I recently watched Kumare, a documentary about New Jersey filmmaker Vikram Gandhi on his quest to perpetuate the idea of religious leaders as nothing more than illusions in the mind of their followers. He impersonated a fake Indian guru and set out to Arizona to spread the word of his alter guru ego, Sri Kumare. With the help of his two friends, he quickly booked gigs at many yoga studios and collected a gathering of people who wanted to learn from the proclaimed master himself.
His disciples are interviewed as saying he is one of the most influential and real people they’ve ever met, not a doubt in their mind that his identity was anything less than authentic.
His philosophy was simple, truth is an illusion. There is a guru inside everyone and it’s up to you to bring that inner guru out. Basically, through all of his teachings he was telling his students that he wasn’t real, but regardless of his teaching style, the way he enhanced his followers lives was noticeable and undeniable.
As a religious studies major and an enthusiastic proponent of the hypothetical, I found this documentary to be extremely interesting. While the description of the documentary sounds a bit sacrilegious at first glance, when looked at closer it offers a first hand look at how movements get started and gain followers. Vikram pretends to be a guru but the only thing that is fake is his accent and backstory, his teachings are all of his own personal beliefs. Isn’t this how philosophies and religious movements get started? One person has an idea, shares it with another person and if they agree they join together and live by those ideals. It speaks a lot to the authority of perceived power because had he walked in to those yoga studios as an every day Jo-shmo from New Jersey and taught the same principles, he would have been looked at as a crazy skeptic of religion.
In a twisted turn of events, I personally believe he both supported and refuted his hypothesis of leaders as an illusion with this little experiment. Did he fake being a guru? Yes. Did he gain followers and supporters by promoting the idea that he was a religious leader? Yes. Does this make him an “illusion”? Yes and No.
A guru is a sanskrit word that means teacher. In many Indian religions, a guru is known as one with exceptional wisdom that passes this wisdom from teacher to student. Although his teaching style was questioned by some of his students after he revealed his true identity, many still agreed that he was one of the most influential people they’ve ever met and continued to live their lives the way he taught them. Leaders are only leaders if they have people to lead, obviously. They only possess the powers and authority they do because their followers give it to them. So I suppose they are illusions in the sense that they don’t have a proclaimed right or doctrine to power other than that people believe they have it, but all in all that is the whole premise of a leader.
So, Vikram Gandhi may have not been a guru at first, but who’s to say he wasn’t one at the end?