Saturday, June 15, 2013


I watched an amazing documentary on Netflix last night. Kumaré is about a man, Vikram Gandhi, who poses as a guru in order to see how easily he can attract religious followers. As it turns out, religious devotees are a dime a dozen. Virkam’s experiment begins as a personal journey to find religious truth. Having grown up in a New Jersey home steeped in Hindu tradition, Vikram is something of a skeptic. When the academic study of religion only increases his doubts about religious truth, he travels to India and meets with various self-proclaimed gurus. The experience solidifies Vikram’s disbelief in religion, a conviction he seeks to exploit by demonstrating on film just how readily people seeking for truth will follow someone who claims to have special access to it.

What follows is sure to defy your expectations. Kumaré is funny, profound, moving, and, with Vikram ultimately planning to reveal his charade to his disciples, surprisingly intense. What I plan to offer here is not a normal review, however. Instead, I wish to speak to some of the important truths that I feel Kumaré illustrates. I strongly suggest that you read no further unless you have already seen Kumaré. While I do not plan on giving away anything too significant, I strongly believe that both the movie and the discussion below will be more enjoyable if you watch the movie first. Go ahead. I can wait. When you’re done, come back and join in the discussion.

The thing that surprised me most about Kumaré is that it doesn’t come off as anti-religious. I expected the film to suggest that all religion is a sham, that we believe what we want to believe, and that truth is ultimately irrelevant to religious conviction. Roger Ebert seems to interpret the film this way. He sums up his review by stating that “the film’s implication seems to be: It doesn’t matter if a religion’s teachings are true. What matters is if you think they are.” I saw matters quite differently. I took the film to demonstrate just how important it is to differentiate between message and messenger, and to emphasize the fact that the assessment and acquisition of truth is in the end an individual and personal endeavor. As anyone who has read my blog over the last several months can tell you, these points really resonate with me. I see them as among the most fundamental religious truths there are. And yet these are two areas where we are especially prone to make mistakes. Roger Ebert himself blurs the line between message and messenger when he fails to distinguish the fabricated character of Kumaré from Kumaré’s teachings. Sure, Kumaré was a fraud in one very obvious sense. But were his teachings false? Not clearly. From my perspective, what made Vikram’s experiment such a success is that he promoted good and true principles—principles of love, tranquility, and self-empowerment—that other people quickly latched onto. What’s more, Kumaré frequently told his followers, “This is all an illusion. This isn’t who I really am. I’m just like you.” It was, in part, Kumaré’s penchant for honesty that made his superficial shenanigans so fascinating.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past year, it’s that once you recognize the difference between message and messenger, religions aren’t such easy things to discredit. Say what you will about Vikram’s willingness to deceive those who trusted him. It doesn’t follow that the Kumaré religion was altogether bogus. I found a lot in common with my own religious beliefs. In a nutshell, I saw Kumaré as offering unconditional, non-judgmental love and support to others. He encouraged them to lay claim to their own limitless potentials. Does this sound like anyone else you know? Jesus taught us to “love one another” (John 13:34), including our enemies (Luke 6:27), to “judge not” (Matthew 7:1), and that “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). Not that these things are unique either to Christianity or to Kumaré. On the contrary, they are familiar to and accepted by many. It’s not surprising that Kumaré could sell such precepts with ease. And it’s for this reason that I do not see Kumaré the film as particularly disparaging of religion. If anything, it highlights what is fundamentally true about most religions.

As Kumaré illustrates, most of us are concerned not only with getting to the truth but with how we get there. Would Kumaré’s followers have embraced his message if he had delivered it independent of the guru persona? It’s unlikely. But would the message have been any less true? These questions should give pause to any sincere seeker of truth. So should the flipside to these questions, which asks how many of Kumaré’s students, once hooked, would have accepted anything Kumaré told them? I believe these are questions that any religious adherent would do well to apply to his/her own situation. From a Christian perspective, I think of Jesus’ counsel to “beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matthew 7:15). If a person has the right appearance and the proper religious credentials, whatever you consider those things to be, do you accept that person’s teachings without a second thought? Conversely, do you seek after truth with enough diligence that you can accept finding it in unexpected places? Or do you dismiss anyone and anything that doesn’t fit the mold you have constructed in your head? The frightening thing to me is that many, if not most, of the prophets and religious leaders I accept from the past were marginalized and even rejected by a majority of their contemporaries. This includes those who belonged to the “correct” religious tradition of the time. As just one example, Jesus was, for all intents and purposes, an apostate Jew. I don’t think this is something to shrug off. Some may counter that Jesus had the authority to apostatize because, after all, true authority is found in Heaven and not in earthly institutions. But to that I would simply say, “Yes, exactly.”

I firmly believe in personal responsibility when it comes to religion. I firmly believe that one cannot and should not rely on others as the final arbiters of truth. I reject the idea that truth is relative, and yet I concede that one’s access to truth necessarily is relative. For that reason, one cannot shirk the responsibility of assessing whatever is presented to one as truth. I also believe that one can come to truth in a variety of ways and that seeking truth with an open mind is essential to its discovery. I believe that when we conflate the vehicles for truth with truth itself, we run a twofold risk: we can miss truth that comes from unexpected and/or unfamiliar sources, and we can all too easily accept as truth falsities that come from sources we trust. Whatever the intent of the filmmaker, I believe Kumaré deftly demonstrates each of these points.


  1. I think I felt a bit ... confused? at the ending because I expected him to be trying to disprove religion- it's all inside the person- and that didn't happen. So I agree with what you said in disputing Ebert. Perhaps Kumare found a need for religion, what the institution should give to us, is the fellowship and support that he found in his followers as much as they found in him. Even if the truth is within us, we need others to help us find it?
    The idea of message vs. messenger is interesting. I've always felt that what is true and right is true and right wherever you find it. But if I found truth through someone who ultimately was deceiving me about who they were, could I accept it? I don't know. I don't know how I would feel if I were one of Kumare's followers. I would need time to think it through. It was still him giving the message wasn't it? And he hadn't claimed any other authority really. But there are other religions or cults, granted I've only "heard" of them, not been a part of them, that find out the leader isn't truthful, has claimed authority where there was none, and I can't help thinking that that makes all they teach doubtful or at least up for scrutiny. Would their teachings still be true if I believed them? If one of my church leaders apostatized, could I keep believing the message?

  2. I do think we have reason to be cautious of messages received from messengers whose motives are questionable. Those people are using their messages as a form of deception, and so promoting truth is not really their aim. For that reason, there is less reason to take their messages seriously. There is great incentive for such messages to be "tweaked," and so even if partially true, they are bound to be corrupted.

    Even so, I find it incredibly interesting that we don't want to accept truth from people that are too similar to us. We want the messages to feel special, not cheap. We want something that inspires us, and so we need to recognize a difference in the messengers that motivates us to change. If any old Joe can deliver the message -- eh. It's too disheartening to think someone who possesses great truth isn't very different from us. It makes the message seem powerless. If learning great truths won't change me -- well, what good is it? If Gandhi had delivered his message as himself, many more people would've shrugged it off. As Kumaré, he became someone transcendent and his message then carried some weight. These things make sense, and yet it isn't completely fair. We need to recognize the good in truths that, if adhered to, can help us to transcend the mundane, even if nobody else around us seems to be doing it. We can't wait for a Kumaré to come along. We need to become our own Kumaré.