My thoughts on Kumare.
Kumare is a fun “documentary” about a young Indian American man, Vikram Gandhi, who does what (I won’t lie) every Indian American secretly fantasizes about doing—he poses as an Eastern guru in the West just to see if he can get away with it. Kumare exposes some of the quirks and foibles of the American yoga scene, but in a way that puts the question and the questioner in a shirshasana.
The film makes you laugh and cringe, and by the time the film arrives at the final “unveiling,” it reveals much more than the man behind the mirage.
As an Indian American yoga teacher, here’s my take:
I think Vikram initially intended to expose and make fun of the way that many Westerners idolize and mysticize Indians and gurus. As Indian Americans we run across this all the time and find it pretty amusing and sort of annoying and disturbing all at once. We know that being Indian is not all satchitananda all the time!
And yet, most Indians have experienced meeting people for the first time who instantly become glassy eyed and expect every word from our mouths to be a pearl of wisdom. The glassy eyed look is an instant indicator that the person is not seeing us beyond the surface. Their gaze is turned inward at their own imagined image of what we should be. That is annoying and disturbing.
And I’ll just say it: the mangled Sanskrit chanting that is all too common in the Western yoga community is just funny as hell to most of us.
I know you all love it, and it’s mean that we’re making fun of you behind your backs, but try to think of it this way—maybe it’s because it’s coming from a culture that loves to mock our parents’ accents. Anything said in a fake Indian accent is an instant joke, is it not? You can’t blame us for wanting to turn the tables sometimes, right?
You could see how Vikram and his Indian assistant Purva (an Indian American actress who has acted in bit parts on a lot of well known tv shows like Gossip Girl, House, The Good Wife, etc) find it all really amusing at first. They make up nonsense chants and people eat it up just because it is coming out of a brown face, swathed in saffron.
You can see the mirth on their faces as they try hard to suppress their laughter many times, like when Purva recites a verse from the “Kumare Sutra” about the celestial realm “pinkaloka.” At times, Vikram outright mocks people for his own amusement, as in a scene where he creates an altar for devotee, Life (I won’t give it away by describing it—you have to see it) and provides him with a daily ritual to perform in front of this joke altar.
I think initially they thought they were setting out to make an elaborate episode of Punk’d.
But then it got real on them.
Vikram started to see the seekers not as the monolithic laughable American spiritual wannabes that he imagined them to be but as real people with depth and feelings—people seeking solace from him for deep spiritual wounds and aches. Ironically, some of his students perhaps got more taken with the illusory image of Kumare as they coincidentally stirred the genuine compassion within Vikram.
As an Indian American viewer, he took me on the same journey. I started out cracking up at these people’s expense watching them chant fake Sanskrit with gusto, and ended up feeling bad for them and I worried about whether these people who had placed their love and trust in Kumare would be hurt.
Where I was laughing in the beginning, I was squirming with discomfort by the end.
Yet, pain can also offer lessons, and in this case, even though some of the seekers may hate or be angry with Vikram, they won’t be able to use it as an excuse to go back to bad habits because they will know that ultimately the choices they make are on them. That is what Kumare told them all along and that is true, even if Kumare is false.
It was interesting to see how Vikram and Purva felt almost sick with remorse when it came time to unveil. Yes, these folks were taken for a ride but it was a fairly harmless prank. He didn’t use his significant influence over people in any harmful ways. Though Vikram and his team set out to expose people’s gullibility, when faced with genuine vulnerability and innocence, he handled those people with care.
In the end, it evolved from a joke to a genuine spiritual experience, most of all for Vikram, who journeyed from arrogance to humility as he acknowledged that his students are his teachers.
He definitely grew from the experience.
I think most of his followers probably did too, whether they accepted his revelation as part of the teaching or whether they felt duped. It’s probably no surprise that there were mixed reactions when Vikram reveals his true identity, but if you want to be surprised about who reacts how, skip the next paragraph.
Spoiler Alert: The ones that were willing to accept him and forgive him after his revelation were the ones who really saw him. They saw that their beloved Kumare and Vikram were one and the same. They were the ones who had genuine guru bhakti. The ones who couldn’t accept him were too attached to the image of Kumare or the techniques he offered—mostly the ones for whom spirituality and yoga were a business. For those people, being a disciple of Kumare offered cachet and a marketable product. Perhaps their egos were hurt, which isn’t nice, surely, but I don’t think they will be scarred for life by it. If anything, they may discover that Kumare actually gave them some valuable lessons (if they are open to them).
While some may view Vikram as a mean-spirited prankster, I came to view Vikram as a seeker himself.
He was raised with religion and then he sought to understand it more deeply by choosing religious studies in college. He may have come to conclusions typical of young Western educated men of his age, but he didn’t freeze there.
I was struck by how effortlessly he blended in with yogis and babas in Rishikesh.
He practiced yoga throughout and seemed to become quite accomplished at asana and was able to live like a yogi, which is not easy for the average person—sleeping outdoors, walking naked and barefoot, etc. Even if he was faking it, it takes a certain ability to inhabit a mindset to fake it for so long.
Kumare has one simple philosophy: that he is merely a mirror, an illusion, which conveniently allowed Vikram to deceive people without actually lying. Vikram didn’t just make this stuff up. This is an actual philosophy. J. Krishnamurti talked about this all the time.
“There is no teacher, no pupil; there is no leader; there is no guru; there is no Master, no Saviour. You yourself are the teacher and the pupil; you are the Master; you are the guru; you are the leader; you are everything.”
The Buddha also taught this.
Vikram also firmly believes this and this gives his endeavor integrity by putting this teaching to the test. He’s not a total fraud. Vikram Gandhi does have something and that something has potential to grow because he is clearly open to growth. He also has the humility to know that everyone else has it too.
The only “beef” I have with Kumare is that while through the course of the film, Vikram opens his mind to the seekers, he doesn’t open his mind to the possibility of genuine teachers. To that, I say, how about the Dalai Lama. Vikram? Just as there are legitimate teachers in all fields, such as medicine or music, there are legitimate teachers in the field of spirituality.
But all in all, it was an interesting cultural experiment and its success was in creating genuine human connection beyond stereotypes.
Like elephant Yoga on Facebook.
Asst. Editor: Wendy Keslick/Ed: Bryonie Wise