There are scoundrels in all walks of life, including “spirituality”; in fact, some would say there are a disproportionate number of false prophets and predators in our yoga world, and this has been true for ages and ages. And so when filmmaker Vikram Gandhi turned himself into a guru scoundrel, it was to prove a point. The film is interesting for this reason, but also because the project appears to go so awry.
Vikram Gandhi was born to a Hindu family, and grew up in New Jersey living all the contradictions of religion, intensified by his American outsider experience. His grandmother’s rituals seem to bring her a deeper peace, which he felt viscerally. And yet the dogma made him skeptical, and he took this ambivalence into early manhood, becoming both a skeptic and a student of spirituality. As he grew to manhood he witnessed the spiritual traditions of his parents’ homeland, such as yoga, begin to gain huge popularity in the West. And with his skeptical eye he saw the duplicity of the American gurus, even the hypocrisy of those who claim they aren’t gurus and yet act as such. He began to film these “fakers,” and some of the footage wound up in this film. And he went to India to find a truer tradition, but found nothing there, the same ilk, the very same predatory prophets.
So he got this idea that he would impersonate a guru, to reveal to the world and to his audience and to what followers would come to him, that a guru is a false god, a false symbol. And this is where perhaps he didn’t quite think it through, and got enmeshed in a prank that would become heartwrenching, and so very ambivalent. Or perhaps he wanted it to go awry, to add that extra layer of arc and emotion. It’s hard to say.
He goes to Phoenix with some assistants and a film crew, to become the spiritual yoga leader Kūmāré, and begins to attract followers. He has a plan of attack, he’s a strikingly handsome man, and he’s actually quite adept at asana, so this isn’t so hard. What makes it a bit more difficult is the emotional tsunami he must endure. One thing this film underscores is that so many people are so lost, so lonely, and ultimately so vulnerable to the kind of bullsheiser that our false prophet spouts. These followers are in a certain sense comical, but I didn’t feel like laughing at them, and one hopes that Vikram Gandhi’s narrative voice sympathizing with them and their suffering is indeed authentic. Some of them seem like regular, sane, intelligent people, but one has the notion that if someone soulful just looks into their eyes and says “I hear you” they will follow that person anywhere, and that’s a bit sad. To Gandhi’s credit he doesn’t try to answer the tough personal questions his followers pose, merely tossing the questions back at them, and although it seems like several of the female followers are offering themselves up to him, he doesn’t appear to take advantage.
The movie is always entertaining and parts of it are genuinely amusing. I enjoyed the greatest irony he has going, when he keeps telling the people, “I am an illusion,” and they accept these statements as his humility and his deepest self speaking, whereas we know it’s the Jersey man himself, and the moviemaker as well, basically telling them outright he’s a fraud.
At the same time it’s a disturbing story. First, because of the basic premise that it’s just too easy to fool people. Sure, this should come as no real surprise to the yoga teaching community, which almost rivals the political world for the regularity of its scandals, but seeing it up close is haunting, and it has to make one think more deeply about all the hoodwinking that goes on. I actually felt almost embarrassed telling someone just after seeing the movie that I’m a yoga teacher, whereas usually I’m quite proud of it (humility lesson learned!). Gandhi as Kūmāré actually makes up fake Sanskrit mantras and kirtan songs, fake exercises and “blue light” meditations, and the reverence with which these are received is indistinguishable from what you will see at your local studio. Secondly, the unfolding story is in some ways callous and even cringeworthy, in that Gandhi sets up this prank, but he is playing with fire. These are real people; we are shown their need and gullibility quite nakedly, and (spoiler alert!) some of them are quite hurt and freaked out when the joke is at last revealed. He tries to mitigate the damage by signaling to them both before and after his “unveiling” that his true message is that they must stand on their own feet, without the assistance of a guru. However as I’ve indicated there may be an added layer here in that despite Gandhi’s expressed contrition as he wades deeper in, one wonders whether the moviemaker in him was not in fact overjoyed at the pathos and loss he could then portray. One might argue that if he was truly contrite he wouldn’t be releasing the movie, which for some of the participants has gotta hurt.
At the end of the cinematic day I have to admit, though, that all these questions are provocative, and the disturbance they cause is worth examining, and for these reasons it’s a movie worth seeing, especially for those of us in the business.
Kūmāré: The true story of a false prophet; directed by Vikram Gandhi; Future Bliss Films; released June, 2012; website: www.kumaremovie.com
Johnny McNulty is an American who runs a sweet shop/funeral home in Maam, Co. Galway. He has practiced Level IV punk rock and Mississippi yoga since the late 70s.