Film Review: Kumare

guru kamareIf one can get past the ethics of fooling people into believing that New Jersey filmmaker Vikram Gandhi is ‘Guru Kumare’ from India, then Kumare is well worth watching.  This original, witty, and gutsy 2011 documentary reveals how easy it is to convince people that they are getting real spirituality, when in fact they are not.

Gandhi set out to test his hypothesis with what he calls ‘The Spiritual Placebo Effect’, in a social experiment to see whether a fake religion can have the same effect as a real religion.  After interviewing and documenting numerous so-called spiritual teachers in both the West and the East within the modern day New Age Movement, he found a blatant connection between them all in that they were false prophets.  In his journey visiting the East he narrates that he, “felt that the gurus were all trying to out-guru each other,” but who all had a following of believers legitimizing the spiritual teacher’s apparent authoritative position.  In the Western world, Gandhi criticizes how yoga has been imported from the East and has, “become the answer to Western problems,” in the form of a five billion dollar a year industry.

In order to prove his point about the illusions of these New Age ‘prophets,’ Gandhi decides to experiment with some fakery of his own and creates his alter ego, Guru Kumare.  Gandhi also creates a fake philosophy derived from both his advertising and religious upbringing and education, of which he calls ‘Mirror Yoga.’  To accompany this ‘teaching’  to legitimize his deceit, he also creates a series of nonsense rituals, yoga moves, and mantras for students to follow.  Derived from more specifically from his advertising background, Gandhi was able to create easily consumable symbols and slogans, (or ‘mantras’) that flowed along nicely with the his Eastern garb, long hair, beard, and fake Indian accent.  In addition, as if to point the finger at our collective consumer appetite itself, these ‘mantras’ that ‘Kumare’ used are simply familiar recycled American slogans translated into Sanskrit in order to give them an air of mysticism and spiritual authenticity.  The US Army slogan of “Be all you can be,” was translated into Sarvau Bhaav, and the Nike advertising slogan of “Just do it,” translates into Karam Yaivah Dikaarastha. This re-branding of popular sayings seemed to work well, as no one during the experiment even bothered to look up what these terms meant in English, which would have been a simple way to expose Kumare’s facade.  What Gandhi had re-created, like other fake prophets of our time, is the particular brand of spirituality that consumers want and are willing to pay for; a marketable product that other false guru’s have been capitalizing on for years.What Gandhi as Kumare set out to prove with his film is that anything can be made into a religion when the power of belief is behind it.  What he also discovered through his experiement is that the potential for personal growth resides within oneself and not these phony New Age spiritual leaders.

Ironically, while the viewer is still struggling with the ethics of people being deceived and confiding their personal problems to someone who is only acting as a guru, ‘Kumare’, through his ‘teachings’, is actually telling them that he is a fake.  He is telling his followers that he is an illusion, that what they see is not his true self, (of which is a part of his Mirror Yoga).  Still, people only see what they want to see: a mystical guru with a mysterious background who they believe can relieve them from their pain and suffering.

What Gandhi through his social experiment concludes is that, “spiritual teachers are illusions, and we are the ones who decide who and what is real.”  He even starts to believe some of his made-up Mirror Yoga himself stating that it wasn’t ‘Kumare’ who helped these people, but the individual of whom was reflected off him.  Unfortunately for Gandhi, his conclusions fall short in this regard as it serves to perpetuate the self-help movement, something which epitomizes the rugged individualism of modern Western society.  The message of this film, and of the self-help movement, is that you don’t need any sort of spiritual authority because we already have all the answers within ourselves; all we need to do is unveil it.  Therefore, the truth already lies within all of us, so it is up to us to find our true selves, not have someone else tell us what that truth is. This message may sound nice and self-empowering, but it is limiting because everyone does actually need a Guru; the problem is, how to find a real one who won’t exploit you.

