Kumare Review: Why Americans Fall in Love with Indian Gurus

What do you get when you cross a young religious skeptic from New Jersey with a titular Indian spiritual leader? Well, apparently this guy:

Meet Kumaré.

Part Borat-style prankumentary and part cultural analysis of Americans’ relationship with Eastern religion, Vikram Gandhi’s Kumaré provoked laughter as well as a lively dialogue when I sat down to watch it with my fellow YogaBrains last week.

In case you’re not familiar with the film (which made big waves at the SXSW Festival earlier this year), here’s a summary from the film’s website:

A provocative social experiment-turned-documentary, KUMARE follows American filmmaker Vikram Gandhi as he transforms himself into a wise Indian guru, hoping to prove the absurdity of blind faith. Instead, he finds himself forging profound connections with people from all walks of life — and wondering if and when to reveal his true self. Will his followers accept his final teaching? Can this illusion reveal a greater spiritual truth? 

I’ll leave you to watch the film to find out the answers to those questions (no spoilers here). For my review, I would like to explore one of the more provocative topics raised in our post-film discussion:

Would Kumaré have been as successful at fooling his followers if he hadn’t been Indian?

One of the elements I found most striking as I watched the film was just how easily Vikram Gandhi slid into the popular archetype of “the guru” we are so familiar with in Western culture. He had it all — the beard (’cause you know, there’s no such thing as a guru without a beard), the accent (which he said nailed by impersonating his grandmother), even the unprovoked fits of hyena-like laughter (because we all know enlightened people are always happy).

Though there are certainly exceptions, I think when many people hear the word “guru” or “spiritual teacher” the image that first comes to mind is one of a wise and somewhat mysterious man (definitely not woman) from India. Modern day yoga practitioners are particularly fond of romanticizing “Mother India” as some sort of holy or mystical realm, untouched by the ills of Western society and birthplace to great magical powers you can only attain by sitting in a cave and meditating for long periods of time. The stereotypes are plentiful: Indians are poor, but happy. The country is filthy, but holy ground. The sadhus are self-flagellating, but nearly enlightened.

So as Kumaré demonstrated, when a sweet, soft-spoken, and infectiously-blissful Indian man comes to America to offer teachings that seem to flow straight from the mouth of the Ganges, people are all too eager to kiss his feet.

“So many of us look to the wisdom of the East to solve our poblems in the west. Growing up in America, I too had a lot of quesitons. And I met a lot of religious leaders who claimed to have the answers. But were thse gurus real, or just full of it? To find out, I decided to impersonate a spiritual leader and build my own following. That’s how I became Kumaré.” – Vikram Gandhi, in the opening trailer for Kumaré

When I took my first Anthropology course in college, I remember learning about the theories of Edward Said, an influential cultural critic and author who was made famous for his book, Orientalism. In it, Said argued that “the West” uses “the East” as an inverted mirror. He suggested that Westerners subconsciously project onto distant cultures everything that they’re not — either romanticizing the traditions/beliefs of those peoples as exotic and divine (e.g. “The yogis knew what Western scientists know now thousands of years ago”) or casting them off as alien and dangerous (e.g. “Islam is a religion of terrorism”).

While I think Said himself was guilty of making gross over-generalizations in his theories (the line between East and West is not nearly as clear as he implied), I do believe his ideas provide important insight into the way Americans relate to the history, culture, and practice of yoga today. The crux of Said’s message was this: Our understanding of foreign peoples and traditions are rarely generated from facts and reality. Instead, we create a distorted image of what we believe other cultures to be based on the only information we have available, which often consists of oversimplifications and preconceptions propagated by television, movies, and even a culturally-biased education system. The tendency is to envision all people within those societies as fundamentally similar to one another and fundamentally dissimilar to us.

At worst, Americans’ caricature of India is that it’s a land of prostitutes, begging children, and enlightened masters. It’s as if we decided to make a picture book of the United States and only took photographs of the Statue of Liberty, Golden Gate Bridge, and run-down neighborhoods of Denver. It’s only a fragment of the truth, and as a result we find ourselves all the more apt to misconceive the people, practices, and traditions of India based on our own skewed lens. Moreover, when you combine those misperceptions with individuals’ underlying psychological needs to “find a teacher,” “find an answer,” or achieve some heroic-Mother-Teresa-like feat before the age of 50, you end up with completely faux relationships. We subconsciously relegate “the other” (India and its people, in this case) to a position of inferiority or superiority, depending on the context.

So, bringing it back to Kumaré. For me at least, it was fascinating to see just how quickly people became googly-eyed and obeisant to this apparently self-enlightened guru. Was it his accent? His laugh? His two (fake) disciples coaxing the students into believing he was real? It was probably a combination of factors, many of which had to do with the psychological predispositions of each individual. But emotional vulnerabilities aside, I couldn’t help but wonder if Vikram would have been as successful at garnering the attention, trust, and loyalty of his disciples had he looked like this guy:

I can certainly think of a handful of “gurus” and “spiritual teachers” with followings in the West who are not of Indian descent. And as fellow YogaBrain Philip Steir pointed out in our discussion, there are plenty of “great teachers” from other religious traditions — especially Evangelical Christianity — with millions of followers buying their books and singing their praises.

But at least in the yoga world, I think people are far more likely to be skeptical of white guys dressed up sapphire robes and carrying around giant scepters. Why? Because we see them more clearly. Our perception isn’t skewed by our preconceived notions of India, Hinduism, and “the sacred traditions” of the East. When we are unaware of our cognitive biases and misperceptions, we’re all the more likely to be fooled by wolves walking around in sheep’s clothing.

Check out reviews of Kumare from the other YogaBrains hereherehere, and here.

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