Essay/Film & Television

Trickster and tricked

All gurus try to undermine their followers' egos and expectations, so does it matter if the teacher is a real fraud?

Erik Davis

Meeting with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Photo by Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos

Erik Davis

is a writer, culture critic and independent scholar. His latest book is Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica. He lives in San Francisco.

3,400 words

Edited by Brigid Hains

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To say that we live in a post-secular era does not mean that we are done with the disenchantments of modernity, or that religion – goddess forbid – will regain its previous hold over human affairs. True, many of the convictions and clarities that once undergirded modern secular society have dissolved, leaving many things — including our rational selves — up for grabs. But while radical atheists can rant all they want, the resonant claims of religion and the insistent calls of the spirit remain far from ‘behind’ us.The major religions are not leaving the world stage anytime soon, and what is more the largely secular zone that the global elites now inhabit plays host to a wide array of spiritual identities and transformative practices, of which yoga, meditation, and some manner of Buddhism are only the most visible.

Religion (and its shadowy ally, the occult) has always managed the boundaries between things — life and death, order and chaos, self and world, novelty and tradition, the knowable and the infinite. It is absurd to imagine that the force of such preoccupations should dissipate at a time of cultural crisis and confusion such as ours. Many of those ever-fluctuating boundaries, once patrolled by religion, have erupted into border wars, just as the very notion of a border has been dissolving. It’s easy to take up a simplistic position when we try to appreciate how spirituality and the secular, belief and scepticism, dance their tango, but surely it’s far better to pay attention to how and when these boundaries get drawn — and what happens when they dissolve, or turn out to be not what they seem.

This is what makes Vikram Gandhi’s trickster documentary Kumaré (2011) — for all its considerable problems — one of the more thought-provoking and unexpected takes on the dynamics of modern spirituality I’ve come across in many a moon. I’m happy that the film is now available for digital download after a year or so of touring the festival circuit to rather mixed — and sometimes puzzled — reception.

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Gandhi (his real name) was born in New Jersey and is an alumnus of Columbia University. But in the film he impersonates a long-haired, orange-robed, heavily accented Hindu guru called Sri Kumaré for months on end, gathering a small New Age flock that then witnesses its teacher’s shocking ‘Great Unveiling’ at the close of the film. Gandhi’s experiment is essentially a cruel sceptic’s prank, designed to expose the exotic projections and gullible fantasies animating today’s spiritual seekers. In this, it shares some creative DNA with Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comedian whose sometimes merciless hoodwinks reveal a seething political subconscious that is hard to glimpse without these sorts of ethically problematic ruses. Kumaré provides a number of easy yucks and painful gotcha moments. But in a manner that Gandhi himself did not seem to anticipate, his story winds up being more emotionally nuanced and even charming than its prankster précis implies.

Rather than setting up an atheist’s honey-pot, Gandhi actually staged something more interesting, and more ambiguous: a theatre of awakening that transforms himself as well as his students. His sceptical and rather self-serving prank turns out, from a certain angle, to be weirdly spiritual, stirring up, at least for people familiar with modern gurus such as Gurdjieff or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the prickly conundrums of trickster spirituality. The irony is that it’s not clear that Gandhi himself really grokked the implications of his ruse, or the depths contained within his alter-ego’s self-reflexive teaching that ‘you are your own guru’. To do that, one needs to undo Gandhi’s origami fold of artifice and authenticity in a way that his documentary, with its refusal of real analysis, does not.

Gandhi lets the viewer in on the secret at the beginning of his film. Like many first-generation immigrants, he was given a religious upbringing that was as much anxious cultural ballast as spiritual instruction. By the time he attended college, he was a dab hand at Hindu ritual, could read and write Sanskrit, and was versed in Vedanta, the texts of Hindu philosophy. Though he grew worldly and sceptical about his heritage, he retained respect for his grandmother’s devotion, and the sense of peace she radiated while performing rituals that he had come to suspect were actually meaningless. (He later based Kumaré’s accent on his grandmother’s voice — an important reminder of how much his project was fuelled by his own ambivalent, first-generation relationship to his Hindu identity.)