Humans as subjective beings, are easily led and duped by impermanent thoughts that can be perceived to be real.  Thoughts, which can be transformed into powerful, illusionary, beliefs are not a suitable tool in order to interpret the enigma of Life’s lessons on its own.  The role of the a true Guru is to be a channel for Divine through the radical intuition of the Heart.  This Teaching is beyond the limitations of the ego-mind and this Divine function is to interpret for the student of spirituality what Life (God) is trying to teach us.  A real Guru can look just like anyone else, does not need to come from a far away land in the East, nor teach nonsense rituals or mantras.  A real Guru is someone who is a spiritual friend, guide, and Father* figure, who is there to help dissolve ego and ultimately free one from suffering.

For Gandhi, it is apparent that he has never met a real Guru, but he definitely is able to recognize those who are fake, which is why this documentary provides an important function in revealing the falsities of the New Age Movement.  However, as for the self-help movement, the film still seems to uphold limitations of rugged individualism where the documentary supports people to ‘do it on their own,’ and consequently, without the help of a real spiritual guide.  Despite this however, Kumare is a film worth watching, as it rightly reveals the power of the mind in creating everyday illusions and can help one to recognize if they themselves are being duped by any false prophets in their own lives.

*The guru is not limited to a male body, and the Father figure is purely a symbolic representation of the energy modality and function that he/she serves.

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The Path of the Spiritual Warrior

Everything that arises also passes away, so strive for what has not arisen


The call of death is a call of love.

Death can be sweet if we answer it in the affirmative,

if we accept it as one of the great eternal forms of life and transformation.

                                                       ~Hermann Hesse letter, 1950~

 The path of the spiritual warrior is an arduous one fraught with pain and suffering.   It is filled with heavy challenges including the hard task of honestly looking at one’s own behaviour, and inevitably, results in death. This path guarantees you will achieve nothing, become nothing, and keep nothing; (and yes, this includes the body which eventually gets old, sick and dies.) 

So, why would anybody want to choose such a path?  Because by having nothing to cling on to, nothing to be attached to, the root cause of all our suffering can be dissolved.  

Some of you have probably already noted that what I am describing as the spiritual path is unlike anything that is out there in the mainstream at the moment.  Most spiritual teachers talk about spirituality in an overly emphasized positive light, and rarely describe it in terms of suffering and death (which is predominantly viewed as negative concepts).  This is generally what I like to call New Age Positivism, which I feel unfairly emphasizes the light and ignores the dark side of life.  However, when the sun shines, it always casts a shadow, and without this shadow, one would not be able to differentiate between objects as it would be seen as just one big blinding light. So light and dark, in this sense, are two sides of the same proverbial coin, who are emphatically dependant on each other.   

So, let me try to explain this concept more clearly by explaining what I mean by death.  

People often don’t like to hear about death in our society.  Death is commonly perceived as a frightening, evil thing that really shouldn’t happen to anybody.  (Oh, what kind of cruel god would let such a thing happen to people?  Why  did they have to die?!)  Most people are in denial about their own mortality, because it scares them to think that the body, of which they identify with, is destined to become nothing more than decaying matter.  People also fear the unknown, and as we cannot conceive what happens when the body dies, we tend to just turn a blind eye to the inevitability of our own death.  Religions have attempted to soothe people’s fears by cooing them with promises of an afterlife, but the fear never really goes away; it just becomes docile for a while.

So instead, we go about our daily lives in a delusional state of denying the frailty of our impermanent selves, and consequently end up demonizing what we don’t understand.  Spiritual teachers have historically taught about that this concept of impermanence.  For example, Indian Sage Sri Ramana Maharshi teaches this when he says, “What is not permanent is not worth striving for;”[1] which very much echoes Gautama Buddha when he stated that, “Everything that arises also passes away, so strive for what has not risen.”  Both teaches us about the transient nature of our impermanent selves as caught in a perpetuating cycle of life and death.   

So death, in this context, has a deeper meaning when it is being described in reference to spirituality, as it simply means radical change.  Death, therefore, isn’t negative for everything must die, otherwise nothing could live.  Through decaying plant matter, new plants thrive and grow from the fertilized soil, and continue on in this eternal cycle of birth and death.  Without death, life would be impossible; so really, death isn’t death at all, but life!  

