I saw (most of) Kumare today. It’s a 2011 documentary about an Indian-American who resents his strict Hindu upbringing, because he thinks it’s bullshit, and so is kind of exasperated that so many Americans seem to take Indian yoga gurus so seriously. A trip to India convinces him that native Indian gurus are just as full of shit as their American counterparts. He theorizes that if there’s nothing actually special about anyone claiming to be a guru, that in fact anyone can be a guru. An obvious test suggests itself: he should pretend to be a guru and see if anyone will believe in him. So he moves to Arizona and hires a PR agent and starts "teaching."
We get to see a lot of funny moments of ridiculous people doing ridiculous things, driven by their cluelessness, of course. In that sense, it’s a bit like Borat.
But where Sascha Baron Cohen is a mean-spirited nationalist1 with a superiority complex, this guy seems genuniely caring, and so this movie takes a different path. "Kumare" (his guru name) comes to realize that his followers are not stupid, and that they’re not necessarily invested in him personally. They’re actually quite receptive to his message that they don’t need gurus, that the path is within them – and his time with them seems to be genuinely transformative and helpful for a lot of his followers. So, it’s one of those tropes where the conductor of the experiment becomes the most important subject: Vikram/Kumare learns as much from the experience as he was hoping to teach his pupils.
So what was the lesson?
Roger Ebert thinks it’s this:
The film’s implication seems to be: It doesn’t matter if a religion’s teachings are true. What matters is if you think they are.
That’s not exactly the movie I saw. It’s not wrong, really – this is definitely one of those experiments that only works if the people participating are deceived, and you can only be "deceived" for the purposes of this experiment if you really believe the guru is genuine. So, it’s true enough that religion works like a placebo: it can be helpful even if it’s not true in the strict sense.
But that isn’t the spin I would’ve put on it.
I think we have to start from the admission that Vikram/Kumare was right: there are no gurus. If he can be a guru and genuinely help people, anyone can. He’s just a kid from New Jersey, no more spiritually aware than any of the people he was helping. That’s my main complaint about religion too. I’m less offended by the idea that there might be some mystical unknowable dimension to the universe than I am by the idea that some people are just specially equipped to tell us anything about it. I suppose I shouldn’t be – after all, some people really do make better physicists and engineers than others, and they are in a real sense more knowledgable than the rest of us about how the physical universe works. So, I probably shouldn’t have a problem with the idea of spiritual experts in principle – to the extent there’s really a spiritual dimension to the universe (which I doubt, but that’s beside the point). But I do – and I think it’s because it always seems to take the form of people being specially gifted with something that is in essence the meaning of life. These people always seem like people who are just skipping to the end – they never seem to honestly grow in their understanding of the world, and we never seem to be able to recreate the steps by which they achieved their whatever-it-is, in contradistinction to physicists and engineers (where the experiments are replicable).
To me, that’s the bigger point of the film. It’s not so much Ebert’s "religion is ‘true’ to the extent you believe in it" – though that’s technically supported by the text of the film – as it is "everyone’s equally qualified to explore the spiritual," which was really all "Kumare" was teaching anyway. The thing that’s really obnoxious about Christian proselytzers – people who want to save my soul – is that they think they’ve been gifted with a greater understanding of the universe than I have essentially by random chance. But that doesn’t seem consistent with their worldview. Vikram was initially bothered by the Hindu version of the same complaint: who are these special gurus who are born seeing the universe more clearly than the rest of us? Where do these people get off making such a claim?
What he seems to discover, though his followers, is that what people really need isn’t so much a guru to lead them to the truth as a catalyst to start looking. Gurus are frauds to the extent they promise enlightenment, but there’s still something valuable in churches and preachers, just maybe not what we thought. There’s value in the community, and there’s value in the ritual and regularity, and there’s value in the fact that the institution (and the preacher) gives you permission to explore that side of yourself. Modern people do tend to think of religion as hokey – I know I do – and yet there’s plenty of evidence that hokey things like this can be psychologically beneficial – often highly so. It’s not really fair for people like me to look down my nose at religious peopele, provided they are positive and sincere. They’re pursuing a human need that I’ve arguably neglected.
I don’t know, of course, what Vikram Gandhi’s real feelings on any of this are, but the movie implies he comes away from the experience with a similar perspective. After all, he acknowledges from the begining of the movie that his grandmother seemed genuine in her beliefs, and that they brought her a kind of serenity.
If I can be a bit impertinent, I think Ebert’s Catholicism is what’s keeping him from seeing what I would consider the "right" interpretation of the movie. As a Catholic, he was basically committed to the idea that there are such things as religious authorities. That’s the basic dispute between Catholicism and Protestantism. For Catholics, humanity is divided into spiritual and secular classes. A central concept shared by all Protestant sects is that of the priesthood of the believer – that everyone has within him an unmediated connection to God. So, for Ebert, it’s the authority of the religion that’s important: whether or not that religion’s true, it’s important that there be a leader and a follower. And so he misses that the central point of Kumare’s "teachings" is rather that whatever purpose the guru serves, it is definitely not to be an arbiter of spiritual truth – that comes from within the individual.
Religion is a funny thing. We still don’t have a good explanation of where it comes from, or what purpose it serves. One thing that seems universal about it all over the world is that it begets a lot of fraud. I would love a documentary on just what the fraudsters are thinking – to what degree they’re aware they’re fraudulent. That’s a thing that I guess varies a lot from individual to individual. But this isn’t that documentary. This is rather a better documentary for atheists like me to watch – because it’s a good reminder that religion isn’t all self-righteousness and self-assuredness. A lot of it really is exploratory, and even if it seems really hokey and silly to us, who are we to say what’s good for people?
No one special, that’s who.
Jewish nationalist – I don’t think he’s a British nationalist.↩