The film Kumaré: A True Story of a False Prophet is a bold experiment–part social psychology, part Borat, part Being There.

Vikram Gandhi was born in New Jersey. He developed an interest in film making and Eastern spirituality. The film starts with Gandhi interviewing gurus and spiritual leaders. In the process of doing so, he found their authenticity lacking. Vikram realized that he could pose as a guru to reveal the hypocrisy of seeking truth outside of one’s self, especially in the guise of an exotic guru.

To get to this revelation, however, he must deceive. The deception, as he discovers, is easy to pull off. He grows his beard and hair long, adopts his grandmother’s Hindi lilt and before long has a dozen or so followers. People are hungry for connection–even vulnerable. Kumare both unveils this vulnerability and exploits it to provide a profound teaching–people have a wealth of resources within.

As with Borat, Vikram Gandhi assumes a thick foreign accent and gains entry into a world of perceptions. Unlike Borat he grows to care deeply about the subjects that he deceives. There is a difference of intentions. Gandhi via Kumaré seeks to reveal the guru within–to disabuse people of the tendency to externalize the divine.

In Roman Polanski’s 1979 classic film, Being There, Peter Sellers plays Chauncey, the Gardner. He is a man of limited intelligence who works for a wealthy and reclusive patron in Washington DC. When the patron dies, Chauncey is out on the streets. He gets mistaken for Chauncey Gardner, political pundit, and soon works his way, inadvertently, into the inner power circles of Washington–his gardening descriptions taken for politically insightful metaphors. Polanski makes the point, when we attribute certain qualities to someone–whether political pundit or guru–we interpret their actions in that context. This interpretation works via the same mechanism as placebo effects in medication.

In many cases, real medicines could be replaced with placebos and people would heal from within, yet we don’t do this because it is unethical. The ends may justify the means–savings on drug costs and side effects, but it’s just not an option. Garrison Keilor made fun of this truth in the 11 October 2003 broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion:

If you take prescription drugs, you know how expensive they are. Now you can save up to 95% on prescription drugs by substituting sugar pills, or placebos. Placebos don’t require FDA approval and clinical studies have shown that they have almost the same effect as expensive prescription drugs about 40% of the time. And our placebos come from Canada so they’re even cheaper. Best of all, one placebo works for any ailment. No need to get a new batch when something different goes wrong. They’re affordable, safe, non-addictive and taste great. Also available in NutraSweet. There is a good chance you will respond to a placebo so why not save money? Ask for them by name. Pharma-Jones. Pharma-Jones: our placebos did up to 10% better than other placebos in clinical tests.

For Kumaré, What started as a social psychology experiment becomes a painful personal process. To make the film, Gandhi must reveal its context–he must “unveil” himself as a fraud. This becomes the dramatic tension of the film. How will people respond to this revelation. All the while, he has been giving them clues–“I am not what you think; the guru is within you.” But, of course, people interpret these remarks within the context of the guru disciple relationship. The more he self-effaces the more authentic he becomes. Since he is engaged in this deception, his presence may, in fact, be more pure. He spends more time listening than pontificating.

As a psychologist, this film raises inevitable ethical questions. To conduct an experiment in psychology, a researcher must seek approval from a scientific review board. Deception in research, while recognized as valuable, is difficult to get past review boards these days. Many classic experiments like Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies in the 1960s used deception and were potential harmful to the participants and would not get approval by today’s standards.

Even though the findings of such studies can be valuable, the ethics of psychology say the ends cannot justify the means. Gandhi is not bound by this ethical covenant and thus has more freedom to do this grand experiment. The experiment is fascinating and illuminating. As Kumare says, “I embrace illusion to find truth.”

I have spent time with Eastern gurus. One in particular, used beauty, flash, and glam to augment her teachings. She constructed a narrative–a creation myth–to authenticate her teachings. While I think her teachings were valid, she was not a supernatural being, no more divine than the rest of us.

I’ve written about my chance encounter with a Tibetan Rinpoche. While watching Kumaré, I had to laugh at myself. My reaction to him was similar to many of the reactions to Kumaré–how authentic and powerful he was. Perhaps Rinpoche was a shoe salesman in Nepal and my feelings towards him a projection of my own need for an encounter with a powerful being (I really don’t think this is the case, but it is possible).

We all have a strong need–to the point of vulnerability–for charismatic saviors. It’s in our DNA. We grow up with powerful gurus (our parents) and the infant-parent bond becomes a model for all subsequent relationships. The guru-disciple relationship hijacks our attachment system and this, I think, is why these relationships are so appealing and why people can be exploited so readily.

Kumaré is an eye-opening and entertaining film. It is funny, touching, and revealing. It also has a great  soundtrack with music by Ananda Shankar and others. Kumaré is showing now in select cities.

More from Beliefnet and our partners
previous posts

An unexpected book arrived in the mail the other day. A gift from my friend’s at Wisdom Publications. Zen Master Raven: The Teachings of a Wise Old Bird. by Zen Master human form, Robert Aitken. Here the koans are told by and to animals of the forest: raven, porcupine, owl, woodpecker, badger, black bear, and […]

Good things come in small packages especially when it is The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy edited by the poet John Brehm and published by Wisdom. Wisdom has a habit of producing beautifully crafted books, packed with, well, wisdom! By way of disclosure, two of these books are mine (108 Metaphors for Mindfulness and […]

A surfer and a shrink, sounds like the start of a joke … walk into a bar … . What do they talk about? Turns out the surfer dude is an expert on fear, has even written a book about it and the shrink is a crack snowboarder. They’ve got a lot to talk about. […]

Stephen Batchelor: Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World contains twenty-five years of his writing. You may be familiar with some of these articles from his contributions to Tricycle and I recently enjoyed reading his article arguing for a Buddhism 2.0 in a Buddhist academic journal. This book contains three new contributions, making the book […]