How To Be A Genuine Fake: Kumare & The Guru Complex
Being a guru is a tough business. And, despite the desperate, heretical claims of those guru’d, it is a business.
It’s challenging enough to make a crew of people believe that the creator you invented threw a couple extra chromosomes into your bag. In some ways, however, that is actually the easy part—mix up psychology and sociology and toss in misguided sincerity. What’s truly hard is how to save face after your scandal breaks. If there’s one thing we can be pretty sure about, there will be a scandal.
This year alone we’ve had a ringleader who couldn’t resist sleeping with married students in a faux-Tantric coven and a Princeton-educated monk who drives adherents to their own death, while the ex-husband of that widow shed his Buddhist robes for Armani suits and Russian models. As media outlets go, these sorts of stories are likely to generate a lot more mainstream press coverage than the benefits of yoga, though to be fair, there has been an uptick in that as well. Like I said, it’s tough being a guru.
The question I’m left to ponder is: Do these teachers consciously enter the guru business from the start, or does this evolve under as circumstances shift? Can they pinpoint the exact moment when they go from being a character to a caricature?
Vikram Gandhi dove right into the business. His guru pursuits included, from inception, creating a documentary. That wonderful film, titled after his invented namesake, Kumaré, entertains the complexities and nuances of just what it takes to run your own cult.
From the outset I was hooked. Vikram and I share subtle similarities: both children of the Jersey suburbs, attaining degrees in Religion out of curiosity more than faith, eventually casting the faith aspect aside, turning to yoga to work out the details, finding paths informed by conventions though with a twist. Obviously the differences are greater. While his grandmother intentionally started fires doing puja at her altar, mine was more likely to set fire while stewing up chicken paprikash. Still, the man one-upped me by not only dreaming up the idea of founding a cult, but actually doing it.
Throughout this brilliantly made film—not only was the subject matter intriguing, the editing and sound, as well as the social media campaign, are top-notch—Kumaré dazzles audiences (sometimes of two, up to fifteen) with invented chants in an Indian accent (which he pulls up at will from ancestry), guitar hero yoga postures and an impeccable ability to make nonsense sound cosmically important. His journey from Union Square yoga hotspots to the Arizona desert is a lesson in the suspension of disbelief, one that newly acquired adherents are eager to sign up for.
What really makes this film, however, is Gandhi’s honesty. From the beginning he told his students that he is not who he is, that Kumaré is an illusion and the ‘real guru is inside each and every one of you.’ Unlike the aforementioned gurus who capitalize on such jargon in a never-ending power struggle between teacher and taught, Kumaré is serious about what he says, regardless of whether anyone actually believes him.
In the end Gandhi comes clean, shaving his beard and locks during ‘The Reveal.’ The expectable occurs: some are blown away, some go away, some remain friends with the man who taught them so much. And teach he did: we watch Gandhi’s reactions to the fact that peoples’ lives are actually in his hands, that his whole schtick is bullshit bubbles to the surface. Yet because he recognizes it for what it is, it profoundly affects him. He really cares about these people and wishes them no harm. They care about him, too.
The tradition of masking involves an initiate donning the face of a god and acting the role in his or her cultural mythology. Once the mask is put on, the individual ceases to exist; he becomes the god. The difference between a Kumaré and a Friend, for example, is that the former recognizes that the mask must come off. How he takes the information learned while in deity mode is how he will then function in society.
In the shamanic traditions, this is called returning with a ‘gift.’ Dress-up time is nice to visit, but you can’t live there. The gift is worthless if it has no meaning for the world around you. Kumaré wears a beautiful mask on his continental journey. Fortunately he remembers to take it off, benefitting seekers on the varied paths available to us, as well as would-be gurus who might not realize they’re suffocating inside of that shell.