As a young man in New York city, Gandhi could not help but notice the white yoga practitioners and other Western spiritual seekers fetishising the very heritage from which he had grown alienated. When he took up documentary filmmaking, Gandhi began investigating, with a sceptical eye, Western gurus copying Eastern moves. He then took the search to India, where he was equally dissatisfied with the sadhus and gurus he met — men who seemed, if not exactly phonies, then at least obsessed with explaining why all the other sadhus and gurus were phonies. At some point during this time, Gandhi started experimenting with his Kumaré character, which he tried out in India while visiting what appears to be the Himalayan town of Rishikesh. By posing as Kumaré in India, Gandhi reminds us that his prank was not motivated solely by a desire to expose the projections of Westerners, but also to play with the nature of Hindu religious identity itself.

It is painful to see these earnest and largely appealing people fall for such a cartoonish ruse

Kumaré’s core teaching is pretty consistent. He tells his students that he is an illusion, nothing more than a mirror or a symbol, and that the guru they seek is inside of them. At one point, he gets a student, whose eyes are closed, to sit down before an altar. When the student opens his eyes, he sees framed photos of Barack Obama, Osama bin Laden and Kumaré. ‘All symbol, just symbol,’ lisps the guru.

What is marvellous about this ‘teaching’ is its perfect duplicity, which paradoxically allows both Gandhi and Kumaré to speak true. For seekers, Kumaré is offering a version of the familiar Vedantic message that the Atman (or soul) within is the Brahman (or guru) without; meanwhile, Gandhi foregrounds the prank for his viewers. Whereas many yogis and other spiritual teachers are arguably more ‘authentic’ in their presence and practice than in their often clichéd rhetoric, Kumaré is most truthful when proclaiming his own status as an illusion. Earnest spiritual teachers, even flawed ones, also want to wake up their students, whereas the awakening of Kumaré’s students to the truth of his illusion becomes, for Gandhi, something of a problem. Unlike Sasha Baron Cohen, whose pranks often depend on an almost contemptuous detachment from the tentative, affective bonds of trust that grow between strangers, Gandhi grows to feel a genuine connection to his students within the rigged theatre he has created. He likes them and wants them to discover this truth within themselves before he rams it down their throats with his Great Unveiling — a final act of truth-telling that will, Gandhi knows and fears, probably make them feel ‘like idiots’.

Everybody chant now: Kumaré and his followers meditate together in the 2011 documentary film directed by Vikram Gandhi.

Whatever you think about the motivations of the seekers in the film, it is painful to see these earnest and largely appealing people fall for such a cartoonish ruse. In addition to adopting a heavy Indian accent and over-dressing the part (the Om trident is an absurd giveaway), Gandhi also steals a page out of Baron Cohen’s film Borat (2006) by regularly pretending to be ignorant of American ways: at one point, he asks a woman if her Mickey Mouse pendant is a religious icon. Gandhi has no interest in risking exposure. He developed an elaborate backstory for Kumaré; as he explained in a reddit interview, he invented a fictional homeland in India, and even a fictional dialect that would explain his sketchy command of Hindi.

To help run the show, and no doubt to attract followers, Gandhi also brought in two lovely actresses to act as senior disciples. The Indian-born Purva Bedi was brought up in Europe and the US, and adopts an exotic Indian accent in the film. The American Kristen Calgaro’s presence is more puzzling: the actress not only teaches yoga, but is also a serious meditation practitioner who has taken Buddhist vows. In other words, she shares with Kumaré’s followers a commitment to and belief in the enlightening power of Asian-spawned religious practices. But she nonetheless chooses to con those seekers for her own, and Gandhi’s, purposes. The fact that Calgaro’s spiritual bona fides are listed on the Kumaré website is further proof that Gandhi’s experiment is not exactly in control of the paradoxes it breeds — or the analysis it demands.

Gandhi makes much of the fact that, as Kumaré, he ‘made up’ his chants, yoga moves, and meditation rituals, including the core practice of the ‘blue light’, a fairly heavy-duty group visualisation exercise. Knowing all this, viewers cannot help but shake their heads as the trusting students go through the concocted motions of stretching, breathing, Omming. This is the sort of dirty trick we have come to expect from prankster films, but the subtler trick is played on the viewers. Here is the logic: even if we have ethical qualms about the cruelty of the ruse, as viewers we become formally aligned with the prankster’s point of view. Because we are in on the joke, we are lured away from a sympathy with human foolishness and towards a mocking self-satisfaction that can shut off insight.

