Kumare: The One Honest Guru
THE SET UP
The documentary film Kumare is about an American of Indian descent who grows out his hair and beard, puts on robes and affects the accent of his grandmother to see if he can pass himself off as a guru.
He is, of course, quite successful—people want to believe.
He invents yoga sequences, makes up mantras for his students to chant and, along with two female sidekicks, sets himself up in Arizona by teaching workshops at yoga studios and developing a small group of sincere followers. The filmmaker (and protagonist) Vikram Gandhi set out not only to see if he could get people to believe he was a guru, but also if they would get the same benefits from a fake guru as from a “real” one.
He does however attempt to teach something that he feels he can sincerely believe, namely that the guru we seek is within us. What ensues is a fascinating journey into the dynamics of need, projection, interpersonal connection, cultural idealization, truth and lies.
Because we are in on the joke from the start, many of the scenes are comical. The filmmakers don’t have to do much but set up the camera and let all manner of goofy New Age scenarios play out. There are the requisite crystals, alien civilizations, profound meditations on the color blue and a “sound healing” session that is equal parts emotional hysteria, powerful cathartic release and repressed homoerotic passion. But it is not mean-spirited. Rather we are given a poignant look at the silliness that mostly passes for spirituality, with a gesture (and really no more than that) at critiquing the deeply flawed authoritarian structure of the guru model.
In his guise as Kumare, Vikram spends much of the movie mumbling faux profundities that basically amount to cryptic admissions that he is a fake, that the followers do not really know who he is, and that they do not need him. Of course in classic style the believers gaze admiringly at him and take these words as the profound utterances of a holy man who is enlightened yet humble. As is usually the case in these circles, very little actual philosophy, psychology or rigorous practice is engaged in, yet Kumare does offer them something beautiful, and this is the first place I feel the film could have done with some good narrative distinction-making.
Our guru listens, he accepts, he adopts the loving countenance of a simple person who does not speak English very well and just wants to laugh and smile and spread love. What’s not to like?! Package this personality in a long beard and robes and it perfectly fits the archetype of the Eastern Holy Man that many counter-culture Westerners have learned to revere.
WHAT IS A GURU?
Though the term “guru” has over time come to mean anyone who is knowledgeable in any field (think “marketing guru” or “tennis guru”). While many people will simply point at the direct translation of the word as “teacher,” the sense in which it is traditionally used to denote a spiritual teacher is very specific. The true emphasis with this holy or “enlightened” guru archetype is on mysterious knowledge held by a very rare and special person. Conveniently, this knowledge cannot be defined or described, because it is mysterious—but more properly because it is considered beyond concepts. The person who has attained this awakening to ultimate spiritual truth beyond concepts is considered very special indeed, and often indicated as divine, or at the very least “god-realized.”
But because the knowledge cannot be conveyed conceptually, demonstrated empirically or debated rationally, the seeker is led down the garden path of trusting their ‘intuitive feeling’ about this person who is held up as a kind of savior figure. Most often the meme here is that becoming more “spiritual” entails being more intuitive and less rational. The kind of critical thinking that would have made Kumare’s followers question him is seen as an obstacle to waking up to the spiritual reality the guru embodies. Bingo.
The game is all about harnessing the projection of unmet needs. The seeker is looking for an all-good parent to guide them into being happy, good and free of suffering, so as to realize the ultimate spiritual truth and meaning of life. The guru is seeking to be idealized as a perfect being who can basically do and say anything he wants and be worshipped. What most of these games have in common are authoritarian control, mystifying mind-fuck teachings, psychological fragmentation, in-group identification and a guru living like royalty within a well-enforced power structure while a group of followers maintains magical and supernatural beliefs about who the teacher is and how special it is to follow him.
The way this somewhat predictable drama plays out varies from silly and harmless to tragic and abusive, but generally the psychological dynamics are not good ones. Even if one benefits from association with someone claiming magical powers, divine knowledge, direct communication with god, etc, being deluded and disempowered in the process surely disqualifies these benefits from delivering sustainable spiritual growth and integration.
Generally such seekers in the West have grown disenchanted with conventional paths of knowledge. They seek transcendent, heart-centered, esoteric, ancient knowledge, and the teacher from the far away East with an exotic look, idiosyncratic speech and engulfing eye contact seems like just the ticket.
THE MOST HONEST GURU AROUND
The thing about Kumare is that he is perhaps the most honest guru you will find.
Because he knows that he is lying. He also tries to only share advice and teachings he feels are in integrity, and agonizes over his dishonesty. At the end of the film he admits the charade and explains why he has done it. Ironically, the above details pretty much disqualify Kumare from the level of sociopathy necessary to be a “real” guru, like Sai Baba, who died just last year leaving an estate valued at $9 billion. He claimed to be God on Earth, proved it by performing cheap magic tricks almost daily before thousands of adoring devotees, and spent his free time molesting one young boy after another—all handed over by proud parents thinking their child had been chosen for mentorship by the divine personage himself.
In close contention with Sai Baba for top spot is Jim Jones. His bizarre Christian cult culminated in the jungles of Guyana with a mass suicide of 900 followers. It is from this tragic occurrence that we get the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid,” as this was the poisoned drink that he and his followers used to invite departure from this corrupted world.
