Timeliness is next to godliness. And filmmaker Vikram Gandhi’s latest release “Kumaré” comes at a time when the word ‘guru’ has dropped out of favor, taking you right into the center of the godforsaken conversation and delivering clarity by illusion, humor with one giant practical joke, and a light-hearted letting go of what you thought you knew as he holds your hand through it all.
I had my first encounter with Kumaré nine months ago while covering Vivienne Tam’s “Yoga Fashion Presentation”. Here was this giant (literally – he’s quite tall) guru-in-the-room, gliding barefoot across Lincoln Center straight out of Aali’kash, India (not a real city) during one of New York City’s (read: the West on steroids) biggest vanity fairs, Fashion Week. He was cosmetically convincing: bearded, turban-wearing, trident-carrying. I was immediately intrigued and tickled by the irony of it all. Today, that encounter comes full circle as we take a look at Kumaré’s contribution to the debate: Guru: good or bad? useful or harmful? ridiculous or sacred? As you might come to realize, it ain’t so black and white.
To begin our understanding of Kumaré’s character, we must first take a look at the one who birthed him: Vikram Gandhi, the director and man behind the mask. Some years ago, disillusioned by America’s yoga takeover and searching for a deeper understanding of himself and the rituals he grew up with in his religious Indian home, Vikram began interviewing prominent spiritual leaders; American, Indian, and otherwise expert, ascended masters and self-proclaimed gurus.
Similar to Radhanath Swami’s account in “The Journey Home”, we’re presented with a slew of characters who are just not his teacher. Dreadlocked babas living in caves and smoking a ton of ganja. A Western woman in head-to-toe white caught exclaiming: “Let’s go shopping!” on an Indian jaunt. An American non-traditional Tibetan Buddhist monk hugging it out and a NYC yoga teacher endorsing his powers. An ocher-robed Swami revealing that just one touch on the brow from his guru passed on enlightenment. And a seemingly pervy hippie, offering up an unvarnished take on why being a guru is awesome. In short: cuz chicks dig it, man.
Vikram wasn’t buying what they were selling. On the surface, their claims come across as a sometimes silly, sometimes disingenuous, and sometimes self-promoting mishmash of poppycock.
So instead of continuing the search for an authentic, meaningful guru, he decided to embody one, integrating himself and his quest, becoming his own teacher – a fake “guru” with a real message.
What follows in the film I encourage you to discover on your own. It’s a metaholic’s dream, weaving theory and reality with overt admissions hidden in plain sight, simultaneously obvious and obscured by a framing grasped only by the witnessing audience. In many ways, that’s exactly the role of the guru: to awaken the witness; to reveal the structure and nature of an interdependent reality, thereby enlightening the structure-maker to their own non-dual role as dreamer and dream, playing both sides of the veil.
All things esoteric aside, Kumaré’s material mission became to actively support his disciples towards self-actualization, to empower and enable them to pursue their goals as their own best teachers, and to become the masters of their desires. Sometimes he simply lends an empathetic ear and keeps people company. At other times he leads wacky, made-up chants (imagine Sanskrit extrapolations of “just do it” and “be all you can be”) and self-referential mirroring-exercises, all the while heading up a household of a newly-formed, chosen family. Compared with the methods (hello, vision boards and communes) of other self-help groups or alternative communities Kumaré graces with his presence, his fabricated practices are no more absurd or outlandish. And though they’re made-up (what isn’t?) and sometimes silly, they seem to work.
“Kumaré” does well as an entertaining experiment on tape, neither affirming nor denying the effectiveness of his hoax, save for the ending’s success-story-like where-are-they-now segment. The film exposes the framework of spiritual traditions, exploiting expectations to explore whether something fabricated (though admittedly collaged from pre-existing iconography and ancient Indic language) can have as deep an impact as a time-honored, passed-down, God-endowed and God-invoking yogic rituals.
