Guru Unmasked

I rarely go to see a movie twice, but after watching Kumaré, I went back to see it again the next day. Directed by Vikram Gandhi, the film is hilarious and profound, playful and edgy. A bright, indie film maker conducts an experiment: putting on the orange robes of a guru, he sets out to see if people might find the same inner peace and nourishment from a made-up religion as they do from a “real one.”

Kurt Vonnegut played with this concept in Cat’s Cradle, as do Trey Parker and Matt Stone in The Book of Mormon, which begins a national tour in August for which tickets have sold out in hours. I suspect one reason that Mormon has struck a nerve is that it reveals, under the ribald comedy, a truth that is the central point of Kumaré: religious practices can be made to look absurd, but they can act as a placebo to make people feel happy and inspired.

Vikram Gandhi as himself

Vikram Gandhi was born in New Jersey to parents from India, who forced him to attend Hindu rituals and pray to gods that included a flying monkey and an elephant with a man’s body. He saw it all as embarrassing claptrap that “somebody made up” long ago. He studied religion at Columbia University, which made him more of a skeptic. But at the very time he was trying to throw off his Hindu heritage, he realized that millions of Americans were embracing it. He started making a documentary about yoga and concluded that the gurus he filmed were largely “making stuff up.” He traveled to India, where he found the swamis “just as phony as those I met in America.”

Vikram grows a beard and long hair, wraps some orange cloth around him and begins walking barefoot and carrying a staff with a giant Om symbol. Then all he has to do, he says, is “imitate my grandmother’s voice”—a sing-song Indian accent.

It begins as a prank. He hires two actresses to play his devoted support team and flies to Phoenix with a three-man film crew. He’s a beautiful man, tall and buff, and people flock around him, excited to meet “a genuine guru.” He makes up ridiculous yoga postures, invents chants that are gibberish and a text he calls the Kumaré Sutra. Soon he has a room full of people doing the fake yoga poses and chanting, “Oooo-ay, oooo-ay,” with such sincerity and determination that Vikram is taken aback.

How far can he push this? He invents a meditation he calls the “Blue Light,” asking his disciples to feel the blue light of pure love inside them and shoot it out.

Whatever he says, people listen with wide-eyed reverence. One of his disciples, a yoga teacher herself, starts teaching the Blue Light to her students.

The same phenomenon occurs in the Book of Mormon.  Arnold, the fat, mentally-challenged missionary, starts making up Mormon history because he can’t remember the original. When the natives in Uganda ask questions, he makes up crazy stories including one about a Mormon leader who has sex with a frog. (Remember Leda and the Swan?) This delights and awes the Ugandans. The other missionaries who’re preaching by the book fail to convert a single soul, but Arnold signs up the whole village.

Kumaré is smarter and cannier. He tells everyone the truth, again and again: “I am not who you think I am. What you see is an illusion.” The students smile and nod, like, wow, this guy is the real deal.

Unlike some spiritual teachers, he doesn’t take money or have sex with students, even when women make it clear they’re ripe for plucking. But he does give them attention, heaps of it, looking in their eyes and listening with empathy as they tell him their most intimate struggles.

Then he says something trite and they seem transfigured, thanking him and beaming. An obese woman loses 70 pounds, and a couple on the verge of splitting up come back together in the glow of his pure blue light.

Kumaré acquires an inner circle of 14 devotees. In interviews, one woman says to the camera, “He’s changed my DNA,” and a man says, “There’s nothing phony about him.”

I can only imagine the exulting of the crew when they get that remark on film. Nothing phony about him.

Then a strange thing happens. Halfway through the shoot, Vikram says, “I started to feel the Blue Light.” And herein lies the genius of the movie. The transformation of Vikram Gandhi the filmmaker—from making fun of his followers to feeling love for them—is far more interesting than the conversion of his disciples.  Being Kumaré is no longer a farce, a game, and that makes Vikram sweat. How can he tell these trusting souls who he really is and what kind of film he’s making? They look at him with such love. He knows he won’t have a movie if he doesn’t show the unveiling of Kumaré and the response of his disciples, but he’s frightened of how they’ll react. Will they get angry, even violent, feel ashamed of being gulled and turn on him? Will they sue him?

He rehearses what he’ll say and sets a date for the unveiling. Gathering his disciples around the swimming pool of his rented home, he looks at their eager faces and says, “What we’re unveiling today is our true selves.”