Creative fabrication, intentional or not, is part of the spiritual tradition

New Age practices are, of course, often risible — as Kumaré’s visit to a sound healer in Tucson captures with alarming hilarity. Mocking this stuff, especially to Kumaré’s presumably secular audience, is like shooting fish in a barrel. But what sort of goal is that? Sneering at the seeker’s trust and openness to experiment is really just the fearful and self-clinging flipside of easy Orientalism, especially if you want to suggest — as Gandhi ultimately does — that his followers are sympathetic people. Such fake-outs easily misfire. For example, viewers of Kumaré unfamiliar with the basic repertoire of hatha yoga are likely to mistake the film’s most ridiculous yoga move — in which practitioners arch their backs, roll their eyeballs toward their foreheads and stick their tongues out while panting — for Gandhi’s own wonderfully absurd invention, rather than see it for what it is: a standard asana in the yogic arsenal of pranayama, popularly called ‘the lion pose’ and practiced with good results (and without embarrassment) by millions of yoga students across the planet. So who’s faked out now?

But there is a deeper conundrum here, one that Gandhi seems to miss. When he ‘made up’ his moves, Gandhi did not, of course, invent them out of thin air. Instead, he drew on what he was familiar with from studying religion, taking yoga classes, following gurus, watching movies, and just paying attention. He imitated, adapted, and modified, just like anyone else working in a genre — and more or less like all innovative spiritual teachers do, especially when they are working within popular traditions or the grab-bag of esoteric or New Age spirituality. He was making up stuff, but the stuff he was drawing on to make up his stuff had the force of tradition.

This is what sceptics naively misunderstand about spiritual ‘authenticity’. Creative fabrication, intentional or not, is part of the spiritual tradition, as is the necessity of some sort of studied engagement (after all, Gandhi did not just wake up one morning sitting in full lotus position). If yoga, chanting, and meditation practices have any power outside their strictly traditional contexts, then that power emerges from the practices themselves as they mutate over time. The point is that while sincere and skilled teachers are great, even an unethical blowhard can teach you to circulate energy through your body. As the Christian Church realised almost two millennia ago, the power of the sacraments does not ultimately depend on the spiritual purity of the priest. Similarly, a preacher who has lost his faith can still lead a devoted congregation in prayer. At the close of Kumaré, and before the Great Revealing, a yoga instructor who has imbibed Kumaré’s teachings, describes passing on the blue-light meditation to her students, and how good it feels to be part of a ‘lineage’. This might or might not be pathetic — but it is how alternative spirituality, not to say a lot of religion, already works. Gandhi is more of an insider than he allows.

The larger question, though, is whether any of this does anyone any good. Some of Kumaré’s students seem to have made real steps forward in their lives — lost weight, committed to a regular meditation practice, assumed more responsibility for their decisions — and Gandhi is clearly proud of their ability to have manifested some of these changes. Indeed, far from exulting in his Great Unveiling, Gandhi worries about it, and even postpones it when it proves too difficult. Finally, he appears before his students, clean-shaven, in boring dude clothes, and sans grandma’s accent, to tell them ‘the truth’. It’s a complex gotcha. On the one hand, he proves the sceptical core of Kumaré’s message: the guru they knew was nothing more than their own projections (albeit onto his own crafty dissimulation). The disenchantment, however, comes coupled with the palliative, even self-empowering message that they are therefore responsible for their own insights and transformations. But this only begs the question that Gandhi — in the film’s greatest conceptual error — refuses to ask: is the guru’s theatre of transformation sometimes necessary, even if it is a ruse?

A pragmatic look at spiritual leadership through the ages — of shamans with their legerdemain, tribal leaders with their initiation dramas, Zen masters with their anarchist tricks — would answer yes. One might invoke the placebo effect, but to identify the placebo as the ‘cause’ of transformation does not end the discussion. Or the spiritual tutelage. While the history of religions is of course dominated by an often pernicious authoritarianism, not to mention tremendous earnestness, there is also an undercurrent of crazy wisdom that understands enlightenment or transformation to occur in a zone of compassionate pranks, iconoclastic mirroring, and sacred irony. Both Kumaré and Gandhi, for example, are fond of quoting Linji’s idol-slaying Zen koan: ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.’ The trick is that this message cannot be abstracted from its medium, which is the encounter of teacher and student. The real question — as with the psychoanalytic theatre of transference, which is not unrelated — is what happens in that encounter.

