruiting efforts.
One major difference between the Art of Living and est is that the former originated in India (I saw posters for the Art of Living plastered everywhere in Bangalore when I was there.) whereas est originated in California. Still, the est training was offered in India; and the Art of Living has courses here in California.
If one follows each organizations’ roots, one finds an intriguing connection.
Although Erhard always denied it, it seems obvious to me that est originated in part from Scientology, and Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, has acknowledged in some measure being influenced by Buddhism. Erhard himself also sometimes quotes Zen koans. Buddhism, in turn traces its origins to Hinduism, the great and ancient religion of India.
Shankar was a disciple of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder Transcendental Meditation. TM derives from mantric meditation which also traces its roots to Hinduism.
All four: est, Scientology, Art of Living and Transcendental Meditation, share these things in common: They all have charismatic leaders. They all promise to transform the quality of your life. And they all charge significant amounts of money to do so. And they all trace their origins to Hinduism. (Some might say “stole their ideas from Hinduism.”)
But Hinduism doesn’t charge money to receive it’s benefits. Most religions don’t. (There actually is no organization called “Hinduism” anyway so who would do the charging?) None of the four organizations I’ve mentioned with the significant exception of Scientology, claims to be a religion. Yet they all have a kind of religious quality to them.
This charging of money for enlightenment seems wrong to many. The Truths of religion, they argue, should be free to all. I find some credence in this view, yet I can’t justify it on any logical basis. Universities, after all, charge money for imparting their learning.
When I began this writing I meant to highlight the similarities between est and its founder on the one hand and Art of Living and its founder on the other. It didn’t occur to me until I was well into writing it that there was a common (if nebulous) ancestor.
Perhaps to gain the wisdom these organizations offer, without paying their fee, we would just study Hinduism. But I don’t think so. That would be like studying Judaism as a way of understanding Christianity. Or to use a non-religious analog, it would be like studying Latin in order to understand English. It might help, but it’s not sufficient.
Since I’ve been invited (repeatedly) to take the Art of Living the question I have to answer is do I want to be “transformed” (again) by yet another charismatic leader? I was frankly less impressed with Shankar on first meeting than I had been with Erhard. And anyway, one transformation per life is enough, isn’t it?