But he can’t do it. “As I sat in that circle,” he explains later, “I realized I’d connected more deeply with people as Kumaré than I ever had as Vikram.”

I don’t want to spoil the ending for you. Go and see what happens.

What I will tell you is how it works in the Book of Mormon. The unveiling is done not by Arnold but by his superiors. A delegation of Mormons arrive from Utah to congratulate Arnold on his success. They watch his converts act out what they think is the Book of Mormon, and they’re horrified. That’s not the real story, they cry, denouncing Arnold as a false prophet. The female star, a Ugandan woman who fell for Arnold and dreamed of going to “Salt Lake Cit-eee,” is shocked and disillusioned. Then another native reminds her that the story Arnold told was a “met-a-for,” and anyway, if it makes you feel good and gives you hope, what’s wrong with that?

What Kumaré demonstrates is how strongly people yearn for wholeness, connection and love. Humans have an innate capacity for self-transformation, or as Kumaré tells people, “The guru is inside you.” Sometimes they just need a trigger, a placebo. I’d guess that anyone who gave people as much attention and empathy as Kumaré did could prompt a change in them.

The film opens with a quote from an Anglican priest: “Faith begins as an experiment and ends as an experience.”  Or as a spiritual teacher once told me, “Fake it till you make it.”

If I close my eyes right now, I can create the feeling of love inside me and push it out my arms. Am I fooling myself? Do I care?

As long as no harm is committed, what does it matter, as the other Gandhi said, “by what name we call God in our homes?” Christ, Allah, or as this play and film suggest, Arnold or Kumaré?

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT. I love to hear your thoughts—that’s why I do this!

NOTE:   Some viewers have been troubled by Vikram’s ethics—using false pretenses to get people to sign releases, then showing them as being fooled. This did not disturb me much, because everyone saw the cameras rolling when they signed on. In addition, there’s a long, respected tradition of this technique in prose, TV and films—people disguising themselves to obtain a story or learn something. Works such as Black Like Me, Candid Camera, Borat and Gentlemen’s Agreement come to mind. But it’s a slippery slope. What do you think?



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39 thoughts on “Guru Unmasked

  1. Candace

    I saw it at the South by Southwest Festival. It's great, but I was bothered by his misleading people and making fools of them. Some of them, though, realized what a great “teaching” it was.

  2. Beauregard

    No one would criticize and undercover agent for busting a criminal enterprise since that's the only way you could do it. Here you also could only make the point and get the story this way, and, regardless of how obtained, what results is an important truth. The deception is justified and necessary.

  3. Anonymous

    why does it always seem to take an outside force to convince ourselves of what we are capable of doing for ourselves?

  4. bigpurplemachine

    WOW! I've never heard of this movie, but I really want to see it! I'm a writer, and I'm attempting to write a version of the Siddartha story that's set in modern times. It is, by far, the most challenging thing I've ever attempted to write, but it truly is a labor of love. This movie (and my book) make many of us confront our ability to recognize the truth, even when it's right in front of us. I realize there are many snake oil salesmen and other hustlers selling their wares out in the world, but there are, I think, certain universal truths about how we can all be better and more loving human beings.

    Sara, I wish you well! Aloha

    1. sd

      Hi, sorry I’m so late in replying. Good luck with the Siddhartha project. Could be fabulous!

  5. Anonymous

    The story reminds me of Norman Cousin's books, the Healing Heart and Head First and the power behind human belief. Most people don't pay attention to their normal believing in their everyday lives. People have a negative event happen and they let it dominate their inner picture and it begins to control most of their emotions then their physical body. Our inner view controls so much of us that when someone comes along with a pleasurable picture no matter if it is phony, we jump on board.

  6. Toni McConnel

    @Candace: Growth is often painful – do you agree? Including when we discover (in my case, repeatedly over a very long lifetime) that once again, we have been taken in. I believe that insight seldom comes without pain. But the bottom line is: if these films help save some people from being scammed by not only fake gurus but established religions like Mormonism that are more about making church leaders rich than about saving souls, it is worth embarrassing a few individuals. After all, they were not physically or financially harmed, and perhaps they were psychologically kicked into greater awareness and growth.

  7. Marian Thier

    I saw Kumare, but not Book of Mormon, although I'd love to. At the end when he reveals his subterfuge, I was fascinated by those who refused to talk to him–I felt they had missed the point about their own supposed growth and continued to want a mystical guru instead of a very human teacher. Thanks for writing this piece.