His lies inadvertently became what Buddhist teachers describe as upaya, or skillful means

The chain-smoking 20th-century Hindu master Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj claimed, for example, that the true guru ‘will constantly bring you back to the fact of your inherent perfection and encourage you to seek within. He knows you need nothing, not even him, and is never tired of reminding you.’ Nisargadatta taught radical nondualism, which means that he took that ‘all is one’ stuff seriously enough to revel in the inevitable paradoxes rather that sweeping them under the feel-good carpet. Like many non-dual teachers — and Gandhi himself was raised partly with the nondual Vedanta — Nisargadatta also proclaimed that spiritual seeking itself is part of the problem, because searching outside yourself is ultimately alienating. So what does the spiritual teacher do in such a situation? Ironically, the ideal spiritual teacher must frustrate the operation of seeking itself, and somehow help dissolve the whole relationship into liberation.

Nisargadatta attacked ‘the self-appointed guru’ who, in contrast to the true guru, is more concerned with himself than with his disciples. Here we encounter another one of Kumaré’s unintended ironies. The fact that Gandhi is performing a character means that, unlike all but the most perfect masters (if they exist), his persona is not burdened with actual self-striving. Of course, Gandhi himself is driven by a number of selfish desires — to continue the ruse, to get good footage, to make a successful documentary. But Kumaré has nothing to lose and everything to gain by being a good, fun, inspiring mirror to people. Gandhi described Kumaré as his ‘ideal self’, and the evidence of the film is that he was an engaging guru — sweet, playful, without an axe to grind. ‘I got to be happy all the time,’ Gandhi tells us. ‘That was my job.’ Because his real ego was elsewhere, Gandhi could afford to become selfless, especially because — given the guilt he inevitably feels for conning his students — he wants to make their experience as valuable as possible. In other words, his lie inadvertently became what Buddhist teachers describe as upaya, or skillful means.

Ultimately, of course, the proof is in the pudding, and here Gandhi makes his other major error: he did not interview Kumaré’s students on camera after the Great Unveiling. While a few of these folk fled the room in anger, never to speak to Gandhi again, the majority stuck around and engaged the Indian-American dude from New Jersey on his own terms. Gandhi summarises some of their thoughts — one liked the message, for example, but had problems with the method — but we needed to hear their voices and reflections directly. After all, whatever spiritual insights and sacred energies animate this experiment, they ultimately lie, not in Gandhi, but in his students.

In that sense, the guru-disciple relationship is like Hegel’s famous analysis of the master and slave — in the end, it’s not the teacher but the seeker, the spiritual bottom, who holds all the cards. Think about it. After their pursuit of an authentic spiritual connection was essentially betrayed, most of Kumaré’s students trusted their hearts and embraced the latest mindfuck rather than retreat into the shell of the wronged self. In other words, they were able to integrate Gandhi’s media con as part of the path. Gandhi might have set out to expose the deluded projects of foolish New Age seekers, but their reaction to the Great Unveiling speaks at least as much to the strength, intelligence, and experimental grit of the majority of his disciples. Deluded literalists, locked into fetishising the exotic and magical other, could not have pulled this off.

Here, then, is the greatest irony of Kumaré: what appears on the surface to be a debunking of gurus winds up underscoring the ongoing resilience of seeker spirituality. Placing Gandhi’s experiment within the sort of informed historical context that Gandhi himself was not willing (or able) to provide, Kumaré might be seen as a goofy, low-calorie echo of crazy 20th-century gurus such as Aleister Crowley, Gurdjieff and Rajneesh, all of them mystical tricksters who aggressively played with the expectations and projections of their students. With his shadowy past and constantly shifting set of personas, Gurdjieff regularly booby-trapped the teaching environment with unexpected and sometimes outrageous behavior. He believed that authentic awakening required ‘shocks’ (not unlike the Great Unveiling), and would reportedly hire aggressively annoying people to show up at spiritual gatherings just to push people’s buttons.

Though all these men were spiritual authoritarians whose very real excesses (and duplicities) have led some to reject categorically the idea of the guru, they were also influential pioneers of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ sensibility that has become so widespread in the contemporary world. One of the reasons the trickster plays an important role in this evolving spiritual culture is that an important current in that culture uses scepticism, disenchantment, and even pranks as opportunities for liberation — the swords that slaughter the Buddhas you meet on the road.

As Gandhi himself has said in interviews, ‘scepticism can be spiritual’. But that’s true only if scepticism frees us from assumptions and preconceptions rather than freezing us in some snide and mocking rationalist ideology. These days, such authentic scepticism might be as lacking in our world as authentic spirituality.

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