Posted by Jean Jessup on Sunday, October 30, 2011
"You are all great beings and you must stop pretending that you are not." - Kumare
I found Kumare to be a surprisingly sweet and gentle, albeit extremely controversial, documentary; which was conceived and directed by, Vikram Gandhi, a New Jersey-born American of East Indian decent. It was beautifully filmed with excellent audio. The documentary follows Gandhi as he playfully dresses up as an Indian Guru and watches the response he gets in India and in the U.S. Then he decided to see if his alter ego as an Indian Guru, could get a following. So he went to Phoenix where he knew no one and started his own "teachings" as the Indian Guru, Kumare. His teachings consisted of made-up chants, fake "yogic" postures and a blue light meditation which he created himself. He also spoke in an Indian accent, dressed in robes, wore his hair long and behaved in a way that made people think he was not familiar with western culture.
Brought up in a Hindu family that clung to their religious rituals and beliefs, Gandhi is a bit rebellious regarding Hindu religion and spiritual practices in general. His endeavor to expose the whole Guru experience through this documentary experiment may seem quite sacrilegious, but it is cloaked in the sweet nostalgia of a loving childhood upbringing filled with sweet memories of his family's culture.
I have had a fair amount of experience with Gurus in my life. I spent 20-plus years following the teachings of a very famous guru and met some other gurus after I became disillusioned with that spiritual practice. If I had met Kumare, I would have thought he was a very strange guru because he was humble, respectful, warm and accessible. He didn't do magic tricks to impress his followers. He didn't make passes at the ladies or young boys. He didn't expect his followers to adhere to a system of etiquette, such as never turning your back to the Guru in his presence, bowing down, treating his picture in the same reverent way, and other such worshipful practices. In fact, his followers invited Kumare to their homes and he listened to them and even rolled on the floor in an effort to understand their experiences in life. Most guru's I've encountered are more into lecturing their followers; they demand to be put on a pedestal and have no time to listen to their devotees' individual concerns. So from my guru experience, Kumare is a fake, but a loving, gentle and respectful fake.
In the film, Kumare is continually interjecting into his spiritual lessons that he his a fraud and that his students don't need him as a guru. He would say that a guru is no more closer to God than we are. He even had his classes use a vision board to show themselves never really needing a guru. He gave his students an exercise to pretend that they were Kumare, and Kumare played the role of the student. In the exercise, they lecture Kumare on what they themselves need to do to improve their lives. Kumare was teaching them self-empowerment, which I believe, is the greatest spiritual teaching.
I saw Kumare as a counselor. He allowed his students to tell him all their concerns and the intensity of the concerns shocked him at first. He allowed individual meetings with his followers and seemed to be a great listener. But would these people have come to him, if Gandhi didn't dress up as a guru and call himself Kumare? Which brings me to the subject of how do people get the credentials to call themselves a professional this or that? I call myself a film reviewer, because I just do it; I don't have any certification. I also call myself a writer and I don't have a college degree in writing. I'm sure there are lots of people who call themselves gurus who don't have any certification or blessings from the Shankaracharya. There are those that have great talent in counseling that have never gone to school for it, yet they are probably better than any counselor who got their degree from an Ivy League University.
I could see as the film progressed, that Gandhi developed skills in helping his followers which greatly shocked him. He was actually becoming Kumare, the Guru. He planned to reveal himself to his followers to show he was really Vikram Gandhi from New Jersey. It was an intense moment.
Which brings me to the betrayal aspect of this film. Kumare screened at the 2011 Tucson Film and Music Festival. I stayed for the Q&A. The film showed Kumare taking a break from developing his Phoenix following by investigating healers and spiritual communities in Tucson and Southern Arizona. According to the film, Tucsonans really fell for the Kumare-facade. He visited an organic farm community in Southern Arizona that was founded by a man who is the self-proclaimed spiritual leader of the group. It was apparent that the film was quite skeptical of new age spiritual practices and not supportive of groups that depend on someone outside themselves for their spirituality. Well, there happened to be two ladies from that community in the audience. It was their first viewing of the film and they clearly expressed their feelings of betrayal, having been fooled into thinking that a real Indian Guru had visited their organization.
I struggled for a few days with how elated I felt by the message of the film and the contrasting feeling about the method that was used to bring out that message. But ultimately we allow ourselves to be betrayed when we give over our own sovereignty to someone else in order to relinquish responsibility for our own life choices. It was the original intent of the film to show how people so easily hand over their spiritual development to someone else. Kumare constantly challenged his followers, often hilariously, in an attempt to snap them out of the delusion of following him, but to no avail. Gandhi deeply bonded with his followers through Kumare, who he calls, "his ideal self." He struggled with revealing his true persona and was saddened that his relationship with them would change. As a testament to the bonds he had developed with his students, ten out of his fourteen regular "followers" still kept in touch with him even after he "lifted the veil" and some were even present at the Q&A.
I'm hoping this film will get distribution soon and I know it will anger many spiritual movements when it does, if it hasn't already. Many spiritual leaders depend on having followers who are highly dependent on them. They convince the devotees to think they can only connect to God or their own Higher Selves through them. The message of true self-empowerment threatens many spiritual movements today.
In conclusion, the film turned out to be much more loving than a documentary whose goal it was to show how easily fooled people can be about gurus. The message of self-empowerment was sweetly delivered. Highly recommended. See the trailer at the Kumare official movie website.
Tags: kumare movie spiritual documentary self-empowerment indian guru arizona phoenix tucson spiritual betrayal