  8. Connirae Andreas

    Hi Sara, Thanks for the blog post! I also found this movie very fascinating. The question I would ask is,”Was Kumare really faking it?” Sure he didn't tell his disciples the “back story line” about how he got into this position. But in terms of how he was in his “in the moment” interactions with people–I think that he was very present and real–more so than many spiritual teachers. So I don't think his disciple was “fooled” when he said “Kumare is the real thing.” He really was. I don't think that we can call this “the placebo effect.” It was the real thing in that Kumare was being real and honest in the moment and doing his best to offer something that would help. He is a sensitive human being, and what he offered was actually quite useful to people. Some of them had dramatic life changes. One of Kumare's main “teachings” was that “you have the guru inside of you.” So he had people tell him their problems, and then switch places with him and give themselves advice–from “the guru”. This technique I first saw in Gestalt therapy and it does work well. Many of his disciples found this inner guru, gave themselves great advice, and used it to improve their lives.
    I think when we don't want to see the true guru in Kumare, perhaps we are falling for a story that a “real” guru needs to have a certain kind of personal story–a typical kind of dramatic experience that we can call an awakening. But is that really true? Maybe the guru is in all of us, as Kumare was teaching.
    Thanks again Sara for your interesting comments, and “enjoy the movie” to those of you who haven't yet seen it. I'm planning to watch it again.

  9. ken lindsay

    This should not actually be a mystery. The “paradox” as with Nash's paradox is not in the observed “facts” but in our preconceived theories regarding what the “facts” should be — i.e. what do we want them to be? Whether we are dumb, ignorant fundamentalists or sophisticated, well educated post modern liberals, we can be equally incorrect. The principal trap is being judgmental, and also being arrogant in our beliefs of our own self-righteousness.

    We are all the six blind men groping an elephant and devising various absurd theories about what this thing is. Accept the fact that many of the things you know, if not all of them, are just plain wrong. Some may be more wrong than others, and some of these wrong things may be quite useful. But it's all just a projection of what we think we know.

    C.G. Jung refers to this in the style that things are indisputably “psychological facts” regardless of whether they may be considered (by some dogma or metric) “actual” facts.

    Hence, Vikram started with his dogma, and by virtue of some very wild experiential path, came to disbelieve his own opinions. This shows real progress. It doesn't mean one or the other is more or less “correct” or “true”.

    The key take home lesson is “first do no harm”. The film “Holy Smoke” explores this theme quite well. If something we think is false brings true benefit, such as Tina Turner being saved by NSA chant “nam myo ho renge kyo” then it would be arrogant of us to judge the whole thing false.

    Rupert Sheldrake has some very interesting scientific research in this area.

  10. Dawn Kimble

    Thank you for writing this, Sara. I haven't seen Kumare, but I plan to see it now!

    This whole thing reminds me a little of an experience I had. Fleet Maull was teaching a weekly meditation class which I attended consistently. Eventually, he was increasingly unable to be in town for the class and he asked me to lead it. It was logical and I agreed, but I didn't feel qualified in any way. Then he relocated to Rhode Island and there I was: a meditation teacher. It felt like the Universe tricked me into it!

    In the process, I learned to tap into Something which guided me in my teaching. There's nothing like doing something, anything, consistently to expand your capacity in that area.

  11. Anonymous

    As a non-Mormon living in Salt Lake City my entire life and having been faithfully practicing Transcendental Meditation for 42 years I found your article wonderful and fascinating. I am looking forward to seeing the movie. So true, so interesting…somewhere in all of this there is validity. I have found my meditation practice to be wonderfully efficacious over these many years and do not consider myself as being easy prey for charlatans and hucksters, but the world is full of both the deceivers and the deceived. It underscores, I think, the profound importance of the practice of critical thinking. Thank you for writing this. I met you at the Utah Shakespeare Festival some years ago. I love your emails.

  12. Ron

    I very much enjoyed your review. Very perceptive, and articulate. You write so well.
    I agreed with your review, and enjoyed the movie

  13. Barbra

    Of course it worked. All that any of us need is loving attention in order to blosom and learn to love ourselves.
    We are God!

  14. Rameshwar Das

    I haven't seen the film but it sounds like a great love story, not romantic, but what love is about. Perhaps this quote from Meher Baba is to the point:

    Love is essentially self-communicative. Those who do not have it 'catch' it from those who have it. Those who receive love from others cannot be its recipients without giving a response which – in itself – is the nature of love. True love is unconquerable and irresistible. It goes on gathering power and spreading itself until eventually it transforms everyone it touches.

