Enlightening or Entertaining: Kumaré


By Vincent M. Hills

 Vincent M. Hills is a now graduate of the University of Alabama who majored in History with a minor in Religious Studies. The following was written for REL 360: Popular Culture/Public Humanities

 Kumaré is a very interesting “documentary”, but for many different reasons than most documentaries.  The film did not wow viewers with interesting facts or show picturesque landscapes, it did however show a side of Western culture that is often the brunt of criticism from many people, but never actually investigated. Vikram Gandhi was a typical American kid who begrudged the way his family tried to impose their Hindu beliefs and practices on him. A few years after graduating college, Gandhi decided to see how easy it would be to pretend to be a guru from the Far East, and actually have people listen to him. The documentary details his experience. From the perspective of a religious studies scholar, the film provides a plethora of thought provoking scenes.

When Vikram Gandhi transforms into “Kumaré”, it’s comical, but eventually the act takes on a seriousness no one could have seen coming. Gandhi’s original question of whether fabricated spirituality would incite a placebo effect among the people he interacted with was quickly diminished. It was obvious that people believed he was genuine, not only because he looked the part, but also because he seemed like a very introspective and genuine person. Apart from the other people who claimed they were gurus, many of the people who “fell” for Kumaré’s trick, were all at a point in life where they were seeking some type of help. I don’t believe that this is a mere coincidence. The documentary reinforced my, and potentially many others belief that people are most vulnerable when they are emotionally unstable. The question becomes: do these people generally have areas of their lives in which they find themselves emotionally unstable, and they believe the only way they can feel better is through the power of a higher power? The answer to this question can never be effectively answered, however, it’s something people should take into account. It’s important to remember that sweating the details doesn’t make for good entertainment, the primary purpose of this film.

The larger question being asked by the documentary is does it matter that the perceived “truth” in Kumaré is actually a lie, if the elicited response mirrors those who supposedly follow “real” faiths or spiritual guides? Gandhi certainly thinks it doesn’t. Throughout the film, Kumaré speaks to his followers about finding their “inner guru”. They don’t need to look to other people, but rather, simply look inside themselves. His contention is that no guru/prophet is more real than another; some of them just believe their own lie. The question then becomes why do people, well educated, often thoughtful people, get sucked into groups not only like Kumaré’s, but also to more mainstream religions on one hand, and potentially dangerous “cults” on the other? These gurus are essentially selling their religion or philosophy. In the same way a used car salesman enamors a customer; many gurus say the right things in order to establish trust.  This is only an inherently bad thing if the person following the “act” ends up being hurt by any number of the tactics employed by the guru to gain his/her following.

Arguably the most interesting part of the documentary comes when Gandhi begins to realize how much he is being affected by his own transformation. Initially, he struggles to reveal his true identity to his followers. There seems to be lies within truth and truth within lies. Was he so invested that he actually began to believe the lie? Or was he simply overwhelmed by experiencing his initial hypothesis? Regardless of the real answers to those questions, this experiment opened the door for further investigation into this particular religious phenomenon. In the end, Kumaré poses more questions than answers, but this does not take away from its exceedingly interesting premise.

A final consideration viewers of the film should take into account when watching the film is why certain aspects of Gandhi’s experiment were shown and others not. That isn’t to say that there were any political ramifications in place, however, it’s important to remember that the film was definitely arranged in order to maximize its entertainment value. Overall, Vikram Gandhi shined a light on a subject that is a sensitive area for many people, and to his credit, he did so in the least invasive and most effective way he saw possible, and it’s reasonable to expect future research will be geared toward similar experiments.

When is it Spirituality and When is it Religion?

Kumare movie poster

By Jeremy Connor

Jeremy Connor is a music performance graduate from the University of Alabama. He is currently working full time in marketing and finance at West Alabama Wholesale in Newport, Alabama. The following was written for REL 360: Popular Culture/Public Humanities.

The idea behind the movie, Kumare, is a simple, but interesting one. An American man with Indian heritage, named Vikhram, decides to conduct an experiment. He wonders if he can convince people that he is a ‘real guru’ by speaking in an Indian accent, dressing in Eastern clothes, and saying many profound-sounding nonsense phrases. In short, it worked. People followed him and bonded with him over made-up nonsense. After watching the film, two questions that have perplexed me for a while once again popped into my head: What defines a practice as a religion versus just being spiritual, and why is spirituality important to people?

Many non-church going people my age have a phrase that I’ve heard so many times over my life, and I am always confused as to what exactly it means. “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual”, is the credo of these people and there seems to be a trend in their demographic. In my experience, it tends to be those that had a religious upbringing and have since began questioning their faith. What do these people need from so called “spirituality” that they don’t feel they need from religion anymore?

The people in Vikhram’s experiment that were so swayed and influenced by Kumare all had problems that they needed to solve. Kumare acted as a therapist who could listen and give back kind words, though they may have been broken and nonsensical. It wasn’t what he was saying that mattered, but more that they were able to talk to someone about what was bothering them. This was all solidified and made more important through the use of ritual. Similarly to how his words were not important, the content of the ritual was not important, only that there was a ritual that they could follow and get into the right mindset to do some introspective thinking.

So, is this considered religion? In the movie, they didn’t ever state to the followers that any of the teachings that Kumare gave were from any holy tradition. There was no worship, no creation story, nothing that people usually identify as important parts of religion. But it had many of the other important aspects of religion: the community, the therapeutic settings, and the ritual that made these people feel very strongly connected to it.

In my opinion, the main difference between religion and spirituality is the amount of organization and the level of reliance on supernatural explanations. Religions tend to rely more on explanations that are supernatural in nature, putting their faith in a god or gods and praying, while spirituality may contain something like that, it isn’t necessary to fit under the broad category of being “spiritual”. Religion also is usually much more organized with different institutions that have leaders and hierarchies, rather than just existing as a perspective in someone’s mind.

After seeing the people in Kumare get fooled so easily, I have come to the conclusion that the true importance of religion and spirituality in this day and age is to provide people with a way to bond with others in a close way, a way to feel like they can talk to someone (preferably with authority), in detail about their life problems, and rituals that they believe help to do something in their lives, whether they make any effect or not.

REL 360 Showing Kumare: The True Story of a False Prophet

Kumare movie poster

In this fourth and final installment of REL 360‘s semester-long movie screenings, we’ll be following American filmmaker Vikram Gandhi as he enacts a social experiment in the hopes of revealing the irrationality of blind faith. Impersonating an Indian guru, he travels through Arizona gathering followers from all walks of life. Though designed to exhibit the absurdity of blind faith, his experiment may reveal greater spiritual truths than he had set out to unearth. In order to learn what he discovers about human nature, you’ll have to stop by and find out for yourself!

Anyone can come!

(You don’t have to be in the class to enjoy a good film!)

  • WHAT? REL 360 is the new, one-credit course designed to show four films throughout the semester that will provoke discussion about what exactly takes place when the humanities and popular culture collide.
  • WHEN? November 11th @6pm.
  • WHERE? Manly 207
  • WHY? It’s fun, and a great learning experience! Plus it’s free! Take a night off, kick back, and enjoy a good movie! You deserve it!
  • WHAT ELSE? Anyone can attend! Class membership isn’t required, but this will give you a stellar opportunity to find out if this course is right for you. If it is, feel free to email Professor Bagger (mcbagger@ua.edu) about taking the course next semester!

Hope to see you there!