Recently there was also James Arthur Ray, beloved Christian Science/New Age teacher who claimed to be able to teach the magical power of manifestation made world famous by the best selling Oprah-endorsed book and DVD (in which he appeared), The Secret. A $10k-per-person “Spiritual Warrior” retreat designed to take participants beyond their fear of death so as to become powerful beyond their wildest dreams, and in which Ray played the role of insisting that people stay in the game and “play hard” beyond their limits, ended in the deaths of three people and the hospitalization of several others. Ray is now serving two years in prison for negligent homicide.
Sounds like someone didn’t visualize correctly!
Of course these are extreme cases, and most guru-style spiritual communities don’t go quite this far –but the list is long if you want to educate yourself (for starters) about Osho, Maharaj-ji, Gurumayi, Muktananda, Adi Da, Yogi Bhajan and the Hare Krishnas.
There are plenty of non-guru-based unreasonable belief systems as well. Check out Temple du Soleil and Heaven’s Gate while you are at it, not to mention the death-cult known as global Islamic terrorism, and the enclave of pedophiles usually referred to as the Catholic Church, currently at over $2.5 billion in legal payouts to victims.
In any event, while many guru communities have been prone to all manner of abuse, scandal and pathology, the extent varies immensely. What all these situations have in common, however, is the unexamined notion that spirituality and critical thinking are mutually exclusive. They are all based in the idea that to find enlightenment one has to ‘”let go” of conventional notions of right and wrong, true or false, logic, reason and scientific method, and surrender both to ludicrous beliefs and to the supernatural authority of the teacher, tradition or Holy Book being touted.
This move is always a bad idea.
While the American yoga community at large is in many ways very egalitarian, eclectic and open, there is still a strong allegiance to these kinds of beliefs and to the notion that real spiritual awakening is something that happens by coming into contact with a real guru who is really enlightened. Hopefully this film will make it clear to more people that the emperor (or holy man in this case) is always buck-naked.
THE SOFT PEDAL
But while Vikram/Kumare may be the most honest guru you will find, I don’t think he is ultimately the most insightful on the very issues that he set out to explore. The film ends up being a bit of a soft pedal on the problem of the guru model. Happily, Vikram does nothing unethical, mean-spirited or manipulative to any of Kumare’s followers. He is warm, sincere and genuinely humble. Unlike many “real” gurus, Kumare does not demand complete surrender, large sums of money, the right to name and marry people, and that they take on unquestioning belief in him as being a divine personage.
So, yes, our “fake” guru tells the first lie —the same lie that all gurus tell: I know something deep and esoteric about the true nature of reality that you don’t know. But from there on out Kumare is pretty blameless.
Of course not all of the followers feel this way when he does the big reveal of being an ordinary English-speaking American who has been playing a role. Several walk out and never talk to him again, and this is understandable. Kumare lied to them and they were completely taken in, they were perhaps the truest believers and perhaps the ones with the deepest need for whatever they were projecting onto his well-crafted screen. For them the betrayal is probably pretty shattering, and one can only hope that some good psychotherapy ensues.
Most of the other followers (it’s a small core group of about 15 people altogether) find this next twist in Kumare’s teaching to be revelatory because it fits perfectly with what he has been teaching all along—you don’t know me, you don’t need me, you are seeking the guru within. Some who stick around after the reveal remain convinced that Virkam actually does have psychic powers. He assures them he doesn’t, but they don’t care. Reality, schmeality—we found a holy man!
As with many attempts to make sense of the power of religion and spirituality, I think Kumare makes the mistake of not teasing out a major key distinction between the benefits people derive from community, interpersonal support, and taking time to be contemplative on the one hand, and these benefits having anything whatsoever to do with believing in a guru, in Jesus, or chanting certain magic words. People can meditate together, practice breath, movement, healing touch, engage in active listening, and compassionately support one another both in healing from emotional pain and in setting new goals in their lives without the necessity of any unreasonable beliefs or magical authority figure.
The unreasonable beliefs–whether in life after death, the divine identity of an enlightened guru, a savior who died for your sins, or that your neighbor is channeling an alien intelligence from a distant constellation, add absolutely nothing to the meaningful inner work and mind/body benefit available from being in sincere community.
By the same token absolutely nothing is taken away from the actual benefits of spiritual community when one removes unreasonable beliefs. Further, these unreasonable beliefs are only possible by divorcing one’s spirituality from reason, critical thinking and intellectual inquiry, and for many people this is the definition of “being spiritual.” This is why charlatans can prosper and vulnerable people keep being plundered psychologically, sexually and financially.
Once we start to differentiate the magical thinking from the substantive inner work we have taken a great leap forward. As Kuamre, Virkam experiences the effects of inner work, loving support, focused and community and perhaps confuses this with there being something to the guru model itself.
When being interviewed at SXSW about the film, Vikram emphasized that the film is very “spirituality positive” and that he had an “amazing connection” with the followers. The interview is very balanced, and I commend Vikram for this courageous and subversive movie, but unfortunately I think many will take this soft pedal as a kind of revisionist interpretation of the guru model along the lines of the true guru being someone who guides you to recognize the guru within.
While this is a nice idea, I think we do better to call that kind of guide a teacher who is not claiming any divine power, identity, or knowledge, which would by definition disqualify one from belonging to the historical tradition of being a guru. The difference actually matters a great deal.