The thing is, Vikram’s achievement with this film is not so much the fact that he’s underscoring an already skeptical take on gurudom, but that he’s reminding us (perhaps teaching us) what real gurus actually do (offer free wisdom and classes and true company) and why, how it is that they can be effective. He shows us in the manner of his interactions, which play a more integral role in instilling faith than the fact that he’s got long hair and sleeps outside. Though you have to admit these elements certainly impact how one relates to nature and thereby, man, who is inherently part of nature. The fact is, his made-up character has a lot more in common with actual spiritual teachers, gurus, than those who have in recent times (and with our help) marred the word and our understanding of it.
Vikram himself, by turning into Kumaré, implicitly acknowledges the power of dressing and accenting for your part, using the illusion of outer signifiers, accepted and ‘true’ on the surface, to appease expectations and lay the groundwork for deeper truth. The world is so codified with such little innovation in terms of appearance (though Lady Gaga, with the help of Nicola Formichetti, is certainly pushing the envelope) that to align one’s self with an archetype is half of the battle of selling your goods – which in Kumaré’s case, is a mysticism-laced antidote to the human ailment of being at odds with a fragmented self. Indeed, it is this fragmentation that led Vikram on his journey, which leads us all towards the search for fulfillment during this human life.
By embodying the character of a guru, he genuinely started to become one, to become fulfilled. Connections with others evolved. Their appreciation for his teachings was undeniable as his presence, non-judgmental and gentle demeanor, and sometimes good acting made everyone at ease, hopeful, and spiritually motivated to succeed at life changes. That is, until he had to part ways with his newfound disciple-base because as we know, all good things must end. Leading up to the Great Unveiling – the culmination of his Arizona residency and their spiritual work together – you can only hope that the greater message will outshine the temporary disappointment and disillusionment his followers are entitled to hate him for. You hope that he has sufficiently prepared them to accept the revelation of illusion vis-à-vis actuality in an a-ha moment, with laugh, and maybe, a ‘Thank you’.
One can’t deny the basic human desire (the life-or-death need in some societies) to belong, to invoke faith as a means of accessing, upholding and enriching heightened spiritual experiences so integral to a whole, inspired life. Experiences which, once sought, deliver greater meaning to quotidian material existence, inciting alchemical transformation, material thriving. These central elements of faith and belonging underlie both the longing that draws us to teachers and the fulfillment we learn to experience on our own because of them. Understanding the fleeting nature of guru-invoked fulfillment, Kumaré makes sure to consistently stress that it is up to each of his followers to summon and communicate with their own inner Kumaré.
What follows because of the film is an illumination of yoga’s purpose all along: an expanded awareness purposed to integrate the higher self in action. And for all of the intellectual discourse on gurudom, sociology, psychology, idolatry, and religion out there, Vikram, Kumaré, shows us that the best path to an integrated life is waking up to your teacher for the ultimate purpose of waking up to your Self. Which, as it turns out, are one and the same.
“Kumaré” takes us on a journey to retrace our past. On a personal, micro level, it’s about getting in touch with our stories. On a cultural, macro level, it’s about getting in touch with our history, our place in time as we attempt to relevantly integrate ancient and modern. Here, it’s important to note the cultural differences between India, where these traditions and practices originated, and America, where we’ve super-imposed them upon an individual-as-ultimate, status-driven economy.
Yoga in its essential, original, form comes as a highly esoteric set of teachings and required a relatively serious commitment. It was passed on from teacher to student freely, sans monetary transaction, but contingent upon your preparedness to receive the teachings, sometimes involving major time and lifestyle sacrifices. In America’s co-opting of yoga today, we have often fragmented the system and appropriated bits and pieces which serve the big finish of cash-money, hot bodies, and green-branded lives – not, as it were, ‘enlightenment’. In some cases, this further contributes to the disillusionment of seekers and in an ironic reversal, disables the entire apparatus (see: Anusara and its fallen leader John Friend).