True spirituality cannot ignore the shadow part of ourselves, for all aspects of life must be understood in order to transcend the whole of existence.  Ignoring one half of ourselves is denying our dual nature, and results in an unbalanced understanding of the deeper meaning of life.  However, looking into the shadow isn’t easy, as most of us are afraid to look at the negative parts of our own behaviour and existence.  This process of honestly analyzing one’s own behaviour is a type of deep psychology, and should only be done with a true guru as expert.  It is ironically through this process of looking into the dark side of ourselves that one can experience real spiritual growth through the release of suffering.  In this sense, it is through understanding the dark that one can learn to understand the light.  Spiritual teacher Hermes Morton reminds us of this process of growth where he states that, “Our destiny as human beings is to transcend ignorance and suffering through the realization of love and compassion.” And truly, we can realize our destinies by choosing the path of the spiritual warrior with a true guru, become aware of who we truly are, and bring the impermanent state of suffering to its inevitable death. 

Like any other type of warrior, the path of the spiritual warrior takes courage and perseverance, and is not a path for those faint of heart.  

                             From the withered tree, a flower blooms

                                                                 ~Zen Proverb~

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[1]  Sri R. Maharshi,(1985) Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, ed. David Godman, England:  Arkana Penguin Books, p.20.

A True Guru

 Getting enlightened is no easy task.

In line with this context, it is not something that can be achieved or obtained, like some intermediary goal.  You won’t find yourself satisfactorily analyzing  your present state of being while wistfully musing,  ‘Gosh, now that I’m enlightened, what should I do next?’  

But, just what is enlightenment anyways?   In Western contemporary society the concept of enlightenment has been diluted to refer to someone who is especially knowledgeable in mystical matters and who has had some sort of phenomenal, god-seeing experience.  The word ‘guru’ in particular, is thrown around carelessly to mean something of an expert along a broad range of various vocations.  Now, there are two fundamental problems with this hypothetical ‘enlightenment-getting’ situation.  Firstly, as any true guru would tell you, enlightenment is not something that can be achieved, like collecting ‘points’ on some spirituality club card.  Secondly, enlightenment cannot be limited to a personal experience, as it is something that transcends that which is perceiving that experience.  More simply put, it’s like this:  enlightenment cannot be ‘had’ or ‘achieved’, because there is no one there to  accrue this knowledge in the first place, as ‘you’ are only an illusionary contraction of energy, of which enlightenment, or happiness, is already the case!  Okay, so maybe that wasn’t as simply put as I intended, so I guess this is where the guru would come in. 

True enlightenment is emptying oneself of everything, including one’s own thoughts and beliefs, and it takes a lot of hard work and discipline to get there.   While the student of spirituality must arduously work on their own ego, real progress cannot be made without a true spiritual teacher to help them recognize where their limitations are.  The guru is there to help undo ‘you’ by freeing up this contraction of energy, which is ego, through real understanding.  However, progress can only go as far as to which the student is willing to work on themselves; the guru can only show the way.  As the old adage goes: You can bring the horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.    

However, we are in the midst of the New Age where trickster gurus and charlatans exploit the world’s stage of spiritual seekers looking for a quick fix to end their suffering.  Our insatiable consumer-driven appetites in the western world wants to buy our way to happiness, so New Age leaders offer a whole array of methods and mantras to dissolve away our life’s fears and miseries in a relatively short period of time.  But, enlightenment cannot be sought after in such a way.  Real enlightenment is through the dissolution of the ego, or the illusionary self, and cannot be bought and sold on the New Age market. 

 So how does one tell that they are not getting falsely led away from the water?   A true guru will never tell you to follow him or her exclusively, to be submissive to them, or to lead you into their gift shop outside of their Ashram.   A true guru will not cause a student to become dependent on the him or her and their false methods and mantras.  Instead, a true spiritual teacher will ultimately help their students to become free of everything, including the guru themselves.  Therefore, they would seek to make teachers out their students, so they in turn can help others.  

Finding enlightenment is possible for anybody who is willing to work on themselves with a guru by critically and honestly analyzing one’s own ego. It is only through the guidance of a true guru that one can learn to drink from the purifying stream of Consciousness and not be falsely led astray. 

– May 2012

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