In the documentary film Kumaré, a fairly ordinary guy named Vikram Gandhi, born and raised in New Jersey but of Indian ancestry, invents a false identity as a “long-haired, orange-robed, heavily accented Hindu guru” called Sri Kumaré. In this guise he goes about attracting a following, but eventually reveals himself in a “Great Unveiling.”
In an insightful article published in Aeon Magazine, Erik Davis thoughtfully examines Vikram Gandhi’s deception and its effect on his followers. Davis writes (in this highly abridged version of his article):
Rather than setting up an atheist’s honey-pot, Gandhi actually staged something more interesting, and more ambiguous: a theatre of awakening that transforms himself as well as his students. His sceptical and rather self-serving prank turns out, from a certain angle, to be weirdly spiritual, stirring up, at least for people familiar with modern gurus such as Gurdjieff or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the prickly conundrums of trickster spirituality. The irony is that it’s not clear that Gandhi himself really grokked the implications of his ruse, or the depths contained within his alter-ego’s self-reflexive teaching that ‘you are your own guru’.
Kumaré’s core teaching is pretty consistent. He tells his students that he is an illusion, nothing more than a mirror or a symbol, and that the guru they seek is inside of them. At one point, he gets a student, whose eyes are closed, to sit down before an altar. When the student opens his eyes, he sees framed photos of Barack Obama, Osama bin Laden and Kumaré. ‘All symbol, just symbol,’ lisps the guru.
What is marvelous about this ‘teaching’ is its perfect duplicity, which paradoxically allows both Gandhi and Kumaré to speak true. For seekers, Kumaré is offering a version of the familiar Vedantic message that the Atman (or soul) within is the Brahman (or guru) without; meanwhile, Gandhi foregrounds the prank for his viewers. Whereas many yogis and other spiritual teachers are arguably more ‘authentic’ in their presence and practice than in their often clichéd rhetoric, Kumaré is most truthful when proclaiming his own status as an illusion. Earnest spiritual teachers, even flawed ones, also want to wake up their students, whereas the awakening of Kumaré’s students to the truth of his illusion becomes, for Gandhi, something of a problem. Unlike Sasha Baron Cohen, whose pranks often depend on an almost contemptuous detachment from the tentative, affective bonds of trust that grow between strangers, Gandhi grows to feel a genuine connection to his students within the rigged theatre he has created. He likes them and wants them to discover this truth within themselves before he rams it down their throats with his Great Unveiling — a final act of truth-telling that will, Gandhi knows and fears, probably make them feel ‘like idiots’.
Gandhi makes much of the fact that, as Kumaré, he ‘made up’ his chants, yoga moves, and meditation rituals, including the core practice of the ‘blue light’, a fairly heavy-duty group visualisation exercise… But there is a deeper conundrum here, one that Gandhi seems to miss. When he ‘made up’ his moves, Gandhi did not, of course, invent them out of thin air. Instead, he drew on what he was familiar with from studying religion, taking yoga classes, following gurus, watching movies, and just paying attention. He imitated, adapted, and modified, just like anyone else working in a genre — and more or less like all innovative spiritual teachers do, especially when they are working within popular traditions or the grab-bag of esoteric or New Age spirituality. He was making up stuff, but the stuff he was drawing on to make up his stuff had the force of tradition.
This is what sceptics naively misunderstand about spiritual ‘authenticity’. Creative fabrication, intentional or not, is part of the spiritual tradition, as is the necessity of some sort of studied engagement (after all, Gandhi did not just wake up one morning sitting in full lotus position). If yoga, chanting, and meditation practices have any power outside their strictly traditional contexts, then that power emerges from the practices themselves as they mutate over time. The point is that while sincere and skilled teachers are great, even an unethical blowhard can teach you to circulate energy through your body.
The 20th-century Hindu master Sri Nisargadatta (1897-1981) attacked ‘the self-appointed guru’ who, in contrast to the true guru, is more concerned with himself than with his disciples. Here we encounter another one of Kumaré’s unintended ironies. The fact that Gandhi is performing a character means that, unlike all but the most perfect masters (if they exist), his persona is not burdened with actual self-striving. Because his real ego was elsewhere, Gandhi could afford to become selfless, especially because — given the guilt he inevitably feels for conning his students — he wants to make their experience as valuable as possible. In other words, his lie inadvertently became what Buddhist teachers describe as upaya, or skillful means.
After the Great Unveiling, while a few of Kumaré’s students fled the room in anger, the majority stuck around and engaged the Indian-American dude from New Jersey on his own terms. After their pursuit of an authentic spiritual connection was essentially betrayed, most of Kumaré’s students trusted their hearts and embraced the latest mindfuck rather than retreat into the shell of the wronged self. In other words, they were able to integrate Gandhi’s media con as part of the path. Gandhi might have set out to expose the deluded projects of foolish New Age seekers, but their reaction to the Great Unveiling speaks at least as much to the strength, intelligence, and experimental grit of the majority of his disciples. Deluded literalists, locked into fetishising the exotic and magical other, could not have pulled this off.
Here, then, is the greatest irony of Kumaré: what appears on the surface to be a debunking of gurus winds up underscoring the ongoing resilience of seeker spirituality.
One of the reasons the trickster plays an important role in this evolving spiritual culture is that an important current in that culture uses scepticism, disenchantment, and even pranks as opportunities for liberation — the swords that slaughter the Buddhas you meet on the road.
For a few years when I was in my mid-twenties, I spent a considerable amount of time checking out various forms of Eastern spirituality. Among other experiences, I attended a talk by Jiddu Krishnamurti, hung out with the sannyasins at one of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s ashrams, often visited a Hare Krishna center in San Diego for their vegetarian meals and chanting, and for a while regularly attended meditations at a Siddha Yoga center (Swami Muktananda’s organization.)
While I felt a certain degree of affinity for each of these gurus and their groups, ultimately I could not stick with any of them. What kept me from fully integrating into them was the nearly allergic reaction I felt when encountering the unquestioning devotion of any guru’s followers.
And in fact, many spiritual leaders who have been subjects of such devotion have later been found to have engaged in various shenanigans, including financial misdeeds, sexual exploitation of their followers, and other abuses of their power. In other words, they have turned out to be human after all.
Humans are only human. None of them are perfect, and we do both them and ourselves a disservice when we fail to recognize this. Even Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, who is perhaps the living person who I most admire, has his failings, as he himself (to his great credit) admits.
What I have come to understand is that we need to separate the teachings from the person. Looking back on my life so far, I recognize that many, many people have been valuable and influential teachers for me. Some of them, like Tenzin Gyatso, occupy fairly exalted positions; others are ordinary people of no particular renown. All of them are humans; none of them are infallible. Some of them are not even particularly admirable. In every case, it’s up to me to determine what learning I can take away from whatever they might impart.
I find it helpful to consider that every person holds a piece of the truth. And reminding myself of my own combination of talents, knowledge, foibles, and limitations helps me to have compassion and to look for the good in those I encounter in my journey through life.