America by its founding nature is a nation of independence. A society built of an imbalanced economical manipulation for the material gain of whoever gets a seat in the life boat. It’s her modus operandi and we all, to the best of our marketing abilities, participate in the equation. Capitalism and Codependency 101. Yet as independent-minded and individualistic as American culture is, there’s an undeniably equally powerful and deeply embedded culture of dependency upon external solutions which are more often than not, sold as ‘must-have’ products and services. In India, however, society is made up of strata of function. Your role is cast by birth (though with admittedly more wiggle room thanks to a presently growing middle class) and your life is pieced into an interdependent system of service, not gain.
It’s all but impossible to speculate on the outcome had this experiment been carried out elsewhere. But you have to wonder: would Kumaré’s ‘disciples’ have been as credulous? Would their problems have been as readily divulged and workshopped? Would he have even gathered and maintained his following as he had in his chosen land of Arizona?
Following the screening, I searched myself for memories of feeling completely free, happy, giddy and joyful, things all of Kumaré’s disciples seemed to be seeking through and indeed accessing because of his presence. What came to mind was the silliness of childhood. I was happy as long as I was with my loved ones, prancing around, making light, making people laugh, and coming up with fun games and creative projects. I distinctly remember there being this undertone of mischievousness that gave me a “high”, I just wanted to rouse people – and to my little self, it seemed and felt like a purposeful use of time. The opening scenes of the film, a home video of Vikram’s brother singing “I just called to say I love you. From the bottom of my butt” captures this feeling perfectly. You just burst out laughing. Because nothing needs to be serious when you’re in good company and reassured that your presence is making an impact and that your on-the-spot improvisation is actually real, and really funny. And it’s worth mentioning that per the sham-site Kumaré.org, “The Shamanic tradition of the Kumaré [means] ‘The Divine Child’”.
Though we may at times fall out of touch with out inner child, growing up with a mean case of Peter Pan syndrome isn’t productive either. The matter of integration comes up again. Integrating the teachings as action, the teacher as self, the self as a constantly evolving, fully-functional body of energy that hasn’t forsaken the spirit of childhood and community for a pre-packaged life of sold solutions.
For his followers, what is left after the Great Unveiling are the memories of what actually happened, the feelings sparked by contact, and a new truth to integrate. For some, those memories were debased in the light of this newly revealed truth: Kumaré grew up in New Jersey and has no special guru powers. Being fooled can be quite a blow to the ego. But how much was self-deception? The transaction only works if what is being sold (the teaching) is actually bought, usually on faith’s tab. We the “consumers”, the “disciples”, do have the final say if the thing works after purchase (if your faith is strong). If you’re buying with full, personal accountability and with total understanding that the experience can only but be in your hands past the ‘sale’, then can you really be disillusioned? Those who bought without full trust in themselves to claim the experience and emotions engendered as their own, versus ones that can only be accessed through a guru, were ultimately deeply disappointed. Here, the nature of self-directed delusion is revealed. On the other side of this revelation lays the potential to claim the framework of a teacher-student conversation in order to hold up heightened awareness, to access deeper self-understand and acceptance, and ultimately, to incite boundary-breaking action.
I leave you with a quote from the early writings of an actual guru, whose message is not much different from Kumaré’s.
“The Aim of Life”
“Give ear to my words, all ye who wish to know the Self. I do not attract your minds for any selfish motive whatever in what I am about to say. Neither do I seek to exalt myself nor to disparage or belittle others. Listen to my words and, if they seem good and gracious to you, then act on them. He is the son of God, his is most dear to God and he is the real knower of God who acts according to the command of his inner teacher, sitting and singing always in the cave of the heart. If any word here should seem opposed to human experience or discourteous to you, my friends, then reply fearlessly with a rebuke.”
Alexandra is a yoga student and instructor from New York. You can find more of her writing at www.thetopofmymind.com.