  15. Mary

    This movie sounds so interesting in so many ways. First off, the film's creator is genius in taking on this complex concept. It seems as though a lot of people (me included), are so desperately seeking a rescuer to make things better, to listen intently to our concerns, to show empathy at every turn. Kind of sounds like psycho therapy to me, doesn't it?

    I am so eager to see this film. Do you know if it will be released in local theaters? I would hate to miss it. You told us just enough to peek my curiosity and now I wish I could see the movie right now. I wish I could order it like I order books on my Kindle. Instant gratification.

    Thank you for bringing this film to my attention.

  16. Donna Fisk

    Dear Sara,

    Well I have been a “fan” of yours since you came to Mile Hi Church in Lakewood and presented at our Tea Talks. I love reading your Blogs and have read your books as well. I am of your age, so I can so relate! Your writing so tells the way women think and feel at this most wonderful time of life! Having the ability to look back at ourselves with humor and joy that has brought us to this place and time. Yes, I can relate to Billy the Bad and the urge to do unfinished business, such as, swimming and piano (for me-belly dancing and harp). I loved this article, as I see so many people trying to grasp on to the next best “thing” out there, when it is within them all along. But yes, we sometimes need those triggers to shake us from within, so I suppose that is why we continue to seek. I love how in the movie Vikram was changed as well. I am a Netflix fan so this will be on my list. Keep writing! Many of us who do not respond are reading!

    Blessings from your neighbor in Arvada

  17. Anne

    I love this concept. Fake it till you make it. The very people who are skeptical are the most transformed. Great stuff.

    Love the way you write about it too.

    Whatever happened to your TV show with ABC?

  18. Kim

    Hi Sara,

    Thank you for sharing info about this film… as a therapist it resonates with me and I'm obviously not a guru. You're right when you say that we all long for connection, love and empathy, which is what I provide very willingly and lovingly to my clients. Connection and love is very powerful and hopefully it is sincere, but as this film obviously points out, sometimes it's not. That's a shame.

  19. Wil

    Sounds fascinating – hope I can get the Circle Cinema in Tulsa,Ok.
    to show it! Loved the “Intouchables” there last weekend! Hope you get to see it!

  20. Sandra Katzman

    Thanks for the movie review. The movie seems like an interesting example into the science of belief. I will look for it when I am in the USA next month. I am reminded of my aunt's personal license plate:


    At age 70, she had a small business teaching Beverly Hills ladies how to use computers.

  21. Beverly

    I am forwarding this to an anthropologist friend of mine here in Hawaii. She was asked, years ago, as Native Hawaiians struggled to recover their culture. . . 'What if the ceremonies are not accurate??”. Not many people believe in Madam Pele, the volcano goddess any more, And yet “she' is invoked in dance and song and festivals – – -and even at the return of a voyaging canoe. coming back from Tahiti for the first time in a thousand years.

    My anthropologist friend answered that even if the ceremony isn't accurate, if it has meaning for the participants, it is valid.

    This certainly seems to apply to Kumare and his following. And every other formal religious institution I can think of.

    I note that in the list of venues for showing this film, there are no religious institutions. This is a shame, because a good school will be very clear on what is worship and what is show biz, even if ceremony appears to be both.

    As for “faking it until you make it.” – “Acting as if . .. ” has long been advice to those who struggle with faith. And now neuroscience supplies one answer: We are constantly re-wiring our brain. If we constantly strive for Blue Light, or Beatific Vision…. or even Joining With The Devil….. we will get there. At a certain point, striving is exhausting, and at that point, letting go is the answer.

    For the record, I attended the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley for a year, in the Seventies. I left because it was more about Berkeley in the Seventies than any faith. Those faculty who had reached the point where they knew they were fakes were so dependent on the Institution that they couldn't afford to leave without stripping themselves of everything: The odd sight of faking it AS IF you had made it… and continuing to fake it until Social Security kicked in. Meantime, write books for your colleagues to read . .. . and spend time reading their books. And discuss. discuss talk talk talk discuss.

    One nugget which surprised my classmates: a professor who was slowly dying of cancer, and so was listened to, told his classes: God is not a feeling. And all the students gasped in surprise. They all thought they had been “in touch.”

    Desmond Tutu will be in town this week. I doubt he spent much time searching for the feeling of God. He seems more interested in DOING the Will of God.

