How blind can faith become? Is there possibility for the discovery of higher meaning in spirituality that is, at its foundation, nothing but an illusion? Can we find true religious experience within ourselves, or must we be guided? And when we depend on leaders to teach us how to live, how do we know if there is in fact any truth in their message? It is these questions, about the absurdity of what people will believe when told to do so, and about just how much “truth” can be discovered when an entire religion is in fact a lie, that is the central message of Kumaré. In this provocative and hilarious social documentary, one man sets out to push the limits of human gullibility, and, throughout his journey, finds himself on his own path to an unexpected understanding of self.
Vikram Gandhi, a child of Indian parents, grew up in New Jersey surrounded by the Hindu culture and spiritual traditions of his heritage. Dismissing most of the religious practices he observed among his family as superstitious, Gandhi grew up to become a 33-year-old skeptic of religion working as a hip filmmaker in New York City. But as he watched the movement of Eastern spirituality sweep through American culture, turning yoga into a $6 billion dollar industry with about 15 million Americans practicing its teachings, Gandhi decided to find out just how influential the power of suggestion can be, and, in a life-changing experiment, made a film about what he saw as the illusory nature of religion. What he didn’t expect to discover is how much believing in something—even if that something is fake—has the power to transform.
Thus, Kumaré was born. After growing out his hair and beard, adopting an almost comically exaggerated Indian accent, and donning the loin cloth, scarves, and staff of a guru, Vikram Gandhi, now Sri Kumaré, walked barefooted and wise-seeming into Phoenix, Arizona, where he almost immediately developed a following of eager and easily impressionable yogis. This diverse group, which included an attorney for prisoners on death row, a divorced single mother, a young woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, and a recovering drug addict, were instantly intoxicated by Kumaré’s persona and “aura,” blindly accepting his Indian appearance and accent as a sign of authenticity. As this group of people, most of whom were struggling with their identities due to difficult circumstances in their lives, twisted their bodies into Kumaré’s made-up yoga positions, (which are, to a knowing audience, ridiculous-looking), they believed whatever he said and did whatever they were told, hoping to find spiritual meaning and personal discovery.
As Kumaré’s followers chant nonsensical mantras and describe the supernatural energy and ancient wisdom they feel in the presence of a regular American guy from New Jersey (who happens to dress like an Indian guru,) one has to wonder, like the filmmaker himself, how this trendy culture can be taken seriously. How much of the practice of Eastern religion in the United States is a genuine attempt to connect with oneself and the world in a deeper and more meaningful way, and how much of it is just another fashionable trend that has created a financially booming industry created by the allure of exoticism? Would these people listen to anything Vikram had to say in his jeans and hipster t-shirt with a Jersey accent? It doesn’t seem likely. Is this just another example of the Western intrigue of “otherness,” escalating to the point where we steal cultures to make them our own? As this group of highly-educated people gaze glossy-eyed at Kumaré, lovestruck by the “authenticity” of what seems so obviously to be a parody, it becomes reasonable to question what compels people to follow certain religious practices, and how much of the spirituality that is taught is genuine at all.
Yet, despite his fake accent, made-up background, and purpose of social experimentation, over the course of the film Kumaré gradually goes from being a comical character to becoming something real. Gandhi says that he meant the film as a “cautionary tale” about spiritual leaders, never trusting what he saw as their false sense of authority and the illusions that they sometimes create to trick people into a following. However, while in most ways Gandhi lied about his identity, he was always honest with his followers in telling them that he was no more a guru than any of them. While the yogis seemed to interpret this as another line of wisdom pertaining to the discovery of one’s inner being, he never claimed to be an all-knowing prophet, but rather stressed the concept of the illusions of identity we all create for and of ourselves.
As Kumaré, who Gandhi admits is his “ideal self,” makes profound connections with his followers, and they with one another, he witnesses and facilitates real, positive change in the lives of these people that he grows to care deeply about. Ultimately, however, he must prepare himself for the reveal of his true identity—and the potential devastation of the lives and newfound strength of his followers, leading the story to a surprising conclusion. In a film that is both quirky and philosophical, hilarious and deeply moving, Gandhi, and Kumaré, have created an experience in cinema that will change the way you see religion, with a profound potential to illuminate the ways in which we can embrace illusions to find truth in our own authentic selves.
Kumaré is available on DVD and can be streamed on GaiamTV, Netflix, and Amazon.com.
Ariana Hendrix studies English Literature at San Francisco State University.