I specialize in choosing which book to read rather than reading one, in choosing what movie to watch rather than watching one. But when I found Kumaré while browsing Netflix Streaming, I pressed play. Here’s Netflix’s blurb:
Filmmaker Vikram Gandhi puts an unexpected twist on this sobering documentary about spirituality and the power of suggestion when he poses as a prophet named Kumaré and develops a sizable following in the American Southwest.
Actually, it’s more interesting than that. Vikram Gandhi was born and raised in New Jersey by first-generation Indian immigrant parents who wanted their son to embrace his Indian cultural and religious heritage. His embrace, however, was likely not what they intended, more intellectual curiosity than religious devotion.
After studying studied religion in college, Gandhi eventually began filming footage for a documentary about yoga gurus in the US. Not only did he find himself deeply unimpressed by American gurus, but his travels to meet Indian gurus did not find any fewer charlatans (at least in his opinion) among them.
And so his project shifted. He wanted to learn more about the people who were drawn to these gurus. How did these men sell themselves so well and what did their followers experience in being drawn to them?
This is the ethically gut-wrenching decision he made to pursue those questions: Vikram Gandhi trained in yoga, outlined some scraps of a philosophy/spirituality, grew his beard and hair out to look the part, practiced a heavy Indian accent, chose the name Kumaré for himself, and then moved to Phoenix to see if he could gain some followers. Which he did.
This movie is ethically questionable in its making and hard to watch because of the real people it depicts. But I saw it a month ago and I keep thinking about the questions it raises about the nature of true and counterfeit (and otherwise) religious experience; and of human nature. For those of you interested by all that, do watch it, but watch it with a friend or a group that you can talk it through with afterwards.