    One unlikely woman who seemed to be healing herself by helping others. . . not seeking to sit in transcendent bliss. .. but the tried and true recipe of The Wounded Healer…. was Princess Diana.

    Mythologies all boil down to the same few profound themes. . .. . . and as much as I am gritting my teeth in this quote, Jesus and Buddha and Moses and Mohammed and Joseph Smith would all agree with Yoda: There is no TRY. Just DO.

    All the rest is theater.

  22. Phillip

    dear sara….brilliant! amazingly wonderful!
    please keep em coming…. great story and
    a real treat all the way around!

  23. Margot

    This sounds fantastic- you know my book Drawing
    Down the Moon has a whole chapter on made
    Up religions that “worked” from the reformed
    Druids of north America to the Church of all
    Worlds to the Church of the Sub Genius – can't
    Wait to see this! Margot

  24. Anonymous

    I've never been susceptible to religous leaders of any stamp and have been amazed at how others have been. I think Vikram possesses a certain unpleasant callousness and have no doubt he caused these vulnerable people harm in order to satisfy his own agenda. Not so different than those he set out to unmask.

  25. Jim

    To add a few things: My sisters are American Sikhs and this massacre at the
    Temple is very upsetting. The older of the two sisters knows one of the
    people involved in the movie.
    But anyway, Loose Change deals with the same theme: first you see these
    various “enlightened souls” as frauds; then you learn from them; then you
    back away.
    But the hatred of the Sikhs raises a different issue. My brother-in-law says
    that the hatred is prevelant.

  26. Liz Quigley

    Many gurus use tricky means to awaken someone. That's what the filmmaker did. No matter how, it onlyt is important that you do 'awaken' or learn. I have loved Hunuman and Neem Karoli and Ram Das since 1969 when I first read Be Here Now. Am I a Hindu? No, but when I was riding my Harley at 80mph today chanting Ooohhh, Ooohh (my high speed version of Om), I was perfectly aware. I could have died at any moment of error, but I was totally there at that moment. I learned something from that flying monkey and the man who said,”Feed the people.” Be HERE Now.

  27. Lorraine

    This movie was to discredit the only non-medicated way to get out of depression. Yoga and Buddhism is about NOT medicating people. It’s a way out of our manipulated to death lives that Causes neurosis. People want to be helpful and compassionate to each other. Life could be wonderful if we were allowed to unite thru compassion but no, this is another p.r. brainwashing from the same people who bring you lithium. It’s so obvious.

  28. Ron

    watched it last night and felt it probably is a good indicator of how all religions gets started. I do know a couple that became very close to an Indian Holy Man but once the stock market crashed they no longer could send him money the relationship say the least my friends were crest fallen but learned an important lesson.
    I am not religious and basically see no difference between this man and the Pope both are humans moving through life.

  29. Rosalind

    Sara! I am delighted to have found you…The timing is perfect; Ram Dass has just come back into my Life, once again to join me as I experience totally unexpected & profound challenge. And here you are, seems like as a special bonus gift! I very much enjoyed your writing & want more of you!

  30. Tim

    Just heard about Vikram Gandhi’s mockumentary on Snap Judgement. My take away is, I couldn’t be less interested in just another Hollywood wanna-be who’ll lie through his teeth to be noticed. What should we believe anything from or about Vikram Gandhi? He is amoral for a buck. To compare Kumare to Black Like Me is insulting. Kumare is, itself racist and demeaning. And, as to harm, how do you know he’s done no harm? He’s certainly picking a fight.

  31. Charles Evans

    Blue Light is within. Deep meditation manifests its glory. Great article bought about memories of my yoga path and wanderings. The ultimate realization of truth is ordinary mind in action. What about yellow robe?

  32. lonnie

    higher self…what others deify us to be is false pretense moreso than what we express ourselves to be…for our inner guru is the honest expression of our ideal higher self, that which me most hope to become, our own better self…but this must be saught with no ego for the ego is the false self we pretend to be every day fullfilling social expectations….i were to assume you to be it would make an @** out of u and me 😉 kumare is V. Gandhi’s ideal…this is not a false pretense but merely a truth found offensive by those who were unwilling to accept kumare could not live up to their false exfectations…those assume

  33. Julie Smith

    I think that people should see this for what it is. We all have the ability to be, and live the life we want. If you dwell in the past pain and hurts and let other people define who you are then it’s your own choice. If you live your life otherwise and believe you are not what they say, then the “teachings” make sense. You have the power inside you, to be and live the way you want.

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